Saturday, October 14, 2006

Freddie Fender: 1937-2006

I'm cooking some Tex-Mex, listening to the "Lone Star" soundtrack when I hear the news: Freddie Fender is gone.

I'm two for two now with Texas musical legends dying while I'm listening. Back in college, a group of us decided to listen to nothing but Stevie Ray Vaughn one evening. It was an odd choice for us, as we were more inclined to listen to The Pixies or Depeche Mode. But I'm glad we made it as we learned the next morning that Stevie Ray had died in a helicopter crash the night before. We were shocked and very sad to hear the news, but at the same time we felt like we'd somehow honored Stevie Ray by listening to him instead of one of our usual musical selections.

But there's nothing odd about me listening to Freddie Fender while I'm cooking--as I've written before, it's my favorite way to feel like I'm back in Texas. It sounds like Freddie had a hard life, but I just wanted to say thank you for the music--it makes millions of people happy and it always brings me home.

Friday, October 13, 2006

No cupcake left behind

Did you know that in Texas they have something called the “Safe Cupcake Amendment?” That’s right, under the Texas State Law cupcakes are a protected species. Now I love cupcakes as much as anyone else, but I feel this might be taking cupcake-o-philia a bit too far.

Actually, not all cupcakes are safe, just the ones in the classroom--you know, the ones that parents bring on their kid’s birthday. Government getting involved with children’s nutrition is nothing new, and Texas, despite its reputation of being the unhealthy diet capital of America did the smart thing and dictated that schools should cut out the sodas and sugar. But parents became upset because they were no longer allowed to bring sugary sweets to honor their child’s special day. So Texas decided to pass an amendment allowing this exception to the rule.

Was this the right thing to do? I find it kind of silly. Sure, everyone loves cupcakes, and parents love to make their kids happy, but isn’t this what a birthday party is for? What do you think?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Homesick Texan Q&A: Stephen Tobolowsky

You may not know Stephen Tobolowsky by name, but you certainly know his work. He's an actor who has appeared in a host of movies and TV shows including: "Memento," "The Grifters," "Groundhog Day," "The Insider," "Single White Female," "Thelma and Louise," "The Closer", "Deadwood", and "Desperate Housewives." He's so ubiquitous, in fact, he even made an appearance in the home movie of my mom's 13th birthday party. And while he's usually a supporting actor he does take a star turn in a new film called "Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party," a sort of meta documentary where Steve tells true stories of his life to a crowd of birthday-party guests. But his talent is not just limited to acting--he also co-wrote one of the best Texan movies ever, "True Stories." And because he's such a cool guy, not to mention a Texan, I thought he'd be a perfect candidate for my series of Homesick Texan Q&As. Here's what he misses:

Where are you from? Do you still have family there? I’m from Dallas. I still can visit my father, mother and my brother's family.

When and why did you leave Texas? I really sort of left in 1975 when I went to graduate school. Afterwards I headed for L.A. The idea was to not be a big fish in a small pond (Dallas and Theatre Three) but to see if I could cut it in the major leagues.

What do you miss the most about Texas? The least? I miss the space, the sky, the food, the music, the women, the excitement (yeah, excitement--don't ask me) and the red bud trees. I don't miss the weather, the heat, the winter, Central Expressway in Dallas.

What's your favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Texas? What do you order? Guerro's in Austin, Joe T. in Ft. Worth (how typical), and in Dallas, the old Guadalajara. I order enchiladas, mixed combo, rice and beans, lots of jalapenos and margaritas.

What's your favorite barbecue place in Texas? What do you order? Dickies--always and forever. I order beef, okra, beans.

Your chili: beans or no beans? I am not the hugest fan of chili...need beeno.

When you go to Texas and you go to the grocery store, what's the first thing you grab that you can't get where you live? It used to be Easy Burger but it was sold to that Butthole Hugo Chavez—yeah, the little crossed guy who owns Citgo and thinks he has a translatable sense of humor.

What's your favorite place to eat Texan food where you live now? How does it compare to the real deal? Well, the BBQ in L.A. is not really acceptable but I do like some of the Tex Mex--Bronco's is yummy. Why are we always talking about food???

