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.


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