Where Carnitas Meet Foie Gras

Specialties such as carnitas and barbacoa are quite good.
Troy Fields

The fajitas plate lunch at Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 turned out to be a stew with small chunks of fajita beef and half-circles of sausage in it. The plate came with three handmade flour tortillas and two sides. But the lady behind the cafeteria line told me in Spanish that she wouldn't give me my lunch until I took the ticket to the cashier and paid for it.

I was mystified. The last time I'd eaten lunch there was several years ago, and at that time it was nothing but a meat counter with cooked meats to go. The taqueria area with its seating and cafeteria line was new to me.

The taqueria was added when Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 was remodeled about a year ago, the cashier told me in Spanish. There is now a dining area with six high tables, each furnished with several barstools, and a long stainless-steel counter that runs under the windows looking out on Washington Avenue. You can stand at the counter or use one of a dozen stainless-steel stools lined up underneath it.

When I returned to the cafeteria line with my receipt, the lady handed me my lunch. Although I'd told her I wanted to eat it there, it came in a Styrofoam to-go container. Looking around the dining area at the remains of other people's lunches, I realized that every plate lunch comes in a Styrofoam to-go container.

So I sat down at one of the stools along the window, where I had a pleasant view of the street, and ate out of the package. It had been my intention to compare the fajita plate there with the fajitas served next door at El Tiempo Cantina. But that proved impossible.

El Tiempo specializes in mesquite-grilled meats. They bring the fajitas to your table on a charming little charcoal brazier loaded with a couple of burning coals to keep your food hot. They also have outstanding frozen margaritas, lots of patio seating and historic photos of Mama Ninfa and the rest of the Laurenzo gang on the walls. It's a veritable Tex-Mex amusement park. And half a pound of fajitas with all the fixings goes for $17.95.

Matamoros Meat Market is designed to fulfill a more utilitarian function: It's a meat market first and a taqueria second. They do have excellent fajita meat; in fact, they advertise it as the best in the country. But it's the kind you buy raw at the meat counter.

Browsing the raw meats, I saw a sign above the fajitas that read "USDA Choice or better." The only thing better than Choice is USDA Prime, I mused. And I was so taken with the idea of grilling up some high-quality fajita meat that I bought some to take home. There was also an excellent selection of charcoal. While I was at it, I got a half-pound of chorizo, too.

But I didn't see any grilled fajita meat at Matamoros Meat Market No. 4's taqueria the day I visited. All the meats were stewed and served from the steam table, except for the tripe and carnitas, which were in a warmer on the side. My stew of fajita meat and sausage came with two sides I got refried beans and nopalitos and it cost a whopping $3.99.

The stew had a pleasant enough flavor, and it was extremely filling. The beans were creamy; the tortillas were tough but warm; and the sausage, I think, was Eckridge Farms. The tart and tender nopalitos were probably the best thing on the plate.

I much preferred the carnitas taco that I had on another visit. The hot flour tortilla was smeared with refried beans and dotted with a little rice. The carnitas, which are pork chunks boiled in lard, were crispy on the edges and falling-apart tender in the middle. I slathered it all with brick-red salsa that proved quite hot. The taco cost $1.69, and the tortilla was so overstuffed, half of the filling fell out onto the foil. Luckily, plastic forks were provided.

The food at Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 can be quite good, if you stick with specialties like carnitas and barbacoa. And you can't beat the prices. Granted, the ambience isn't as charming as El Tiempo's, but the interior decor is fascinating in its own right.

The lighting is appropriately bright for a market, and the signage for Bimbo bread and Budweiser beer creates a festive mood that blends perfectly with the pinatas along the back wall, as well as the paper cutouts hanging from a string in front of the meat counter. The floor is painted green, but the paint is mottled with wear, so the white concrete underneath shows through, creating a color pattern reminiscent of the outside of a watermelon.

During the recent remodel, the walls were decorated by a mural painter. The mural next to the chicharrones case is typical of the Mexican-restaurant wall-painting genre. It depicts a pouting Mexican girl showing some cleavage in a white cotton dress as she kneels at a metate.

But on the wall opposite the metate girl, directly above your head if you sit at the counter facing Washington, there are six extraordinary still-lifes. The compositions are almost identical: a package of Matamoros corn tortillas, a molcajete full of stylized salsa and a white square to-go box with the lid open, all arranged on an open napkin.

The six Styrofoam boxes are all filled with different entrees from the Matamoros menu. One of them is loaded with tacos, and I'm pretty sure another one is chicken. I can make out a tomato slice with some onions in one, too. Logic tells you the two small compartments in the backs of the boxes are filled with beans and rice. But the rest of the food is rendered in painterly brown and tan smudges an abstract expressionist version of guisadas, asadas and other meat dishes.

While researching The Tex-Mex Cookbook, I took a lot of photographs of food paintings on the walls of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants. But I have never seen a painting of Styrofoam to-go boxes filled with abstract meats. I believe Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 has taken this folk-art genre to a new level.

Last week I was sitting at the wine bar of Cova, directly across Washington Avenue from Matamoros Meat Market No. 4, drinking a $21 glass of red wine and eating a $9 tapas plate of duck and foie gras.

The newly painted exterior of the meat market caught my eye, particularly the lettering above the door that read "Award Winnig [sic] Meats." I asked the bartender if he ever ate over there.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "I eat there all the time." He went on to say that it was a much better deal than the $20 fajitas at El Tiempo. Six dollars' worth of carnitas from Matamoros Meat Market will feed a family for days, he said with a chuckle.

As we sat there comparing the three restaurants at the corner of Asbury and Washington, I began to realize what a broad range they represented. I don't think a cutting-edge wine bar for advanced cork dorks, a Tex-Mex patio restaurant for marg enthusiasts, and a bargain taqueria, meat market and cold beer convenience store catering to Spanish speakers could end up on the same corner in just any American city. Is Houston great or what?

"So what if I went over there and got some carnitas and brought them back here to eat?" I wondered out loud to the bartender at Cova.

"Well, I don't think I could let you eat them at the bar," he said apologetically. "But I might not notice if you ate them over on the patio."

"What wine would you recommend with carnitas?" I asked, continuing my fantasy.

"If you put salsa on them, you would probably want to skip the wine and go with a cold beer," he observed. Although I was intrigued with the cultural crossover, I didn't go through with the carnitas stunt. But the following week I did eat at all three restaurants in one day.

I paid $1.69 for a carnitas taco at lunch at Matamoros Meat Market. Then two of us spent $46 on two glasses of rare red wine, a cheese plate and one of Monsterville Horton's oxtails at Cova for an appetizer. And finally we dropped $42 on an order of fajitas and two margaritas apiece over at El Tiempo. It was an amazing study in cultural contrasts.

I've had breakfast tacos with cinnamon coffee at 6:30 a.m., drunk potent frozen margaritas by a burbling fountain late at night, and sampled some of the world's hardest-to-find wines by the glass at happy hour at the corner of Asbury and Washington. Don't ask me to recommend one of the restaurants there over the others. I love all three.

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