Saturday, March 18, 2006

Monday's Miracle

Shortly after Joe & I met, nearly 10 years ago, a friend introduced us to a wonderful little Mexican restaurant called the Taco House. It was a family owned and run place. Luis owned the restaurant and his sister Gloria and her husband Juan and their niece Sandra worked there too. They were very friendly and our frequent visits quickly made us 'regulars'. We met Gloria's mother, and saw Juan & Gloria's kids grow up in front of us. I would practice my very, very limited Spanish with them, and they would help me learn new words and phrases.

The restaurant was located on a block in Crystal City with a bunch of other restaurants. It was a little dark inside, with dark stained wainscoting on the walls and stucco above that. There were sombreros and serapes hanging on the walls, along with a few oil paintings of a conquistador and possibly some Mexican royalty. It certainly wouldn't win any awards for its decor, but the friendliness of the staff, the delicious food, and the very reasonable prices made it an award winner to us. The restaurant also had a covered porch for warm weather dining, something we really enjoyed.

We really got into the habit of eating at the Taco House. By habit I mean, at least once a week; sometimes more than once a week. We'd often bring friends there, when meeting up with friends for dinner and to catch up. Our friends brought their friends there, too, and would tell us how much their friends enjoyed themselves. We brought our family there for Mother's Day a few years. We had my birthday dinner there one year and it was great - me and Joe and about 14 of our friends! Since my birthday is Dec, the Taco House staff had decorated the tables with poinsettas. They brought out a few bottles of wine and a few platters of appetizers when everyone arrived - none of which showed up on our bill. As we were leaving they told us to take the poinsettas home with us! One year at Christmastime they gave us one of those Entertainment books full of coupons for area restaurants. They appreciated our business and our friendship, and we made sure to always overtip so that their kindness never caused them to lose money on us or our parties.

I recall many trips home from the beach on a Sun evening, thinking to myself how great it would be to wind up the weekend with a delicious Taco House dinner, only to have my thought train interrupted by Joe asking "How about we drop the dog off at the house and then have dinner at the Taco House?"

Then, one chilly March evening in 2004, our bliss came to a screeching halt. We had arranged to meet Liz & Robert at the Taco House, and when we arrived we saw a sign on the door that read "Closed for Repairs". We were a bit concerned about what kind of "repairs" were required that would shut down the restaurant. Restaurants hate to shut down because they lose money when they're not open. At least once a week for the next several months we drove by to see if the Taco House had re-opened yet. It hadn't. So I decided to call and see if their answering machine's outgoing message might have their anticipated re-opening date. The message simply indicated they were closed for remodeling and hoped to re-open very soon.

March turned into Spring, Spring became Summer, Summer became Fall, Fall became Winter. The Taco House was stilled closed. With a little less frequency we would still drive by to check on the status. We saw the covered porch had been totally enclosed with new windows and a new roof. That seemed to be a good sign, but we worried how a restaurant could be closed for 9 months. What happened to Gloria, Juan, and Sandra? How were they getting along without an income?

Winter became Spring, and when we drove by again one day we were devastated. The new porch enclosure had been completely torn off the front of the restaurant, and the door and window were boarded up with plywood. Then we noticed the absolute worst thing; the thing that caused our hearts to sink: the Taco House sign had been removed from the roof.

All kinds of stories swirled around in our heads. Maybe Luis had gotten in over his head with the renovations and had run out of money before completing the job. Maybe Gloria, Juan and Sandra had gotten frustrated and went to work elsewhere. Maybe some chain restaurant had given Luis an offer he couldn't refuse and had purchased the location. It seemed we'd never know for sure what happened to our friends at the Taco House, but the removal of the sign seemed like the equivalent of the Taco House's obituary.

While the renovations were still going on, we'd tried to satisfy our love for good Mexican food by visiting other places. The metro DC area has no shortage of ethnic restaurants, and we tried nearly all of the Mexican ones but couldn't find anything quite like the Taco House. Finding nothing that could compare to 'our place' made the loss even harder. Lots of our friends would suggest getting together there for dinner, and we'd have to solemnly tell them that the Taco House was no more. Joe & I truly grieved the loss.

