Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mex Without the Tex

At the end of a tiny strip mall in Memphis’ Wolf River basin is Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana, where the Magallanes family brings authentic Mexican food to a city in which most so-called Mexican restaurants serve up things a citizen of that country would never recognize as his homeland’s cuisine.

Forget the Tex-Mex, the nachos and the cheese dip. Forget the mediocre entrée flanked by too much rice and flavorless refried beans that most likely came from a can. This is the real stuff, prepared by a personable family who love sharing not only their native food but the back-story of the food as well.

Small but clean and bright (and with a lunchtime line that trails out the door), this eatery serves up freshly-made specialties that anyone from Mexico City would recognize.

Pepe, the patriarch, explains that the twice-cooked pork ribs are made from his grandmother’s recipe. How can I not try them?! and have them on the second visit? and on the third? They’re superb, the meat falling off the bone so cleanly I can accomplish my post-meal lipstick reapplication in my reflection. Superb mole in homemade mini tortillas, fresh, wonderful tamales, both chicken and pork. And corn on the cob that you wouldn’t believe, beginning with fresh—not frozen—corn, that’s perfectly cooked, then coated with a thin layer of mayonnaise and sprinkled with grated cotija, an aged cow’s milk cheese, and red pepper.

Pepe and his son Jonathan are warm, friendly and hospitable hosts. As I trot to the pick up area when my number is called, Jonathan reaches across a case filled with cheeses, chili peppers and long curls of cassia bark to explain each item I’ve ordered.

Of course, you need a real Mexican beverage to go with your feast. Their agua fresca, fresh fruit drinks, will make you forget all about your favorite soda. Horchata, jamaica, mango, watermelon, limonata and tamarino are just a few, all made fresh and all made really, really good (hey, I’ll shove a clean straw into the glass of anyone who will allow me a taste!).

Tomorrow Andy and I venture to Mexico City to spend a week visiting friends, seeing the sights and enjoying the local cuisine. We look forward to learning more about authentic Mexican food. Of course, just as Italy’s food is regional, so is Mexico’s. But as happens everywhere, folks from the country venture to the city, and some of them open restaurants where their fellow transplants can go for a taste of home. So we anticipate finding at least a smattering of the country’s regional dishes to enjoy while we’re in its capital.

So until our return, hasta luego!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

New Orleans Redux

As I digest the experiences of my recent week in New Orleans at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, many great moments come to mind. Here are a few:

Just being back on the streets of that lovely, exotic and historic city for the first time in 11 years. New Orleans is a place like no other, with its unique blend of cultures--European, Caribbean and African--and its history, customs, architecture, music and food.

Enjoying beignets and chicory coffee in Café du Monde. The place was packed like there was no tomorrow--or as if everyone thought beignets would be outlawed by midnight. So what if it looked like we’d been dusted for fingerprints? What’s a little powdered sugar when you get to enjoy freshly-made beignets, along with an attitudinous dark-as-sin coffee that’s stout enough to power a jet engine?!

Surely they must serve beignets in Heaven!

Hearing, “’scuse me, darlin’!” and “Sorry, Sweetheart!” countless times as I navigated crowded sidewalks and slipped past local men going about their business of setting up for the day’s activities. In most cities, there would have been (1) no apology for having bumped into me and (2) no term of endearment go to with it. There was nothing weird or predatory behind it--just good manners.

The kick of having Chef Paul Prudhomme himself serve me a bowl of amazingly tasty gumbo and give me the cheffly knuckle tap. Chef Paul is one-in-a-million, the real deal, an ultra-fine cook who never sought out fame and who wears his celebrity lightly and modestly. (And out of respect for this, I refrained from shoving a camera in his face.)

Most importantly—and Chef Paul is a part of this—the warmth and gratitude of those I bought from during my stay. New Orleans is one of the great welcoming cities in this country. Its citizens know how to have a roarin’ good time, and they love showing visitors a good time, too. No one’s a stranger there for long. And the food, as always, is top notch and memorable.

The Creole rabbit at Olivier's is succulent and flavorful.

Central Grocery on Decatur Street, birthplace of the muffuletta, still serves up its famous party-sized sandwich. This giant round of Italian bread filled with cured meats and cheese and zazzed up with garlic-and-olive relish is great to pick up on your way out of town—you can eat some now, and still have plenty to enjoy on the trip home.

