Archive for March 2011

Almost Mexico

March 27th, 2011 — 6:23pm

El Paso at Night From Franklin Mountains

I spent the weekend in El Paso last weekend. I have been there so many times for work and have spent very little time wandering about the city. In the past I have stuck to venturing out as far as the hotel shuttle will take you. This weekend I was a bit more adventurous, and with a little bit of free time, and some assistance from my friends Lionel and Emmanuel who live in Juarez and El Paso, respectively, I was able to get a better sense of the place.

It would be easy to overlook the city. The brown sand, blends with the brown mountains, which overpower the senses. The vast expanse of the barrios of Juarez largely dominate the view from the airport to the downtown area. It is hard to figure out where El Paso ends and where Juarez begins until you get close to the border and see the border fence. You can almost touch the relative poverty of Juarez while standing in the prosperity and safety of El Paso. It is of course this duality that makes El Paso so different. The city has its feet firmly planted on both sides of the border. It could not survive without Mexico and yet it aspires to be something more American. Living in these two worlds creates a very special vitality.

The food scene is dominated largely by the major American chains. I noticed this trend when I was living in Monterrey, Mexico in the 1990’s. The Mexican culture was embracing the concepts of “Red Lobster” and “Chili’s” much to the detriment of the local culture and cuisine. To that end El Paso is clearly an American city. But there were signs that not all is fast food sameness in the city. One good example, Mi Piaci (not to be confused with the restaurant of the same name in Dallas) clearly was making some excellent Italian cuisine, sometimes with a bit of a Mexican twist. In my case my Penne Diavola was spiced not only with the traditional red pepper flakes, it was also spiced with some chipotle peppers, lending the dish a bit of a smoky flavor. While not exactly authentic Italian it worked well. My friend Emmanuel opted for a more traditional pollo parmigiana, which was prepared with a Latin-influenced pollo milanesa, topped with the usual sauce and cheese. The milanesa was so thin and the crust so perfectly browned it really did not need any sauce. The dish was perfectly executed and incredibly satisfying.

I suppose you are wondering about the Mexican cuisine. I have only eaten at two Mexican restaurants in the city. I can honestly say I have had better Mexican food in Juarez (when it was safe to go there) and in San Antonio (La Fogata). For some reason the border cities like McAllen and El Paso rely too much on American convenience and go for the canned rather than the fresh foods. Unfortunately they are too much like the restaurant “On The Border” and not enough like the fresh-cooked food you can get at any roadside stand in Mexico. I can recommend “Los Bandidos de Carlos and Mickey’s” or more commonly “Carlos and Mickey’s.” The food is very good and simply prepared. You can order all the usual Mexican food dishes. It adds a note of festivity with a lively bar scene, and live music every night. And of course my favorite Mexican ingredient, chaos. There is nothing like sipping a drink while watching a bunch of people try to manage a crowded restaurant with no one really in charge and no one responsible for doing anything. Honestly, those moments are priceless.

The most important aspect of the food scene would be seeing the influence of Mexican culture on the dining environment. The evening meal is a time for enjoyment with friends and family. It is generally eaten much later and much slower than the typical American restaurant meal. While I have often written about the enjoyment of a quiet meal alone, dining alone here would elicit stares and I am sure more than a few comments about the fact that that poor man has no friends. It is not uncommon to see six to ten people enjoying a meal together eliciting their own subculture of chaos and of enjoyment, experiencing a time of food and camaraderie. To that end maybe it really makes little difference where you dine. It may be more important with whom you dine. Last weekend the camaraderie was very good.

2 comments » | Musings, Restaurants, Travel

Benign Neglect

March 22nd, 2011 — 9:03am

The New Skinny

I have heard from more than a few people about the lack of new postings on the site over the past two months. Working two jobs, one of which involves a lot of traveling has taken a toll on my body and on the blog. For me it has led to a loss of 15 pounds. For the blog it has led to a loss of traffic. The former being a good thing. The latter not such a good thing. Benign neglect has an upside and a downside.

As to the former, on my only day off so far this year, I was in New York and found my way to the Men’s Suit Department at Macy’s. I was looking for a simple black jacket, not a blazer with shiny buttons, but a simple black jacket with simple black buttons. I had already been to 10 other stores with no success. The salesman at Macy’s was of great help in two ways. He told me that he could find one for me. He also told me that I have been purchasing the wrong size of clothing, for years! Apparently while I was not watching they have come out with a new version of clothing called “slim.” If your shoulders are much broader than your waist apparently you are likely to fit into this category. So instead of wearing a 43 long in the fatty jackets, I am apparently a 44 long in the slim jackets. I was astonished when I first put on the slim jacket. It fit like a glove, and all ego boosting aside, made me look really thin. So with my new found size I rushed to buy a “slim” dress shirt to go with my new “slim” jacket. I wore them both last Saturday night. I felt totally different. And with my new slim physique I did not feel so bad eating a huge bowl of pasta that night.

