Monday, May 28, 2007

The Added Dimensions of Really Good Food

Hmm. I've been Meme-ed by DragonWatch on the great hunt for great food. Remember the old guidebook back in the 60's and 70's, "Europe on $5 a Day"? Well, some of you do. This will be a bit like that. My budget is small, and I don't get out much these days, except to have some truly excellent food at the homes of friends. Over the years, I've traveled quite a lot and had some truly memorable meals. But not in the last decade. So I'm going to try to talk about some really good things to eat I find at ordinary, everyday places for the most part. Am I breaking the rules to mention chains? I think I must at least once.

I remember many years ago (actually, 47) having a really excellent meal at Antoine's in New Orleans, eating the then "all the rage" pompano in parchment paper, and it was indeed a great meal, great ambience and service. The next day we left New Orleans and headed east. Around noon, we saw a small cafe on the side of the road with a big creek behind it, and stopped and ordered fresh trout caught that morning out of the creek, greens, and the best piece of pecan pie I have ever eaten, and I make a pretty mean one myself. Service was pleasant. No particular ambience. But the trout leaves a stronger impression on my memory than the fancy pompano, and the pompano was really superb. Even then, I think, fresh, fresh, fresh and simple tickled my palate.

I play Yahzee every week with three other women and we have discussed the merits of Velveeta vs. cheddar in homemade pimento cheese. (One reason we play Yahzee rather than canasta or bridge is that it leaves more mind room for conversations about silly stuff like Velveeta vs. cheddar.) The Velveeta makes a smoother spread, the cheddar gives a different texture and just a touch of sharp. I grew up on cheddar. One of the other women grew up no Velveeta. Not surprisingly, both of us prefer the dish the way our mothers made it. In my family, we didn't fry much and we almost never made gravy. White sauce occasionally, yes. Gravy, no. I still like plain mashed potatoes, except when eating chicken fried steak. Then gravy is mandatory, sorta. But it has probably been a year or more since I've had one. For a person unused to fried foods as I am, I am about to recommend several.

Massey's still in operation in Fort Worth on Seventh St., closed for a couple years, then reopened with new owners but the same recipes. Texas Monthly magazine once dubbed it the best chicken fried steak in the state. You can get a humongous one on a platter, for sure, but they still have the lunch special for $5-$6 dollars --small, iceburg lettuce and tomato salad, palm-sized perfectly cooked steak, and two sides with a sliver of pie after (I like the chocolate meringue). I started eating there in the 1960s. One of the beauties of Fort Worth is how some of its best parts go on and on and on.

I am hampered in recommending restaurants to an extent by some successful efforts in the last months to lose weight. I have not gone on any real diet, but rather followed the "little plate" rule--if it fits (without stacking) on a salad plate, I can eat it. Since I actually enjoy stuff like brussel sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, etc., cooked to just tender with Molly McButter or even a little butter and salt, my tastebuds are mostly used to plainer fare these days. And while I've always loved breads, if I eat them now, I don't have room for the real meal so I seldom do. Because, yeah, most restaurant meals now make two or even three meals for me. And that affects where I want to go eat. I don't want to throw away perfectly tasty food, but sometimes I don't want to bring home a bunch of food I'm going to get tired of before it's gone. (Am I losing? yes, two-four pounds a month, effortlessly. Sometimes I miss being able to eat seconds, like yesterday, when Sharon fixed a chicken enchilada casserole full of Hatch chiles and a salad crammed with lettuce, cucumbers, artichokes, cherry tomatoes, avocado and radishes Yum! and I could only eat my little plate's worth. Once upon a time, I wouldn't have been satisfied with a diet that didn't melt at least 3 pounds a week. But this is so easy. And the goal is not to look better. This time it is to get healthier and give my arthritic joints a rest.)

I find absolutely huge helpings on dinner plates that used to be used as serving platters off-putting, so my second restaurant pick is anecdotal on the barbecued ribs. I can, however attest to the brisket. And the chopped brisket is simply their regular prime, lean brisket chopped fine and laced with their excellent sauce. No fatty scraps. Papa's, on Denton Lake Dallas. Sorry--they are clean, clean, clean and moved into a new building about five years ago, so no quaint, aging relics around. The fried catfish look great, but the barbecue always smells so good I've never had them. Mostly takeout, a few tables. Soul food, the real thing. You order fried okra, they actually fry it up right there in a frying pan, not a deep fryer. I've seen the ribs when friends ordered them, but that's more food than I can handle. They look succulent and meaty, and my friends have smacked lips and sucked fingers while eating, but then, you can't eat ribs any other way. I'm stuck on the brisket. They have specials every day, like pot roast and meat loaf, or baked chicken, and pulled pork on Fridays. These meats are accompanied with an offering of two sides, choosing from turnip greens, green beans, pinto beans, pickled beets, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, incredible potato salad they actually make rather than buy and have shipped in, macaroni salad, cole slaw with a piquant dressing (coarse grated, my favorite) And of course, pickle slices, onion slices and jalapenos (we're in Texas). I always have them cut my sandwich in half and get two meals. The sandwich has almost two inches of meat filling it. The potato salad is so popular, they've been out the last two times I stopped by, but the pasta salad is almost as good and I usually just get the slaw. A lady makes coconut and buttermilk pies, and will on order make a fine sweet potato pie. Greatness? no, just ordinary, consistently really good food. A meal is under $8 including soda. Well, that's without a slice of pie. I will admit I can't think of another barbecue place in years I like as well, and it's the only soul food within easy reach..But I don't think they have cornbread.