Two out of two prefer beans and Joe T’s in Fort Worth--I’m starting to see a trend. In any case, thank you, Stephen--I reckon we're always talking about food because it's what I miss the most! Watch this space for the next Homesick Texan Q&A...coming soon.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Don't mess with Texas

Yee haw, we won! Clearly more a mantra than a slogan, "Don't Mess With Texas," grabbed top honors last week in the third annual Advertising Week's Most Popular Advertising Slogan competition, beating Nike's "Just Do It," Burger King's "Have it Your Way" and "Got Milk?" among others.

The campaign, created by Austin-based advertising agency GSD&M 20 years ago, has featured a host of popular Texans in its spots: Lyle Lovett, LeAnn Rimes, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Lance Armstrong, Owen Wilson and even Shamu have urged people to keep Texas clean.

I've always thought it was one of the more clever advertising campaigns, and the fact that the slogan has entered the national consciousness proves its efficacy, I reckon. Of course, I've had some people say, "'Don't Mess With Texas,' what's that all about?" And when I say it's an anti-litter campaign, people just nod their heads and say, "riiiiight." Yeah, I know it has an attitude, but would you expect anything less from Texas? That's what makes it so effective and fun.

GSD&M recently published a photo book celebrating 20 years of the campaign. It's filled with profiles of the personalities who starred in the ads over the years, the history of the campaign, and other fun bits and bites. I have a copy of this book sitting on my desk back at the office and I will give it to the first person who can tell me the answer to the following question: Which Texan starred in the first "Don't Mess With Texas" TV spot?

UPDATE: The correct answer is Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

A bit of Texas in Orlando

I'm staying at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando right now for work, and I saw on the room service menu a dish called the Texas Breakfast. This is what you get: one fried egg on white bread, tater-tots and a piece of bacon. OK....that doesn't sound terribly Texan to me. And even though I'm on an expense account, before I spend $25 for this early morning treat, I decided to talk to the kitchen about what makes it Texan. The manager said, "Well, it's big." But it's only one egg, a bit of bacon and tater-tots." He replied, "There's also bread." Is it toasted? "No, but we can toast it if you like." Back to the size issue: He said, "It's big for kids. It is, afterall, on the kid's menu." Ah, I see.

Now, I'm not a big breakfast eater, but if I was eating a typical Texas breakfast, I think that it would either be migas with refried beans and lots of salsa, or breakfast burritos, or huevos rancheros, or even eggs, a pile of breakfast meats, buttery biscuits with white gravy and crispy, peppery hash browns. Not tater tots, untoasted white bread, a piece of bacon and a fried egg. But perhaps I'm missing something.

What's your favorite Texas breakfast? And, please, if anyone is familiar with Orlando and knows of a good place to eat let me know!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Here's the beef

Ah, summer love--so intense, so exciting, and yet, so fleeting. Perhaps that’s part of the thrill. But now that it’s autumn, I have to say good-bye to my summertime fling, the Shake Shack Double Shack Burger. I enjoyed those late-night rendezvous when it was just the Double Shack and me, no huge crowds of people also vying for its deliciousness. Yes, the long lines for Shake Shack are legion, but its popularity is well deserved: how can you not love thick and juicy well-seasoned meat, fresh green lettuce, bright flavorful tomatoes, oozing American cheese, all sandwiched between a perfectly proportioned potato bun. Shake Shack had me at first bite.

But as good as the Double Shack may be, I think the real reason I fell so hard was because it reminded me of a taste of home. There was something in the peppery meat and perfect balance that made me swoon. And even though the two are completely different feasts, something about the Double Shack reminded me of my first burger love—Whatburger.

I can’t get Whataburger in NYC, the company hasn’t expanded that far North. But for a fast-food burger, it somehow always tastes fresh and special. Perhaps because it’s made to order, on a grill with nary a microwave in sight. And they spice the meat at Whataburger, giving it a deliciousness not found in many other places.

I’ve enjoyed my summertime eating at the Shake Shack. For the cooler months, however, I’ve found a satisfying substitute—the Chelsea Gallery burger. It’s a diner burger, but rises above mediocrity with excellent beef cooked to order. They also provide fresh veggies and while the sesame bun isn’t perfect, it holds the whole sandwich together, no mean feat with a juicy, overstuffed burger.

Recently, many chefs have tried to outdo themselves with towering creations crafted from Wagyu or Kobe beef, stuffed with fois gras or bone marrow, but for me, just keep it simple: good beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato and bun. A burger doesn't need anything more.

