By Lisa Sorg
We were in the middle of our mango when the rain moved in: Lightning bolts stretched across the east like spider veins; arching thunderheads blackened the salmon-colored sky; the wind kicked up, beating the streamers that hung around the outdoor canopy.
"There's going to be a lot of rain," said a woman seated a ways down the metal bench.
On a recent hot July night, Los Valles was the place to watch a Texas thunderstorm. At the busy corner of Zarzamora and Nogalitos where it turns into New Laredo Highway, this outdoor frutería and taquería on the South Side is the choice spot to watch the world go by. Air Force jets split the clouds during a training exercise; a truck carrying watermelons idles at the stoplight. Red to green to yellow, all day and all night.
"I've been wanting to come here for a while," added the woman. "But the lines are so long."
Inside, workers wearing rubber gloves briskly slice mango and melon, cantaloupe and pineapple, trying to keep up with the demand for fruit cups. When the glass window slides open, it's your turn at the nectar, and a rush of cold, sugary air seems to coat your skin.
"Fresas?" asked another woman in line.
"No, no fresas," replied the counter person.
Yes, they have no strawberries, at least not tonight. It is a rare fruit cup that includes strawberries, and they're usually gone by lunch. But don't be deterred: For $2, you'll receive a cup brimming with tongues of melon, cubes of pineapple, petals of mango. Add a few dashes of chile and salt, plus a dousing of lime juice: This is ambrosia, food of the gods.
"We come for the brisket," said the woman on the bench, as thunder rolled in from the southeast. "They cut it up in little pieces and mix it with cilantro and onion."
And it's cheap: Tacos are a buck apiece; enchilada plates, $3.99. Throw in a fruit cup and you'll pay no more than $6 for a meal.
The price, the fruit, the crowds, the ambience: Los Valles has outgrown its eight metal benches and must expand. Although the frutería will remain an outdoor walk-up business, the owners are adding an indoor restaurant on the back, and its exterior walls are painted with vibrant murals of mountains, Indians, eagles, streams, and birds.
By the end of the evening, the tables are littered with the remnants of a day's worth of eating: guest tickets, lime rinds, empty 16-ounce Mexican Coke bottles, and paper plates. The storm loomed closer. Lightning seemed to envelope us. We flinched, remembered we were sitting on a metal bench, and then hustled to the car and went home. •
By Lisa Sorg