Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Day Torta de la Barda

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for a couple of reasons. For one thing it is our least commercialized holiday so it’s easy to celebrate without spending a lot of money or tying oneself in a knot with gift buying and decorating, etc. I also like it because I always find I have a lot to be thankful for and usually haven’t paused long enough during the year to express or acknowledge it. I used to take a lot of pleasure in the preparation of the meal but in recent years I’ve come to dread it. Last year I made no plans and wound up going out. This year, I went to the grocery store the day before and bought on impulse; I wound up with a pork tenderloin, acorn squash and some other goodies that I thought would make an interesting meal and half-heartedly searched for some recipes, trying to convince myself that once I got into it, putting it all together would be fun.

But a neighbor came home late last night and, presumably drunk, fell asleep in his truck with the radio on. It wasn’t blaring, just barely loud enough to stir me from my sleep around 3am and make me get up to investigate. I didn’t get back to sleep until after 6 and by the time I awoke again, it was almost eleven; I was hungry and it was too late to get started on a big meal. Whew!, that was close.

I had no reservations anywhere but no problem. I’d found last year that, at least for Thanksgiving, there are lots of ethic eateries on my side of town, run probably by immigrants who are not acclimated to American culture very much, open for business as usual. This proved to be the case. Some of the places I like were not only open but doing a booming business. Autentico Comida Michoacana, a restaurant and rosticeria on Bissonnet across from Bayland Park had a big orange banner proclaiming that on Thanksgiving they would be serving Pavo Relleno and Pollo Relleno. Stuffed turkey in the style of Michoacan? I wondered what that might be like. I’ve wanted to try this restaurant for some time but never gotten around to it (it seems to close very early, like 6pm); the parking lot was full, however, and I really wasn’t in the mood for a big meal.

A few blocks later I spotted a taco truck I didn’t recall ever seeing before doing a good business, Taqueria Tampico Hermosa at Bissonnet and Hillcroft, and I decided to give it a try. On the side of the truck a sign proclaimed Especialidad en Tortas de la Barda. What is a torta de la Barda I enquired when I got to the window. The senora understood just enough English to answer by placing one finger in the air and asking ‘One to-go?’ I said ‘Si.’ What the heck, Thanksgiving is as good as any day to explore new foods.

I watched as a bolillo was placed on a griddle to be warmed, squished down repeatedly with the palm of the hand and turned. Slices of deli ham and American cheese came out of the fridge, some things were heated on the griddle - I couldn’t tell what they were - some things out of other containers, probably lettuce, maybe onions, tomatoes. I couldn’t see much of the assembly but when it was presented at the window in a sack, it was obvious it was a quite hefty sandwich. I also got some pickled vegetables, a fiery salsa verde and a section of lime. I also ordered some frijoles charros and paid my $5.50 and was happily on my way.

The Torta de la Barda dates to 1950 so I’ve learned online and has become an iconic version of the torta in Tampico and Ciudad Madera, in southern Tamaulipas state. The English Wikipedia has no mention of it but the Spanish version does and that article and others I found on Google translate the name as Cake of the Wall, a silly translation of torta, and explain the origin and contents of this specialty. I had looked under the hood of mine and saw there was chicharron and something that looked like a kind of head cheese, what I took to be chorizo or some other loose sausage and possibly some chopped bistec, along with slices of tomato and crumbled queso. I thought I smelled grilled onion but couldn’t find it in there. The sandwich was a tasty, wonderful mess. I didn’t use any of the salsa or lime juice - it was messy enough as it was.

Though the roll had been warmed it was not toasted but remained soft and squishy to some extent, probably a good thing since the sandwich was quite bulky and had to be squished down to eat.

This site has a much better picture than mine while this one has perhaps the most intriguing if somewhat culturally insensitive discussion on the ingredients, including the cheese pork (both mechanically translated from Spanish).

The frijoles charros proved to be a slight misnomer; they should have been called frijoles charros con weenies, or however ‘beanie weenies’ should translate into Spanish. They were actually quite good but surprisingly, along with the ham, there was chopped up frankfurter in the pot.

All in all, quite satisfactory. And there was no pile of dirty pots and pans to clean up, no glut of leftovers to deal with.

I hope everyone else had a joyous and satisfying Turkey Day too.

There is another Tampican place I’ve noted recently, Tacos el Jaibo I think is the name, a taco truck on Bellaire across and down from Pollo Campero. Like Jarro Café on N. Gessner, this one sits in front of a restaurant of the same name. Both the truck and the restaurant advertise ‘Ricos Tortas de la Barda.’ I intend to check this out, too, since Jaibo can mean crab or crayfish. I've learned it is also a nickname for the people of Tampico.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Las Hamacas

8541 Gulf Freeway @ Monroe and other locations

I first went to Las Hamacas for the fried chicken. Well, why not? I had visited another Honduran restaurant, Coquitos, and been impressed enough with the food to want to try more Honduran cuisine and read on that the fried chicken at Las Hamacas was very good. I first went to the location on Gessner at Harwin, the one closest to me. Right away it became apparent the complaints on b4 about the loud jukebox were not just the ravings of some cranky, picky diners. The jukebox was not only loud, it got louder with each selection until it reached a point of being almost intolerable, then muted considerably on the next number. Obviously, it’s programmed to do that. The food would have to be incredible for me to return to that location.

Fortunately I’ve found the Gulf Freeway location, while it can be loud, is no were near as unpleasant and I’ve made all my subsequent visits to that location.

