Thursday, June 20, 2013

Spec's Tots and Mustard

DKR from the way-back machine...way more back than my elementary school days.....

About 10 days ago Shane and I had to run over to Lowe’s on Brodie to get some materials for the greenhouses, and it was near lunchtime, and we were both really hungry, and Spec’s was right there, and I had a little money to devote to stuffing my pie hole. So we veered off of Mopac, cut through the back way next to the Best Buy, avoided hitting the clueless pedestrians glued to their smartphones in the Sam’s Club parking lot crosswalk, and BOOM!. We were there!

There’s a huge menu at the Spec’s deli counter (and not all Spec’s have deli’s), but I go there for 2 things (that is, assuming I can resist the great Reuben). The bacon-blue burger, and a side of tater tots. If I’m feeling frisky, I’ll get a hot dog, because they serve a really good 4-to-1 frank from Boar’s Head. It’s not a dirty water dog, but has that caramelized exterior that can only come from prolonged close contact with a hot griddle. The burger has a nice juicy patty of appropriate size, grilled to medium over a charcoal grill, so it is flame-kissed. The bacon slices are thick, smoky, crunchy, and porky. This is some high-quality bacon unless I miss my guess. The burger is loaded with chunks of some exuberant blue cheese; so loaded it oozes out the side.

Fattie and kraut in a grilled bun.....

 The plastic burger basket comes with an inordinate amount of golden brown tater tots; enough to make a tot lover’s heart skip a beat (and these are deep-fried, not heated on a cookie sheet in someone’s oven). The perfect way to eat tots is dipped in some French’s Prepared Mustard. This is how I eat my fries also. It is a habit I developed in elementary school way back in the day, when we would get deep-discounted tickets in the “Knothole Section” of the end zone at Memorial Stadium for U.T. Football games. Under the stands our favorite vendor was the dude making corny dogs and fries. I naturally slathered my corny dog with mustard one Saturday and some fries fell into the mustard. After eating that fry, I decided then and there that all fries (and tots, by association) demanded mustard.

Bacon Blue in all its glory....WITH a sea of TOTS!

Most folks look at me like I’m insane, but you should try it sometime. Shane gave it a go and decided he liked the combo also. The only other ingredient is the crisp, snappy spear of dill pickle that they put in with the burger; a nice zesty denouement, and a perfect end to a great burger lunch. For a previous gustidude rant on how tater tots are excluded from our restaurant menus everywhere, and how to make your own tater tots at home, see this previous gustidude blogpost:

Mick Vann ©   

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Taco Rico, El Rey Supremo

THIS is what you Mexican Coke caps are spozed to look like........

Taco Rico
810 Vargas Rd
Tues-Fri: 11am-10pm; Sat & Sun: 8am-10pm
No phone, Cash only

Shane and I had to run over to Montopolis Building Supply for a bull panel the other day, so we thought we’d grab some nearby lunch while we were in that neck of the woods. It came down to Ray’s Bar-B-Q near the north end of Montopolis (technically on Monsanto), because it was soul food Thursday, and Ray’s features some righteous soul food every Thursday. Our other choice was the inimitable Taco Rico, where Yolanda Sanchez Cornejo and her sister Araceli hold court; goddesses of comida Mexicana riquisimo puro. I had talked up Taco Rico so much over the last few months that Ray’s never had a chance.

If you’re heading south on Airport/183, about halfway twixt Montopolis and Callahan’s there’s a street on the right called Vargas Road; hang a right there and head west for three long blocks and you come up on a bustling little corner anchored by Coronado Studio, Vargas Food Mart, and a laundromat. To the right, on the northwest corner of Felix and Vargas, sits the little bright blue food trailer that is Taco Rico, on the western lip of the laundería parking lot. There’s only one picnic table for seating, but it is blessedly in the shade. If you keep heading west for a long block, you’ll tee into Montopolis Drive. 

