Homebrewing Beer 101: Tire Biter Golden Bitter Ale Part 1

I am a serial hobbyist. Admittedly. One of the things I love to do is learn how something works and/or take an interest in something that most people talk about but never do. In my lifetime, I’ve:

-had saltwater aquariums

-owned beehives for extracting honey

-collected sports cards, mainly hockey

-had a substantial MAD Magazine collection

-played in an acoustic guitar duo in bars

-own a full set of Callaway golf clubs in a leather tour bag

-have the best damn greenhouse in town

Those are just a few off the top of my head. At one point, I owned my own bowling ball and even have a Lionel trainset in my garage. They are all fun hobbies that there are tons of individuals out there in the world who devote their entire lives to. Now, I’ve never gone that far…most of my hobbies will either go on the back burner after a couple years or I’ll just lose interest. HOWEVER…the one thing that I love to do and have done for the better part of 20 years is:

Drink beer.

Oh, man. I’m the best beer drinker I know. I love different types of beers, from the heavy stuff that tastes like thick soy sauce to cheap Texas O.P. beer. The one hobby that I’ve often thought about but never got into was homebrewing. I have friends who have done it and have even tried homebrews. One or two were passable but the rest were downright awful. Terrible.

One night recently, I was watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats on tv, and his homebrew episode came on. Ever fascinated, I watched the whole thing and then turned to my wife and said, “I could totally do that.”

Now, normally when I come up with a new hobby, she just rolls her eyes because she knows it will either be something I forget about or it’s going to end up being something I spent time/money on. This was different. When I said it, she lit up and said, “We can totally do that.”

Bingo.

My next call was to Runnin’ Buddy. I told him my wacky idea, and he told me that he grew up with his dad homebrewing, and it just so happened that his father- in-law was a homebrewer years ago and gave him an entire set of gear to homebrew including carboy, cooker, bottles…everything. All we needed to do was clean it up, buy the ingredients, and get going.

My newest hobby was born:

Off to the big city to a local homebrew store, and we got not only the ingredients, but also some expert advice and recipes to make beer. We chose two different brews…one that should take about a month and another that will take nearly 7 months to completely age. The ingredient list:

-2lbs of milled grains

-a bucket of malt syrup

-0.5oz of Fuggles hops

-0.5oz of Hallterau hops (that’s one of the noble hops…more on that later)

-a packet of dry ale yeast (ale yeast ferments from the top down vs. lager yeast that ferments from the bottom up, so we don’t have to stir it in)

-corn sugar…looks like powdered sugar but tastes different. It’s a disaccharide, which means that we can add it directly to the wort after the primary fermentation)

-bottled drinking water (cheap stuff..not distilled)

-cheesecloth socks for the hops

-whirlflac tablets

Immediately, you are going to be overwhelmed because we are talking about ingredients and stuff that you’ve never heard of (probably). I know I was. Stick with it, though…it’s not as bad as you think. Your homebrew store will be able to provide all of this for you and explain what it all is. If not, then go find another homebrew store.

The gear:

-4-gallon, stainless steel stock pot with a glass lid

-7-gallon plastic bucket with a spigot and a sealable lid

-digital probe thermometer

-assorted other stuff. What? Yeah, keep trusting me on this and read the whole thing before you start.

The very first thing you do after inventory assessment is to sterilize everything. Even if you’ve washed and cleaned everything with hot water and soap, there still may be some bacteria floating around, and even the smallest amount of bacteria can turn the beer bad fast. We mixed 2 tablespoons of regular bleach with hot water in the primary fermenting bucket and shoved everything in there that we could…corks, burper, probe thermometer, metal whisk…anything we thought we might use at any point after the boil phase, we sterilized.

From up above:

While all that sat for 30 minutes, we started up our “brew tea”, which is a gallon of water with the milled grains seeping.

