It was months before I went inside Don Tako, and it was time wasted. I had sped by on the Gulf Freeway shooting dubious glances at the new arrival occupying the space once held by my erstwhile gym, but didn't its bright sign and too-cute name smack of plastic? And what about that dread flash of fluorescence? Finally, spurred by East End desperation and glimpses of a wildly colorful interior, I ventured inside to find exactly the kind of Mexican restaurant I'd been waiting for in my part of town: cheap, cheerful and authentic, with not even a hint of plastic in its soul. Its advent in the postmodernized shopping center that houses the estimable Taj Mahal, right across the freeway from Tony Mandola's Blue Oyster Bar, has conferred a welcome culinary critical mass on I-45 near Howard.
Maybe it was Don Tako's breakfast-time chilaquiles that made a fan of me. They're very much the real thing: an eggless, elemental dish of tortillas, red salsa, onion and cheese that boasts an elusively smoky flavor and a satisfying spectrum of textures from fried-crisp to baked-soft. Add refried pinto beans that really taste like something and fried potatoes spiked with tiny crumbles of chorizo, combine with decent coffee (not the lethal stuff usually furnished with Mexican breakfasts), and you have food worth getting up for -- make that food worth living in Houston for.
Same goes for the rich, fat wedges of fajitadilla, a quesadilla variant that combines Don Tako's low-key beef fajitas with ropy white cheese and more of those spicy chorizo crumblets -- the touch that puts these grilled sandwich analogues over the top. It doesn't hurt that Don Tako's flour tortillas are so good: thin, chewy and well-blistered from the griddle. Or that the fajitas involved are the essential, no-frills variety, just carbonized fragments of beef without a lot of overblown marinade action mucking things up. Wrap these beef chunks in a flour tortilla and you have a splendidly basic taco al carbon. Strew them across a tostada layered with good beans and guacamole and lettuce and sour cream, and you have my idea of lunch.
It's hard not to smile just walking in here, so determinedly festive is Don Tako's decor. Mock garden walls painted with curling vines undulate through the room, the ceiling crawls with the pierce-paper festoons called papel picado and faux-balconies protrude into space. Serapes, fake parrots, entry arches flanked by slumbering plaster campesinos -- no south-of-the-border motif is left unturned, right down to the Mexican-flag colors of the vinyl tablecloths. And while the perimeter of the room is bathed in a harsh fluorescent glow, the central section's amber-colored light panels make it a refuge against the glare. Over the holidays, the big glass window-walls that once showed off powercisers and bodybuilders burst with painted Christmas tableaux of an innocent sweetness. The concrete floor may be well-worn, but everything else is neat and trim; English maybe the second language, but everyone's glad to have you.
Your fellow diners are liable to be neighborhood Hispanic families enjoying a night out, guys with their names embroidered on their work shirts lunching along with the local office workers who are beginning to discover the place, or young men who arrive in a customized pickup to weather the morning after with a steaming bowl of pozole. The chipper Mexican soundtrack -- and the food -- matches the audience; on most days, the red table salsa is rife with chile seeds and not exactly gringo-friendly. There's stuff like machacado (the shredded, Norteno-style beef jerky) on the breakfast egg menu, and if run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex enchiladas in a mild-mannered chile gravy don't do it for you, there's a more serious version in a gutsy, Mexican red-chile sauce.
The item that seems destined to make a regular of me, however, is enchiladas verdes in a tart, smooth ocean of tomatillo sauce. Filled with straightforward, dark-meat chicken and mantled with just enough melted white cheese, they make superb comfort food; who needs meat loaf and mashed potatoes when you can have green enchiladas like these? The corn tortillas involved are properly layery; there's no stinting on the green sauce; and even though the chicken could be better seasoned and the temperature hotter, they're swell stuff. What else is a neighborhood restaurant for, if not to supply you with life-enhancing grub like this?
Equally life enhancing are the huevos Mexicanas laced with green chile, onion and tomato, casually scrambled together so that the yolks and whites are still distinct. Once you've tasted them like this, you may never want the thoroughly scrambled kind again. I've grown attached to the long, skinny chicken flautas with essence-of-avocado guacamole on top. I have learned to take out the tacos al pastor -- shards of roasted pork, some of them still with the fat on, rolled in tortillas and crammed with cilantro and raw onion -- to re-grill at home and consume with my favorite green sauce and sour cream. And I have also learned to take away the sturdy gorditas layered with simple ground-beef picadillo and beans, held together with a trace of white cheese, to embellish with a red salsa of my own choosing.
Indeed, if I had a wish for this place, it would be for more interesting salsas. Don Tako's red sauce does the job, but just barely; it's too one-dimensionally hot, and the cilantro content comes and goes. If they could put together killer red and green sauces (and I suspect they can), many of their menu items would become gripping instead of serviceable-plus. Even their pico de gallo could stand more conviction -- and a more liberal application, especially in an unconvincing dish such as the carnitas, listless pieces of pork that only made me long for the Navigation Ninfa's beautifully crisped version.
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Fortunately, this seems like the sort of earnest restaurant that will get better instead of worse. Maybe they'll do something to make the chicken fajitas less blah, and to put the respectable frijoles a la charra on the map (more cilantro? more pico?). Their Spanish rice is already better than it has to be, and their daily specials show a willingness to actually think -- and cook -- instead of to simply market the safe same-old same-olds; over the holidays, Don Tako served champurrado, the ancient corn-and-chocolate beverage, together with pozole and small, fat tamales. Their dessert table may not look elegant, but it does look interesting, with versions of rice pudding and tres leches augmenting the basic flan and bunuelos (these last could have stood a better frying job, more cinnamon sugar and less of that depressing bottled syrup).
But the point is that Don Tako is trying -- and in many cases, succeeding. It's the sort of restaurant that Houston neighborhoods can use, an everyday source of the dishes that knit our lives together. I couldn't be happier that it's a five-minute drive from my house. And that it's open late on weekends, a civilized touch that makes urban living seem sweeter.
Don Tako, 8334 Gulf Freeway at Bellfort, 641-4114.
enchiladas verdes, $5.25;