The menu is basic, an assortment of wonderfully cooked meats, available as tacos, sopes, tostados, flautas, quesadillas, tortas, or enchiladas. On Saturdays and Sundays she does menudo, which I’m quite sure is mind-numbingly good, but you’d have to get me to eat tripe to find out. You go to the window, place your order and pay. There are a few Spanish words you need to know: Para aquí means ‘for here’, para llevar means ‘to-go’. Con cebollas y cilantro means ‘should I add onions and cilantro on top’, and te quieres beber is taco-queen-speak for ‘what are you drinking’.

With the first glance at the menu there were a couple of Mexican terms that you probably won’t know. Guilota, as in “Enchiladas con Guilota”, left us clueless at first and no explanation came until later, once we had ordered it: what was translated from guilota as a “small chicken” was actually a quail. Suadero is translated by them as brisket, and by others as rib meat. A sope is a round, thickish tostada with a raised edge, made from fresh masa. All the rest of the menu items should be familiar.

Beef fajita (L), Pork pastor (C), Beef barbacoa (R)

What drew me to Taco Rico originally were reports of exquisite barbacoa tacos ($2), a shredded taco filling made from slow-cooked cow’s head mixed with chiles and spices. Done right, the meat is beefy, rich and unctuous, spicy, and not the least bit greasy; done wrong, and every bite is torture. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that the sisters had wrapped a spiced-up calf’s head in maguey leaves and burlap and buried it underground with hot rocks for 12 hours or so. Taco Rico’s corn tortillas are fresh, packed to bulging with luscious barbacoa, topped with onions and cilantro, and your choice of the spicy red salsa or the rich avocado-green chile salsa. This is barbacoa done right.

Tostado suadero

Shane had heard my stories of Taco Rico and was pumped. I ordered a triple taco plate, all on corn, with onions and cilantro added: beef fajita, pork pastor, and the luscious barbacoa. I also ordered a tostada of suadero. A Mexican Coke rounded out the order. Shane duplicated my choices and in short order Yolanda popped out with the plates of grub. It was all as good as before, especially the barbacoa. I loved the suadero tostada: with a crispy homemade tortilla on the bottom and a mountain of cabbage, radishes, tomatoes, pickled chiles, onions, crema, and cotija on top. Fantastic stuff. Shane was so impressed he had to have another barbacoa taco, so I got a bistec this round, again, wonderful. In the realm of taco trucks, Taco Rico is king; in the realm of Mexican food, they reign supreme. It is no stretch to say that for what they serve, Taco Rico just could be the best Mexican joint in town.

Taco de bistec.....

Mick Vann ©

Three Little Pigs Caja China

A coonass microwave pig in Louisiana, from the website....

If you’ve ever been in a small town in Louisiana on a weekend, you probably saw what is referred to as a “Cajun microwave”, or a “Coonass microwave”. It’s a rectangular wooden or metal box with a tight fitting lid, with smoke pouring out of it. Inside there is a metal liner, a grate to hold a whole of half pig, and then a metal tray suspended over the pig to contain coals, before the lid-coals tray is placed on top of the apparatus, sealing in the heat. The “microwave” part of the name refers to the fact that it reduces cooking time for a big chunk of pork by almost half, producing moist, tender meat with crackling smoky skin. It’s the fast and easy way to cook a half or whole pig; much easier and faster than the traditional style of cooking cochon de lait, or Cajun-style roast pig. Cochon de lait is French for “pig in milk”, meaning a suckling pig. But a Cajun pig roast most often cooks a young pig weighing anywhere between 50 and 150 pounds; not still sucking the teat, but definitely tender and juicy. For a fantastic and mouthwatering Southern Foodways Alliance documentary film by Joe York on cochon de lait (including some shots of the caja china method), click here:
Suffice it to say that once you’ve caja china’d, you never go back.

Cool caja china tee from twentyfirst creative......

