Tex-Mex chauvinist

A January issue of New York magazine featured two long articles: "Why America Hates New York," and "The Ultimate Mexican Restaurant Guide." The former article was actually a Newt vs. New York piece, and quoted a lot of statistics about how liberal New York is as opposed to how reactionary the home of the speaker is, and so on.

I guess the writer is a New Yorker, and that's why he missed the right answer--or else doesn't know he asked the wrong question. Because it's not ideology that makes the rest of the country hate New York; it's attitude.

Witness the second article.
Maybe it's because New York is, in fact, only the second most arrogant place in the nation, that one article seems to answer the other's question. I recently spent a week in the city, and I love New York. But let them say what they will about chicken-fried steak. I've never eaten anything close to "ultimate" Mexican food there.

Of course, New York has some Mexican restaurants, and inhabitants of the city who don't know any better keep them booming. I suppose they could be ultimate, relatively speaking. It's all too understandable that New Yorkers love Mexican food. You'd have to be crazy not to. It's that New York know-it-all attitude that sticks in the craw, so to speak.

But even a mere 10 days away, which I was, makes you realize how sustaining, how soulful, how necessary Tex-Mex is. And was I happy that when I returned, my first self-assignment was to eat at Rafa's, with an especially whetted taste for cheese and corn that could have prejudiced my palate were I not a confirmed professional.

The New York Mexican food piece made interesting reading and even piqued your appetite a little, as long as it stuck to the basics. But lots of places seem to serve huitlachoche--does everyone in New York know what this is? Or is it part of the urbanites' endless quest for exotica?

And when you got to the part about tofu and shitake tacos, and whether the calamari was any good that night, the idea lost all credibility. Obviously, restaurateurs have to provide what their patrons want, but what New Yorkers want is not Mexican food.

And Rafa's is. In the best, most unassuming Texas style.
It's not really a new restaurant, though I haven't written about it before. Rafa's opened in December, and its parent restaurant, Raphael's, was one of Dallas' favorites in the '70s when the margaritas flowed like water and no one had yet calculated the number of fat grams on a combination plate.

Rafa's is on the cusp of the Park Cities, in the middle of Lovers Lane, the Miracle Mile, which was once Dallas' continental ghetto, a row of quiet, genteel restaurants serving Franco-Swiss cuisine. The proprietors were all friendly and foreign, and their customers were fiercely loyal to whichever of the three they had adopted.

The way we are now? French food is hard to find, and we've reverted to teen-age cuisine (like New Yorkers) with an endless appetite for Mexican food and pizza.

So, in Mr. Peppe's old spot, the arching brick faux wine vaults are now painted neon orange, the place is loud and noisy and hung with red-lit ceiling fans, and the margaritas are flowing again.

Raphael himself is there, greeting, taking orders, bringing drinks, and busing tables. He recognized me on our second visit--not as a reviewer, but as a patron he'd seen before. He remembered where we'd sat the first time, and on the second visit, he checked up on us a number of times, making sure we had everything we needed--I suppose to make sure there was a third visit. Everyone who was there seemed to know Raphael, too, from years of hanging out at his now abandoned-looking outpost on McKinney, encouraged, probably, by attention like this.

And by the food. Margaritas came in mugs, chips were warm and thin, salsa hot and chunky. Occasionally one defeated the other.

The botanita platter held flautitas, little tubes of crispy chicken not as good as their fatter, more substantial relatives on the main menu (which were as good as I remembered from Raphael's). But you know the old saying--the smaller the flauta, the drier the chicken.

Chicken nachos were limp with a load of chicken and creamy jack cheese; the regular nachos with rich beans and rat cheese. The greasiest quesadilla I've ever encountered was an unadvertised part of the plate; the flour tortilla was stuffed with cheese and chorizo, so that explained it. Still, it was alarming to see the shining snail's trail of glistening drops it left between the communal platter and my plate. I put it back.

A genuinely pan-fried taco was delivered as a first course on the "Merida Plate," the corn tortilla filled with bland ground meat on a bed of shredded lettuce. The cheese enchilada which followed was smothered in brick-red chili; the accompanying tamale filled with flavorful ground beef was the best thing on the plate. Carnolas, medallions of beef supposedly tenderized by hand but not enough (I have yet to be impressed by a Mexican beefsteak), were served with a cheese enchilada and papas quesadas--more cheese, in case you missed out on the nachos--in this case, round, broiled slices of potato topped with melted cheese.

Shrimp enchiladas were topped with succulent shrimp; the corn tortillas stuffed with rather dry flaky crab, topped with a wonderful, rich ranchera-type sauce with corn, onions, and tomatoes. Tacos al carbon, another '70s favorite, were excellent, the meat tender and the powdery flour tortillas thick and fresh, a contrast to the manufactured-looking corn ones. A cup of bean soup (frijoles de la hoya) was smoky, hot, delicious. Yellow rice held bits of mushrooms, almonds, tomato, and peas. Sopapillas may be had plain or topped with strawberries or apple slices.

Not a calamari in sight. Which reminds me of the opening subject.
I can sum it up humbly, sans attitude: Everyone knows Texas has the ultimate Mexican food.

Rafa's Cafe Mexicano, 5617 Lovers Lane, 357-2080. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Rafa's Cafe Mexicano:
Botanita Platter $8.95
Merida Platter $7.25
Carnolas $9.50
Tacos al Carbon $7.75
Flautas de Pollo $7.75


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