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.