Greetings from Texas! I have spent the past few days tooling around the state, reuniting with college friends in Dallas, visiting my grandmothers in McKinney, shopping for new cowboy boots in El Paso and relaxing in the big sky and vast landscape of far, far West Texas.
Of course, I’ve been eating myself silly—sometimes up to seven little meals in a day. For instance, one day started with a fried pie at Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit in Marathon, TX. I then had a mid-morning snack of a Frito pie at Alicia’s in Alpine. Next was the Marfalafel from the Food Shark truck in Marfa, followed by the Mexican plate at Alice’s. I gave my stomach a rest for a few hours, and then had a brisket sandwich at Mo’z in El Paso, a milanesa de res (Mexican chicken-fried steak) smothered in queso at Casa Jurado, and then concluded my eating day with a carne guisada taco from Taco Cabana. Needless to say, I slept very, very well that evening.
You may think I’m a glutton, but rest assured I do not eat this way when I’m back in New York. It’s just whenever I’m in Texas each meal and each bite is precious and I want to squeeze in as much good tastes as I can during my brief time at home. When I go to Texas, I have my usual places where I like to eat, but this time I branched out and ate at some new restaurants, too. Here’s a list of five new favorite dishes I sampled while I was at home:
Breakfast tacos: El Tacaso in Oak Cliff, Dallas. I enjoy my breakfast tacos with eggs, but sometimes I just want a fluffy flour tortilla stuffed with refried beans and spicy, crumbly chorizo. This cheerful restaurant at the corner of Westmoreland and Fort Worth Avenue serves breakfast tacos such as these in the morning, alongside a container of fiery thin tomato salsa for dipping. Not much English is spoken, but everyone understands the international language of good food.
Chile con queso: When we Texans talk of chile con queso, we are usually referring to orange processed cheese melted with Ro-Tel tomatoes. And don’t get me wrong—this is good, addictive stuff. But in northern Mexico, chile con queso means white cheese melted with sautéed green chiles. And this also is good, addictive stuff. Julio’s Cafe Corona in El Paso serves its queso this way—a big bowl of melted Monterrey Jack laced with spicy strips of sautéed jalapeno and serrano peppers. And while it’s soft enough to dip a chip into it, I prefer to ladle it into fresh flour tortillas.
Chicken-fried steak: Every day on my trip I ate a plate of chicken-fried steak. It was not my intent to do this, but it just kept appearing on menus and so I indulged. I have always been a bit dubious of chicken-fried steaks made with fancy cuts of beef or served with embellished cream gravy, but the chicken-fried hanger steak at Tillman’s Roadhouse in Oak Cliff, smothered in a poblano cream gravy was a real crowd pleaser. And Paul Petersen at the Gage Hotel’s Cafe Cenizo also offers a chicken-fried steak, his served with a jalapeno, chorizo and roasted-corn cream gravy. If I hadn’t been stuffed, I may have ordered another plate.
Barbacoa: I’ve wanted to eat at Carnitas Querataro in El Paso for quite a while. It’s a small chain of restaurants that serves up Mexican comfort food, with an emphasis on braised and roasted meats, as the name would suggest. While their symbol is a grinning pink pig, I found that their beef is equally delicious, especially their barbacoa, which in Texas is slow-cooked meat from the head of a cow. On my last day, after eating a breakfast of excellent red-chile cheese enchiladas, I asked my server to bring me a menu so I could order food for the plane. I got carnitas, but on a whim decided also to bring along a barbacoa burrito, which was a large homemade tortilla simply stuffed with pork-rich refried beans and strands of smooth barbacoa. Mid-flight when we were somewhere between El Paso and Dallas, I unwrapped my barbacoa beauty and everyone within a few rows of me asked, “What is that amazing smell? What are you eating?” Note to self: next time buy extra barbacoa burritos and sell them on the plane.
Frito pie: I stopped into Alicia’s Burritos in Alpine with the intent of ordering a breakfast burrito, but when I saw Frito pie on the menu, my plans changed. After my last post, I’ve had Frito pie on the brain (as have some friends of mine, to which I apologize if they still have not gotten their fix), and Alicia’s version did not disappoint. It was a cast-iron bowl filled with a mountain of crisp, tiny Fritos, topped with homemade chunky chili, melted cheddar and juicy diced onions. As I sat working my way through the bowl, I admired the decor of Elvis curtains and cheerful turquoise walls. After a while, I realized that this bowl would just not quit. I had ordered a small Frito pie, so I asked the waitress how big was the large. “That is a large,” she said. “We thought you looked hungry so we made you a large bowl instead.” You can’t beat service like that! (Though if they had known I was on my second breakfast they might have reconsidered.)
This concludes my travelogue. Next time, I will be writing of salads or fish—it is, after all, Lent. Plus my stomach could use a break. But was I ever happy while eating my way across the great state of Texas!