Take a peek inside Los Corrales in this week's slideshow.
Aporreado is a very popular dish in Michoacán, the southwestern Mexican state that borders the Pacific Ocean. But you just don't find it often here in Houston, despite the many Michoacanos in the city, and despite its many charms. In Michoacán, aporreado is a common breakfast dish, in which machaca — dried, shredded beef — is mixed up with scrambled eggs and served under a warm blanket of spicy tomato-chile sauce. One local place that does offer the dish is Los Corrales.
This tiny East End restaurant with all of four tables inside (and a couple out front if you don't mind the lack of shade) isn't really a restaurant, per se: It's more of a canteen attached to a large factory that processes and sells machaca throughout Houston, the same machaca that is used in aporreado and a host of other famous Mexican dishes, like the beloved breakfast dish machacado con huevo.
Los Corrales started out as just a small dried-beef processor in 1990, but the family-run operation under patriarch Leo Marroquin has greatly expanded since then to sell its products throughout Texas. Here in Houston, you can find the only two products that Los Corrales makes — dried beef and shredded dried beef — in stores like H-E-B, Mi Tienda, Food Town and (naturally) La Michoacana. And, of course, you can find it being used in the dishes that Los Corrales' restaurant turns out for breakfast and lunch six days a week.
The aporreado here is tame, much tamer than you'd find back in Mexico, but good nevertheless. A plate of it comes with rice, beans and house-made tortillas so thick with lard they stiffen up at the first sign of a cool breeze. The beans are lard-laced, too, a rarity in Tex-Mex restaurants now, and they're sweeter for it. Instead of the overly fatty, porky flavor that can often weigh down lard-saturated refried beans, Los Corrales takes a lighter touch: The result is just a hint of heady pig fat that blooms softly and subtly as you spread the beans across a hot tortilla, then top it with a few spoonfuls of the chile-drenched machaca and eggs.
That's one option here, alongside a dozen or so different ways to enjoy Los Corrales' machaca in a variety of preparations. Although the aporreado is good, it's the simpler machacado con huevo I enjoy most, as it allows the dried beef itself — the signature product — to shine.
That beef is almost too soft and tender to have been dried, but the people behind Los Corrales are experts at what they do, tracing their roots to the historical home of machaca in Nuevo León. There, as the Marroquin family tells it, Don Guadalupe Rodriguez had a little butcher shop where he'd slaughter the biggest bull from the nearby Blanquillo ranch every weekend and sell the meat. He always had leftovers, though, and in the days before refrigeration, he couldn't just keep it in cold storage. So Rodriguez figured out a way to cure the leftover beef by rubbing it down with chiles and other spices, then cutting it into strips and leaving it to dry in the sun.
This dried-beef preparation eventually became popular throughout the northern states in Mexico, and over time, it drifted south into places like Michoacán and north into places like Texas. Here, it became a staple of Tex-Mex cooking in dishes like machacado con huevo, which takes the dried beef, shreds it and pairs it with scrambled eggs in a standby that's both simple and delicious.
At Los Corrales, these shreds of beef can be so wispy and fine they nearly melt on your tongue like bonito flakes, or so toothsome and chewy that they give the scrambled eggs some much-needed bite. It's this blend of textures that makes the machacado con huevo so fun to eat, so enjoyable in its simplicity. Folded into a hot flour tortilla, the beef also strikes just the right balance of saltiness in the eggs, so that all you need on top is a light drizzle of Los Corrales' bright salsa — which, like most everything else here, is also made in-house.
You can watch the Los Corrales cooks at work behind a few massive sheets of Plexiglas while you wait for your food if the dining room is too busy. You'll see them forming balls of masa or throwing tortillas on the griddle for the 12-packs that you can buy to go. Along with the dried beef, tortillas are one of the most popular items to take home after folks have finished breakfast here, polishing off plates of delightfully crispy chilaquiles or a few fat breakfast tacos.
If you go at lunch, though, you'll more or less have the dining room to yourself. It's much quieter then, and in that way it makes a perfect wayfaring stop after a drive down Navigation to 75th Street, which has always been one of the most interesting drives in Houston.
Besides aporreado, you'll find equally rare birds on the lunch menu, like a plate of entomatadas that are covered with a plush tomato sauce and a huge dollop of sour cream. You can get better entomatadas in town, such as the ones at La Mexicana (where you'll have to ask very nicely for them, since they're an off-menu item and not always available). But that's when you can find them at all. Like finding an elusive cup of fideo, spotting entomatadas on a menu means that you're eating in a true, old-school Tex-Mex joint of the type that used to saturate the city.
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Here, the entomatadas are one of the rare dishes that feature shredded chicken instead of beef, all soft and buttery under a few soft corn tortillas. They're like enchiladas in a way, except served with that plush tomato sauce that's more like an Italian red sauce than chili gravy — especially if the restaurant, like Los Corrales does, leaves out the sharp heat of serrano peppers in favor of making the dish more mild.
I've noticed a tendency for the restaurant to do this in nearly every dish I expected to be spicy, including the salsa and the aporreado. But Tex-Mex — especially in Houston — is by its very nature Americanized. And as go our wimpy palates, so goes the heat level of the food. I admit that I often find myself wishing that there was more spice and swagger to the food here.
But then I remind myself that it's Tex-Mex at its core, not interior Mexican, and that Los Corrales should be commended for keeping the old classics alive and well. Add in the fact that you're eating in a tiny, four-table addition to a dried-beef factory, and both the excellent, homestyle food and the warm service at Los Corrales seem even more amazing.