Las Cazuelas in Harlingen a fine Tex Mex Restaurant with good food

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Las Cazuelas serves a great carne guisada. (Travis M. Whitehead/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — There’s a power in the presence of age, in the continuity of the past extending into the moment with an anticipation of tomorrow.

Las Cazuelas at 314 S F St. between Tyler and Harrison avenues many times has that power in its antiquity, its vitality, its continuity, and in the consistency of its migas, barbacoa and caldo de res.

I know of this consistency not because of my many visits but by the crowded parking lot throughout the day. The only way to have such a clientele is through the consistency of these distinctly South Texas flavors. The service is immediate and welcoming, and this morning the hostess invites me to choose a table for breakfast.

I take a booth, and the scrapes and the marks in the heavy wooden table with the yellow tiles invokes a reflection of time and the generations that have moved in and out of Las Cazuelas. The restaurant’s legacy dates back at least to the 1940s when Phil and Helen Edie purchased the establishment from a Ms. Porter and began serving diner food — burgers, chicken fried steak, etc. — as Hi-Way Inn.

The location has maintained its place as a fine place for finer food. It has experienced many makeovers through the years, and today it’s a well-established Tex Mex restaurant called Las Cazuelas. The wall running past my booth is covered with feathered dancers, abstract motifs in sharp jagged strokes, and fire spewing from a god’s mask, and these distinctive Mexican colors and their images connect the Tex Mex presence with its parent culture in the southern places.

My waitress brings me a menu, a coffee and a tall glass of water, and as I look through the listings I think for a moment of the restaurants in Saltillo, its neighboring cities in northern Mexico and then more closely those I have loved so much in Mercedes, Weslaco and in Starr County. The menu offers a large selection of regional favorites such as menudo, carne de puerco and lengua en salsa. A long list of breakfast tacos — bacon and egg, chorizo and bean, sausage egg and cheese — confirms finally its distinction as a regional place.

What endears me even more fully to this place is its loyal clientele and their presence here in the early hours. Breakfast at Las Cazuelas obviously has a reputation of excellence as revealed by the number of tables made alive by the customers, their movements and their conversations.

Four men sip coffee, eat slowly and speak with the paced manner reserved only for those with long years and experiences. A young couple with three children begin their day with a pleasant meal, and the little girl fidgets in the way that only little girls can fidget. The father wraps tightly a large burrito, takes a bite and sets it down, and the woman next to him has a glow in her face that identifies her quickly as a young mother.

Machacado con huevo is one of many fabulous breakfast meals at Las Cazuelas. (Travis M. Whitehead/Valley Morning Star)

The clatter of plates, the volley of conversations, the smells from the kitchen and the energy of young children and old men creates a sort of syncopated rhythm that I find invigorating and refreshing. Those who read me know I seek the human presence in describing a place, even more so if I’m not describing but simply feeling it. There is so much of that here, and even with the music and photos of Pedro Infante, Maria Felix and Emiliano Zapata, Las Cazuelas would be a cold and cavernous place if not for the people and personalities bringing it to full maturity. The personality of a place cannot be actualized until completed with people.

Las Cazuelas is so popular that I fail in my first attempt to eat there for lunch. Cars pack the expansive parking lot, I cannot find a single space, and I note the cars parked along Tyler Avenue and F Street. People are sitting outside and one of them says there was a 15-minute wait. I’ll come back another time.

The following morning I try again, and I am successful. There is a suitable clientele but it’s manageable, and I enter with eyes and sit at a table. My eyes explore the menu and lock on to the machacado con huevo (eggs and shredded beef), something I used to eat quite often but haven’t in a while. The waitress asks if I’d like flour tortillas or corn tortillas, and I choose the latter, the more authentic corn tortilla. In only a few months I have a fine plate before me which I quickly devour.

This is like a homecoming for me. I’ve reviewed quite a few restaurants, but this is the first time in quite some time that I’ve eaten at a real Valley Tex Mex restaurant. I’m reminded now of some of the fine cafes and restaurants where I used to eat in the Mid-Valley in Mercedes and Weslaco. I think I’d like to visit those places again.

I want to eat lunch here at Las Cazuelas, but I know if I come during the lunch hour I will have to wait. I don’t want to wait, so I busy myself with other tasks and go to Las Cazuelas at mid-afternoon. I am charmed to see some tables full along and others empty.

Again I choose my own table, a booth on the other side of the dining area. I pass a woman and a teenage girl in a black top with red flowers working slowly on their meals.

What endears me even more fully to this place is its loyal clientele and their presence here in the early hours. Breakfast at Las Cazuelas obviously has a reputation of excellence as revealed by the number of tables made alive by the customers, their movements and their conversations.

A man with deep creases across his leathery face and wearing a Dallas Cowboys cap moves with a calm and a complacency that is the hallmark of a man who has not always been calm and complacent. I think he has been a man of firm and decisive action and has now taken the coveted place of a warrior at peace. He sits now with a steadiness of disposition with three women and enjoys his meal quietly and with few words.

My eyes survey the menu once again, and I deliberate on the carne guisada and the barbacoa. I’d love some good barbacoa, but the carne guisada has a memory from my Weslaco days when I was exploring Valley culture with the glee of a boy in a candy store. I reveled in the novelty of sugarcane fields, grapefruit trees and orange trees. I delighted in the history and culture of conjunto music, the bootmakers, the stories of the Oblate missionaries, the Llano Grande land grants and the Cano family and Campacuas Ranch.

And I remember the food and Manuel Cano and David Champion teaching me how to make pan de campo in Dutch ovens, and Robert Garza showing me how to make carne guisada. I remember I was so intrigued and developed such a quick taste for these dishes that I bought my own Dutch ovens and went camping in Goliad, Goose Island and southern Arizona and cooked these South Texas flavors in my Dutch ovens.

I think I’d like to start making pan de campo and carne guisada again — I still have my Dutch ovens — and a fine place to start is with a plate of carne guisada at Las Cazuelas. And I’m not disappointed. The carne guisada meat is tender, tasteful and warm, and I roll thick servings in corn tortillas and enjoy this place of warmth, familiarity and taste, of machacado con huevo, carne guisada and all things good in the world.