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).
I made that mistake one night with my friend Jeanne, who nearly screamed when the pale-green, creamy puddle arrived. "That is not guacamole!" she said, shoving it back in the direction of the waitress. The discombobulated server explained that we had mistakenly ordered the guacamole dip, made, she said, with "lots of sour cream." Jeanne waved it away, laughing at my comment that it looked like a recipe my mother might have clipped out of Ladies Home Journal in 1964. We got the real stuff -- unadulterated by sour cream -- and it's vastly superior.
I'm only guessing here, but that hypothetical issue of Ladies Home Journal might have been the place where Ruben Campos found the recipe for his distinctive dipping sauce for the basket of corn chips. Not exactly a salsa but a vibrantly flavored cilantro-and-tomato soup served in little plastic cruets that can be poured into individual china bowls. My Guatemalan-born friend Carmen found the sauce to be "perfectly ordinary." She went on: "And served cold, right out of the refrigerator! I mean, really! And the chips should be warm!"
Carmen was not entertained by the restaurant's funky charm (or our server's highly dramatic painted-on eyebrows), but after glancing at the menu, her interest was piqued by the pineapple-jicama slaw that accompanies many of the dishes.
I was curious, too, and when our dinners arrived, I eagerly snagged a forkful of the crunchy, slightly vinegary cabbage-and-jicama creation, dappled with bits of chopped, fresh pineapple.
"Too sweet," Carmen said, pursing her lips. "It needs more vinegar and salt. Then it would be perfect."
I was more enthusiastic about the dish, which was a nice counterpoint to the peppery Santa Fe Chicken Burrito I'd ordered for dinner, a hefty stuffed tortilla crammed with chopped chicken breast, roasted corn, peppers and onion. Carmen liked her chile rellenos, which "had a kick to it," she said, poking her fork into the nicely seasoned ground beef under the dark-green poblano chile coated with an almost invisible papery egg batter.
Jeanne and my friend Bob had ordered combination plates, the kind you request by number rather than by name. Though they'd ordered different things, both dishes looked exactly alike, covered with bubbling cheese and accompanied by mounds of orange-colored "Spanish rice" with green peas and corn kernels mixed in. It was colorful, but Bob detests rice. Jeanne, after giving the stuff a wary once-over, at least made a brave foray at sampling it. I'm not pea-phobic, so I ate a lot of it, though it was as flavorless as any Chinese fried rice (which is also typically riddled with defrosted peas). Not that I cared, since in my opinion rice and refried beans are little more than starchy plate fillers. Happily, the dinners at Chelly's don't come with refried beans but a big pile of flavorful, off-stewed pinto beans, which are fabulous eaten solo or scooped up with a corn chip.
The following week I returned to Chelly's with my chain-smoking friend Greg, who cast a cool eye around the restaurant and its clientele. "Too many kids, too many bad perms," he said, blowing smoke through his nostrils. He took a swig of Tecate beer and ordered a cheese quesadilla. Before the waitress could step away from him, he coughed and snapped at her: "Does your rice have peas in it?"
She nodded, and he went ballistic. "No rice, damn it. I hate peas."
He's not that crazy about other vegetables, either, but he admired the artful presentation of the vegetable quesadilla I had ordered as an appetizer: thick triangles swirled with a squiggle of chipolte mayonnaise and bursting with eggplant, peppers, onion and zucchini. It was delicious.
"Would you like to try one?" I asked.
"Crap, no," he said, lighting up another cigarette and scowling back at the nonsmoker at an adjoining table who was staring daggers at him. He then exhaled in her direction and smiled malevolently. "I like this place."
When dinner was served, Greg gulped down his cheese quesadilla (after assuring himself that there were no peas stuck in the melted cheese) while I lingered over the paper-thin slices of carne asada, grilled steak, heaped with sautéed onions and green and red peppers. The meat was tender and mildly spiced. Folded inside a soft flour tortilla, it made the most luscious kind of finger food. By the time I finished, Greg was impatiently looking over the dessert selection.
"You don't have flan?" he asked.
The waitress blushed and said, "No, we have sopaipillas. And fried ice cream."
It all sounded wonderful to me, but Greg grumbled. When the server walked away from the table, he whispered, "And I'll bet it all has peas in it."