Restaurant Reviews

Schlock value

Tourist traps are supposed to be something you outgrow, like a passion for peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwiches or a fascination with belching. Theoretically, anyone over the age of thirteen should be able to pass by a tourist trap souvenir palace like Shell City (yes, I was recently in Florida) without a sideways glance. After all, grown-ups have left behind their lust for hot-pink sand dollars, dried puffer fish mobiles, and bug-eyed aliens constructed from scallop shells. Right? Real adults avoid tourist traps. It's a mark of maturity that we can no longer be seduced into seeing Rock City or the Snake Farm. We know better. OK, at least most adults can identify a tourist trap, even if it still inspires them to wheel in instead of drive by--a tourist trap is obviously a place where you'll get soaked. If it's a tourist trap gift shop, it sells kitsch at a high mark-up; if it's a tourist trap restaurant, it's guaranteed to be all schlock, no food.

Chihuahua Charlie's, which opened a few months ago on McKinney, is the Dallas version of the notorious Carlos and Charlie's, or Carlos and Pepe's--it's always Carlos and somebody, for all I know there's a Carlos and Arnold's by now--a chain of tourist trap restaurants in the neon resort towns of Mexico. Chances are, if you've ever been to Mexico on spring break, you've spent some time at Carlos' place. Which leads me to assume that a large percentage of Texas-educated Dallasites will feel familiar with Chihuahua Charlie's ambiance, even if they can't quite remember it clearly.

In Mexico, of course, there are some added tourist attractions to the chain restaurant. Predictability is even a greater comfort to a diner in another country than it is at home, and certain things you can count on at Carlos and Whoever's, the way you can count on fast French fries at McDonald's. The food will be tourist-friendly; for example, chances are good that your waiter will speak some English, and the place will always seem like a party, which is what you're looking for on a vacation in the first place.

Chihuahua Charlie's has had to come up with a little more than that in its location on McKinney Avenue, though its formula fits so well that the whole place could be beamed to a Mexican beach and not miss a disco beat. Garishly lit by green neon, with a horn-heavy salsa soundtrack, seemingly furnished from a Mexican border store. (You like the chair? There's the mercado right by the door where you can buy furniture, glassware, and, yes, souvenirs, but no puffer fish.) It's bright, loud, and festive, even when there's nothing to celebrate, even when there's no one there celebrating. It's got more than a spark of the seventies still burning--the patio is lined with carousel horses in a vestige of the flea market design pioneered by Friday's, the tables are topped with paper (over plaid, which I suppose is a reference to Charlie), and the music never changes tempo.

Disco lives forever in these places, but so does--like a more benevolent parasite--the incredibly strong frozen margarita, the original party drink made the way most places don't bother to make it anymore, with lots and lots of limeade-disguised tequila. Urban legend says Everclear. But it wasn't the effect of the margaritas that made us otherwise responsibly sober adults enjoy Chihuahua Charlie's more than we ever thought we would. The food was good. (No jokes here about Chihuahuas, please.)

The menu changed after our first visit, but it was never typical Tex-Mex. We were served a basket of warm, sesame-sprinkled bolillos, stuffed with white cheese, as well as excellent chips (it always seems so stupid to praise chips, but these were the kind that are so gold and thin they're almost translucent), and then there were those margaritas. Salsa was exceptional, a full-flavored relish instead of the common vinegary dip designed with shelf life in mind. Flautitas and stuffed jalapenos were notably absent from the sampler appetizer plate, replaced by "mulotes," fried canoe-shapes filled with cheese, and delicious little chalupas. There are no nachos or chile con queso. Instead, we ate queso carioca, which, if you say it out loud, sounds like you're supposed to sing along, and which, when you see it, looks like you should expect spaghetti as the next course. Like the mozzarella sticks that have become a staple of second-rate Italian restaurants, these little slices of crumb-coated cheese are fried until the breading is all that holds the near-liquid mass together. But this is Chihuahua cheese, the Mexican melting cheese, and it's topped with a tomatillo and onion salsa, brightened with lots of cilantro, and it was excellent, especially smeared into a tortilla--either the powdery, irregularly shaped flour tortillas or the wonderful small, thick corn tortillas.

This is a long and substantial menu, and it's not as tortilla-based as Tex-Mex, although we managed to incorporate enough tortillas on our own. It features ten beef entrees and seven fish ideas, but only five chicken dishes, refreshing brevity in this era of feathered supremacy. We did order the achiote-roasted chicken, half a bird rubbed with the rust-colored spice and cooked until it surrendered, but mostly we concentrated on other things. The filete de pescado al elote, for instance, a beautiful dish in an Aztecan kind of way: A slightly rubbery piece of fish was presented on the leaf of an amputated ear of corn with salty pibil, a Yucatecan-esque barbecue sauce, and corn niblets. The camaron al chipotle was a saute of big, succulent shrimp bathed in the warmth, color, and spice of smoked jalapenos and delicious wrapped in a tortilla. (Beef was offered with the same sauce on one visit, but not the next.)

There are "traditional" plates, too. You know, stuff like chiles rellenos, tacos, a combination plate, enchiladas, crepas de cuitlacoches en salsa poblanas. The truth is, I don't have any idea why the last was listed as traditional and then described as a "close encounter between France and Mexico." Traditional where, exactly? In Carlos and Pierre's place, perhaps? We just ignored it and tried the enchiladas mole with pollo. The mole sauce was a rosy brown cream, with slightly sweeter spice than my favorite mole sauces, and without that dark-roasted edge some of them have, but with a pleasantly assertive, granular texture from the grinding of the ingredients. It was particularly good with the rougher sweetness of the corn tortilla, but if I ordered it again I'd ask for cheese enchiladas because the chicken, though plentiful, was tasteless and even a little bit tough. The unctuousness of cheese would have made the dish more luxurious, and mole, even when served in the dimmest and grimiest of dives, is a luxury food.

There is an interesting dessert menu at Chihuahua Charlie's--ice cream with cajeta, apple cake, flan. But it's hard to imagine dessert after an evening of Charlie's margaritas. It's hard to imagine shopping in the mercado after an evening of Charlie's margaritas. In fact, the only activity I could imagine and welcome after an evening of Charlie's margaritas was retiring at home and contemplating my puffer fish mobile.

Chihuahua Charlie's, 3232 McKinney Ave., (214) 969-9300. Open Monday-Thursday 11a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Chihuahua Charlie's:
Queso Carioca $4.75
Sopa de Cuitlacoche $1.95
Camaron al Chipotle $14.75
Chiles Rellenos $7.75