Short Story of the Day – Jackalope Run by CJ Hauser

It’s a sloppy, grey Connecticut winter, and this is a bad town for Mexican food. You are a white girl in the vestibule of Rancho Allegre waiting to pick up three Chile Relleno dinners. You will pay with your father’s American Express card. You are thirty years old, unemployed, and have recently moved in with your parents.

—-CJ Hauser, Jackalope Run

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail and Negra Modelo at Big Shucks.

Jackalope Run by CJ Hauser

from Hobart

About the Author:

CJ Hauser

CJ Hauser teaches creative writing and literature at Colgate University. Her most recent novel. Family of Origin, will be published by Doubleday in July 2019. She is also the author of the novel The From-Aways and her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly. Esquire, Third Coast, and The Kenyon Review. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and a PhD from Florida State University. She lives in Hamilton, NY.

About the Story:

If I want to find out if a Mexican Restaurant is worth returning to – if they have the chops – I will order a chile relleno. This is the most difficult thing most Mexican restaurants shell out. It their chile relleno is good – the rest of the food probably is.

I too hate it when the restaurant has its staff come to my table and sing Happy Birthday. I hate it even more when they go to someone else’s table.

Elotes

Elotes, Farmer's Market, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

Elotes, Farmer’s Market, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)

I’ver written about elotes before. I don’t eat them very often – they must be about the most unhealthy thing in the world. They start with corn… which isn’t all that great – but then they add every thing that tastes good but is bad for you.

Then I get to add a bunch of hot sauce.

Taco Talk

This weekend we were at the North Texas Taco Festival in Deep Ellum. It’s a continuation of the events associated with the Deep Ellum Market (such as the Filipino Fest last year) and the most successful so far. There were a lot of people there. Unfortunately, more people than tacos and the lines were too long (I’ll talk more about that later).

But still, it was a beautiful day and a fun time. At the side of the street, next to the Curtain Club, I saw a sign that said, Taco Talk – 1 PM. Looking at my phone, it was about ten after, so we went in.

Inside was a lecture put on by three taco experts. It was sort of fun being a couple minutes late because we didn’t hear the introductions and had to figure out who they were by inference.

John Cuellar, Anastacia Quinones, and Alejandro Escalante - the panellists at the Taco Talk.

John Cuellar, Anastacia Quinones, and Alejandro Escalante – the panellists at the Taco Talk.

First was a man that kept referring to his “family restaurant.” He was the supporter of Tex-Mex among the three experts and knew a lot about the history of that branch of the Mexican food tree. He said, “When we needed to revamp a menu, we would go to California, Mexico City, or San Antonio. Each place has such a unique take on the history and style of Mexican Food, you could find something new to bring home and adapt.”

I realized that his was John Cuellar, of the El Chico founding family. His family sold their chain and now he is responsible for a restaurant in Oak Cliff, El Corazon de Tejas – a place we will have to check out. I’ll let you know about it.

Next to him was a woman that graduated from the CIA and was the representative of the expert culinary aspects of the humble taco – elevated to gourmet heights. She was Anastacia Quiñones, the chef at Komali. After the talk, we spoke to her for a few moments and she gave us a card and a free appetizer – so… well, another place to go and report.

She talked about the wonderful taste of fresh nixtamal. Most tortillas are made from commercial ground cornmeal or processed mix. She said her restaurant was the first in the city to make fresh nixtamal – whole kernel corn processed with lime (like hominy) and then ground fine on a metate each day. All three experts said that fresh nixtamal produces tortillas with a unique and wonderful taste and must not be missed.

Well, there you go then.

The third panelist was an expert on all things taco. He was Alejandro Escalante – the author of the book, Tacopedia. He talked passionately about the wide variety of tacos available throughout Mexico and all the variables in tortilla, meat, and salsa that can be used. The depth of his knowledge and the obvious love he had for the form made his contribution something to be enjoyed and savored.

