Mary Lou's has come of age quickly. When I saw the large (for the area) building going up in the retro-chic quasi-blighted section of McCullough as it passes through Olmos Park, I thought, This place will never make it. I was wrong; not for the first time, but one of the few. Mary Lou's has worked out all the kinks of a new restaurant, and is on its way to excellence. Maybe because it's descended from an established place on the South Side, and combines down-home Tex-Mex cookin' with North-Side glitz in a way just far enough over the top to be amusing instead of tacky. It even seems to be sparking a slight gentrification in that area; even the car-wash next door has had a facelift.
I first went there about a year ago and was only moderately impressed. In my memory, the service seemed vague, the food merely good, the prices a tad higher than they should have been, and the décor ... absurd. The colours were all right for a Mexican place, maybe shaded just enough to clash, and the hangings were a mix of Victorian cat-house and Tamaulipas pulquería, with the odd neon beer sign thrown in. The floors are marble; why, I don't know. The seating in the main dining room, unlike a bayou farmhouse, seems too small for the room. A line of high-backed benches down the middle gives a visual hint of romance and intimacy, but the space is so vast, and so noisy, that there is precious little of either.
I don't know that any of that has changed since that first visit; I suspect there have been minor revisions, because the place no longer seems so irredeemably outré; but maybe I've just grown inured to it. In any case, I've discovered that what appears to be a bar, off to the left as you enter, makes a much more comfortable dining room in which to enjoy the excellent food on offer here.
I took a friend that I haven't seen in a while -- you can't swing a dead cat in this town without hitting one of those. She ordered a carne guisada plate that must have been cooking for days, the meat was so incredibly tender. The seasoning of it was somehow out of the ordinary, in a way I can't identify. Not so fantastic as to warrant the sobriquet "extraordinary," but remarkable enough to exceed the faint praise of "ordinary." My dish was beef fajitas asada. Preparation and presentation were both on the high end of the quality scale. The beef was cooked just to the ripe edge of perfection, with a bit of a crust starting to form; and the onions and peppers were browned to as fine a point.
The side dishes are what holds Mary Lou's back from that last half-chili-pepper. The rice was better than average but nothing special; the refried beans my friend had were unremarkable, while my borracho beans were above-average but not outstanding. There was just a sense of intentions unrealized about them, as though someone had laboured long and hard over a fabulous recipe, only to have it mishandled in the execution.
On the plus side, the corn tortillas here are excellent. The flour tortillas are merely good. The tostadas, too, were unexceptional, while the salsa was flavourful, with a hint of roasted pepper to it, and a good texture, but a tad more cilantro than I think is necessary.
The service was excellent, very much better than on any of my previous visits. The prices are still slightly higher than your average Tex-Mex lunch spot, but they're not out of line with the competition in the area. If they were, I suspect that this place, in this odd location, would not have lasted this long.