Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Crazy Little Christmas

While some nut job spent his holiday sewing fire crackers into his underpants and trying to terrorize one of America’s poorest cities, my parents, I am happy to report, were not. Nor were they armchair quarterbacking this bizarre event the way some douche bag was on NPR when he made the following statement: “We could have prevented what never actually happened.” My dad did not offer an opinion on the matter, but if he had I imagine it would have been more practical than that offered by the NPR commentator, and it would have sounded something like, “if that dumbass is stupid enough to blow up his own crotch then let him have at it.”

Besides, my parents had bigger problems to deal with this holiday. Like the full grown horse that appeared in their front yard on Christmas night. How did they know it was there in the dark, you ask? Well it set off the motion light on the side of the house, of course. And apparently the thing tried to break into their sun porch where my dad keeps his portable radio and his mini fridge, which at the time was stocked with Miller High Life Light and Butterscotch Schnapps. My dad wanted to shoot it right there, but my mom talked him out of it, insisting there’d be no way of disposing of the body without being caught. Instead she called all of the neighbors to see if anyone was missing a horse.

I was completely unaware of both events until the next day because I was parked in front of a slot machine at Greektown Casino trying to win back all the money I spent on holiday gifts. I always do better at gambling when I’m drinking but not even the almighty casinos can escape Christianity’s selective ban on alcohol. But neither the casinos nor Christianity could stop the ever fabulous Philip. He fully stocked our hotel room so we could drink ourselves silly, gamble until the buzz wore off, and then go back to our room and drink some more. As it turned out, Philip never made it past the drink ourselves silly phase.

By three in the morning, I had won enough money to cover all of my holiday shopping costs with enough left over to order room service. We had eaten dinner earlier in the hotel restaurant, Bistro 555, which was expensive and the food was extremely average. The in-room dining menu was almost exactly the same as the Bistro, so my expectations for a middle of the night snack were not very high. The onion rings sounded appealing enough, but having had a killer order of them a few days earlier on a holiday lunch date, I decided not to press my luck.

In a post I wrote about a month ago I described some onion rings I had ordered at, I think, Red Baron, and a reader who follows the blog, Mrs. Hopkins, a.k.a. Ann Onimous, mentioned that she was on a quest for the perfect Flint area onion ring. Shortly thereafter, another reader claimed that US 21 Coney Island, on the corner of South Dort Highway and Bristol Road, had the best onion rings he’d ever eaten. Since Mrs. Hopkins was already on a quest, and since this US 21 recommendation sounded a lot like a challenge, I took it up and invited Lady Hopkins to join me in checking out these alleged award winning rings. Emilio happened to be free as well, and since I felt like he and I should have a do-over after our disastrous “Mexican” lunch at, I think, Red Baron, US 21 seemed like a harmless place for a “make-up” lunch. Besides, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, we were seated right behind a screaming toddler, and Emilio does not suffer screaming children well. Grumbling snarky remarks at the kid didn’t really put a dent in the howling, nor did the impatient mother whose high pitched scolding only irritated Emilio all the more. Lady Hopkins, however, diffused the situation by sharing a lovely story with us about a person who crapped their pants at the Olive Garden while she was having lunch there a few days before. The manager apparently cleared half the dining room and marched around the tables with a can of air freshener to mask the stench. Emilio and I laughed loud enough that we completely drowned out the screaming toddler and the bitchy mother.

Order was somewhat restored when our server dropped off three freakishly large menus, took our drink orders, and set out to fetch us a basket of what we came for. Our menus were at least a foot and a half high, and with three panels, they stretched out to over two and a half feet wide. I couldn’t even fit the whole thing in my camera lens with the setting on wide angle. The pictures of the food on the menu, though, were spectacular. I’d never seen such visually appealing liver and onions in my life. The owners must have dropped some serious change to put this menu together. And it was jam-packed with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert options. I had eaten breakfast here a number of times before, and the food was always consistently good. I shared this information with Emilio, who settled on a ham and cheese omelet. Mrs. Hopkins, also in a breakfast mood, except for the onion rings, chose the Eggs Benedict. Feeling rather indifferent myself, I ordered a boring old patty melt.

The onion rings arrived just as Mrs. Hopkins was tying up the loose ends to her little Olive Garden tale and the screaming toddler was finally calming down. The platter of onion rings, while quite visually appealing, had a very unnatural yellow hue to them. It looked like they were dipped in saffron or yellow food coloring or something. Grease was already pooling under the knot of rings as we began pulling them apart. Crispy. Hmm. Flavorful onions. Hmm. No thick doughy batter. Hmm. I’m not ready to call them the best I’ve ever had, but the US 21 onion ring is certainly the bomb, in a manner of speaking anyway.

Philip was in the neighborhood and dropped in to join us just before our food arrived. He ordered a simple Coney dog and fries, and was able to get his meal delivered with the rest of us. The food was about what you would expect at a Flint diner. The patty melt was on the greasy side, but it was hot and fresh. The omelet was pretty big and not lacking in the ham or cheese departments. And then there was Lady Hopkin’s plate of Eggs Benedict. On the surface, they looked like your run-of-the-mill Eggs Benedict. The Hollandaise sauce, however, seemed to have been replaced with chicken gravy. I thought the old girl was just being flippant, but I tasted it and sure enough they used chicken gravy. In all the years I cooked in restaurants, that little trick never crossed my mind. And for good reason. All in all, US 21 is worth the effort. The onion rings are quite good, and though the Benedict not so much, all else falls somewhere in between. Easy on the wallet, the 21 is one of the better Coney Island Diners in the area. And if Stephanie and I ever choose the Flint Diner as our lunch theme, I’ll put my theory to the test.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Feliz Comiendo!

It’s two days until Christmas and I’m way behind. It’s not the holiday shopping or the hustle and bustle preparation that I’m backed up on. Philip’s already brought home a half gallon of vodka, a half a case of wine, and some limes—I have no idea what the limes are for. We’ve got lots of ice, so that’s covered, and we don’t have to worry about being sober for the next two days.

No, that’s all going according to plan. And the holiday spirit is beginning to blossom. I caught myself singing South Park Christmas songs the other night as I was stuck in a mile of traffic at the Miller Road/I 75 Corridor on my way to Genesee Valley Mall (where armed police officers now stand at the ready in front of stores like The Toy Hut, Sears and Victoria’s Secret. I’m not sure when this military style security came to be, but I heard they brought in pistol packing police after a teen mall concert turned into a melee. The same thing happened at Chuck E. Cheese earlier this year with a bunch of parents, and now the rest of us are forced to live through that miserable experience without a single drop of alcohol because Chuck no longer has a liquor license). Philip and I had a great time catching up on our last four months of work stories while spending an entire Saturday afternoon wrapping gifts at the dining room table. And I even felt a tinge of joy at all of the lovely holiday cards we received, including one from my parents, a Kodak picture of their new television with a sticky note on the back that read, simply “ Here’s a picture of what you’ll be watching when you visit us this Spring.” It’s shaping up to be a Norman Rockwell holiday.

But I’m behind on my blog, and like a quick, last minute wrap-job on the presents, I need to get crackin’. I have a lot to say. Not only did I have a great lunch with Stephanie last week, I had a holiday lunch today with a woman named Mrs. Hopkins, my partner Philip, and Emilio. There’s the cookie making experiment to write about, and the upcoming Christmas at the Casino story hasn’t even happened yet. It’s gonna be a long few days of writing, but I’ve just poured a vodka tonic, the tree is all lit up, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

Last Thursday was my last Mexican lunch of 2009 with Stephanie, and since we had a little extra time, we headed to the southern end of the county to try Sagebrush Cantina in Fenton (the owners have a second one in Lake Orion—hey Jimmy and Joy, have either of you been to that one?). As it turned out, we needed the extra time because this place was packed to the rafters. When we arrived, every table was full, and we were third in line to be seated. When’s the last time you had to wait to be seated for lunch because the joint was full? (Ok, besides poopy places like Olive Garden?)

