Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fusion Confusion

True confession: I’m an Iron Chef junkie. There. I said it. And I don’t feel nearly as dirty as I do when I tell people I watch American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. I loved the original version of Iron Chef when it first aired in Japanese with cheesy American voice-overs. Once Iron Chef America hit the airwaves, though, I was glued to the television the way I was when, as a kid, Bugs Bunny or The Brady Bunch came on. Of all the dopey reality shows on T.V., Iron Chef actually has a purpose beyond getting stupid people to do stupid things as the rest of the world shamelessly looks on.

I love the manic nature of the competition, and I love watching the judges eat and critique the food, which most of the time looks like a veritable art gallery of the chef’s culinary work. I even love when that lunatic host screams something like “Ala Cuisine!” and makes a wild Jackie Chan karate chop gesture to start the competition. This after he magically makes the giant cover rise up and reveal the secret ingredient. It’s food drama at its best!

For those of you who’ve never seen the show, the premise is simple. Each week, a professional chef from around the country engages in a head-to-head cooking battle with one of the five Iron Chefs (each Iron Chef is famous for his or her unique cooking style, representing a particular national or international region). The only catch is that once the secret ingredient is unveiled (it could be anything from crabs to cranberries), each chef must prepare a minimum of five dishes, using the secret ingredient in as many unique and creative ways as possible. They have one hour to make all their dishes. At the end, the judges sample the offerings and decide which chef’s cuisine reigns supreme.

What I love most about Iron Chef, though, is that it’s a classic example of fusion cooking, an approach that combines ingredients and styles from at least two culinary traditions to come up with a new, hybrid style, complete with its own unique flavors and textures. So when Iron Chef Morimoto, for example, makes his signature Asian dishes with mushrooms found only in the United States, (a possible secret ingredient) he is actually creating Asian-American fusion food.

One of the best fusion experiences I’ve ever had is when I discovered a restaurant in Chicago called Kevin. It was nestled in the downtown area on East Hubbard. The food was a French-Asian fusion and received high praise on the local, regional, and national levels. Combining French sauces and cooking styles with Asian spices and ingredients, the food at Kevin puts it in the top five restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. Sadly, its owners have since left Chicago, but they have set up shop in Toronto, which is another fabulous city that offers a host of fusion restaurants.

This fusion craze, the art of using food whose form is based in one cuisine and prepared with ingredients common to other cuisines, is a phenomenon that is neither new nor uncommon. Pizza made with lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, and ground beef, for example, has always been known as Taco Pizza. And most of the restaurants that Stephanie and I have visited since last September prepare traditional Mexican dishes in a uniquely American style to give us what we commonly refer to as Tex-Mex, arguably the most common form of fusion cooking on the planet. It’s hard to screw up Tex-Mex, but as we’ve seen time and again on our Flint Mexican Tour, it happens.

Depending on the region of the country you’re in, Tex-Mex can vary widely. I’ve eaten some pretty outstanding Southwest-Mex in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles, and aside from the occasional mushroom gravy I’ve had some pretty good Midwest-Mex too. There’s one variation of this favorite fusion, though, that should never be attempted: The Coney-Mex. Stephanie and I learned this hard lesson last Thursday when the penultimate week of our tour took us to Marie’s Family Restaurant, Incorporated in Northern Genesee County; it’s on Genesee Road, not far from Crossroads Village.

The place was advertised as a Mexican restaurant on the internet, but sitting at one of the thirty-five tables in this cavernous Coney Island diner, looking at the three panel, double sided laminated menus, with full color photographs, we knew this was anything but a Mexican restaurant. At fifteen minutes past the start of lunch hour, ours was the only car in the parking lot. From the outside, the building looked exactly like a Family Video store with a fresh coat of paint. The waitress swore it was built new when the restaurant opened three years ago.

Marie’s bills itself as a restaurant specializing in Italian, American, and Mexican cuisine. In reality, it’s a Coney Island that has a page of Italian options and a page of Mexican options. We were determined to have a Mexican experience, so we ignored the other five menu pages and focused on the choices before us. Sort of.

There were no appetizers on the Mexican page, but on the bottom of page six we found a short list, and among them was the one and only Mexican choice; jalapeno poppers. They were everything you would expect from a Coney-Mex perspective. Cream cheese stuffed peppers, wrapped in an inch of breading and deep fried to a temperature so hot you burn the first five layers of skin from your tongue when the scalding hot cream cheese shoots out in a lava-like gush. They were delicious.

