Pause the journey at Doña Carmen’s in Los Fresnos

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Pictured is the Plato del Jefe at Doña Carmen’s Restaurant in Los Fresnos. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

There’s the flashing of a sign across the dining room where the people and the meals fill the tables.

“Plato del Jefe – Especial del Dia!” says the sign and I know that will be my meal on this Sunday afternoon at Doña Carmen’s Restaurant.

I know I have passed Doña Carmen’s at 407 W. Ocean Blvd. many times on the way to South Padre Island but I have never acknowledge it. In fact, I’ve never really given notice to any of the restaurants along this road, being so focused on the destination but never considering the journey. I realize now I have not given as much attention to the journey as I should have, so I’m glad I’ve stopped today at Doña Carmen’s.

“Anywhere you like,” says the woman at the cashier waiting inside the door.

Music to my ears.

I choose a booth against the far wall. Although the restaurant is quite full — most of the tables are taken — a waitress immediately places a menu before me and asks what I would like to drink. I request water and coffee. She brings it quickly and I drink it slowly.

The menu is colorful and designed very well to attract attention to the different listings for breakfast and lunch. House specialties offer Rosa’s Plate with Mexican enchiladas and fajitas and sauteed potatoes. Nancy’s Plate comes with three tomato enchiladas and black beans, and the JP Plate comes with chicken fajita and sausage.

I like this personalization of menu items. It reminds me of Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant in Harlingen, but I’m here in Carmen’s in Los Fresnos and I’m wondering who are Rosa and Nancy? They must certainly be very special to have a plate named after them and I think I would like to meet them. And JP? Who is that? Justice of the Peace?

Hmmm. I like these restaurants and their menus that intrigue my curiosity about the simple and the complex.

Another waitress takes my order for the Plato del Jefe and I have time to enjoy the freshness and the optimism of Doña Carmen’s with its upbeat music and the horns and the squeezebox and the strong tenors.

When I first enter Doña Carmen’s almost all the tables are filled with an interesting mix of both Winter Texans and locals. Now the restaurant has emptied, and I think the lunch rush is over. I don’t like eating in an empty restaurant but that is not my choice, so I make the best of it.

Making the best of it at an empty restaurant is not hard to do at Doña Carmen’s. This is a very organized place with walls white and shining and slate stone walls and artificial greenery in small pots on wooden ledges. The walls are covered with the bright colors of Mexican dishes and it’s all a fine and pleasant place to be.

I’m scribbling away in my planner and sending messages and planning my week and the waitress brings my plate and I look up and I see to my happy surprise that the emptiness has been filled again by a second lunch crowd and it is nice to see.

I have my plate before me and enjoy a fine meal of barbacoa, chilaquiles, scrambled eggs, refried beans and potatoes, in a restaurant filled with an afternoon crowd of diners.