Victual Files: La Taqueria Mexicana

If you like to visit different towns to take in and experience the local culture, there’s not a better way to do it than to test out the local food. A community is defined by what they eat and how they eat together. Especially in small towns, the available food is a large part of the definition of that community itself. Anytime we travel, we try to find out where the locals eat. You’ll usually get the best food, the best value, and the heart of what makes the community so much different than others.

The food culture in Texas follows no general rules, as each local town could best identify with BBQ or homestyle cuisine or even Mexican food. In the Old Town area of Graham is home to a non-so-hidden but probably mostly unknown treasure:  La Taqueria Mexicana.

Right on 4th street, residents have probably driven by it hundreds of times without much thought at all. Those who haven’t ventured in have really done themselves a disservice, though, because in the unassuming and relatively small taco shack you’ll find a delectable meal with “authentico” written all over it.

First of all, any Mexican food place that serves menudo on Sundays is as authentic as it gets. For those who aren’t familiar with menudo, it’s a stew that’s noted for its ability to help calm the aching head and rumbling gut of a late-night Saturday spent on the bottom side of a beer bottle. It’s not for the faint of heart, though. Menudo is a spicy broth made with chilis, tons of herbs and spices, and glistens with fat that’s rendered from its main ingredient: tripas, or tripe. Specifically, menudo is made with the honeycomb reticulum tripas from a beef’s second stomach. That’s right…one of the best hangover cures in Texas and all points south is a spicy beef stomach stew. Sounds disgusting, right? It’s definitely an acquired taste, but if you appreciate real Mexican cuisine and don’t pale at the sight of offal on your plate, then give menudo a try.

I’m not here today for the menudo at Taqueria Mexicana, though. It’s the tacos. If you like tacos (and every non-insane human loves tacos), then this is the place you need to head.

When you walk in the front door, you see the kitchen behind a front counter, and off to the right you have a small dining area.

Taqueria Mexicana has a solid reputation around town as a great place for breakfast burritos (which are more like the size of what we consider to be a taco). There’s nothing wrong at all with coming here for those, because they really are outstanding. Your choices for breakfast burritos include:

Pick either egg with meat or potato with meat. You can’t go wrong with these, although I’m a big fan of the potato with chorizo and egg. A closer look at the full menu:

This is the first page but you can see that you’ve got a pretty good choice of how you want your dish. I’m here for the taquitos, or little tacos. They are served on corn tortillas, which are made fresh back in the back. If you order the burrito, you get a flour tortilla, which is also made in the back. I love either one, and depending on my mood I’ll order either or both. Specifically, I’m here for the tacos al pastor.

Tacos al pastor are made with pork over a rotisserie. The meat is cooked similarly to the way that gyro meat in greek cuisine is made. The meat is cut into small bite-sized bits with just a perfect amount of chewiness and toothiness to make you want to take as many chews as possible to extract the most flavor.

Fresh onion and cilantro highlight the spicy flavors on the tacos al pastor.

While I was there, I went ahead and picked up a handful of the brisket tacos, too. It’s a different flavor profile completely, but it’s a formidable back up to the tacos al pastor on the menu

A close-up of the tacos al pastor:

Roll this over so you have a tight cigar, and you have a compact blast of nuclear Mexican flavor. The soft chewiness of the meat, the crunchy fresh onion, and the perfume of the fresh cilantro is unbeatable.

This is the part that I love…the mouth-coating grease from the pork falls right out the back. The seasonings, a mixture of chili, cumin, and oregano, make for a finger-licking cleanup.

Those brisket tacos I was talking about? They make a great mild compliment to the spicy pork.

Laying these out, you can see the perfect amount of meat, laid perfectly into the center of the taco.  No cheese, no sour cream, no ancillary or superfluous filling to take away or confuse the flavor.

Other menu items of note:

-The gorditas are incredible. They take the same meat as the tacos and put them in a purse of masa (like the texture of a tamale, but not steamed and round like a large ravioli).

-If you think you can handle it, try the chicharrones on your taco. Those are “pig rinds”, or pork skin cut into strips. The texture is like stiff gelatin.  Unless you’ve had them before and know you like them, go ahead and hold off on those until your third or fourth trip to TM.

-The salsa (labeled as “big container of hot sauce” on the menu) is superb. They serve a single serving with each taco/burrito, but you can also buy it in bulk. It’s fresh and delicious.

