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The Cantu is a Tex-Mex prodigy

Mario Cantu was a legend in his own time. His eponymous restaurant on the near West Side, now the site of the downtown UTSA, was a Tex-Mex icon, and the photos of the Mexican revolution adorning the walls only added to an air of cultural and political exoticism. Cantu’s emigration to Paris (where his restaurant garnered the coveted Baguette d’Or) and his subsequent return to a much more modest place on the far West Side further reinforced his elusive intrigue. But all of that aside, it was his mollejas a la plancha that firmly fixed Mario in my mind as a Tex-Mex titan; crunchy yet almost creamy, they were transcendent.

A selection of Tex-Mex delicacies from Tito’s, including cilantro-cream enchiladas, front, and a toreado asada, left, a torta of grilled, seasoned jalapeños and onions, topped with asadero cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Grilled sweetbreads are on the appetizer menu at Tito’s in Southtown, and it may be no coincidence that Tito Cantu is a nephew of the late, lamented Mario. Unfortunately, this Cantu finds it hard to actually serve them. They were unavailable the night I placed an order, and a subsequent conversation with an employee suggested that it might be a while before that act is ready for prime time. Ditto the mushroom and chorizo antojito, por falta de hongos. All of this lead to the fall-back order of a Botana Grande platter, which made me miss Mario even more.

Guacamole, flautas, quesadillas, and loaded fajita nachos comprised the package, and the crisp, fowl-filled flautas took the, er, cake. After the addition of salt, and lime retrieved from my almost bitter but refreshing michelada (beer with Worcestershire, Tabasco, pepper, lots of lime, and a salted rim), the fresh and chunky guac was good, too. Unfortunately, the two-cheese quesadillas — of the quartered, gringo-style, toasted-flour sort — were yawners, and the fajitas had been omitted from the nachos.

Maybe they were saving them for my Gabriela’s Favorite plate, a combination of fajitas and shrimp enchiladas. I hope Gabriela likes her fajitas a little more tender than those we were served, but she’s right to be fond of the forthright beef flavor. She apparently also likes her enchiladas spicy -perhaps too much so; the shrimp and tomato overwhelmed the mild cream sauce and white-cheese topping. Despite a kind of knee-jerk Nuevo Tex-Mex attitude, the chipotle-cream enchiladas, sampled at lunch one day, were a somewhat more winning package, the smoky-hot sauce working well with an unusually robust chicken filling. Most successful of all, however, was a modest plate of lengua en salsa, an absolutely perfect marriage of tender tongue stewed with onion, tomato, and a hint of chile. If you taste one dish at Tito’s, make it lengua. It may change your mind forever about meats many of us never eat.

But if you’re worried Mario’s mantle wasn’t passed to the next generation, we need to back up to the breakfast and lunch menu. It’s there you sense Tito’s has the makings of a neighborhood institution with a taste and ambience all its own — no need for comparison to personalities passed. Let’s start with the corn tortillas: They are tender, perfumed with corn aroma and flavor, and, when warm, so good you’ll want to wear them. A plate of machacado con huevo showcased the often-times dry and chewy beef in a moist and tender preparation with tomato, onion, and chile. This is the model on which all such plates should be based.

Tito’s Mexican Restaurant
955 S. Alamo
212-TACO (8226)
6am-9pm Mon-Sat,
6am-2pm Sun
Credit cards
Price range $5-10

Breakfast tacos ordered from the fancy side of the section (there’s also an early-bird $.99 selection) were huge and encased in fine, flexible flour tortillas. My migas with cheese featured freshly fried tortilla “shreds” that supplied a satisfying crunch, indicating that the kitchen knows migas and chilaquiles are not interchangeable. The Niles Favorite with bean, cheese, bacon, and avocado (wachale, Niles; these are deadly) was a majestic combination of smooth textures and unctuous flavors contrasted with crisply fried and fabulously fatty bacon. Never again, but once was an excellent indulgence. So, too, was a noontime Toreado Asada, a torta on an almost passable bolillo surrogate stuffed with carne asada, grilled jalapeños, onions (the toreado), and shredded lettuce with chopped tomato — oh, plus more two-color cheese shavings. Fortunately for the torta, jalapeños aren’t as hot as they once were. Either that or I’ve become way too acclimated since those early years at Mario’s. No pressure, Tito, but work on the mollejas.

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