Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Who's Got Time For This?

Santos Cafe
603 Isom Road
(in the corner of the shopping center, at the intersection of Ramsey)

There is, obviously, a tremendous demand for Tex-Mex food in San Antonio. Within a block of Santos Cafe, for example, there are two other, similar restaurants I'm familiar with: one, a block away toward the freeway, is something of a favourite, the other is across the street, a place I went to once and didn't much care for. And a couple of blocks down Ramsey is yet another, a slightly exotic cucina veracruzana.

So the people opening Santos Cafe must have known they would have competition for the dining dollars of the residents and workers of the area. Unless they believed that three Mexican restaurants in the space of 400 feet was simply not a sufficient density (and, let's be honest, a case can be made for that), they must have had the idea that something they had to offer would lead diners to choose Santos over the other three nearby restaurants.

I don't know.

My friend Rick, who usually accompanies me on these little culinary expeditions around town, met me at this place for a late breakfast or early lunch, about eleven yesterday morning. Santos is conveniently located in between my house below Hildebrand, and his out in Loopland. (That's why the place a block up the street has become a semi-regular place for us to get together.)

Tucked into the corner of the shopping center, Santos is deceptively large inside. So surprising is the size of the main dining room that the word "vast" actually came to mind, but that would be an overstatement. It's a large room, well-lit and painted in a bright, typically Mexican colour, somewhere between orange and terra-cotta. The tables are nicely separated, so I suspect that, even with the hard floors and furnishings, a little white noise or canned music over a P.A. system would be all that's needed to create a sense of privacy in a crowded room. But I can only speculate on that, because at eleven A.M. on a Monday, we were the only customers there.

Last city inspection: November 2011
12 demerits
There were at least three employees, two waitresses and at least one cook. This place seems to do a lot of take-out business — while we were there, several people called to collect trays and trays of food. We chose a table at the farthest point from the kitchen (because there was a TV on the wall in the small dining area there, and I've had my fill of too-loud telenovelas and the kind of sleazy cable shows that seem to be all the rage during those hours of the day (not, I suspect, because people actually watch them, but because they're cheap to produce)). We had more than enough time to settle in, inspect the surroundings, note the pleasant, inexpensive traditional rustic landscapes on the wall, and form an initial impression, before the waitress appeared with menus and took our drink orders.

I decided on the chilaquile plate, a departure from my usual order of one machacado taco and one chilaquile taco; they were out of machacado anyway. Rick asked for fajita tacos, his usual order. We got our drinks — coffee and water — promptly and our orders were taken. 

And then nothing happened. We sat, lazily discussing the unexciting events that had transpired in our lives since we had last seen each other a week before; the tribulations of Rick's bathroom remodel, my own do-it-yourself version of the same (almost finished, after a mere nine months). We each groused about medical conditions and petty marital discords, and about the general lack of excitement in our lives — the last exciting thing was when we went in together on 20 lottery tickets, and didn't win — but eventually we ran out of things to make light conversation about. 

Okay, here's the thing: I can understand that the kitchen might be backed up, what with all those large orders to go. What I can't understand, though, is the inactivity of the two waitresses. Our waitress, in the ten or fifteen minutes we waited, never thought to come with a coffee pot, to refill our cups and explain the delay. The other waitress seemed like a satiric caricature of a waitress — in fact, she reminded me of the sassy dark-haired waitress on the uninspired sit-com, Two Broke Girls, but with less sense of duty. The second waitress sat behind the counter, talking on a cellphone and doing something to her hair, almost the entire time we waited. She looked at us at one point and I thought, Oh good, she's seen us, she'll bring us some more coffee or tell her colleague. But no, nothing. She had thoughts only for her hair and phone.

When the food finally came, it was good enough. The fajitas were well cooked and nicely seasoned, and the chilaquiles, made without eggs in a style more reminiscent of Mexico City than Coahuila y Tejas, were interesting and well made (most restaurants that attempt chilaquiles in this style seem not to know when to take the tortilla chips out of the fryer; whoever's in Santos's kitchen does know). The rice, which I had asked to substitute for potatoes on the plate, was better than average, possibly because it was so early in the day and it had not had time to dry out at all; while the refried beans were, well, soup-like. The had little flavour and way too much time in a blender.

San Antonio, God bless it, is a pretty laid back place. Visitors from Dallas and Houston often are amazed at the slow pace of life around here. They should be: in those cities, only the very rich and the unemployed ever have a relaxed lunch, it seems, but we take our more serene pace as a birthright. Yet there is such a thing as too slow. And if it happens when there's a 1-to-1 ratio between floor staff and customers, what must it be like when the place fills up?

I don't want to know.
Santos Cafe on Urbanspoon

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