DEFCON Dining: Escalante's Mexican Restaurant

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Man, the lead-up to the holidays has been filled with an odd combination of periods of cooking frenzy, trying to get caught up on some kitchen projects before year's end, and last-minute dinners, wedged into the hustle and bustle of holiday prep. It doesn't help the madness that my extended family has six birthdays and an anniversary in December.

As I'm sure you can imagine, lots of those "last minute" meals have been based more on location than desire. Especially when dining with kids who have been dragged from store to store for a couple of hours, "don't touch anything" admonishments flying, it's sometimes easiest to just go to whatever restaurant happens to be at hand. The other night, that meant Escalante's.

I've never eaten at Escalante's before, but must admit I was a little put off by the Tex-Mex Carrabba's feel of the place. We were seated and given menus, and I went off in search of el baño (nine hours of errands, man). I returned to find a guacamole cart next to our table, one of the waitresses diligently smashing shockingly fresh avocado with an array of ingredients pinched from the tiny ramekins ringing her work bowl. The kids merrily attacked a dish of mild white queso while she worked, the elder daughter scooping it up with her fingers (I've seen that kid eat soup with her hands).

The guacamole could have been, should have been stunning. The avocados were decidedly delicious, buttery and rich, but the other flavors were so muted that you had to search to find them. I asked my wife how she had requested the guacamole, and was told that she'd simply asked for some of everything. I suspect it's a bit like the "Thai Hot" phenomenon; if you don't specify that you like your guacamole with a lot of cilantro, lime, and chiles, you're going to get an assertively mild (yes, that's what I meant to say) mix, sure not to offend the whitest of palates. Next time (if there is one), I'll take the reins. If you're getting guacamole prepared table-side, after all, you should be able to dictate its deliciousness.

My wife would have me mention, rightfully, that the staff was accommodating and gracious. Surprisingly so, actually. Theirs was the type of unobtrusive, almost psychic service that I find so wonderful, and yet so seldom see executed. They earned kudos from my wife when she asked for a fried egg on her enchilada plate, a decidedly off-menu addition that threw the server for a momentary loop. It was clear he'd never heard of such a thing, and was confused by the concept, but he merely declared let me check with the kitchen. Of course, her enchiladas came dressed with two perfectly fried eggs.

For their part, the kids found the food to be fine. They were so hungry from all the walking around that they probably would have eaten cardboard cutouts of their chosen dishes, but hey. The little one did mention that she liked the menus. The interactive kids' version featured pictures of each option, coded by number for easy ordering. This allowed her a degree of dining autonomy with which she has little experience, getting to peruse the menu, decide on a meal, and order without any outside assistance. For a willful child still on the cusp of functional literacy, this was quite a thrill.

I wish my fajita platter had been so titillating. It arrived with the meat and onions sizzling in a small cast iron skillet that had seen better days. I'm cool with an unseasoned vessel for fajita presentation; you're not going to cook with it, after all. I'm not cool, however, with my food being served in a rusty old hunk of metal. If you're going to bother with a cutesy presentation, don't muck it all up with rusty service pieces. The fajita meat was tender and juicy, almost to a fault. I like a little bit of tug in my beef, a sure sign of actual skirt steak, and the guaranteed result of cooking on an actual grill. This stuff had clearly been pre-cooked, marked quickly on a grill for that touch of faux authenticity, and then tossed to its rusty fate.

Matters of cooking method and presentation aside, the fajitas were also flavorless. Dressed up with a hefty dose of that table-side guacamole (itself gussied up with a forkful of the pickled and fresh jalapeños my wife perpetually orders on the side) brought a little sparkle. The pickled chiles, in particular, improved things, their vibrant acidity bringing a little bit of life to the dish. Charro beans were watery and bland. Rice had perfect texture and a perfect absence of flavor.

The highlight of the evening, as is often the case, had nothing to do with the food. The table next to ours housed a couple and their nine-month-old boy. He kept dropping his rattle on the floor, to the young mother's patient consternation. I'm sure he thought they were having fun, but his mom just wanted to be able to take a bite of food. My older daughter, ever helpful, swooped in. She began picking his toy up for him, allowing his mom a few moments. The kids struck up a rapport, making faces and cooing at each other, keeping everybody entertained.

I remember those first few years of parenthood, when it felt like eating out was never again going to be a relaxing affair, forever doomed to picking up toys, cajoling picky eaters, and apologizing to waitstaff for the inevitable mess. I remember those moments when some kind stranger would spend even half a minute distracting my own children, allowing my wife and I the chance to enjoy ourselves, however briefly.

It was nice to see my own kids recognize the importance of such moments, and to help deliver one to someone else. A little light at the end of the DEFCON Dining tunnel, and proof that eating out with kids is not always a terrible idea. That, after all, is the whole point of this endeavor. Soldier on, young parents. It gets better.

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