Comida sin Fronteras
The garnish plate that came with the birria goat and broth at Casa de Leon Mexican restaurant on Long Point included chopped onions, chopped jalapeños, cilantro and lime wedges. I dumped most of the stuff on the plate into my soup bowl and squeezed some lime juice over the top. The broth was the dark red color of dried New Mexican chiles, and the goat meat piled in the middle of the bowl had been cooked until it fell into shreds.
It was Sunday morning a little before noon, and I had intended to get some pozole or menudo at a Mexican restaurant where I could watch the World Cup match between Mexico and Iran. The birria was a pleasant change of pace from the usual Sunday-morning hangover cures. I ate the meat on hot corn tortillas that I dipped in the slightly greasy soup.
Casa de Leon's birria is inspired by the version popular in Jalisco, which is traditionally made by stewing the meat of full-grown goats. It has a funkier flavor than the milder baby goat meat used in the cabrito dishes of Monterrey and northern Mexico. Casa de Leon's was the best birria I have ever eaten, but since it was only the third example I've tried, that probably doesn't mean much.
"What does this flavor remind me of?" I asked my dining companion, Jay Francis, who sampled the birria.
"Chili?" Francis asked with his mouth full. He was right, of course. The broth was an intense, spicy brew dominated by dried chiles and stewed meat. It was sort of a goat chili con carne soup (minus the comino).
Francis got a torta milanesa, which might be described as a Mexican chicken-fried-steak sandwich. After my unpleasant experience with the shoe leather-tough meat patty on a torta milanesa at Rico's Triangle a few weeks ago, I looked at his skeptically.
"You've got to try it," he said, cutting off a large wedge. The toasted bread and avocado-and-tomato garnish were great, but I ended up fishing several pieces of ligament out of my mouth. My incredible luck at getting the only gristle in what is supposed to be a boneless meat patty amazed my companion and convinced me that tortas milanesa and I weren't meant for each other.
I returned to the bliss of birria and fútbol. There was a small television set in the corner of Casa de Leon, and, of course, it was tuned to the soccer match. The waitresses were wearing official Mexican fútbol T-shirts. And the patrons, all of whom seemed to be Spanish-speaking, were watching the game intently. When Mexico scored first, 28 minutes into the match, a baby in a high chair at the next table said, "Goooooooollll!" along with the Mexican announcer.
There were four women, one guy and four kids at the table right beside us. The adults were cheering for Mexico and eating cutlets and guisados. All of the kids were eating chicken nuggets and french fries. They took turns with the plastic ketchup dispenser, squirting the red stuff all over their plates. The amusingly bicultural scene caused me to take another look at the menu.
Along with the birria, the barbacoa and the brain tacos, I noticed that Casa de Leon offers such Cal-Mex favorites as giant burritos. They even had that Tucson favorite, a deep-fried burrito known as a chimichanga (Spanish for "whatchamacallit"). And, of course, the menu also included Tex-Mex classics like chips and salsa, fajitas and crispy tacos.
I chuckled as I pointed out the kiddie McNugget meals and the odd juxtaposition of birria and chimichangas to my tablemate.
"In 21st-century Houston, the lines have blurred," Francis observed. "There aren't really any authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants anymore. You can get anything anywhere. It's all mixed up."
The second half had just started, and Mexico and Iran were tied at one apiece when we arrived at Emiliano's Sports Bar at 7710 East Freeway. Emiliano's is an enormous converted warehouse with lots of pool tables and 22 TV sets. There were more than 50 guys watching the game there, and almost everybody was drinking beer.
Right in front of us, there was a Budweiser sign hanging from the ceiling. It was a map of the United States and Mexico outlined in neon as if the two were one country. "Países sin fronteras," read the neon letters above the map -- "countries without borders." What a refreshing contrast to all the stories in the news about building a wall along the border.
I almost ordered a Bud. But then the Miller Light cerveza girls, clad in short blue-jean skirts and high heels, stopped by our table. They gave Francis and me free key chains. A soccer ball on the end of the key chain doubled as a bottle opener. The beautiful young Latinas sweetly suggested that we order Miller Lites. We did as we were told.
The place went wild 30 minutes into the second half, when Mexico pulled ahead. The Mexican team played with incredible passion against a talented Iranian crew. As the game came to an end, we toasted the Mexicans with shots of tequila.
After the U.S. team embarrassed itself, I went out and bought myself a Mexican fútbol T-shirt. I am now officially a fan of the Mexican World Cup team.
A couple of days later, I went back to Casa de Leon for lunch. The available booths had gaping holes in the seats. So I sat at a table beside a window with steel burglar bars festively decorated with striped serapes. Dusty plastic flowers adorned the walls. On the television in the corner, a Mexican announcer reporting live from the streets of Munich held his microphone up while a bunch of Mexican soccer fans sang, "Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta y no llores..."
I tried the enchilada suprema plate, which comes with four different kinds of enchiladas. One was stuffed with black, well-done fajita meat, chopped fine. It had a surprisingly pleasant crunchiness and tasted a lot better than it looked. Another was stuffed with grilled chicken that had been dyed orange with a tasty achiote marinade. The third was stuffed with refried beans, and the fourth with cheese. Unfortunately, all four were covered with the same bland tomato sauce and topped with so much melted Chihuahuan cheese, you could barely find the rolled tortillas underneath.
They sell 99-cent tacos at Casa de Leon, and you can get them stuffed with any of a long list of meats. That's what my lunchmate wanted. He is fond of tacos al pastor, which are made with grilled pork. But I talked him into getting the chimichanga instead. I wanted to see what the restaurant would do with the pride of Tucson. The chimichanga comes stuffed with your choice of meats, so he got his with pork al pastor.
"It tastes like a giant egg roll," he said, with a look that indicated he didn't like giant egg rolls. He cut off a big piece so I could taste it. I had to agree: The combination of blistered flour tortilla and savory pork did indeed bring to mind some sort of Asian fried roll. What ruined the whole thing was a hole in the burrito that let a lot of hot oil inside. One end was burned and greasy. It was a badly executed rendition of a chimichanga, which is a dish I have never been enthusiastic about to begin with.
A couple of big-eating gringos were sitting at the next table polishing off their daily specials, pork cutlets with rice and beans for $4.95. The larger of the two, looking casual in a floral Hawaiian shirt, said he used to work in the neighborhood but had moved away years ago. But he still came back to Casa de Leon, his favorite Mexican restaurant.
Despite the ramshackle appearance of the place and the extremely uneven quality of the food, I can understand Casa de Leon's appeal. It's not about authentic Mexican food. You can get that at upscale restaurants like Hugo's. It's about the flavor of the neighborhood -- and the sense of community you feel while cheering for Mexico with fellow fútbol fans.
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