“Lookin' for anything in particular?” a workman said, staring at me sideways with a quizzical look. His wariness wasn't unfounded, considering I was by all appearances some crazed, sweat-suit-clad mini-van-mom peering in a dumpster, poised to plunge like a tentative swimmer on a diving board. “Just looking,” I said casually. I spotted a red booster seat in the tangle of trash, a stark contrast to the pieces of sheetrock and other debris, like a flower poking up through asphalt, a ruby in the rough. I could have sat in that very booster seat as a child and then as a mother placed my own child there. What other treasures had been so unceremoniously tossed?
I found myself there on that wintry, gray afternoon because I'd heard through a relative who'd heard through a friend that there was some original Browning's decor discarded behind the restaurant. That was enough to send me into a panic. One of the new owners had assured me that the original look and feel of the venerable Mexican restaurant would be preserved, but seeing all those old orange-vinyl-covered chairs stacked against the outside wall, like suspects in a line-up, made me wonder. A saltillo plate (or plato de saltillo) will never again be eaten in those chairs, I mused, a pensive, far-away look in my eye. Those chairs will never again have to bear the heft of someone who's just eaten a near lethal amount of processed cheese. Yes, there they sat, empty, waiting for that party of 12 that would never arrive.
People who weren't brought up on Browning's, who haven't trudged through the cold to get there on a “snow day” to meet friends, just can't understand the appeal. My husband briefly grasped the Browning's mystique when, against his will, I took him there some 10 years ago. We were sitting in “the dark room,” as we used to refer to it when requesting a seat there. (And we almost always requested a seat there; it lent an air of mystery to any occasion.) It was then that a father and son walked into the dim glow and sat without speaking and with a certain solemnity. The father meticulously placed his silverware in position, smoothed a napkin in his lap, slid the clear plastic cup of salsa between them, and placed his palms flat on the table. “Son,” he said in a measured tone, looking across the table, “this is Browning's.” My husband, not from here, looked perplexed, but I just gave a knowing nod. We had witnessed a rite of passage.
Theirs is the only food that, as a family friend aptly put it, is paradoxically “both dry and greasy at the same time.” But still, we go, maybe infrequently, but we do go. I can remember as a child, the small thrill of finding the packages of saltines hidden like Easter eggs in the red chip basket, the way the dimpled plastic of the punch glass felt in my hand, the look of the often stern waitresses who in spite, or perhaps because of their uniforms (white peasant blouse, full orange skirt, and comfortable shoes) commanded a certain authority. I remember trying to re-create the salsa at home as a young girl playing “restaurant” in my mother's kitchen and nearly approximating it with a list of, well, curious ingredients (ketchup being one). And there is, of course, the cheese dip, or “cheese gravy” as my husband so disparagingly put it.
I remember how, for a post-meal treat, we would buy a pack of Fruit Stripe Gum at the counter, the one with the rainbow zebra that became tasteless after just a few chews. Or maybe, if we were in the mood for something a little more exotic, one of the homemade pralines, gritty with sugar and the color of dirt, tucked enticingly beneath their clear plastic lid. Or we might take a chocolate mint from the apron of the senorita figurine by the register, fashioned out of wood and bottle-caps.
We never operated under the illusion that it was really Mexican food, and therefore were never disappointed. Since only a couple of my childhood friends will accompany me there anymore, I sometimes pass through the drive-through when in dire need of tres enchiladas, praying no one sees me. But it's not the same. Sure you still experience the ensuing lethargy and slight queasiness inevitably induced by a Browning's meal, but you miss out on the magic of the place itself. You miss passing under the arched doorway to the dark room, the near soporific effect of the low-lighting, the faint smell of grease lingering in the air, the sense that you've been transported back to some roadside Texas hacienda. You don't get to see the long-suffering waitresses, maybe a touch old for their girlish uniforms even when they were younger. And you don't get to marvel at the murals painted by Arkansas artist Mallie Vena McAninch, a kind of Tex-Mex pastoral, with a burro here and a sombreroed senor there.
Proust may have had his madeleines, but I have my “mexican.”
Editor's note: Browning's Mexican Restaurant on Kavanaugh Boulevard, one of the oldest restaurants in the city, recently changed ownership. New operators promise to continue the old standbys, but offer improvements, such as a new bar. We have heard, however, disquieting reports about a change in the praline recipe.