Our basket of chips was about a step up from the bagged Tostitos you’d buy from Meijer, and I think they were warmed in the microwave. It was a nice touch and the chips were actually pretty tasty. The house and hot salsas were served in little white bowls resting in a little wire condiment basket. This course felt like Up North Country-Mex.

But the real tip-off that we were having a classically served Coney-Mex was our entrees. The traditional Mexican part of our dishes was the refried beans and Mexican rice. They weren’t great, but if we measure them by the standards of all the other Mexican joints we’ve eaten at, they would actually place somewhere in the middle

of the pack. Stephanie’s beans and rice were served with two beef enchiladas. Marie’s version fuses all three cultures in one dish. Mexico was represented by the flour shells and the tomato based enchilada sauce. America’s contribution was the ground beef which, I’m not kidding, was the consistency of, and tasted like, meatloaf. And Italy topped off this international platter with melted mozzarella cheese.

My chimichanga platter was also ground beef-based, but because of the texture of the meat it was like eating a really twisted version of Beef Wellington. And because it’s Coney-Mex, my tortilla wrapped meatloaf was deep fried instead of baked. I’m not sure how they found room, but the thing also had a bunch of rice and beans stuffed into it, completely encasing the meat. The sauce and cheese on top added some much needed moisture to my entrée that, along with some of the salsa and some cream cheese, made it edible.

By the end of our lunch—we stayed for well over an hour—two old men sauntered in and parked it at a table in the middle of the dining room. They were the only other customers we saw the whole time. A few minutes after they arrived, the cook came out from the kitchen, sat down at their table, and they all started playing dollar poker, a game where you make the best five card hand out of the serial numbers on your dollar bill. I pushed my half-full plate to the center of the table, declined a carry-out box from the waitress, and decided that while fusion cooking might work well for reality T.V. shows like Iron Chef, it’s probably best not to mess with the purity that is Coney Island cooking.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Another Pretty Face

If I chose the restaurants I visit solely on the looks of the exterior of the buildings that house them, I’d probably eat at home far more often than I do. Why is it that most restaurateurs do so little to make the outside of their businesses as appealing as the inside? If the food they’re hawking is good enough, I suppose a dumpy looking building isn’t going to chase customers away, but really, is that a legitimate business philosophy?

Actually, Stephanie and I were scared away from a restaurant this year because of its devastating appearance. I won’t name names, but we had planned, after working up the courage for several weeks, to have lunch at this particular restaurant. We drove to it, drove by it, turned around and drove by it again, turned around, and drove by it a third time all the while trying to convince ourselves it would be ok to pull into the parking lot. The building looked like it had been plucked from a third-world-Wizard-of-Oz Kansas and dropped, not very carefully, between two other bombed out mud huts.

If I’m feeling a bit indignant about the sloppy design and lack of attention to the part of a business that could, for minimal effort, and marginal cost, be a far more effective advertisement than billboards or bus stop benches, it’s because I feel personally invested in the success of a restaurant. It’s hard enough to make a go of it in this business, so not factoring the look of your establishment into your business plan, and not syncing it with the theme/style/feel of what’s inside could be a fatal mistake. Philip and I learned that lesson the hard way. At least on paper.

As part of our longstanding pipe dream to make enough money off our writing and publishing to leave education and open our own restaurant—that’s why it’s a pipe dream—Philip and I have meticulously planned and designed several iterations of our ideal bistro. We’ve gone so far as to plan complete menus, map out dining room and kitchen spaces, and create and design, using three dimensional computer generated models, full building exteriors.

Some of them actually have potential to move from silly, gin and tonic induced vision to it-just-might-have-a-chance reality. Others, however, will be buried in our family cedar chest and passed on to our daughter who, if she’s as smart as we know she is, will pass them on to her children, and onto their children, until generations from now, one of our descendants will realize the true genius of our thinking and become the proprietor of, say, Pour Boys, a pub with a neon-lit beer pitcher plastered to the building with neon beer being poured into a neon pint glass that welcomes weary travelers. Or The Green Barn Bar and Grill, a barn shaped building painted green; the name Green Barn is a combination of half of my last name and half of Philip’s—Greenfield/Barnett.

