Neon beer signs glow brightly in the cool darkness of Larry's, a vintage Mexican restaurant in Richmond. It's a blazing hot afternoon, and I sit down at a Formica table to wait for my eyes to adjust. The wooden chairs are painted orange and blue, and there's a bullfight poster hanging on the wall. I order the Larry's Deluxe Dinner: a cheese enchilada, taco, tamale, rice and beans, tostada, guacamole and chile con queso. The taco and tostada are made from old-fashioned ground beef with a minimum of seasonings and a maximum of chopped iceberg. The tamale and rice and beans are swimming in chili gravy. The enchilada comes on a separate plate.
The food seems indistinguishable from that of dozens of other vintage Tex-Mex joints -- until you dig into the cheese enchilada. As you work away at the rolled tortilla, a miracle takes place on the plate. Viscous yellow cheese sauce oozes into the dark brown chili gravy, creating a delicious masterpiece of brown and yellow swirls.
Like many longtime residents of the Lone Star Republic, I consider the goop that's left on the plate after the enchiladas are gone to be one of the most significant expressions of our national cuisine. Which is why I am so enthralled by Larry's cheese enchiladas. Even after a half an hour of beer drinking, the cheese has not hardened on the plate. I delicately quiz my waiter about it.
Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant
116 Highway 90A, Richmond, Texas
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 281-342-2881.
"We make it ourselves," he says of the cheese.
"You make cheese here?" I ask incredulously.
"No, I mean we buy American and cheddar cheese, and we cook it with spices," he says.
I puzzle over this response for a while. If you melt American and cheddar cheese, don't they harden as they cool? How does this stuff stay liquid? Then again, do I really want to know? Remember how good refried beans tasted before you found out they were made with lard? Do I want to risk innocent childhood memories of cheese enchiladas?
"I remember sitting in a booster chair at Larry's eating cheese enchiladas when I was four or five," says Mike Council, a 41-year-old Houstonian who grew up in Rosenberg. The enchiladas, he assures me, haven't changed a bit. Council still finds it necessary, on occasion, to drive all the way out to Richmond to get a Larry's fix.
"You can't find cheese enchiladas in Houston?" I ask him.
"Not like Larry's," he says. "Most Mexican restaurants in Houston these days are an evolution beyond the original Tex-Mex. They're citified. They're better at fajitas and other stuff. You can still get cheese enchiladas in Houston, but it's not the thing you think of. When I want enchiladas, I go to Larry's."
Larry's Tex-Mex is frozen in time, Council explains, as are many other things about the "Twin Cities" of Richmond and Rosenberg. The towns lie on Alternate 90 (90A), once the main route from Houston to Victoria and South Texas. Businesses on this road bustled with commerce in the 1960s, but when Highway 59 was completed in the early 1970s, the Twin Cities were bypassed. "Richmond and Rosenberg are time-capsuled," says Council. "It's the same as it was when I was a kid in a lot of ways. But it's interesting to go to places where the traditions are still there."
"Fort Bend County's most famous restaurant" opened on February 12, 1960, the snowiest day in Richmond history, according to the story on the back of the menu. You can still get spaghetti in chili gravy at Larry's, just like you could back then. For the sake of experience, I decide to try some on my second visit.
The entrée called Spaghetti Mexicano consists of spaghetti topped with chili and cheese; in case that doesn't fill you up, rice and beans are served on the side. I elect to get a smaller dose of spaghetti with the Larry's Special Dinner, a three-plate extravaganza that also includes a cheese enchilada, taco, tamales, rice and beans and chile con queso.
The fat, overcooked spaghetti strands are heaped on top of the tamales, and the whole thing is drenched in floury chili gravy. It is, without a doubt, the worst pasta I have ever eaten, but I'm delighted to have tasted it. Occasionally I like to try outdated dishes for the historical perspective they provide. Spaghetti in chili gravy is a Tex-Mex classic that has all but disappeared. It reminds us of an era when Anglos found rice and beans too daring. But I don't recommend it unless, like me, you just want to be able to say you had it once.
