Friday, May 13, 2011

Just a Little Better than Average

Las Pichanchas
450 Fredericksburg Road
(at Colorado Street, near Five Points)

There are probably more than a thousand small Tex-Mex restaurants in San Antonio, many of them, like this one, open for breakfast and lunch. There are probably fifty such places within half a mile of Five Points, catering to the local lunch trade. Most of them are run-of-the-mill, tacos and enchiladas the way mamá used to make them. You could probably try a different one every day for months and not have a single really bad meal. (You would, though, put on ten or fifteen pounds, unless you spend the rest of your day digging or swimming or doing something else that requires a lot of energy. Judging from the folks I see at local eateries (and in the mirror), not many of us are doing that kind of work.)

And if you run one of those thousand small restaurants, it's really tough to make yours into any kind of a destination. You have to do something better than the taquería on the next corner does; you have to be cheaper, or more convenient, or more welcoming, or you have to make your food better somehow.

Las Pichanchas does some of that, in small ways, which is why it's become a local success. It's one of the larger Tex-Mex places in the area, yet when I visited before the lunch rush peaked, it was hard to find a seat. And not just local workers were eating there: residents of the area were there with their children. Lots of them.

Most people who eat there probably walk over. I say this because the parking lot could never handle as many cars as it would take to carry that many people. And yet, even though it was the one very rainy day of 2011 (so far), I had no trouble parking right in front. 

The interior is done up in typical Tex-Mex-Restaurant style: walls of various brilliant hues that might lift the soul of tus padrones but would cause grinding of teeth among the Architectural Digest crowd. (There's a point for Las Pichanchas.) A few pictures on the wall, nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, the only intriguing thing about the place is the sign over the women's restroom: "Enter at your own risk." I maybe should have asked about that....

The waitresses are all dressed alike, in what seem to be an approximation of parochial girls'-school uniforms, guaranteed to upset Sister Mary Rose: too-tight white blouses and too-short plaid skirts. But the customers don't seem to mind. Maybe because, well, how can I say this tactfully? I can't, I guess. The waitresses are effective and friendly and capable, but Catholic school girls they ain't. The management's odd clothing choice for its staff seems intended to emphasize a lewdness that the personnel, thankfully, lack. As a result, it makes for a tacky look, whereas, if they just dressed normally, they'd likely appear reasonably attractive. 

The food was good, as was the service. Particularly noteworthy was, believe it or not, the salsa that was placed on the table when we arrived. It seems to be a blend of salsa picante and chili con queso. Whatever it is, it's delicious, and deserves better than the chips served with it, which weren't particularly bad, but were far from what they could have been.

Last city inspection: February 2011
20 demerits
My lunch partner went with enchiladas verdes; he got a plate with good Spanish rice and refried beans, and two well-made chicken enchiladas, topped with a good salsa verde and more sour cream than was absolutely necessary. (Can there be too much? Probably, but not here.)

I, on the other hand, went for chili relleno, one of my customary favourite Tex-Mex dishes. It came with the same refried beans, which were good enough to be ordinary, and the same Spanish rice, which was a little better than ordinary, and unlike so much Spanish rice in restaurants like this, had not been sitting around on the stove long enough to dry out. The chili relleno itself was done with journeyman quality: stuffed with a reasonably good picadillo, coated in a tasty egg batter, and covered with enough cheese to give it what it needs in the way of flavour and texture, without being profligate. The plate was also host to a larger-than-expected lettuce and tomato salad, which struck me as being unusually fresh. Drizzled with some of that delicious salsa and tucked into a flour tortilla (I ordered corn, but got flour, I guess because I'm a gringo and everybody knows gringos always want flour tortillas), it makes a nice accompaniment to a good meal.

It would, in the end, have been so easy for Las Pichanchas to come out even better in my evaluation: Had the chips been fresher, or thinner, or crispier, or in any way superiour to what one accepts as ordinary, maybe there'd be another half a chili pepper there. Had the waitresses not been dressed so peculiarly, maybe there'd be another half a pepper on the ambiance rating; had I gotten the corn tortillas I'd asked for, instead of the (good but not great) flour tortillas, there'd almost certainly be another half-pepper on the service rating. 

But as a place for a quick, tasty, reasonably-priced Tex-Mex lunch, it's probably the best place around Five Points.
Las Pichanchas on Urbanspoon

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