Mary Lou has got her quirks, that’s for sure. The first of them is the warm sauce that comes with the house chips — if you get chips, that is. On my first foray, none were served at all, leading me to believe that, heresy of heresies, she had elected to jettison this birthright of San Antonio diners. I searched the menu, but no, none were listed a la carte, either. Fine, filling up on chips was never a good idea anyway, I thought by way of consolation.
So, imagine my surprise when a large basket appeared at the outset of visit number two. Imagine my further surprise when I discovered that the chips were made from flour tortillas and that the salsa was thin, warm, oniony, and flavored with bay leaves. Perhaps compelling over time, but very odd for newbies. (A more conventional green salsa is available, but you have to be a regular to know that.)
Nowhere on the menu is there mention of Mary Lou’s original location on Pleasanton Road, and the pricing at the new McCullough location ($9.50 for a plate of carne a la Mexicana) has a nuevo-Northside feel to it (the menu includes a $210 bottle of Dom Perignon). But despite the swell finish-out of the new space (paying for marble floors may explain the lack of lunchtime pricing), Mary Lou has managed to hang onto an essential element: flavor.
Tangy and zesty are not words this reviewer uses with any regularity; too Rachel Ray … but they were the words that came to mind upon tasting the enchiladas verdes. The tomatillo sauce is exceptional, the chicken wrapped in tender tortillas is full of flavor on its own, the rice and beans more than dutiful, knee-jerk companions. The shades-of-brown plate that is carne guisada, the defining Tex-Mex dish in the minds of many aficionados, may be less appealing visually, but the cubes of meat are tender, and the pepper-flecked gravy is not overwhelmed with comino — in short, it’s a worthy defender of the tradition.
The cubes of beef that compose the guisada plate are big and loose enough to suggest serving with a side of dental floss. The meat that makes up the carne a la Mexicana, on the other hand, has been chopped to the same size as the onion, tomato and chiles that are stir-fried with it. The composite flavor isn’t bad, but the balance of ingredients seems seriously off. Yes, there are many dishes in which meat is merely an accent, but this shouldn’t be one of them. Even the diner attempting to avoid tortillas is forced to make use of them just to get enough pieces together to taste. This is not the burden it might be if the tortillas were indifferent. I’m not among the many who have touted Mary Lou’s tortillas as the best in town, but the corn version is certainly delicate and lightly fragrant, the flour models appropriately blistered and flexible. But do give me carne that still has some cojones; I’ll bring my own floss, if need be.
Breakfast is served until noon at Mary Lou’s, and it does include the requisite tacos, along with huevos rancheros, chilaquiles (really migas, but I suspect I’ll have to give up on that distinction), and chorizo con huevo. Nachos are listed under especialidades; it’s a category that includes caldo, menudo (“always fresh and nearly greaseless”), and fajitas. (Yes, also chicken; I’ve long abandoned that fight.) As a plate of jumbled nachos is a personal pet peeve, I was amused to see the Nachos Camachos listed as “Twelve individual chips topped with beans, beef, and cheese.” Well, almost. The chips, once again, are flour, and the beans had more or less been individually smeared on them. But the beef is actually a quite good picadillo with potato (the same picadillo fills the nearly greaseless gorditas), and the cheese, of course, might as well be Velveeta, but hey, that’s part of the elusive charm of Tex-Mex. Lots of sliced jalapeños were served on the side, just as they should be. And if the flour chips did tend to get slightly soggy by the time the entrées arrived, then perhaps we didn’t really need to eat all of them anyway — though we might have had we known about that secret salsa. Salsa solves all problems — unless it’s warm, oniony, and flavored with bay.
Mary Lou’s Café
4405 McCullough Ave.
THE SKINNY Mary Lou’s Southside roots show in the kitchen’s devotion to full-throttle flavor, but marble floors and bottles of pricey bubbly at the Northside incarnation may strike some as odd partners to plates of lengua
DON’T MISS The excellent enchiladas verdes
HOURS 6:30am-10pm Mon-Thu; 6:30am-11pm Fri & Sat; 6:30am-3pm Sun
PRICES Entrées $5.25-$9.50