The Chips Are Down

Does a rising tide lift all boats? Certainly the Houston economy has kept pace with or even risen faster than the national economy. With an improved economy, real estate values have increased by hundreds of percentage points in some neighborhoods in the last five years alone. With increased land values come increased rents. And increased rents may be good for real estate speculators, but they are hard on the renters, be they individuals, families or small businesses. That is certainly the case for Leo's Mexican Restaurant, which closed its doors on Saturday, February 24.

The restaurant opened in a converted house on Shepherd Drive in 1942. Founder Aurelio Reynosa Sr. discovered that native English speakers had a difficult time wrapping their tongues around a euphonious Latin name such as Aurelio, so he rechristened himself "Leo" when he moved to Houston from his native Mexico. As anyone who has read the text on the back of Leo's menu knows, as a teenager Reynosa rode with that quintessential romantic revolutionary hero Francisco Villa (who began his life as Doroteo Arango and is best remembered as Pancho Villa). Photographs of the soi-disant general and his Villistas decorated the walls of the restaurant, and this historic association, as much as the strong margaritas and the piquant salsa, made the restaurant a favorite with Houston Anglos.

Reynosa Sr. passed away in 1995, two years after the family left the original Shepherd location for the recent one at 77 Harvard Street, off Washington Avenue. Son Robert Reynosa, who until recently divided his time between the restaurant and a parish school at St. Michael Catholic Church where he's a physical education instructor and coach, explains that the move was necessitated when the owner of the Shepherd property raised the rent from "$2,500 a month to $7,500 a month."

As Dished here nearly a year ago (see "Stargazing," April 20, 2000), the Harvard Street property was bought in 1999 by Hank and Marilyn Zwirek, owners of Star Pizza [2111 Norfolk, (713)523-0800; 140 South Heights Boulevard, (713)869-1241]. The Zwireks planned to move their Star Pizza II to the Leo's building after the Tex-Mex operation's lease expired at the end of February 2001. Robert's brother Felix, who was the restaurant's full-time manager for the last 20 years, told the Houston Press back in April that the family was looking for another suitable location.

"We're just a small mom-and-pop kind of store," Robert explains now, "and everything we look at is too expensive. I've got a broker looking, some customers have offered to look, but nobody's come up with anything. The places that are suitable in the neighborhood that I have looked at are asking for $10,000 to $14,000 a month for rent. Often you are asked to pay the property tax on top of that, and that is still before you have counted one cent towards keeping the lights on and so forth. Right now we just don't have the cash flow to cover a cost like that. We found a place where we thought we could move to, [but] the deal fell apart."

Felix Reynosa has begun to keep a binder with the names and addresses of customers who have expressed a desire to be notified if and when a new location is found.

"We have about 800 names," Felix reported two days before the closing date, "and we should have about 1,000 by Saturday. If you think that every person who wrote down their name usually comes in with one or two other people, that's a list that represents maybe 2,500 customers."

Was the restaurant's most famous customer, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, on the list? Felix explained that "I'm the quiet one" and suggested asking brother Robert. Sure enough, Robert related that "Billy was jamming over in the Montrose last night. I took some food over there. He doesn't like it at all. He said to me, 'You're like an institution; we can't let you go out of business!' The band has given us support for years. Many of our regular customers are like an extended family. Billy knew my dad and mom. My older brother Leo Reynosa Jr., who is no longer alive, worked for ZZ Top for about a year when they were touring."

Indeed, ZZ Top's hit album of the mid-1970s, Tres Hombres, featured a photograph of a Leo's Mexican feast spread over both leaves on the inside cover, making the little restaurant on Shepherd Drive a mini-shrine for an international assortment of fans.

"I'm happy for the pizza man," says Robert. "I'm not mad at him. I'm never mad at anybody who does what they have to do to make a living. But I am sad about our restaurant."

"We're looking at maybe four or five months of closure," Robert guesses. That is, if they can find affordable space. Felix is more philosophical, wistfully observing, "It's been a good run."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
George Alexander