-You can buy the flour tortillas by the dozen. Homemade tortillas are unbeatable anyway, but the ones at Taqueria Mexicana really are tasty.

-During the week, they have lunch specials served with rice and beans.

Authentic. Homemade. Delicious. Taqueria Mexicana in Graham, Texas.

The Victual Files: Casa Mañana

Across the high plains of north Texas sits dusty Wichita Falls. You may know the city from the giant tornado that hit it in the early 80’s or because the Dallas Cowboys held training camp there or the world renowned Hotter ‘N Hell 100 bike race that takes place in the hottest part of August every year. You may not know the city at all…there are only about 100k people that live there at one time, however the city is home to Sheppard Air Force base so there are quite a few of our brave servicemen and women who have spent some time there at some point over the last 60 years.

Either by bike or plane, a trip to Wichita Falls can be a bit underwhelming. At one time the city was a bustling boom town, and was the “big city” destination in The Last Picture Show that was set in Archer City, Texas. However, now it can seem like a city that is hanging on by a thread to past glory. Depending on when you go, the downtown can seem almost like a ghost town. There are gorgeous buildings down there, but the style harkens back to a time when people around the country thought all Texans looked and acted like the characters on the tv show Dallas.

With that long-winded intro, let me say that love to go to downtown Wichita Falls. There’s a great kitchen supply store there, and you can usually catch some pretty unique events at the Kay Yeager Coliseum/Multi-Purpose Event Center (MPEC). As well, one of the better steaks in all of north Texas resides at McBride’s Land and Cattle right at the corner of 6th and Scott. However, the greatest joy in Wichita Falls comes from a visit to Casa Mañana, the “Home of the Red Taco”.

Confused? Yeah…just hang on. This is a good ‘un.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, you will miss it. It’s on a street next to a shoeshine place that I’m not sure is still open, and that’s next to a store that I’m pretty sure is closed also. Look for the red door. On the inside, it looks like a simple Mexican food joint you can find in any strip mall. If you are looking for authentic Mexican food, then you are going to be disappointed. I’m not really sure exactly how you’d describe this food other than being authentic Wichita Falls. It’s definitely TexMex but it’s unique.

The menu is about what you’d expect from any other Mexican food place, complete with the stereotypical sleepy Mexican picture and random bullfighting image.

However, right on the inside cover at the bottom, you notice something very telling: Home of the Original “Red Taco”. Red taco? Oh, hell yeah. Red Taco.

Ask anyone from the area about the Red Taco and you’ll see their eyes light up. I’ll get there in a sec. First…

Oh, yeah…there’s a sombrero…

…and the vexing young Alicia, our server for the evening. Ask for her.

They start you out with a nice cold beverage and a bowl of chips. These chips are as thick as sheet metal and are extremely crisp and tasty. Along with…

…some really tasty salsa, it’s a great way to start this meal. The chips are really good, but that’s only the beginning of this unique experience. Every table gets a bowl of queso. Check this stuff out:

Yeah, it’s kinda orange. The first time I ate at Casa Mañana I made a funny face when they brought this stuff out. Don’t be scared, though. The queso is thick and it is good.

It hangs on those chips. The next unique item comes in a plastic bottle.

You might have to ask for a bottle, but it’s worth it. They call it “red wine sauce”. I have no idea what it is…it might just be catalina dressing, but it’s sweet and tangy with the slightest bit of spice. You squirt it out like ketchup right on the chips, and the locals tear into it like lions.

Weird, huh? Weird but delicious. Now then…let’s talk about those Red Tacos. You can get the Taco Plate, which is just two red tacos.

No rice, no beans. Just tacos. And onion rings (what?).  What’s so special about them, though? Well, first of all they are red. That’s easy to do with food coloring. However, the texture is soft yet crispy.

Now, the tacos are what these guys are known for, but I’m here for the star of the menu: the Casa Relleños, a plate full of chile relleños. It just so happens that the Casa Rellenos comes with a Red Taco to start along with a big ol’ dollop of guacamole. So, let’s talk about these tacos to start off.

The flavor is hardcore corn, but there’s some toothiness to it.

They are stuffed with meat, cheese, and lettuce. And folded over perfectly.

