Taco of the town

If you've got a Tolltag, you know where Tupy's is. Along with Horchow Finale--the discount store of catalogue leftovers--Tupinamba (called Tupy's by regulars) anchors a shopping center whose feature attractions are a pet-grooming shop, a nail salon, and the Tolltag store. It's on Inwood Road just off Forest Lane--Dallas' ancient, honorable unofficial drag strip where I spent much of my youth in somebody's Mustang.

Looking around, you figure that rent may not be the challenge here that it is in some locations. And you'd assume that whatever pernicious influence the neighbors thought Tinseltown would have had on the neighborhood, the local landlords could only have been happy to see the proposed multiplex in place--the way the city council promised.

It's really hard to see why the neighborhood objected to a cinema multiplex in the dead location right next to this center, which is barely breathing. Surely anything would be better than a boarded-up Kmart and a parking lot the size of a soccer field. But I can see the bumper stickers now: Better Tupy's than Tinseltown.

If anyone should ever write a history (proposed title: Dining Tex-Mex in the Metroplex) the name "Tupinamba" would thread through it like a trail of dripping queso. The restaurant's been around in one location or another for 50 years, moving from Oak Lawn to Lovers Lane to Northwest Highway to Midway, somehow keeping its taco recipe intact at every new location.

Tupinamba has had so many deaths and reincarnations you figure it must be near nirvana now, yet somehow it's not surprising to find it doesn't seem to have evolved at all. My own family has celebrated birthdays, impending births, and other occasions at Tupy's.

Now the kitchen's in the hands of family scion Eddie Dominguez, who inherited the recipes and, one presumes, the penchant for roomy and gloomy decor that, along with the tacos, has generally characterized Tupinamba.

The latest incarnation is big, with a high, blue ceiling over all the spacious dining areas; and there's a bar at one end, complete with a fake view, and a service area at the back that extends the width of the room. The light is dim, with a glare from the western windows if you're eating early--which we were on a recent weeknight, when the place was filled mostly with blue-hairs and families with very new children. The restaurant had the faint air of an institution, maybe the dining room of an assisted-living facility on visiting day.

Even later, and on a weekend, there's nothing hip about Tupinamba. Not that we didn't have to wait for a table--the line was out the door--but compare this crowd to the one waiting outside Mi Cocina in the Highland Park Village or Chuy's, and you'll see what I mean. Tupy's customers are here for the food, not the scene. Don't even ask how you can tell by looking.

Once seated, Tupy's feeds you with that hustling efficiency I associate with old-style Mexican food emporia. Thin, crisp chips and a bowl of salsa (with little bowls for personal dipping), as well as glasses of ice water and a stack of hot corn tortillas arrived before anyone even spoke to us. Drinks arrived in the time it took a waiter to hike from one end of the restaurant and back. And if you do order a margarita, watch out: These are the most potent drinks I've been served in a Mexican restaurant in 20 years.

The menu is mammoth--at least 50 dinners are listed in various combinations. Think hard: Are you in the mood for two cheese enchiladas with chili con carne and a "Tupy taco" or two cheese enchiladas with chili con carne, a "Tupy taco" and a guacamole chalupa? Or maybe just one cheese enchilada with chili con carne and two tamales? If I'm choosing a combo, I like to keep it simple--a tostada with guacamole, looking like a tostada with chile con queso (yes, it's the gluey yellow stuff that stiffens as it cools, and I love it) and a "Tupy taco."

The "Mexico City" tacos--flour tortillas folded around stewed chicken and grated cheese with pico de gallo over the top--are good, too, but then you have to order your "Tupy taco" on the side, and that's too much to eat. And you can't go to Tupinamba without eating a taco. They have always been a specialty, and they are as they always have been, in kitchen after kitchen throughout the years, not a fried corn shell with filling but a soft corn tortilla closed over a mixture of meat and beans, mostly beans, then deep fried.

They come on a separate plate, sided mysteriously with shredded iceberg lettuce and more grated cheese, tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Why does this taste good? There's no reason this combination should work, but it does in a strange nostalgic way--like potato chips and apple sauce. These tacos couldn't be richer, the refried beans smoothing out the texture of the meat and giving the mixture the richness of confit, emphasized by the deep oil bath that leaves the corn shell with a dewy glisten.

The Mexico City tacos are less aggressive, seeming almost light by comparison, but the embueltos return to the rich and famous theme. A perfectly square flour tortilla is folded in a kind of culinary Mexican origami around the same kind of chicken stew that fills the Mexico City tacos, then deep fried and slicked over with that yellow chili con queso that coats the mouth and sticks to the ribs and the rest of your body. I'm sure you'd need a calculator for the fat grams, but who's counting?

Eddie Dominguez' Tupinamba, 12270 Inwood Road, 243-2355. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-9 p.m.

Mini Flautas $6.75
Combination No. 15 (Cheese Enchiladas and Tupy Taco) $7.50
Trino's Mexico City Tacos $6.95
Guiso $8.25

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