Tex-Mex is a fusion cuisine, we all know this much. It's right in the name. But what happens when you add another synthesis of traditions? Quadruple fusion? Whatever it is, it's the raison d'être at Spaghetti Western, an unlikely restaurant with two locations not far from each other on Shepherd and TC Jester. There, Tex-Mex meets Italian-American in a menu of pasta dishes with Southwestern flavors. And as the menu promises, "you don't need a fistful of dollars" to partake.
The Shepherd restaurant has a dark, pubby atmosphere that I associate more with nachos than Mexican or Italian fare. Oh wait, there are nachos! According to the menu, the Italian nachos are comprised of "Crispy Won Ton chips topped with alfredo sauce, ground sausage, mozzarela cheese, tomatoes, black olives, green onions, and banana peppers." The creative spelling and capitalization is theirs, not Houstonia's. I didn't try the dish, but can't say I wasn't curious.
I went in the opposite direction, starting my meal with a side salad. A Caesar, invented in Mexico by Italian ex-pat Caesar Cardini, seemed like the only acceptable choice. For the price, the salad was not only huge but tasted pretty darn good, with enough acid to make my lips burn. Low-grade Parmesan and out-of-a-box croutons didn't surprise me. Knowing what was to come, I only let myself have a few bites of the accompanying breadsticks, but the animal rush of biting into carb-o-licious, cheap white bread was unmistakable and even better warm and topped with a bit of melted cheese.
I awaited the Southwest Lasagna with great anticipation tempered by a hint of irony. But I'm never too cool for school when it comes to tomatillo sauce. And despite the unexpected brownish-yellow color of the one at Spaghetti Western, its taste was just my style: powerfully tangy with the slightly smoky burn of chipotle. My chatty server had already let me know that at Spaghetti Western, "We encourage gluttony," but I still wasn't fully prepared for the reality of the tall pile of pasta.
That's because I struggled to find the pasta itself. The sheets were so mushy that they melted into the layers of other white stuff: chicken, sour cream and five types of cheese, dominated by tasteless ricotta. Eventually, rather than attempting to parse what would be worth eating, I just picked out the chicken and dipped it in the sauce while I finished the salad.
It turns out, the name for four strata of fusion, if not done right, might just be "overkill." But I can't help but respect Spaghetti Western for trying. And if I said I'm not still entertaining the idea of trying those Italian nachos, that would be a lie.