New Orleans is a long, long way from being completely repaired and restored. There are people still living without electricity and phone service. There are people still living in tents. And many who have yet to return. The city is bloodied, by both the storm and by the federal government’s indifference to its plight, but New Orleanians are fighting to regain some sense of normalcy, to rebuild their homes and their lives.

You never know what--or who--you'll find in your wanderings about the city. Looks like double good fortune to me!

Some people seem to think the city is still under water. The water receded within a couple of days of Hurricane Katrina 2½ years ago, but the damage—both physical and psychological—left in its wake is taking a long time to erase. And perhaps it never completely will be.

This is where the water lives--
in the Mississippi River, not on top of the city!

It's impossible to stand still when the music cranks up. It's as vital a part of life in New Orleans as eating, drinking or even breathing . . .

But New Orleans is open for business, with its warmth and hospitality intact. To those who crave to travel abroad but who don’t have the money, I’ve always said, “Go to New Orleans—it’s the most foreign and exotic place you'll find on the North American continent.” With the dollar taking a clobbering against the euro and the English pound, why not visit—or revisit—this amazing city? Beauty, history, great food and a warm welcome await you. As the locals say, Y'all come, and

Laisse le bon temp rouler!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Worth Flying to Get To

A few years ago, Gentlemen’s Quarterly named Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in the west Tennessee hamlet of Mason one of the ten restaurants in the United States worth flying to get to.

Rightly so. They serve the best darned fried chicken on the planet. Spices infuse the juicy flesh of their crispy fried chicken—they’re not simply stuck to the skin. Accompanying this heaven-on-a-bone are collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried okra,
potatoes, and on and on... All of it soul food at its most soulful. The generous buffet allows indulgence in a score of Southern delicacies. It's all made to nourish farmers and rural folks who stand in line for their to-go orders, while those of us with the time to linger over our meal make too many trips to the buffet. We'll think about dieting tomorrow...
We stopped and ate at Gus’s on the way from Memphis up to my family farm, taking the backroads through the gloriously lush green landscape of a Tennessee spring. The aroma of that famous chicken greeted us as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, before we even opened the car doors. The restaurant is nothing fancy at all, but this is not a place you go to for posh surroundings. There's serious eating to be done here, finery be damned!
The GQ article is framed on the wall, but it’s given no more prominence than all the local write-ups and accolades heaped on the place. The Gus of Gus's fame died in the summer of 2007, but those he left behind have carried on the tradition he established of providing honest, tasty, wholesome fare at prices the locals can afford. And if guests actually DO fly in, they’re just as welcome in their city duds and rental cars as the farmers in their dusty work clothes and pick-up trucks.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Getting a bang out of Tang

Simple foods often have wonderful associations. For example, the April issue of Saveur focuses on authentic ragu and its place on the Bolognese table. But the editorial of that same issue is on Ragu brand spaghetti sauce and how it provided a good sauce base for transplanted Italians—who added lots of special ingredients, then stashed the empty jar so no one would know.

For me it’s Tang, specifically HOT Tang, in the office of my college adviser and English professor. Dr. Wheeler always had an aged coffee pot on hand, filled with hot water and ready to offer students a cup of hot cocoa or hot Tang. With books and papers stacked dizzyingly high, that office was always a warm, welcoming place. Dr. Wheeler had an easy and infectious laugh, and her office provided a cozy haven as I sat in my coat with the snow melting and dripping on the floor, sipping hot Tang and discussing literature, progress on the yearbook or perhaps nothing in particular, with a wise and wonderful woman who understood the importance of a pot of hot water and a humble jar of powdered orange juice.

Who cares if this is a shade of orange not often found in nature?! Some of our most cherished food memories, particularly for those of us living in the United States, involve foods whose colors are a bit suspect.

To Dr. Wheeler, I raise my mug of hot Tang and offer a hearty “Cheers!”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Everything’s better with chocolate . . . and heat!

It isn’t often that you sit down to a meal with a variety of Tabasco sauces on your table, but that was my good fortune during the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in New Orleans last month. The Tabasco company was sponsoring the meal, so it was their prerogative to scatter the room with samples of all their products. Each table had an assortment of Tabasco sauces, the original, the jalapeno green, the garlic, the habanero, the smoky chipotle and the sweet & spicy.

