No other image better captures the Dallas dining scene: Under a cloudy sky, hungry customers wait their turn for one of the nine tables inside a restaurant that looks like it survived a recent bombing campaign. Six-packs of bottled beer litter the street, and a red and white cooler hints at more. Not all the letters are legible, but you can make out the restaurant's name around the single light-fixture that illuminates the scene. This is how Café Herrera got its start.
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The photograph appeared in a 1984 issue of National Geographic. Among the piercing eyes of starving refugees, endangered animals and stunning waterscapes, the publication known for its world-class photography printed a picture of gringos with bad hair patiently waiting for enchiladas. Herrera's was a cheese-drenched relic.
If you haven't seen the photo yourself, don't bother sifting through Google Images. See it in Herrera's fourth dining room, just across the Trinity River on Sylvan Avenue. Owner Nora Ontiveros says business is slowly building at the new space, but lunch on a weekday -- when the small lot of compact-car parking-spots is jammed with SUVs and sedans -- seems anything but slow. The dining room hums, and when it's warm enough outside, customers fill the massive patio that wraps around the front of the building.
Customers inside and out are sipping margaritas, adorning their shirts with salsa and pretending to read the menu before they order their old faithful combo. The dining room is cut into three sections. In the back, two smaller, booth-lined sections frame a bar, where televisions flicker and the chatter is low. Up front, the crowd is more boisterous, and that enlarged photograph hangs on the wall. Customers in the dining room look up at the photo, perhaps pondering the thousands of combo plates that have come before theirs. The grainy figures in the photo pull on beers with no clue where their favorite restaurant is headed.
A few years after that shot was taken, flames ravaged the kitchen. That sent Herrera's packing, just across Maple Avenue, where the restaurant would spend more than two decades. Gentrification fueled the next two moves. The restaurant was pushed farther down Maple five years ago, as Crow Holdings continued to develop the blocks adjacent to the old Parkland Hospital. Then, last year, it was pushed again.
This time, the plan was for Herrera's to move one more block down Maple, the street it had always called home, and stay there for good. Crow Holdings, who held Ontiveros' current lease, was building a stand-alone restaurant space just for Herrera's. There was even outdoor seating. Everything looked perfect, until she started looking at the details. Taxes on all this gentrifying property threatened to balloon her rent, and she couldn't get a hard agreement on parking. "They kept offering me spots across the street," Ontiveros said. "My customers don't want to deal with valet."
News of the potential closure hit fans hard. There are other Herrera's around Dallas, all founded by Amelia Herrera in one way or another, but fans of this location will tell you they're not the same. There's one near Love Field, another in Denton and, until it closed last year, one in Mockingbird Station. The Maple location was the longest tenured. Now it was closing, too.
A red sign taped to the door alerted customers that the newly constructed building next door would not be a Herrera's after all. Its future location: unknown. Restaurant equipment was destined for storage, and the staff was out of work.
It's easy to wonder why anyone would care about a Tex-Mex restaurant potentially closing in a city that swims in refried beans, but Herrera's offers a few standouts, wherever it serves them. The sour cream enchiladas are among the best in the city, and the chili enchiladas offer a generous ladle of mild-flavored meat sauce and real cheddar cheese. The fajitas are cooked with tomatoes, which reduce to a thick sauce under intense heat. On weekends menudo is served, and the heady, tripe-filled stew has garnered its own following.
But perhaps the biggest differentiator of Herrera's -- unless you've got a thing for tumblers of iced tea so large you could sink the entire dish of sugar packets -- is the impossibly extensive menu. There are nearly 100 items on the front page of the menu, and the second page offers more than 50 dinner combinations featuring an endless procession of tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, chalupas and other classic Tex-Mex dishes. So many combos exist they've run out of names: If the Nora, uncle Mike or Jimmy don't suit you, try the 13c.
Then there's that warm dish of bean soup, with chunks of fatty, smoky pork swimming about, and the butter on the table for tortilla-slathering. Combine all these dining memories with more than four decades of history and you can see why some customers were on the verge of tears when they thought they were inhaling their last meals at Herrera's. It wasn't the jalapeños.
But here's the thing about Herrera's replications: Things always end up better on the other side. That second Maple Avenue location may have had a fraction of the curb appeal of the mini-Alamo building that burned across the street, but it upped the table count significantly. The next location added even more tables, plus a small patio outside. And when gentrification booted Herrera's all the way across the Trinity River, it may have been the best move of all.
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The building that would have housed the fourth Herrera's on Maple Avenue was perfectly outfitted for the restaurant, but the cost was far too high. You can only sell so many $9 enchilada plates a day, and three additional restaurants were slated for the immediate area, increasing competition.
So when a sizable Mexican seafood restaurant closed on Sylvan Avenue, Ontiveros jumped. It was like stepping back in time. Sure, longtime customers would have to ford the Trinity River to enjoy their favorite saucy combination plates, but the rent was comparatively cheap. The neighborhood had that same gritty appeal that Maple Avenue did decades ago and Trinity Groves was changing perceptions of West Dallas. One afternoon, as the busy patio had just started to clear, Ontiveros admitted that what originally looked like a stressful mess eventually yielded the best possible outcome. "Now if I can only stay here for 10 years," she said.
Herrera's 3311 Sylvan Ave., 214-954-7180, herrerascafe.com, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, $$
Nachos $9 Fajitas $14.50 Beef tacos $8.85 No. 1 Mexican dinner $10.95 Sour cream enchiladas $9.95