My first date was in a Tex-Mex restaurant.
Actually, I should say that my first real date was in a Tex-Mex restaurant — real date meaning the first date which had, at its conclusion, a reasonable expectation of a girl touching me where my bathing suit covered and not, later, being able to claim it was just an accident. The first date where drinks were consumed, in other words. Where I paid for everything and acted like a gentleman and pretended that I had anything on my mind other than sex, sex or sex.
My first first date was at United Skates of America, with a British foreign exchange student called Olivia Q. We held hands during a couple's skate and I felt like I was ten feet tall. That was when I was about twelve.
2527 West 26th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Chicken tacos $10.50
Shrimp fajita $16.95
Mexican steak $17
Mexico City tacos $10.95
My second date was also at United Skates of America, with a completely different girl who would eventually become my first girlfriend and the first girl I would see more or less completely naked. She would, of course, later claim that this was an accident, hence my being on the lookout for this kind of duplicitous behavior on the part of the fairer sex in later years. The relationship ended badly, and I ended up losing both my favorite denim jacket and my first Sex Pistols pin in the bargain.
Third date? A double date with my buddy John Fiorella at Friendly's, which was most notable for the fact that all four of us were so nervous that we all ordered the exact same thing (taco salads), hardly spoke and drank Pepsis like we'd just gotten back from six weeks in the desert. It was so cutesy and all-American that it should've been the subject of a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, but that was okay, because John (who was, at the time, Barney Stinson to my Ted Mosby in every way but the Scotch and cigars) had explained to me earlier that this was just a practice date — getting us in the game and ready for the coming summer vacation. We were about fourteen.
By my first real date, I was sixteen — a heady age when most young gentlemen (myself included) ought to be stuffed in a sack, locked in a cage and fed with hunks of meat poked through the bars on a stick. I remember that the restaurant was busy. I remember that it smelled of caramelizing onions and cheap, teenage perfume. I remember that it was one of those places where the decor runs to out-of-state license plates nailed to the walls and stuffed alligators wearing sunglasses. I remember that both the girl and I ordered shrimp fajitas and (because she worked on the floor there part-time) drank about seventeen watery, blended margaritas between us. I remember that the night ended without me getting any action — which might be why I'm having difficulty remembering, precisely, what the girl's name might've been — and that I was sick for hours afterward, which is absolutely why, even today, I do not drink margaritas except under threat of violence. It's also why, soon after, I decided that dates were stupid and, from that point on, I would only get involved with girls who fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with me, therefore requiring no courting.
Amazingly, this plan worked out reasonably well for me.
Looking back, I am just as shocked as you are.
Sitting in the comfortable, colonial dining room at La Loma on a Saturday night and watching as the waitress floats through the milling crowds, bringing me a big order of mesquite-grilled shrimp fajitas served atop a veritable mountain of steaming, soft white onions, that real first date comes back whole: the Tex-Mex restaurant on East Ridge Road in Rochester, the sickly-sweet aftertaste of the margarita mix on my tongue, the onion-scented air and bespectacled alligator, and the pretty blond Irish girl with the blood-red lips sitting across from me with absolutely no intention of coming any closer no matter how many drinks she poured down her neck. It's the smell that gets me, the powerful food-memory juju of cooking onions that triggers this cascade of recall.
The waitress is friendly. She's fast with clearing my empties and quick with replacing them. She apologizes that the kitchen has taken so long even though it's been all of ten minutes since I put in my order. She smiles when I tell her that's all right. And when she walks away, I close my eyes and inhale, sucking the steam and the cooking-onion smell and the thin chaser of mesquite smoke from the crackled and blackened shrimp deep into my brain.
La Loma is almost as old as I am. Originally opened in 1973 inside a small Victorian bungalow on West 26th Avenue, it quickly gained a following in the neighborhood. It became known for its green chile and for its gigantic margaritas, for the Colorado-inflected Mexican grub dished up by the kitchen and overseen by the patron saint of the place, Savina Mendoza — grandmother to one half of the ownership group (consisting of the Mendoza family on one side and the Brinkerhoff family on the other). By 1981, La Loma was doing so well that the owners bought three houses on top of a hill a block away and replaced them with one massive restaurant.
There are no license plates on the walls here, no stuffed alligators. The decor is homey and restrained — neither Disneyfied, like so many of the larger Mexican operations in town, nor so understated as to be anonymous. There's a fireplace in the cantina up front (cold in the summer's heat), exposed brick and portraits in the dining rooms, arched doorways, stained glass. And everywhere, that smell of cooking onions and mesquite smoke from the grills in the back.
My fajitas are excellent. Smeared with homemade guacamole, laid with a thick bed of onions, a little sour cream and big, white Gulf shrimp split down the middle, they taste both raw and finished at the same time — a nice mix between the peasant and the classical, the mutt and the local. The shrimp are perfectly charred and taste strongly of smoke. The flour tortillas are warm and soft and fresh. Because I am forever too hungry for my own good, too needy, too wanting, I have a side of tacos to go with my fajitas — roasted chicken, picked apart, shredded and laid inside a crisp flour tortilla shell with shredded lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. They remind me of the fried tacos at Viva Burrito (which I love), of the bar tacos served just south of the border where Tex-Mex was born, outside the American quarters in Juarez or Tijuana. Borders within borders, ignorant of law or politics — just flavors being carried back and forth, from la frontera to Denver, all the way to Rochester, warped by time, spanning more than just miles and years.
At La Loma's bar on another night, I waste half an hour over the free chips and salsa, chasing the jalapeño sting and savory garlic tease of the surprisingly complicated salsa with icy beers before flagging down a waitress and ordering sarapes (mini chimichangas, roughly the shape and texture of Totino's pizza rolls, only delicious), a plate of tiny rellenos (served egg-roll style — strips of green chile and lashings of jack cheese wrapped in something like a wonton skin, then fried, and greasy/fabulous dipped in the house's weirdly gelatinous green chile) and a spread of Mexico City-style pork tacos. These I don't like at all. The ground pork is overcooked, the thick slices of avocado rapidly browning. The rice is dry, and the refritos on the side taste old and mushy and metallic. I eat just enough to make it look like I've tried, then push the plate away. Grumpy, I think how I can find better tacos at a hundred different places around town, a dining room with far fewer mullets. This time, I leave disappointed.
Only to return, chasing my memory fix with the same old junkie rhythms I used to know so well, craving the strange head-kick of psychological time travel. More chips, more salsa. The taco salad on the menu is tempting, but I pass. I also skip over the tacos (even the good chicken ones) and the apps and even the Mexican steak, because just putting some sautéed onions and peppers on top of a cheap New York strip does not make it Mexican in my book. Instead, I go straight back to the fajitas. I don't know why, but the memories they trigger have begun to make me sad. Feeling my age, maybe. Wondering how it could possibly have been twenty years since I sat across from that girl whose name I can't recall, since I swore off margaritas forever.
The bartender asks if I want a margarita. La Loma has them in two flavors, agave and strawberry. It serves them two ways — frozen or on the rocks — and in three sizes. A large is 46 ounces, almost a third of a gallon, and costs nearly fifteen bucks. I say no, but thanks. I'll stick with beer. "I had a bad experience once with margaritas," I tell her.
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And because the bar is slow, she grins, leans against one of the coolers. "Oh, everyone has had one of those," she says. "You sure?"
"Yeah," I tell her. "I am. I've learned my lesson."
I lift my Corona, drink away the neck of it, and wait for my fajitas to arrive.