Still, I was stumped at Chelly's Café, where a dish of sliced steak cooked with bacon, peppers and mushrooms is given both its proper Mexican name, alambres, and, in parentheses, the word skew. Skew? Like on a skewer?
No, said the waitress, shaking her head. She kept shaking her head when I asked if the dish was like a stew.
"It's a steak," she said, smiling beatifically. "Skew steak."
Later I asked the chef, Ruben Campos -- who owns the restaurant with his wife, Chelly -- to tell me what a skew steak is.
"It's a mistake on the menu," he said. "It wasn't printed right."
Oh. Skew that. I tried to get the actual name of the steak, but I was only half-listening and later swore that I heard cruise steak, which at least sounds kind of jaunty. The dish formerly known as skew, by the way, is pretty tasty, all smothered with melted cheddar and Jack cheese and folded inside a warm flour tortilla. I don't want to skew your opinion, but it's one of the better dinner combinations at this low-key south-side restaurant, where one can order all the traditional Mexican-American dishes (tacos, burritos, fajitas) as well as a "Fantastic Burger" (two kinds of cheese, three beef patties, Thousand Island dressing) and a Louisiana-influenced concoction called Jambalaya à la Everything.
This restaurant location, tucked between a pet clinic and a tax service in the Santa Fe Center, has been a culinary à la everything over the past few years. Two years ago, it housed a combination Japanese steak house and Chinese restaurant called the Suki Restaurant and Lounge. When that closed, the owners changed ethnic direction and started offering a lunchtime Mexican buffet.
Ruben and Chelly Campos don't offer a buffet or use the wooden dance floor, where the steam tables used to stand. They do hire musicians on Friday nights, but they don't play dance music, Chelly says -- "just soft guitar music so people can eat and talk."
It's a big place -- 120 seats -- much larger than the restaurant of the same name they used to own in Grandview with Chelly's brother, Miguel Cervantes (before some kind of disagreement ended that partnership, according to one of the servers). Ruben told me he's thinking of reopening the Grandview location (which closed in January), because a lot of that restaurant's clientele have been driving north to this newer Chelly's on the weekends. Friday and Saturday nights get so wild here that the bar area becomes a holding pen, a veritable mullet-o-rama of Chelly chasers sipping margaritas and mangotinis (made with mango-flavored liqueur) while waiting for one of the tables to open up in the lemon-yellow and raspberry-pink dining room.
The place is strictly no-frills (paper napkins, plastic tumblers, no tablecloths; even margaritas are served in water glasses), though I've seen some local power brokers in the joint -- including a wealthy financier, eating a burrito and reading The Wall Street Journal -- along with a rogue's gallery of regulars, including the fattest couple I've seen outside of a circus sideshow. They were greedily shoving tortilla chips into one of this restaurant's signature delicacies, guacamole dip, which must not be confused with ordinary guacamole (the kind made with mashed avocado, lime juice and cilantro).