Maybe it’s not your first inclination, but I grabbed up the habanero and splashed some onto my chocolate pecan pie. It really picked up the flavors of the pie, in addition to adding the element of heat. It was a great combo.

Similarly, during last summer’s Fourth of July party, I nosed my way to the chocolate fountain past the kids with their marshmallows, strawberries and banana chunks, flowed some of the chocolate sauce into a dish for myself and dunked my barbecued pork ribs into it. It was love at first nibble, a smooth and pleasant blend of pork and fat and spiciness and chocolate and sweetness.

Both are examples of how you can tweak the basic idea of Mexico’s mole to create something new and wonderful. Dreaming up great flavor combinations is limited only by our imagination and perhaps by our degree of adventurousness. It doesn’t hurt to try one bite. And when you find a particular combination of flavors you like as in, say, mole, use that as your cue to try similar combinations. Spicy, chocolaty mole over pork in a Mexican restaurant encouraged me to try chocolate sauce on my spicy pork ribs. See how easy that is?

Now pass the hot sauce!

Monday, May 5, 2008

. . . and gumbo for all

During my recent visit to New Orleans, one thing that impressed me most as I learned about the city’s cultural and culinary evolution was the way in which a key element was introduced into the mix.

When the slave traders arrived in west Africa and rounded up the locals for “import” to the New World, they refused to allow the enslaved to carry anything with them. Because okra held a sacred place in African culture as both a food and a healing agent, the women being pressed into slavery hastily wove the dried vegetable pods into their hair in order to bring it to their new home. This is how we came to have okra in North America.

Ever since people began leaving home for points unknown (whether their journeys were voluntary or forced), they’ve brought their treasured comfort foods with them. There’s nothing that can take the edge off of illness or loneliness or anxiety quite like having a meal of what soothed us when we were young. Even now, when I return to Los Angeles from a trip home to Tennessee, my suitcase is tight with packages of country ham and bacon and, until they started being shipped to the West Coast, good ol' Goo Goo Clusters. If I could manage it, I’d include fried catfish in the trove. None of these foods are haute cuisine, but that’s not the point. This is why chefs sharing with each other what their last meal would be, were they ever to end up on death row, invariably list their favorite comfort foods.

The Bantu word for okra, “kigombo,” gave us the name of that quintessential New Orleans food, gumbo. As okra was a special food to the west Africans, so gumbo is to New Orleanians. We all have our own “gumbo,” even if we don’t eat it with a spoon.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Home again, home again, piggity pig

It’s good to be back home in Memphis. As I stepped from the plane onto the jetway this evening, two scents blended in my nose—jet fumes and barbecue. Right next to my gate was an Interstate Barbecue restaurant. If my family hadn't been waiting to have dinner with me, I’d have just rolled my bag right in there and gotten myself a healthy dose of pork barbecue before ever leaving the airport. Thanks for the welcome home, Neely family!

The next few days will involve spending time with family and friends, enjoying the old haunts and sighing over the lovely green Tennessee landscape that’s so very Ireland in its uncountable shades of green. And it will involve making sure to have all those foods that nourished my past—catfish, country ham, pork barbecue, cornbread, fried chicken and a variety of vegetables cooked in bacon drippings.
This field, the view from the back of our family farmhouse, has housed its share of hogs and cattle over the years, as well as the current corn crop. There we've raised both food to eat and food to sell. I've caught innumerable catfish in its pond--and we've even gigged a frog or two there for those lean, meaty legs!

Of course, when I head back to Los Angeles in 10 days, the last thing I will smell as I board the plane will probably be the same, a blend of jet fumes and barbecue. And then I’ll say, thanks for the farewell, Neely family!

p.s. I’d like to apologize to Rob Reiner for staring at him on the flight to Indianapolis today. I wasn’t staring at him because he’s Rob Reiner, but rather because I was thinking, “Gee, that man looks just like Rob Reiner.” Then later I heard someone say, “Yeah, Rob Reiner’s on this flight!” And then I knew why the man I was staring at looked so much like Rob Reiner. What an uncanny resemblance . . .