View from the Suburbs: Quest for the Best Mexican Restaurant

Discovery of the weekend--Tostada Regia--on N. Gessner, Houston, Texas

If Prilosec is doing its job, Mexican food is my favorite, and when I lived “in town”, I’d get my fix about once a week.

My FFMP (forever favorite Mexican place) in Houston is El Paraiso, right in the heart of Montrose, on Fairview.  I started going there not long after I moved into Montrose in 1984.  Even through all these years, the great quality and homecooked taste of the food have never changed.  There’s even one waitress who has worked there since the days when I started eating at El Paraiso, and she still looks the same as she did “back in the day”.  It’s a favorite of business people and other workers for lunches, but starting later in the afternoons, every “type” of person you might encounter in Montrose might be represented among the clientele, and the atmosphere is one of the friendliest around.

When I moved near Memorial Park, I soon discovered El Rey at the corner of Washington and Shepherd.  Though the small interior can get crowded, nothing can beat going through the drive thru for either tacos al pastor or una torta.   Even jostled around in a styrofoam box, the portions are large and delicious.  El Rey’s frijoles a la charra are some of the best.  Since I moved out this way, there’s an empty lot about a mile away that says, “El Rey–Coming Soon”.  I keep wondering, “How soon?”

For the most part, I’ve been eating at home since I moved out here to the ‘burbs.  My kitchen is spacious, and I find that usually I’d rather make something for myself instead of going out.  There’s most every kind of fast food place and a wide variety of ethnic restaurants within a very short drive.  Even so, I haven’t ventured much beyond McDonald’s and a couple of Chinese buffets.

But for about the last month, I’ve been needing my fix of Mexican food.  Even though I’ve made some myself, it’s just not the same.  There’s every type of Mexican food place that one might imagine, from the mobile stands to chain restaurants.  With my taste buds hankering for some flavor, I’ve decided I have to try one new place every week.

There are several Mexican places right near the corner of Eldridge Road and S. H. 529, all in the strip centers that line that corner. I’ve tried two so far, Taqueria El Monarcha and Lupita’s Restaurant, both of which advertise themselves as estilo Michoacan.

First, I tried Taqueria El Monarcha.  Despite being in a storefront building, the place has a bit of character and the staff were attentive.  I ordered asado de puerco (roasted pork).  The meat came in the form of small pieces of meat, cooked almost to the point of being burnt, but were just crunchy and delicious.  The plate came with plenty of hot tortillas, good portions of refried beans and rice, and lettuce and tomato for any tacos you might roll up.  Ten bucks, including a tip, and I was out the door.  The food is good, but the back room, which might feel a bit cozier than the dinette style front, was filled with a family birthday party.

About a week later, I tried Lupita’s Restaurant.  Granted, it was long after lunchtime mid-week, but based on my experience, I won’t go back.  First, upon entering, there wasn’t the expected smell of spicy Mexican food, but just the odor of Pine-sol.   There was only one other customer in the bright, but sterile dining area.  The lone waitress seemed unsure of herself, somewhat hesitant to wait on this “gringo”.  I ordered carne guisada (stewed beef).  El Paraiso’s carne guisada has always been the gold standard for me; their version is simple but so good–nicely cooked chunks of meat covered in the thick gravy it has been cooking in.  Lupita’s carne guisada came floating in a dark red sauce, which I think was made from chile poblanos. I’m usually OK with dishes made with these chiles, but this tasted something like a soup made with chile powder.   The red sauce that came with the chips tasted very similar.  On the other hand, the green sauce was bright and delicious.  I can’t finish with Lupita’s without mentioning “the entertainment”.  Like El Monarcha and other taquerias, Lupita’s has two big screen TVs, but the court-type show in Spanish that was on while I was eating my meal was more disgusting than a Jerry Springer dream.  Obviously, the participants and the case were fake, but supposedly, these two 20-something girls had masturbated this rancher’s stallions in order to get the semen to use as face cream for themselves and to sell in spas–and all the details were included.

Today, I was out running errands, and by 1 o’clock, the toast and coffee I had while paying bills were long forgotten.  I decided to try one of the many restaurants along Gessner, north of I-10.  N. Gessner here in the part of Houston known as Spring Branch, and it’s peppered with Hispanic and Korean restaurants and shops as well as some Vietnamese noodle places.  These are all mixed together with the typical American Baskin ‘n Robbins, brake mechanics, donut shops, and Walgreens.