Are you a Shake Shack fan? What's your dream burger?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Salt bagels and jalapeno cream cheese

Growing up in the Bible Belt, Judaism was under my radar, I'm ashamed to say. Yom Kippur wasn’t a school holiday, and hamentashen was just a buttery fruit-filled cookie. But even though I didn’t have a name for it, I was fascinated with Jewish culture as a kid. When my father’s friend's daughter had her bat mitzvah, I was eager to attend as Devo had played at Muffy Tepperman’s bat mitzvah on the TV show Square Pegs, therefore making the religious ceremony very cool. And in Woody Allen movies, I kept hearing about this mysterious sounding food combination called bagels and lox, so the first time I saw it on a menu in a Houston restaurant, I ordered it and fell in love.

Tonight at sundown is Rosh Hashana. And while I don’t have honey cake, I do have this: a book I’m eager to read. It’s called Matzoh Ball Gumbo, and it surveys what it means to be a Southern Jew from a culinary perspective. More cultural history than recipe tome, its central theme is that a culture is partly defined by the foods eaten and shared, something I certainly agree with. And when we’re displaced, how we readjust our culture to fit with our new surroundings--something I completely identify with being a Homesick Texan and all.

Perhaps I’ll write a book called Salt Bagels and Jalapeno Cream Cheese.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Hill Country Diet

Don’t read this web site, it’s bad for your health. That’s right, I’m a Homesick Texan who waxes nostalgic for Texan foods. And yet, it turns out that those foods are nonnutritious. I can’t believe that a huge slab of chicken fried steak drowning in gravy or a No. 3 Tex-Mex dinner oozing cheese juice and bacon grease isn’t part of a heart-healthy diet. I could have sworn I heard that Dr. Andrew Weil was going to narrate a Hill Country Diet documentary for PBS. I guess I confused Texas with Okinawa.

But seriously, yes, eating lots of fatty, fried food, and not getting enough exercise is going to affect your health. Which leads me to Travis County. If you haven’t already heard, Travis County is debating a plan to use taxpayers dollars to perform up to 15 gastric bypass surgeries a year for its employees. The reasoning is that the surgery will be cheaper than the long-term healthcare costs for an obese person. Recently there have been many government and corporate initiatives in the fight against obesity. I commend these efforts. Not one, however, pays for an individual’s gastric-bypass surgery. I think the taxpayer’s dollars should go toward something that benefits the majority not the minority, such as fitness education or giving breaks to stores that stock local, whole foods instead of corporate processed junk. I’m not against either the government or the private sector helping its employees lose weight and lead healthier lives. But paying for surgery? That seems a bit extreme.

What do you think?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

When Love comes to town

A block away from my apartment, Texan chef Tim Love is opening an outpost of his Fort Worth restaurant Lonsemone Dove Western Bistro. He's the kind of guy who prefers a cowboy hat to a toque and has done trail rides from Fort Worth to both coasts, cooking with ingredients from local markets along the way. Colorful guy. And by looking at the menu, it appears to be one of those high-concept cowboy places, the type where they combine fois gras with chiles and serve a kangaroo carpaccio. I'm curious. And this week, New York Magazine has provided a guide to his menu, asking Tim to define some of his more exotic culinary terms, such as "prairie butter," "fois gras shooter" and the ever-perplexing, "state fair sauce." Who knew...state fair sauce is exotic! He's also featured in Food & Wine this month if you want to check out some of his recipes. (He clearly has a well-oiled PR machine).

In any case, the restaurant is a typical New York space, long and skinny, dominated by a big oak bar that Tim built himself. It has exposed brick walls adorned with graphic oil paintings of Texan icons, such as boots and cactus. But my favorite piece of decoration is the huge longhorn trophy hung over the entrance to the bathrooms (I don't know if it was an intentional visual pun, but I like it). Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the pre-opening party. I was hoping to eat lots of food, but when you cram hundreds of people into a space that was meant for half that number, minus solid ventilation, well, you just don't have an ideal environment for eating cowboy haute cuisine.