I had read a good number of online reviews of the Cantina, and I’d say 90% of them were glowing, so I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the ten minute wait to be seated. But I was. It took another ten minutes for the server to realize we were there, but in her defense this place is gargantuan, it’s noisy as hell, and there must have been a hundred and fifty or more other customers. But they had Keno, and that pacified me until our server actually found us.

And she was sweet. She apologized for losing us in the crowd and for taking so long to get to us. Her service throughout our entire lunch was outstanding, despite the half dozen other tables she had to attend to. We passed on her offer of Texas sized Margaritas and opted instead for ginger ale. I know, who orders ginger ale in a Mexican restaurant? Stephanie, that’s who. And it sounded good, so I followed suit. We had been studying the menu while waiting for our server to find us, so we were well prepared to order by the time she brought us our drinks.

There are so many appetizer items on this menu, I can’t even imagine narrowing the choices down to a manageable few. Luckily, Stephanie was in a definitive mood, and she suggested the Mexican Bean Dip. It was served in a shallow dish with chopped, cooked (I think fried?) onions mixed in, a perfectly flavored enchilada sauce swirled into it, and melted white cheese on top. I’m not sure what kind of cheese it was, but it had a slightly sweet taste (probably Mozzarella) that completed the flavor combinations perfectly and brought the whole thing together in a fabuloso yummilicious start to our lunch (dear God, I’m sounding like Rachel Ray. Which is a very bad thing).

The chips were warm, light, and tasty, but mostly they were filler while we waited for other food to arrive. The house salsa was freshly made, well balanced, and about a 7 on the 1-10 house salsa scale. There was no hot version, but we were directed to the metal bucket of bottled hot sauces on our table, though I’m not sure why anyone would pollute a freshly made salsa with a bottled Tabasco, etc.

In addition to the very load crowd conversation, our aching eardrums were also treated to a mix of music that ran from Perry Cuomo Jingle Bells to some Texas two-step country ditties while we waited for our entrees. This portion of the menu was also excessively expansive, but you could not accuse Sagebrush Cantina of not offering up what you were hungry for. They had everything from the Build Your Own Combination to the pound and a half chimichanga. I saw one of these monstrosities come out to another table and could not believe my eyes. This thing was so obnoxious it made every other chimichanga look like a pathetic deep fried toothpick.

Good judgment was on my side, though, and I did not order the chimi beast. Instead, I built my own three item combo: a hard shell taco, a chicken burrito, and a chile relleno. Stephanie also built her own platter, which consisted of a tamale, an enchilada, and a chile relleno. Each plate was served with beans and rice and a little mound of shredded lettuce—an attempt at garnish, I think.

Except for the chiles rellenos, our food was quite good, corroborating what the dozens of online reviews about Sagebrush have already said. Stephanie’s tamale was freakishly large and towered over her enchilada and chile relleno, but the sauces, meats, corns, and flours were all fresh, aromatic, and above all delicious. The rellenos were batter dipped an deep fried, but then they were drenched in some sauce that completely ruined them. As Stephanie aptly noted, the breading tasted like soggy corn dog batter. They were simply inedible.

Aside from that one hiccup, our final lunch of 2009 gets very high marks. While I’m not interested in the Guido Chimichanga, there is a normal sized version that I will try on my next visit. The Sagebrush Cantina is, after all, a place that should be visited more than once. In fact, it will take a half a dozen visits to get a fair sampling of the scores of appetizer and entrée menu choices. Once you finish your last minute holiday shopping tomorrow, pop in, order a fresh margarita, and prepare to be wow-ed! If you don’t make it there tomorrow, you can check them out on their new blog. It’s barely functional yet, but the address is Or go to and find it from there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

“Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!”

I woke up last Thursday in a great mood. It was the best night of sleep I had had in weeks. I was happy. Not the brand of happy you feel when you’ve just hung up the phone from talking to your mother and you’re thankful they’re in Florida now and you’re in Flint because she’s just announced that she’s gonna smother your father with a couch pillow because yesterday he drank beer and schnapps all afternoon and passed out in the Lazy Boy and she was stuck cooking dinner for his sorry ass, and she has to have dinner finished and on the table by four thirty because that’s the way she’s done it for the last fifty years. No, I was feeling a much deeper happiness, the kind you feel when you know you’re not going to visit your parents in Florida for another four months, and this time you’re taking your sister, so you’ll have a witness to the insanity that you’ll surely be exposed to.

Stephanie and I were having lunch later in the day, and I just had a feeling it was going to be a joyous occasion. The company is always good and we usually share some pretty amazing gossip about our co-workers, but I wanted to choose a restaurant that would match the good company and that would match my good mood. I thought for a nano-second about going to Casa de Linda, on Dort Highway (I think it was Mexicali Café at one time), since we haven’t been there yet. The last time I drove by the place, I didn’t get the “happy vibe” I was looking for on this particular day, so I backed away from going there (for now anyway; we’ll put it on our 2010 list) and settled on the happiest place I could conjure up: El Cozumel.

With its happy colored, high-back chairs, booths, walls, and art, how could one not find some level of happiness here? And the staff, from the busboys, to the servers, to the thirty-something owner, are all blissfully happy as well. I knew, as the smiley waiter led us to an intimate, well lit booth, that we had come to the right place.

I don’t even know how this is possible, but the menu is happy too. The assortment of Quesos on the Appetizer page was titled Queso Fundito. Really, I’m not making this up. You can order your “fun cheese” with chicken, shrimp, beef, or Chorizo. We chose Chorizo. This was the second time in as many weeks that we had seen a Chorizo Queso on a menu. Prior to that, I had never known this combination existed. If you remember, I gave last week’s version extremely high marks, so El Cozumel had a very high bar set before it. How did they do? Well, while Steph and I were both pleased with it, the Chorizo didn’t quite measure up to the fresh, spicy Flavor of Nuevo Vallarta’s. That said, it was quite good and is well worth ordering. Because the portions are so plentiful, you’ll even have extra to spoon over the top of your entrée. Unless you’re vegetarian, of course.

Veggie plates, by the way, are plentiful too at El Cozumel. In a second coincidental comparison to last week’s menu, El Cozumel also lists its vegetarian options with letters of the alphabet. Options A-H include such appetizing choices as cheese and mushroom quesadillas, chile poblanos, and spinach quesadillas with rice. Or you could go all out and get the Veggie Fajita which, according to the menu, is “a healthy mix of mushrooms, bell peppers, green onions, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. Served with beans and three warm tortillas.” Most of the lunch entrees come with beans or rice.

My rice was actually stuffed into my big fat happy lunch special #11: Hot and Spicy Burrito. (There were 15 other lunch specials to choose from.) Mine consisted of a flour tortilla filled with chicken beef, beans and rice. But wait! There’s More! Then the whole thing is covered with beef tips, salsa ranchera, cheese and sour cream. It was way too much food, but it was so good I couldn’t stop eating it and went on far longer than I should have. In the end, I still left a mound of it uneaten. It wasn’t at all hot and spicy, but once I dumped some of the “fun cheese” and the zippy house salsa on it, it was spicy enough. The house salsa was actually better than the hotter version, which was hot enough up front but lacked a significant bottom to it. I’ll explain what I mean by that later if anyone is interested.

