Tex-Mex a la Lincoln Heights

Café Salsita
555 E. Basse Rd.
7am-3pm Mon-Sat; 8am-2pm Sun
Credit Cards
Entrée price range: $6.25-$14.95

Along with cloth napkins, there are roses on the tables at Café Salsita — real ones. There’s art on the walls, too, an inventive, er, chandelier in the lofty ceiling space, and furs on patrons during the recent cold snap. This is not your normal neighborhood Mexican joint.

But wait — maybe it’s just not your normal neighborhood. The Village at the Quarry also houses Paesanos and numerous upscale shops and offices, and it’s within hailing distance of a golf course and homes and condos of high-net-worth inhabitants — many of whom seem to know one another and the friendly staff. The family that runs Café Salsita has clearly figured this out, right down to the pats of butter served with the house-made tortillas.

Given the circumstances, it would almost seem that the popular chile de arbol sauce that gives the place its name would be a stretch, but no; its fierce color notwithstanding, the fiery chiles have been tamed to a slow and subtle burn, and the chopped onion adds desirable texture to an otherwise blended sauce. It’s a walk on the wild side with police escort. Feel free to use it on almost everything. Including the breakfast plate of decorated chilaquiles served with cubed potatoes and refrieds. Every Tex-Mex restaurant has its own notion of the distinction between chilaquiles and migas; at CS the migas are the less-tricked-out version of this how-to-use-stale-tortillas classic. Cheese, tomatoes, and chiles are part of the eggs-scrambled-with-chips chilaquiles at CS, and if the sliced green chiles are not exactly abundant, the chips remain crisp. But with a little salt and salsita — also on the fried potatoes, which are sauce magnets — this makes for a supremely satisfying breakfast.

In an age when salsa has overtaken catsup as the country’s condiment of choice, and chipotle chiles are so popular that even McDonald’s has adopted the name for its upscale spin-off, it would seem that calmed-down ’quiles are perfectly poised to take over simple scrambled eggs as well. Breakfast tacos, which to my knowledge haven’t yet made it big in white-bread middle-America, are another potent tool in the take-over arsenal, and here CS has a full complement of candidates — with the expected exception of scary versions such as tripitas and chicharron. (Barbacoa is as bold as it gets.) The house’s large and good flour tortillas make for a well-stuffed package just slightly more difficult to manage than an Egg McMuffin, but potentially much more satisfying — assuming my potato with chorizo model (with added salsa, of course) is par for the course.

Call me an ingrate, but I was surprised and even a little offended at the large dollop of piped whipped cream that came atop the (very sweet) hot chocolate I had ordered with the taco. Too gringo … or just gringo enough?

House-made corn tortillas — which are often not served when you’d most expect them — are another ironically luxurious touch at CS. Fragrant and moist, they are very good indeed and are another obvious vehicle for salsa. (I draw the line at butter, however.)

But we shouldn’t forget that there’s a second salsa, a more typically San Antonio table-type, and it packs a punch of its own. (Sides of salsa verde and salsa naranja are also available.) Also good with the corn tortillas, I alternated the salsa roja with the arbol on a special lunch plate of tamales (from Rudy’s, a family connection.) My choice of one each, pork with jalapeño and chicken, came politely pre-shucked (R.I.P, Gerald Ford), were generously stuffed, and satisfied but didn’t thrill — perfect mass-market potential, in other words. In contrast, the super-savory a-la-charra beans, which cost an extra buck with this plate, are more than worth the supplement. Bacon is the bait, I suspect. There’s lots, and Middle America will love this, too.

Grilled pork chops and chicken breast, broiled fish, and shrimp nachos are all options at CS, but in search of more- rather than less-Mex, I picked the pork in a sauce of cascabel chiles; it’s a dish with a borderlands look but little of the expected brashness and bluster: the sauce was hardly hot, tasted floury despite being thin, and didn’t invite mixing with the standard Spanish rice. Though the pork itself was fine, this is not yet a front-line dish in the inevitable invasion.

Continuing with the reconquista theme, Salsita’s signature enchilada plate could be a prime player in the putsch. Really enchiladas no-muy-chiladas, they’re opulent in the layers of melted yellow cheese, gravy with picadillo, tinted tortillas, and filling of more picadillo with potato. They satisfy America’s need for cheese on everything are ample to a fault … and they are not in the least bit challenging. There’s not even the addition of the chopped raw onion that distinguishes the take-no-prisoners South-Texas classic. I submit, however, that if this plate is to become part of mainstream America, the accompanying salad and guacamole will have to be punched up. Half of America probably did  guac in one form or another for the Super Bowl, so Salsita’s needs some work to make it stand out.

Flan isn’t yet apple pie in its ubiquity, but there are enough forms of the dessert from different culinary cultures to make it familiar around the country. Sopapillas, on the other hand, have expansion possibilities: they’re puffy fried dough served with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and a side of honey. What’s not to like? Café Salsita’s are good enough to share, and don’t even need the honey. But this is America; go ahead.

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