The waitress tried to describe the tlacoyos and some of the other unusual items on the menu at Las Llardas, a new Mexican restaurant on Fulton. But she didn't speak any English, and in the end we just had to order them to see what they were.
Pambazos, a hot sandwich filled with mashed potato and sausage and then smothered in gravy, is tasty but very heavy for a summer meal. And panuchos turn out to be Mexico City's name for gorditas. In the Mexican capital they use the name gordita for a larger version of the same thing, we are told.
The owner of La Llardas is from Mexico City, and so are the vast majority of its customers. There is a mural painted on one wall of the restaurant depicting the Plaza Reforma in the center of that city. In the painting, Volkswagen taxicabs whiz around the traffic circle while a guy holding a plastic bag full of alcohol emits plumes of fire from his mouth.
Las llardas means "the yards" and refers to the tall English yard-long ale glasses that were a craze in the United States back in the 1970s. Drinking a yard of ale is evidently a popular fad in Mexico City at the moment, and Las Llardas has brought the trend to the barrio of Houston. During happy hour, you can get a yard of Bud Light for $2 and a half-yard for a buck.
The right side of the restaurant is dominated by a bar and a big-screen television set, which is constantly tuned to a soccer game. Jerseys from various soccer teams in Houston and Mexico City hang from the rafters. In keeping with the beer-drinking and soccer-watching atmosphere, much of the menu at La Llardas is Mexico City pub grub like tortas (sandwiches) and tacos with lots of Tex-Mex throw in for good measure.
I stopped by one night to drink a half a yard and try the tortas. Two of us split a hearty torta cubana. The sandwich was made with roasted pork, ham and cheese stacked on a large roll and heated on the grill. It wasn't quite as good as a traditional Cuban sandwich made in a sandwich press, but it wasn't bad.
We also split a torta chilanga, which included ham, a pounded cutlet of breaded and fried beef, and some thin slices of hot dog on a big roll, garnished with avocado and mayonnaise. It was pretty good, except that the ham was an end slice with lots of inedible ligament. Chilanga, or chilango, is slang for a resident of Mexico City, and although it carries insulting connotations of superiority and arrogance, Mexico City residents wear the insult like a badge of honor.
On another visit, I sampled some of the $5 lunch specials. My friend got flautas deshebradas, crunchy, deep-fried tortilla flutes stuffed with shredded beef in spicy sauce. The filling was good, but unfortunately there wasn't much of it. I got tacos stuffed with cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan roasted pork dish. We both liked the tacos more; the pork was extremely tender and dressed with a vinegary chile sauce.
While we were there, I read an article in Paper City by John Mariani titled "True Mex." It was a dangerous thing to read at lunch: I was laughing so hard I almost passed iced tea through my nose.
According to Mariani, most Americans don't know what Mexican food is all about -- especially us Texans. He faults Tex-Mex restaurants for serving Americanized stuff like burritos, chimichangas and refried beans. The East, on the other hand, has the best Mexican food in the country, Mariani says.
What a funny guy. Based on my recent experiences, the average Mexican eatery in Manhattan is owned and operated by Koreans and the food is horrific. It's not that there aren't any Mexicans in New York, there is a huge population of them now. But they're all too busy running the pizzerias and coffee shops to cook the Mexican food. So what the hell is he talking about?
In his article, Mariani quotes cooking authority Patricia Quintana in Mexico City. She explains why upscale versions of Mexican regional cuisine like hers are better than Tex-Mex.
"Tex-Mex food is a regional cookery too, but the territory had few resources at the time the Americans began to adapt the peasant foods of the region, so it's all fairly simplistic," says Quintana. Texas had fewer resources than Mexico? When was this exactly? And what does she mean by peasant food? Who were the peasants?