I took a chance and stopped at Tostada Regia, which had caught my attention other times when I had passed by.  I was hungry and this place was the right choice to satiate my appetite.  I ordered tostada ranchera, but first came a large basket of chips and three dishes of salsa: a very good green one, a spicy cooked red, and then a pink one, which the waiter told me was a habanero salsa.  It was hot, but no hotter than the red.  My order came quickly, and the plate held this very large tostada–7-8 inches–with a crispy flat tortilla on both the top and bottom, filled with shredded chicken, lettuce, onion, and Mexican-style sour cream.  I added the green sauce to it, and I couldn’t stop eating it.  Not to mention, on the side, there was a cup of  delicious chicken caldo with rice.

Tostada Regia has a comfortable atmosphere.  With the attentive staff ready at the waiting to serve more tea and water and the rustic wooden tables and benches, it reminds me of the old La Jalisciense that used to me on Montrose near West Gray.  The restaurant had customers coming and going, though, not quite the diverse crowd that could be found at La Jalisciense.   That doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter that Tostada Regia is not quite in my vecindad;  it’s close enough that I’ll go back when I’m out running errands or just when I need “a fix” of good Mexican food.

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View from Suburbia: Thrustmaster, the Yellow Gate, and Garage Culture

One of the signs along my way home, photoshopped, the way my imagination does it every day.

Fifteen minutes was about all that it used to take for me to get home from work, and after checking the mail and changing clothes, Annie and I’d take our walk, sometimes making a circuit to the edges of Memorial Park, but more often than not, just to “our” little Camp Logan Park, where we’d meet up with friends of both the human and canine kind.  I’d often drop my little digital camera into my pocket and take shots of flowers or interesting bits of architecture, signs, or anything else that caught my eye along the way.  The yellow metal gate at a house just down the street was one of my favorite points of interest.

Yeah, so? Maybe the commute does make my mind go a bit far afield. But what really goes on inside a place called "Thrustmaster"?

Now, most of the first hour after I head out my office is spent wending my way home on a mish-mash of freeways and roads in front of, behind, and alongside the thousands of other Houston commuters performing that same daily ritual.  As I get closer to home, the  small, mostly petroleum-related industries along 529  help stimulate my imagination, because the radio certainly doesn’t.  I have thought for a long time that Houston has the worst selection of radio stations anywhere in the U.S. and my drive home has only proven it.

Once home, I’m greeted by Annie, she runs out to the backyard to perform some of her daily rituals, and then we’re off for our evening walk.  First, we’re off to the communal mailbox around the corner to see what bills and advertisements there are (some expected some not, but there are sure to be some every day).

Once we see that nothing too unexpected has arrived in the mail, we start off on our walk around the neighborhood, sub-division, I guess some would say.  I like my neighborhood, especially my little cul-de-sac street and the next couple of ones which have large, mature trees and a nice homey feel.  But soon after we leave our street, the houses become newer and the large trees fewer.  Unlike in the old neighborhood in town, there’s no real park to head for; there is a kids’ play area on the far side of the sub-division, which can serve as a destination, but nothing much that would be worth taking photos of.

In reality, our neighborhood feels like it’s surrounded by a moat.  Driving out of it is no problem, but walking is another matter because the major streets on either side have big ditches next to them with no sidewalks, and the other two sides have high wooden security fences.  I suppose this is the way the developers designed this sub-division (and when I start paying attention, I realize it’s the same for many others), so even though there’s a Walgreen’s and other small businesses and services no more than a quarter of a mile away, it’s not that easy to get there on foot.  Adjacent to the sub-division are an elementary school, a junior high, and a parochial school, but because of the ditches, kids can’t really walk to them.

Likewise, when Annie and I continue on our evening walk, we’re limited.  Consequently, we take almost the same one or two paths every night, and while the houses aren’t as cookie-cutter as in some suburbs, there aren’t many interesting features like yellow gates.  Our walk, though, does give us some exercise and time to smell and think.  She does more of the smelling than I do.  Hopefully, I do more of the thinking.

Suburbia definitely has a different lifestyle.  One thing I’ve noticed here is people and their garages.  When I lived near Memorial Park, though I lived in an apartment, the people I met at the dog park generally lived in the surrounding townhouses, which, of course, had garages.  I’d hear stories about how someone had left a garage door open for a few minutes, and during that short time, bicycles or other items had been stolen.  Therefore, most of time, unless a car was going in or out or perhaps was being washed in the driveway, garage doors were kept closed.  Even when they were open, what I noticed, but hadn’t given much thought too before, was that aside from cars and maybe a few stored boxes and other items, the garages in my old neighborhood basically were used for keeping the cars.

And that was one of the big reasons I wanted a house–to have a garage to keep my car out of the elements and in a more secure place.