Spring became Summer, Summer became Fall, Fall became Winter. Then about 2 weeks ago our friends Liz & Robert called us on a Fri evening. They were standing in front of the old Taco House location and said that a new restaurant had opened where the Taco House had once been. They were going to give it a try and wanted to know if we wanted to join them. We thanked them for the invitation but told them we were about to leave for the beach in a few minutes. I made a mental note that Joe & I should check out the new Mexican place when we got a chance, but deep inside knew it wouldn't be as good as the Taco House.

The following week we didn't hear from Liz & Robert about the restaurant and I sort of forgot about it. Then the Mon after that, which was this past Mon, it was unseasonably warm, about 85 degrees. I drove to and from work with the top down on my car - in March! When I got home from work Joe said "Let's take a ride over to see that new restaurant that opened where the Taco House used to be." I agreed and we headed over there. On the way I fantasized that maybe we'd see our friends Gloria, Juan, and Sandra again, but then quickly realized how ridiculous that was. Why on earth would they all be working in a new restaurant in the same spot?

When we pulled up we saw a beautiful brick patio (uncovered) where some folks were enjoying dining al fresco, and we saw the sign for the new restaurant: Cantina Mexicana. We also noticed that the front of the restaurant had been opened up. Rather than the original door and window we'd last seen boarded up, there was a wall of glass with a glass door, letting in lots of light.

When we went inside I couldn't believe my eyes! There was Juan, waiting tables! He finished writing down someone's order, looked up at us and his face lit up with a smile. "Amigo!" I said as we approached each other and hugged. "I can't believe you're here. We've missed you. Is Gloria here? And Sandy?" After we were seated Gloria came out from the kitchen and the two of them explained what had happened.

The landlord had told them they needed to update the restaurant. He wanted them to paint, get new seating, and enclose the front porch. They told him they couldn't afford to pay for all of that, so the landlord finally said they would have to improve the interior and he would take care of the exterior. They began the painting and ordered new booths and chairs, and the landlord hired someone to enclose the front porch. Unfortunately the landlord had not bothered to get a permit from the County for the construction, so when the County inspectors came by for a surprise inspection, the landlord was told to stop the construction immediately and apply for a permit. The permit was denied and the landlord was told to have the enclosed porch removed. Juan got a job painting houses during the day, and working with Gloria at another restaurant in the evenings. Their brother Luis decided to change the name of the Taco House to go with the new look, and perhaps to justify the raising of the prices. Finally in Nov of 2005 the Taco House re-opened as Cantina Mexicana - only we didn't know it. It was just before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years so we just hadn't bothered to drive over there. Besides, we thought the Taco House was gone for good when the sign was gone.

Now the dark stained wainscoting is gone and the place has a new, lighter color scheme. The removal of the front wall which was replaced by a glass wall also contributes to the lighter feel. The new booths and chairs look much like the old ones, only the colors are lighter, and you don't 'sink' down into the booths so much anymore. The sombreros, serapes, and oil paintings are back (we were especially happy about the oil paintings, which were always our favorite decorations) but they all have a new, fresher feel to them. It felt like the same old place we'd known and loved, only lighter and brighter.

Juan brought us ENORMOUS marguaritas, and we ordered our favorite appetizer, the chicken quesadilla, followed by our favorite entrees, chipotle shrimp fajitas for me and chicken breast chipotle for Joe. We also managed to eat 2 baskets of chips while we were there. We were so happy that our favorite Mexican restaurant AND our friends were now back in our lives! I'm not sure if it was the unusually warm weather, the reunion with our Taco House friends, or that gigantic marguarita, but I felt like I'd experienced a miracle.

Although I like the new name, Cantina Mexicana, I can't quite get used to saying it. I keep catching myself still referring to it as the Taco House. I told Joe "They can name it anything they want to, but it will ALWAYS be the Taco House to me." But I think that's okay. In a way, its sort of like paying homage to its roots. (I still call Reagan National airport 'National airport'.)

We're meeting Greg & Gerry at the Taco House for dinner tonight, and we're meeting Michael & Jamie (the Newlyweds) at the Taco House for dinner tomorrow night.


chris m || hunkdujour said...

Awww... I've got this huge stupid grin on my face. Congrats on the reunion!

Bugsy said...

Glad to hear that the restaurant is back! We should meet you guys for dinner there sometime!