We did make a serious run at creating The Lavender Thread River Front Café, and we seriously thought about converting an historic house in Flint’s Cultural Center neighborhood into an upscale restaurant, with each room acting as its own themed dining room. And though it’s not even a restaurant idea, we toyed around with the idea of creating Duds and Suds, a Laundromat and Sports Bar but 1) it’s already been done—in Reno, Nevada, and 2) we’re fundamentally opposed to bringing the two activities together under the same roof.

Many of the restaurants that Stephanie and I have been to this year also fit this pattern of inattention to the outside for a more focused attention on the inner experience. Adequate attention to some of the dining rooms we’ve eaten in were also sacrificed for the owners’ full attention on the food they hoped their customers would come for. One exception was Alejandro’s out on Elms Road. The outside was inviting and the interior was warm, tasteful, and totally consistent with the atmosphere, service, and food. I just learned earlier today, however that Alejandro’s has closed its doors. I don’t know if they’ve moved or moved on. (If you have any better information than mine, please share).

The building that houses Los Ponchos on Fenton Road is one of those shabby looking places that could use some TLC, or at least a good scrub down and a coat of new paint. This is where Stephanie and I ate last week on the twenty-fourth week of our twenty-six week Mexican Tour. Ponchos also had a Davison Road location, which I visited a number of times before it closed up, so now Fenton Road is its main hub—they also have a take-out taco stand on Dort Highway. While the Fenton Road building is as bit of a mess, the creative use of metal to make the sign out front gave us a good chuckle.

The inside could have used a good cleansing too, but the food we came for was good enough that it distracted us from the cluttered, dingy surroundings. The chips were hot and fresh, and while the salsa was more the run-of-the-mill pureed tomatoes and cilantro type, it had enough flavor to satisfy us and, as usual, it was quite tasty on our entrees. I couldn’t tell if the tomatoes were fresh or if they came out of a can, as they had in a number of our previous experiences. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to go through the trouble and expense of using fresh tomatoes, then why not chop them up and make a decent pico de gallo the way Cookie does at Lerado’s.

Stephanie chose first and went right for the combination platter, a tamale, an enchilada, a taco, and a tostada. It was served on two platters and came with a side of beans and rice. The food actually tastes better than it did at the old location, and Stephanie described all of her food the same way: It was solid, consistent, good. That’s exactly how I felt; it didn’t blow me away, but it was even and well put together. The one stand out was the ground beef that was stuffed into Stephanie’s platter. It was probably the most flavorful ground beef of all the places we’ve been to. It was spicy, well balanced, not too dry, not too fatty, just plain delicious.

I ordered the Macho Chimichanga because how could you not order a Mexican dish with such a cool name, with such machismo attached to it? This thing was so big and beefy I actually felt a little wimpy next to it. And Stephanie was right, the beef was a total winner in my dish as well. The beans and rice were nothing to write home about, but they too were tolerable. As good as the food was for me, I started to feel a little like I was eating at about six or seven of the other places on our tour. At some point the food, the presentation, the styles all start running together into one big Tex-Mex stew.

I’m hoping the last two stops on our tour will offer something that makes them stand out from the pack. A killer salsa. Some heavenly chips. The end-all, be-all enchilada. Or at least an attractive building that’s more than just another pretty face.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

When the Rooster Crows


A Merry Little Meltdown

It’s no big secret to the people who know me that I’m borderline math incompetent. I can barely add and subtract, so the simple act of balancing a checkbook or refiguring the measurements for a double batch of chocolate chip cookies can trigger anything from nausea and vomiting to a major panic attack. Throw a percentage or a fraction at me and my I.Q. drops by double digits. The wiring in my brain begins to sizzle and I experience, real or imagined, symptoms not unlike those connected to mental illness.

I recently tested at the ninth grade high school level in math, and yet, professionally, I am part of team that manages a twenty-three million dollar budget. For my latest budget assignment, I was charged with finding ways to bring certain expenses more in line with certain revenues. (This already sounds like a story problem and my heart is racing like a rat on crack). A meeting was scheduled last Wednesday at two o’clock with our budget director to help us make sense of our very complicated budget structure so I could get to work on my task.

When my cell phone rang at ten minutes to two, I secretly hoped it was someone requesting my help to manage a crisis so I could get out of this meeting. (Managing crises is another common occurrence in my job).

Unfortunately, my secret wish was about to be granted.

My boyfriend, Philip, was on the other end of the line, and he was in full-blown emotional meltdown. He needed me. And he needed me NOW! It only took me a second to do the math and see what this added up to: I was going to bail on my budget meeting and go rescue my man.