But here in suburbia, the garage is part of the life.  It seems as if there is almost a garage culture.  For one thing, people here must feel much safer.  When Annie and I walk, we see many garages left wide open, sometimes with cars inside but more often not.  These garages appear to be used not primarily for car storage, but as some type of game room or party room.  What struck me the most is how many of these open garages have TVs–big TVs– in them, which are almost always turned on, whether anybody is around or not.  Not that it’s just the TVs.  There are bars and recliners and other such items that add to this party room element.  One garage has a glass door into the rest of the house and another has an entire dining room set up.  Perhaps some of these garages are being used as “the man room”.  I have to laugh at that.  I’m wondering if any gay guys have ever felt the need to have a “man room”.  I mean whether you’re single or attached, if you’re gay, every room in your apartment or house is yours, you don’t have to escape, so is there any need to have a “man room”?  And then again,  if there were a need, what would be in it?  I’m just saying.

All of this “garage culture” has been a sort of revelation to me, a former apartment dweller, who only wanted a garage for a place to keep the car and as a place to putter and paint.  I had to ask myself if I was being nosy giving so much attention to what people in my neighborhood have in their garages, but in the end, I decided that I was just noticing what there was to notice, because when the neighborhood “moats” limit how far you can walk and when there aren’t any attractions like yellow metal gates, you notice what there is to notice.

Funeral for a Pine

Dead PineI’m not religious and I don’t mind admitting it.  I’ve never had any meaningful conversations with god or felt any kind of emotion enveloping me when I enter any kind of church, temple, or mosque, be they a small roadside chapel or a huge medieval cathedral.

On the other hand, I can feel a spirit in trees.  I can’t say whether it’s anything really spiritual emanating from a tree or just the incredible ornateness that I see in their trunks, limbs, and leaves.  I think I’ve felt a kinship with trees ever since I was a boy climbing up into their boughs or walking among the ones that grew alongside the banks of the Smoky Hill River near our farm.  With my siblings older and basically out of my everyday life, I often played or just spent time watching the quiet world with trees around me, mostly elms and oaks.

There’s a wonderful grove of live oak and other trees in the triangle near the swimming pool, which I always feel a connection with each time Annie and I walk by.  I have the idea of making a quilt that would be a representation of those trees, but how I can transform pieces of fabric into the spirit of these tress just hasn’t come to me yet.

A couple of these trees were damaged last year by Hurricane Ike, and a great many more wered downed by the strong winds of the storm thoughout the park.  People who live near the park have told me of the loud booms that exploded from a number of huge pine trees when their trunks cracked and broke, finally falling onto the ground.

In our small, Camp Logan Park, which is only a short, couple of blocks from Memorial Park, the trees withstood Ike’s torment, but most of them, for a long time, appeared to be in a kind of shock.  Of course, some had lost branches and had their leaves battered, but they seemed to be reviving during last winter.  Then came the long dry spell this spring.  Several months back, it was obvious that a couple of the smaller trees were dead, maples, I think.  But the other trees seemed to have deep roots, and even though, the grass in the park became dry and brittle, the bigger trees appeared to be doing OK.

Dead Pine TrunkThen about a month and a half ago, the biggest and probably oldest tree in the park began showing brown needles on some of its branches, and little by little the entire tree turned brown, still with hundreds of dry cones attached.  I’m not a dendrologist, so I have no idea why this majestic pine tree died, maybe the dry weather, maybe because of the hurricane, or perhaps some kind of disease.

All I know is an orange X recently appeared on its thick truck, a sure sign that the city soon will come to cut it down.  I know too that the living spirit that breathes out of other trees no longer comes from this glorious ghost.

Post Mortem

It was lucky that I took the pictures of the tree when I did; the tree was cut down the next day (yesterday).  I don’t know what happened to the main trunk but a lot of large branches and limbs are still laying in the ditch awaiting pick up.

Today (October 15th), I counted the rings as best I could and aproximated 100; another park-goer said he had counted 95.  That means that this tree was here when the Camp Logan Riots took place and before this was a residential area.

Even though the tree was big, many of the rings were very narrow.  I took my measuring tape and the diameter of the stump is 4 feet 8 inches at the widest point.  Here, two of the neighborhood Westies, Luke and Lexy, are sniffing out the edges of the stump, which obviously had absorbed a lot of varying types of moisture over the years.Luke and Lexy at the stump

Come Take a Walk to the Park with Annie

Annie Resting on the Bench

Annie Resting on the Bench

Having a dog means walking, or at least, it should mean that. I’m so fortunate that I live within “spittin’ distance” from what I think is one of the nicest parks anywhere, Memorial Park in Houston. Annie and I are out the door, and within five minutes we can be to the edge of the park. For the both of us, there always seems to be something new to see, or in her case, to sniff. This evening she got to sniff, and I snapped some photos.

