Mary Lou's classic Tex-Mex has weathered the changing South Side
Pleasanton Road is a fascinating study in urban archaeology, a sliver of the geological stratum of local businesses, some fossilized, some barely hanging on, others transformed to meet the challenge posed by changing demographics. There are places such as the fondly remembered Pan American Restaurant that have survived through change (the expanded building is now a medical clinic), and there also remain shells of once and former taquerias and tortillerias. In this context, Mary Lou's Café stands out as an apparent success story. It has expanded since its opening in 1983, and an addition with cantera columns, bright colors, neon accents, and arty posters (from Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera to photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo) seems audaciously avant-garde in context.
It's this unexpected decor (and perhaps the full bar) that prompts Mary Lou's claim to be a "café contemporaneo," for the food is entirely Tex-Mex traditional - despite the fact that the cook's name, Pepe Lechuga, appears on the menu.
No black beans appear on the Nachos Camachos, for example; they're quasi-individual and, aided by chunky, standard refrieds and a decent picadillo with chunks of potato, they're very good. The top-shelf margarita with Jose Cuervo Especial that I paired with the nachos was smooth enough but lacked the bite of freshly squeezed lime juice, at least in the proportions I prefer. So far it's tradition 2, fashion 0.
The gordita plate I sampled for lunch was classic all the way as well. Both chicken and beef models are available, and the chicken wins hands down, despite a debilitating dampness that caused structural failure (the filling fell through the bottom of the crisp and just-greasy-enough gordita.) In contrast, and unlike the nachos, the picadillo was cooked dry (a form many favor, admittedly) and required a dash of the mean, green table salsa to be of much interest. Comino-laden rice (an observation, not a condemnation) and refrieds amply flavored with fat accompanied the gorditas. Respectable corn tortillas completed the package. (When they're house-made, the choice is a no-brainer.)
Mary Lou's also claims an "ambiente musical," and that may be more assertively the case in the evening; this investigation was carried out at a succession of lunches and to the tune of pleasant-enough Mexi-pop background music. Much more than pleasant were Pepe's enchiladas verdes, filled with generous chunks of well-flavored chicken and topped with a tart, coarsely textured tomatillo sauce that deserves special mention. Go easy on the sour cream for a variety of reasons, the least of which is calorie consciousness.
Less impressive was a daily special of grilled carne asada - a generous portion but too heavy on the onions for this observer. (Tucked into a flour tortilla with more of the green salsa, the overpowering onions were tamed a tad.)
Perhaps the next incarnation of any café contemporaneo will return to everything-old-is-new-again roots. In celebration of which, be sure to pick up a package of hojarascas from the Perez Street Bakery on your way out. The barely sweet, simple, traditional cookies melt in your mouth just as they should. Think of them as Mexican madeleines, at least in the things-past sense. •