One interesting point they made was when they were asked about Mexican Fast Food – about Taco Bell and Chipotle. These are Taco Experts and passionate about quality food and you would expect them to rant and complain about the bland and poor quality of fast food. They did not, however. Mr. Escalante pointed out that Mexican Food, tacos and nixtamal in particular, are an acquired taste and Taco Bell helps people become accustomed to the food style. Ms. Quiñones agreed and Mr. Cuellar used the phrase that occurred to me immediately – that Chipotle is the “Gateway Drug” to real Mexican Food. I thought their attitude to be refreshing and honest.

They all three spoke about their first memories of eating tacos and about their “Desert Island Tacos” – what they could not live without. In high school, in Nicaragua, there weren’t really any tacos, so my first real memories of great tacos were from Hutchinson, with flour tortillas filled with ground beef, sealed with toothpicks, and then fried crispy. You would crack them open and fill with lettuce, tomato, and salsa right before eating.

They talked about what makes a taco (who knows?) and the close relatives of enchiladas and tamales. I thought about the Nicaraguan Nacatamles – giant savory concoctions layered with masa and served in steaming packets of banana leaves – and how I can’t get them anywhere (although the Salvadoran tamal served in local pupuserias does come close).

They talked about the future, about lengua, cabeza, and authentic barbacoa, and about how far can the form be taken. I thought about the Ssahm Food Truck here in Dallas and their wonderful Korean style Kimchi tacos.

They even mentioned puff tacos – which were really popular when I first moved to Dallas in the 1980’s. That’s when you take a disk of masa and drop it in oil… and it puffs up crispy, so it can be cracked open and filled. John Cuellar said there was an art to getting everything, temperature, moisture, oil, just right and if you had a sixty percent success rate, you were doing good.

It was a very fun and interesting talk. We spoke to the folks for a minute afterward, but they had to get set up for the judging of a taco contest. We walked out the side door where a handful of local chefs were preparing their contest entries – they looked wonderful.

A long ways from Taco Bell – the gateway drug.

Professional competition Tacos

Professional competition Tacos

tacotalk3

PHOTOS: Inaugural North Texas Taco Festival draws huge crowds

Yum! Chocolate fruit, zen pork tacos highlight North Texas Taco Festival in Deep Ellum

The First North Texas Taco Festival (Photos)

The Day Tacos Ruled Deep Ellum: Recapping the North Texas Taco Festival

Recap: How the North Texas Taco Festival Stole Deep Ellum’s Heart

Photos: Omar Flores of Driftwood won throwdown at DFW’s first taco festival

Happy Chefsgiving: Anastacia Quinones


El Corazon de Tejas in Oak Cliff opens softly, with seductive mole on menu

Amazon – La tacopedia. Enciclopedia del taco (Spanish Edition) [Paperback]


Read: It’s Finally Here… La Tacopedia

Elotes – Corn in a Cup

Who wants to live forever.

One of the many delicious varieties of street food found in these here parts is Elotes… Mexican corn on the cob. You can find it roasted and on a stick, or you can find it cut off the cob and stuck in a cup.

A while back I went down to the Dallas Farmer’s Market to shoot some photographs:
here
here
here
here
here
and here

While I was waiting I tried a cup of corn from the Elotes vendor outside of the vegetable shed. He takes an ear of corn out of a warmer and cuts the kernels off fresh in front of you. Those go in a cup and are topped with everything unhealthy and delicious you can think of – margarine, mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, sour cream, hot sauce, lime (well that’s not unhealthy)… it is pretty darn good.

I tried it again the other day and took some photographs.

The elote stand at the Farmer’s Market

The corn is cut fresh in front of you.

It goes in a foam cup.

Your favorite goodies go in.

Corn in a cup

Now I want to go around and try some other Elotes Stands in Dallas, see what’s the best.

City of Ate’s 100 Favorite Dishes: #93 Elotes at Fuel City

Best Elotes Cart – 2011 Fiesta Market

Elotes Cart Converts My Skepticism Into Full-Blown Corn Enthusiasm

Fastest Elotes This Side Of The Rio Grande

Cafe Veracruz

Dallas is well known for being inundated by that delicious abomination – the Tex Mex Restaurant. So, if you want to open a Mexican sit down eating place not dedicated to Velveeta Cheese Sauce or plates of tiny tacos you have to distinguish your cuisine in some way.

