Thursday, August 30, 2012

La Casita Restaurant, W. Anderson Ln., ATX

La Casita Restaurant
1519 W Anderson Ln., Austin; (512) 469-0105

I had been hearing good things about the food at La Casita; rumors about great totopos (chips) and handmade tortillas. I’m a sucker for stuff like this, so we went by about a month ago, to grab a quick lunch. The place sits right next to, and just east of, the RR track that crosses W. Anderson Ln. (which is really EAST Anderson Ln., meaning the eastern portion). It sits about half way between Burnet Rd. and Lamar Blvd., on the south side of the street. If you’re a foodie, it resides in the building that used to house Bismillah, that paragon of Persian-Middle Eastern food that just vanished from the food scene years ago.

The colors are predictably garish, and you enter into a comfy space with Mexican TV going on, and some music in the background. The menu is fairly large, covering many bases. Judging from the name of the parent company, Guanajuato is the Mexican region represented. Guanajuato is a gorgeous city in Central Mexico, a World Heritage Site, and for a time, supplied most of the world’s silver. The original Indian name,
Quanax huato, translates to “hilly place of frogs” (though no frogs legs appear on the menu, regrettably).

We split a pastor gordita (based on the promise of hand-patted masa), a small bowl of posole (I am a total posole freak; love the stuff), enchiladas potosinas (one of their specialty dishes; San Luis Potosi borders to the North), and Pollo Piki Piki (another specialty dish).
 The basket of totopos (chips) arrived and they are fantastic: thin, hot, crunchy, and loaded with masa flavor. The salsa that comes with is spicy and flavorful, but so thin and watery that it’s almost impossible to get any to stay on a chip.

The gordita ($3.49) was of the cut-with-a-knife variety, but the flavor of the pastor pork was fine. The gordita itsownself was dense and tough; too bad. The small bowl of posole ($4.99) was pretty large, and heavy on a porky, chile-laden broth, with chunks of fatty pork and bone; I’d call it more soup than stew, and would have preferred more hominy (the cheapest ingredient in there). It came with a topping of cabbage, onion, and cilantro, with limes for squeezing.

The Enchiladas Potosinas ($7.99) was a bit of a disappointment. There were five cheese-filled mini turnovers sitting on top of a small, thin steak that had been marinated and grilled (this is the cut you see in the Mexican meat markets). The steak was a little on the tough side, even for it being as thin as it was. The masa on the turnovers was dense, and the beans and rice were okay, but not on a par with, say, Taco More.

The Pollo Piki Piki ($7.99) was really good: a mound of chicken fajita is topped with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, chipotle sauce, and white cheese. We wolfed it down, but again, the refried beans and rice didn’t excite.

Service was fine, the space is comfy, but as we always ask, “Was it good enough to go back?” I don’t know…still thinking on that one. The menu is big, so there could be undiscovered gems, but we did try a couple of their specialties, and found one of them lacking.

Mick Vann ©

Sap's, Early Supper 8292012

Okay, I know you're tired of me blogging about my meals at Sap's, but they are just so damn good I have to. Not to brag, but I consider myself something of an expert on Thai cuisine; I've been eating it for 40 years or so, I've been cooking it for 35 years or so, and have eaten it all over Thailand on a number of visits. Sap's is directly in my path between work at UT and my house out near the Wimberley-Driftwood hills. I've known Sap since he managed the Fresh Plus Supermarket across the street from Jeffrey's and Clarksville Café (I was the chef at Clarksville for 8 years or so) back in the late 70's. He has fantastic Thai food at his restaurant, so it all fits. Plus, I blog about most restaurant meals I eat, unless it's pure subsistence-based dining, meant solely to fill the gaping maw.

Yesterday I stopped by for a late lunch/early dinner on the way home after work and was jonesing big time for some Yum Nuea, Thai Beef Salad (it being kinda humid and hot and all). So I ordered that, with double dressing, and a side of rice. Nothing is better than the leftover dressing in the bottom of the plate when it coats the fragrant rice. It's the perfect balance of tart, salty, sweet, and spicy, lightly bathing that nutty jasmine rice.

