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Right at home in Hot Wells

Release Date: 2009-09-09

Since I moved into the tail end of the Lavaca neighborhood (oldest residential ’hood in SA!) at the beginning of June, I’ve found myself increasingly spending more time in the dusty, umkempt neighborhoods of the near South Side. I love the small-town quiet, the absence of restaurant and coffee chains, the sense that time has passed on by and deadlines and pantsuits are as pointless as moon buggies and camels. From the old Hot Wells ruins, downtown’s distant skyline looks unchanged (that is: you can’t see the cluster of economy hotels sprouting like pimples on a teenager’s chin, or the indistinguishable new-construction condos). The tiny cabins at the Johnson Motor Court have a new coat of paint, but look otherwise undisturbed.

Daniel’s Café on South Presa is another welcome throwback: a homey kitchen that serves excellent diner-style Tex Mex. Solid red and green-and-red striped tablecloths brighten up the economical dining room, which is generally filled with all-ages families and work crews on break. A carved wooden sign with the restaurant’s name hangs over the entrance to the kitchen, and Zapata glares from a poster on one of the walls, which are painted in contrasting colors. The staff is more than friendly.

But I’d be addicted to this place even if it were a crank-filled dump. The refried beans are really refried, and made with that magic percentage of lard that contemporary cooks have forgotten (and diners prefer not to know). They often arrive with a telltale brown griddle mark; lighten them up with the spicy salsa verde and smear them on the warm corn tortillas, which are of the sturdy, smooth variety. Chips are served with warm, homey ranchera salsa that has the depth and sabor of a good chicken soup. Ranchera sauce blankets the excellent chilaquiles, which arrive as layers of thick, fried chips and fluffy fresh eggs. Yum. Skip the bacon if you measure your cholesterol (I’m afraid the pretty caramel barnacles and corkscrew curls mean it’s deep-fried, but I’m not asking). Do save room, though, for a chorizo con huevo taco, which has just enough egg to hold together the spicy, vinegary sausage, and radiates a perfect greasy orange halo. A healthier option, in context, is the asada plate — a tender, flavorful skirt steak the size of an actual skirt (OK, miniskirt), with big chunks of fresh avocado and the usual sides.

My regular dining companion says Daniel’s milanesa is maybe the best in town, but I haven’t worked my way past breakfast yet, and with dessert-like pancakes to keep the kids happy on weekend mornings, I expect it’ll be awhile before I do.

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