Candy and I have been eating our way through the restaurants in the Bishop Arts District (there are more than you would suspect). So we decided to cross one off of the list and stopped by the Veracruz Cafe.

They seperate their style of cooking from the regular pedestrian Tex-Mex by advertising themselves as: Mesoamerican, Mayan, Huasteco & Aztec Cuisine. I’m not sure about all that, but I can say that it is delicious.

The restaurant sits on a corner on an edge of the Bishop Arts district. A group was coming out the door carrying to-go boxes, Candy asked, “Is it any good?” They all said it was great and offered their leftovers – tempting, but we decided to go in and pay for our meal anyway.

Inside is attractive – dark with a unique purple color scheme. It’s cool and relaxing. The service was excellent – I was a bit dehydrated and they were able to keep my water glass going, which was no small feat. I had the special, Pescado Tajin, a Tilapia filet covered with shrimp and scallops, with a tomato sauce and vegetables. Tajin is a Mayan archeological site near Veracruz. Unique and very good.

Cafe Veracruz has a tough job competing with a number of very well known restaurants in the area. It more than holds it own, though, and seems to me to be a popular place with the locals that live in the area. I deserves a close look from visitors too.

Above the entrance to Cafe Veracruz

The Daily Special Board - I had the Pescado Tajin

The pleasant and colorful dining room.

100 Favorite Dishes: Lomo Norteño At Veracruz Cafe

Veracruz Cafe for Fine Mexican Dining

Best Enchiladas Ever

Saturday and I still haven’t totally recovered from the nastiest cold that I have had in decades. There is a lot of stuff to do at home, plumbing problems mostly, but Candy and I headed across the river to a couple of Estate Sales in Kessler Park. Both were in beautiful, old brick homes that are so rare in Dallas. Kessler Park has to be the prettiest part of the city with its historic one-of-a-kind homes, steep hills and thick stands of ancient trees. We bought a bunch of crap we never knew we couldn’t live without at the second sale, which was literally across the street from the house I lived in when I first moved to Dallas, thirty years ago.

After our time spent digging through dead people’s stuff we drove down to the Bishop Arts District – my newest favorite spot in Dallas. There are a bunch of places we want to eat at down there, but the other day I had stumbled across a blog entry written about the best Enchiladas in the city and had read about a semi-fast-food place down in Bishop Arts called bee – which stood for Best Enchiladas Ever. It looked like a plan.

It looks like bee is the brainchild of Monica, of Monica’s Aca y Alla – one of the most loved eating spots around. Monica quality enchiladas with fast food speed and prices sounds really good. Now, Oak Cliff is lousy with Tacquerias and other home-style Mexican food – and I’d like to try them all – so I guess a gentrified gringo invader may be politically incorrect… but I don’t care, I just want something good to eat.

Sorry for the poor photographs - I forgot my camera and had to use my phone.

Bee is a bright and clean little place near the corner of Davis and Zang. You get a little card and fill it out before ordering from the counter, like a sandwich place. The guy at the counter recommended the two enchilada special.

Build your own – starting with tortillas.

Choices:

  • corn,
  • blue corn,
  • wheat,
  • flour,
  • or cabbage leaf wrap.

Then filling:

  • chicken tinga,
  • pork carnitas
  • beef picadillo,
  • beef brisket,
  • tilapia veracruz,
  • spinach and mushroom,
  • quinoa and tofu,
  • vegan special,
  • cheddar cheese.

Finally, you add a sauce:

  • sour cream,
  • con carne,
  • queso blanco,
  • poblano crema,
  • chipotle crema,
  • oaxaca mole,
  • ranchera,
  • tomatillo,
  • avacado verde (cold).

Folks deciding what to get and filling out their cards.

My order, two enchiladas, rice and black beans

So you mix and match. Pick your sides and then when the food is ready they have a selection of toppings and cheeses. The back side of the little menu card is full of other options… burritos, tacos, salads… but you could spend a year working through the options of the different enchilada combinations.