I had no idea what had happened so, knowing that Philip can be a bit of a drama queen, I mentally prepared myself for everything from he lost his job to Lady GaGa sprained her ankle and had to cancel the show he finally got tickets for. By the time I got home Philip was lying face down on the bed, sobbing into a pillow. I couldn’t help but notice he was wearing his old beat-up pair of sandals.

I knew I had to be sensitive because he was relying on me, but for a split second, I couldn’t stop the voice in my head from snapping Girl, how you gonna have a proper meltdown in those ratty-ass shoes? In any other situation, Philip would have found that funny (had I actually said it out loud), but he was pretty upset, which led me to believe that Lady GaGa’s ankle was most likely just fine.

Once he calmed down and was able to speak, Philip shared a harrowing story of how he found himself at odds with every single person he works with because he was unable to resolve a contentious issue by offering up what he saw as a very logical mathematical solution to the problem. How ironic. I skipped out on a meeting that was all about math that I didn’t understand so I could console someone who couldn’t get others to understand him through math. Well Lady GaGa, maybe next time you’ll just suck it up and take one for the team.

I did manage to get Philip up on his feet and out of the house so I could get back to work. He went off to see the new move, Date Night, and I caught the last fifteen minutes of my meeting. Instead of listening to what was really going on, because let’s be honest, it wasn’t going to sink in anyway, I did a little math of my own: By making twenty percent of the meeting, I absorbed eighty percent of the information, of which I retained one tenth of one percent. All in all, I’d call that a very successful meeting.

Before leaving the office for the day, I decided to make a dinner reservation since I didn’t think Philip would be in the mood to cook, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it. We have a small cache of restaurants we turn to when we need a good dining experience to help us feel better about ourselves and when we need to be pampered. Tonight fit the bill perfectly. Some of our old stand bys are Sagano, the Japanese Bistro, whose owners know us by name and give us the royal treatment on every visit, The Redwood Lodge, a great brew pub with a steak and wild game menu, Luca’s Chophouse, and to a lesser extent, 501 Grill.

Tonight we chose the crème de la crème: Makuch’s Red Rooster, Flint’s oldest and finest high-end restaurant.

Established in 1959, The Red Rooster sits at the corner of Davison Road and Averill on the city’s east side. It’s now in its second generation and run by brothers Archie and Ken, who are impeccable hosts. As their website boasts, theirs is one of the last tablecloth restaurants in Genesee County. It is the only restaurant that still offers tableside cooking, including such items as Caesar Salad, Steak Diane, and Cherries Jubilee. For a complete look at The Red Rooster, including a full menu, go to http://www.makuchsredrooster.com/.

About the only thing better than the food at the Rooster is their five star service. On this night, we were lucky enough to get Cat as our server. An eighteen year veteran of the Red Rooster, Cat is the most polished and most disciplined of all the staff. After my first gin and tonic arrived, I mentioned to her that we were in a casual mood and in no particular rush. From that point on, Cat paced our whole evening for us and let us linger as long as we wanted between courses, all the while making sure we had everything we needed. We stayed for almost three hours, and if it wasn’t for a new episode of Modern Family, we could easily have stayed much longer.

The slow, easy stride of our dining experience is just what Philip needed to recover from his traumatic afternoon, and by the time our appetizers arrived, he was noticeably more relaxed. His Escargot Bourgignone, fresh snails in an herbed garlic butter sauce, brought a confident smile to his face. I ordered the King Crab Cocktail, a hefty mound of white and red meat served atop a bed of lettuce in a tall martini glass. The sweet taste and flakey texture was absolutely delightful. Most of the appetizers are seafood based, but one standout, the Brie and Apple Chutney, is a total vegetarian winner.

For the soup course, Philip chose the house Onion Soup Gratinee, a flavorful mix of sweet onion and salty broth, topped with croutons and melted cheese. I’m not a big fan of this soup, but I did like the contrast in flavors that created a very even and mellow taste. My Manhattan Clam Chowder was also quite good, though not my favorite of the Red Rooster’s repertoire. What I did love, though, was the salad Cat recommended. It was a wilted spinach and bacon with a raspberry vinaigrette. Served warm, this salad is packed with flavors, both delicate and bold. By the time I finished it, I was feeling so deliriously satisfied, my worries about Philip’s bad day had completely disappeared.