After struggling past all the people packed at the bar, where they had huge plates stacked with watermelon slices next to split bones filled with marrow (a combination that seemed odd) we made our way to the kitchen entrance, always the best place to park at a party if you want to eat. And eat we did, at least a few bite-sized nibbles. I had the fois gras shooter with a fois gras tuile on top that was crunchy and almost bacony--a bowl of those would be the perfect snack food. I had the lobster cakes with black bean salsa. I had some sticky meatballs that tasted like they were coated in a chipotle honey sauce. I had the kangaroo carpaccio, topped with a dollop of goat cheese and I think I like kangaroo--hard to describe except it's fatty and rich and married with the pungent cheese it was very satisfying. And I had the perfectly caramelized "prairie butter" (buffalo bone marrow) on thick bread, very tasty. But it being a packed party and the trays pounced on by eager eaters as soon as they left the kitchen, there just wasn't enough food to satisfy--it was all a tease.

So, alas, not much to report on the food front, not that I would judge a restaurant by its party food anyway. And despite the appropriate soundtrack (two guys with guitars singing a bunch of original honky-tonk songs) and my endless amusement that no one I spoke with was actually from Texas (despite the abundance of cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats), after two guys from Michigan decided to instruct me on the proper way to form a "Hook-em Horns" with my fingers, and another guy from Nova Scotia told me the bull was a middlehorn, not a longhorn (um, yeah, maybe in Canada), I knew it was time to leave. I will return, however, and hopefully under more civilized circumstances will have a proper Tim Love meal.

Has anyone ever eaten at the Lonesome Dove here or in Fort Worth? What did you think?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ann Richards: 1933-2006

Good night, Governor. Thanks for all your wit, wisdom, courage and leadership. You were a true Texas treasure. You will be missed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What the butcher knows

This week, New York Magazine has a wonderful feature on butchers and their thoughts on preparing meat--which you can find in both the print and online editions. Molly Friedman and Helen Yun talked to eight NYC butchers (and one chef), about cuts, quality and cooking tips, with some personal histories sprinkled around for color and flavor. Accompanying the quotes are the fantasticly rich and real photographs by Hans Ginssinger who is probably my favorite raw-meat photographer. No one else can make bones and raw flesh look so beautiful.

I don't go to a butcher for my meat (I shop at Whole Foods so I assume what I'm buying is decent quality), but after reading this article, with wisdom such as: "When you see meat at the supermarket, that's a select grade of beef. It has no quality to it. It's just a flat piece of meat." and all the recent supermarket-meat scandals lately, I think I need to check out my local chop shop. Do you go to a butcher? If you're in NY, which one do you use?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

NYC Potluck

Danielle over at Habeas Brulee is organzing a NYC food bloggers potluck for Saturday, September 30, whenever the majority can attend. If you're interested in eating some good food and meeting the faces behind the blogs, check out the details here.

A bit of soul on the Upper West Side

A couple of years ago, I was on real soul-food kick, and would spend the weekends eating at every place I could find in Harlem: diners, hole-in-the-walls, high-end establishments and even church dinners. Most of the food was passable, but one place was truly worth the return trip: Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen. It’s a small place with an all-you-can-eat buffet, and boy is it good. He’s got oxtails, deviled eggs, potato salad, collard greens, mac and cheese, cole slaw and some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. And he fries it up the right way: in an iron skillet with lard. You can taste how finely it’s been prepared—the crust is crispy and flaky with just the right amount of spice and the chicken is juicy and tender—even the white meat, which is no mean feat. A couple of months ago, Charles opened a place further downtown on Broadway and 109th Street, Rack & Soul, which he collaborated on with pitmaster John Wheeler. I was curious to see how his fried chicken would transfer 40 blocks down, and I was also eager to try this new bbq chef’s smoked meat. The place did not disappoint.

The restaurant has about 4 times the number of tables than Charles’ place uptown, in a cheery casual atmosphere with red vinyl booths and black-and-white photos of old Harlem. There’s also a stack of wood near the back of the house—a reassuring thing to see in a bbq place. When you first sit down, they bring you biscuits, and these are delicious—much better than the highly praised BLT Fish’s cheese biscuits. These are flaky, buttery, taste of honey and they melt in your mouth—two were not enough. I ordered the fried chicken, which came with a quarter rack of babyback ribs, and two overflowing side dishes of collard greens and macaroni and cheese. First the fried chicken: it made the trip downtown without any incident, and was as bone-gnawing and finger-licking good as it ever was; I couldn’t tear my mouth away from the bone. The ribs were fine. The meat was tender and tasted of smoke, but they basted them with too much sweet sauce, and I like them sauceless. The macaroni and cheese wasn’t that good—it was too soft and didn’t have enough cheese. But the collard greens were perfectly spiced and tender, and succulent with yummy pork delight. I couldn’t stop eating them and if I hadn’t been so full, I would have ordered another bowl.

