Retro cool

A.J. Gonzales emerges from the '80s time warp with ever-stellar cheese enchiladas

When Dallas Morning News music writer Michael Corcoran recently moved to Austin, his last published column listed his departing picks and pans--what he would and would not (emphasis mine, but surely he feels this way) miss about our fair city.

In the latter category he mentioned the rumor--wistfully revived nearly every month--that the legendary Starck Club is reopening. Hope in the breasts of Dallas' wannabe jet-setters never fades that maybe this city could once again be that kind of cool.

Forget Planet Hollywood, forget Sipango. The late Starck was Dallas' one and only true-but-tenuous claim to international glamour, and looking backwards at it only makes it better than it was. (After all, when you ask anyone just what it was that made the Starck Club so very cool, they tend to talk about the restrooms.)

In Dallas, a city that reinvents itself as often as possible, nostalgia is bankable. We trade on it. How far back do you go? Were you there on the Fourth of July when the air-conditioning broke and Grace Jones didn't come on till midnight? Cool. What do you remember? Who was there? Are you experienced?

Revivals, reopenings, re-dos--we're a city that thrives on tearing it down and bringing it back. The only thing we like better than an opening is a re-opening.

Well, Mexican restaurants have their 15 minutes, just like everything else. There's always a line for someone's enchiladas--those considered, for a brief time, to be the best in town.

Think back: Over the years, old Guadalajara on Ross Avenue has been the place to be (usually at 3 o'clock in the morning; after a night on the town, cheese enchiladas and a lime Tecate are a sure cure). Rambling El Rincon, with the hilly patio on Harry Hines, was another hot spot, long gone. Ojeda's, Rosita's, El Gallito...they've all had their day.

And, at one time, A.J. Gonzales, over on Wolf Street by Channel 13, was the place to get your Tex-Mex fix.

The Wolf Street location faded, and eventually Able Gonzales opened a place in the then brand-new West End. Like too many of that area's pioneer restaurants, his folded. So here is Able again, moved into the space next to the old Starck in the Brewery. It was formerly Ferrari's, which has followed the money to Addison. A.J. didn't change the decor much. It's still that industrial chic that ruled the '80s: your basic concrete floor, a railed balcony at bird's-eye level, everything monochromatic with splashes of red. Pretty snazzy for a Mexican restaurant and, hey, very retro.

One thing about the people working at A.J.'s, including Mr. Gonzales himself--they seem very glad to be back. We were greeted with a welcome fit for prodigals on both our visits; you'd think we were the ones who had been missing from the scene for the last eight years. Everyone had a pleasant word and a big smile.

We were ushered to a table of our choice (there were many to choose from--evidently not everyone knows that A.J.'s back in town), my chair was pulled out for me. In mere moments, we were served glasses of water and baskets of thin, light chips with hot hot sauce.

Oops. These are those weird Day-glo red and green tostados that have been appearing like a bad hallucination on too many tables in recent months. They seem to be the Tex-Mex answer to colored pasta, come up with a dozen years too late for the trend, and I say better never than late for this idea, anyway. We picked our way through several baskets, eating only the white corn chips with superfrosty mugs of beer and a so-so margarita.

So, food. I zeroed in immediately on the "Pollitos Platter." It might just be my selective memory, but I think this was the first platter of its kind to appear on a Mexican menu in Dallas. There are lots of Mexican menu milestones--the first tacos al carbon, the first fajitas, the first frozen margarita. But this was the dish that made A.J.'s on Wolf famous. Able's was the first chicken botanas plate (foreshadowing so much chicken to come): short mini-flautas, stuffed fat with chicken breast; chicken nachos just short of soggy under a white-on-white draping of jack cheese and sour cream, the unctuous creaminess ignited by a slice of jalapeno. Everything melting together in your mouth except for the crunch of the tortilla and the fire of the pepper--it was and is a lushly smooth and rich plate of food, entirely unsuitable as an appetizer, but entirely delicious.

Our waiter recommended the brisket enchiladas, a new specialty for A.J., but not a new idea. Brisket, cooked slowly till the fat melts and the meat falls apart, is one of the richest possible fillings for enchiladas; I wish I found it on more menus. Unfortunately, hidden inside a soggy tortilla under the translucent green cilantro sauce, this meat was full of fatty surprises. I had to unroll the tortilla to make sure I was getting a lean bite of meat instead of a quivering, gelatinous mouthful. Too bad.

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