Note the double dressing, and the raft of Thai chiles floating on the top of each ramekin.....deelish!

I wanted a soupy or curry-y thing to go with, so I opted for one that I hardly ever get: S-P47, Pad Phrik Gang Moo. A very spicy red curry-based dish with pork. It was the perfect choice; I haven't had it in a while, and after having eaten it again, can't imagine why I've passed it up.

The Thai beef salad features thin slices of tender beef that are lightly braised in a rich dressing of garlic, lime, Thai chiles, fish sauce, and a bit of balancing sugar. The salad part is crispy lettuce pieces, tomato slices, and red onion rings, with a topping of cilantro.  We made this salad for many years at Clarksville Cafe, so it's a dish that's near and dear. Sap's does a remarkable version.

The Pad Phrik Gang Moo is a thick curry that is loaded with chunks of piquant serrano chile (these late summer chiles start to get pretty frisky in the heat department!), in a red curry base that's cooked down with some coconut milk to add richness. Sweetness comes from palm sugar, and the aromatics include Thai basil, makroot leaf, and green peppercorn. It is complex, incendiary-ly spicy, and a bit on the sweet side, which pairs perfectly with the tender slices of pork loin. This a killer dish.

Unctuous pork bathed in a rich, very spicy curry, laced with chunks of Serrano chile...nice.

I'm patting myself on the back for picking a couple of dishes that worked together so well. My meal couldn't have been any better if I had eaten it in the Land of Smiles.

Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Darband Shishkabob in Houston


The Darband Shishkabob – HTX Eats
5670 Hillcroft Ave, Houston; 713-975-8350

Art and I went to Houston a couple of weeks ago to meet some clients and had a hankering for some shishkabob for lunch, on the way to the meeting. According to all the self-proclaimed kabob experts in Space City (and the Yelpers, the Urbanspooners, and the Chowhounds), The Darband Shishkabob was the place to go, and it fit nicely into the time frame and travel plans. Once you exit 10, Voss Rd. eventually turns into Hillcroft, and after you pass under the Westpark Tollway, and before you cross under the Southwest Freeway (or “The 59”, as west coast hipsters refer to it), you’ll find The Darband in a strip center on the west side of the road, in the same strip center with India Mart, Halal Wok, Babe’s Cabaret (very tempting!), Hot Breads Bakery, and Bismillah. I realize that Bismillah is a very common name, but there used to be a Southwest Asian restaurant in ATX named Bismillah, on Anderson Lane right next to the RR tracks, that had the best Persian food in the city. They closed down and disappeared, and I’ll wonder for a while if this is where they eventually ended up. Perhaps another visit is in order to check out Bismillah, with a cocktail at Babe’s while in the neighborhood.

Anyway, The Darband has gotten great reviews and has amazingly inexpensive prices. For example, the Chenjeh Kabob (#2), which is two skewers of chunks of leg of lamb, served with a rice pilaf, onions, radish salad, and a broiled tomato is $7.45. Most items are $7.45 or $8.45, and the portions are huge. This is Persian food, or if you are a more recent transplant, Iranian food. Politics aside, I have always been a big fan of Persian cuisine, considering that it sits right between all of the Stans and India on the right, Turkey in the middle, and the Middle East on the left. The ancient spice trade routes went through it or just to the north, and the kitchens and cooks managed to adopt what they liked and make it uniquely theirs.

Skewered meats await their fate.....that's the game hen one frame up, on the right hand side

We got there around 1:30 or so and the joint was hoppin’. We were one of two tables of non-natives, out of 24 tables or so. You order at the counter and then they call your number. We had selected our order from a menu on the drive down, so no time was wasted ordering at the counter: the aforementioned Chenjeh Kabob (lamb leg chunks), the Jujeh Kabob ($ 7.45, Cornish game hen, marinated and quartered, skewered, and grilled), and the Darband Special ($8.95, a ground beef chelo kabab paired with a skewer of tender beef chunks). We topped it off with a side of hummus ($1.85, served with a mountain of flatbread). Couple of sodas, a shaker of sumac, some onion wedges, and we were set.

