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

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

Tacos!

I had been eating all day, but I had also been walking a lot, so I was developing an appetite. Not too hungry, but I wanted something… and there are still food trucks I haven’t tried.

The Yum Yum Food Truck spends most of its time in Fort Worth, so I wanted to be sure to try it while it was handy. I took a look at the menu… Tacos… perfect!

Yum Yum Food Truck in the Dallas Arts District.

 .

Notice all the sauces in little plastic cups. It makes me hungry thinking about it.

.

The menu. Simple, but a lot of choices. I didn’t try the hamburgers, but I’ll bet they are good. Look at the sauces… Habanero, Chipotle, Red Chile, Green Chile…

.

Chipotle Brisket with cheese and Green Chile/Tomatillo Salsa. It was delicious – as good a taco as you are going to get. The meat was tender spicy and juicy.

.

Cooking Pasta like Risotto

The other day I came across an expensive pot and a technique for making pasta that I had not heard of. You cook the pasta like risotto – sautéing it in a little olive oil and then adding liquid slowly, which it adsorbs as it cooks. The oil combines with the starch in the cooking water to make a thickened sauce, and the pasta adsorbs the flavors as it cooks. A quick, one pot meal, no hot boiling pasta water to throw away.

Learn here:

I can’t afford an Alain Ducasse pot, but I dug out a medium sized dutch oven.

I didn’t want to risk any expensive ingredients, so I made do with what we had on hand. The other day, Candy and I were waiting for Microcenter to open so we could look at netbooks and to kill time, we moseyed over to a Mexican Grocery store nearby. I bought a little packet of Mexican wagon wheel pasta – they have a whole slew of little shapes, all semolina pasta (high semolina content is important to keep the pasta from getting soggy), for thirty cents a bag. I also bought some Mexican cheese to go with it, and a can of chipotles.

I figured I’d use the technique of cooking pasta like risotto, but with a south-of-the-border twist. When looking at cooking stuff, it’s the techniques that you want to learn, not the recipes.

So I threw a little splash of olive oil into the dutch oven and cooked up some onion and garlic in it. For flavor I chopped in a chipotle pepper and its adobo sauce from the can. Be careful with this, I know from experience a small amount of chipotle adds a big kick. I dumped in the package of pasta and cooked it a bit. Then, in went a can of tomato sauce.

Pasta

I pour a can of tomato sauce over the pasta, garlic, one chipote pepper (only one!) and onions that I have been cooking in olive oil in a medium dutch oven.

I cooked this for twenty minutes, slowly adding water as needed. I ended up adding right at two tomato sauce cans full of water. Stir it constantly, add it slowly, and be careful. If you don’t add enough water, it will burn on the bottom. If you add too much, the pasta will get mushy. This seems hard, but if you pay attention, it’s a piece of cake.

Water

Add the water slowly, not too much, and don't stop stirring. It stuck a bit while I was taking this picture.

Right at the end of the twenty minutes I added some vegetables. One article suggested broccoli, and that would be good, but I have this big ol’ bag of frozen peas, carrots, and beans mixed… so I dumped about a cup and a half in. The article stresses out about how long to cook the broccoli – if I had been using fresh vegetables I would steam them a bit ahead of time and dump them in at the end – no problem. Since these were frozen, all I had to do is let them warm up.

Then, in with the cheese. I had bought the wrong kind of Mexican cheese and it didn’t melt. So I left the chunks in for protein and added some shredded mozzarella. That seems kind of a weird mixture, but it was delicious.

Cheese

In goes the cheese, Unfortunately I bought the wrong kind of Mexican cheese and it didn't melt. No problem, I pulled out some shredded mozzarella and it was all good.

To serve, you plop the dutch oven down on the table on a trivet, and dig in. It’s sort of a one-pot meal, but a salad is nice along side.

Done

Ready to serve. It tasted a lot better than it looks in this picture. The pasta was just right and adsorbs the flavor of the chipotle (only one!), the garlic, and the tomato sauce.

So now I have a new technique for cooking pasta. The only downside is that you have to stand there stirring while it cooks, but it’s only twenty minutes. Pasta sauce is almost as much trouble by itself, and this way there’s no boiling water.

I like it.

Pollo Regio

Lee had friends over last night, so I didn’t get any sleep. The house today looks like a bomb went off and I couldn’t take it so I had to get out of the house as soon as I woke up.

Like an alcoholic that shouldn’t drink alone, I shouldn’t eat out by myself. A waste of money, for one thing – I’ll eat too much, for another. I would have been happy to make up a nice, healthy breakfast if our kitchen hadn’t been so depressing – so I climbed in my car and went out in search of something to eat (Candy is volunteering at an animal shelter – we are driving to Fort Worth later in the day).

My part of the city is nothing if not diverse. I did not want to go to some traditional American fast-food place, or even a traditional American slow-food place. I wanted to get some work done at White Rock Coffee. I’m working on a short story based around technology that enables text to be encoded on strings of viral DNA and books that are then spread (read) via infection. Again, my home is too depressing right now to hang around and write in.

I headed down Plano road looking for sustanance. Vietnamese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Korean, Brasilian, Salvadoran, Soul Food, MiddleEastern, Cajun, Thai, and every other part of the world presented themselves within a few blocks of my route.

Rice and Tacos

Rice and Tacos

I saw a neon sign that said – Rice and Tacos  – Mexican and Chinese food, and made a quick left – that looked like an attractive combination. It turned out to be a convenience store with a food counter and I’ll probably try that sometime soon, but I wanted to sit down in peace today. Diagonally across the intersection I spotted a relatively new restaurant that I have been watching get remodelled – El Pollo Regio.

There was a privately owned pollo asado place there before (before that, it was a Taco Bell) that was really good. Candy and I ate met there for lunch and the only complaint I had is that they served roasted Jalepeno peppers with their lunch specials and they varied in capsaicin content a little too much for comfort. I ate mine with no problems and Candy gave me hers – so I gobbled it down without the usual precautions (held lightly between two fingers, lips held back and way from the flesh of the pepper, a test nibble). It was so hot that I could barely see the rest of the day.

Not too long later the place closed down. We were disappointed at first, but then saw it was being converted into a Pollo Regio – which isn’t really any different than what it was before.

Pollo Regio

Pollo Regio

The Pollo Regio at Plano Road and Forest in Garland. The large rectangular structure on the roof to the right of the sign is the elaborate exhaust mechanism necessary for the giant chicken roaster inside to meet modern environmental regulations. Shame. There is nothing cooler on a hot night than seeing the rotating spits of a traditional pollo asado full of whole chickens moving around and dripping fat in front of an open fire. It would belch a wonderful fragrant smoke full of chicken and wood that would fill the neighborhood and attract hungry customers like flies. I love and miss that.

Now, when I’m out looking for something to eat I try really hard to stay away from chains. I would much rather support indivduals than sub-divisions of a megasized corporation – plus the food is going to be better when it is based on an old family recipe. Pollo Regio is technically a chain, but a small one. They started out a few years ago as a food truck in Austin (the source of a lot of culinary innovation) and spread to a chain of franchised chicken spots – especially penetrating the Dallas Fort-Worth Market.

I can live with that.

The food was good, The chicken (served wrapped in butcher paper along with a whole roasted onion) properly spicy and smoky, the sides (rice and charro beans) excellent, the selection of salsas (the most important aspect of a pollo asado meal) wide, spicy, and fresh. Nobody spoke english, which is another nice touch.

Why pay for a vacation flight to the tropics when you can enjoy brutal heat, suffocating humidity, spicy food, mysterious sauces, and difficult communications only a few blocks down Plano Road?