It was supposed to be easy, at least as far as tangles with the city go. Nora Ontiveros, who owned Herrera's with her husband Larry, was at city hall trying to figure out how to change the address of the building she expected would host the fourth location of her much-loved Tex-Mex restaurant. The first Herrera's was located at 3902 Maple Avenue, and when the owners were ready to expand, the second Herrera's opened up across the street in a strip mall. Years later, developers toppled that location, so Herrera's moved to another strip-mall spot, also on Maple Avenue.
When the same developers announced they'd be taking the land under the third Herrera's location, Ontiveros tentatively signed on for a fourth -- a yet-to-be constructed building built specifically for the restaurant located on the corner of Throckmorton Street and Maple Avenue, still perilously close to Observer HQ. But it bore a Throckmorton address. For 44 years Herrera's had always resided on Maple Avenue. This could not be.
Ontiveros hoped to re-address the property, but the employees at city hall couldn't find any record of the building (because it didn't exist yet). As far as they were concerned, there was nothing to change. That's when Ontiveros got her lawyer involved, and that's when she learned that the restaurant's address was the least of her problems.
While researching the property, her lawyer discovered the tax rate for the new building and told her it was far too high. "You'll be bankrupt in six months," he advised, not to mention that with all the development going on those numbers were only going to rise. Ontiveros tried to negotiate with the owner of the new building as construction hammered continued to swing, but they couldn't strike a deal. One week she was trying to change an address as a token, the next her restaurant was about to close completely.
Herrera's was scheduled to close on August 18 for the relocation, and it still is. It's just not relocating on Maple (or Throckmorton). Ontiveros is now looking for a spot Riverfront Boulevard, but she knows she'll never find anything in time. So now she has to pack up as much of the restaurant as possible and move it into storage.
During lunch service this week, waitresses talked about finances at a serving station next to pitchers of water and iced tea. Tumblers the size of Big Gulps sat nearby. They talked about their mortgages, savings and car payments. "I almost bought a brand new car this spring," one said, rolling her eyes thankfully. Ontiveros seemed more upbeat. "We have very loyal customers," she said while working the register in the front of her bright yellow dining room. The dining room was completely filled.
One customer called out while standing in the doorway with a takeout bag in his hand. "We'll be back before you close!" Other customers gave hugs. Some shed tears. One woman, a widow who has been eating at Hererra's for decades, told Ontiveros she comes back to feel close to her lost husband. Now she won't be able to.
Lots of customers have come to pay a final visit to their favorite restaurant, and I'm one of them. I've come to say goodbye to the sour cream enchiladas I'd eaten countless times when I lived in the apartment building directly behind the restaurant. There are many Herrera's restaurants in the Dallas area, all the offspring of Mama Herrera, but to me, none of them make sour cream enchiladas quite like these. They swim in a thick, creamy sauce and always come topped with a single jalapeño and a dash of red chili. When the enchiladas are gone, I pour a river of salsa from the salsa jar into the trough that remains and eat the excess sour cream sauce, salsa and beans with the sturdy, warm, tortillas chips that endlessly land on every table.
It's a formidable meal, and one that's best complimented with a post enchilada nap, but it's also food that sooths. Eat anything enough and it will grow on you. It's Stockholm syndrome but with lard and beans.
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I told my waitress I was finished and continued to talk to Ontiveros from my barstool near her register.
"Things will work out," she said with a smile. "They always do."
She likely found faith in the long line of customers that had gathered to pay their bills and their respects. They looked like a congregation exiting a church in line at a funeral except they were happier. That's when my waitress handed me my slip. "You come back and see us soon," she said out of habit.
I don't have much time.