After sweating through some middle-aged tennis drills at the SMU Tennis Complex on Mockingbird, my wife and I were in the mood for queso. I had heard tell of El Vecino, a Tex-Mex place in East Dallas from John Michael McBride, progeny of El Fenix and owner of The Lot, that had just opened a second location nearby, in the old Fernando’s space at Travis Walk.
The chalkboard advertised a Wednesday enchilada dinner special for $5.99. We added an order of Camarones de Ajo for the omega-3 fatty acids and a couple of El Pepinos (El Jimador Silver Tequila, muddled cucumber, and grapefruit juice) for the vitamin C and vegetables. The cocktails were satisfying thirst-quenchers, but both entrees left us sorely disappointed. Thick corn tortillas with a nice chew overwhelmed a bland, unseasoned blend of ground beef and boiled potatoes, while the rubbery shrimp ($23!) swam in a tasteless sauce of tomatoes and diced avocados.
Concerned that the salt-free meal may have been an anomaly, I headed to the East Dallas location for lunch several days later. Both restaurants share the same avocado-green walls and charming banquettes upholstered with Mexican oilcloth. But the White Rock location on Buckner Boulevard is smaller and cozier. In the late afternoon, regulars chatted with friends over margaritas and platters of brisket nachos, or sat alone with a book and a lunch special near the window.
Here, I found the Tex-Mex I had been craving. I intended to only have a taste of the El Ultimo queso; instead, I devoured the entire creamy bowl, dipping into dollops of sour cream, chili, and guacamole with every chip-ful. Charley’s Choice fulfilled my every desire. This time, the same corn enchiladas hugged a trio of tasty fillings: brisket with a smoky guajillo chile sauce; shredded chicken with a rich mole; and the tenderest of rock shrimp bathed in a tangy blend of poblano peppers and tomatillos.
The refried black beans reminded me of the ones that stole my heart more than a decade ago at Veracruz Café, creamy and lush with lard. The green poblano rice was light and fluffy, useful for soaking up every last bit of mole.
I, too, found myself taking my time, pulling out a magazine for an excuse to linger. My only regret was that I hadn’t brought along a friend, so I could share some churros con cajeta and a Café del Vecino, the house coffee blend with chocolate, almond, and chipotle.
For the sake of my personal convenience, I hope the Travis Walk location learns a lesson from its eastern relation: to take everything with a few more grains of salt.