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Houston, One Plate at a Time

Cooking show host Rick Bayless

"Look at that!" Rick Bayless says in amazement. "Geez, I wish I had my camera!" The trilingual sign he's pointing to, on a breakfast joint at the corner of Wirt and Long Point, reads: "Kolaches, Donuts, Pan Dulce." Bayless sounds like a kid on his first trip to Epcot Center as we drive along this gritty stretch of Long Point. "Look at that, a Korean barbecue, right next to a taqueria! Hey, that sign over there is in Thai!" Sometimes we take Houston's mutated multiculturalism for granted; it's nice when visitors remind us how unique we really are.

Our destination is a little Mexican restaurant called El Hidalguense (6917 Long Point). Bayless and I have had several discussions over the years about the food of recent Mexican immigrants and its inevitable Americanization. I figure El Hidalguense, with a menu that ranges from nachos to barbacoa estilo de Hidalgo is a good place to observe the process firsthand -- besides, I like their lamb. The owners don't speak much English, but they recognize Bayless the second we walk in the front door. That's why they keep sending us tequila shots, which we are far too polite to decline.

Thanks to his television cooking shows, this sort of thing happens to Bayless all the time. He recounts the time he crossed the border with the food editor of a San Diego newspaper to do a story on the little taquerias of Baja California. His PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, is in English. The show has never been broadcast in Mexico. But in every taco joint in Baja, they knew exactly who he was.

"The show's biggest audience is among Hispanics," Bayless says proudly. The show recently finished its season, but it was produced with subtitling in mind, and he hopes someday it will be rerun on Spanish-language television.

Bayless has just done a signing of the Mexico: One Plate at a Time cookbook (2000, Scribner, $35) and a cooking class with his brand-name salsa at Williams-Sonoma. I apologize that I'm taking him to eat more Mexican food.

"No problem. I could eat Mexican food every meal for the rest of my life," he says without a shred of irony.

We order some barbacoa, the cabrito enchilada and a couple of beers. The dark brown salsa at El Hidalguense is particularly interesting. It's made from some sort of smoked pepper, but it isn't quite the same as chipotle. Chile rayado, the owner calls it. He brings a handful of the dried peppers to the table so we can take a look at them. "It's a cultivar of the jalapeño that's unique to Hidalgo; you see these different cultivars all over that region," Bayless says. As the former editor of Chile Pepper magazine, I think it's fair to say I know my peppers. But I've never seen these before. Nobody knows this stuff like Bayless.

While he was here in Houston, he was a guest on two Spanish-language radio stations. Callers at one station gave him the names of obscure Mexican dishes and challenged him to recite the recipes. "The only one they stumped me on was tortida," says Bayless. "I ate it like 20 years ago in Chihuahua. I remembered it started with blood, but I couldn't remember the animal it came from."

It's difficult for a Texas food writer to admit that the nation's best Mexican food restaurant is located in Chicago and run by an Anglo, but that's the truth. I was skeptical the first time I flew there to interview Bayless ten years ago, but I've gotten to know him in the years since -- and so has the Mexican-American community. I think by now there is broad agreement not only that Frontera Grill is the nation's best Mexican restaurant but that Bayless is the nation's foremost Mexican food authority. Anyway, the little-known fact of the matter is that Chicago's Mexican and Mexican-American population of over a million is second in size only to L.A.'s, so great Mexican food in Chicago isn't as improbable as it might seem.

I ask Bayless what he thinks of the food at El Hidalguense.

"I would recommend the barbacoa if I was sending somebody to eat here," he says. "The cabrito enchilada is reheated. Too bad the cabrito al pastor that's roasting on the fire isn't done yet. But you know, you can see the fusion thing starting to happen already. Cabrito al pastor is native to northern Mexico, not Hidalgo. And they would never put chopped iceberg lettuce or salsa on the barbacoa in Hidalgo."

But Bayless, who grew up in Oklahoma, is not a snob about authenticity. When people cook from the heart, there isn't a right, or wrong, way to do it, he says. And he has nothing against Americanized Mexican food, either.

"I love Tex-Mex. I grew up on it," he says. "When we drove by Felix [904 Westheimer] this morning, I got all excited. The lady who was my guide looked at me like I was crazy." In his first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, Bayless intended to include Tex-Mex as well as New Mexican and California Mexican as regional styles of Mexican cooking.

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