(I was so absorbed in my own happiness, I have long since forgotten what Stephanie ordered. In my defense, I just called her office to ask her (I’m all class, aren’t I?), but she’s in the middle of an office holiday party and not taking calls right now). So let’s say she had the Enchiladas Rancheras Trio, “a big plate of enchiladas—one cheese, one chicken, and one bean—all topped with shredded cheese and red sauce. Served with a salad, guacamole, sour cream, and your choice of beans or rice.” Let’s also say they were fantastic, but Stephanie made them even fantastic(er) by dousing them with that delicious house salsa.

Whoever designed the menu here must have been in a very festive mood (or was drinking festive margaritas—El Cozumel has a full bar, including beer, wine, and mixed drinks. If you’re a beer drinker, I highly recommend the Pacifico. ) How many menus have you seen with features like Plato Loco, Terrific Tacos, Burrito Marino, or Tostaguac (not even sure what this one is, but you can order one or two at a time)?

El Cozumel is also very kid friendly. In fact, kids might have more fun eating here than at, say, Chuck E. Cheese (God that’s an awful place). This menu has a special section reserved for Bambinos, and what kid wouldn’t want to try a Sincronizada, a ham and cheese quesadilla with French fries!

I walked out of El Cozumel feeling like Stephanie and I had just been the special guests at a lunch time Fiesta. The next time you’re hungry and in a funk, I highly recommend this place. It will totally cheer you up and fill your gut with a rainbow of pleasurable flavors.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Going Once, Going Twice…

Sold. Every summer, our church holds a Service Auction to raise money for its coffers. (I say church, but we’re Unitarians, which is more like a recovery center for pissed off ex-Catholics who don’t want to be told what to believe, a safe space for the religiously confused who haven’t come out yet as atheists because they think their families will disown them, and a coffee shop with collection plates and music for the rest of us).

But like every other church, we need money to survive. The Service Auction brings in a lot of money because the overhead is very small and the revenue is quite good. In addition to volunteering to cook the dinner for this year’s 50-person event, I also donated a service to be bid on: Indian Dinner for Eight, hosted by Philip and me. When the bidding was over, our little dinner party brought in almost two hundred and fifty dollars.

It’s been six months since the auction, and this flaky Aquarian couple finally got around to following through on their donation. I thought about just picking up some Indian food and passing it off as my own, but Indian restaurants, unlike Coney Island Diners, do not grow on trees in Flint. The only one I know about is Grill of India on Linden Road in the plaza by Sagano, the exquisite Japanese restaurant. Grill of India is good, but if any of our guests ever ate there, I’d be exposed as a fraud and excommunicated from the Unitarian Coffee Shop, a risk I was not willing to take.

Cooking Indian food is extraordinarily labor intensive because it requires extensive prep time and because there are so many different ingredients in each dish. For our Saturday night dinner, I started cooking Friday morning. Armed with a three page shopping list, I spent the greater part of the morning gathering the ingredients for what would become a five course meal. There are two Indian stores in Flint that I shop at: A.K. Grocery, which is on Corunna road all the way past Dye Road, in a little strip mall on the north side of the road, and Kamil’s, which is next to Ya-Ya’s Chicken Hut on Corunna near Ballenger Highway.

Both stores have a plethora of spices and grains that you cannot find in a regular store; and if you can, the prices at, say, Meijer are so high, you can barely afford to buy them. The Indian stores
sell spices in bulk for a fraction of what you would pay at the supermarket. I would highly recommend either of these stores for even your ever day spice needs. Kamil’s has the added bonus of carrying fresh made Nans and Flatbreads. They’re made in Dearborn and shipped to Flint two or three times a week.

As I unpacked the armloads of groceries, Philip was already at work turning the dinner table into a work of art. He garnished the center of the table with small bowls of lemons, limes, and oranges. These colors complemented the deep red napkins in every diner’s spot, each one folded into the shape of a dinner jacket. This guy gives Sandra Lee a serious run for her money!

Back in the kitchen, I was preparing the first course: Sweet Red Pepper Hummus. It’s not exactly an Indian dish, but at least it’s in that general region of the world. Besides, I had to focus my efforts on the other courses. Of all the dishes I made for this dinner, hummus was the easiest, thanks to my trusty food processor. Aside from measuring out the portions of tahini, chickpeas, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and red peppers, the rest is a matter of dumping them together and letting them process until it becomes silky smooth and creamy.

I’m not sure what the heck I was thinking, but I decided to make two appetizers for the table: Aloo Makai Tikki (potato/corn cakes) and Pakoras (a yummy Indian version of tempura). The potato/corn cakes were easy enough to prep, but they were tricky to fry because the heat has to be just right, not too hot, not too cool. I melted a shredded white cheddar cheese on top and served them with a mint yogurt sauce. The Pakoras, which consisted of cauliflower, onions, sweet potatoes, and yellow zucchini squash, were dredged in a chickpea flour batter with cumin seeds, pomegranate seeds, red chili pepper, and salt, and then deep fried. Wow! Together, these two dishes could stand by themselves as a hearty lunch They couldn’t have been too bad because our hungry guests, between glasses of wine and beer, devoured all of them.

For the soup course, I made a classic version of Mooloogoo Thani, a tomato and green apple

based soup with lots of fragrant spices, minced onion, and cooked rice added in at the end. The recipe calls for chicken, but some of our guests were vegetarian, so I left it out. I also used vegetable broth in place of chicken broth. The prep for this soup is time consuming, but the rest is a cinch. You just bring the whole thing to a boil, cover it, and simmer for 45 minutes. When it’s done, it gets pureed in batches. The end result is a complexity of flavors with a lingering sweet-hot flavor in the mouth.

Since I was plating the dishes in the kitchen and serving them restaurant style, I had the luxury, once I closed the door to the dining room, of photographing the food. At one point, Philip barged into the kitchen with dirty dishes in hand to find me standing on a chair over the entrees clicking shots of the finished dishes. He just set the dirty dishes down, shook his head, and retreated to the dining room for more wine. He just doesn’t get my brand of artistry.

The entree, which in retrospect was probably a bit too much, consisted of Matar Pulao, basmati rice with peas. This acted as a divider for the three entrees, which made the presentation look a little bit like a white peace sign with three blobs of color and texture in between. The Khumb Matar Masala, a Punjabi mushroom and pea curry stole the show from the Chana Dal and the Chole, a potato and chickpea curry. Nobody was able to clear their plates entirely, but they did manage to scarf down all of the Masala.

The Shrikand dessert was simple and not very filling, and with the Indian tea, it seemed to be just enough. This sweet yogurt and saffron concoction looks and tastes like an elegant pudding. I paired it with an Indian cookie, which I bought from Kamil’s. By this time in the evening, however, the cook had polished off a good number of India Pale Ales, a delicious swill brewed by the Great Lakes Brewing Company, so he kind of forgot to photograph this beautifully sweet ending to a three hour dinner. After everyone left, I pleaded with Philip to stage a version of the dessert plate so I could include it in my post, but he was having none of it. Already filled to the gills with wine, he declared my idea insane and stumbled off to bed. After giving the idea a quick second thought, I followed Philip’s lead and called it a night.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Twelve Days of Finals

OK. I know this post has nothing to do with food or with my Flint culture and food theme, but it's too fun not to share. I dedicate this little song to all of my comrades in education as we enter the home stretch of the half way mark in the school year. Enjoy! Happy holidays, and good luck with finals week!

