Categorized | Griffin to Go

Griffin to Go: An Afternoon South of the Border

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Patrons fill Angel's in Progreso for lunch.

Patrons fill Angel’s in Progreso for lunch.

Can someone tell me why it is that you take a small trek across the Rio Grande into Mexico and the food becomes better than anything you find in Texas?

Simple, sensational beef fajita tacos.

Simple, sensational beef fajita tacos.

I’ve had that experience on numerous occasions in Matamoros, but that city, sadly, isn’t safe to visit anymore. Neither, from what I’m told, is Neuvo Laredo.

But friends and I decided to visit Progreso on our way to South Padre Island recently, and that meant a trip to Angel’s for lunch. Perched on the fourth floor above a department store and dentist offices, the restaurant features a spacious dining room with a view of the city’s innumerable street vendors and booths below. Plus, it offers a menu of old favorites.

Our fun began with a series of tangy margaritas and some excellent guacamole with fried flour tortilla chips. A touch of pickled jalapeño and escabeche juice added a kick to the mashed ripe avocado, while the right balance of lime juice and tequila, without too much sugar, made the margarita refreshingly welcome.

The tampiquena plate at Angel's.

The tampiquena plate at Angel’s.

The main course brought plenty of grazing from my friends’ plates, as I sampled their fried fish tacos with a touch of crema and cabbage and beef fajita tacos that gained from a smear of guac inside the flour tortilla. Both were simply plated and presented fairly unadorned, yet both were well worth revisiting.

On my friends’ advice, I opted for the tampiqueña, a slender piece of beef that was perfectly tender not to mention juicy and simply but effectively seasoned. The shoe leather you encounter all to often at Tex-Mex joints should be embarrassed to be called by the same name. Perfect onion rings, a velvety enchilada in chile gravy, and more guacamole rounded out the generous platter.

Excellent service, live music and another round of margaritas made our trip to Angel’s a great stopover on our way to the island.

Scouting out souvenirs

One of the reasons I have loved going to Mexico has been the chance to shop for dishware. Over the years, I’ve picked up everything from a large burnt-orange salad bowl painted with sunflowers to a pewter tray in the shape of a pea pod with cups nestled inside to hold salsas, nuts, you name it. The prices have been far less than I’ve found back home, so scouring the shelves for more has become a favorite pastime whenever I get to head across the border.

Unfortunately, the drug war seems to have forced a number of merchants in Progreso to keep their ceramic inventory under control. At Angel’s, the selection of dishes had dwindled to half an aisle, far less than on our last visit, when I found one of those circular party trays with the removable bowls that fit inside like a jigsaw puzzle for about $15. When the prices are that good, I don’t haggle.

At El Super Disco, a few doors from Angel’s, the ceramic selection had also been reduced and, with the exception of a few patterns, the quality of the paintwork quality didn’t appear to be as good. But I managed to find a few bowls that matched a serving tray I’d bought on an earlier visit. There were even fewer pewter options, though I did manage to find a single bowl that I will get great use out of.

Crying in my tequila

Changes have occurred in Progreso, across the Rio Grande.

Changes have occurred in Progreso, across the Rio Grande.

Crossing the border is a great way many save on prescription refills. Thankfully, I don’t have any to refill. But I have always loved to pick up a bottle of alcohol, especially a liqueur such as Chambord or Frangelico at a reasonable price.

I don’t see myself doing that any more. A few events have conspired to make it a less attractive proposition.

Admittedly, it is a plus that you can now bring back four liters with you these days. But why would you want to? The selection in Progreso was once a lot broader than it is now. The liqueurs have largely evaporated, replaced by the usual suspects: tequilas, rums, scotches and a few gins.

And while the selection has shrunk, the prices have gone up so much that they are often about the same that you’d pay back home, at least on some of the more attractive bottles. For example, the price on a 750-milliliter bottle of Don Julio 1942, a particular favorite of mine, was priced at $97.50 at one store. It’s $85 on I was told that I could have haggled over the price for maybe a 10 percent reduction, but that constitutes no savings, especially when you take Texas’ share of the duty into account that you have to pay when you cross the border again.

I did pick up one 1-liter bottle of scotch that was at a decent price (it will be a present, so I won’t betray any further details). At the border, the tax on that size bottle had gone up to $3.75. Meanwhile, the taxes on a 3-liter bottle are only $5.25. So, the way to shop is to find that special 3-liter bottle. We found only two 3-liter bottles, both were tequila and one was that sickly sweet cream tequila. Who would want to lug that back across the border?

I hope I don’t sound too negative about the changes we encountered. Lunch was practically perfect, so Angel’s will call me back for more. I just wish the changes in Progreso had not been so drastic. Still, it’s nice to have one border town that’s still safe to visit. I look forward to the day when more are open again.


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