I grew up in Houston, where we eat lots of Mexican food. Okay, so a Californian wouldn't call it Mexican food--and a Mexican wouldn't call it Mexican food--so I guess it's time for me to admit that, strictly speaking, what I'm talking about is Tex-Mex. This is something you just can't get in New York. You can get really authentic tacos in the back of little Mexican groceries, and you can pay $20 for cilantro halibut with pistachio mole, but where are the cheese enchiladas with beef chili sauce and orange cheese? (Good ones, I mean). Where are the perfectly greasy fajitas with lard-enhanced flour tortillas? I have never, and I mean not once, had an acceptable flour tortilla in this city. I am surprised when I come upon a passable tortilla chip. So when I go home, as I did a couple of weekends ago, I have to pack in as much
Mexican Tex-Mex food as I can.
The first place I want to go is almost always Ninfa's, a chain that has had its ups and downs. They claim to have invented fajitas, and I choose to believe them. When I was very small, we ate at a Ninfa's near our old house, and children were given fans made out of coy-looking paper parrots. I was a great fan of the fan (and of the tiki men that perched on my Coke at Trader Vic's--does anyone remember that?), and I liked putting butter and sugar on my tortilla chips. When I was a little older, we went to the Ninfa's near our new house. There were video games in the waiting area, near the bathroom a cigarette vending machine that made me nervous, and a stand in the middle of the main dining room where a woman made flour tortillas. If you asked, she would give you a ball of raw dough to eat before dinner (N.B. not recommended for the adult diner). Ninfa's has fallen out of favor with my family--and everyone else's, judging by the empty dining room--since multiple changes in management have finally managed to ruin not just the atmosphere but also the food. So now we only go to the original Ninfa's ("Ninfa's on Navigation"), where everything is as it should be. Here you can see beef and chicken fajitas, refried beans and rice, and, lurking on the left, my mother's cheese enchiladas. The best part of this meal is rolling a flour tortilla filled with refried beans and chile con queso...nothing is softer, fattier, more voluptuously comforting. The second best part of this meal actually comes first, and that is loading up on chips and salsa and green sauce before the food comes. I said that I pack in the Mexican food when I am home; if memory serves me, the lifetime truth is that most of the meals I have eaten at Ninfa's I have attacked as if they were my last. As you can see, I get worked up about it after a margarita or two. In this picture, I believe I am denouncing the Yankee cheapskates who don't even give you free chips and salsa when you sit down.
Last month I was talking to my mother on the phone, and she casually mentioned the pecan waffles at Goode Company's brunch. It soon became clear that my family had been hiding from me the fact that a favorite greasy, hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex & burger restaurant has an amazing weekend breakfast menu. At night, I like to order their hard-shell tacos, which are basically like something you would have eaten at camp, except good; for breakfast, I tried eggs scrambled with venison sausage. As all good breakfasts should, it came with refried beans, rice, a tortilla, and salsa. I know it looks like novelty plastic vomit, but you will have to trust me on this one: it was delicious. The combination of chocolate and cinnamon always makes me think of Goode Company because they make a chocolate-cinnamon milkshake that, while too thick for my taste, is very popular with everyone else.
Before I left the office for the airport, I couldn't help exclaiming to my boss how much I was looking forward to Mexican food. "Is it really that good?" he asked. "Well, YOU wouldn't like it," I said, "It's greasy and cheesy and inauthentic. But it's what I grew up with, and I love it." A good example of something cheesy and inauthentic that is hard to sell Yankees on is chile con queso, which, I am sorry to tell you, is Velveeta and chiles, and absolutely divine on chips. This is the queso at Taco Milagro, a newish place (i.e., opened after I left for college...for all I know, it has been open for 9 years now) where you can enjoy simple, delicious fish tacos, margaritas, and queso at noon or 5pm, with families or the after-work crowd, or at 11pm, with an eardrum-shattering band, a packed dance floor, and a bunch of women who have chosen their tops expressly to advertise the fact that their boyfriends bought them boobs for Christmas. Never mind that, though...the food is plain and yummy, especially the queso.
Queso is easy, you can enjoy it yourself, no matter where you're from! All you need is a brick of Velveeta and a small can of chiles & tomatoes (preferably Ro-tel). Melt the cheese (enough to fill a cereal bowl is a good amount for 2 or 3 people; melting is easiest on the stovetop, I think), stir in as many chiles as make it taste good to you (maybe 1/2 of the tiny can), and serve. If, like me, you live in a city with bad tortilla chips, you might as well bake your own in the oven; those bad chips aren't worth the fried calories. Cut any old corn tortillas into the shape you like, brush them with a small amount of vegetable oil, and bake them at 400 degrees until they are crispy (10 minutes? it's always different, so keep a close eye on them; as long as you catch them before they start burning, they will be tasty).
A final food memory, especially for the flour-tortilla-deprived: when my friend Heather was first married (and I had yet to graduate from college), I saw her make flour tortillas herself. I was amazed by how grown up and domestic she was, but even more by the fact that you could make really good flour tortillas at home. I haven't tried Molly's recipe from Orangette yet, but I will now that...my cooktop works!