Back to the negatives, though. I’ve had the Pollo Frito twice now, once at the Gessner location, and both times it’s been disappointing. It is offered two ways, I recommend getting it on the bed of banana chips (tajadas). It comes covered in shredded cabbage (the Central American curtido) and a plain tomato sauce. While the tajadas were excellent the chicken was dry, having been cooked in advance, I think, and held under a heat lamp too long. On a visit to the Gulf Freeway location I got the additional arroz, frijoles and aguacate (pictured on this post) and didn’t get the tajadas. This time the breast/wing piece came out looking absolutely gorgeous, glistening with just a little bit of the oil, but the meat was terribly dry and tough, practically needing a steak knife to cut. I’ve given up on the Pollo Frito at Las Hamacas.

But everything else I’ve had there has been very good. I’ve always gotten the Baleadas Sencilla, a thick warm flour tortilla smeared with frijoles rojos and sprinkled with some grated queso duro, a hard, salty cheese very much like parmesan, then folded over. It’s a popular street food in Honduras and very satisfying - warm flour tortillas and refritos are comfort food and I can’t pass it up. You can also get a Baleadas Especiales with with meat, eggs, crema and avocado.

I’ve also tried the Bandeja Catracha, described on the menu as a Honduran casserole. Catracha is a nickname for the Honduran people and like the Bandeja Montanero of Colombian restaurants, this is a combo plate which includes scrambled eggs, refritos rojos, carne frita, arroz, aguacate, queso and tajadas de plantanos instead of bananas. This was all good except that the skirt steak the time I got it had some gristle. I prefer the banana chips over the plantanos here.

On my most recent visit I ordered entirely off the appetizer menu, getting the Mix Hondureno in addition to the Baleadas (all pictured above). This included a pastelito (Honduran meat pie, snack sized), Honduran style enchilada (very similar to a Tex-Mex tostada) and Honduran taco, basically an oversized taquito. All of this was served on a plate covered with the encurtido and sprinkled with some cheese. The flavors bear a strong resemblance to Tex-Mex. Honduran food is not spicy but there are bottles of Tabasco on every table, perhaps a sop to Texans. I haven't used any of it.

The best thing on this plate was the pastelito, made with corn dough and stuffed with a ground meat and potato mixture, probably the same one which topped the enchilada. The taco meat was chicken which I understand is first stewed then crisped up a little on a grill. The corn tortillas used for both the taco and enchilada were very thick and soaked up a lot of oil in the cooking process.

There are many more items on the menu to try, including the Sopa de Caracol (conch soup) which is supposed to be a speciality of Honduras and Sopa de Jaibas, a crab soup. As at many taquerias and Central American restaurants, the Sopas seem to be the most popular items here.

If you’re looking for a quiet dining experience, Las Hamacas is not the place to go, but if you can stand a little noise with 2 TVs on pretty constantly and occasionally a song on the jukebox, the Gulf Freeway location hasn’t been unbearable for me.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Mono's Grill

7330 E Southwest Freeway at Fondren

I’ve needed to take a break from the Fried Chicken Wars of late; unfortunately I haven’t been able to shake my recent penchant for picking mediocre new places to try and I’ve had nothing positive to blog about. Today, however, I continued my recent theme of comfort foods and caught a bit of a break with a visit to Mono’s Grill, a hole-in-the-wall Colombian place with a SW Freeway address but facing Fondren. It’s very new, spic and span, very small. The place was packed but more than half of the customers were waiting for takeout. Although it is set up to look like counter service if you’re dining in just take a seat and a server will bring you a menu. Food is served on real plates with real tableware.

There are 2 lunch special plates available M-F, 11a-2p for $7. One choice is always the Bandeja Paisa, the typical Colombian combination plate, which is what I opted for. This is Colombian comfort food, like a Tex-Mex combination plate. Unfortunately the lunch special version of this dish does not include any chorizo, avocado or an arepa, typical ingredients of a Bandeja Paisa. I’ve had some Colombian chorizo that was overcooked and dried out but I haven’t had a bad one other than that and I was looking forward to a few bites of an excellent sausage. Had I known there was none on the special I would have opted for the full menu version.

The frijoles rojos were excellent, with a very generous amount of pork fat and meat. Likewise there was a very generous portion of plantano maduro, along with the requisite rice and fried egg. The chicharron included a lot of fat but also a lot of meat, about the equivalent of half a small pork chop, but it was a little overcooked and dry. The skirt steak (churrasco) was another generous component and was tasty if not especially remarkable.

But for $7 I thought it was a fair meal and I wouldn't mind going back. I only got a look at one other dish being served, a fried fish that looked pretty good.

I always go to these restaurants representing countries which grow coffee as a major export expecting some better than average if not exceptional coffee but I have yet to experience any at any of the Colombian restaurants I’ve visited. The coffee Colombiano here had been on the warmer too long.

There’s free Wi-Fi; they’re only open till early evening but there is a bar section next door.

They have a website but its just a placeholder; they’ve put their menu and some pictures up on MySpace.

: A review of Mono's on b4 mentioned the availability of Tamales Tolimenses and Lechona Tolimenses and I went in to try them. What's on the menu everyday is Lechon Enciendido and I did not see any tamales at all - maybe they're occasional specialties. From what I can find online, Lechon Enciendido is a Cuban dish.

I think this is pork leg or butt, simmered with peppers and onions and I'm not sure what else. It was a bit of a disappointment since I was hoping for the Lechona which sounds like an awesome dish. The red beans were excellent, however, and red beans and rice constitute a satisfactory meal for me anytime and I wound up taking about half the pork home. The rice was swimming in the juices from the meat. Once again the Plantanos Maduros here were excellent, nicely caramelized to the point of a little charring and crispness.

The restaurant has been remodeled with the wall separating the restaurant and bar sections removed, making for a more comfortable space. The young staff here has always been very nice.