San Benito’s Lali’s Café is a classic choice

South Texas Flavor

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Lali’s Café in San Benito offers daily specials, like the chicharron and egg plate with refried beans. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

SAN BENITO — The specials on the wall catch my eye so quickly I don’t even ask for a menu.

Instead, I tell the waitress who immediately comes to my table at Lali’s Café that I would like the chicharron egg plate.

I know I’m going to like Lali’s before I walk in because it is on a quiet street at 267 W. Robertson. The stillness and the austerity of the street on this Sunday afternoon reminds me of the places I knew in Corpus Christi decades ago.

I don’t see anyone on the street, but Lali’s is in a building that stretches down a section of West Robertson and has space for two or three other occupants.

Along this wall farther down from Lali’s a sign reads, “Welcome To The Historic Birthplace of Conjunto Music.” It’s on a white wall over burnt umber arches and ornate iron work and there are tiles and this again invokes memories of the small Mexican towns and parts of towns in my youth in Corpus Christi and Laredo and Alice and Robstown.

Even more nostalgic: the metal shell of a phone booth. And I feel as though I’ve wandered into a living museum of South Texas of many years ago.

And so I walk into the diner at Lali’s and the lack of diners surprises me. This seems more like the place where locals like to begin their day over a familiar breakfast and perhaps a quick lunch during a busy workday. But this is Sunday afternoon, so this was probably not the time to enjoy the activity of the clientele.

But, it is the right time to simply enjoy the quiet and the peace and the calm of a slow afternoon with my chicharron and egg plate. It’s a good time to reflect with few distractions.

Those who understand me know I seek the unassuming and the austere. I like the simple for its lack of pretense. The simplicity and the austerity of this place is grand and powerful and much appreciated for the way it soothes the senses and allows for deeper reflection of life’s complexities.

This is a classic South Texas place with it’s layered personalities, the South Texas earth colors and the tiled floors and the local music and the crucifixes made of ornate iron work. For some reason, sitting here, I’m remembering visits to vegetable and fruit stands and it seems like I’m in Robstown or Alice. I don’t quite understand the connection, it’s just a very South Texas feeling.

My meal arrives and it is very good, with warm corn tortillas which are larger than the tiny ones I find in larger places. I enjoy my crunchy chicharrons with the egg and tortillas and take my leave.

The following morning I arrive and find only one table filled and I think I must have missed the breakfast crowd because the food is very quick and the staff capable and ready. There are more breakfast specials on the wall: oatmeal, rancheros, migas and egg, taco papa one egg.

Lali’s Café in San Benito makes a fine migas and egg plate. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

This time I request a menu, more for the curiosity of the menu itself than for actual food choices this morning.

The previous day the waitress had spoken to me in a very clear Spanish that I could understand with ease and I appreciated the opportunity to use my Spanish without getting hopefully lost in all the rapid-fire syllabics coming at me.

This morning a young and pleasant waitress speaks to me in English and there’s the ease of familiarity. She says the rush hours are usually around 9:30 a.m. and then about 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. So, I was right, this is a very popular place for the locals to share stories of the old times and the young families to bring their children. I’ve just missed it, that’s all.

As I look over a most impressive menu with kids’ plates and chicken fried steak and rib eye and pork chops, a young couple walks in and sits behind me and while I’m looking at the menu the waitress brings them plates of breakfast burritos and I realize I’m taking too long and I ask for barbacoa.

I have not had barbacoa in quite some time and I look forward to having some again, but the waitress comes back very quickly says she is sorry but they ran out of barbacoa already. So I think their barbacoa must be very good and it’s not a bad thing that there is no more barbacoa because this Valley favorite requires many long hours of preparation. It is not something that can be quickly ordered and “whipped up” like eggs and bacon.

So, I choose instead the migas and eggs, which is listed on the daily specials. A few minutes later I have another fine breakfast plate of good food and eggs and potatoes and ranchero sauce, and a warm cup of coffee.

Lali’s Café is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.