Home Away from Home: Pappasito’s Cantina by Misty A. Tabberer

6445 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77057
713-784-5253

There was a man with his wife driving through town. It was one of those warm sunny days, that are so typical of Houston in May. They had just come from church, so he wore a navy blue, pin stripped suit with suspenders, and she wore a pink dress with tiny white rose buds. As he drove he reached over toward his wife and touched her slightly rounded belly. She had just recently begun to show since she was then only four months pregnant.

Suddenly, he smelled the smoky scent of onions and garlic, mixed with seasoned meat, wafting through the air. Though the windows of the car were all closed, it kept growing stronger. “Ah! Where could this be coming from?” he wondered.

While they were sitting at the red light at the old corner of Richmond and Hilcroft, with its parked cars and crumbling curbs, the man began to look around for the source. He rolled down the window to allow himself to follow the sumptuous aroma. The steady moan of cars on I-59 could be heard in the distance. When the light changed to green he turned left onto Richmond. The scent began to grow, and then he noticed smoke billowing from a smoke stack at the back of an old Mexican style restaurant with a sign outside that read, Pappasito’s Cantina. He knew that this was where the incredible aroma had come.

When he and his wife were seated at one of the tables and handed a menu, he new that he had discovered a jewel. The waiter came to list the all the specials, “Today we are offering a tender rack of ribs marinated in a zesty tomato based barbeque sauce that melt off the bone along with ½ pound of our famous fajitas grilled with onions and bell peppers. His mouth watered as he thought of juicy flank steak sizzling over a fire grill covered in spices and onions.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food” (George Bernard Shaw). This is exactly how this man felt, with the exception of his wife and child. He had at last found a restaurant whose creators seemed to feel the same way, and he has been a regular customer there ever since. This man was my father, and I was the child his wife had been carrying. His story is similar to that of many Houstonians who all live in the city ranked third among the top restaurant cities in the U.S. (Zagat 2002 America’s Top Restaurants 52).

That day marked the beginning of a standing family tradition. I was basically raised on Pappasito’s fajitas, going from the time I was just a baby. Often, my parents would decide to satisfy their craving for homemade corn tortillas, fried to golden chips so paper thin they would break while dipping them into the warm, spicy, tomato salsa. It was so delicious that they were even willing to wait at least an hour or two every time.

After they added their name to the waiting list they would make their way over to the bar and waiting area. There were about 3 rows of wooden bar height tables where the parties gathered to sit or stand to wait. “All (was) Latin color and fire and movement” (Phillip Pappas, 85, inventor, food service entrepreneur 39). The whole area was a clash of primary colors; red stools, blue table legs, yellow walls and multicolored hangings. There was always a mixture of noises; silverware tinkering against plates, a hostess calling parties of 4 or 6 over the crackling intercom, the drown of conversations between people while they ate or waited, and of course the ever-present Tejano music playing obnoxiously in the background. I even believe the music they play over and over again now is from the same tape they used to play back then.

Finally, the hostess would call our name, “Tabberer, party of 3,” and we would be seated. As I got older my family constituted a much larger number, so the longer tables at the back of the restaurant became our ritual seating area. I can still remember how I used to feel sitting back in the corner starring at the cuts in the creamy brown table cloth, some destructive person always made with a knife. I usually sat next to the wall under this grotesque bullfighting painting of a slain matador lying dead with a puddle of blood oozing to the ground. If I ventured to actually look at the picture I would loose my appetite. Instead I kept my attention on the cuts in the table cloth and the texture of it which always reminded me a little of leather. It never made sense to me to put that unappetizing picture in the middle of a place of eating.

After being handed the menu my attention was easily diverted once I began to glance over the choices, and thought about what I felt like eating. I liked to focus on each of my favorites and imagine how it tasted, to decide which item I felt like having.

The tamales were always among the choices. Ribbed corn husks that peel back to reveal plump pork and corn strips, melded together to perfection. One bite usually sends my taste buds reeling with hot spiciness that I am always in the mood for.

Also, there are the cheese enchiladas covered in onions and zesty ranchero sauce, oozing with 3 kinds of cheeses to every corner of the plate, and served with charo beans and rice.

My absolute favorite, though, is the Cajeta. This unbelievable concoction is the ultimate ice cream. It is literally a ball of ice cream rolled in toasted coconut, placed in the center of a plate, and then doused with caramel like dolce de leche (sweet of the milk) and whipped cream.

After deciding on the meal, my family and I would eat and enjoy, then ask for the bill and go home pleasantly stuffed. However, it never did feel so much like going home as it felt like we were moving from the dinning room to the living room of our own house. In fact it felt so much like home that when we went on vacation we would begin to get restaurant sick just as we would get homesick.

Every time we got back from vacation the first thing my family would do was go to Pappasito’s. Somehow in all the glam and glitter of the new places we would visit we missed the familiar sights and sounds of our Tex-Mex home away from home. It didn’t truly feel like we were home again until we had seen brightly colored decorations, plastered walls, and cracked windows of Pappasito’s. It is such a home away from home that my parents even surprised me with my first car in the parking lot of Pappasito’s , after a nice dinner together.

Over the years Pappasito’s “grew from five locations in 1989 to 54 scattered between Houston and Dallas” (Phillip Pappas, 85, inventor, food service entrepreneur 39). No matter in which city it is, when I walk in, it feels as familiar to me as my house. My family has moved and expanded along with Pappasito’s. Just as it grew, my family grew from 3 members to 10 members. We now live on the West side of Houston, and not too long after we moved, a Pappasito’s was built near and this is the location we currently frequent. Just as Pappasito’s grew from 5 restaurants to 54, my family has grown from 3 to 10, and it is so familiar to us that our newest addition to the family, my two year old niece Aubrey, when asked where she wants to eat, answers in her tiny, little voice, “Pa-a-si-os.” This simply gives final evidence to the fact that Pappasito’s is truly our home away from home.

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