Rack & Roll will leave you stuffed with plenty to take home. The portions are huge and the prices are very reasonable. It’s not as cheap as the all-you-can-eat buffet in Harlem, but if I don’t feel like going all the way uptown, I’m happy this place exists. I’m just glad it’s still 100 blocks away from me, otherwise I’d be there all the time, which might not be the best thing for both my heart and my waistline.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Brisket and a book

Want to read some amazing writing--writing so good it convinced the chairman of Reader's Digest to break bread with its creator? Here's your chance.But first, a bit of history.When I walked into the office this morning, Ken Wheaton handed me a takeout container filled with bbq brisket, ribs and pork from The Cookhouse, where Ken and his girlfriend were dinner guests of Cookhouse owner (and Reader's Digest Chairman Tom Ryder). How did Ken manage to score such a cool invitation? By his very fine writing, of course. As I've mentioned before, Ryder went on a bbq tour of the Hill Country, and posted an in-depth interactive travelogue on the Reader's Digest site. Ken writes a magazine column, and being no bbq slouch himself he decided to comment on it. And Ryder loved Ken's words so much, he invited him to Connecticut.

You can find Ken's writing in a new book called The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York. It's a collection of essays and stories edited by Jaquelin Cangro, with other contributors including Jonathem Lethem, Calvin Trillin, Francine Prose, among others. It's good stuff, perfect for a train ride. And Thursday night, there's a reading at Book Court at 8, 163 Court Street. So if you have nothing better to do, why not hop on the either the 2, 3, 4, 5, R or F train and give some of the stories a listen.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dolly: a cook of many colors

Dolly Parton, while not a Texan, is still fabulous. And besides being a fantastic singer (Jolene is one of the best songs ever) and hilarious actor (after 26 years, 9-to-5 still feels fresh), she can also cook. White Trash BBQ writes that she has a new cookbook of Tennessee family recipes, and 100% of the net proceeds benefit the The Dollywood Foundation which promotes literacy to disadvantaged preschool children. But even better, if you buy the book you’re entered into a contest to have a bbq with Dolly and 100 of your closest friends. Good luck, and hopefully it’ll be you and not those people two doors down laughing and drinking and having a party.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Rachael papers

Rachael Ray is filming her new show across the street from my office in midtown Manhattan. And because we're so susceptible to even the slightest brush with celebrity, we often stare out the window and watch the tourists queue up to see Rachael live. Last week, one of my colleagues became extremely excited when he thought he saw Rachael herself talking to the people on line. Unfortunately, it was just a flack telling the people they hadn't made the cut to be in the studio audience. Alas, he'll have to wait another day to see his Ray of sunshine.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

There's the R.U.B.

It's taken me a year to gather up the courage to give R.U.B. (aka Righteous Urban BBQ) another chance, and after devouring some burnt ends and St. Louis ribs, I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Yes, it's amazing what a year does to a place. And never mind all the naysayers claiming that R.U.B. is an emperor in no clothes--believe me, things have changed. It's all about the smoke and they finally captured it. Each bite was a smoky, spicy, slightly sweet joy; no sauce needed. And after my meal I flossed but (contrary to my usual practice) I refused to brush just so I could continue to savor the smoky goodness. As for the sides--they're fine, (I had the onion strings and vinegar cole slaw) but BBQ is about meat, and R.U.B. knows how to smoke it. I'm glad I've rediscovered them, and delighted they're right around the corner. It isn't Kreuz's, but it's a more-than-decent substitute for any New Yorker looking for some 'cue.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Smoke and mirrors

A few months ago, Tom Ryder, the Chairman of Reader's Digest, took a BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country. And even though he lives in Connecticut, he's no slouch on his 'cue credentials: southern, owns a chain of CT bbq joints called the Cookhouse and is a partner in NY's Blue Smoke. So I read his missives on my homeland with great anticipation. And most of the time he was pretty spot on in his descriptions, even though he didn't like Kreuz's Market and his party was upset when no sauce was served. But it's one's man's taste and one man's opinion. And even if you don't agree with his observations I highly recommend going through the full online package as it offers up a ton of information through words, photos and videos. And then you can be inspired to take your own BBQ tour of the Texas Hill Country.