They are chewy, but when you bite into them you get a snap. I’ve postulated that they make these with extra lard in the masa but I have no earthly idea how they do this. However they do it, it’s something that you’ll crave after you have it the first time.

The first few bites of the experience is something you want to savor (claw and antlers to RC Slocum). Get crazy and squeeze a little of that Red Wine sauce.

Great warm-up to the main event:

The chile relleños. Two peppers stuffed with creamy cheese and topped with tomato ranchero sauce and tons of cheddar. No fancy garnish…just a slice of onion and jalepeño. Let the food speak for itself.

The rice is perfect, with a taste of spice but still fluffy and al dente. Same goes for the beans:

Perfect consistency, with a starchy texture but not creamed to the point where it feels like bean dip on your tongue. The plates are served in the traditional Tex-Mex style of being so hot that it will burn the bones in your fingers if you touch it when it’s first served. Somehow, the waitresses can hold them without a towel, though. Never have been able to figure out how they get used to it.

Cutting into the peppers yields melted cheese that you’ll have to wrap around the fork using your knife. The breading is light and crisp, even under the tomatoey ranchero sauce. At home, I’d try to replicate this with an egg white base, but this is done so well. They don’t try to overcomplicate the stuffing…just cheese, but that’s all you need.

You come to Beef Country, you expect a good steak. I can find you a good steak in a few places. However, if you want a meal that is unique and will be like nothing you can find anywhere else, head up north to Casa Mañana in Wichita Falls.

Burgers with Bacon and Blue Cheese (The Great BBB)

Everyone loves a burger…everyone (with the exception of my wife) loves it more when it has bacon and blue cheese on it.

There are only two cooking methods for a burger: flat top or grill. The both have their merits. Today we are cooking on the grill. Your George Foreman grill is not a grill. Return it.

Start with good ground beef.

Scratch that…start with a drink:

Then, move to the ground beef.

Season well with smoked paprika, some shots of cayenne, and Cavender’s Greek Seasoning.

Form a patty. I use this press for consistency.

Cook the bacon. Save the fat.

Fire up the grill. When the grill is hot, grill the buns. Use good buns…seriously. You need to put some fat on the buns beforehand. You can use butter or bacon fat (from the bacon you just made). As I am very health conscious, I use both.

When the buns are done grill the burgers. A little extra seasoning on the burgers at this point is a good idea.

Leave them alone on the grill…play with them too much and they will fall apart.

Get your blue cheese.

Remove the burgers from the grill (medium is perfect).

Turn on your oven’s broiler.

Assemble the burgers (bun, burger, bacon, blue cheese) on a baking sheet.

Place them under the broiler until the cheese is melted.

Garnish and consume with the beverage of your choice.

The Victual Files: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill

One of my favorite things in life to do is to go to a small town and check out the local eatin’ joints. Restaurants in small towns define the character of the town itself in so many ways. How many towns to do you know of only because there’s a restaurant there that serves good BBQ or chicken fried steak or even a great hamburger? Out here in Arcadia, it’s commonplace for us to take trips SPECIFICALLY based on eating something we’ve heard about.

So, we decided to put together a side project for the Arcadian Experience…we took a map and drew a 100m circle on it, and decided that we are going to covertly go into restaurants within that circle in north Texas and post our thoughts about the dishes and overall experience.  We call this new project:  The Victual Files, prounouced “vittle files”.  We are Victualphiles working on the Victual Files.  Catchy, campy, and all ours.

This isn’t a chance to slam restaurants or to give harsh criticism for their food. Rather, it’s a chance for us to share a little piece of life in those towns and the love and care they put into their food. Disclaimer: even though we will focus on the 100m radius, we will probably do this for any other restaurant we might venture into anywhere we go. It’s our site, our project, our rules.  Another disclaimer: I seriously need to update my iPhone to a new version.  The camera on this thing sucks to high holy hell.  Sorry in advance for the blurry pictures.

I’m going to start with one of my favorite places to eat: Marlene’s @ The Big Chill. Owners Marlene and Ben Horst started this restaurant in 1999 and both still work there daily. When you walk in, the first thing you notice is that you’ve stepped back in time…an anachronism to a “simpler” life when sodas came from jerks and green was a much softer hue. From the outside, you see the sign and the awning that immediately give you an idea what to expect on the inside.