Larry's cheese enchilada is as much a food relic as the Spaghetti Mexicano. The difference is that the cheese enchiladas taste as good as, or better than, their modern Tex-Mex counterparts.
How did the residents of the Twin Cities get hooked on cheese enchiladas in the first place? There are several theories. "I guess it's the large Mexican population," says Council. "Half my buddies growing up were Mexican." Former Rosenberg resident and current Continental Club co-owner Steve Wertheimer says his cheese enchilada obsession can be traced back to a popular drive-in restaurant generally remembered as "World's Best Enchiladas."
"That wasn't really the name of the place; it was actually the Richmond Drive-In. But they had a big sign out by the road that just said, 'World's Best Enchiladas,' so that's what everybody called it," recalls Wertheimer, whose father once served as the mayor of Rosenberg.
The restaurant had a limited dining room and specialized in to-go orders. Wertheimer's father often picked up a dozen enchiladas on the way home from the office. In fact, Wertheimer remembers the carryout tray full of cheesy tortillas and chili sauce quite precisely. "I think there was something about that rectangular aluminum foil container with the cardboard lid that made the enchiladas taste better," he speculates.
The Richmond Drive-In was right across the bridge from where Larry's is now. "They served good old-fashioned greasy enchiladas," remembers Council. "And everybody ate there."
Were the enchiladas similar to Larry's? I ask him.
"They were different," says Council. "I think the Richmond Drive-In used grated cheese. I prefer the totally melted cheese sauce they use at Larry's -- and I don't give a shit if it is Velveeta."
"When I opened this place, I couldn't even spell enchilada," Larry Guerrero tells me on the phone.
"So how did you happen to get into the business?" I ask him.
"I went to Felix's and I looked at that restaurant on Westheimer, and I said something like, 'This would do good in Richmond,' " says Guerrero. "So I talked to Felix, he said he'd help me, and he did. I'll tell you who else was in my kitchen when I opened: Mama Ninfa. She had a tortilla factory then. She said, 'I'll help you get started, but when you get going, you buy all your tortillas from me.' And I said, 'You got it.' Felix and Mama Ninfa, they got me off the ground. I have got to give them credit."
On my second visit, I spot the 75-year-old white-haired patriarch of Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant. He looks very much like the younger dark-haired version of himself immortalized in the portrait that hangs over the door. Larry and several members of his family are sitting at the front of the restaurant eating a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner. (You can't eat enchiladas for every meal.)
I tell him how much I love his cheese enchiladas, and then I start asking impertinent questions.
"No, we don't use Velveeta," he tells me.
"But how does the cheese stay liquid?" I want to know.
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"It's the type of cheese I buy," he says cryptically.
Since Council introduced the V-word, I feel like I have to pursue the identity of the cheesestuff. A desultory probing of Larry's trash out back doesn't reveal any cheese boxes. But there's an easier solution than Dumpster diving. I call the family purveyor.
"He's probably using Land O'Lakes Extra Melt, or something like it," says my brother Dave, who works for a major restaurant supplier. While Velveeta isn't really cheese, Extra Melt is. It's what Land O'Lakes calls a performance cheese, a pasteurized, processed American cheese that's "engineered" to melt fast and stay melted. According to the Land O'Lakes Web site, Extra Melt is "excellent for Mexican applications." They also make a cheese spread called Land O'Lakes Golden Velvet, which is too soft to shred but can be combined with salsa or Rotel tomatoes to make queso. Kraft makes a similar line of cheeses, I'm told.
But I'm not saying Larry's uses any of these products. In fact, I've decided I'd rather not know what makes the enchiladas ooze. Maybe Larry's has perfected a secret process whereby cheese is melted into permanent submission. Maybe the restaurant is importing magic cheese from Mexico. Let's leave a little mystery in those swirls of cheese and chili gravy. And please pass the tortillas.