Anita's Chili Reception Remains Roadside Joy After 30 Years
By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, September 25, 2003; Page VA27
Thirty years ago, Mexican food was a rare commodity in the Washington area. That was long before Taco Bell teamed up with Colonel Sanders, before the big-box chains such as Don Pablo's and On the Border flooded the region and before the recent proliferation of Salvadoran/Mexican eateries. Into this void stepped Albuquerque native Anita Tellez and her son, Tom.
They started with a stand-up counter in a former doughnut shop in Vienna and Anita Tellez's family recipes, rooted in traditional New Mexican red chili/green chili cuisine. The place looked like a taco stand on the road to Taos, the kind of place worth taking a detour off the main highway to find.
Today, there are seven Anita's restaurants, and all except one are in Fairfax County. Most are housed in buildings vacated by defunct fast-food chains, and they still have the atmosphere of a roadside "find."
Consider the Anita's in Manassas, newest in the chain. Perched on a hill overlooking the shopping center jumble along Sudley Road, this building had a former life as a Dairy Queen, according to Tom Tellez, who with his mother still operates the family-owned business.
Tabletops are bare, accents are magenta and aqua, service is welcoming and quick, and the printed menu -- along with the daily specials, written on a huge board near the entrance -- includes almost every combination of chilies, pork, chicken, beef and tortillas to be found anywhere.
The emphasis is on chilies, spelled "chiles" in New Mexico, where they are the hallmark of the state's cooking, as opposed to the better known Tex-Mex variety of Mexican cooking. Of that, Tom Tellez cautions, "they think chili is a pot of beans."
Though it's hard to define exactly the differences among Tex-Mex, Arizona-Mexican and the other variations along the southern border, in the New Mexican version, chilies are a key ingredient in almost every dish.
The Tellez family buys its chilies in Hatch, N.M., chili capital of the world. Dried red chilies, and little else, are the basis of the authentic and flavorful but not incendiary red chili sauce at Anita's. The green chili sauce is milder but no less tasty.
The tortillas also come from New Mexico, where Tom's brother, Larry, operates a separate chain of real roadside stands called Little Anita's. The corn tortillas translate into light and crispy chips (served with a pureed salsa that packs kick) and taco shells. The flour tortillas, which wrap the two dozen different burritos, are similarly light and not the least doughy.
Despite its seemingly endless menu, Anita's food is old-fashioned in the good sense. The recipes are the originals, without a lot of trendy additions. Though the rice and beans and some other basics are cooked each day in a central kitchen and shipped to the various Anita's restaurants, individual dishes are prepared on-site. I've eaten at several different locations and found no appreciable difference in the preparations.
I'm partial to taquitos, a small corn tortilla rolled around shredded chicken, then heated until crisp. Anita's serves an especially good version, alone or as part of an appetizer sampler platter. I like my guacamole a bit chunkier than the Anita's version, but still it has a soothing tang
Anita's mini-tacos, part of the appetizer sampler and some of the combination plates, go a long way toward redeeming the reputation of the taco. The size makes this one easy to handle. The crisp, thin shell doesn't crumble and spill the contents on first bite, and every mouthful is a combination of tortilla, meat, lettuce and tomato. It's really good.
The main-course choices are legion. My favorite is the green chili pork burrito, large chunks of slow-simmered pork (think pot roast) married with green chilies and wrapped in a flour tortilla. Ordered as a basket, the burrito comes partially wrapped in paper so you can pick it up and eat it like a sandwich.
As a platter, the burrito is slathered with more chili sauce, red or green, and extra cheese. Addition of Spanish rice and refried beans makes it a dinner.
Flautas, cigar-size rods made from flour tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken, are larger versions of the chicken taquitos and just as crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.
The chile relleno -- a fresh mild green chili filled with cheese, dipped in batter and lightly fried -- has more green chilies as a topping. The first cut yields a burst of melting cheese that is a perfect counterpoint to the slightly piquant chilies.
Enchiladas, served New Mexico style (layered, rather like lasagna) or rolled, melt in your mouth, whether of cheese, beef, chicken or carne adovada, pork marinated for 24 hours in red chili sauce.
Over the years, Anita's has added steak dishes and expanded its breakfast choices -- locations open at 6 a.m. Tom Tellez said about 95 percent of breakfast business is for Mexican dishes (some 5,000 to 6,000 breakfast burritos a week, for example), although traditional American fare is also offered.
The original Anita's location, now known as Vienna West, will close Oct. 29. It's the only location the Tellez family doesn't own. But there's already a Vienna East location, several blocks away and the fanciest of them all, and it's open all night on Fridays and Saturdays.
Anita's, 147 W. Maple Ave., Vienna, 703-938-0888, closes Oct. 29; 521 E. Maple Ave., Vienna, 703-255-1001; 10880 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-385-2965; 9278 Old Keene Mill Rd., Burke, 703-455-3466; 701 Elden St., Herndon, 703-481-1441; 13921 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly, 703-378-1717; 10611 Lomond Dr., Manassas, 703-335-6400. Appetizers, $2.99 to $6.99; entrees, $5.24 to $14.99. Hours: 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, except for the location at 521 E. Maple Ave. in Vienna, which is open all night Friday-Saturday. Accessible to the disabled.
If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at email@example.com.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Anita's seven Northern Virginia locations offer authentic New Mexican food and drink, including a green pork burrito dinner, sopaipillas, tortilla chips and salsa, and the blue Anitarita. At right, exterior and interior views of Anita's in Vienna East, the fanciest of the casual restaurants.
(Photos Larry Kobelka For The Washington Post)