My dining companion thinks she has ordered Herrera's Mexicatessen's "fajitas bravo," which come with sautéed bacon, onions and mushrooms. But when her meal is delivered, the bacon and mushrooms are missing. The waitress says she thought my friend ordered the "fajita dinner," a subtly different dish which appears in the de la parrilla (from the grill) section of the menu. The fajita dinner comes with frijoles de charro (cowboy beans) and guacamole on the side; the fajitas bravo come with bacon and mushrooms.
Both styles of fajitas are served on a sizzling black cast-iron comal set in a wooden holder. The waitress offers to take the steaming food back, but my friend surrenders to the mouthwatering dish in front of her. And, truth be told, the heavy bacon accent in the cowboy beans almost makes up for the lack of cured pork on her comal.
I order the "deluxe Mexicatessen pride dinner," an enormous combination affair that comes on two plates. On the "salad plate" there's guacamole; a taco made with a preformed shell and filled with soupy, hideously oversalted ground beef; a bean chalupa; and a chalupa shell with chile con queso over the top.
The second round is the "hot plate." Under a two-toned blanket of brown chili con carne and yellow cheese, there are one chicken and one cheese enchilada, a tamal and rice and beans. All in all, it's a hearty dinner, but the enchiladas and tamales are barely recognizable under all the sauce and cheese. As Tex-Mex combo platters go, it's slightly below average.
Sensing my discouragement, my companion kindly allows me to make a taco from her fajita pile. The charcoal-grilled meat is dark and well marinated. Soy sauce and pineapple juice are the classic Houston fajita marinade ingredients, and I would guess that's what they're using here. But it's a trade secret, of course.
The chopped fajita meat appears to be from the tender inner belt, not the tougher skirt portion. It is flame-scorched to perfect tenderness and a lovely dark char. The flour tortillas are handmade and hot, and the pico de gallo and guacamole appear to be fresh. All rolled together, they make one of the best fajita tacos I've had in a long time.
As I pay the bill, I notice that most of the firemen at the next table seem to be eating fajitas. I can't really tell which variety. But as I head for the parking lot, I wonder if the fajitas bravo are really any better than the fajita dinner. It all depends on your attitude toward bacon, I postulate.
A couple of years ago, a cookbook called Everything Tastes Better with Bacon hit the stands. The clever title pretty well sums up one take on the subject. But then there are the purists. Putting bacon on a hamburger obscures the flavor of the beef, they argue. And bacon-wrapped shrimp is an abomination against good seafood. I can see merit in both points of view.
Obviously, I will need to return to Mexicatessen to consider both alternatives. Although I'm quite stuffed as I drive away, I'm already fantasizing about the bacony fajitas bravo.
At lunchtime, the old-fashioned Tex-Mex fare at Herrera's Mexicatessen draws a crowd of Houston firemen, cops and UPS drivers. To their credit, the Herrera family, which owns the place, doesn't engage in any silly debates about authenticity. The slogan on the menu reads, "Serving fine Tex-Mex food since 1957."
Located on Crosstimbers, just east of Shepherd in the Garden Oaks neighborhood, Mexicatessen is a historic landmark, though not quite as old as the nearby Barbecue Inn. The Heights neighborhood association got in touch with me after my recent review of Barbecue Inn ("Fried in the Heights," October 28) to point out that that restaurant is in Garden Oaks, not the Heights.
So let me correct my mistake. Like Lubbock and Abilene, the Heights is dry -- which is why the neighborhood just north of the teetotalers' ghetto has such an abundance of wonderful restaurants. Thanks to the fact that Mexicatessen is in Garden Oaks and not the Heights, you can actually drink beer there.
On my second visit to the venerable establishment, my observant dining companions point out a few things that I hadn't noticed before, like Army Sergeant Benito Herrera's black-and-white photographs of Italy and Algiers taken during World War II, which are proudly displayed in the front room.
They are also appreciative of the authoritative bite of the restaurant's homemade salsa and the incredible thinness and crispness of Mexicatessen's chips. The skinny chips and zippy salsa prove to be the best appetizer we sample.
An order of nachos with beef and cheese turns out to be chalupa half-shells with the salty ground meat taco filling and queso poured over them. They are ugly to look at, messy to eat and a poor substitute for proper nachos.
When nachos were invented, every chip was individually dressed with condiments. It might have been nothing more than a sprinkling of cheese and a jalapeño slice, but it was handmade. Then came the ballpark nacho, and suddenly it was okay to pour a mess of cheese sauce over chips and call the resulting mess "nachos."
At Mexicatessen, they have departed from the proud tradition of artisanal nacho making and joined the ballpark crowd. Except here, you can also get too-salty taco meat and refried beans slopped over your corn chips. My advice is not to bother.
My buddies get two orders of enchiladas, which miss the mark on opposite sides. The cheese enchiladas are so smothered in chili and cheese, you can barely find the tortilla. And at the other extreme are the underbaked chicken enchiladas in salsa verde. The rolled tortillas sit up on the plate with barely a fleck of green sauce clinging to them. The tomatillo-and-serrano salsa tastes all right, but somehow it refuses to soften the tortillas and bring the dish together.
Meanwhile, the aroma of my fajitas bravo is torturing my tablemates. Just as I imagined, the bacon, mushrooms and caramelized onions create a rich, greasy dressing that sends the already excellent fajita plate into the stratosphere.
Personally, I'm deeply conflicted on the subject of bacon. I think it's excessive and unnecessary on this fajita platter. And I think the bacon flavor takes away from the purity of the essential fajita experience. But I will order it every time. Just one of those contradictions I have to live with, I guess.
I have also ordered guacamole on the side. On a hot homemade tortilla, I spread a little refried beans, then position a few strips of the marinated, chargrilled beef on top. Next comes the onion, mushroom, bacon mélange and a sprinkling of pico de gallo. Finally, I spoon a generous glob of guacamole across the top and roll it up, all the while watching my tablemates out of the corner of my eye.
After the disgruntled enchilada eaters watch me take a few bites, I innocently ask them if they would like to share my fajitas. And they immediately stab away at the meat and fixings. It's really not that generous of me. There is so much food on the comal, I couldn't possibly eat it all anyway.
Fajitas are the way to go at the historic Mexicatessen. But to choose between the purity of the fajita dinner or the bold flavors of the fajitas bravo, you will have to decide how you feel about bacon.
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