Comforts of old Mexico

Casa Navarro reincarnates one of Dallas' original Tex-Mex restaurants

When I moved to Dallas at the age of 10, we lived way up north at the edge of town, near Forest Lane. Back then, you could catch crawdads and find fossils in the fields by Marsh Lane, LBJ was just a ditch, and Addison wasn't even a gleam in a developer's eye. It was simply the sticks.

The only options for eating out were fast. Forest Lane had it all in a single strip, a drive-through mall of America's finest, from Kip's anchoring one end, past Wyatt's Cafeteria, Taco Bell, and Pizza Inn to Jack In The Box. A few others--Goff's Hamburgers, Fred's Barbecue--offered home-grown versions of quick cuisine.

There was no Mexican food outside the infamous Bell. In other words, the area was barely civilized. I didn't even like Mexican food then.

Until the advent of fajitas, which is clearly identifiable meat, bread, and veg, it was hard for a lot of newly arrived Texans to learn to like Mexican food. Who knew what lurked under that cover-all coating of chili gravy and cheese? You know you've bonded with Texas when you finally come to crave enchiladas; the first time you return to the state and head straight for Mexican food, you realize you've made this place your home. But it can take a while.

I reflected on all this as I drove through the old neighborhood on the long drive to Casa Navarro, a new Mexican restaurant right next door to the doughnut shop where my best friend had her first job. (An over-achiever--she went in and worked before school, and yes, she now works with computers in Washington, D.C., making roughly five times what I do. Ha! I asked then and I ask now, is she having any fun?)

Casa Navarro itself is at the site of the 7-Elevenwhere I bought my first Slurpee. (No, I can't work up a lot of nostalgia over that, either.)

For real Mexican food in those ancient times--that is, un-chained Tex-Mex--you had to take a trip downtown; old Ojeda's and El Taxco were the places to go.

El Taxco, a restaurant--more an institution, really--at McKinney and St. Paul, finally died a natural death after more than 40 years in business.

Blanca Navarro, the widow of Joe, whose father founded El Taxco in 1947, is the pioneer who's opened a Tex-Mex outpost in the gastronomic wilderness that was my childhood neighborhood--until now, a wasteland for decent Mexican food. There's a huge hungry horde out here, happy that this niche is filled; Casa Navarro is packed every night.

Joe and Blanca ran El Taxco from 1974 to 1987; evidently they learned how to cook Tex-Mex then and haven't learned a thing since, because the food at Casa Navarro is historically accurate in every detail. Salsa is searingly hot, a thin brownish brew, not the tomatoey, vegetal sauce more common in today's health-conscious Mexican restaurants, where the emphasis tends to be on fresh, not flavor. Tostadas are thin, hot, crisp, the basket refilled often at no charge. Service is as good as mama can make it--since when did you have someone take away a basket of chips to be refilled because the few remaining were "cold?"

Now there's nothing in Casa Navarro that would inspire the exclamation--"I can't believe this used to be a 7-Eleven!" It's completely credible that this was once a convenience store. The tiny, oblong space has a few booths and too many tables so close together it's hard for the servers to make it in a straight line from one side of the room to the other. A glass-fronted cooler at the back behind the service counter holds sodas as well as big tubs of sour cream and ketchup. One wall is covered with sepia reproductions of photographs of the Mexican Revolution, and there are a few fake hanging plants, and that pretty much covers the decor department.

But that, too, is old-time tradition. The notion of trusting the food in a Mexican restaurant whose decor reaches beyond velvet paintings and Christmas lights is one of those new ideas--like Sangritas and "lite" combination plates.

So if you still believe the quality of Mexican food is in direct proportion to the funkiness of the place, then you probably haven't been eating much Mexican food lately--and the food at Casa Navarro will be no surprise to you.

Start with botanas, though unless you brought your own bottle, there's nothing but tea or soft drinks to wash 'em down with.

Now there's no nachos like these nachos, and I would happily make a meal out of them next time. "Blanca's Nachos" were flour tortilla chips, flaky as pastry, piled with white cheese and tender stewed chicken and thick glops of sour cream. We also tried fajita nachos, spread with beans, whole and refried, thick cheese, chunks of grilled beef or chicken, and an ice cream scoop of unctuous guacamole with chunks of fruit as smooth as butter. You might be surprised, but we did not make a meal of those luxurious layers, even preceded with smoky bean soup, compliments of the house. We ordered dinner.

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