Stories abound about the name “caja china”, which means “Chinese box” in Spanish. Supposedly it came originally from Cuba, referring to a new cooking method imported by the 150,000 Chinese laborers in the 1850’s. The theory sounds logical, but it’s more than likely hogwash. Culinary historians say that the method isn’t that old, and the two cuisines stayed separate on the island. Food anthropologist Sid Mintz points out that the word “china” is a common term used all over the Hispanic Caribbean that describes something exotic, clever, or mysterious. Supposedly in Cuba, and in Latino countries all over the Caribbean, it is common to call anything clever or unusual “Chinese”, so it’s no stretch to see how the clever cooking box became the caja china. In Peru the box is called “caja china criolla”, and in Cuba it’s known as “caja asador” (roasting box) and asador Cubaan (Cuban roaster”. No matter what it’s called, it uses charcoal heat in an enclosed space to roast-grill meats in roughly half the time that it would normally take by standard fire-roasting methods. They are all over the web if you want to buy one, just pay attention to the sizes and the building materials.

Ray's caja china....

My buddy Ray Tatum of Three Little Pigs has lusted after a caja china for some time now, wanting to roast a half pig in one, and learn how they work.  He’s seen them in operation, and tasted pig cooked in one, and was immediately hooked by the process and the taste. So last week he broke down and got hisself a caja china, and then secured a half pig from salt + time, which Ben and Bryan procurred from one of their local rancher suppliers. The side weighed 105-pounds and was gorgeous. Ray brined it for 24 hours in a spiced up brine, after draining it, placed it in the caja china and loaded the top tray with oak coals.

Ray said that he cooked it in about 5 hours, and the skin was deep golden brown, the meat tender and drippingly moist. He was running it as a special that night, and a group of us went over to check it out.
Wanting to avoid the ROT (Republic of Texas) Biker Rally motorcycle traffic that we felt sure would be littering the freeways downtown (they expected 50,000 motorcycles over the 4 day event), we opted for the eastern approach from way down south (IH 35 to Oltorf, to Pleasant Valley, to 11th and Rosewood). When we got to Rosewood Park we decided that dealing with the bikers might have been a faster route. From the overpass over Rosewood Park the entire park was covered with folks and tents, with the smell of great food wafting up; it was an early celebration for Juneteenth. I’ve never seen so many po-po in one area; there was a cop car literally about every 50 feet, and our normal turn was blocked off by yet another, so we went on up to 12th and came in that way. East Austin was rocking!

The four sides......

Ray was pairing puerco caja china with your choice of two sides for $10. I knew all the sides were going to be fantastic, so opted for all four: creamy garlic-cheese grits, fried baby Brussels sprouts, sesame cole slaw, and chipotle potato salad. Every single one of the four was wonderful. Ray knows his way around side dishes, and they were all as good as I knew they would be. The pork was succulent and delicious. I could have eaten a whole boat of the skin: biting through it was like closing your mouth on an unctuous, savory, porkish cloud of roasted pig cotton candy. It had crunch, but also melted in your mouth. The meat underneath was moist and sweet, with sections of the belly being the best. Two lessons learned: Puerco caja china is well worth a drive from way down south, through masses of ROT Rally and Juneteenth celebrants, and two, who knew that the caja china was such a delicious secret?

Yummy nums caja china puerco......

Mick Vann ©

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Road Cue: City Market in Luling

So on the same day we were doing some reconnoitering in the greater Moulton-Flatonia Metroplex, on the same trip where we had kolach at Weikel’s Bakery, we had planned to stop off in Lulling for some prime barbecue on the way back. On the older strip that constitutes downtown in Luling, near the 183 S. side, sits City Market, the anchor that holds that whole downtown business area together. Technically, if you look at the old sign over the door, it’s the Bar E City Market, named after the Ellis family’s ranch north of town. The Bar E is where the cattle that were once butchered and smoked in the barbecue and beef part of the market were raised. It followed the trend which led to the development of the Texas-style meat market barbecue joint: a rancher wants a diversified retail market for the meat he’s butchering from the cows that he’s raising in his pastures; he also needs a way to use the unpopular cuts and the trim, and they become smoked sausage; ditto with hogs, except they reproduce much faster than cows. It’s a formula that’s worked for City Market for over 50 years.

