"Look, you can see there where my friend Shannon wrote her name," said my friend Alese as she pointed at the front door of The Don'Key. The door had once been white, and now—over the 40 years of the Mexican restaurant's history here on Spencer Highway in Pasadena—it sports a mad, LSD swirl of colors from decades of well-intentioned graffiti. Customers and employees alike have all left their signatures behind in various shades of Sharpie or ball-point pen. Alese hunted for her own scrawled memento—she was a hostess at the restaurant during her sophomore year of high school at Sam Rayburn down the street—but couldn't find it under the accumulated years of signatures.
Inside, Alese sighed and grinned. Nothing had changed, she reported. The waitresses were still clad in the same brightly colored Mexican dresses they've always worn, which Alese told me they'd been required to buy from Fiesta when she worked here in the late 1980s. As a hostess wearing a T-shirt and jeans, she'd found the dresses cute; the waitresses disagreed.
With legendary nightclub Gilley's long gone, Pasadena—to the outside world—may seem short on institutions. But that feeling fades when you're inside The Don'Key. The dining rooms seem to have accreted over the years, giving the impression from the road that you're driving past a shantytown. The Don'Key embraces this aesthetic wholeheartedly, sporting signs in the parking lot where red spray paint on rough sheets of corrugated metal implore you: "Don't drink the water." Inside, you're told to drink the Don'Keyritas instead. "Our Don'Keyritas will kick your ass," the menus promise.
I opted for a Don'Keyrita that afternoon, regrettably turning down another house specialty—a layered shot of red, clear, and green liqueurs called The Mexican Flag—so as to be able to function after lunch. It was a good call, as the Don'Keyrita did, indeed, kick my ass, helped along by generous portions of queso flameado and fajita meat that left me nearly incapacitated on the drive back to Houston. I just couldn't stop eating.
The queso flameado, Alese told me, is a house favorite here. The chorizo that gets folded into the shallow dish of gooey cheese is what sets the Don'Key's flameado apart, the pork sausage intensely flavored with fresh cumin that sets upon your palate in a thick, musky, heady rush of flavor. The homemade flour tortillas into which our waitress expertly deposited stretchy lengths of queso flameado don't hurt either.
For lunch itself, I tried another Don'Key speciality, the likes of which I'd never seen on a menu before, Tex-Mex or otherwise: called simply "Sabroso," the dish features a deep-fried flour tortilla topped with juicy chunks of well-marinated fajita meat, queso, and two kinds of shredded cheese.
"That is Mexican stoner food," Alese laughed. For my part, I pictured a hungry line cook creating the dish years ago after a long night at work, and Don'Key deciding it was good enough to put on the menu. Topped with sour cream and guacamole, it was a wonderfully silly creation that called to mind such intentionally over-the-top Taco Bell monstrosities as the CrunchWrap Supreme, if the CrunchWrap Supreme actually tasted good.
Between crunchy bites of Sabroso, I nabbed some of Alese's cheese enchiladas, coated in a velvety chile gravy that tasted like the Tex-Mex of childhood—not the wan, lifeless chile gravy encountered so frequently these days. The chips were hot, fresh, and still sported a cheeky sheen of grease from the fryer, although the salsa themselves were bland. The refried beans tasted homemade, though, as did the rice. It's easy to lose sight of these importance of these accoutrements over 40 years, but The Don'Key clearly has not.
"You know, it says a lot about a restaurant when its ex-employees still want to eat there," I told Alese on the drive home, recalling my own miserable experience hostessing at a particularly disgusting Mexican restaurant in Waco during college. "Especially when it's this far away."
"And especially considering they fired me," she laughed. "Apparently, they don't like it when you don't show up for your shifts."
There may come a time when newer, flashier temples of Tex-Mex like the massive Jimmy Changas complex on Center Street may be the new generation's instutition. In another 20 years, maybe the apple-cheeked kids that handle the swelling crowds that wait outside Jimmy Changas each night will be nostalgic adults dragging their friends down to Pasadena for a Rio Grande plate, telling stories about the complimentary cones of soft serve the restaurant used to serve. Or maybe not. After all, Jimmy Changas hasn't yet started allowing its patrons or employees to write on the elegant front doors with permanent marker.
The Don'Key, 5010 Spencer Hwy., Pasadena, 281-487-1253, findthedonkey.com