New World Order

Tony Vallone, who made his name with Italian and French restaurants, has always relied on Mexican cooks to prepare European dishes, but now he's asking his chefs from south of the border to re-create the cuisine of their homeland. Vallone's oddly named Mexican venture, Los Tonyos Cantina, is scheduled to open this week at 2815 South Shepherd, where Fox Diner had a celebrated but brief tenure.

A couple of Houston's haute-cuisine masters, Robert Del Grande and Charlie Watkins, have had their flings with Mexican cafes, but those were no giant leaps, since their forte was chile-fired New Southwestern cooking. This is much more of a reach for Vallone, who in 1964 introduced Tony's, his flagship restaurant, with the epigram "The Poetry of French Food" on its menus.

Vallone, who is of Italian descent, admits cocina mexicana has been a slowly acquired taste. He began exploring it 17 years ago at the behest of a dozen or so Latin American businessmen who regularly dined at Tony's and wanted south-of-the-border fare.

"It was a great challenge for me personally," Vallone says, "because there are very few similarities between Italian and Mexican cuisine."

But a bevy of Mexican-born cooks in Tony's sprawling kitchen helped him respond to the requests of his loyal Latin customers. They began preparing a special Mexican dinner once a month. In subsequent years Vallone toured throughout Mexico, acquiring ideas for a future restaurant.

When Tom Williams had to give up Fox Diner because of his failing health, Vallone saw an opportunity to launch the cantina he had long envisioned. "We've had plans for one on the drawing board for several years," he says. "When this inner-city location became available, we decided this was the time."

Until several weeks ago, he intended for his seventh Houston restaurant to be named Chango, the Spanish word for "monkey," to suggest a fun and radical departure from the austere and fussy line of culinary temples that has made him a fortune. But Vallone had to change names when he discovered that there was already a restaurant named Chango in Austin.

So he settled for another playful name. The group of Latin businessmen called themselves, in honor of Vallone, Los Tonyos. For the restaurant, explains the owner, "we took liberties with the spelling and anglicized it."

But Vallone claims there's nothing anglicized about the food. He's hired a kitchen staff of eight native Mexicans, headed up by 30-year-old Javier Ramos from Mexico City. "I didn't want any American-born cooks at this restaurant," Vallone says. "These eight came from different regions of Mexico. We'll have some Tex-Mex dishes, but most of the menu is interior of Mexico."

Unlike most Mexican restaurants in Houston, Los Tonyos Cantina will be well stocked with seafood; Vallone's favorite item is the seviche salad. He's also offering fresh crabmeat and grilled red snapper with mango, in addition to dishes based on beef, pork and chicken. The menu includes Spain's famous chilled vegetable soup, gazpacho, and on the much warmer side, five kinds of enchiladas. For dessert, there's Mexican ice cream, blueberry flan and sopaipillas.

One of Vallone's trademarks is the sublime complimentary dish (Tony's duck-liver pâté and tower of strawberries and grapes; La Griglia's plump and airy breadsticks). At Los Tonyos he offers, gratis, three kinds of housemade tortillas -- corn, flour and whole wheat -- along with the ubiquitous Tex-Mex basket of chips with red and green salsas.

"Everything we serve will be made from scratch," Vallone promises. "When you order guacamole, it will be made at your table."

While Vallone's restaurants are usually places for the big splurge, his latest venture is committed to inexpensive dining. "It's a very casual place where you can wear shorts," he says. Mariachi bands will play on Sundays.

The building that housed Fox, which featured New Southern food, has been thoroughly renovated to evoke modern Mexico with colorful murals created by Jan Parsons, the artist who painted the interior walls of Vallone's Highland Village Grotto.

Of course, no Vallone establishment can be truly plebeian, and this one has its aristocratic touches, such as a wine list with 20 selections. "That's a meager amount for us," Vallone says. "Wine just doesn't marry very well with some Mexican food.

"But we'll have lots of tequilas and imported beers. And three kinds of frozen margaritas."

That's right, folks. Tony Vallone is in Margaritaville.

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Alan Truex