By Bob Barnett

On the first day of finals my students gave to me: a case of plagiarism.
On the second day of finals my students gave to me: 2 no shows.
On the third day of finals my students gave to me: 3 late arrivals.
On the fourth day of finals my students gave to me: 4 cell phones ringing.
On the fifth day of finals my students gave to me: 5 dead grandmas.
On the sixth day of finals my students gave to me: 6 crashed computers.
On the seventh day of finals my students gave to me: 7 misused sources.
On the eighth day of finals my students gave to me: 8 wrong citations.
On the ninth day of finals my students gave to me: 9 sentence fragments.
On the tenth day of finals my students gave to me: 10 comma splices.
On the eleventh day of finals my students gave to me: 11 bad excuses.
On the twelfth day of finals my students gave to me: 12 failing grades.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"I didn't completely hate that"

Emilio and I had lunch one day last week at Churchill’s across from UM-Flint. It happened to be “Mexican Special” day. We both chuckled and decided we’d order off the menu, but seeing the specials reminded me of something. Stephanie and I are just two lunches away from the half way point in our tour of Flint’s Mexican restaurants. So far, it’s been an exciting journey.

We’ve made some fantastic discoveries, visited some tried and true favorites, and even suffered through a few stinkers. Judging from the places we’ve been to so far, I’d say the Mexican restaurant scene in Flint is not only flourishing but dishing up some pretty high quality food. Getting a truly authentic Mexican meal is still the exception, but Flint serves up some very tasty Midwest Tex-Mex.

Take La Azteca for example. It’s a classic Flint Taco House on West Court Street right where it intersects with Corunna Road. You can either order your meal from the front counter, where menus are scotch taped to the Formica counter top, or you can sit at any of the awkwardly situated tables in the scantily decorated, drab dining room. It’s not very attractive, but it gets the job done. Which is just about how I’d describe La Azteca’s service and food as well.

When Steph and I went to La Familia at the end of October, that place felt a lot like the Mexican restaurant version of Angelo’s Coney Island on Flint’s East side. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Angelo’s is probably the most loved eating establishment in Flint because it’s workers, clientele, dining room atmostphere, and menu all represent a weird microcosm of Flint itself. Now that I’ve been back to La Azteca, it too feels a lot like Angelo’s. But for different reasons. The people at La Familia were very chummy and a lot of the customers know each other, which is how it felt like Angelos. At La Azteca it’s the food. Plain and simple, the food here is comfort food. A lot like the street food I had when I visited Tijuana and Ensenada several years ago. It was cheap, it was quick, and it was good. It got the job done.

Still in our back to basics phase, Stephanie and I ordered our usual. She had the enchilada platter and I had the chimichanga. We ordered the chips and cheese, which was about as average as one would expect from a comfort food place. It was a yellow cheese sauce, but it was a step or two up from the pump-from-the-can-ball park variety. The salsa wasn’t terribly hot but the flavors were complex enough that we put a good dent into the squeeze bottle the waitress left at our table.

Like street food, our lunches came to us with lightning quick speed. Each plate was dressed up with a puddle of beans and a mound of rice. The beans and rice were neither good nor bad. They were extremely average. My chimi was loaded with ground beef, but there was nothing else on the inside, just the bare essentials. The cheese sauce looked bright orange like the aforementioned canned variety, but it was surprisingly tasty. I don’t know if they doctored up the canned cheese or if this was real, but it elevated my meal from below average to average. Which is pretty much how Stephanie described hers as well.

Before I became “old” and started spending my Friday nights on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a remote control, I went to the bar a lot. And most nights if I stayed out really late, I’d go to some grub hub for a late night meal. Tommy Zs, Colonial, Sunrise. Those types of places. If I had known about it back then, I would have put La Azteca on my list too. It feels like a great place to go when you’re half crocked and not really fussy about what you want to eat.
Now, before you La Azteca loyalists start flinging hate mail at my, let me be clear that this place is well loved by locals and the food does not suck by any means. It just lacks the spark, the variety, the complexity of some of its competitors. If you know that going in, as Stephanie, and I did last week, then you’re gonna get a good meal at a good price, and you’re gonna go back to work with a full belly.

While La Azteca didn’t garner any TTC Award nominations, I thought I’d review those that have. If, by chance, we come across any new contenders before the holiday break, I’ll be sure to add those to the list. So, here are the frontrunners so far:

Chiles Relleno at El Potrero
Mexican Rice at La Familia Morales
Basket of Chips at Senior Lucky’s
Chorizo con Queso at Nueva Vallarta
Trinity of Salsas at El Especial
Refried beans (but I can’t remember where. Stay tuned for an update).

The Mexican Tour will continue until the end of April, so if you think you have a winning dish at your favorite Mexican restaurant, one that Stephanie I have yet to visit, then drop me a line and make your suggestions. I’ll go any place you suggest and eat any dish you think should be considered for the Tator Tot Casserole Award. For the last two lunches of 2009, the plan is to visit Sagebrush Cantina in Fenton, and that tiny dive of a place on Dort Highway just north of Robert T. Longway. Stay tuned to see if either place produces any nominees.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Molar of the Story

I spent Thanksgiving in bed this year, sidelined by a bad tooth. Accompanied by a bottle of pain killers and a remote control, I faded in and out of three hours of parade coverage and six hours of football. I’ve had tooth infections before, but this one really got out of hand. After two trips to the Emergency Room, a visit to my dentist, an oral surgeon, and an endodontist, and almost a week of bed rest, I was finally able to stop eating through a straw. I could hardly speak though, because the swelling had pretty much pinned my tongue to the roof of my mouth.

Philip made me a delicious holiday lunch of mashed potatoes and gravy which, combined with two hits of Vicadin, gave me the same post Thanksgiving meal drowsiness that everyone else was enjoying. I was well into a near coma-like sleep when my cell phone went off. It was my mother.

I tried to explain to her that I was heavily medicated and barely able to speak, but it never actually registered with her, so I just gave in and listened. This is what I think I heard: “Your dad and I are going to Aunt Darlene and Uncle Lee’s for Thanksgiving dinner. They called us yesterday to tell us that turkeys went on sale at Walmart for forty cents a pound. Well we got in the truck and went right over. You never see turkey for forty cents a pound. But that was for the ten to twelve pounders. By the time we got there all that was left was the twenty pounders, so they put them on sale too. We ended up with four turkeys in our freezer. That’s eighty pounds of turkey. I hope you’re feeling better hon.”

This whole tooth ordeal started a week and a half ago during my last lunch date with Stephanie. It was our final get together before the holiday and I wanted to go out with a bang. I had high hopes that the place I chose would be at least as good as El Especial the week before. As it turned out, Nuevo Vallarta on South Saginaw Street in Grand Blanc did not disappoint. In fact, I thought it was better, overall, than most of the places we’d already been to.

At first glance, the inside looks a lot like El Cozumel with the bright colored, high back chairs and over the top wall colors. With lots of windows and a not-too-expansive dining area, the atmosphere at Nuevo Vallarta was quite pleasant and inviting. Our waiter, on the other hand, scared the hell out of me. He was six and a half feet tall and close to three hundred pounds, and he spoke mostly in one and two syllable grunts. It was hard for me to tell if he even spoke English. His helper, who brought us a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa, did not.

Not realizing there was an impenetrable language barrier between us, I blathered on to the meek young helper, asking him for a hotter salsa, some more water, blah blah blah (which is, I’m sure, all he heard). Stephanie, who is much smarter and quicker than I am, leaned over the table and broke the news to me. “I don’t think he speaks English.” Oh. I turned back to him to revise the conversation plan, but he was already hightailing toward our grumpy waiter. In a matter of seconds, the waiter was back.

