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A shaft of winter sunlight strikes the cases of Joya soft drinks stacked five high in the front window of Gorditas Aguascalientes and lights up the colorful fruit sodas and their bottles like a stained-glass window.
A Hispanic waitress in a white shirt and black jeans delivers a sope de frijoles to my table. A sope is a disc of masa (corn dough) a little smaller than a tortilla, pinched into the shape of an upside-down Frisbee and fried in lard. The one on my plate is a study in simplicity. It is filled with refried beans and topped with shredded iceberg lettuce, a few pieces of chopped tomato, Mexican sour cream and a light snowfall of crumbled queso. The comforting flavors and textures run together in a gentle continuum -- the sharp cheese into the tart crema; the fluffy, slick dairy into the cool lettuce; and the hot, creamy and salty beans into the starchy, chewy corn masa. It's hard to believe that a $1.75 snack can taste this good.
When visitors from other parts of the country ask for Mexican food, I take them somewhere like Ninfa's on Navigation for margaritas and fajitas. But when visitors from Austin or San Antonio ask for Mexican food, I take them to Gorditas Aguascalientes. The kitchen here specializes in antojitos, which is rare for a restaurant outside of Mexico.
Houston, TX 77081
Region: Outer Loop - SW
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Breakfast plate: $4.95
It's also a joyful-looking place; every inch of wall space is crammed with black-and-white photos, painted talavera plates and old advertising placards. The open kitchen is framed by neon signs that say "gorditas," "tortas" and "tacos." In the back, there's a licuados stand with Osterizers and giant ceramic platters full of carrots and oranges. You can get smoothies and fresh-squeezed juices in big fountain glasses. There's even a display of horchata, tamarindo and other aguas frescas in large glass jars, just like in Mexico.
The restaurant is named for Aguascalientes, a city in north central Mexico. I believe the name (which translates to "hot waters") refers to some springs in the area. Gorditas -- literally "little fat ones" -- are masa rounds, quickly fried and then stuffed. The fillings here include chicharrónes (crispy pork skins), mushrooms, nopales (cooked cactus pads), shredded beef, chorizo with potatoes, pork in chile rojo, beans with cheese, fajitas, and chicken. I tried the nopales and shredded-beef fillings on previous visits. This time I go for puerco en chile rojo and papas con chorizo.
I liked the nopales; they tasted like green beans. The shredded beef was okay, too, but the pork in red chile is my favorite. Unfortunately the tender pork in thick, spicy sauce is quite a challenge to eat. I end up with sauce on my face and running through my fingers. That's the problem with gorditas -- they are rather fragile, yet are meant to be eaten like a sandwich. I don't think I have ever bitten into one without the filling squirting all over the place. Which is why I became a fan of knife-and-fork antojitos, like sopes and huaraches.
Antojito means "little whim" in Spanish -- the idea being that they are snacks, little treats not to be taken seriously. Originally the term antojito described all the quick-fried masa snacks sold in Mexican mercados, including some larger items like tacos, quesadillas, tostadas and enchiladas. But in the United States and Mexico, a few antojitos, like enchiladas, have evolved into something more substantial, like a plate lunch.
They have enchiladas at Gorditas Aguascalientes. There are also 16 varieties of tacos, including breakfast tacos, all served on homemade flour tortillas and all selling for $1.25. The prices are very simple here. All breakfast plates are $4.95, and all soups are $5.95. All of the guisados, or stews (which include carne guisada, carne adobada, steak ranchero, chile relleno, pork ribs in salsa, and ranch-style mole), are $7.95.
I have tried the caldo de res, a beef soup served with huge pieces of meat and vegetables, and a few of the tacos. I wouldn't recommend any of them. Not because they aren't good, but because you can get excellent versions elsewhere.
On your first few visits to Gorditas Aguascalientes, you owe it to yourself to try something you don't see very often: the masa-based antojitos. I would start with the sopes. The huaraches are wonderful, but they are so huge you can eat only one. The sopes are small, and an order of three is only $4.95, so you can try three different fillings. And you eat them with a fork, so they are less casualty-prone than the gorditas. I would recommend the sope de rajas con queso (roasted poblano chiles and cheese), the sope deshebrada (shredded beef) and the simple but stunning sope de frijoles (refried beans).
If you hate stories about how much better things were in the good old days, I suggest you stop reading here.
Gorditas Aguascalientes makes its masa from the flour called masa harina. But there is another way to make masa, which is superior in flavor. It's called masa fresca (fresh masa), which is made by cooking dried corn kernels in a lime-and-water solution (not the citrus fruit, but the chemical, calcium oxide) and then soaking them in more limewater overnight. In the morning, the softened kernels are ground into masa. Fresh masa like this was once used to make all of the tortillas and antojitos in Mexico. But it has a short shelf life; it begins to spoil within hours. Refrigerated, it can last a few days.