The perfect pork rib......

The Ellis family hailed from Lockhart, just 15 miles up the highway to the north, and Howard Ellis got into the BBQ game while working at Kreuz Market in Lockhart. He learned from one of the best, and had a great example of barbecue joint-meat market to pattern his place after. Manager Joe Capello started working for the Ellis’ when he was 12, went off to join the service, and after his discharge, came back to the Market to become the successor to Howard.

The style of cooking at City Market is more of a hot style, similar to Smitty’s, Kreuz, and John Mueller’s. They start the meat out on the hot part of the fire and then move it back to slow smoke, but not for 12 or 15 hours, like over at Franklin’s. The old, original pits are now used as warmers and the newer larger steel pits, which date from the 80’s, are where the real barbecuing happens.  The fuel is post oak and the seasoning is a liberal dose of and salt and pepper. You enter through the front door and head towards the back, where there is a second door anointed with many smoke-stained signs warning you away from transgression and social embarrassment. It is the entrance to the sanctum-sanctorum, where the smoke permeates everything, and the wooden walls are covered with a smoky bark from years and years of smoking.

When you get to the counter, you tell the gentleman what you want: pork ribs, sausage, and/or brisket, and the lads commence to tearing off numerous pieces of brown butcher paper, slicing juicy smoky meats, and placing the meats on the stack of butcher paper, folded canoe-style to contain any juices. You pay for the meats right there, and exit the smoky inner sanctum to grab a place at one of the rows of tables. You pay for your sides and drink out in the dining room, where you also request some BBQ sauce (unless there is some on the table). Howard’s mom Thelma came up with the sauce recipe and they are a little sensitive about it. Leave it on the table when you’re through, and don’t even think about swiping a bottle. If you need it that bad, they have some for sale, and they sell a lot.


It’s a simple tasting recipe, but rock solid and loved by all. If I had to guess, I’d say that it contained Louisiana-style pepper sauce, plain yellow mustard, coarse ground black pepper, brown sugar and a little vinegar, and ketchup (or some other tomato sauce).  It’s a little on the orange side, nicely balanced twixt sweet and sour, and has a spicy two-layer kick. If I had to speculate further, I’d guess that this sauce is also the light glaze that’s laid down on the pork ribs when they cook. Most folks get Big Red, but we opted for Root Beer. No sides, but some onion, pickle, and a wad of white bread.

Pork ribs and sausage, my brisket slice is underneath....

We got a couple of links of sausage, ordered “dry”. Back in the day “dry” sausage were the ones that had gotten poked or exploded, and lost some of their fat. They still taste as good, but there’s a little less grease to deal with. I love the sausage here: coarse ground beef, amply seasoned with black pepper, a smidge of cayenne, some salt, a touch of garlic, and loosely stuffed into a snappy hog casing. The smoky flavor comes through clear and strong, and for “dry”, these links were still well-lubricated (and delicious).  We got a full rack of ribs, which were as amazing as they always are. Cooked enough for the meat to gently pull from the bone, but not the least bit mushy. A caramelized spicy glazed bark with tons of smoke lies outside, while juicy, porky, richness lies within; these ribs did just enough time in the smoker. I got one slice of fatty brisket from the point; homeboy just wanted ribs and sausage. The brisket was really good, with a smoky, crusty bark, a penetrating smoke ring, unctuous rendered fat, and nice juicy, beefy flavor. Not as good as the most recent Franklin’s or John Mueller’s brisket that I’ve had, but definitely no slouch.

 Some critics have pooh-poohed City Market lately, lamenting a decline. I disagree, finding our visit just as satisfying as it ever was. And whatever you do, don’t ever confuse City Market in Luling, with that reprehensible, name-stealing Luling City Market in Houston. The latter is a shameful, piss-poor copy of a great Texas institution.

