Pete Dominguez has been serving "Austin-style" Mexican food in Dallas for over 30 years, the 30 years that Dallas grew from an ambitious town on the prairie to the mess it is now. Pete's places were born in a time when all of (white) Dallas was one neighborhood and most of it went to college together. When Pete opened his first restaurant--when there was only one--all the good old boys understood the personal references on Pete's menu, which now seem a little quaint, obscure, archaic--throwbacks to a now-defunct fraternity. Surely most people who read the menu today at a Dominguez restaurant wonder who the hell George Poston is. But George stays on the menu, along with other dimmed luminaries, at all Pete's restaurants, including the most charming, Los Vaqueros.
When it opened, Pete's was the Sardi's of Dallas, which had maybe a dozen big businesses and half a dozen families who ran things. Everyone who was anybody stopped by Pete's. A generation later, newcomers don't know these Dallas names, don't remember, say, when the Cowboys were struggling to fill the Cotton Bowl and Darrell Royal was the nationally-known coach of the champion Longhorns--therefore earning an eponymous combination plate (a beef and cheese taco, two chicken enchiladas with sour cream and rice). Pete eventually opened Los Vaqueros in the heart of Highland Park Village--that was before the center got uppity, before Chanel and Herms moved in, when it still had a "dime store."
Things change--Pete's original hangout, Casa Dominguez on Cedar Springs, burned down a few years ago and with it went a treasured collection of autographed photos and a glimpse of Dallas history. Los Vaqueros was moved out of HP Village to make way for its Nineties counterpart, Mi Cocina, and resettled in old-fashioned Snider Plaza. It's a good fit--still close to home for a lot of regulars and charmingly laid out, with tilework, a rustically uneven floor and a little fireplace. And Pete has updated the menus some--Willie Nelson made the menu (one chicken taco, one beef taco, one chalupa and guacamole salad), and so did Norm Green (two cheese enchiladas with sour cream and chopped tomatoes). Fajitas, seafood and vegetarian dishes have claimed more space on the menu. But mostly Los Vaqueros and its sisters are a testament to Pete's buddies and Tex-Mex the way it used to be. Yes, that cheese is probably processed--why else do you think it melts so smooth? Yes, there's sour cream on everything and don't be so snobby. This is Mexican food served by a pro--just enjoy it. The chips are fresh, the salsa is hot and addictive. An endearing fine print advisory states that "water and pico de gallo are served upon request."
And it doesn't matter if you "get it" or not. Order the George Poston anyway, whoever he is. I always do. Two gooey cheese enchiladas, a big blob of guacamole, rice and beans--everything geriatric-soft and soothing. Old-fashioned Texas comfort food.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Los Vaqueros, 6615 Snider Plaza (Lovers at Hillcrest), University Park, 361-9885. Open daily 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
George Poston $7.25
Darrell and Willie $6.95
Royal combination $6.75
Big Bertha $6.75