I was dipping a tortilla chip into a bowl of con queso sauce ($3.75) -- a puddle of melted cheese, cooked spinach, and peppers -- and trying to sing the "Frito Bandito" lyrics to my 8-year-old goddaughter, who looked at me as if I were completely insane. The Frito what?
It's been nearly three decades since the last of those commercials for Fritos chips featuring the Tex Avery cartoon "bandito" aired on the tube. The mustachioed bandito (who looked a lot like actor Wallace Beery playing the Mexican rebel in Viva Villa!) was judged to be culturally insensitive and dropped from the ad campaign. But I wasn't the only Baby Boomer adding the goofy TV lyrics to "Cielito Lindo" (which is a tragic ballad, DeLeon explained to me later). At the next table, a balding man was singing the same tune. I know it seems difficult to believe, but 30 years ago, when the Frito Bandito popped up between episodes of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family to sing about the virtues of those salty Fritos corn chips, there wasn't a Taco Bell on nearly every corner. If you wanted Mexican food, you either made it at home or went to a cozy little family-run restaurant.
Los Chavez, named for its owner, Bobby Chavez, is just that sort of restaurant. If the place weren't smack in the middle of Johnson County, Los Chavez could easily pass for one of the noisy, lovable family-owned joints along Southwest Boulevard, not far from where Bobby Chavez grew up. But his own business is miles away from the Boulevard, on a stretch of land known to Johnson County natives as "Old Town Lenexa" because many of the buildings on the street date back to the 19th century, including the structure that currently houses Bobby Chavez's namesake restaurant.
"It was built as the stables for the Lenexa Fire Department," says Chavez, tapping his foot on the restaurant's wooden floor. "You know what's under this floorboard? The original dirt and gravel floor. This building goes back to 1895."
Despite the building's long history, today it looks like just about every other Mexican-American restaurant in town: neon beer signs; uncloaked tables with salt and pepper in containers that look like Corona beer bottles; tortilla chips in red plastic baskets. What sets the place apart is the food: mildly spiced, fresh-tasting, and moderately priced dishes served in huge portions. By 7 on a Friday night, hungry customers are already waiting outside or are huddled in a tiny area in front of the bar for a table. They watch the seated customers gobble down big plates of enchiladas and tamales and bide their time. It won't be long before they too are swilling a cold margarita, dipping a chip into the sweet "hot sauce," and listening to Michael DeLeon sing the ever-popular "La Bamba" for the 20th time.
For years (after the horses moved out of this old stable), the building has been fragrant with the scent of cooked peppers and fried beans. Chavez moved his restaurant from a teeny room on 95th Street only four years ago; before that, this building housed the original Panzon's Restaurant, then an Irish pub that served Mexican food, and later still a place called The Whole Enchilada. Chavez and his family came in, gave the place a fresh coat of paint and a couple of tasteful murals done by a cousin of Chavez from Mexico, and started cooking up burritos, tacos, and refried beans -- the stuff Americans have come to know as Mexican food.
Sophisticates don't always agree: Such dishes as tacos and cheese-covered enchiladas "do represent some of the basic foods in Mexico," writes Diana Kennedy in The Art of Mexican Cooking, "in name only -- they have been brought down to their lowest common denominator north of the border, on a par with the chop suey and chow mein of Chinese restaurants 20 years ago."
But whatever its heritage, Los Chavez serves up a luscious bowl of spicy chili con carne, thick with cooked pork and fried beans ($6.45) and eaten with folded soft flour tortillas. Most of the other dishes served here, such as potato enchiladas or chile rellenos (which must be ordered in advance by phone), were adapted by Chavez; his wife, Therese; and their son, Bobby Jr., from recipes passed down from Therese's great-grandmother Pasquala Hernandez, who was of both Spanish and Mexican heritage.
Who cares that most of the dishes here are inspired by such peasant fare as the Santa Fe Tacos ($8.95), flour tortillas filled with fried potatoes and fiery chorizo sausage, deep-fried, and dappled with lettuce and cheese? On the Kansas plains, where "peasant" food was rib-sticking farm food, such as fried chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes with gravy, the love of hearty regional cooking -- no matter the region, be it Sicily or Guadalajara -- has never gone out of style. And in a part of the United States where the corn really does "grow as high as an elephant's eye," a tamale cooked in a fresh corn husk, thick with masa and chunks of pork in a tangy mole sauce, seems as all-American as the cold diet cola with which my dining companion washed it all down.
At Los Chavez, the cooking is done with a discreet hand on the peppers and spices. Dishes here aren't bland, but the fire is subdued. The smooth, lemony-tasting guacamole ($3.75) has only the merest hint of cilantro, a dazzling herb that I love but no one else at my table could stand. And my young goddaughters, their palates shaped by too many visits to McDonald's, demand the plainest versions of any dish. A taco must be free of any spice, any sauce, and even lettuce. The kitchen was accommodating, even on a busy weekend night, although I wound up eating the plain tacos myself: The girls were lured away by a snazzy-looking candy machine at the restaurant's entrance and ate lollipops instead.
No matter. After I had happily wolfed down my own Santa Fe Tacos, a couple of soft and satisfying potato enchiladas, a few nibbles of chili con carne, and a lot of guacamole, I ate their tacos and Spanish rice too. I gave the kids a buck and asked them to bribe the strolling guitarist, who had just launched into the mournful "Guantanamera," into singing the more upbeat "Walk Like An Egyptian." The little brats double-crossed me and asked DeLeon to sing the Christmas song "Feliz Navidad" instead. He did, and not one person in the dining room looked up to question why. Later DeLeon told me that he gets lots of strange musical requests from customers, the most frequent oddball choice being "Stairway to Heaven."
"But I can do Freddy Fender's 'Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,'" DeLeon said brightly, adding that he performs only on Friday and Saturday nights and that his most-requested Latin number is, unsurprisingly, "La Bamba."
DeLeon is one of the few people working in the dining room who aren't related to Bobby and Therese Chavez. In addition to Bobby Jr., there are aunts and uncles and cousins and even Bobby's 75-year-old mother, Margaret, who oversees the kitchen. The ambience is a kind of relaxed chaos. The servers run around with hot plates of food or cold pitchers of beer, and the customers range from suburban families with gaggles of high-strung toddlers to skinny, heavily tattooed art-student types, all with pale skin, vibrantly dyed hair, and amazingly big appetites.
My appetite was pretty amazing too. I blushed the color of a ripe chile pepper when I realized how much food I had actually polished off between that first tortilla chip and the third rendition of "La Bamba."
"Dessert?" the waitress asked as I pulled myself away from all the empty plates at the table.
Dessert? Aye yi yi.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or email@example.com.
Los Chavez Mexican Restaurant13424 Santa Fe Trail Dr., Lenexa, Kan., 913-859-0300
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10
p.m.; Sat., 5-10 p.m.
FOOD: Three Stars
SERVICE: Three Stars
ATMOSPHERE: Two Stars
OVERALL: Three Stars