Positively 12th Street

In 1981, when Laura and Oscar Sanchez opened their Mexican restaurant in an old house on 12th Street in Oak Cliff, few people traveled to the neighborhood, recalls Jesus Sanchez, Laura's brother. Still, La Calle Doce (Spanish for 12th Street) mowed a certain swath of culinary distinction, even if it went unnoticed by all but those nestled near the restaurant.

"Nobody in this town was doing Mexican seafood," says Jesus Sanchez, who credits his brother-in-law Oscar (he died in early 1997) as the driving force behind the restaurant's concept. Oscar Sanchez developed many of the recipes, borrowing from cuisine found in his native Monterrey. His creations live on, as do their secrets, which Jesus Sanchez will not even hint at when pressed.

The Sanchez family is still firmly in control of this tiny restaurant empire. "My sister is the big wheel," says Sanchez, who manages the newest La Calle Doce on Skillman in Lakewood. "She tells us what to do, and we cannot talk back."

A band of five Sanchez brothers and sisters operates the family holdings in Oak Cliff and Lakewood, along with the El Ranchito Café and Club on Jefferson Boulevard. And it's amusing how the family name has been retained among the siblings: Sanchez sisters found themselves drawn to suitors with the same family name.

Jesus says they scoured Lakewood for another house to convert before they happened on the former Brick Room space on Skillman Street, a venue more structurally hospitable than a cozy home would be. But they found the clubbish atmospherics a bit hard to stomach. So they brightened it up with Mexican tile floors and white-and-blue walls. They also added framed photographs of Mexican mothers and children and bullfighters.

Yet little is brighter at La Calle Doce than their seafood dishes. Ceviche ($6.95) sears the palate with its tightly focused acidity and firm chunks of cod and shrimp. The juice is a clever blend of fresh lime and orange juices, vinegar, and liquid seeped from chopped tomato, giving it a rouge tinge. It has none of the funky metallic flavors characteristic of reconstituted citrus fluids.

The dish arrives an exquisitely crafted heap: a cupped lettuce leaf enfolding a puffed mound of creamy white meat interspersed with bits of tomato and scallion and crowned with creamy, firm avocado chunks. Jesus brags that this dish is as close as Dallas gets to real ceviche. Based on my experiences south of the border, I'd say this may even surpass it.

The octopus cocktail ($5.50) offers suction-cupped limb sections suspended in a bright red soupy cocktail sauce. Though the pieces tasted a little washed-out, the whole composition is savory and refreshing with ample clippings of cilantro scattered throughout this briskly rich, runny tomato sauce. It's poured into a large glass goblet to keep it as engaging as it is satisfying.

But this cohesiveness is lost in other dishes. Cod stew, a requisite side with seafood entrées, is underpowered with soft, faded bits of tomato; celery; onion; and dry, devitalized cod chunks in a thin, slightly ruddy broth. The only surge of flavor came from a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

The carnitas tampiqueña ($8.95) were weak as well. A mix of onion, bell peppers, chopped olives, and beef served with flour tortillas, the dish contained robust vegetables (save for the olives) that snapped crispness. But the beef was flavorless, little more than twisted knots of gray gristle. These beef tips were cooked in beer, a process that purportedly blesses the meat with an unusual taste. I couldn't find it.

Robustness returned with the camaron relleno ($11.95), firm, succulent shrimp luxuriously flavored with creamy chile con queso and shredded crab stuffing. A clump of supple Mexican rice pocked with peas, carrot, and peppers added side interest. But the real surprise was the muscular baked potato in sour cream, butter, bacon flecks, and scallions. It was too big to finish, so I took it home and nuked it later, marveling at its textural resilience and moist heartiness. Maybe this was a bio-engineered specimen, the kind that sends sophisticated Europeans into half-witted fits of foodstuff terror.

La Calle Doce offers its paella ($12.95) only on weekends. Sanchez had no explanation for this, except to say that this is the way it's always been done. Family habits are hard to break.

It's well seasoned with saffron and a secret powder pinch he refused to disclose. Yet it's texturally dismal: dry and pasty with flavorless pork, fatty chicken, and soapy mussels and clams. The only saving grace was the zesty slices of sausage slipped in here and there.

Dessert continued with this textural tragedy: the apple crisp ($3.00) was a mushy, gummy paste short on taste.

Sanchez is pumped over the reception La Calle Doce has received in Lakewood. So much so, his family's ruminating over another unit somewhere in Plano, which could set the stage for a rerun of their 1981 Oak Cliff scenario. I mean, does anybody drive up to Plano?

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