Speaking of the Cookhouse, the NY Times reviewed the joint on Sunday. As usual when it comes to East Coast reviews of bbq, there was a humdinger of a comment that made me wonder where they find these writers. "The brisket is beautifully cooked but, served as it is without broth, its lovely flavor gets lost in the intensity of the smoke and sweet that pervades all the food here." Broth? With your barbecue brisket? This isn't grandma's Sunday brisket served with carrots and potatoes. If you don't know what something is, what gives you the right to pass judgment on it? The writer even concedes in the last graf, "The Cookhouse is not my style," meaning she doesn't know anything about bbq. So I still have no idea if the place is good or not, but I aim to check it out and pay my respects to Mr. Ryder.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Taco Tour: Los Mexicanos 14th Street taco cart

Is it possible to find redemption in a taco? It is when you find food this good. Los Mexicanos "La Poblanita" taco cart promises home cooking, and if this is what Mexican home cooking tastes like, I live in the wrong country. Unfortunately, only on Sundays will you find these ladies grilling meat, stuffing tacos, and even patting out fresh flour tortillas for deep-fried quesadillas. Their predominant customer base is the Mexican congregants of Our Lady of Guadalupe church on 14th between 8th and 9th Avenues, and along with the taco cart, there are other venders selling other Mexican treasures such as horchata, elote, and fruit on a stick. It's all very authentic, and everyone is super friendly.

Everything looked and smelled delicious, so I was having a difficult time choosing what to order. I asked the woman what was the best and she recommended the barbacoa. That makes sense, as barbacoa de cabeza is a traditional Sunday Mexican dish. I also ordered the pernil. While the flour tortillas were homemade, the corn tortillas were from a bag. But they threw them on the well-oiled grill so they were perfectly cooked with terrific texture, taste and support. They are generous with the meat and you also have the option to load up the tacos with three salsas, cilantro, onions and lettuce. But this meat is so sublime, you could get away with just eating the meat and tortillas by themselves, these tacos don't need any enhancements.

First, the barbacoa: I've been looking for proper bar-b-que in this town, and I finally found it. The meat tasted of smoke and spices, yet was so tender it melted in my mouth. The pernil, while not as delectable as the barbacoa, was still amazing. Crispy yet not too chewy, also perfectly spiced and with just enough fat to make me happy. The three salasa all had the perfect balance of flavor and heat, and were all so different I used all three. There were two green salsas, an avocado and tomatillo salsa (that was so popular they were almost out of it) and a brightly flavored jalapeno, cilantro, tomatillo and lime salsa. The red salsa was rich and deep, and tasted like a blend of pureed anchos with tomatoes and garlic. Los Mexicanos also has big buckets of cilantro, onions and lettuce--enough to make taco salad if you like. When you dress your taco, everything is in harmony. And the double tortillas are a perfect wrap to keep this meal intact. There's no place to sit, but I had no problem standing and eating--these ladies have mastered taco architecture. And they're also parked under a row of trees, so it's shady and cool, a perfect respite on a hot summer day.

I can't say enough good things about these tacos. All I know is that if I hadn't been full, I would have ordered everything else on the menu. Too bad I have to wait another week to return, but you know where I'll be next Sunday.

Recommendation: Barbacoa is sublime, but it's all good
Score: 9 (I wish they had fresh corn tortillas)
Location: 14th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, south side of street, Manhattan

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Taco Tour: Great Burrito

I decided to embark my Taco Tour in my own backyard, Chelsea. In a neighborhood drowning in high-end Mexican restaurants (Rocking Horse, Suenos, Crema) and Chinese-owned taquerias, I was surprised to find a true Mexican-owned hole-in-the-wall only a block away. I had passed this place many times, but had never been convinced it was worth a visit due to its lack of air conditioning and the swarming flies and dirty floor. But I've been to Mexico, and have eaten in places far worse for aesthetic value. And hey, when tacos are concerned, the quality of food can sometimes be in an inverse proportion to a restaurant's atmosphere. So I decided to give Great Burrito a chance.

