There are plenty of places to get 24-hour Tex-Mex in Houston: Spanish Flowers, Chacho's, Ruchi's, La Tapatia. But there's nothing quite like Andy's Home Cafe on 11th Street in the Heights.
Andy's is, first and foremost, a diner. A diner that happens to serve Tex-Mex, but a diner nonetheless. The waitresses are lovably grumpy. They lug orange-handled pots of diner coffee between tables, topping off beige mugs that await on brown Formica-topped tables. Lamps with glass shades the color of jaundice cast a pallid, sallow glow across the low-ceilinged dining room. Slices of homemade cake await on Styrofoam plates near the cash register up front. The wi-fi encourages patrons to linger at tables, often alone, working or reading between mouthfuls of queso.
A jukebox is pressed against one wall; when it's not pumping out desperate, mournful ranchera ballads by Vincente Fernandez or freight train hymns by Johnny Cash, the diner is silent. You pay for your music here. And in a bit of a departure from traditional diner decorum, you can also bring your own booze with a $2 corkage fee. This apparently extends to bottles of all kinds, as my coworker once saw a woman bring her own bargain-size jug of ranch dressing to the restaurant.
Some nights, you'll see Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top eating enchiladas. On others, you may catch Lyle Lovett over a bowl of menudo; the singer claims it as his favorite. Despite these endorsements—and despite a 37-year history in its simple brick building—Andy's Home Cafe carries only a three-star rating on Yelp. It doesn't get included in anyone's list of Top 10 Tex-Mex restaurants. It doesn't get written up in guidebooks or glowing magazine articles breathlessly extolling Houston's virtues as America's next great food city or the nation's most underrated food city or the world capital of chips and queso (give it time).
And that's okay. Because it means every time I get the craving for a plate of Colombian enchiladas—three cheese-filled, chile gravy-soaked enchiladas topped with two fried eggs—I don't have to battle crowds to get them. There's never a wait here. When I was recently divorced, living on my own, unable to sleep at night, and unable to afford either cable or Internet, Andy's was always there at 2 a.m. with endless cups of coffee, chorizo con huevos, and a stack of pancakes. They never kicked me out of a booth, because they never needed to. I could have stayed in that booth all night.
It's okay that Andy's doesn't always get the credit it deserves for its homemade tortillas, or its soulful carne guisada, or its Christmas light-trimmed dining room that envelopes you like a hug from a favorite aunt—an eccentric aunt who maybe never married and wears lumpy sweaters and gives you bizarre gifts like sheets of commemorative stamps from Chile, but who always makes you feel loved. It's called Andy's Home Cafe because the Morales family makes it feel like home.
It's okay because you don't need that sort of external validation to know a good plate of enchiladas when you see them, or to know you've hit a goldmine of quirkiness that couldn't be replicated anywhere else. Diners like Andy's have been here long before you came along, and they'll be here long after you leave. Their validation comes from the regulars who squeak into the maroon, plastic-coated booths day in and day out, who hold their beige mugs aloft for coffee, who feed dollars into the jukebox while they wait for their enchiladas to emerge from the kitchen. Your validation—and Andy's—is in the clean plates and full stomachs that depart each booth, until the next time you need a plate of guisada de res at midnight.