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Thomas and the onion rings

The unexpected make what would have been a flat trip to Jacala something to come back for

Release Date: 2002-04-04

I've devoured two whole onions and at least a cup and a half of flour in the last week and, to tell the truth, I've enjoyed every bite. On Wednesday it was Jacala, Friday night Good Time Charlie's, and Sunday afternoon Gruene's Gristmill. (I've since heard that the best in town come from the Tip-Top Cafe, which may require another field trip.)

This informal random sampling of South Central Texas' onion rings started with a chance order on the West side and continued through Easter weekend along the Guadalupe. In deference to the religious holiday, the scientific method and objectivity were not employed for this culinary survey. But neither would have made a difference: While the Gristmill's came with the best view, they were previously frozen and perfectly, uniformly bland. Good Time Charlie's serves up a mean plate but, considering the burger-and-fry reputation of the Broadway eatery, they should have been a helluva lot meaner. The unexpected, out of nowhere winner, rings down, looks like the city's oldest, family-owned Mexican restaurant Jacala.

A stand out from the tortilla- and queso-heavy menu is an order of onion rings ($4.50). Next to the Jacalitos (the restaurant's signature nachos with chicken, $5.65) or one of the four other takes on nachos ($3.90-6.15), the thick slices of green-veined white onions with a lightly-clinging and savory, crunchy crust were nearly out of place with the rest of the appetizer entries, but sorely needed. The rings, an original recipe from 1949, were an oasis in a sea of smothered snacks, keeping us afloat with a dollop of ketchup on the side. (Trying to create our own Tex-Mex sensation, we tried sour cream, guacamole, and salsa with the onions and discovered there's a reason Heinz doesn't sell "sour cuacamolsa.")

While we leisurely gorged on the appetizers and waited for our plates of puffy tacos and fajitas, a bejeweled woman made her way from table to table, asking, "Would you like to hear a song by the mariachis?" Somebody finally bit, and in that dining room (there are three separate rooms and an outdoor patio), the band played a song I never heard — it involved a lot of hand clapping.

And Thomas, our attentive, guayabera'd, one-step-ahead waiter: Instead of bringing out the main dishes at whiplash inducing speed (most of our neighbors were tucking into their tacos within 10 minutes of arriving), he held off the short order chefs while we picked over the remaining flecks of rings. Only when we leaned back and sighed "whew" did he ask if we were ready for the rest.

So why go on about an order of onion rings and a waiter at this West Avenue institution? Because the rest of our meal wasn't worth writing about.

Jacala may be San Antonio's oldest family-owned restaurant, but it's not sentimentality that keeps people coming back for the standard Mexican fare. The food is inexpensive and filling. While the trompe l'oeil bricks and ivy summon visions of eating along the River Walk rather than West Avenue, the entrees are strictly tourist grade.

The $6.95 margarita — Cointreau, Jose Cuervo 1800, lime juice, and a maraschino cherry for color — wasn't bad and went down super smooth, save for an initial gasp from the fumes.

The meat on my mixed fajitas was a little dry, the sliced peppers less than perky, while the bean-and-cheese puffy tacos (Jacala's first entrée when they opened in 1949) were chewy and fried like they should be, but a bit too thick and greasy for my vegetarian dinner date. A coworker thought they were a good late night snack.

With a final bill of $32, though, and a doggie bag big enough to choke a Great Dane, complaining about so-so cheese and meaty refried beans seems rotten. So let's not, and instead give Thomas a big pat on the back; when we go back for some after-work margaritas and onion rings, I hope to see his cranberry sport shirt coming our way.


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