Alpha Tex-Mex

There's been entirely too much discussion about the nature, needs, and future of Deep Ellum. Deep Ellum needs more residents; Deep Ellum needs fewer pawn shops. Deep Ellum needs more retail; Deep Ellum needs fewer tattoo parlors. Deep Ellum needs a grocery store. Deep Ellum needs more parking meters. Wait, Deep Ellum doesn't need any parking meters. Deep Ellum is Dallas' Soho, Dallas' Melrose Avenue, Dallas' French Quarter, Dallas' Sixth Street.

Whatever Deep Ellum is, it's not going to be that for long. And it's only had a brief life as whatever it used to be, anyway. Deep Ellum really isn't even an old neighborhood unless you're measuring by Dallas standards:We have a short time line here. In other cities, the artsy neighborhoods to which we like to compare Deep Ellum had a chance to develop, grow, and decay at a rate slow enough for them to develop a distinct character. Soulful places in other cities have a chance to build up a little patina--more than three generations, anyway. But Dallas doesn't deal well with erosion; we prefer to take nature into our own hands and stomp out any decadence immediately, quick before it happens. The Deep Ellum neighborhood has to be managed, its growth pruned and fed so the result feeds not just pocketbooks, which are what fertilize any city, but Dallas' image of itself.

So much talk about Deep Ellum has had a repelling effect: There are people my age--OK, boomers--who think it's populated by bands of roving Mohawk-haired punks out to rumble, Big Tex's version of West Side Story. (You don't think there's as much crime in the French Quarter on the weekend as there is in Deep Ellum? Not that I want to hold up Louisiana as a role model.) Deep Ellum is really more like Austin's Sixth Street, a semisoulful strip that has just a tinge of unerased history left coloring its old buildings, enough to make the rents cheap, enough to make the past just slightly more palpable. It wasn't much, but it was enough to excite the developers, and now it's a Disneyed strip full of beer-crazed college kids. Fortunately, in Deep Ellum, that hasn't quite happened. Yet.

Actually, Deep Ellum is not the heart and soul of Dallas or even a truly resonant historic district. It's just a collection of buildings so useless, in an area so seemingly valueless, they weren't worth tearing down. So there's still room and rents low enough for an unpretentious little place like Omega's Tex-Mex Cafe to squeeze open.

Omega's is on a side street, first of all, which no sophisticated restaurant operator would sign for. Just off Elm, this block of Crowdus is mostly distinguished by the French Connection next door, which despite Deep Ellum's wishfully seedy reputation is one of the only girlie joints down there. There's no neon and no valet parking; just a few chairs out front to let you know that something's going on inside.

Daddy Jack's now rules the restaurant scene in Deep Ellum; if you think of Deep Ellum as a mall, which Dallas would like to, Daddy Jack's is the anchor store. The style setter. At one time this was Buffalo Club, chichi and hanging on tight to the coattails of the '80s. Now, the style is slacker, more low-key--and Omega fits right in, a simple little cafe like you see everywhere in San Antonio, but seldom in English-speaking sections of Dallas. It has a simple, clean, and bright color scheme: white walls, blue floor, with red accents and chrome light fixtures. No velvet paintings, no Christmas lights. A crisp, cool look, although actually in the late afternoon and early evening the sun blazes through the windows that look west to downtown. It's probably a great view at night, and Omega is open till 4 in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays.

Chances are you'll be waited on by the owner; her husband, who's in the kitchen, named the cafe after her. Having racked up many hours in a number of Dallas Tex-Mex palaces, the two decided to go out on their own. And the place is self-labeled "Tex-Mex," an endearingly unpretentious label these days, when it seems like every Mexican food restaurant advertises "authentic" Mexican food--I don't know why. Don't they know that their customers are just going to read that list of not-quite-familiar foods and ask for a bowl of chili con queso anyway? That low-class cheese dip may not be on the opening menu of these fancy Mexican restaurants that are going to have to find some Velveeta somewhere, authenticity or no authenticity.

Notice right away, after you've got your cold beer or margarita, that these are the thinnest, lightest tostados you've ever eaten, and the salsa has a black peppery bite. Guacamole contains fresh cilantro, the tart, nose-filling aroma perfuming the tomato-studded scoops of bland green that is as smooth and rich as cold custard, with little chunks of avocado dissolving in your mouth like butter should. Tortilla soup, a russet broth filled with vegetables, crisp tortilla strips, chicken, and melting strips of shredded cheese, also has a slight piquancy.

Omega's does a good job, of course, with the standards--the glistening, rich chili over the cheese enchiladas, and the beans and rice fused so predictably into two side-by-side blobs it's as though they'd been extruded along with the plate.

Omega's saves the surprises for the specials--the expensive dishes that you learn from misguided, if daring, adventures to avoid in other Tex-Mex restaurants. In most places, if you order steak tampiquena you deserve whatever you get for being so pretentious as to bypass beans and rice. At Omega, the "Favoritos" really are. Carnitas del Rancho, tender strips of steak, griddled fast so they're still juicy and tender, are served with a mass of potato, garnished with bacon and cheese. Line up some steak in a steaming flour tortilla and douse it with pico de gallo and a smear of guacamole, then roll it up like your own cigarette. The grilled chicken breast, described as "deluxe"--a word I tend to associate with Dairy Queen--defied both the depressing adjective and its dull ingredient. This boneless breast was actually juicy and flavorful, qualities so rare in this meat that it's no wonder most chefs have ceased to consider it desirable. Folded into a whole-wheat tortilla, slightly more delicate than flour or corn, with some of the vegetables and pico de gallo, this overcomes the oxymoron "healthy Mexican food." The camaron a la tampiqueno, a dish I would normally be chary of, was just as good: big shrimp, sweet and firmly fibrous, griddled fast (this guy is not afraid of a very hot stove), with a mess of red and green bell peppers and onion slivers that camouflage the little serranos so you never know what hit you. It is a wonderful dish, with all the complexity and excitement that makes Mexican food turn a meal into a party. (Of course, tequila helps.)

Omega's Tex-Mex Cafe. Nobody asked me, but I think it's just what Deep Ellum needs.

Omega's Tex-Mex Cafe, 212 N.Crowdus, 744-6842. Open Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-11 a.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 a.m.

Omega's Tex-Mex Cafe:

Guacamole $2.25

Deluxe Grilled Chicken Breast $7.45

Camaron a la Tampiqueno $10.95

Carnitas del Rancho $8.55

Bean Chalupas $4.95


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