My one famous pick is Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth. I first started eating there when it was in a smallish ramshackle cafe and you walked over to the cooler and fetched your own bottle of beer. It's a fine, big place now with a huge patio and mariachis, but the food remains simply excellent. In the evenings you have two choices: enchiladas or fajitas, and even my big, tall oldest son usually has to bring home a doggy bag. The corn and flour tortillas are fresh that day, the beans just thick enough, and the rice is really good (most Mexican restaurants do not excel at the rice. I consider that the benchmark.) The margaritas are big, strong and tasty, and by the time you've finished your meal, any incipient tipsiness will have subsided. If you're going to have beer with the meal as well as the margarita, it's a good idea to arrange a designated driver. The salsa is excellent. Once or twice I've had room for their sopapillas with butter and honey. I believe they also have flan. About $10--$15 apiece will cover it, I think.

Another fine Fort Worth tradition is a fish and chips restaurant that has also been around for years. Now called Zeke's, on Curzon St., It's mostly crisp fried fish, fried potatoes, in a cone of newspaper with malt vinegar (or, if you insist, catsup and tartar sauce). Again, under $10. See the trend here?

I have to mention my most favorite meal currently, even if it is at a chain. I love Johnny Carino's Italian Restaurant. I know it's a chain, but the jalapeno garlic talapia is incredibly wonderful, served on lightly sauteed spinach leaves with chopped fresh tomato and a bed of angel hair pasta with lemon-butter sauce. The salads are ordinary but huge, and the meals come with baguettes of crusty bread and red pepper flakes with olive oil for dipping. I also really like the chicken and artichokes with angel hair pasta and the grilled chicken with rosemary new potatoes and grilled vegies. Unusually good service every time at the one I frequent. Oh, and the tiramisu is the best I've had. That's my opinion. I don't drink coffee, so I much prefer a milder coffee-flavored dessert to eating what tastes like chuncks of distilled coffee. $10-$15 apiece Lunch is cheaper. And smaller. But I still get two meals out of it.

There's so much more. Mama's Daughter's has plain country food with lots of veggies and a menu that varies with the day of the week. Their cornbread muffins are incredible. The yeast rolls are great, and on Tuesdays, I can get pot roast and have to choose three sides from spinach, black-eyed peas, carrots, mashed potatoes, cabbage, Italian green beans or green salad. They have five restaurants over two or three counties in the Metroplex. Some patrons prefer Mondays, when they have okra with tomatoes, or Fridays, when they have baked chicken with dressing or catfish fillets and summer squash cooked with onions and a little bacon. Senior plates are a dollar off. Most meals are $7.99- $12, but for $4.50, I can get stew made with leftover pot roast in a spicy tomato broth, with potatoes, carrots, onions and green peppers and the cornbread muffins. The Old West in Denton and Sanger serves nothing but breakfast on weekends from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.I don't even like hash browns, but I like theirs. Or I can sub fruit or sliced tomatoes. Huge mugs of hot tea. What I really want to find is a place that makes, not buys, its soups (and please, something besides twice-baked potato or broccoli-cheese) besides the delicious hot and spicy or eggdrop soups at the Chinese buffet. Another search is for a place that makes hollandaise sauce. Oh, and a place by next winter that sells "a bowl of red." Seems ridiculous, but I don't know a restaurant around here that serves decent plain old Texas chili. I want some chopped onions, thank you, no sour cream and no grated cheese. I am a heretic in that I do prefer pinto beans in my chili. I didn't even touch on good pizza. Matt G says "any pizza from anywhere served within 10 minutes out of the oven." That's true, but he served some mighty fine stuff a while back from someplace near him AFTER 10 minutes.

We all have foods that make us close our eyes a moment in enjoyment from the most ordinary of places. What blisses you may not bliss me and vice versa. But I kind of think if we pay more attention to the foods we really, really like to eat and skip the stuff that just fills us up, we might do better. The occasional Event Meal is a fine thing, however. I vividly remember such a meal some 25 years ago (I do have my food memories) at a very fancy restaurant. It was a one-time treat for me, and I ate a lot of cliches I hadn't had before. Or since......snails grilled in garlic and butter. Beef Wellington. Grand Marnier souffle. Each bite was a delight. It was so fabulous. The other people in the room came there all the time. To them, it was ordinary. And I wonder who enjoyed it most?

Don't know if I read anyone who hasn't already gotten this meme, so I will check and tag later, if any.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what about having Mariachi Rosas Divinas! The 1st and ony all femal mariachi in the Dallas Fort Worth area. Thought the play on the name green chile and roses would go great with Rosas Divinas!