The Family Formula

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Ask any restaurateur, and they'll tell you that Tuesday is a painfully slow night. Carefree weekend celebrations are either forgotten or as yet unplanned. Tuesday lacks Wednesday's midweek relief or Thursday's sense of pre-party anticipation. It's on this second night of the work week that restaurant owners know who their real friends are: the loyal customers who tide them over until business picks up a bit on hump day.

Of course, you could try to ask the folks at Lopez Mexican Restaurant about skeleton-shift Tuesdays, but they'd be too busy to answer. Hostesses are tracking incoming groups and rearranging four-tops into makeshift banquet tables. Waiters zip around the cavernous dining room with trays of steaming nachos and sizzling fajitas hoisted shoulder high. Bartenders are rimming dozens of half-size pilsner glasses with margarita salt. And the tableside musicians are halfway into their seventh birthday sing-along of the night.

Located alongside a strip mall in southwest Houston, Lopez Mexican Restaurant epitomizes the old-school Tex-Mex family restaurant. Clean, fast and loud, it's not a homey, family-run cocina but a family-friendly fallback built for high volume and informal charm.


Lopez Mexican Restaurant

11606 South Wilcrest

281-495-2436. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

Fajitas (half-pound): $7.95
Lopez dinner: $8.50
Tacos ranchero: $6.95
Nachos compuestas: $5.45
Pork chops ranchero: $8.95
Plata de carnitas: $6.95

It's also the kind of place that makes you ponder the wide range of Tex-Mex options in the Lone Star State. Okay, maybe it doesn't inspire you to think about the taco-based pecking order, but then you're living safely inside the Tortilla Zone, where "office breakfast" means foil-wrapped chorizo tacos and Christmas tamales come a dollar a dozen.

For the better part of ten years, I maintained dual citizenship between South/ Central Texas and my Louisiana motherland, but last year I consolidated my residence in New Orleans. So now, between bites of drippy poor boys and deep fried everything, I pine for a good gooey plate of enchiladas.

This kind of "guac is always greener" thinking is pretty common to culinary emigrants. Take, for example, the New York native who scours Scottsdale for serviceable bagels or thin-crust pizza. And if you ask a transplanted Cajun where to get Louisiana food in Sacramento, the answer will always be the same: "My kitchen."

My return to Louisiana meant a complete change in everyday eating habits. Ramshackle taquerias that provided spicy sustenance on hangover mornings were a four-hour drive away. The Wednesday special -- beef enchiladas with lard-laced refritos -- at my favorite lunch joint required a full day on the road or two trips through an airport metal detector. Even grocery-store tortillas squashed by local presses were but a fond memory.

So I was glad to be back in the Zone, where high-quality, no-fuss Tex-Mex comes in so many shapes, flavors and restaurant formats -- from the gas-station breakfast joints to the sprawling family emporiums that inspire crowds on a random Tuesday night.

I was already pondering the different species of Tex-Mex as I nursed one of Lopez's frozen margaritas and checked out the menu -- a mix of tried-and-true numbered dinners, combination platters and "especialidades mexicanas." Within the numbered dinners, you could find any permutation of standard components (enchilada, crispy taco, queso, guacamole salad) with obligatory sides of rice and beans. The "specials" list included the new standards of latter-day Tex-Mex: fajitas, flautas, taco salads and other dishes previously described in this space as "less traditional and more citified" Tex-Mex. The only real surprise came when I did a quick survey of the prices; the most expensive single-dinner plate (a T-bone steak) weighed in at just $10.45.

Almost instantly, I saw Lopez through a harried parent's eyes: Ten points for economy.

Our waiter swooped in, took our order and reappeared almost instantly with our first course, a plate of nachos compuestas. Nothing fancy here, just crunchy chips topped with refried beans, cheese and bright guacamole. The most notable thing about the dish was its velocity -- four minutes tops from order to first mouthful. Our waiter managed to be focused and to the point without seeming rushed and impatient. Another two minutes, and a second round of margaritas -- well- balanced coolers with good lime flavor but not too much tequila -- hit the table. After a couple of these exchanges, I started to notice another Lopez hallmark: quick-turning tables.

Running parental tally: Ten points each for efficiency and adult beverages.

I checked out the crowd as I worked my way through the nachos. This particular Tuesday night throng comprised a mix of large parties (birthday celebrations, post-practice soccer teams, extended families on the town) and smaller groups out for a quick bite. The larger groups dictated the atmosphere -- high ambient noise with lots of bellowing laughs. I watched the floor staff create instant tables for 12 without any noticeable drop in serving speed, and the patrons responded by calling the musicians (Spanish guitar and nylon-string harp) over for a tune.

Another ten for adaptability.

By the time our entrées arrived, I could almost see the Lopez system that inspired such off-peak loyalty. Everything about the experience caters to the old-fashioned "family night out." Amid the echoes and din, every parent in the place looked relaxed and happy.

The logical place to start was with the house über-combo, the Lopez dinner. Several plates of Tex-Mex building blocks -- guacamole salad, beef taco, chile con queso, cheese enchiladas and chile relleno -- contribute to the insurmountable mountain of food. Most of the fare conformed to the canon: The enchiladas were gooey and smothered in a pool of cumin-spiked chile gravy; the picadillo for the taco was spicy without excessive pepper.

The taco/queso plate, however, is a bit of a departure, using crispy bowl-shaped corn tortillas instead of the usual "folded shell and puddle" presentation. While the taco "bowl" is filled with meat and fillings, the queso "bowl" is flipped and coated with cheese -- bound to be a disappointment for cheese lovers.

The chile relleno is a batter-dipped poblano or bell pepper (listed as Mexican or American style, respectively) that's fried and stuffed with taco meat. On my visit, the pepper was still crisp, but the coating was limp and custardy, while the meat inside didn't have much flavor. A few scoops of the house salsa -- a thin tomato sauce with a heap of jalapeño heat -- helped.

The sizzling plate of house fajitas -- a new-jack dish by Tex-Mex standards -- was a standout, with the subtle, earthy flavor of cumin and deeply caramelized onions setting the tone for the strips of grilled beef. Another variation on the "spatter platter" presentation -- the pork chops ranchero -- didn't fare as well. The three chops were seared well on the outside but cooked to a nearly leathery consistency, and the tomato-onion ranchera sauce didn't add much. Two thicker chops would have made for a better dish.

Two roasted meat plates demonstrated a simple, do-it-yourself aesthetic. The slow-roasted pork of the straight-ahead carnitas was shredded into a semblance of Carolina pulled-pork barbecue. With a dollop of guacamole and a spoon of the red sauce, it was a solid pig fix. The tacos ranchero followed the same formula with short rib meat; the texture is somewhere in the neighborhood of moist Saturday barbacoa meat.

All in all, our sampling of the Lopez menu didn't reveal any jewels; the flavors didn't stand out on the palate or in the after-dinner memory. But that doesn't seem to be the point here. This is a dyed-in-the-wool family restaurant, and the food aspires to the approachable, "something for everybody" ideal.

As I walked past the cashier's desk, munching on a creamy nugget of leche quemada (a hypersweet sugar-milk candy), I noticed the hand-painted tiles in the entryway. They had been decorated by steady customers, many of them children, to celebrate Lopez's move to its current location.

Moving toward the door, I passed several families in the still-lively waiting area -- kids jumping, parents starting to relax. Just another Tuesday at Lopez...

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