Homeboy hard at it on the grill...our game hen on the far right

Of the three dishes we split, the game hen was drop dead delicious. The bird had been marinated in yogurt and spices, then skewered, char-grilled, and then served with lemon, onions, and flatbread. Smoky and moist, the hen was loaded with layers of complex flavors. I would order this again in a heartbeat. We went with the lamb chunk Chenjeh Kabob over the braised lamb shank ($8.95), and the chunks had great lamb flavor and a nice marinade, but they were a tad overcooked. As usual, every single grain of rice was separate; as it should be (they are absolute fanatics about their rice grains). Good stuff, but I’ll probably try the shank next time; it was looking pretty succulent on a nearby table. I pulled a Homer staring at it.

The game hen......yumm

Chunks o' lamb....

The Darband Special had beef two ways, ground and skewerized, and chunks of steak from another skewer, again with the rice. I’m a real sucker for chelo kabob, made from seasoned and grilled ground beef, and their version is especially good and juicy. The beef cubes were fine, but the chelo was better. The hummus (strange photo, as the camera mysteriously freaked out for that shot), was nice and garlicky, but lacked the richness of tahini to round it out. Still, for the price, a bargain.

The Special (beef-o-rama)

Hummus sitting on a massive flatbread, with weirdosity on the bottom of the photo....

Is The Darband all it’s made up to be? Do the kabob critics in HTX know their stuff? They came damn close. I really liked the meal overall, and we managed to explore a chunk of a rather large menu, while figuring out what to order next time. If I had paid more I might have been a little disappointed, but with these prices, we left full and very satisfied, and wouldn't hesitate to go back.

Mick Vann ©              

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Chipotle Chiles -- All One Needs to Know

Chipotle chile’s name derives from the Nahuatl word chilpoctli, which means “smoked chile pepper”, AKA chile ahumado, chile meco, and chilpotle. Chilpotle is closer to the actually spelling of the original Nahuatl word, but over time, dropping the “l” before the “p” found favor as the more popular spelling, perhaps because the old-school chilpotle is a little more difficult to pronounce, and folks opted for the easier route. The Aztecs used this smoking process to preserve all kinds of foods, which allowed the foods to be stored for long periods of time. It is speculated that the thick-fleshed jalapeños were smoke-dried because they tended to rot before drying, otherwise. 

Jalapeño chiles in the market at Naolinco, a beautiful village in the mountains outside Jalapa (Xalapa), the namesake and ancestral home of the jalapeño chile.

Whatever you call it, a chipotle chile is a large jalapeño chile that is first dried, and then smoked (although it can also be dried over smoke, to give it a more intense and flavorful smokiness). Jalapeños are named after the town of Jalapa in Véracruz State, and are also known by the names cuaresmeño or gordo. In its dried form, the traditional chipotle chile is a dull tan to deep coffee brown in color with a wrinkled, ridged surface. It is usually 2 to 4-inches long and 1-inch across, with medium thick flesh. The taste profile is smoky and sweet, exhibiting subtle tobacco and chocolate flavors with a Brazil nut finish, with deep, complex heat; the piquancy is rounded and slowly fading, not sharp and intense, usually in the 5,000 to 10,000 Scoville unit range. They are commonly used in soups, stews, sauces, salsas, marinades, salads, stuffed with fillings, and these days, in desserts.

There are two main types of chipotles: morita and meco. Morita, which means “small mulberry” in Spanish, is grown primarily in Chihuahua State; smaller than the meco, with a dark reddish-purple exterior. They are smoked for less time, and considered inferior to the meco. Most of the chipotles consumed in the States are moritas. The larger chipotle meco, also known as chile ahumado or
típico, is a grayish-tan in color with a dusty looking surface; some say it resembles a cigar butt. They tend to be smokier in taste, and are the preferred chipotle of most natives. They are also sometimes called chile navideño because they are reconstituted and stuffed to make a very traditional dish popular at Christmas time. Most chipotle meco never makes it past the Mexican border, although you can occasionally find it for sale here in Mexican and specialty markets.

Meco on the left, morita on the right.  A great foto from a UK chilehead site.

