Sunday, May 31, 2009

This and that

Several of the places I've reviewed here have closed - Nyonya, Troy's, and Alebrije. I've noted that on the reviews which I'll leave up for a while before deleting.

Gerardo has posted a comment on the Las Delicious review about the availability of Lechona but I haven't gotten over there to try it. I did note a review on b4-u-eat about the dish being available every day on the menu at Mono's Grill so I went over to try that. What they actually serve is Lechon Enciendido. A picture and brief review has been added to the Mono's review on the sidebar. I also learned the tamale I had at Las Delicious is called a Tolimenses.

I've had several good comments on Boogie's and went back to visit again. An updated picture is included in the review. In the comments section there are links to some other pictures. I've got to try the boudin.

While researching enchiladas I discovered that enchiladas dobladas are enchiladas with the tortilla folded over twice, to form a wedge shape. I remembered dobladas were mentioned on the menu on the Tacos Don Beto DF truck on South Post Oak so I went back to try that but they weren't able to serve them or a picadita and I settled for a gordita. The menu had undergone some changes - the H in front of Hilangas on the torta menu had just about disappeared - apparently they just use a magic marker. I'm sure it was a capital H but it seems likely there was at one time a C in front of the H which would make the word Chilanga, a nickname for residents of Mexico City and a type of torta, so that's probably what it was supposed to be. Also Jamacas had been crossed out and underneath it Jamaicainas written in; that means Jamaican but I don't know what a Jamaican Torta is.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Southwest side eats

Like most Houstonians I've always been ready (and inured) to driving long distances to get a good meal. A couple of years ago it was nothing for me to put 70 or 80 miles round trip on the car for lunch, just to go to a place that had a dish I especially liked. I've described my part of town (I'm in one of the subdivisions that is part of the 'Greater Fondren Southwest' superneighborhood - at least I think that's what it's called) as restaurant deprived. And it always seemed like the foodies in town and the newspaper reviewers found the best eats elsewhere, if not all the way across town then at least half way across town.

A year and a half ago, when talk of $4 a gallon gas started getting serious, I set out to explore the Southwest side and see if it deserved more credit and if I could find ways to save on the fuel bill. Since then I've found a number of over-looked gems, some of which are reported on here, others on discussion boards or I'm sure there are others still to be discovered.

I've also gotten a lot of e-mails and comments from others on the SW side so I've decided to label reviews about restaurants in this area for convenience sake. Look for the Label 'Southwest side' at the bottom of posts. Clicking on that will bring up all the reviews which I've categorized as being on this side in reverse order as published.

The area is defined loosely but you will find nothing further east than S. Main Street, only a few further north than Bellaire, and only a few as far south or west as Highway 6. Actually it depends on how long it takes me to get to a place from my place rather than a strictly limited area.

I hope this helps some others who read this blog; it'll be a convenience to me, anyway, when I try to remember some of the places I've tried.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Taqueria El Campesino

7710 Bellaire Blvd. # L (@ Fondren)

I first found out about this restaurant on eG when it was mentioned as perhaps the only place in Houston offering the zacahuil, the gi-normous tamale of Mexico. I’ve driven down Bellaire past this restaurant many times but never noticed it. When I went to check it out I was happy to see a sign in the window advertising their Enchiladas Potosinas and that’s what I had on my first visit.

Other than the uninspired presentation of a pan grilled chicken breast, this was a much better version of this dish that I had at La Silla to start my enchilada quest; in fact, it’s one of the best plates I’ve encountered so far. Five thick tortillas with queso inside and atop, with stewed but not mushy potatoes and carrots plus some pickled jalapenos and a nice section of a grilled chorizo which came as a surprise since I hadn’t noticed it on the menu board. There’s also sliced avocado under the chicken breast. The table salsa was served steaming hot and was very aromatic; it tasted a lot like a good Texas chili gravy that had not been thickened so I’m sure there was some ancho in there, probably some guajillo, undoubtedly cilantro and I don’t know what else. I have grown very fond of this on subsequent visits. The chips are house-made, medium thickness.

The menu board was too much to take in on one visit but I picked up a to-go menu and discovered that in addition to pechuga and cecina (thin beef steak), this is available with ‘una pata de puerco in vinagre’ which I take to mean pickled pigs foot enchiladas.

The menu also lists Enchiladas Rojas, Huastecas, Verdes and Entomadadas. I first encountered Enchiladas Huastecas some years ago at Taqueria Huetamich, on Wilcrest at 59, a few doors down from the Colombian restaurant La Fogata. I had seen the listing in the window and, intrigued, went in to check it out. Though the menu said they were served with fajita I wasn’t familiar with Mexican enchiladas and didn’t realize that was not the filling but on the side. When the dish came out I went Doh!, huasteca is just another word for steak (or fajita). WRONG! La Huasteca is a region of Mexico comprising parts of four states and Taqueria El Campesino serves several of the specialties of that region - beside the two enchilada dishes and the zacahuil, there are bocoles for appetizers and another salsa huasteca is served on the Enchiladas Huastecas, but I have not yet tried them and don’t know what that is. From other places I’ve seen Enchiladas Huastecas, cecina is the usual meat served, not fajita, as it is at El Campesino.

For a second visit I went in on a weekend to try the zacahuil. This is served only on weekends in individual portions for $5.50 but they didn’t have it the weekend I went in. I switched to the entomatadas (enchiladas dipped in a tomato sauce instead of a chili sauce) but they didn’t have that either. I settled for Chilaquiles (served with a portion of cecina) which I would only describe as okay. It’s not one of my favorite dishes and I should have taken more time to peruse the menu board before ordering. Once again, the salsa was excellent.

