Delores Hernandez, Blanca Pelaez, and Edwin Diaz serve to-go orders in a desperate bid to stay in business. (Jeff Prince)

The handwritten sign attached to the restaurant’s door spelled out the new reality: takeout orders only. I knew the dining room would be closed at Los Paisanos on North Main Street. Texas state officials are prohibiting restaurants from opening their dining rooms to customers because of the coronavirus pandemic. The earliest chance they’ll reopen is April 30.

Despite the sign on the door, I walked inside to say hello to Delores Hernandez, one of the owners. I have been eating lunch at Paisanos three or four times a week ever since Hernandez and Edwin Diaz opened the business to serve authentic Mexican food nine years ago. I love the food, but I also like the owners and employees and appreciate supporting a family-owned business. A visit to Paisanos is part of my daily drill, and, like a homing pigeon, I’m drawn to the place even when a global pandemic has upset the status quo.

The mood inside the restaurant was grim.

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“It’s too slow,” Hernandez said. “It’s stressful.”

Chairs were turned upside down on top of dining tables. Instead of the usual two cooks and two servers bustling around to keep up with orders, only one cook and one server were on the clock, and neither had much to do. The diner had been open almost four hours, yet only three takeout orders had been placed. On a normal day, 100 orders might have been served by midday.

Paisanos is one of many Mexican restaurants on the North Side –– at least a dozen more are located within walking distance. Few receive the same fanfare as Reata, Del Frisco’s, or other fine dining landmarks, but most are more than adept at dishing out good food at fair prices by friendly people. Before Paisanos opened, I spent 20 years lunching at its predecessor, Los Alamos Café. That means for three decades I have eaten lunches regularly in that same building, usually at the same booth. Knowing Paisanos is there gives me a sense of comfort and belonging, and I’m sure other restaurant owners, employees, and customers are experiencing similar senses of feeling adrift.

Customers had been calling throughout the morning to ask if Paisanos’ dining room was open. When told no, most were not coming at all rather than switching to takeout. Diaz wants that mindset to change or else Paisanos and other restaurants will falter.

“I hope people can understand that to-go orders is the way,” Diaz said. “We are going to survive that way.”

The restaurant might last a month if to-go orders increase. Maybe six weeks.

“No more than two months,” Hernandez said.

They are hoping the pandemic and resulting fallout will subside by then. Still, the worry on their faces was evident. Relatives depend on Hernandez and Diaz for jobs and pay. I asked Hernandez if she has been losing sleep, and she said, “Mucho.”

“We care about the employees,” she said. “That’s the whole point of this.”

Neither Hernandez nor Diaz knows anyone who has been sickened by the coronavirus, but both said they agreed with the city’s decision to close down dining rooms to prevent the virus from spreading.

“We need to be careful for our older people and our kids and follow the ordinance and go from there and see what happens,” Diaz said. “God is going to guide us to the end of this.”

“I’m praying for the whole world –– for everybody,” Hernandez said. –– Jeff Prince

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