Chipotle grande is a smoke-dried Huachinango chile with a similar flavor profile, but the chile is larger, and they cost more; fresh in the market, they sell for 3 to 4 times as much as a jalapeño, when you can find them. A Huachinango is a fresh red jalapeño grown in Puebla and Oaxaca, measuring 4 to 5-inches long by 1½ -inches wide, with a thick, sweet flesh and a rounded, complex spiciness. A chipotle tamarindo is even larger than the grande, acquiring its name from the shape of the tamarind fruit pod; it costs even more than the grande, and is the most prized of stuffing peppers. When you see a chipotle labeled jalapeño chico, it is a jalapeño that was smoked while it was immature and still green. Every now and then you might find chipotles capones (“castrated chipotles”), referring to a smoked red jalapeño without seeds; these tend to be much milder. In the market you’ll find chipotles as whole chiles, as powdered chile, and canned, packed in adobo sauce.    

Chipotles are principally grown and smoked in Véracruz, Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, South Texas, and Southern New Mexico. As much as 1/5 of the total Mexican jalapeño crop, some 620,000 tons in 2009, and 30% of the total chile varieties grown, is smoke-dried into chipotles. Jalapeño farmers pick green chiles for market, but allow some to ripen red, to be smoke-dried for chipotles. The longer they are left on the plant, the drier they get, and the easier they are to process. This is often done towards the end of the season, since maturing fruit signals the plant to stop chile production; ripe mature seeds have been produced and its job of procreation is done. Once harvested, the ripe chiles are moved to a smoking chamber, where they are placed on racks and dried for several days (or longer) with low heat and wood smoke. Every few hours they are stirred around to expose them to more smoke; the smokier, the better. It’s said that it takes about 10 pounds of fresh red chile to make 1 pound of dried chipotle. Creative and unscrupulous producers have started to use large capacity gas driers, spraying the chiles with liquid smoke to mimic the traditional process. Smell your chiles carefully; liquid smoke often has an unpleasant artificial chemical fragrance.

Americans are most familiar with the canned variety, packed in adobo sauce. Adobo sauce originated in Spain as a marinade or food preservative, and was widely adopted by all of the areas visited by the Spanish explorers. The adobo sauce used with canned chipotles is technically a marinade, in this case, usually made of tomato, powdered dried chiles or paprika, brown sugar, salt, onions, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, and oregano; some brands and home cooks add a small amount of sesame oil. La Morena brand has the most intense chipotle flavor and the best flavored adobo sauce, with accents of rich tomato, garlic, dried chile, and a touch of sesame; San Marcos is the brand known best in Austin stores, and probably next best of the many brands offered (La Costeña, Goya, Herdez, Embassa, El Mexicano, La Victoria, Roland, etc.). San Marcos (and other brands) also makes a canned chipotle sauce that is basically pureed chipotles en adobo; easy to use straight from the can. Canned chipotles are often of the morita type, because the smaller size is easier to fit whole into the small cans. In Central Mexico, when chipotles are preserved in a sweet-tart brown sugar and vinegar marinade they are called chipocludo; chipotles canned in a seasoned sauce are called chipotles adobado, or en adobo.

La Morena: la reina de los chipotles adobados.....

To cook with dried chipotles, they can be lightly toasted on a dry comal or skillet, just until they get fragrant and swell slightly; overcooking them makes them bitter. Once toasted, the seeds and ribs can be removed to lower the heat level if desired (but why would you?), and the chiles can then be ground or used whole. For some traditional Mexican sauces the toasted chiles would then be sautéed in oil or lard before being pureed. Alternatively, the chiles can be soaked in warm water or stock until they become pliable, and then added to a dish or stuffed. With both methods the stem is removed before use. If using the canned chiles en adobo, you can use only the drained chiles, or use the marinade as well. Try chipotles in salsas, in queso, in soups and stews, in chile con carne, in cooked sauces, in pickled vegetable mixes, in scrambled eggs or chilaquiles, stuffed and baked, added to cake or brownies; the list goes on endlessly. No matter how they are used, they punch up the flavor of any dish, making it better.

Mick Vann ©