I could have stopped after my salad and called it a night, but when I saw the entrees that cat uncovered before us, my appetite caught a quick second wind. Philip’s Sauteed Shrimp plate was bursting with color. From the medley of mixed vegetables to the lightly breaded, monstrously large shrimp, this was a visual masterpiece. Each of the six prawns had been sliced along the back so that when cooked, they curled outward and looked like a bouquet of blooming flowers. And the taste was so fresh, so delicate, at one point Philip just sat back in his chair and let out a long sigh.

I ordered the Steak and Cake, a decadent combination of a lightly fried Maryland Crabcake and a six ounce tenderloin, which was topped with gorgonzola cheese and horseradish. My dish was also paired with mixed steamed vegetables, which were perfectly cooked and intensely flavorful. They were definitely worthy of sharing the same plate as my medium rare steak and slightly crispy Crabcake. The food was so good, in fact, that we ate everything that was set before us, and we simply ran out of room for dessert.

When you come to the Re Rooster, I highly recommend the Bananas Foster, any of the hot Sundaes, or of course the world famous Cherries Jubilee. Just make sure you order wisely so you have room left over after what will surely be one of the best meals you’ll ever enjoy in Flint.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Demons on the Dort

Unless you own a storage facility or an adult nightclub, it’s pretty hard to make a living on Dort Highway.

This is particularly true for restaurants. Even the national chains have trouble staying alive on the most colorful stretch of road in the Flint area. Big Boy, Pizza Hut, and Bill Knapp’s, all located on South Dort, have been permanently shuttered in recent years. Local restaurateurs have made valiant efforts to open and sustain their businesses in these same spots, but the odds are always against them.

Since the Big Boy restaurant closed several years ago (just beyond Lapeer Rd) four different restaurants have opened and folded in that same building. House of Hunan, the latest tenant, has closed its doors and left a sign on its marquee that reads “Closed for Remodeling.” I’m pretty sure that’s code for a) we’ve gone out of business or b) we’re going to re-open as a Chinese Buffett. Either way, I’m not very hopeful.

At least a half dozen Mexican restaurants call Dort Highway home, and on our most recent adventure, Stephanie and I found yet another new eatery brave enough to open its doors on the Dort. We actually started our journey intending to visit Poncho’s on Davison Road (it sits almost diagonally from Angelo’s Coney Island). Sadly, Poncho’s is no longer open—at least at this location. The sign on the window said, “Visit us at our Fenton Road location.” We were a little short on time, so we decided to save that invitation for another day.

I had been wanting to try Casa de Linda for a long time, and since we were less than a mile from Dort Highway, this seemed like the perfect time to give it a go. I had always thought it was in the old Mexicali Café building, but come to find out, I was wrong. Casa de Linda is in a small strip mall on Dort, and it is a Take-out only joint. And oddly, the sign out in front of the store says “Poncho’s Tacos.”

When we finally made it to the old Mexicali building, we were pleasantly surprised to see that it had re-opened under a new name: El Chico. Mexicali Café, by the way, was a mainstay on Dort Highway for years. Then it moved to Hemphill Road on the southwest side of town, and then it disappeared altogether. The owner of El Chico told us that the Mexicali Café family picked up and moved to Texas, where they opened yet another version of their restaurant.

On this very rainy April day, Stephanie and I were the only customers inside El Chico. The building is super small, and the dining room can only accommodate six tables. I love the intimacy of this place, but as we would learn over the course of our visit, there wasn’t much else, except for the very sweet lady who owns the place, to write home about.

In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, we were told upon arrival that the regular cook did not come to work and a new hire was being trained—and would be preparing our lunch. Ok, that’s cool. There were no other customers to distract him—the kitchen was separated from the dining room by a small counter, so we were able to watch the rookie cook learn his job—so he could give his full attention to our meals. What could possibly go wrong?

The owner was trying to focus her attention on helping her new hire, so it took about fifteen minutes to get our chips and salsa. We also ordered the hot salsa and a side of queso blanco, but those would come much later. The house salsa was served hot, but it was not the kind of hot we expected. Ladled out of a small crock pot that sat near the cash register, it came to our table at about a hundred and fifty degrees. I’ve never eaten my salsa warmed up like this, and I think I’ll probably keep it that way. The concoction tasted more like stewed tomatoes than it did a salsa. The cold wind that was blowing through the opened front and back doors of the restaurant, however, brought the salsa’s fever down a reasonable fifty degrees or so.

