For regular patrons of Casa Elena Mexican Restaurant right here in Spring, Texas, the delicious and well-prepared food and potent Margaritas are no surprise. But for those who have not yet sampled the restaurant’s adjoining “Nightclub Tomas,” there are still some delightful treats in store. Not only is the full restaurant menu available in the clubroom, but during its Thursday, Friday and Saturday hours of operation (6:30- 10:00 p.m.) there is delightful music as well. The source of this delight is Spanish native, Tomas Ballesteros, for whom the club is named. The room itself has a pleasant Spanish flavor with wire-sculpted guitars, Spanish fans, bas-relief bullfighters, colorful Mexican blankets, wrought iron lamps and sombreros, all decorating the walls. An upper level dining area overlooks the small stage and dance floor, and is set off with brass rails, attractive plants and Mexican pottery.
A virtual “one-man band,” Ballesteros performs traditional music from his native Spain, along with other Latin American favorites, and even popular American standards. Audience requests are welcome. Ballesteros grew up in Toledo, Spain, the son of a carpenter. With his father’s training, Tomas became skilled in the art of woodworking. He even made his first guitar. But in spite of his father’s protests, Tomas abandoned a career in carpentry for the world of music he loved. Leaving Toledo when he was 21, he headed for one of my favorite parts of Spain, the Costal del Sol. There, in coastal cities like Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Marbella, and Puerto Banus, he was best known as a vocalist. He performed with bands in various clubs and such noted hotels as the Melia and the Andalucia.
When in his thirties, Tomas decided to come to America. Finding it difficult to locate musicians who could perform the music of his native Spain, Ballesteros decided to do it himself. He constructed that first guitar and learned to play it beautifully. He mastered the subtleties of keyboards and synthesizers and makes his audiences feel there must be hidden members in this one-man band. And then, of course, there was the Caña. This is a native Spanish rhythm instrument made from a yard long piece of bamboo cane. It is carefully cut with a slit and an opening that create a distinctive snapping sound when the caña is tapped with the heel of the hand. The instrument is very characteristic in Flamenco music. Tomas not only plays it with skill, but also makes the instrument by hand. He still has the first one he made over thirty years ago.
As for the music itself, the show I attended began with the delicacy of an elegantly smooth “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from “Evita.” Then there was a delightful rendition of “Fernando,” played with great fluency on Spanish guitar. Our nachos with ground beef, sour cream, and guacomole were a tasty addition to the music. Then there were some pleasant vocals, sung in Spanish, which made me think Tomas could give Julio Iglesias a run for his money. Suddenly, as though reading my mind, Tomas began a wonderful version of the Iglesias/ Willie Nelson hit, “For All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” It was warm, embracing, and very romantic; but my guest, Ruthellen, was still able to focus on the delicious nachos. Meanwhile, our charming waiter, Isidro, could not have been more accommodating. The chef should be commended too, for our platter of fresh and delicious beef fajitas.
With gaucho flair and black cowboy hat, Tomas showed astounding pluck and guitar virtuosity in the mysterious “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Another romantic delicacy, with smooth vocal and Spanish guitar, was the seductive “Besamé Mucho.” Speaking of guitar, an extended “Malegueña,” was technically excellent and musically delightful.
During my interview with Tomas, he reflected on his great affection for his native Spain. He had recently returned from a trip there, and mentioned a special love for the people in the south of Spain where, he says, “…the people are so happy, and they care about this moment and don’t worry about tomorrow.”
Those of us in his audience were content to enjoy “this moment,” too. As the show wound down, Tomas sang a tender “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” With nachos concluded, Ruthellen was persuaded to join me on the dance floor for one last whirl on a very pleasant evening. Our poor man’s trip to “Spain” was coming to an end, but the memories will linger on.
Casa Elena/Club Tomas is located at 26856 N. IH 45 just across the Interstate from the Woodlands. For reservations, call 281-362-1170. C.D.’s of Mr. Ballesteros music are available at performances. He can also be seen locally at Mario’s Mexican Restaurant (Sunday’s 5:30-9p.m.) and Wunsche Bros. Café (every other Wednesday 6-9 p.m.) To arrange personal appearances contact Tomas at 281-364-0680.