Avila's and Mextopia: Good Tex-Mex Must be in the DNA
Shakespearean plays and American high schools wouldn't be the same without the requisite set of identical twins. At my alma mater, we shared the halls with a pair of long-haired sisters who could be distinguished only by the French teacher, who swore that they parlez-ed with different accents. The rest of us were so befuddled that we gave up on the girls. I'm pretty sure they ended up consorting with the Dungeons & Dragons crowd, which considered twinhood as cool as invisibility cloaks.
I thought about those girls over the last week while careening between Avila's and Mextopia, two Tex-Mex restaurants with a back-story as dramatic as anything the Bard or hysterical teenagers could concoct. To recap, Anita Avila and husband Octavio opened Avila's in 1985, gradually converting a former cozy two-room beauty parlor into a taco-and-enchilada destination spot. The Avilas' son Ricardo showed up the following year to help run the place. But, according to court documents, he secretly filed paperwork indicating he owned the restaurant. With a lawsuit pending to resolve the matter, Ricardo Avila in February gutted Avila's, emptying it of the furniture, fixtures, inventory and even the walk-in cooler.
Avila's is now back in business, with Anita's son Octavio at the helm. And Ricardo—whom the judge in the Avila fight called the "face" of the popular eatery—is doing his own thing at Mextopia, a new restaurant on Lower Greenville Avenue. While claims that the restaurants serve the exact same menu are slightly exaggerated, it's initially maddening to try to differentiate between the brother-run joints. Here's a brisket taco, there's a brisket taco. Here's a brightly colored wall, there's a brightly colored wall.
I poked around my plates, seeking definitive evidence of two different kitchens at work. Was Avila's guacamole a tad more citrusy? Did I detect more smoke in Mextopia's beans? Seated at each restaurant, I found myself squinting at baskets of tortilla chips, adopting the same sizing-up posture I used to assume when confronted with one of those high school twins.
In this case, though, the examination paid off. As with most look-alikes, the restaurants' distinctions turned out to be behavioral, not cosmetic. While the food is uniformly good at both joints, Avila's and Mextopia are in two very different moods.
There's an aggressive edge to Mextopia that's typified by its no-nonsense servers, strong margaritas and deliciously hot house salsa that stands precipitously close to the juice edge of the salsa spectrum. The salsa has enough heat to prompt grateful acknowledgement from fans of food my grandparents would have called "highly seasoned," and sufficient spice to make diners with more delicate palates reach for their companions' water glasses. Mextopia is so justifiably confident in its salsa that servers place a small cauldron of the stuff in front of each eater.
Avila's greets its customers with a far milder, tomato-rich salsa, flecked with cilantro. The salsa's spice is so muted that a man seated at a table near mine pleaded with his server for something hotter. But the new Avila's is not about to make waves: The plain starter's a smiley-faced welcome mat. So conciliatory is the attitude at Avila's that there's a dish on the menu identified as "Ricky's favorite." Ricardo Avila may have been his 88-year old mother's adversary in court, but he's still her son.
What's not on Avila's menu is the plate featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives just before the family feud erupted. Judge Ken Molberg didn't require Ricardo Avila to return Guy Fieri's seal of approval along with the salt shakers, tables and tortillas he swept up, so the faintly famous pozole, gordita and tamal combo gets its own corner on Mextopia's menu, alongside more ambitious offerings, including a mole con pollo and a guisado de puerco (which wasn't available when we tried to order it).
The standout on Mextopia's "Triple D" plate is the spongy pork tamal, made with just the right ratio of meat to masa. The savory pork far outshone the monotonously dry pulled brisket that I tried in a variety of guises. Still, the uninspired brisket couldn't sink a plate of tacos dorados: The glistening, bronzed tacos were pan-fried to a perfect, greaseless crisp, and the shredded chicken tucked within was a flavorful take on the go-to white meat.
Chicken and vegetables abound at Mextopia, which prides itself on clean, lard-free cooking. That philosophy explains the chile relleno, made without a trace of flour or frying. According to the menu, the roasted poblano pepper is heaped with ranchero sauce, but my order arrived naked, jostling against a small puddle of cheese and accompanied by the obligatory rice and beans.
The relleno was doubtless better for me than the typical cheese-soaked versions of the dish, but it was ultimately forgettable. Sparks didn't fly off a plate of sweet-tasting beef fajitas, either. As a newcomer to Texas, I certainly don't fancy myself a Tex-Mex expert, but the cuisine seems to be at its best when reveling in its inherent unhealthiness. There's no such thing as a light version of the creamy queso I adored at Mextopia, layered with guacamole, sour cream and the aforementioned brisket, which was somewhat more forgivable when drowned in milk fat (although probably not by the judges at a synagogue-sponsored brisket cook-off I attended last month).
But the single best use of cheese I encountered while eating my way through the Avila family tree was an enchilada plate at Avila's, a beautifully balanced presentation of melted sharp cheese, quality tortillas and a robust chili sauce. When Tex-Mex defenders extol the virtues of their favorite cooking style—goofy as it seems, the genre's still not taken seriously in places like New York City, where critic Robert Sietsema was recently assailed for describing fajitas as "splendid"—I suspect their argument's rooted in dishes like this one.
The superb enchiladas were bolder than most of the dishes I sampled at Avila's, a wonderfully friendly place where the servers are quick to say "thank you" and ask after your day. Too light seasoning spoiled an otherwise decent plate of brisket tacos, and a tortilla soup skewed bland. A dollop of guacamole and a pellet of queso were the soup's only identifying Tex-Mex markers: The celery-rich chicken soup could pass for comfort food in almost any cuisine.
But the kitchen's reserve vanished with dessert, a white chocolate bread pudding that's a solid brick of sweetness. The pudding is so heavily saturated with alcohol that the first bite felt like French-kissing a sailor: I genuinely wondered about the wisdom of returning to the office after eating it.
Unlike Mextopia, which cultivates a hip, detached vibe, Avila's doesn't feel like a place to get drunk—even on bread pudding. It's Mrs. Avila's house, for goodness sake. And therein lies the difference between the two superficially similar restaurants, which really aren't the same at all. If I recall correctly, that's what those twins back in high school kept trying to tell us.
Avilas 4714 Maple Ave., 214-520-2700. avilasrestaurant.com. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $
Mextopia 2104 Greenville Ave., 214-824-9400, mextopia.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. $
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