As promised, the food was fast, reasonable, and very good. I had forgotten my combinations by the time the order came up, but I don’t think you can go wrong with anything I did especially like the poblano crema and the vegan black beans. They have a cooler full of beer and soft drinks and a margarita machine, so I suppose you could pretty well just live there if you wanted.

We finished our lunch and walked on down to Bishop where I picked up a coffee at Espumoso, hung out, and wrote this while I sipped on a coffee. Better than crawling around on the bathroom floor fixing the pipes – though I’ll still have to do that sometime.

Link-o-rama:

Tamale Baby

There are certain things you have to eat on holidays. For Christmas, of course, you have to eat Pho.

And on New Year’s morning, you have to eat black eyed peas. Some folks say you only need to eat one pea if you want good luck the following year. Other’s say you have to eat three hundred and sixty-five peas to get the same benefit (I wonder about leap year). Still others say you have to eat those black eyed peas while listening to the Black Eyed Peas… but I don’t know about that.

Then there are tamales. Christmas Eve is a good time for tamales… but my opinion is they should be eaten as often as possible… or at least convenient.

Tamales come in many different shapes, and delivery methods. The first type of tamale I ever ate was given to me as a small child – the infamous Tamale in a Can. I learned they can be heated in boiling water, bobbing around in the bubbles before the top is even sliced off (preferably with a P-38).

So I grew up thinking that tamales were tasteless little greasy logs wrapped in some sort of wax paper from hell.

In High School, however, I learned to love, not only the tamale, but the Nacatamal. A Nacatamal is unique to Nicaragua. It is pork filled masa wrapped in a plantain leaf. What sets it apart is that a Nacatamal is big. It’s a giant string-wrapped green thing full of mysterious steamed goodness. Every street corner in Managua had someone with a big pot full of them for sale. It’s my favorite sleep-late breakfast in the world. Unfortunately, you really can’t get a Nacatamal outside of Nicaragua and that’s a bit of a drive.

So the closest I can get here in Texas is the standard plantain wrapped Central American tamal, usually of Salvadorian origin. Which is cool, because that means Gloria’s.

The original Gloria’s was a tiny place off of Davis Street in Oak Cliff. I first went there only a month or so after it opened – even then you could tell that it was a cut above all the other places sprouting up all over. It was in a pretty rough neighborhood. Once, I had a co-diner tell me, “Bill, go check out the paper towel dispenser in the men’s room.” The bathroom was like a small closet, with a toilet and a sink and barely enough room to stand. The silver colored metal paper towel dispenser was right over the toilet. I looked at it and it had a bullet dent in it. I know a bullet dent when I see one. I turned around and found a spot in the door that had recently been filled in with plastic wood and painted over.

I wanted to ask whether someone had been murdered in the bathroom or if it was only a bouncing stray from the neighborhood. But I couldn’t work up the nerve.

Over the decades, Gloria’s has multiplied, expanded, and changed (its atmosphere, not its food) until now it is a healthy metroplex chain of semi-upscale hip and stylish eateries. They recently closed the old hole-in-the-wall and opened a big new two-story establishment in Oak Cliff, in the Bishop Arts District. They bought an old brick fire station and converted it into a restaurant.

I might have eaten at Gloria’s a hundred times and have ordered the same thing every time. Gloria’s Super Special Sampler.

One tamale, one pupusa, yucca, plantain, black beans, black rice and sour cream.

Every time I unwrap that plantain and the steam rises from the masa within I feel young again.

Gloria's Super Special: Tamal, rice, beans, fried plantain, pupusa, yucca

Tamal unwrapped

And finally, that brings us to the classic tamale, the Mexican Style Corn Husk Tamale. These are what you want to eat on Christmas eve. There are plenty of charities that offer homemade tamales by the dozen – and plenty of wholesale places that will sell you a bunch. If you are unlucky enough to live outside of Texas, you can have them shipped.

If you are lucky, you know someone that gets together before the holidays and makes a few hundred of these wonderful things and steams them up for guests to come over and eat until they are stuffed. You have to have red and green sauce (the green is made from tomatillos) but then you are set.

Tamales steaming in their corn husks

Tamale Baby