I would love to report that I found a true gem a block away, but unfortunately, that's not the case. I ordered 3 tacos: el pastor, chorizo and carne asada. And one out of three wasn't bad. But that's the only good news. The rest was depressing. First, the tortillas. I saw the cook pull them out of a bag and throw them into a pizza oven (yes, the place also serves pizza, along with tortas, tostadas, burritos (natch) and enchiladas) for a few seconds. He shouldn't have bothered. The tortillas were cold, tasteless and yet still fell apart. Completely useless. So I ate my taco fillings with a fork.

Now what about the meat? Save for the pork, which was succulent, juicy, had a nice char, and a good cinnamon and lime flavor, the other two meats were inedible. The carne asada was all gristle with a bad "been sitting in the freezer" flavor. And the chorizo tasted like sweet, rubbery Italian sausage. The toppings were disappointing as well. Each taco was sprinkled with onions and cilantro--a good beginning and a fine ending. But Great Burrito also poured on some weird avocado salsa, that was like guacamole mixed with water and tomatoes. It had no flavor, no substance and no heat. And if any salsa was added (there was none on the counter for me to put on myself) I couldn't taste or see it.

Maybe Great Burrito makes great burritos. But I'd stay away from the tacos, save for the el pastor, and expect to eat it with a fork.

Recommendation: El Pastor taco. Request weird avocado sauce be left off taco.
Score: 3
Location: 23rd and 6th Avenue, Manhattan

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

NYC Taco Tour

Hungry for tacos? If you read last week's NY Times article, you might think you have to fly all the way to LA to enjoy this delectable dish. But it ain't true. While I am partial to my homeland's Mexican/Tex-Mex treats, I do believe there are some good tacos to be found in this town. And to prove my theory, starting today I am embarking on a taco tour of New York City. From the Bronx to the Battery, from Queens to Brooklyn and yes, I'll even take the ferry to Staten Island (which is rumored to have the best tacos of all five boroughs). I'll probably hit all the usual faves, but I'm hoping, in the spirit of discovery and adventure, to unearth some new gems as well. I won't put a time limit on this tour, but I will be posting often on what I eat. In the spirit of fair judgment, I will keep my tacos simple: tortilla, meat and salsa, with cilantro, onions and lime added if available. There will be no cheese, sour cream, lettuce or guacamole added to my tacos as not every place offers these extras. I will only be hitting places ran by Mexicans or perhaps the odd Texan or Californian, so you will not find any Fresh Tortillas or Taco Bell tacos on my taco tour. And my scoring will be conducted thusly: As in life, every taco begins with a clean slate. Starting at 10, points will be subtracted for quality of tortilla, quality of meat, quality of salsa and availability of aforementioned simple garnishes: cilantro, lime and onions. It's that simple. I'm not going to judge a place on atmosphere, service (unless it's completely abysmal) or location. I'm just doing this for the food. And hopefully, I'll find enough yummy ones that I can help other New Yorkers plan their own taco tours. Que aprovecho!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Taco? Well...

It's official, tacos are the new burgers, at least in the New York Times. Last week, the Grey Lady took a trip along California's magnificent HWY 1, not in search of breathtaking vistas but on a quest for roasted meat nestled between corn tortillas. After it appeared online, in a span of minutes I received several requests from friends to make this trip. Now, I've done HWY 1 several times, and I think it's one of the best road trips ever, but if I'm going on a quest for tacos, it would be more thrilling to travel southward: from San Diego to Tijuana and into Baja California. Don't get me wrong, the tacos in the article look and sound amazing, but what's more authentic--downtown Santa Barbara or a shack outside of Ensenada? But no matter, the trip does sound fun, and as of today, it's been on the Times "Most E-Mailed" list since its debut, knocking the well-read Shamu off the list.

