Sunday, April 11, 2010

Demons on the Dort

Unless you own a storage facility or an adult nightclub, it’s pretty hard to make a living on Dort Highway.

This is particularly true for restaurants. Even the national chains have trouble staying alive on the most colorful stretch of road in the Flint area. Big Boy, Pizza Hut, and Bill Knapp’s, all located on South Dort, have been permanently shuttered in recent years. Local restaurateurs have made valiant efforts to open and sustain their businesses in these same spots, but the odds are always against them.

Since the Big Boy restaurant closed several years ago (just beyond Lapeer Rd) four different restaurants have opened and folded in that same building. House of Hunan, the latest tenant, has closed its doors and left a sign on its marquee that reads “Closed for Remodeling.” I’m pretty sure that’s code for a) we’ve gone out of business or b) we’re going to re-open as a Chinese Buffett. Either way, I’m not very hopeful.

At least a half dozen Mexican restaurants call Dort Highway home, and on our most recent adventure, Stephanie and I found yet another new eatery brave enough to open its doors on the Dort. We actually started our journey intending to visit Poncho’s on Davison Road (it sits almost diagonally from Angelo’s Coney Island). Sadly, Poncho’s is no longer open—at least at this location. The sign on the window said, “Visit us at our Fenton Road location.” We were a little short on time, so we decided to save that invitation for another day.

I had been wanting to try Casa de Linda for a long time, and since we were less than a mile from Dort Highway, this seemed like the perfect time to give it a go. I had always thought it was in the old Mexicali Café building, but come to find out, I was wrong. Casa de Linda is in a small strip mall on Dort, and it is a Take-out only joint. And oddly, the sign out in front of the store says “Poncho’s Tacos.”

When we finally made it to the old Mexicali building, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it had re-opened under a new name: El Chico. Mexicali Café, by the way, was a mainstay on Dort Highway for years. Then it moved to Hemphill Road on the southwest side of town, and then it disappeared altogether. The owner of El Chico told us that the Mexicali Café family picked up and moved to Texas, where they opened yet another version of their restaurant.

On this very rainy April day, Stephanie and I were the only customers inside El Chico. The building is super small, and the dining room can only accommodate six tables. I love the intimacy of this place, but as we would learn over the course of our visit, there wasn’t much else, except for the very sweet lady who owns the place, to write home about.

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, we were told upon arrival that the regular cook did not come to work and a new hire was being trained—and would be preparing our lunch. Ok, that’s cool. There were no other customers to distract him—the kitchen was separated from the dining room by a small counter, so we were able to watch the rookie cook learn his job—so he could give his full attention to our meals. What could possibly go wrong?

The owner was trying to focus her attention on helping her new hire, so it took about fifteen minutes to get our chips and salsa. We also ordered the hot salsa and a side of queso blanco, but those would come much later. The house salsa was served hot, but it was not the kind of hot we expected. Ladled out of a small crock pot that sat near the cash register, it came to our table at about a hundred and fifty degrees. I’ve never eaten my salsa warmed up like this, and I think I’ll probably keep it that way. The concoction tasted more like stewed tomatoes than it did a salsa. The cold wind that was blowing through the opened front and back doors of the restaurant, however, brought the salsa’s fever down a reasonable fifty degrees or so.

We were treated to a second, green salsa a little while later, which Stephanie thought was pretty ok. I didn’t like it much because it tasted like pickled jalapeno peppers that had been chopped in a blender and plopped in a bowl. It had a decent heat to it, but I couldn’t get past the pickled flavor. And then, just before our entrees arrived (almost a half hour into our visit) the microwave on the front counter beeped, indicating that our white cheese dip was ready. By the time it made it to our table, a hard film had formed on the top that was nearly impenetrable. The cheese itself tasted more like papier-mâché paste than white cheese, so it was probably best that we just set it aside to make room for our other food.

The menu isn’t terribly expansive—which I’m always happy to see because big menus can lead to big failures—and the choices were pretty much what I would expect. Stephanie went for the Enchilada plate and I went out on a limb by ordering the Chimichanga/Flauta platter. A chimichanga, of course, is a flour tortilla stuffed with meat, etc. and deep fried. A flauta, or little flute as it were, is also a flour tortilla stuffed with meat, etc. and deep fried. So, I expected that my plate would include a mamma bear size and a baby bear size deep fried tortilla, but when my lunch arrived, I had two identical chimiflautas lying side by each, with a small crowd of beans and rice looking on.

The whole plate, after assembly, went into the microwave for a minute or two—not sure why—so what I received was an entirely overcooked plate of food. And while it did have some flavor to it, the chicken (which was supposed to be beef) was charred to a leathery/crispy mess and the shells were as hard as stone. Stephanie fared a little better with her enchiladas, but overall it was pretty disappointing.

El Chico has only been open for a few months, November to be exact, so it will need time to work out the bugs. Once the new cook gets his bearings, and once the food develops its own identity, this place should be on its feet and off to the races. But this is Dort Highway, after all, a place whose demons never seem to be exorcised and whose struggle for survival is a quintessential example of the larger battles facing our beloved city.

I will come back to El Chico. In fact, I promised the owner I’d pick up and distribute some Take-out menus when she gets them printed. I don’t know her name, but she is friends with and her food is influenced by Cookie (the woman who owns Laredo) so I know that in time, El Chico will hit its stride.


  1. There are other ways to earn a living on the Dort besides adult nightclubs, storage facilities (adult or otherwise) and Mexican restaurants. Great hockey equipments store headquarters (for a wide flung North American Operation) for example.

  2. Steves, I was surprised to learn that the Frozen Four is not a Margarita Sampler.

  3. Forgive me, but I might start a rant. Dort Highway is the quintessential example of the negative outcomes of urban sprawl, and this clearly is having an effect on the businesses.

    When we create a place that is void of any character and only caters to automobile use, even quality businesses ran by great people have a difficult time making a go of it.

    Hopefully, the demise of these sprawling corridors will encourage us to build more dense, livable places in which to spend our time.

  4. Do you know when Knapp's closed on Dort? Did all the Flint area Knapp's last until the chain folded in 2002?