“Um, sorry to bother you, but do you have a hotter salsa to go with our chips? And we’d like to order the Chorizo con Queso.” He nodded his head, gave a one syllable grunt—which had a short u sound it, but that’s all I could decipher—and disappeared into the kitchen. If he was annoyed with us, he kept it to himself. A chatty Cathy, he was not. Just then my cell phone went off. It was my mother, arguably the chattiest Cathy who ever lived. Ignore the call, I thought. She’ll call back later.

The waiter returned a few minutes later with not one, but two hotter salsas. They were both extremely good, one with a great smoky, chipotle taste backed up with a boat load of heat, and the other a taco-salad-dressing-looking mixture that was actually jammed with hot and slightly sweet flavors. It was about the third chip I bit into that I first felt the pain in my tooth. The chips, which were mega-crispy, must have jarred something loose because I felt the pain all the way into my jaw.

This little mishap was not going to ruin what was shaping up to be a great lunch. A few short minutes later, the helper slid a nice sized bowl of crumbled sausage, a rich white cheese sauce, and finely chopped tomatoes in front of us. Great Lady of Guadalupe! This queso was by far the best I’d ever tasted. The spicy kick to the sausage paired so well with the mild creamy cheese sauce. The more I ate, the less I thought about my throbbing tooth. My phone went off a second time. My mother. I tucked my phone in my pocket and let it go to voicemail.

The menu is loaded with good choices, including all of the traditional items like burritos, tacos, enchiladas and tostadas. This menu even had a good variety of vegetarian choices, six to be exact. What I found a little amusing about the vegetarian choices was not the entre selections themselves, but the names of each entrée. They were listed as Veggie Plate A, B, C, D, E, and F. All of them were combination plates with two, three, or four items and beans and rice on the side.

Stephanie and I went back to the basics and ordered our usual. She had the Enchilada Ranchero Trio, and I had the Spicy Beef Chimichanga. And guess what? They both came with cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. FOR FREE!!!!!!! Our plates were overflowing with delicious smelling, delicious looking food. Stephanie’s cheese, chicken, and bean enchiladas were well seasoned and cheesy with a great little spicy sauce that pulled the whole dish together. Her chicken was pretty dry, but other than that, it was a spectacular meal.

My chimi plate consisted of two mini sized tortillas stuffed with chunks of well soaked beef and lots of gooey cheese. They were perfectly and sinfully deep fried. The cheese and spicy sauce was buried under a mountain of lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and guacamole topping. How they found room for the beans and rice is still a mystery.

Aside from the scary waiter, this was one of the very best lunches we’ve had since embarking on the Mexican Tour. The food was consistently good, the prices were quite affordable, and that Chorizo con Queso is now the very strong frontrunner in the TTC Award competition. It’ll take something pretty spectacular to top it.

The throbbing in my tooth began to pick up as we hit the cool November air outside the restaurant, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was distracted by my cell phone, vibrating again in my pocket. It was my mother. Not now, I said to myself, Not now. She’s probably got some wild ass story to tell m, but it’ll just have to wait for a better time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cheater, Cheater

The day before my lunch date with Emilio, I had an appointment with my therapist. I wasn’t there to work out the guilt I harbored for replacing Stephanie so quickly as my Mexican Lunch Tour date. After all, it was only one date, and it’s not like I was cheating on her. Nothing really happened anyway. It was all very innocent. Emilio and I laughed a little, we shared a bad meal, and so what if we both ordered the same entrée. That doesn’t mean anything. Stephanie and I have been monogamous about our Thursday lunches for almost six years. One simple lunch with someone else does not rise to the level of gastronomic infidelity.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel just a twinge of guilt gnawing at me as I sat in the waiting room, hiding behind a not-very-recent issue of Southern Living. I hate waiting rooms because I feel like I’m on display and that everyone else is staring at me trying to figure out what’s wrong with me, a pastime that would be much easier if I were sitting in a hospital emergency room holding one or two of my fingers in a ball of toilet paper, but this is more complicated, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable.

As I lowered the magazine to survey the lay of the land, the dumpy guy with a very bad complexion across from me, in an alarmingly loud voice says, “BOB BARNETT? IS THAT YOU? I REMEMBER YOU FROM THE UNIVERSITY!” When your therapist comes out to greet you, out of respect and privacy she offers a simple hello and motions for you to come with her. No name, no conversation, just hello. But now, thanks to this raving lunatic, everyone in the office knows who I am and where I work. My cover has been completely blown.

He was a student of mine from ten years ago, and now here he was blabbing to the whole freakin’ world that his former professor was in the house, reading a not-so-manly magazine, and waiting to see his shrink. Call me crazy, but at that moment I couldn’t help but feel that Karma had bitten me in the ass for cheating on Stephanie. The twinge of guilt I was feeling in my gut now grew to the size of a small child. I vowed to myself in that moment that I would forever resist the temptation to have Thursday lunch with anyone else and that I would make it up to Stephanie by treating her to the best Mexican lunch ever.

The place I chose was El-Especial, a much talked about local favorite that has gotten some pretty good reviews in recent months. Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall on the corner of West Pasadena and Linden Road, El-Especial claims a menu of authentic Mexican cuisine. Reviewers even lauded this place as coming closer to true authentic than any other place in town.

The inside was a bit cavernous and all the walls and ceiling were painted white. The amount of art was minimal and the big windows on the west wall let a lot of natural light into the dining room. I felt a little like I was sitting in a restaurant in a suburb of Heaven. And then I opened the menu.

Staring down at me from the inside flap of the menu was this shockingly large caricature of Our Lady of Guadalupe, wrapped in a flowing blue and white garment, rays of light shooting out from all around her body. Just then, I felt my guilty conscience return. It was as if she was admonishing me for my Red Baron affair with Emilio. Repent, my son. Lavish this woman with precious tamales, let her cup overflow with hot salsa. She is your one true lunch partner. Be faithful to her.

The words “forgive me” almost fell from my mouth as I looked up at Stephanie, but just then, the waitress appeared out of thin air and placed an overflowing basket of warm chips and a dish of house salsa between us. This was followed by a hotter version of the house salsa and a super hot salsa verde. Each was more delicious than the one before it, and the chips were light and crispy--and seemingly endless. This trinity of salsas was by far the best I’ve tasted in Flint (and now a nominee for the TTC Award of Excellence, by the way).

We ordered a side of beans and cheese to go with our chips and salsa, which turned out to be a very wise move. These beans were whipped to a smooth and oh so creamy texture and topped with real melted cheddar cheese. (They too are on my list for the TTC Award). Whatever else you order when you come here, and you really must come here, make sure you get a side of these beans and cheese because they are sinfully delicious. Stephanie seemed blissfully happy so far, and I was finally beginning to relax and put my earlier transgression behind me.

I had read from one reviewer that the Pozole here was fantastic and one of the most authentic Mexican soups she had ever eaten. Until I read about it, I had no idea what Pozole was. The price was six bucks for a small bowl, but in Mexican restaurants, size is relative. It was served to us in a small fish bowl with two baby bowls placed next to it. Our request for a ladle was denied but we were happy to scoop the soup with our little spoons, which only took about ten minutes to do.

Pozole, if you’ve never had it, is a spicy, tomato-based pork and hominy soup, served with a tray of fresh vegetables for garnish. One of the best known dishes of Mexico, this slow simmered concoction can take an entire day to prepare. Stephanie wasn’t as hot on it as I was, and my assessment was only half-hearted. It had a very earthy, animal flavor to it, but topping it with the garnish of chopped radish, cabbage, and fresh lime created a whole new combination of flavors that I think I could grow to enjoy.