In case you can't travel to California for your taco fix, Mark Bittman graciously provides a how-to guide on how to make tacos at home. In practice, his basic directions are fine: tortilla, meat, other stuff. But first, he says place a tortilla on a dry skillet. Have you ever put a corn tortilla on a dry skillet? He must be using some nonstick contraption because without any oil the tortilla sticks. So always dab a bit of oil (peanut prefarably) on a paper towel and rub it on the skillet giving it a lightly coated sheen. Then, when the skillet is hot, heat up your tortillas a few seconds on each side until it starts to curl. Second, his comments on meat are on target, but he fails to champion the most important ingredient to an authentic taco: salsa. He speaks of it like it's a cherry on a sundae--a delightful but unnecessary flourish. Wrong! Salsa is the spirit in the holy trinity that is a taco: tortillas, meat and salsa. If you go to any real Mexcian place, you'll find that veggies and dairy are optional, but no taco is complete without the salsa. Tsk, tsk. And his salsa recipe is insane. Either use one jalapeno or one habanero? That's like saying you can either have a bottle of soda or a bottle of tequila, there won't be much difference. Salsa is a joy to prepare, and especially in the summer months there's nothing more refreshing than fresh, hot salsa but I wouldn't recommend making Bittman's recipe. Instead I'll post my usual recipe on a later post. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Holy cow

When I was little, I lived in Dallas but had big dreams of living in New York City someday (too much Woody Allen and From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I reckon), and my young parents indulged my non-Texan tastes. So, for instance, when the weather was warm and we wanted something sweet and cool, instead of going to local favorite Brahm's we went to the Haagen Dazs shop. So chic! But when I was nine we moved to Houston, and on my first day of fourth grade at a new school in a suburb that bordered the sticks (KIKK Country was the number-one radio station and nine year old boys were already dipping Skoal) my so-called fancy pants preferences just didn't fly. When we kids sat around in a circle and as a means of introduction said what our favorite ice cream was (because, you know, you are defined by what ice cream you favor), when I said Haagen Dazs Coffee, I was shunned until fifth grade.

I found my redemption with the natives, however, in a half-gallon tub of Blue Bell's Cookies and Cream. Man, that stuff was amazing. Vanilla so pure and smooth it felt like velvet. And mixed up in the vanilla were countless Oreos, so many that you mouth crunched when you ate this ice cream. Blue Bell is made in Brenham, a stone's throw from Houston. And you learn very early that Blue Bell is so delicious, even the cows in Brenham are happy. Well no wonder. Pints are for sissies. And coffee is for breakfast.

Today, R.W. Apple, a writer for the Times who has the best job in the world (all he does is travel the world and eat) waxes poetic about Blue Bell. I can't really add much to what he's already said, but note this: if you're ever in a place that sells the stuff, buy a big ol' tub and dig in--you won't be sorry. And for $4.99 a half-gallon (compared to $4.99 a pint for other company's ice cream), it's a summer time treat that can't be beat.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My new hero

Here's a Q&A with Nina Planck, a controversial character in the NY market scene who's opening two new farmer's markets in NYC called Real Markets.

How can I not applaud someone who says, "Lard—you can’t seem to get enough of it... The thing about lard is that it’s mostly unsaturated fat, which nobody knows, and the monounsaturated fat in it is the same one in olive oil." She also admits: "I became a vegan and a vegetarian and my health suffered. I started eating beef and crème fraîche, eggs and raw-milk cheese, and my health improved." Right on! I've always believed as long as you eat whole, real foods, and achieve a proper balance of all the food groups, you'll be at your healthiest. Can't wait to check out these new markets. I'll bring my camera.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Meat of the matter

BBQ and NYC have never really gotten along. Perhaps it's the lack of space for a proper pit, or perhaps it's just this town's overpricing on subpar meat (Peter Luger or any other well-branded NY steakhouse, anyone?). Whatever the problem, I have never had anything that closely approximates the yummy cheap meats you can find down south.

Enter RUB. I live around the corner from this joint, dubiously named Righteous Urban Barbecue. I believe the pitmaster/owner hails from one of the Carolinas, which ordinarily--as a Texan--would not impress me. But this being NYC and all, a pitmaster from the South is better than one from say, Syracuse. (Not that I'm completely dissing Dinosaur BBQ because their meat is good, it's just not BBQ.) I tried RUB last summer, and was completely disappointed. My friend and I ordered a good portion of the menu, and the only thing that satisfied was the fried Oreos. But I hear rumors they've gotten their act together and are actually producing some decent 'cue. And every night, waves of sweet-smelling meat waft into my apartment (which is another reason why BBQ has never succeeded in NYC--apparently people complain (?!) about this delicious smell, which puts places out of business). So I may give them another try. If they taste as good as they smell, perhaps it ain't all bad. But if it still sucks, at least they've mastered the art of a fried cookie--a supremly unique delicacy I'd never tried and after one bite, wondered where it had been my whole life.