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Ain’t No Sunshine: Sublime Tamales Oaxaqueños Brighten Up Chela’s Tacos’ Newest Location 

click to enlarge RON BECHTOL
  • Ron Bechtol
It was a dark and stormy day. Well, grey at least. And threatening. Whatever, I wandered into the new Chela’s on North St. Mary’s in search of some soupy solace. There at the order counter was a sign suggesting Crazy Fideo. Disregarding the fact that this should not be translated, “fideo loco” being a much better name, I ordered a large. I got a small.

Chela’s Dos is a kinda cheerless place, suggesting opening before all the chairs were aligned on deck. Yes, the table tops with copper pennies embalmed under epoxy are there in homage to the ’09 location, and there’s a bar area (the bartop also gets its share of Mr. Lincoln’s profiles) — though I find it hard to imagine actually drinking there, despite $3 happy hour drafts and a special that includes street tacos. But the impression is one of sparseness. Still, a good soup soothes many ills, and the fideo was good. Thick with plump noodles and generous with its ground beef, carrot and potato, it banished at least some of the drab-day doldrums.

It was also grey and windy on my second visit, but I was over the brooding poet bit. Got right down to work with a “Chela’s Favorite,” Taco Reyna. This is a kitchen-sink-like affair — well-lubricated carnitas mixing it up with rice, black beans and not quite enough serrano and pico de gallo on a tender, homemade corn tortilla. I don’t have to have it again, but it must be admitted that at $4, it almost makes a comforting meal on a blustery day.

The enchiladas de mole merit a little more pondering. Made from scratch, as Chela claims of hers, mole is an arduous process demanding multiple chiles, myriad spices, toasting of tortillas, nuts and seeds, and much stirring and simmering. In most large Mexican cities, supermarkets offer mole pastes in tubs. Green, red, black, yellow, brown, they’re all there to make life easier, and to intrigue with their subtle differences. There’s little subtle about Chela’s dark and stormy mole; the impression is of mordant and almost bitter-black coffee. There’s a burnt edge, tempered by a little molasses-like sweetness that almost makes it work for me — but in the end, not quite, despite tender chicken and the needed relief of queso fresco and toasted sesame seeds. Unusually pale beans are strikingly so in contrast to the mole.

As an add-on to that order, I took home two of Chela’s tamales Oaxaqueños, a package that wouldn’t be harmed by reheating. If you order nothing else here, make sure you have these. Banana leaf wrapped and the size of a small torta, these are not your tía’s tamales. A goodly amount of well-seasoned masa encases chicken, pork en salsa verde, veggies, or rajas, your choice. The puerco version is particularly fine, the tender meat playing nicely against a piquant green sauce and the faint perfume of the steamed banana leaf. Coming in a respectable second, the rajas de chile poblano rendition might have benefitted from a little robust, melty cheese hidden within. It was also fine without.

I’m not sure what’s going on between me and Chela, but the third visit was also grey — and a little rainy. I found myself wondering if the space would seem at least a tad cheerier on a sunny day, but I may never know. I’ll also never know why Chela didn’t rename the classic breakfast scramble “Chelaquiles.” It seems so obvious, especially as the plate is personalized by strips of crisply fried bacon. As a version of standard chilaquiles, though, it’s good, not great. I prefer the tortilla chips more integrated into the egg, but that’s just a quibble. Reasonable, wrapped flour tortillas accompany the eggs topped with a scrim of melted cheese and chips and flanked by more of those pale (“whole”) beans and cubed, fried potato. Cubed potato exists primarily as a base for salsa, so slather on the color of your choice. In fact, drizzle it everywhere. There, now that’s cheery.

Chela’s Tacos
3420 N. St. Mary’s Ave., (210) 267-1511, Accessible
Hours // 7am-3pm Tue–Wed, 7am-8pm Thu–Sat, 8am-3pm Sun
Cost // $4-$12
Best bets // tamales Oaxaqueños, “crazy” fideo, chilaquiles
The Skinny // Chela’s on St. Mary’s is an expanded version (there’s also a bar) of the often-crowded Alamo Heights original but lacks its tightly packed charm. The classic tamales Oaxaqueños remain the same, however; they’re to be ordered even if you don’t know this banana-leaf-wrapped rendition. Try the pork in green sauce. Everything else has been tolerably good but not exceptional. Perhaps consider the raft-size Costra de Chela with its grilled cheese topping a slab of tortilla and, say, carnitas and pico de gallo. The sheer audacity of it should get your attention.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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