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NEIGHBORHOOD EATERY : A Pronounced Difference in Real Tex-Mex Cuisine

March 10, 1994|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many local folks couldn't even pronounce the word "fajita" in the mid-1980s, when Nick and Pat Martinez moved from a ranch in the Lone Star State to a very similar place--the hot, dry flatlands of Covina--to open their Taste of Texas restaurant.

And although fajita is now a household word, the couple says, it's still tough to find the tender beef of true fajitas, which they say were invented by Mexican ranch hands in Texas who wanted to make the most of the less desirable cuts from inside the rib cage.

Prepared in true Texas fashion, Nick Martinez says, the otherwise-tough beef used in true fajitas is marinated for a couple of days to tenderize it before it is mesquite-cooked and rolled up inside a fresh flour tortilla.

That's the way it's done daily at Taste of Texas, where you won't find any wimpy fajitas made of shrimp, chicken or vegetables. Everything on the menu is authentic Tex-Mex, the owners say, from the fresh flour or red (corn) tortillas to the brisket and ribs. And those are big ribs, mind you, not lil' ol' baby-backs. Every table has a roll of paper towels.

So, does all that beef and pork on the menu add up to a cholesterol nightmare?

You kiddin'? says Nick, a big man with a gruff voice. "My mother was a dietitian."

He says he serves only lean cuts, grills the beef and doesn't use lard in the tortillas or beans. Many of his meals are broiled over mesquite, though some are fried.

Much of the business is takeout. But those who stay to eat at a wooden booth or table can gaze at dozens of worn T-shirts, baseball caps, celebrity photographs, beer cans (only ones you'd find in Texas, of course) and worn athletic shoes that adorn the restaurant's ceiling and walls. Indoor seats and benches along an outside patio area accommodate about 130.

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Nick says proud Texas-native patrons--especially the ones who show up Sunday mornings after church--have donated many of the T-shirts, all of which are pinned flat against the ceiling and relate somehow to a Texas town, school, sports team or Texan philosophy. One shirt reads, "If you lead a good life, say your prayers and go to church, when you die you will go to Texas."

One of the most popular dishes is the $19.50 "Family Order" of fajitas, with a pound of beef strips that sizzle noisily on their way to the table, plus sauteed onions, a quart of boracho or "drunken" beans (cooked in beer), Spanish rice, salsa served in Mason jars and a dozen tortillas.

For lunch: beef, chicken, pork and cheese tacos run between $1.75 and $2.35. House specials, such as pork ribs and breast of chicken with all of the "fixins" (beans, rice, salad and flour tortillas) are $6.95. Tex-Mex breakfast plates are $4.95.

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Taste of Texas is at 301 N. Azusa Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (open to 10 p.m. Friday); 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Monday.

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