The word has gotten out, I guess, about the small adobe building on the “wrong” side of the tracks where some of the best enchiladas you’ve ever had — not to mention one of the best chili burgers you’ve ever let drip to your elbows — are being served.
The small business was an instant hit with our extended family in 2008 after it was recommended by our West Texas friends. Its name was easy to remember; it’s the same as that of our niece.
Last summer, on our annual trek to the Big Bend, we found that this small restaurant was largely taken up by the kitchen. A counter with about six stools in front of a row of three tables was sufficient to handle its clientele. Our foursome found an open table, and any concerns we harbored about the rough physical condition of the facility were dispelled when we saw seated next to us the retail businessman who had talked about the Brownwood area with us at his store a day earlier.
“This is where the locals come for lunch,” he said with a grin as we squeezed into the close quarters. Eating-in was not what this place was all about. Primarily, customers would phone in orders to be picked up at the drive-by window, where traffic was non-stop.
Then, as now, two young women — one wearing an athletic jersey from the town’s high school — were scurrying from the kitchen in front of the counter to tables carrying plates heaped with food, or paper bags with an evitable grease stain — stopping as they passed to pick up the phone which rang almost constantly. Behind a swinging door, a grandmotherly woman with a pleasant but determined look could be seen preparing a succession of orders.
This year, though, we found that the restaurant had doubled in size. A room had been built on the side of the original structure, allowing owners to add a dozen additional booths plus restrooms.
Our family had eaten there earlier during our trip this summer, but it was impossible to sample everything we wanted. My wife and I decided to make one last stop for lunch — just the two of us — after others had headed home. We elected to sit at the counter, rather than take up a booth with space for four at their busiest time of day.
This year, we saw more diners like us — out-of-town tourists — and other folks you wouldn’t expect to find in a working-class, out-of-the-way neighborhood that has been been totally ignored by the “Sell This House” and “Surprise by Design” crowd. Sure, there was no shortage of blue-collar workers and cowboys — real cowboys — but as I said, word about the food here had gotten around to out-of-towners too. “Texas Monthly” made mention of it this spring.
The couple who stepped through the front door just after we were served our meals probably figured no one there would know them. I certainly didn’t, but my wife said she recognized the man as someone who has a professional position in Abilene. They were visibly confused about the seating process. They looked for guidance from the busy staff, but they were too involved with their tasks.
I told them to take a seat somewhere, and the waitress would find them.
But they looked uncomfortable with the situation. They balked at sitting down at a table, and with a grimace seemed to dismiss a fleeting notion of saddling up to the counter. While they mulled the situation, a group of people who appeared to be locals slipped in behind them, and took the only vacant booth. I was unable to see the man’s reaction, but the woman appeared somewhat indignant. She frowned. They chatted. They turned and walked out.
Of course, less than two minutes later, another booth came open. I doubt the couple had had enough time to get to their car, buckle their seat belts and turn the key. But I had a sense they were relieved that fate had handed them a whisper of an excuse to seek out a chain restaurant where a vivacious hostess would greet them, the menu would be familiar and they would pay at the table.
It was a small incident, to be sure. But it was a good reminder that when you are traveling, you punish only yourself when you refuse to explore what’s unique about the places you visit, and fail to adjust your expectations to include some surprises.
The advice attributed to St. Ambrose in the fourth century applies now more than ever: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You’ll never know how good those enchiladas you missed truly are.
Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.