Here are some of the highlights of our walk this evening.

Bright Yellow Trumpets

Bright Yellow Trumpets

Dwarf Magnolia Blossom

Dwarf Magnolia Blossom

Orange Trumpets Along the Road With the Park Behind

Orange Trumpets Along the Road With the Park Behind

Tiny Purple Flowers with Seed Pods Like Miniature Bananas

Tiny Purple Flowers with Seed Pods Like Miniature Bananas

A Shiny Pot and Palms Near the Esplanade

A Shiny Pot and Palms Near the Esplanade

The Majestic Oak Tree Shading the WOW Roundabout

The Majestic Oak Tree Shading the WOW Roundabout

Flowering Vines Overhanging the Yellow Gate

Flowering Vines Overhanging the Yellow Gate

The Wonderful Century Plant Crowding the Walk

The Wonderful Century Plant Crowding the Walk

Last Christmas Cactus Bloom of the Year, For the Sultry Days of Summer Are upon Us

How do you like my new banner photo? It’s not so easy to take (or find) long, horizontal photos to fit. I’m sure some of you will recognize the jogging trail that goes for three miles around Memorial Park, with the golf course just visible inside. The bluebonnets from the previous banner are already gone but there are still some Indian Paintbrushes and other red posies filling some of the open spaces. They’ll soon be gone too with the heat coming. It was near 90 degrees today, but I’m sure it made it there or higher in some places north and west of town.

My Christmas cactuses have just wanted to keep putting out blooms. I posted earlier about some coming way after Christmas. Then just this past Saturday I noticed that the red one and the yellow each had a single bud. With the heat, they opened quickly. The red one has already dropped off and the yellow one is going fast. This evening it’s already starting to fold up. It looks white but is a shade of pale yellow.

Pale Yellow Christmas Cactus, May 7, 2009

Pale Yellow Christmas Cactus, May 7, 2009

I have a tiny little fuschia plant that I was given more than a month ago with a few flowers already in bloom, but they didn’t last. These plants usually don’t take the heat here, but this little plant is staying strong with sprinkles of water every day, and now is just full of buds. I hope they open soon, and if so, I’ll share a photo here.

A Walk to the Park with Annie

Bougainvillea and a Mailbox

Bougainvillea and a Mailbox

Annie and Azaleas

Annie and Azaleas

On This Side of the Path

On This Side of the Path

What great days we have been having here in Houston since I got back from Colorado–nice clear afternoons with a cool breeze. Annie and I took our walk through part of Memorial Park, starting out just at 5 PM. In my pocket, I carried my new little camera (Nikon Coolpix S230) to try it out on some of the sights we might see.

Flags Behind the Fence (Yes, I know they're irises, but we always called them flags on the farm.

Flags Behind the Fence (Yes, I know they're irises, but we always called them flags on the farm.)

Color Pops

Color Pops

Bluebonnets–Blankets of Color in the Texas Spring

Checking Out the Bluebonnets

Checking Out the Bluebonnets

Last week I put up a new banner photo, but I didn’t mention where it’s from. Actually, during a rain shower, I jumped out of my car and took a few shots of the bluebonnets on the esplanade on Washington near the entrance to Memorial Park.

It’s the time of year for bluebonnets (the state flower), which grow wild in the meadows of Texas, especially in the Hill Country around Austin. For a few weeks each spring, these elegant sprigs pop up with rows of miniature “bonnets” on them, producing a lush blanket of blue along roadsides and in the adjoining pastures.

Getting a Good Whiff

Getting a Good Whiff

These days, many Texas roadsides are seeded with bluebonnets and other native wildflowers, which all started with the Highway Beautification Act of the 1960s, a project spearheaded by then Lady Bird Johnson, wife of a Texan, President Lyndon Johnson.

A Burst of Color

A Burst of Color

Today I went back to the esplanade with Annie to try out my new digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix S230, which I just got yesterday to replace my old one, a Canon Powershot S410, which had started having lens problems, making every photo look psychodelic. I had been holding off getting a new camera, using the still setting on my JVC Everio Camcorder, but I’m glad I got it. The best thing about it is that it has a touch-screen menu. Actually, that’s not the best thing; the best thing is it’s easy to use. I figured out how to take both still shots and video and get them loaded onto the computer the first day! I have to say that I never really understand how to use all of the functions of the Canon.

(Here’s a little video I took with the same camera.  As you can see, it took lots of coaxing to get some of the other shots.)