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Customers call out their orders while pushing a plastic tray down a cafeteria line, then experience the thrill of watching somber cooks assemble the tacos, burritos and other indelicacies on a plate. The plate is then shoved into one of the four commercial-grade microwave ovens behind the line. Don't groan: This is how a lot of local Tex-Mex cantinas operate. Don Chilito's simply puts it all out in the open.
The menu essentially hasn't changed since the 1970s, though the prices have failed to stay the same. The Fiesta dinner, $4.95 in 1979, costs a stout $10.59 today. Customers still use metal tongs to snatch up their own corn tortilla chips — or sugary sopapillas — from the "chip bar," with its selection of indistinct salsas. The dining room is a maze. "Just keep walking," a friend instructed as I balanced my tray and looked for a place to attempt ingestion. "You'll wind up somewhere."
Don Chilito's has remained a neighborhood staple for years, and people seem to love or hate the place, leaving no middle ground. My friend Bob, who grew up eating here, adores the place and believes the Tex-Mex creations are delicious. Another friend says dining here is appealing only if he's stoned. "The Juarez Plate is especially delicious in an altered state," he insists.
Me? I find the booths uncomfortable, the noise level unbearable and the food unmemorable. On my last visit to the restaurant, I bought three boxes of Girl Scout cookies from owner Barry Cowden's granddaughter. They were the highlight of the meal.
I don't know any restaurant in town that has more passionate — and stubborn — customers than Sharp's, the gay-friendly, family-friendly home-style diner in Brookside. Owner Marty Junkins has hired at least two chefs over the past couple of years and charged them with updating the menu. Both times, regulars staged a revolt and succeeded in having the exiled dishes restored within days (and those upstart cooks are long gone). I'm on the record as one who detests the dish that seems to be the fulcrum of these little revolutions, a water-chestnut soup that's tasteless and grainy. It exerts a rapturous hold over people I otherwise trust, as does the space itself.
"It's like Cheers," my friend Troy says. "Everyone knows your name!"
Yes, Sharp's is a friendly place. But what good does remembering my name do if the servers don't get my order right? In my experience, this was the case more often than not, though the service has improved greatly over the past year. The food? No. The breakfast offerings and sandwiches have never left me swooning, and I have yet to find a dish on the dinner menu that I even want to order.
But I'm clearly in the minority. My midtown neighbors find the place to be warm, comfortable and cheery. (It's reportedly getting a stylish makeover; I'll believe it when I see it.) "You have to be a hateful old queen not to love Sharp's!" snapped an acquaintance when I complained that I just didn't find the place all that lovable. Hand me my crown.
I'm told that disliking YJ's Snack Bar, the excruciatingly hip dive in the Crossroads District, shows similar bad form. It's not fair to judge the place as a restaurant — it's meant to be a hangout — but I don't hang out when I want to eat. I don't have the patience. Yes, I've met a few interesting people here, but the eclectic space is small enough to induce claustrophobia. I can't get to know the latest cool artistic type if I'm sitting on her lap, looking for the emergency exit.