Chow, Baby: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Cooking with Gas

If you overthink about it, chefs and mechanics have a lot in common. They’re both exceptionally attuned to detail. They have an intuitive grasp of what goes with what. They’re often annoying in their perfectionism, but the results are enjoyable. And they’re very good with their hands. Chow, Baby’s cooking pals aren’t particularly into cars, but the mechanics of its acquaintance do appreciate good food, particularly good Texas homecooking.

That’s why Chow, Baby was troubled, on its three recent visits, to spy not a single sewn-on nametag or greasy fingernail among the diners at Vickery Café. After all, this stretch of Vickery between Montgomery and Clover Lane is lined with garages and parts shops, a restoration mecca. There’s lots of car talk in this neighborhood, but not at this neighborhood diner. (The “café” in the name is just fancy talk. It’s your basic griddle-breakfast and plate-lunch spot.) Why is that?

Must be the disappointing chicken-fried steak (lunch plates $4.99-$5.99, with two veggies), which Chow, Baby was able to cover with one hand — that may fall within dietary guidelines, but not within Texas standards. And mechanics get enough burnt grease without having to taste it in the batter. The “cream” gravy tastes 40-weighty. The mashed potatoes are (gasp) from a mix. The lameness of this dish — not a one-time glitch, as Chow, Baby and companions forced it down on two week-apart visits — is baffling, considering that everything else we tried was good to great. On one visit the beef tips were lukewarm, but had a nice slow-cooked richness. The catfish plate is marvelous, with a light and crispy cornmeal crust. Vegetables (other than the mashed) are fresh and hearty, with the buttery hominy a stand-out. The hey-hon friendly waitresses are holdovers from Burdav’s, which occupied this spot for some 30 years, and new (since April) owner John Pendergrass makes the rounds with a smile. Maybe if he tunes up the chicken-fried, the megabucks that the Chowbabymobile owes to Steve’s A-1 Foreign Car Parts will coast down the block to Vickery Café.

Outside Box, Inside Strip

Chow, Baby’s job is easier when restaurants fit into neat little sound-bitey categories. Espinosa’s Family Mexican Restaurant is not cooperating. It’s both authentic Mexican (mole sauce rather than chili con carne) and terrific Tex-Mex (sizzling fajitas). It’s beautiful inside, with a peach and mint color scheme, comfortable booths, faux Mayan wall decorations, faux flower-covered trellises, ceiling fans, and huge windows. Unfortunately, the view is of the other shops in “The Crossing,” at Grapevine Hwy and Precinct Line Rd in North Richland Hills — new, clean, and classy, but still a strip mall.

At lunch Espinosa’s offers Mexican Inn rates ($5.25-$6.25) for homemade chips and salsa and a large plate of fresh-cooked, hot and satisfying enchiladas, tacos, chalupas, or (especially recommended) chimichangas, with rice and refried beans. But off the lunch-specials menu, the tariff climbs rapidly. And that’s Chow, Baby’s perhaps unreasonable prejudice: It doesn’t want to pay Oscar’s or La Playa Maya prices to watch people drive up to Kroger’s. Chow, Baby categorizes Espinosa’s as a marvelous lunch spot but will hold out for dinner at a stand-alone.

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