The enchiladas de al carbón at Santos The Taste of Mexico are big and fat, and they're made from red tortillas stuffed with crispy blackened chunks of fajita beef, then topped with Jack cheese and chili gravy. Served with refried beans and rice on the side, they're excellent.
Back in the day, Houston Tex-Mex restaurants all used red tortillas for enchiladas. They got them from a tortilla factory in San Antonio. The bright color gave the otherwise brown enchilada plate a festive touch. But colored tortillas fell out of favor during the Red Dye No. 3 scare. Red tortillas are now made with a safer food coloring, and it's great to see them back. Oddly, they are listed on the menu under a section heading that reads "enchiladas de Garza Valdes."
Is Santos The Taste of Mexico attributing these old-fashioned Tex-Mex enchiladas to Garza Valdés, a tiny community near Villagrán in Tamaulipas, or to Dr. Leoncio Garza-Valdes, the San Antonio doctor who tried to prove the authenticity of the famous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe now hanging in a cathedral in Mexico City? I am guessing they're named for the doctor, who, like the original recipe for these enchiladas, comes from San Antonio.
I also tried a chile relleno stuffed with pork. The meat was cut in small pieces and slow-cooked in a savory sauce with cinnamon and garlic along with meltingly soft onions, carrots and potatoes. A mild roasted poblano pepper was filled with the pork mixture and then fried in an egg batter. The whole thing was then baked with a covering of cheese and tomato sauce.
It was an elaborate dish and a rich-tasting one. Interestingly, the menu says it's stuffed with ground pork, nuts and raisins. Santos The Taste of Mexico evidently got rid of the traditional Mexican recipe with nuts and raisins and replaced it with something more in tune with modern tastes -- which is a good idea. Authentic Mexican chile rellenos are seldom very good. Some older recipes call for citron, that awful yellow-and-green candied citrus you get in fruitcake. Modern variations like this one are much better.
For an appetizer, I split an order of crab quesadillas with my lunchmate, Jay Francis, who teaches Mexican cooking classes at Fiesta. The quesadillas, which are made on fresh flour tortillas with little more than crab, cheese and butter, are spectacular because Santos loads them up with top-quality blue crabmeat. The lump crabmeat you see in most restaurants these days comes from Pacific crabs, which yield larger, more impressive-looking chunks. It looks good, but it tastes bland. Don't be fooled -- there is no substitute for the sweet, vibrant flavor of blue crabmeat.
On my first visit to Santos The Taste of Mexico, a friend and I each drank an outstanding margarita at the bar, then sat down at a table and ordered the specialty of the house -- "The Santos," an assortment of mesquite-grilled meats that includes beef and chicken fajitas, pork ribs, quail, grilled shrimp, bacon-wrapped shrimp with jalapeño and cheese-and-jalapeño sausage. The price for two people was $56.
Our mixed grill was brought to the table on one of those charcoal braziers they use for fajitas at El Tiempo. It has a square metal pan on top where the meat sits and a place to put hot charcoal underneath to keep the food sizzling hot. It's a terrific presentation -- when the meats are straight from the grill.
Our meats were not straight from the grill. They were soaking wet, and they tasted like they had been steamed. If you tried to eat a pork rib, it fell apart in your hands. In the brazier pan, underneath the pile of meat, there was a puddle of water that was a quarter of an inch deep. The chicken had grill marks on it, but it was dull-colored and tasted soggy.
We made wild guesses about how you could mess up this bad. Had they grilled the meat, kept it in the walk-in for a couple of days and then reheated it on a steam table? Or had they grilled it, then frozen it and tried to reheat it in the oven? My favorite theory was that the mesquite grill was outside, it started raining and they forgot all about it for a few days. It definitely had that "meat that's been left out in the rain" flavor.
When the waiter came over to see how we were doing, we told him the meat was awful -- soaking wet -- and I showed him the standing water in the brazier pan.
"That's onion juice," he told us.
I picked up a rib and showed him how wet it was. And he argued that perfectly grilled meat was supposed to be moist and juicy. He was, in short, not going to take this $56 mixed grill back to the kitchen no matter what we thought about it.
So we paid the bill and walked over to another restaurant in the Carillon Shopping Center and got something edible.
After the surprisingly good lunch with Jay Francis, I went back to Santos and tried the red snapper with crabmeat. And I wasn't disappointed. It was a fish filet with lots of blue crabmeat mixed with tomatoes, onions and cilantro. I put some fish and the crab mixture on homemade corn tortillas with guacamole and a squeeze of lime, and it tasted sensational.
I also tried the carnitas, but the pork was too lean. Carnitas have to be fatty to get crisp. You're better off ordering them at a carnicería than a fancy restaurant. And Santos The Taste of Mexico is a fancy restaurant. It was designed to serve the community around Westheimer and Beltway 8, where there probably isn't much of a market for authentic fatty carnitas, chicharrones, menudo or barbacoa.
The restaurant is artfully decorated with lots of expensive Mexican pottery. I was impressed by the giant Talavera planters that hold potted palms and other tropical plants. The floors are saltillo tile, and the walls are painted a lovely butter color. I would probably eat here all the time if I lived closed by. I just wouldn't order anything off the mesquite grill.
Over lunch with Jay Francis I joked about "The Taste of Mexico" name and the silly menu headings. Tex-Mex restaurants have always claimed their food is authentically Mexican, I reminded Jay. It's a tradition that goes back to Felix Tijerina, who served spaghetti with chili gravy. His slogan was: "For the finest in Mexican foods."
But the section headers at Santos The Taste of Mexico are especially hilarious. Jay thought the nachos were the funniest. There were all the cheese, beef and chicken nachos you'd expect, under the title "Nachos de Linares." Linares is a village near San Luis Potosí, Jay observed. It's a good bet there has never been a restaurant that served nachos there.
I thought Quesos de Hidalgo, the section heading for the chile con queso, was even more inane. What cheese is from Hidalgo? The menu said they used Monterrey Jack with two "Rs," as if Jack cheese came from Monterrey, Mexico. Monterey Jack was invented by Franciscan monks in Monterey (one "R"), California. But we were really stumped by the one that read, "Quesadillas de Chipinque.
"Where the hell is Chipinque?" I asked Jay. He had never heard of it either. So we asked the waiter.
"Chipinque is a state in the south of Mexico," our waiter, who said he was from Mexico City, told us.
"No it isn't," Jay replied. Jay Francis proceeded to name every state in the southern half of Mexico and challenged the waiter to tell him where Chipinque fit in. (Jay is handy to have around sometimes.)
Suddenly, the waiter remembered that Chipinque was actually a small village in the state of Guerrero. He later returned with a third story -- Chipinque was in Monterrey. I looked it up later -- Chipinque Park is in the mountains above Monterrey.
All I'm saying is that Santos The Taste of Mexico could do better. Why not claim that the chile con queso contains the fabulous Velveeta de Hidalgo, a processed cheese that was being made before Columbus landed? Or that the restaurant's spectacular quesadillas de jaiba de Chipinque are made with the rare mountain crabs of Monterrey, which can only be harvested with a flashlight or under a full moon? If you're going to bullshit, at least be creative.
Richard Santos, the owner of Santos The Taste of Mexico, was part of the Ninfa's and El Tiempo gang. But I think he would be better off with an invented biography. I am thinking "Former Lieutenant Governor of the Southern Mexican state of Chipinque" would be perfect.
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