By the time our entrees arrived, we had already seen a lot of plates of food come out of the kitchen, all of them stunningly beautiful in their presentation. The young couple behind Stephanie ordered burritos, which were almost a foot long, bloated with innards, and slathered in real melted cheese and a gleaming red sauce. I became fixated on their burrito beauty and could hardly stop talking about them. As my Chiles Rellenos arrived, I felt for a moment like I was with the wrong entrée. The burrito would have brought me more happiness and I really wanted us to be together, but I already made my choice and it was too late now to change my mind.

My dish was good, but the batter that the chile was fried in had become soggy from the so-so tomato sauce that was liberally poured over it. The pepper was a little over done and a touch mushy. I ate as much as I could, but in the end I pushed it away and left it altogether.

Stephanie made the wiser choice by getting the combination platter. This thing is impressive and if you’ve never been to El-Especial it’s really the only entree choice you should consider. This baby was loaded with a taco, a tostada, a tamale, an enchilada, beans, rice, and beef stew. It is the absolute Cadillac of combo plates. For the most part, Stephanie was happy with her choice. It allowed her to sample a number of different items without making six different trips to the restaurant to do so.

Not that we wouldn’t make six trips back to El-Especial. We would. In fact we both agreed that a date for a return trip was definitely in order. And we both agreed that, yes, we would order the burrito next time.

As a postscript to my little tale, I did get up enough nerve to confess my affair with Emilio to Stephanie. As I was stammering to explain to her what happened, she stopped me and simply said, “Ya, I know all about it. I read your blog post.”

Friday, November 13, 2009

Granny Get Your Gun

I woke up early this morning, just after daylight, and was treated to a beautiful scene in my back yard. The leaves were white and crispy, the sun was angling its way across the lawn, and a four-point buck was milling around in the grass, oblivious to my presence at the dining room window. Seeing a deer in my yard wouldn’t be a big deal if I lived in the country, but I live in the city of Flint and it’s almost November 15th.

To many Michiganders, November 15th is just another cold day in a month that kicks off another long Midwest winter. But to others, this date takes on the significance of a religious holiday. Yup, it’s the opening day of rifle hunting season for the white tail deer.

Most normal people would agree that happening upon a deer draped over the back of a Chevy like a roll of living room carpeting is enough to send any unsuspecting motorist careening off the road and into the ditch, but the very sight of a well displayed trophy kill has been known to bring grown men to tears. (You can’t convince me that GM never toyed with this concept for commercials as a way to boost Midwest car sales in November.)

While government offices don’t close on this date, a lot of Michigan employers, Like GM, do offer it as a paid holiday. Northbound I-75 traffic is as busy right now as it is over Labor Day weekend. The public schools don’t close either, but some of them should because attendance plummets on opening day.

I was a substitute teacher in the Mt. Pleasant school district in the late 80’s while working on my Master’s degree. My first-ever teaching assignment fell on opening day of deer season. And wouldn’t’ you know it, I was assigned to teach woodshop. Since I wasn’t trained to use band saws or lathes, the principal, who also “took the day off” made it clear that I was not allowed to turn on any machines in the shop. I didn’t’ make a fuss about it, mostly because the three kids who didn’t take the day off to go hunting shouldn’t have been left alone with sharp objects anyway.

Even though I hunted as a kid, I mostly did it to please my dad, whose passion for killing things was more than a little disturbing. Hunting for this man goes way beyond sport. It’s a way of life. One of my high school football friends dubbed him the Woody Hayes of hunting, and the title was well deserved. When I was growing up, the meat staples in our house were rabbit, squirrel, duck, pheasant, woodcock, partridge, and venison. The freezers, yes freezers, were packed to the hilt all year with wild game. With all the hunting he did, I honestly don’t know where my dad ever found time to work.

If the State of Michigan ever created a hunting season where you could only go into the woods with a loin cloth and a spear, my dad would be the first to sign up. I remember him shooting a deer one year, and after tracking it and finding it lying in some tall grass, he realized it wasn’t dead yet. This is when his prehistoric hunter instinct kicked in. He pulled his hunting knife from its sheath, charged this mortally wounded animal, mounted it like a rodeo cowboy, and enthusiastically finished the job.

As he retold the story over dinner that night, my mom sat wide-eyed on the edge of her chair, as captivated as my four year old daughter during reading time. My mom, after all, has never been a typical mom. She had no interest in hanging with the girls while the men went off to dear camp. Nope, she sported her own 44 magnum rifle, and she was as deadly a shot as my dad, which is how she earned the nickname Granny Oakley.

I love my mom for bucking the trend and rejecting the gender stereotyping associated with events like hunting. Others, however, embrace deer hunting in Michigan as an equal opportunity holiday. In Flint, for example, a number of planned events are taking place this weekend for the non-hunters of our clans. Friday’s edition of Changing Perceptions of Flint lists some of those events. One option is a retreat at The Holiday Inn, Gateway Centre, hosted by Women2Women Michigan. Best-selling author Kim Lavine will be the keynote speaker. She is the author of “The Mommy Manifesto” and “Mommy Millionaire.” Participants can also enjoy “a Chico’s fashion show, pampering, and how-to workshops.”

I’m not sure I’d want to be outside in a rural area while half a million people with loaded weapons are on the loose, but if you’re the daring type, then you might want to check out “Ladies Night Out at Crossroads Village.” For five bucks, you can enjoy “a holiday shopping experience of craft and baking demonstrations,” or “make-it-and-take-it craft projects.” As a bonus, you can ride the animals on the indoor Parker Carousel, although considering the occasion, it seems a little creepy.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The flagship event for the non-hunting crowd is “Widows Weekend at Birch Run Outlets.” More than 80,000 shoppers are expected to flock to the outlet shopping center for this 14th annual event. It’s being billed this year as “a shopping extravaganza in honor of wives and girlfriends who remain as husbands and boyfriends head out for the official start of deer hunting season.” More gender stereotyping. I wonder what Philip would say about this?

Personally, I’m neither a hunter nor a shopper, but I feel compelled to mark this holiday in a way that speaks to my own interpretation and appreciation of it, so I plan to feature the white tail deer in a recipe I’m going to cook over the weekend. I can’t bring myself to kill an animal, but I have no problem cooking and eating it. And thanks to the skill and generosity of my bow hunting kin, I already have a chest freezer (oh God, I’m becoming my father) packed with venison steaks, burger, and the highly coveted tenderloin. I’ve used this deliciously lean meat to cook such dishes as stew, chili, pot roast, and venison stroganoff. This year, I’m cooking up venison burritos.

I’ve created this recipe on my own, but like any honest cook, I stole parts of it too. I watched my sister Theresa make her version using shredded potatoes, which added a creamy texture and slightly sweet flavor. It’s now a main ingredient in my own. The meat itself can be prepared in two ways; you can either grind it like burger or, if you don’t have access to a grinder, you can always chop it into bite sized chunks. Either approach will yield a deer-licious alternative to beef or chicken.

(for the innards)
2 pounds ground or chunked venison
2 cans refried beans
2 large potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 large chopped onion
1-3 fresh jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
1-2 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce, finely chopped
1 packet burrito seasoning mix (you can also make your own if you have the time)
½ cup beef broth

Brown venison on stovetop and transfer to slow cooker. Add beans, potatoes, onion, jalapeno peppers, chipotle peppers, burrito mix and beef broth to the slow cooker and stir until well combined. Turn dial to low and let it cook all day.