We were treated to a second, green salsa a little while later, which Stephanie thought was pretty ok. I didn’t like it much because it tasted like pickled jalapeno peppers that had been chopped in a blender and plopped in a bowl. It had a decent heat to it, but I couldn’t get past the pickled flavor. And then, just before our entrees arrived (almost a half hour into our visit) the microwave on the front counter beeped, indicating that our white cheese dip was ready. By the time it made it to our table, a hard film had formed on the top that was nearly impenetrable. The cheese itself tasted more like papier-mâché paste than white cheese, so it was probably best that we just set it aside to make room for our other food.

The menu isn’t terribly expansive—which I’m always happy to see because big menus can lead to big failures—and the choices were pretty much what I would expect. Stephanie went for the Enchilada plate and I went out on a limb by ordering the Chimichanga/Flauta platter. A chimichanga, of course, is a flour tortilla stuffed with meat, etc. and deep fried. A flauta, or little flute as it were, is also a flour tortilla stuffed with meat, etc. and deep fried. So, I expected that my plate would include a mamma bear size and a baby bear size deep fried tortilla, but when my lunch arrived, I had two identical chimiflautas lying side by each, with a small crowd of beans and rice looking on.

The whole plate, after assembly, went into the microwave for a minute or two—not sure why—so what I received was an entirely overcooked plate of food. And while it did have some flavor to it, the chicken (which was supposed to be beef) was charred to a leathery/crispy mess and the shells were as hard as stone. Stephanie fared a little better with her enchiladas, but overall it was pretty disappointing.

El Chico has only been open for a few months, November to be exact, so it will need time to work out the bugs. Once the new cook gets his bearings, and once the food develops its own identity, this place should be on its feet and off to the races. But this is Dort Highway, after all, a place whose demons never seem to be exorcised and whose struggle for survival is a quintessential example of the larger battles facing our beloved city.

I will come back to El Chico. In fact, I promised the owner I’d pick up and distribute some Take-out menus when she gets them printed. I don’t know her name, but she is friends with and her food is influenced by Cookie (the woman who owns Laredo) so I know that in time, El Chico will hit its stride.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Born-again Burrito

The unexpected and dramatic change in weather lately has gotten me jazzed for my favorite spring rituals: cutting back the roses, clearing away the dead leaves from last fall, and anxiously awaiting the return of my spring flowers. Tulips are my favorite because for me they are the quintessential symbol for rebirth and renewal. Nothing says spring quite like the awkward leaves of the tulip pushing themselves out of the earth. I even wrote a poem a few years ago honoring this hearty metaphor-laden flower.

The First Tulip

The first tulip is pushing itself

Through its underground uterine bulb

Out the earthy birth canal

And into the first light of April.

The awkward leaves come first, fat digits

Backing out breach, spreading themselves

To make room for the torso and head

The way it’s been rehearsed for years.

Inside, I stand by the window and watch

Like a father whose been through this before,

Who knows his presence is useless as language,

Who knows that May is coming hard and fast.

The first tulip, still in its prolific cradle,

Follows the sun like a mother’s loaded breast,

Weeping and wailing as it opens, full bloom

As if its life depended on it.

Last summer I built six raised flower beds in my back yard, and at the end of the season I bought a hundred tulip bulbs that I planted, by hand, along the perimeter of each bed and along the perimeter of the whole garden. A hundred. So when I looked out the window the other morning and saw a deer standing in the middle of one of the beds with a tulip bulb hanging out of its mouth, I think my impromptu string of curse words was completely justified.

Philip thought I was overreacting and behaving like a raving lunatic, with the whole flailing of the arms and slobber hitting the window thing, but he’s the one who slipped on his Birkenstocks, flung open the back door and stormed into the back yard hootin’ and hollerin’ at the dumb-struck deer.

The losses were devastating. When the dust cleared, there were mini craters everywhere. My garden looked like dozens of little improvised explosive devices went off all at once. As I surveyed the damage, looking for any sign of life, I managed to find two bulbs, barely alive, tiny leaves just poking out of the mulch. While the challenges that lie ahead are great, I have hope. Hope in survival. Hope in rebirth. Hope in renewal. Hope that I might find a few more survivors so my garden doesn’t look totally pathetic.

These are the thoughts that filled my head as I sat at a table with Stephanie in a new Mexican restaurant on Thursday.