Bar E City Market (BBQ)
633 E. Davis St.
(830) 875-9019
Mick Vann ©

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Brohugs and Pork Belly

Chef Ray Tatum (L) and Michael Corenblith

So, a couple of weeks back one of my bestest and long-timiest buddies was in town for a quick weekend visit, Michael Corenblith, AKA “Mickey” Corenblith. The nickname is important, because having the same name is how we met back in the summer of 1963, in the swimming pool at Camp Tom Wooten Boy Scout Camp, on Bull Creek, where a bunch of ugly, very expensive and very large houses now sit (I’m sure their owners think they look very nice).  Our respective troops happened to be in the pool at the same time for free swim and we were asked to buddy-up. Once we realized we had the same nicknames, relatively unusual nicknames at that, the bond was set, and even though we hadn’t gone to school together up to that point, at the end of the summer we would both be at the same junior high school. The friendship would continue through high school, and college, up to this very day. His folks, Louis and Lois, are like a second set of parents to me. When I’m over there I get called Jon Michael and he gets called Michael, so we know which of the sons named Michael is being addressed.

Anyway, Michael (as he prefers to be called these days) went out to Hollywood after film school at UT and worked his way up to be an award-winning and highly respected Production Designer in the film biz, and having a nickname like “Mickey” didn’t fit into that highfalutin world, so Michael he is. After schedules were coordinated, it was agreed that we would go to our other long-time buddy’s food trailer for Saturday evening supper. Ray Tatum is another best friend from way back in the school days, and he owns Three Little Pigs in east Austin, where 11th and Rosewood diverge; one of the top trailers in town, serving some of the best food in Austin.


So after hearty salutations and brohugs we decided to run the menu, one of everything. I’ll follow the dishes as they are pictured on the tray. The pork belly slider is overstuffed with unctuous braised pork belly that melts in your mouth and the apple adds a perfect crunch, while the crispy scallions and maple-soy glaze balance dish. A perfect series of bites. The noodles had crunchy chunks of pork belly and mushroom, wok-kissed baby bok choy, all tossed with al dente noodles and a spicy black bean sauce.  Is this dude Sichuan?....nope, he's from NE Austin.  Ray makes a bacon-wrapped pork meatloaf that has little porky nuggets of craklins embedded in the mixture. A thick slice of the loaf sits atop a pool of rich, garlicky cheese grits, and the griddle-browned slice is topped off by a small pile of soul-style collard greens. A silky, rich reduced sauce bathes the loaf; a taste explosion that harkens back to Ray's southern roots with a hipsterish, haute cuisine twist.

Top row, left to right: slider, noodles, meatloaf
Bottom row, left to right: sausage, fried chicken, carnitas, stuffed tenderloin

Number four was a boat filled with crispy slices of venison sausage and caramelized baby Brussels sprouts, riding a pile of steamed jasmine rice. Sounds simple, but a perfect combination of flavors.  Asian fried chicken is the best fried chicken in Austin; hands down. Imagine Korean-style fried chicken with a crispy crust and a tender, moist steaming interior, tossed with a sweet-chile sauce, and then drizzled with a wasabi-aioli. If fried chicken and chile candy ever had a hybrid love child, this would be it. Addictively good and coaxing moans from all who ate it. Pork carnitas ceviche-style is chunks of rich pork simmered in their own luscious fat, and then tossed with the components of a classic ceviche: lime juice, garlic, onion, cilantro, avocado; it makes for a pleasing balance. The last dish was pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo, pork belly, and Oaxaca cheese and then slow roasted until it gets seductive. Slices go atop a mound of buttery mashed potatoes, and the whole thing gets slathered with a zesty tomatillo sauce. Another winner.

We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, and almost finished the lot. That’s a lot of food for two healthy eaters. When Ray had a chance through the night he’d come out and bullshit with us over beers. Michael was blown away by the quality and creativity of the food, and was really impressed with the whole setup at East End Wines. There was a cool breeze blowing in from over the State Cemetery, making for a very pleasant early summer night. Great seeing Michael again, great seeing Raymie again, and even better eating the menu at Three Little Pigs. If you haven’t been, it comes VERY HIGHLY recommended.

Mick Vann ©