(for the sauce)
1 twenty-eight ounce can tomato sauce
¼ cup canned chipotle sauce (Meijer carries this)
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in medium sauce pan and cook on medium low heat for twenty minutes. It’s that easy.

(for the plating)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 onion, chopped
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 bag shredded lettuce
Sour cream
1 bag of the biggest flour tortilla shells you can find

Spoon large amounts of burrito mixture into a tortilla shell. Add cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a big spoonful of sauce. Fold it up and place it seam side down on a platter. Top with lots of sauce and lots of cheese. Pop it in the microwave for 1-2 minutes (this is a key step). Top with tomato lettuce, sour cream and onion. Serve with a big ole napkin!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shock and Awful

Stephanie had to cancel our lunch date last week, which left me with a bit of a dilemma. Do I skip the Mexican Restaurant Tour and write about something else, or do I find a new lunch date and carry on, as I believe Stephanie would want me to do? Well, I did a little of both.

I chose a place Stephanie and I had already been to, so it’s not like she’d be missing out on anything new. I also chose a place that isn’t a Mexican restaurant, but one that devotes a whole page of its menu to Mexican selections. (More than a few places in Flint engage in this practice; or they devote one day of the week as Mexican day and fill the “Specials” board with south of the boarder options. Churchills and Bailiwick in downtown Flint, for example, both have designated Mexican days.

The place I chose to take my substitute lunch date to was The Red Baron, a bar and grill on Center Road in Burton. I’ll call my date Emilio, only because that’s what he suggested. I’ll also imagine that Emilio has dark wavy hair, a beautiful South American accent, and a twenty-eight inch waist. In reality, Emilio is a total goofball who generally needs the child-proof locks engaged when he rides in the car. He’s a lovable guy with a David Sedaris sense of humor who, like me, loves food.

Stephanie and I discovered this little gem of a place on last year’s Keno Only Tour. On the inside, The Red Baron looks like any other 70s style lounge in Flint: pool tables, dart boards, televisions, and a gigantic bar that usually takes center stage. If you’ve ever been to The Rain Check Lounge, Timothy’s Pub, The Jolly O, or The White Horse Tavern, then The Red Baron will feel like an old familiar place to you. Like most lounges, the lighting isn’t very good, but the vintage airplane art and the vintage Budweiser mirrors give The Baron a comfortable, uplifting feel. They claim to have the largest bottle and draft beer selection in the area, but I’m not even sure how you would determine that. Since the only other places in the area are Meijer, Dairy Queen, and a library, I guess the claim is legit.

A crowd was already gathering at the bar, and tables were beginning to fill up as Emilio and I were seated. We agreed to forgo the tried and true sandwich, wraps, and burgers portion of the menu and order strictly off the “South of The Boarder” page. After waiting patiently for the waitress to describe the chips and cheese appetizer in full detail, we opted for the jalapeno poppers, which are breaded, stuffed with cream cheese and deep fried to a golden brown. They were slightly better than what you can get from your grocer’s freezer but certainly nothing to write home about.

There are eight different Mexican entrees to choose from, and on the surface they all look pretty harmless: Fajita Platter, Nachos, Taco Salad, Soft Taco Platter, Chicken Burrito Platter, Beef Burrito Platter, and Quesadillas. The Baron must have gotten the memo from the real Mexican restaurants because I find it more than a little coincidental that black olives, green olives, onions, sour cream, jalapeno peppers, and banana peppers each cost an additional fifty cents. Let’s see, that means if you wanted to order the Nachos Platter, which has a sticker price of $8.99, your out-the-door total would be $12.99. Good grief people, don’t you all know we’re toiling through the worst recession in 80 years?

Emilio is completely undecided about what to order and I’m waffling between the beef burrito and the fajita platter, when the waitress, who is growing a little tired of our indecision, lays it on the line for us: “I highly recommend the chicken burrito. It’s far and away the best thing on the menu.” As I’m pondering what the hell she means by far and away, Emilio takes the bait and orders the chicken burrito. I follow suit because I’m feeling at this point that if I order anything else, the waitress will be disappointed, or worse mad, because I didn’t take her recommendation—which, for the record I did not ask for. “You’ll love it,” She boasts, “And it comes with a side of chips and salsa and a bed of lettuce.”

In retrospect, Emilio and I shouldn’t have ordered the same thing because it limited our look at the other options. As our chicken “burritos” were set down before us, though, I’m not so sure that would have mattered. I was fixated on the contents of my own plate, but I could have sworn I heard a faint, high pitched gasp come from the other side of the table.

Our “burritos” were actually CHIMICHANGAS, since they were tightly wrapped and well-done deep fried. I was more ok with this realization than my lunch mate because I really like chimichangas. What I don’t like, however, is being served a “burrito-changa” that has been slathered in ball park/movie theatre pumped-from-the-can nacho cheese. And I mean slathered. This goo formed a bright orange moat around my food, and a small army of nacho chips were mired waist-deep in it.

On the plus side, the nacho chips that came as an accompaniment made it feel like I was getting two dishes in one: a “burrito-changa” and a side of nachos and cheese. The bed of iceberg lettuce added a much needed splash of color to the dish, but it might have been better off stuffed inside the tortilla with the chicken.

Now, before I go off being too catty about how dreadful this Mexican experience was, let me explain two things. Number one: you should never expect to get good Mexican food at a restaurant that specializes in pub grub. It’s like going to a sushi bar and expecting to get a good steak. If you do get the culinary urge to gamble the way Emilio and I did, then don’t set your expectations too high and don’t be disappointed if the food isn’t very good.

Number two: Don’t hold the sub-par Mexican food against the Red Baron. They have some of the best sandwich selections of any bar and grill I’ve been to in Flint. In fact, since discovering this place over a year ago, I’ve been back at least seven or eight times. The prices are reasonable and, my “burrito-changa” aside, I have never had food at the Baron that was anything less than delicious. If you take a lunch date, make sure one of you orders fries and the other orders onion rings with your sandwich. It’s like getting a “half & half” at The Torch, and they’re both shockingly good.

Emilio was mostly gracious about my leading him into this lunch disaster. He only took one good-natured poke at me when he said, “Thanks for the worst lunch I’ve ever had.” I took it all in stride and as I engaged the safety lock in my truck for the ride back to work, I thought to myself, No. Thank you, Emilio. You just paid for that lunch.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"It's All Over For Another Year"

My parents are Snowbirds. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me provide my own definition. Snowbirds are retired parents who have long since parted ways with common sense. Instead of listening to their children and taking up hobbies like gambling or lawn bowling, they buy a second house in Florida, lug half their shit down there, and make new friends with names like Granny Mildred and Louie. For six months they complain about how hot it is and for six months complain about how cold it is.

Michigan Snowbirds generally start their migration before Thanksgiving, so their kids are spared the misery of planning and executing two family holiday gatherings with them. My parents, however, do not spare us that ritual. In my family, both Thanksgiving and Christmas happen to fall on the first weekend of November, two days before they flee the state.

Thanksgiving for us was never as much a holiday as it was a long weekend that started out with a gorge-fest that would put Fire Mountain or Old Country Buffet to shame. Christmas, however, was all about decorations, presents, getting smashed, and staging another gorge-fest. My parents were never big on the Christmas thing and mostly put up a tree and decorations for the grand kids. Toward the end, my mother didn’t even un-decorate the tree after Christmas. We were barely out to our cars, and she would slip a big black garbage bag over it, ornaments and all, and make my dad haul it back to the basement until the next year. They stopped bringing the tree up altogether once they moved to Florida. They claim they “decorate” it down there, but I have my doubts.