On a third visit on a Friday I wanted to try their regular tamale and a bocole. Tamales are served only on weekends as is Mole and Menudo. The tamale was a little dry and at first I didn’t think I was going to like it since I much prefer very moist tamales but the seasoning of the fillings was very good and permeated the masa and as I got into it I realized the texture, almost cake-like and a little crumbly, was really interesting. The zacahuil is baked as are bocoles and I’m guessing this was a baked rather than steamed tamale. I wound up liking it very much, though I found it necessary toward the end to spoon some of the table salsa over it to keep it interesting.

Bocoles are a variation on gorditas according to most explanations; they are also called biscuit-like by some. I thought a better comparison would be to a quesadilla but baked rather than grilled. The cheese inside did not melt; there was chopped, grilled chicken breast inside. I think this is also available with cecina. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting from online descriptions and this is the first time I’ve had one but I would try the gordita instead next time - this was not bad but not very interesting.

The menu also lists Cualquiera con Cecina or con Pechuga but I have not been able to determine what that term means and the waitress couldn’t offer an explanation either.

Like many small taquerias, you can order at a counter off a menu board or take a seat and a waitress will take your order if you prefer.

This is one of the more interesting taquerias I’ve discovered on the Southwest side and I will be back at some point to try the Enchiladas Huastecas and, hopefully, the zacahuil.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Durango's Mexican Grill

939 NASA Parkway @ El Camino Real

I came across this restaurant while surfing b4-u-eat one night when I couldn’t get to sleep. The reviews mentioned some staff and dishes from the restaurant Merida and raved about the refritos, among other things.

I first went to Merida on Navigation more than 2 decades ago; it was perhaps my first experience of Mexican food that wasn’t Tex-Mex. I had their signature dish at that time, the most famous dish of the Yucatan, Cochinita Pibil, the roast barbecued suckling pig that I had read about in Diana Kennedy’s first cookbook. It was one of the most memorable meals I’d ever had up until that time and remains to this day a memorable experience. The meat was so tender sublime was the only way I could describe it; the sides were simple refried black beans and white rice and marinated red onions. That was it, no melted cheese, nothing smothered in chile gravy. On the way back to work, my co-worker explained that part of the reason I had been so taken with the meal was the meat had been swimming in lard. I had no idea at that time what that meant but I was on a lard-induced high.

Lard has fallen out of favor, of course, although it’s making a comeback both for flavor and health reasons. Cochinita Pibil remains one of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes and I’ve had it at several venues in town - Otilia’s, Pico’s, Jarro Café - and while they all have been very good, none has approached the greatness of that first experience.

I hurried over to Durango’s at the first opportunity, eager to try their version of this dish.

On my first visit I ordered off the lunch menu a plate with a Cochinita taco, beef empanada, refritos, marinated red onions and rice with a salad. It was everything I had hoped it would be. First, the reviewers are right - those refritos are outstanding with a rich, home-made chocolate pudding-like texture. The pork itself was moist and tender and, I noted quickly, not overwhelmed by the seasonings. I remembered the first time I had the dish somewhere other than Merida that the meat was more heavily seasoned and, though I liked it, I thought it was an inferior presentation of the dish. I have had Cochinita Pibil that was a deep, brick red color, a dark reddish-orange and bright orange, all colors due to the seasoning paste, but at Durango the flavor of the meat itself outshines the seasoning. This was the closest I’ve come to duplicating my first experience at Merida, even better than several re-visits to the place on Navigation, albeit only after the lapse of many years. (No doubt in deference to perceived health issues, Merida has never again served me Cochinita Pibil awash in lard).

The beef empanada was good, too, mildly spicy picadillo inside a thin, pastry-like crust that retained a little bit of it’s crustiness even though drenched in a thin chile con queso. That’s the only empanada on the menu, I think, but the restaurant would do well if it offered more empanadas. I thought that I might enjoy that more if the queso were offered on the side in a dipping bowl so the flakiness of the crust would hold up better but on my second visit I forgot to ask for that.

The restaurant itself is homey, a little dim, reminiscent of an old Tex-Mex eatery with it's brightly painted, high-ladderback chairs. There are sepia-toned photos adorning the walls including one of Emiliano Zapata; it is probably the only restaurant I've ever been to with a photo of a firing squad on the wall.

I ordered off the regular menu on a second visit, the same plate basically but with the addition of a Salbute and a Panucho. Another Houston blogger has recently noted that many of our ethnic restaurants that purport to present the cuisines of other countries or regions often offer only a very limited selection of special dishes and that’s true here, too. Other than the marinated red onions, Yucatan Steak and Pasta Yucateca, the Cochinita Pibil appears to be the only dish of the Yucatan offered at Durango, but they do offer it in several formats. Panuchos are small corn tortillas, less than 3" in diameter and resembling a Colombian arepa with a slightly flakey texture, split, stuffed with the refritos, deep-fried, then topped with the pork, lettuce, tomatoes and marinated onions. Salbutes involve the same snack-sized tortilla, deep fried and topped with the other ingredients but no refritos. I had expected they would be finger-foods but picking them up and eating them off the plate (the panucho is in front, salbute in back along the center of the plate) would have been quite messy. Thanks at least in part to the toppings, they weren’t crispy and were not as interesting as I was hoping they would be.

Still the Cochinita Pibil was wonderful again, fully confirming my first impressions. I’ll have to go back and try in as a plate. I’m betting it won’t be awash in lard, however. To experience that again I’m probably going to have to make this at home.