Laredo, nestled in a residential area on the corner of Lapeer and Genesee, popped up nineteen months ago with little fanfare. Had I not been scouring Urbanspoon.com earlier in the day, I never would have found it. As it turns out, it’s the best kept secret in the local culinary community, and of the twenty-some Mexican restaurants Stephanie and I have been to since early September, this one is far and away the best.

I know, that’s what I said last week when we finally got around to eating at El Rio Ondo. In fact, I expected to be totally let down and disappointed this week, because El Rio Ondo was so good I was certain nothing could top it. Come to find out, it’s not the most right I’ve ever been. Laredo is my new top contender for best all-around Mexican restaurant in Flint. Best in Show is the most prestigious of the TTC Awards, and, dare I say it, Laredo looks like the Titanic of this year’s nominees. And for good reason, I discovered.

Cookie is the owner of Laredo, and she also runs her own kitchen. She came out to our table to talk to us and what she shared made my jaw nearly hit the floor. Have you ever heard of Cookie’s Taco House? It’s a tiny place on North Saginaw street in a really tough part of town. Well, Cookie owned that restaurant with her mother about twenty years ago. Then she decided to get out of the business, and she opened a hair and nail salon, which she ran for eighteen years. As she put it, “I wanted to something different with my life. My baby brother wanted to get into the business, so he took over Cookie’s with my mother.”

Cookie realized, as the economy began to tank and business started to go south in her hair and nail shop, that she had to do something else to survive, so she made the decision to come back to the restaurant business, and that is how Laredo was born—or reborn as it were.

I knew we were in for something special as soon as our waitress delivered the chips and salsa to our table. The chips had just come out of the fryer and were piping hot. The salsa, for the first time all year, looked like the salsa I’d make at home. It consisted, quite simply of fresh diced tomatoes, finely chopped onion, lots of chopped cilantro, and a little salt. It was visually appealing, it was hearty, and above all, it was fresh. We ordered the house hot version as well, and it was equally delicious. Instead of the usual jalapeno or cayenne pepper, Cookie uses habaneros in her salsa, which gave it as kickin’ hot bite, but it wasn’t so hot that you need a pitcher of water as a chaser. Both of these are official TTC nominees.

While we waited for our entrees, the waitress shared something else with us that I found truly amazing. Laredo is the seventh Mexican restaurant to open in Flint at the hands of Cookie and her extended family. They also own El Rio Ondo, El Especial, La Azteca, La Familia, Cookie’s Taco House and, get this, El Nopal. These are some of the very best Mexican restaurants that I’ve visited and, according to Cookie, the family is set to open yet another one, Lupes, within the next month. This one will be on Elms Road in Flint Township.

Considering Cookie spent half of her time talking to us in the dining room, I was amazed at how quickly our food came out. I ordered the Chimichanga platter, which is served with a brown gravy, sour cream and a side of beans and rice. I had just told Stephanie a few minutes earlier how disappointed I was that most restaurants make burritos and chimis with small shells and put two of them side by side. I was reminiscing about the days when, as a cook in a local diner, I made burritos with twelve inch shells that were so big we had to serve them on platters.

Moments after I finished my tale, out comes the biggest chimichanga I think I’ve ever seen. It was stuffed solid with chunks of beef and topped with a light brown, peppery gravy. The sauce was so light and so flavorful, and so not the tomato based enchilada sauce that everyone else uses. The chimi shell was evenly cooked, and the beans and rice were every bit as flavorful as the ones I had last week at El Rio Ondo. Now I really have to make it a point to get back to El Nopal to try their chimichangas again, because Cookie’s chimi just made the TTC nomination list.

Stephanie’s plate was equally fresh, light, and delicious. She ordered a combination plate, which came with a medium shell taco, a tostada, an enchilada, and a tamale. The latter two items were covered in the same gravy as my chimi. In addition to the beans and rice, both of our dishes were accompanied by a beef stew, which was great. It’s just that we had so much food, we had trouble getting to it all.

Laredo is one of the few places in town worthy of putting the phrase “authentic Mexican food” on its menu. It’s the kind of Mexican food we’ve been looking for all year, and now that we’ve found it, we will be back for sure. Laredo is fairly new and Cookie said business is picking up but still a little slower than she’d like, so I’m appealing to you to help Cookie put Laredo on the map as the best new authentic Mexican restaurant in town. Drop by and see for yourself how good her food is. Now that Cookie is back doing what she does best, and now that her spirit has been renewed, I’m pretty sure we’ll see Laredo bloom like the beautiful flower it was meant to be.