So with our truck packed to the gills, Philip, Alexis, and I headed to Up North Michigan for our early Family Christmas. As we pulled into my parents driveway, my dad was putting the finishing touches on packing. They bought a small camper for their truck bed, which is where they eat and sleep on the two-day drive to Tallahassee. Another thing you might not know about Snowbirds is that they congregate at the end of the day, which is anytime after five o’clock in the evening, and sleep the night in Walmart parking lots. If you’ve ever wondered why it looks like an RV Park at your local Walmart after the sun goes down, that’s why.

But my Snowbird parents are a whole ‘nother level of crazy. They also bought a small horse trailer that they’ve retrofitted with lights, a toilet, two cots, and a small chest freezer. I guess if they pick up guests along the way, they’ll always have a place for them to crash. And don’t even ask about the chest freezer. You wouldn't believe me anyway.

This year, my dad and I were charged with cooking the meat for the holiday feast: Ten pounds of pork loin that my mom marinated overnight in a small storage bin. The weather was gorgeous in Manistee, so we decided to smoke the meat in my dad’s heavy duty, refrigerator sized smoker. This guy is hard core. Instead of troubling himself with those five gallon propane tanks that the rest of us settle for, he tapped into the main gas line coming out the side of his house. He never has to worry about running out of gas, and he achieves, in his words, “maximum control over the heat.”

My dad and I make a great cooking team because we always start a project of this magnitude by assembling the proper tools—a basement refrigerator full of cold beer, a bottle of schnapps, the rest of the “men” in our clan huddled around the smoker, and a remote control meat thermometer that we can carry with us when we have to go in the house to get more beer. Cooking pork loin is very serious business because it’s an extremely lean cut of meat and if you’re not paying attention, you could easily overcook it. Overcooked pork loin is terribly dry and not so pleasant to eat.

Team Barnett, however, worked meticulously over the course of three hours and a dozen beers to come up with the juiciest, most flavorful smoked pork loin I have ever tasted. And yes, there is a secret. Most sources tell you to cook pork to a well done 170 degrees. I’ve come to learn that this is very wrong advice. While the temperature of pork should approach this temperature as it reaches your plate, it should not be cooked to this temperature when you take it out of the smoker (or out of the oven, or wherever you choose to cook it).

My technique is to cook the meat to 160 degrees and then remove it from the heat. Then let it sit, covered in aluminum foil, for 15-20 minutes. The internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise until it settles somewhere between 165 and 170. This gives the other cooks plenty of time to get the side dishes ready, and it gives my dad and me time for one more beer before we sit down to our shamefully bountiful family dinner.

In addition to the mounds of solid pork, the dinner table this year was laden with creamed cabbage, macaroni and cheese, cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, taco salad, some purple cranberry-whipped cream concoction, and a dessert selection of apple cake, apple pie, cherry pie, brownies, and Karen’s pecan pie which, by the way, was about the best I’ve ever tasted. (Karen, please send the recipe!)

Needless to say, my mother sent us all home at the end of it all with big plastic containers of left-overs. And while we were all hugging our beloved snowbirds good-bye and filing out to our cars for the long drive home, My dear old dad slapped the same cheery exclamation point on the event that he has since as long as I can remember: “Well, it’s all over for another year.”

And for them, it is. For the rest of us, it's time to hunker down and wait for the impending winter rituals we embrace as our own, the ones we know will bring us one step closer to spring and the return of our crazy, restless snowbirds.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Calling All Locavores

My best friend Jake recently turned me on to a word and concept I had never heard before: Locavore. A locavore is a person who eats only locally grown food, or food grown within a limited distance from where they live. Locavores are part of a larger local food movement that encourages sustainability by growing your own food and/or shopping at local Farmer's Markets.

Always up for trying on a new movement, Philip and I put on our locavore hats and spent a good chunk of Saturday at the Flint Farmer’s Market. We hung with Tim the Crepe guy, picked up supplies from the vendors (D’vine Wines is my favorite!), caught up with lots of old friends, and of course, we ate. It’s no surprise to me that the Flint Farmer’s Market was recently voted “The Most Beloved Farmer’s Market in America.” It's definitely the place for a couple of budding locavores to hang out and "be seen."

If you’re not familiar with the Market, allow me to give you a brief tour. (You can also go to the Flint Farmer’s Market Web site and click on “Our Vendors.” Here’s a shortcut: The list on this site includes the permanent, indoor vendors, but seasonally, The Market also includes an additional 25-30 additional outdoor vendors. Many of them sell produce, but a number of good food carts pop up as well.

Six different vendors offer breads of many varieties, including bagels, donuts, flatbreads, muffins, breakfast rolls, whole grain/sour dough/French and other assorted loaves, and of course the ever popular Giant Elephant Ears, which you can smell all through the Market. Everything is baked fresh daily, so if you don’t get to the Market early enough, there’s a good chance your favorite bread might already be gone. That’s happened to me enough times that now I always get to the Market before noon to make sure I get what I want.

Whenever Philip and I host a dinner party, we always include a cheese course. It’s different; it classy, and it feels a bit, well, French. All good reasons to go visit young Paul, the Cheese monger at Hills Home Cured Cheese. In addition to their dreamy triple cream brie, they have over a hundred cheeses from around the world.

The best way to try them is to ask Paul for a sample. He’s very knowledgeable and able to turn even the vaguest of requests into a recommendation that will please your taste buds beyond your expectations. I highly recommend the Wisconsin Applewood Smoked Cheddar, if you’re just getting your cheese-feet wet. This cheese is versatile, hearty, and far and away one of the finest I’ve eaten. You can serve it in omelets, on crackers, in sauces, or just break a piece off and pop it in your mouth. The lines can get pretty long here as well, so plan your visit accordingly.

Fruits and vegetables are Market staples, and you will not be disappointed with the wide variety of fresh pickins. Four permanent vendors hawk their goods all year and offer plenty of choices. When I’m in the mood to cook vegetarian, which is usually Thai or Indian, I stuff my big orange Market Sack—a recyclable bag you can purchase for five bucks—with vegetables and fresh herbs. You can also purchase herbs and spices at Edna’s Herbs & Fine Cured Meats Shop.

But of course, I’m a carnivore at heart. Lucky for me The Flint Farmer’s Market boasts a robust cluster of meat and poultry shops that offer the freshest, highest quality meats in the county. I rarely leave the Market without paying a visit to Knob Hill Meats. I created a recipe several years ago called Rosemary Port Roast. Yes, Port Roast. In the words of Rachel Ray, a person I’ve never been very fond of, “It’s yummo.” Anyway, Knob Hill sells a delectable bottom round roast that’s ideally suited for this recipe. All totaled, there are five meat and poultry shops in the Market.

In the spirit of embracing the concept of the locavore, and in the spirit of embarking on a six month tour of Mexican food experiences throughout Flint, I have come up with a culinary challenge for myself. I’m going to try to make an authentic Mexican dinner using ingredients that I buy exclusively from the Flint Farmer’s Market vendors. I haven’t disclosed this on my site yet, but I am an Aquarian. I only share that with you now because one primary characteristic of an Aquarian mind is that thinking up the idea for something is much more enticing than actually implementing the idea you’ve come up with. Translation: I love this idea. Now let’s see if I actually follow through.

I would challenge you to embrace your inner locavore and drop by the Flint Farmer’s Market. I double dog dare you to come up with your own authentic Mexican meal, purchasing all of the ingredients at the Market. If you’re willing to share, I will post the recipes for anyone’s locavore Mexican meal right here on Eating Flint. Let’s get busy people! I’m sure you’re not all Aquarians.