The restaurant doesn’t look like it belongs in San Miguel de Allende. Especially when it’s only four or five short blocks from the very heart of San Miguel.
It’s more the kind of place you’d expect to see at the side of a dusty highway. Or facing a beach in some faded resort town that the guidebooks forgot years ago.
The look of the restaurant is from the clutter school of interior design. You could call it shabby chic but it would be more accurate to just call it tacky chic. The walls are bamboo sticks. The roof is canvas or plastic. The floor is gravel. Vines have a mind of their own. Christmas lights are in season every day of the year. Enamel plates decorate the walls. And I like it. I really like it. Because at Don Lupe Grill I feel very, very comfortable. And comfort food is what Don Lupe is all about.
The cuisine is TexMex and that upsets some people. Because some people think TexMex is grand larcency, a corruption of Cocina Mexicana. But I think TexMex should be celebrated. Chili con carne. Flour tortillas. Enchiladas smothered in cheese. Burritos exploding with rice and beans. No they’re not Mexican. They’re TexMex. And I like them. And TexMex is a very legitimate cuisine. And I can get all of those dishes at Don Lupe Grill.
But most people seem to go to Don Lupe for another TexMex dish. The one called fajitas. There’s even a sign proclaiming that Don Lupe is the king of fajitas. No one seems quite sure where fajitas originated. Perhaps even on this side of the border, in Northern Mexico. Or perhaps even in this town, in San Miguel de Allende, at the recently re-opened Ole! Ole!
The first time I ever saw fajitas I’m guessing was about 35 years ago. In those days, they were only made with steak. I remember them as the dish that converted my son to the joys of fried bell peppers and, yes, the sizzling iron skillet gets most of the credit.
These days, I seem to see almost as many sizzling skillets filled with chicken at Don Lupe as I do with beef. Plus there’s the parrillada, an assortment of chicken, arrachera, shrimp, and Mexican sausage (“This is not the regular chorizo” Joyce Robledo, the wife of co-owner Javier Robledo, told me, “but a special blend that Javi has made especially for his restaurant”). For non red meat eaters there’s a burrito with shrimp and even a vegetarian with cauliflower, broccoli, chick peas, nopales and carrots. But my choice and Don Day’s Wife’s choice is always the classic steak.
The traditional cut for fajitas is skirt steak. Javier Robledo, also the chef of Don Lupe (the restaurant is named after his father), is not a traditionalist. Javier uses flank steak. And I like his choice.
Of those cuts that don’t require marbling with fat, I’d rank flank right behind filet. Flank does require tenderizing and I like Javi’s marinade as well. A special spice mix that Javier imports in plastic bags from a sister in the U.S. is combined with orange juice and soy. Cumin, chile and paprika are the most notable flavors that enhance the beefiness.
Quantity is another essential ingredient of TexMex and Don Lupe’s fajitas come with rice, beans, salad, guacamole, salsa and flour tortillas, if it’s Don Day’s Wife doing the ordering, or corn tortillas if Don Day gets his way.
Fajitas may have brought the most fame to Don Lupe Grill but burritos are the runner up as my favorite thing to eat there. El Burrito Grande is the biggest selling burrito. It combines ground beef with beans and rice and is topped with lettuce, tomato and sour cream. At $75, it’s up there…or should I say down there…with the town’s very best bargains.
The funky and friendly atmosphere and ambience is reason number one why I like Don Lupe. And credits should also go to Javier Robledo’s partner, Cesar Carreon. Javi’s right-hand man is always greeting everyone with a big smile, so courteous, laughing and working hard to help Javi make the restaurant what it is.
Piled high plates of Tex/Mex comfort at reasonable prices is reason number two why I like Don Lupe.
But there’s a third reason why I relish a trip to the restaurant. On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm, Don Lupe usually has live music, the kind of live music I usually like.
Don Lupe is the regular home of Yoremem, the closest thing we have to a nightingale in San Miguel de Allende (and a fine guitar picker as well).
My last time at Don Lupe there were a couple of relative newbies to the local music scene, Tony and Bonnie. Anyone who does Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat” plus some sweet harmonizing on a select list of other country/folk classics is alright with me.
Tony said, “If you have a request, we’ll try to do it. If we don’t know it, we’ll try to find someone who does.”
Which brings us back to Javier Robledo.
Javi told me, “My parents (they’re the handsome couple in the portrait on the wall) wanted me to be a lawyer. I wanted to be an actor. But it was when I began cooking that I found my true love.”
I think, however, that Javi has another secret or not so secret love. For it only takes a teaspoonful of encouragement to get him up to the mike.
“Nice voice”, said my granddaughter Frances, “and I love those disco lights.”
Don Lupe Grill is located at Pila Seca 34B in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They are open from Noon to 9:00 pm, seven days a week (but don’t be surprised to find them open a little later, especially when there’s music in the air).