I made the acquaintance of Spanish Village (4720 Almeda Rd.) for the first time last night. For a lifelong Houstonian, this might seem odd and perhaps a bit heretical, but the truth is that I'd never before set foot inside the old Tex-Mex joint just south of downtown.
If you grow up here, you grow up with certain Tex-Mex loyalties. I'm loyal to Los Tios and La Hacienda (La Ha for short) on the low end, Guadalajara on the high end. Whether as a result of pure nostalgia or truly great food -- or a combination of the two -- I've always sought out these three restaurants when I need a recuperative margarita and cheese enchiladas drenched in chile con carne.
I'd always meant to come to Spanish Village...eventually. But with so many places in Houston to eat Tex-Mex, especially late at night, I found new favorites over time. And while they never entirely supplanted my love for Los Tios, they got thrown into the rotation as well, and places like Spanish Village fell further and further from my mind.
Yesterday, I caught snippets of conversation on Twitter about Spanish Village between Jenny Wang, Alison Cook and our own Nishta Mehra. Three people whose tastes I respect deeply were waxing nearly poetic about the restaurant, and combined with the years of rave reviews I've heard about Spanish Village, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. I headed there immediately after work.
Over a beer and a basket of chips and under the colorful lights of the indoor porch at the old restaurant, I sighed to my dining companion: "I feel bad for people who don't live in a part of the country where Tex-Mex is readily available. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't shake off a bad day over a margarita and some queso."
He cocked his head pensively. "You're right," he finally said. "What a miserable existence."
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Spanish Village evokes everything people love about Tex-Mex, everything we find comfort in about the cuisine: a sprawling but cozy set of dining rooms that reminds you of your aunt's house at Christmas with all the cousins and the noise and family photos and the tacky colored lights strung from room to room; gooey cheese that wraps your stomach and your heart in warmth (and perhaps cholesterol, but who cares?); simply constructed guacamole salad without any fuss or pomp, served with idiosyncratic bits of carrot and celery stuck on top; a hot plate of enchiladas with nothing else but ground beef, plenty of cheese and raw white onions telling you that even if everything else in the world is in a state of disarray and chaos, this one thing will always be here and always be the same and you'll be okay.
Although she had to have been younger than us, the waitress tended to us like a mother hen throughout our meal. "Are you a strict vegetarian?" she clucked as she took my dining companion's order. "Because those beans have pork in them and I want to make sure you're okay."
And later, as she delivered the check with a customary plate of sweets: "Make sure you eat those together. The leche quemada is too sweet on its own, and the strawberry is too tart; they're perfect when they're together, though."
She was right, of course. And we were together, all of us, under a setting sun and twinkling Christmas lights in August. With a plate of nearly finished Enchiladas a la Taylor behind us, we were perfect, too.