When you step in, TBC doesn’t disappoint. From the floors to the lights to the tables, this is as authentic as you get in a small town. One of Ben’s trophies even hangs on the wall right next to the old Dr. Pepper machine (although, the modern stereo on top of the Dr. Pepper machine might not be all that authentic).

Above the service area, Marlene writes her daily specials on a large white board. One of my favorites, the crawfish etouffee, is running today for the last time this season. It happens that her son and daughter-in-law live down in Lafayette, LA, so she’s got a little Cajun tint to her. From time to time, Marlene and Ben will have a crawfish boil dinner. I love crawfish anyway, but they make it BYOB so you can bring your cooler in and have some tasty mudbug that they cook in the alley behind the store.

The quaintness of TBC is striking. From the colors on the walls to the ceiling tiles and light fixtures…

…this place makes you want to sit down and have a nice lunch in the middle of the day. Oh, but wait…my favorite part of the entire place…

It’s this bar. I’ve been literally BEGGING Marlene and Ben to rebuild the foot bar that goes underneath the stools so I can eat up there. I tried it one day, but the stools are just long enough that you can’t get enough leverage w/o sliding off. If there’s any critique I have of TBC is that I can’t sit at the bar and eat lunch.

Above the bar:

If Tom’s peanut bar doesn’t scream “old timey”, I don’t know what does. What’s that you say? Old Dr. Pepper and Coke stuff say “old timey”? Well, ok, they’ve got that, too.

I love sitting in the booths along the mirrored wall across from the bar. They bring out the tea, and keep it flowing. A big cup of Texas sweet tea is a great way to start out lunch.

When I go to TBC, I don’t even have to order. They know that I’m there for the French Dip. I love a French Dip in the first place, but the FD at TBC is my favorite. It’s not too stuffy and not all that complicated. Just a nice hoagie roll, some melty cheese, and tasty beef consommé to dip the sandwich in. Marlene’s hoagie bun is this delicious chewy bread that holds together so well when you dip it. A lot of FD’s will have a yeasty bread, but falls apart. This doesn’t do that…it stays nice and gummy, with lots of yummy gluten to hold it together.  Sorry to my celiac-suffering friends.

There are lots of other things on the TBC menu that are good as well. They have other sandwiches, special hot lunches (again, the etouffee is remarkable; the Cajun catfish is our minister’s favorite. We call him “Rev. Awesome”). Sometimes I’ll throw them a curve and order something different, but if I’m treating myself it’s the French Dip all the way.

If you order a sandwich at TBC you get choices, mainly what sort of chip you want and if you want a pickle. Nothing overly complicated…it’s either Sun Chips or Ruffles, and the pickle is just a clean, crisp deli pickle.

Let’s talk about pickles for a second. I love pickles, and not just pickled cucumbers. Pickled okra, pickled green beans, pickled eggs (Pedigree White Trash)…I love pickles. Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor offers you two types of pickles with your sandwich: old pickle or new pickle. The difference is how long they’ve been in a jar. (For the record…Zingerman’s is the best deli I’ve ever been in.  The reuben there might be the best sandwich alive.)  I’d love to see some homemade pickles make their way to a menu near me here in Arcadia, but that’s a big order and a lot of work. “Who has time to make pickles?” one might say. Not me, which is why I want someone else to make some pickles. I digress…

My order: French Dip, Ruffles, pickle. Sweet tea. That’s all I need in this world.

Look at that cheese melting out of the sandwich. You get a healthy stack of roast beef, a decent ramekin of dip, and a good handful of chips. Luckily for me, Ben has big hands. And now I feel kinda awkward…

A closer look at that cheese oozing out…

Take that little monster and hold her head underwater for a bit…

Then let her up for a breath before you devour her…

And that’s a helluva lunch. I’ll slowly walk thru this sandwich…if I don’t have a good 20min to eat once I get my plate, I won’t go in the first place. No need to rush, and no need to rush the experience. As a matter of fact, I’ll take those plain ol’ chips and dunk them in the dip, too.

As a creature of habit, I have places I go eat for specific things, and at some point I’ll cover some of them in the Victual Files digest. I can’t think of a better place to start, though, than at Marlene’s.

Marlene’s @ The Big Chill in Graham, Texas…open M-Sat for breakfast and lunch.  Breakfast at Marlene’s is suberb as well.  Do yourself a favor and go give Marlene and Ben a try.