Only have a minute? Listen instead
HARLINGEN — On a slower part of town away from the busier places sits a restaurant that can appear invisible by its permanence.
I don’t know how long Alicia’s Mexican Restaurant has stood at Commerce Street and Jefferson Avenue, but I believe I have driven past it many times. And yet, up until now I have been only vaguely aware of its presence, because its permanency has made it familiar, and the familiar can often disappear into the greater landscape.
But this afternoon as I drive past Alicia’s, something moves me to look again.
It’s the cars. Cars in the small parking lot. Cars on the streets. Cars behind the restaurant. Cars across the street. Why have I never previously noticed the cars? Because they have always been there. Not the same ones, of course, but lots of cars.
Like Alicia’s, they are not fancy cars, they are not extravagant cars or expensive cars. They are the cars of the working man, the retired man, the lady who knows the owners and staff and has known the owners and staff for many years. They are the cars of people who know exactly what they want before they enter Alicia’s – and so do the owners, the waiters and the help.
Alicia’s façade shows this is a restaurant for the everyday folks, the neighbors next door, the grandparents and the parents and the grandchildren.
“Lunch Specials Everyday. $6.50,” read bold and colorful letters on the restaurant’s façade. “Breakfast Specials, Lg. Taco. Agua Fresca – sandia, melon, pina, horchata…”
I park across the street because the parking lot around Alicia’s is full, and I wonder what sort of crowded dining room awaits me. But inside, I find a large and refreshing dining area with plenty of tables taken and plenty available.
“Take any seat you want sir,” says a man with a receipt book in his hand. I take a booth against a wall and review the small menu. It’s not an extensive menu, but it’s a fine and an interesting one that lists specific plates for each day. The waiter, who I believe is named Rigo, knows it by heart.
“Calabaza con pollo, beef enchiladas, enchiladas verdes or carne guisada or fideo con pollo or fideo con picadillo,” he says at my table.
I say fideo con pollo, and he asks what I’d like to drink. I say water, and he says, “You sure? The drink comes with the meal, you can have Sprite, Dr. Pepper – ‘”
“Dr. Pepper,” I say.
He takes my order, and I think how good it is to sit in such a small and simple place with such an expansive dining room. There is a sort of charming and indeed refreshing incongruity about it all, with the design appearing to have been placed piecemeal over the succession of many years in accordance to the spontaneous inclinations of whoever might be in a position at the moment to add his or her own touch to the design.
My booth has burgundy upholstery covered with a cream-colored cloth, and the brown walls with the chipped paint and the paintings of sunflowers and calla lilies and a porpoise rising reveals its authenticity, because authenticity necessarily can be present by the lack of pretense. There is nothing pretentious about Alicia’s. The restaurant is genuine, authentic and real in its presence and fidelity to customers.
Dried decorative flowers and bundles of straw on the walls, panels of burgundy, lime and yellow and the blue tiles in the ceiling assure me that this is a place of reflection, history and the continuity of things. I find this a sort of little time capsule of how restaurants have looked and lived and breathed in years’ past, and diners can step into this eating establishment and live and feel the history.
In only a few minutes Rigo brings me a huge warm bowl fideo con pollo, a delightful meal packed with flavor that I appreciate very much. The cook has served this fideo with generous servings of chicken that quickly fall off the bone, and it’s all rich with seasonings, vegetables and all things good and fabulous.
A young family with a little girl with a pink bow takes the booth behind me. A man in beige shorts and white starched shirt walks slow and haltingly, and as I leave I see Rigo cajoling with some familiar customers.
“You’re the owner?” a woman says with a smile.
“No,” he answers, “I’m the janitor.”
And they all laugh and talk about the wondrously simple things in life that make all the complications and insanities of life all worthwhile.
In the morning, I eat breakfast, and the place is so alive with people. I get a large – a meal-sized large – taco with chorizo and egg. I eat slowly so I can watch the people at the nearby tables.
Three men at a table laugh and talk loudly and one slaps the other on the shoulder. At the next table a man with strong and bony hands taps on a smartphone and then presses it to his ear between his thick gray sideburns and the gray hair falling across his black shirt. An older fellow walks in with a paper and a group of what appear to be Winter Texans speak of the news of the day.
But one of the men at the table where three men sat now speaks to the gray-haired fellow, who then speaks to the fellow with the newspaper. Then as the Winter Texans leave one of their companions who does not appear to be a Winter Texan speaks with the man with the paper in local Spanish.
As I finish up I’m reminded of the jingle from the sitcom “Cheers,” which goes something like this: “Where everybody knows your name, and everybody stays the same …”
And that’s how it should be anywhere and anytime.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the waiter’s correct name.