Miss Manners would shudder at what passes for acceptable behavior at Fajita Flats. A low-level party rumble underpins both locations of this scruffy, good-times Mexican restaurant and more than occasionally erupts into brief but open spectacle. What with waiters breaking into song or dance in the aisles, there's not much incentive for diners to sit quietly at the table, and so they don't. This is the place to rebel against the finger-wagging dictates of your upbringing. Sing while you're eating. Wiggle in your chair. Abandon the table and join a parade of line dancers weaving through the restaurant. It's not like you'll be alone.
Actually, Fajita Flats' customers do have an incentive to stay put at the table. Given the devil-may-care atmosphere, this may be hard to believe, but the reason's the food. Really. With the pervasive frivolity (and the especially free-flowing margaritas), the kitchen employees could get away with sleepwalking through their duties. Instead, they display a laudable attention to detail and even, at times, wit. (The cooks will even, on request, hold back the oil used to prepare grilled fish and other designated dishes.) The quality of the cooking is by no means gourmet, but it's certainly more than decent, one of several feats that Fajita Flats pulls off with consistency.
The second feat has to do with that boisterous atmosphere. Allowing customers to cut loose runs the risk that they will slide into obnoxiousness. In other circumstances -- on the Richmond strip, say -- a "let's have fun!" environment could all too easily degenerate into a protracted frat party. Despite a design motif that relies on promotional items for beer (banners, flags, posters, neon logos, airplanes constructed from cans), Fajita Flats doesn't even flirt with crossing that line. Sure, you can count on every meal being interrupted at least once (if you're lucky, only once) by a symphonic rendition of "Happy Birthday" and the forcing of a mutant sombrero onto an embarrassed celebrant's head. Otherwise, though, there's no sense of coercion or even, surprisingly, invasion. The heavy family element in the clientele may provide a buffering influence. (Still, this is the place to bring your kids if you don't want to worry about them making a nuisance of themselves. Most likely, they'll be drowned out.)
The third feat Fajita Flats pulls off is the service. Waiters may well be assigned to tables by stations, but you couldn't tell it by the freeform, Four Musketeers approach they take. The staff is constantly on the prowl, and it's not uncommon to interact with five or six different people in the first 15 minutes of your meal. Responsibility for your table, you soon get the feeling, falls on whichever employee is passing by. The tag-team system adds a comforting note of responsibility and reliability to the hubbub. You never have to hunt down a waiter, not even for the bill, and especially not for chips and tea, which have a way of refilling spontaneously.
Though enchiladas and the like are available, the dishes that make a visit worthwhile are the variety of fajitas and the items that are off the Tex-Mex track. No matter what meat is involved, the fajitas are better than average. The chicken and beef may not be as tender as you could possibly find, but they're a higher quality than what some name-brand competitors offer. The shrimp swim in enough butter to make moot the question of whether their immediate past was fresh or frozen. The marinade isn't pineappley sweet, but the seasonings are confident and aggressive, as is the case across the board at Fajita Flats. (Tender palates should take care with the sharp complimentary soup, which has a cumulative effect approaching a burn. It's the base, too, of the chicken soup, which retains its bite no matter how much avocado or rice you stir into it.)
Pork chops are a pleasant surprise in several regards, and not just because they appear on a Mexican menu. Billed as six ounces, center cut, they arrive more than an inch thick, pink enough to be soft but not so pink as to warrant concern. The seasoning is, again, vibrant. The same is true of the rich and dusky camarones diablos, large shrimp girded with bacon and black pepper, and moist, tangy, mesquite-grilled orange roughy, which arrives fajita-style, on a bed of sizzling grilled onions.
There are, of course, things to quibble about. The rice can be dry. The soupy frijoles charros don't always pack a lot of taste. (But then, how often does that side dish?) The guacamole could stand a touch more lemon and a rougher, lumpier texture, instead of the fine mashing fit for a food-service vat. Some dishes come with steamed broccoli, of all things; those who take offense at the presence of something so blatantly nutritious can console themselves with its topping of chile con queso. And the flan is creamy, custardy and sweet. The combination disappointed a companion who's had the dish in Mexico and South America; to my middle-American sensibilities, though, it was a delight, particularly with spoonfuls of the superior burnt caramel.
The atmosphere of the two Fajita Flats locations varies in only minor ways. Home base on Fondren is dark and crowded, with SRO customers waiting vulture-like within inches of the diners they hunger to supplant. The Fondren location also sports one of the most eclectic jukeboxes in town, with Glenn Miller, Jimmy Buffett and David Allen Coe alongside Tejano and hard-driving rock and roll. At the Wilcrest outpost, the musical selections are more local to the state. There's more space between tables in this brighter, more open-box of a room. Unlike its sibling, this one can spare floor space for coin-operated novelties such as the Love Analyzer and the Kiss-O-Meter.
The basic formula applies to both, however. If I had any doubts, they dissolved during my first meal at the Wilcrest restaurant, when an all-too-familiar song commandeered the sound system and a pair of waiters started dragging a chair around a barely populated dining room. In the chair was a man, dwarfed by a sombrero.
Fajita Flats, 11853 Wilcrest Drive, (281) 498-6565; 2929 Fondren Road, 789-3338.
Camarones diablos, $10.50;
pork chops, $8.95;
grilled shrimp, beef and chicken fajitas, $8.95; grilled fish, $8.95;
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