This of course has nothing to do with food. Unless of course you realize, as I did thinking about my weight loss that we, at least at our house, eat really healthy food. In addition simple portion control can lead to a dramatic weight loss. Portion control in my case is mostly from fatigue. I am so tired I am more interested in going to bed than lingering at the dinner table. I also realized that we tend not to reach for the mayonnaise, the butter, or layers of cheese for every dish. I use cheese a lot. But it is usually in proportion to the dish and used as a background flavor.

To reinforce my new theory, last night I was awarded responsibility for doing something with the red potatoes that were lingering in the refrigerator. They were of the small red variety perfect for a potato salad. But, no, there was to be no mayonnaise slathering the shiny red skins. Instead I opted for something more Greekish (not to be confused with Geekish, of which I am often accused). The potatoes were bathed in a simple mixture of lemon, olive oil, garlic, oregano, touch of mustard, and bit of feta cheese. The potatoes were combined with some quartered olives and allowed to rest for 10 minutes in the lemon mixture before serving. They were delicious and healthy and completely fitting with the new “slim” me. I was going to take a picture, but candidly, they look just like every other potato dish. The taste was wonderful. You should try the new potatoes before you go to reach for that gallon jar of mayonnaise.

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The Safe Bet

March 11th, 2011 — 9:30am

The Warwick Melrose Lobby

In the fast pace of the past few months we have often forgotten to just have an evening for ourselves. We had time for a Sunday night tapas dinner at Maguire’s a few weeks ago. This week we decided to make a little time for a quiet evening out. Something we have not had the energy or time to do in a long time.

Selecting where to go then becomes an issue. I usually try to opt for something new. Will on the other hand usually prefers the tried and true figuring you know what you will be getting when you get there. We decided to go for the tried and true and ended up at the Landmark Restaurant at the Warwick Melrose on Oak Lawn Avenue. I have not eaten there in ten years so it also sufficed for a new dining experience as well.

I used to stay at the hotel frequently when it was just called the Melrose. The restaurant was a good place to eat if a bit uninspiring. Most of the action always seemed to be concentrated in the Library Bar, which was once one of the more trendy places to see and be seen in Dallas. I even celebrated my 40th birthday in the restaurant. An evening that devolved into all night pub crawl down Cedar Springs. One of the best reasons to stay at the hotel is to be able to walk home after an evening out.

In general I was pretty impressed with the menu changes. I am not sure they are trying to tackle any one cuisine. There is a quite a bit of Asian influence, mixed in with some Northern Italian, and everything else seems to be a safe American choice. There is a fair amount of ingenuity in the offerings. Although being a hotel restaurant there have to be a few of the standards available to meet the needs of the traveling public. I write a much longer review of the evening. If you have not been back to the Landmark in awhile I definitely think it would be worth a second look.

Comment » | Musings, Restaurants

Dinner for One

March 4th, 2011 — 12:11pm

The Lonely Dinner Table

The Busy Gourmand has been rather busy lately, doing mostly things not related to cooking or even enjoying myself. This week Will has been traveling and I have been getting home from work late, tossing together some random ingredients and trying to make the best of it. When I am alone I tend not to eat very much or very well. And the extra glass of wine is all too easy to pour when there is nobody with whom to speak. (Yeah I know boo hoo, boo hoo.)

I splurged one night and broke into our stash of frozen basil pesto. This is a rare commodity so we use it sparingly as fresh basil will not be on our plates for at least another month. I am always amazed at how a plate of pasta with some basil pesto cheers me up. The smell of the basil and the salty goodness of the cheese really makes my day. It feels like the summer all over again even though we are in the middle of gloomy March. I even broke out one the festive bowls to serve it to myself. The picture above is the aftermath of the lonely episode.

Shrimp and Andouille Sausage Stir Fry

One night I actually tried to do something original. I grilled some andouille sausage the evening before and decided that I had no idea what to do with them so I left them in the refrigerator. The next night peeled and deveined shrimp were on sale so I combined the shrimp and the sausage to make a very nice stir-fry. I loaded it up with some spinach and the usual chopped vegetables. It turned out very nice and at least put a smile on my face. Because I had precooked the sausage the whole thing came together in about 15 minutes. Not a bad evening of cooking at all.

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