Taste of Tortilla Flats lives on at Cowgirl

BY MICHELE HERMAN | Those of us still mourning the loss of Tortilla Flats last fall can, for a little while, get a bit of a fix at Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the Hudson St. restaurant created by the same team. Tortilla Flats opened first, in 1983, with Cowgirl coming along six years later.

Cowgirl offers new themed specials every few months, and this time they decided to honor their dear departed sister establishment with a few favorite items from the Tex-Mex restaurant’s menu, among them the tortilla soup, chimichangas and pollo mole.

For a few months Cowgirl’s window display also featured the famous plastic Santa that hung precariously above Tortilla Flats’ front door; alas the plastic sleigh and reindeer disintegrated when taken down. Santa was taken down recently to make way for the Patsy Cline St. Patrick’s Day display, but the other treasure from the 12th St. facade is still in Cowgirl’s window: the peeling wooden carnival sign that reads “Shoot Bandits’ Heads to Win Prize.”

Some favorites from the former Tortilla Flats are currently on the menu at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, at 519 W. Hudson St., at W. 10th St.

I talked to Michelle Wakefield, general manager and partner of Cowgirl to learn more; Sherry Delamarter, co-founder of both restaurants and still a Cowgirl partner, was away following the death of her mother. Wakefield is a relative newbie, having been with Cowgirl only since 1997.

I asked how the kitchen staff at Cowgirl learned to prepare the dishes. It turns out that Nelly Dilone, the beloved longtime cook at Tortilla Flat profiled in The Villager this past October, was the link.

“She came over for a few days and taught our kitchen staff,” Wakefield said. “She made copies of the recipes, but she had them all memorized.” Wakefield said they tried to hire Dilone, but she needed a well-deserved break after 30 years in the tiny Tortilla Flats kitchen, the only job she had ever had.

The other night we went for a Cowgirl dinner with my husband’s brother, in from out of state. It was a Wednesday in March, and the place was packed tight. Wakefield told me that the back room, too, is booked nightly with private parties or music and is open for regular diners on the weekend. The restaurant has done some belt-tightening, and expects to be able to weather the coming minimum-wage increase. Their current lease, with landlord Time Equities, runs through the end of 2020, and they hope to renew, as usual.

As well as sharing a lineage and a kitschy feel, Tortilla Flats and Cowgirl also both boast unusually loyal staffs, with a lot of cross-restaurant friendships.

“A lot of our guys have been here since we opened,” explained Wakefield, “and if we ran out of Tecate or chilies, it was so much more cost effective to run over to the other kitchen and borrow some.”

I was heartened to learn that Cowgirl and many of the other restaurants nearby also borrow from each other all the time.

The tortilla soup, I’m afraid, bears little resemblance to the dish I have known and loved for many years; Cowgirl’s version is much lighter on the cheese and chips but heavy on raw onions. But the friendliness of the longtime staff was comforting.

We got to talking with our waiter, Chris Lowe, who surprised us by remembering our two grown sons as little kids. Turns out he’s a folk singer in the tradition of his mentor, Dave Van Ronk, writing and singing songs about the Village. The chorus of his song “Downtown” — which references his job at Cowgirl in the first verse — goes like this: “Downtown is history. I wonder was it ever what it used to be.”