I swear I couldn't stop grinning as I visited Facundo Cafe for the first time recently. This highly improbable spot on Ella Boulevard, just north of the North Loop, is nominally a car wash. But what a car wash: clad in ivy, fronted by thatched palapa huts on an outdoor deck, and fitted out with a cafe where you can breakfast, lunch or sup while your vehicle is getting banana-waxed.
While you wait, you can also get a haircut (two customers were enthroned in barber chairs as I passed through to the dining deck), get your shoes shined, have your car's oil changed, obtain an inspection sticker, plan an international vacation, purchase greeting cards, take a two-minute "Firearms Refresher Course", or post supplications to the Almighty on a prayer wall that can melt the heart of a grizzled cynic.
Oh, and did I mention you can get a really great hamburger there, too? And fresh-cut French fries? Listen up. You may find that your car suddenly needs a wash and wax job.
*PRICE: $8.95 for the half-pound Angus Picante Burger with fresh-cut fries; IBC bottled root beer, $2.25, for a pre-tax total of $11.20.
*ORDERING: If you're going to get your car washed while you eat, drive into the lanes alongside the building, where staff will brief you on your options and give you a ticket to pay inside at the front desk. Then make your way down a narrow corridor to the cafe counter in the middle of the building, where the two friendly guys who man the grill will take your order and send you off to find a table--either up front where you pay for auto services, or outside on the front dining deck, under one of those thatched umbrellas. (To get there you'll pass through the barber shop and shoeshine stand.) You won't need a number or a table flag: they'll find you with your food.
*ARCHITECTURE: Salad stuff on the bottom. For the Picante Burger, a toasted bun is layered with mayonnaise, shredded iceberg, sliced tomato, and thin red onion rings before the 1/2-inch griddled Angus beef patty is applied. Then comes house-made red salsa and a paving of pickled jalapeño wheels, all held down by a mantle of melted white cheese and a final swipe of mayo.
*QUALITY: Smashing. The ground beef itself has a full-flavored gravitas that stands up to the picante treatment. Even when cooked thoroughly medium- to medium-well (which seems to be the house style), it sheds juices as you juggle the burger. And juggle you will. This is a statuesque sandwich, barely held together by a frilly toothpick and clasped within sturdy, sweetish buns that hold up beautifully and contrast with all the savor and heat of the other ingredients.
The heat is controlled but pronounced and unusually complex: the familiar sharp green fire of pickled jalapeños is balanced against the toastier, earthier heat of dried red chile in the excellent house salsa. It's a definite bingo in sandwich terms.
*GRADE: Enthusiastic A.
*OOZE RATING: Good. Drippage contains meat juices, not just condiment runoff.
*BONUS POINTS: Skinny fresh-cut fries had a fine slick potato texture and bronzy strips of skin, salted just enough. Mine could have spent another 30 seconds or so in the fryer, but I loved them anyway. In fact, I demolished the whole heap before I even touched my burger. And guess what? The breaded onion rings I spied awaited their turn through the hot oil looked promising, too. And the service was some of the most cheerful and helpful I've encountered anywhere. This isn't fast food by any means, but it is made and delivered with great care and solicitude.
*MINUS POINTS: It's hard to figure out where to park if you just want to eat and don't want a car wash. Parking for cafe-only patrons is to the north of the covered auto bays on the north side of the building. If you're confused about where to go, just ask one of the red-t-shirted car wash employees, who are unfailingly nice. After the car wash closes down at 6:30 p.m., you can park anywhere on the lot.
*LOCAL COLOR Facundo Cafe is such a madcap world unto itself I scarcely know where to start. Owner Miguel Facundo III, a homebuilder who lives in the neighborhood, circulates among his customers, asking them how everything is. He seems genuinely excited by what he's doing, and he told me the cafe is faring well enough that they're going to build onto a second story and expand it to 3000 feet. Not to mention that there's an upcoming BYOB Greek buffet planned as a special weekend event.
While Facundo enthused, a Christian rock station played on the sound system. There's a definite churchy vibe here, but it seems so affable and homespun that I found myself charmed. I checked out the many, many fliers posted along the window-walled cafe counter, which has a splendid view of cars in mid-sudsing on the car wash conveyor belt. Some of this literature extolled the virtues of banana wax and other broadsides offered the aforementioned "Firearms Refresher Course," which consisted of a collection of gun-related homilies and Biblical citations.
If I had seen this flier elsewhere, I might have rolled my eyes. But somehow, in the idiosyncratic context of Facundo World, I enjoyed it. Just as I did the Prayer Wall, a bulletin board covered with heartfelt entreaties penned on yellow Post It notes.
Next time I go, I'm going to add my own prayer. I'm still writing it in my head.
By the way, my car came out really clean, and perfectly vacuumed. Why would I ever go anywhere else?
(Facundo Cafe, in the Dr. Gleem Car Wash & Auto Salon, 3103 Ella Blvd., 713-880-0898. Monday--Thursday 7:30 a.m.--9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 7:30 a.m.--11 p.m.; Sunday 9 a.m.--5 p.m.)