Texas Tornado

Chuy Arzola's
6405 Clayton Avenue

Jul 9, 2008 at 4:00 am
On one corner is the $5.5 million condo development called Lehman Place, a hulking mass of a building that stands where the comparatively tiny Lehman Hardware hammered out a popular family-run business for the better part of last century. Among the smallish brick homes and corner bars, the two-year-old condos are character deficient. They look like a movie's set piece that could topple in a strong enough wind. Not a single tenant has ever called the building home — Lehman Place remains vacant and has been in foreclosure since late last summer. A neighbor we know complains the four-story structure blocks out her sunlight.

Other empty storefronts near the intersection of Clayton and Tamm avenues in our Dogtown neighborhood reveal ever-so-subtle hints at their past lives: this was a Laundromat once, that used to be a deli, here lies a grocery store. But trying to imagine this corner occupied and bustling is a little like trying to tell something about a turtle from its abandoned shell. Even if you look closely, you're only left with a hollow idea. And so the pulse in the heart of Dogtown grows a bit weaker with the closing of Chuy Arzola's.

We've heard whispers of its closing for months, but now, its fate finally sealed, a line is wrapped around it — a steady, hungry funeral procession of sorts — as people wait for a final meal at the nineteen-year-old Tex-Mex outpost. On Chuy's front door is a farewell letter from owner Eddie Arzola which starts, "To our valued customers, friends and those who have become friends..."

Two-liters of soda are lined up on the bar. The soda's poured into plastic cups, which gives the place the appearance of a grade-school pizza party, except for that most people are drinking heavily. Though there's an undercurrent of sadness, the mood is downright celebratory here. It's barely 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, and shots, beers and margaritas are ordered and thrown back with college-like zeal. Thank-yous are volleyed back and forth, from customer to bartender and back again: "Thank you." "No, thank you..." and the woman seated next to us presses a fat wad of bills into Angel's palm, a hefty tip for her lone margarita.

As for us, we take Angel's recommendation and get a Texas Tornado — that's Chuy's margarita mix with Grand Marnier and Corazón tequila — and, though somewhat pricey, it has a bite that's not unlike fresh lemonade and is by far the best drink we've ever had here. Damn. We order lunch and flip through a memory book that contains dozens and dozens of stories on index cards: Chuy's was the place his parents took him after his Little League games; it was the first meal their family ate in St. Louis; it's where she had her first legal drink.

"My kids were raised here," a thirtysomething guy laments to the bartender. "This is the only food my wife would eat when she was pregnant. Every Friday..." The father wonders out loud if any of Chuy's decorations will be sold to the public. The thought is a comforting one: We picture an infant in his crib, staring up at a mobile made of empty tequila bottles and terra-cotta tchotchkes that clink lightly together as soft country music lulls the babe into a deep, familiar sleep.

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