That has to simmer at 153 degrees F for 20 minutes. Why so precise? The whole grains have a lot of sugars and resins deep inside their kernels that will be really bitter if they are extracted, so if you keep the heat down they will not seep out. In addition, you CANNOT squeeze the bag they are in AT ALL or you’ll squeeze them out.

The mesh grain bag with the grains inside:

Do this over the sink our you’ll have this to clean up:

While the brew tea is making, I boiled another pot of water, then put a towel in the bottom so that the malt syrup could get hot and be easier to pour out. I’ll explain more in a bit, but the malt syrup is an extracted blend of grain sugars already pre-made by the brew store. Serious homebrewers will extract their own, but since this is our first time and since it takes about a day to extract them, we are going to just use the premade stuff. I don’t expect that to change.

Shangri-La Dog is there to help lick up anything that hits the floor.

After the water boils, turn it off and put the uncovered syrup bucket in, making sure you don’t overflow the water.

The malt is so sugary sweet, you can barely stand it. It looks like super thick honey and kinda tastes like honey a little bit, but the aftertaste is really potent. Not bad, but definitely a shock to the system when you taste it. It’s beautiful, though.

In goes the bag of milled grains.

We kept the water boiling at 153® for five minutes to make sure we could maintain the heat. As well, we gently stirred the tea from time to time to equalize the temp and make sure there wasn’t a build up of heat in one spot under the bag.

After 5 minutes, you can see the wort begin to take shape as the water turns a pretty blonde color.

Meanwhile, we took 1.5 quarts of water and heated it up to 170 degrees. We’ll use that to pour thru the tea to make sure we get all the goodies out when we are draining it.

After 20 minutes, we pulled the bag and drained it. Then, we poured the extra hot water thru it.

Top off to 3 gallons of water for the boil. We’ll bring this up to a boil…

The pour in the malt syrup. It’s so thick that you have to immediately start stirring it up or it will stick to the bottom of the pot. Why do I know this? you might inquire? Later.

After we bring that back to a boil we are going to had the hops. Remember up top, I mentioned we are using two different types of hops. “Hops” are the petals of a flower from a plant that is the same family as marijuana (no lie). Brewers have used the petals straight in for years, however they now concentrate them into pellets for homebrewers. I’m sure real beer makers do the same, but we for sure are going to. There are four types of “noble hops”; those are the original hops that were first used:

-Hallertau Hallertauer Mittelfruh

-Tettnanger Tettnang

Spalter Spalt

-Saaz

They are all grown in central Europe and are the standard for Bavarian style beer. Other hops varieties are grown all over, but the noble hops are considered the grandfathers of beer flavoring/finishing. Today, we are using a British hops called “fuggles” (leave it up to the Brits to come up with a goofy name) and the noble hops, Hallertau. We’ll do this in two stages: flavoring & finishing/aroma. The fuggles will boil for 75 minutes and add a big robust flowery flavor. The Halltertau will only be in for two minutes because we just need the aroma and oils to give a bitter punch that this recipe calls for.

We’ll put those into a cheesecloth sock, darned at one end and tied off at the other end. The pellets will swell up and expand pretty big as they cook, so we need to give them plenty of room to grow.

The boiling wort (which is what you call beer before it’s finished):

When the rolling boil begins, we throw in the fuggles and let them cook.

Now, I wish I could explain to you how great this smells. The malted barley and Munich grains that are in the bag smell like Grape Nuts if you’ve ever had them cooked. The hops smell so good…it’s like perfume, but with an anise kick. It’s so strong when you first open the bag that it takes you back, but you immediately get right back in for another whiff.

After 60 minutes of boiling on the flavoring fuggles hops, we need to add whirlfloc. Whirlfloc is a synthetic additive that doesn’t affect the smell, taste, or flavor of the beer at all. What it does is grab on to all the suspended particles in the beer and make them heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the primary fermenting bucket. If we were making a dark beer, then this isn’t an issue. However, with a lighter golden beer then we are probably going to see particles in the beer if we don’t filter it. Since we don’t want to filter, we use whirlfloc. Purists will use Irish Moss, but we’ll just use whirlfloc for ease of use.

