By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
My companion is late, so I sit by myself drinking iced tea and eating chips on the patio of Mi Cocina on Woodway. The salsa looks and tastes like spicy V8 juice. When she arrives, my lunchmate stands for a few seconds beside my table, staring over my head. "What's up?" I ask her as she slowly sits down.
"They're all blond," she says in amazement. I turn around in my chair, as nonchalantly as possible, to look at the tables behind me. There are five women seated at two tables, and each and every one sports the same blond bob.
"Remind you of Dallas?" I ask. Mi Cocina is the first Houston outpost of an upscale Tex-Mex chain that now has 15 restaurants, 13 located in the affluent Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, including one in Southlake and two in Plano. So I guess you could call Mi Cocina's fare "Plano Tex-Mex," as opposed to "plain ol' Tex-Mex."
If you prefer to eat Tex-Mex in funky environs, you may be disappointed by the tastefully appointed interior of Mi Cocina, with its color-field paintings and sleek furnishings. The menu sports an arty geometric design, and a sunflower arrangement graces the bar. The restaurant's slogan is "Comida Tex-Mex Con Sabor" -- a double entendre that means both "Tex-Mex with taste" and "no Aztec maiden calendars."
I get the No. 2 lunch special, which consists of a cheese enchilada, a beef taco and a cheese taco. It's a smaller portion than I'm used to, and instead of a plate covered in chili gravy, here, each item looks lonely, and there are no rice and beans. The single cheese enchilada doesn't have the crispy edges of a typical Houston cheese enchilada, probably because it's been heated in a steam oven.
That's also where they heat up that odd creation, the cheese taco, an item I've never seen outside Dallas. A tortilla stuffed with cheddar, topped with chile con queso and served without any enchilada sauce, a cheese taco is the Tex-Mex equivalent of grilled cheese sandwich on white bread, only it's steamed instead of grilled.
My lunch companion gets the No. 6, which features a sour cream chicken enchilada along with a cheese taco and a cheese enchilada. Her food is as pale white and bland-tasting as mine. But the patio is packed, the server never lets our iced tea glasses get past half-empty, and the rest of the clientele seems quite content with this whiter shade of Tex-Mex.
Susan Martinez is the marketing director of El Fenix, the oldest Tex-Mex chain in Dallas. Over lunch one day in big D, she told me how every Texas city has its own unique Tex-Mex traditions. In Houston and San Antonio, cheese enchiladas are finished under the broiler. In Dallas, they are heated in a steam oven, which gives them a softer texture.
"They don't call it chili gravy here either; it's chili con carne, and it's a darker sauce with more meat," Martinez said. El Fenix once opened a restaurant in Houston, but it didn't do very well, she said. The DFW conventions didn't translate in the Bayou City. In Dallas, El Fenix used cheddar in the cheese enchiladas. "In Houston, we had to switch to American cheese," Martinez said. Houstonians, it seems, are much more demanding about their cheese staying melted.
But there's one Dallas Tex-Mex innovation that Houstonians, and indeed the entire nation, have all eagerly accepted. It was Mariano Martinez, the owner of Mariano's Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, who first had the brilliant idea of putting margarita mix in a slurpee machine, making Big D the birthplace of the modern frozen margarita.
A second visit to Mi Cocina at dinnertime gives me a chance to sample several, and I must admit, the restaurant is pushing the frozen drink to dizzying new heights. The frozen mango margarita is quite good -- not too sweet, with lots of rich tropical fruit flavor. But the three-tone margarita "parfait" called the "dilemma" is truly a towering achievement. It's made by alternating layers of mango, strawberry and pale green regular frozen margarita in a tall pilsner glass and then putting the whole thing in the freezer.
Like a liquid nitrogen-fueled rocket just before liftoff, sheets of ice have formed on the cocktail's cylindrical exterior. It's pricey at ten bucks, but the dilemma packs more of a wallop than any two conventional margaritas. And then there's the variety -- with the straw in your mouth, just raise or lower your head to change flavors.
Unfortunately, the entrées on this visit are not as entertaining as the drinks. My companion samples the chilaquiles, fried tortillas cooked with eggs, which are timidly seasoned and generally tasteless, especially compared to the awesome version recently encountered at Jarro Cafe (see "Blaze of Glory," April 29).
I get an order of fajitas. The beef, which seems to be mildly seasoned with soy sauce and well charred on the grill, is tender and tasty. It's the onions and peppers that are disappointing. Fajitas, as every Houstonian who has ever set foot in Mama Ninfa's knows, come with caramelized onions and unctuous charred peppers whose combined flavors complement the meat. But the onion and pepper slices here aren't the least bit browned. In fact, they taste barely cooked.