The boy next door

I hope everyone has noticed that I've been making a conscientious effort to stop complaining about driving to Far North Dallas, a recently capitalized destination which, according to various irate readers, I frequently confuse with Plano.

It seems that Far North Dallasites are extremely sensitive about being mistaken for Plano. (You'd think if it mattered that much, they'd move downtown.)

I really do know that North Dallas is here to stay, however unreasonable it may seem, and I do go there all the time (without uttering a murmur).

So often, in fact, that lately I've overlooked my own back yard.
I've been driving by Javier's almost every day for 16 years, but probably haven't entered the place in 10. In an industry where flash-in-the-pan is the rule and longevity is measured in months, Javier's has been around forever. Like the Energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going and going...what's the deal with Javier's? I wonder that whenever I pass this restaurant--stuck at the unlikely end of Cole and McKinney.

So on an unexpectedly free night, faced with the ever-pressing need to dine, we decided to solve the mystery.

Javier's has a facade as boring as a federal facility. From the outside, the dull green building looks closed--its windows are barred and shadowed by deep awnings; there's rarely a visible trace of activity from a drive-by viewpoint.

Not only that, it's surrounded by a moat of one-way streets. Even once you're convinced it's open, it's hard to figure out where you're supposed to park, or how you're supposed to get to where you're supposed to park. We finally charged up an alley the wrong way and pulled up to the valet backwards.

And then we found that behind the quiet door, behind the anonymous facade, there was a veritable party going on. Hey, everybody knows about this place except me. In fact, I ran into a bunch of acquaintances from the place I get my hair cut, which, though I realize it's not actually in Far North Dallas, is in Addison.

Javier's claim to local uniqueness is that it's not a Tex-Mex restaurant, nor a Cal-Mex, natural Mex, handmade Mexican, or even a New Mexican restaurant: it's a Mexican restaurant. Mexico City, to be exact. So there's no kitsch, no Christmas lights, no crates of beer bottles, no carved coyotes.

Instead, Javier's dares to be a classically handsome restaurant, the Ralph Lauren of Dallas Mexican restaurants--gently lit, with furnishings that recall colonial Mexico.

Contrary to current trends of restaurant design, the space is chopped up into small areas. They might diminish one's ability to see who's there and be seen by them--whoever they are--but the small, slightly crowded areas seem invitingly cozy, a novelty. There's enough buzz to shelter your private conversation, but not enough to seem rowdy. Javier's actually has a posh feel, a touch of elegance, and the service follows in style, requiring better behavior from you and encouraging better clothes than a mere enchiladas-and-beer joint.

Still, it is Mexican food. We were served hot sauce and chips and margaritas, thank God. But there were two kinds of salsa, a red and a green, both warmed, as were the chips. The salsa was slightly sweet, with overtones of cinnamon and cumin in the onions and tomatoes, the peppers barely a bang in the mouth; nonetheless, like all good salsa, it was addicting.

We ordered Javier's version of queso flameado, melted Mexican cheese, served tableside. The waiter deftly arranged the dripping rich mass into soft flour tortillas to make fat oozing enchiladas, using only two spoons. (It took us a knife and fork apiece to eat them.) How long does it take a new waiter to learn that, one wonders, realizing that here, as in a fine French restaurant, waiting tables involves more than the art of balancing a tray--and actually merits the term "service."

The food was subtly surprising, too. A dish of shrimp was served with a diablo sauce concocted of chilies, coffee, and orange juice, the huge shrimp barely cooked. Their glazed sauce reminds you of the cloying, nearly repulsive smoothness of Chinese sweet-and-sour, just saved by the contrasting bitterness of the coffee and full flavor of the shrimp. The heat mounts as you eat.

The smoked chicken was smooth and brown, the meat still juicy, slightly blushing from the smoke. And these are beautiful plates of food, not the usual Tex-Mex daubs of deliciously greasy brown and orange.

Coffee-flavored flan was perfect: smooth, dense, not too sweet, served (oddly) with ice cream. I could not imagine eating flan with ice cream, and yet I did. I never eat dessert after a Mexican dinner, yet I did. At the table next to us, the waiter was igniting coffee and pouring it from above his head into the cups, another show of service.

Dinner at Javier's turned out to be a sweet midweek surprise. You just don't expect to go out for Mexican food on a Wednesday night and find yourself in the middle of a potentially romantic dinner, being waited on, not hand and foot, exactly, but not by someone running around like rush hour and not by someone named Eric who wants to get acquainted, and congratulates me on my menu choices.

You don't really expect professionally polished service--the unobtrusive kind that leaves you free to think and talk about other, more interesting, things than getting the chip basket refilled or another cup of coffee--at a Mexican restaurant. And you certainly don't expect food like this.

So like Dorothy, and in spite of the reader in "Far North Dallas," if I ever need to go looking for a Mexican dinner again, I won't look any farther than my own back yard.

And hey--you out in Far North Dallas--you might want to drive on down here and check it out.

Javier's, 4912 Cole, 521-4211. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 p.m., Sunday 5:30-10 p.m.

Cheese Panela for two (queso flameado) $8.95
Barra de Navidad (shrimp with diablo sauce) $18.95
Pollo Ahumado (smoked chicken) $12.95
Flan al Kahlua with ice cream $4.



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