After 13 more minutes, it’s time for our finishing or “aroma” hops. The first hopping gives flavor. We go with a more potent hops to add the smells of the hops only. For this, we are using the Hallertau:

Two bags of hops.

Notice the line on the inside of the pot where the original level of the wort started. We’ve reduced down considerably, concentrating the smells, sugars, and flavors of the wort.

The finishing hops stay in for two minutes, then we turn off the heat and pull the bags.

The wort will continue to churn for a bit with the carry-over heat. If you taste this now, it tastes like sweet bread that you’ve liquefied. Big flowery taste with a bit of bitterness on the back of your tongue from the hops.

We let this cool down for 15 minutes in the pot. Then, we took 8lbs of ice and put it into the sterilized primary fermenting bucket with the spigot turned off so it doesn’t run all over the floor.

For reference, by the way, we cut the hops socks open to take a look at the hops after the cook. The flavoring fuggles hops are on the bottom and are a noticeable browner color, as we’ve cooked a lot of the chlorophyll out of the flower. The aroma hops are on top and are still bright green.

The grains that we seeped for the brew tea look like cattle feed, and frankly kinda smell like cattle feed, too. We’ll set those out in the fancy greenhouse to dry and will put in the birdfeeder.

Pouring the wort into the fermenter…look how beautiful that is.

Pouring it over the ice will help melt it.

Remember what I said about having to stir the syrup well or it would stick to the bottom and burn?

Damn, I hope that doesn’t come back to bite us down the road.

Topping off with another gallon of water to make five gallons total in the fermenter (

The wort in the bucket:

We have to let this cool off to somewhere between 65-75 degrees before we “pitch” the packet of dry yeast. If it’s too hot, then the yeast will immediately die. If it’s too cold, the yeast could die or just be arrested and not bloom.

The packet of yeast

“Pitching” the yeast into the top of the bucket:

Now, we do NOT stir this up. Because we are using ale yeast, it needs to sit right on top to work. The yeast feeds on the sugars in the wort and craps out air and alcohol as a natural process. We need the air to escape in this portion of the process, but want to keep all the alcohol. We do this by sealing the top of the bucket except for a small hole with a “burper” or an “airlock”. This will slowly let air out while not letting any back in. Air has bacteria, and we don’t want that.

Alton Brown tells us to add water into the airlock to make bubbles, but the gearheads go one step further. If you use vodka in the airlock instead of water, then it keeps it extra disinfected. It just so happens that I keep vodka laying around for just such an occasion.

Carefully pouring it into the airlock chamber.

Upright.

Knucks for a finished wort

Here comes the tricky part. We’ve got to let this ferment for 10-20 days in a dark cool place, no hotter than 70 degrees and preferably around 60 degrees. It just so happens that we have a coat closet that stays at 62-65 degrees at all times

That’s our first part. There are two more parts on the way, but you’ll have to wait for a couple of weeks for the wort to ferment.

To be continued…

Victual Files: Another Hole in the Wall

If you weren’t going to Newcastle, Texas, you probably wouldn’t have much of a reason to be there. It’s up on the tip of the rolling plains where the hill country turns into dusty west Texas. Around 1950, the town had about 1,500 people living in it, and was a thriving coal mining community. However, they long-ago closed the coal mine, and since there’s not a railroad anywhere close the town’s citizens are mainly those who either are from Newcastle or whose parents and grandparents are from Newcastle. They sit below 500 these days on total population, however something very magical happens in the Fall in that part of the world.

The deer hunters converge.

You see, along with sparse population comes wide open range, and it just so happens that the nearby Brazos River makes for some of the best deer hunting in all of north Texas. At one point in the last century, the area was also known for its incredible dove and quail hunting. However, due to environmental changes, the dove population tends to wain from year to year, and the Bobwhite quail population is close to 25% of what it was just 50 years ago.

Nonetheless, on weekends in the Fall (aside from some of the best 6-man football in the region), you’ll find the town almost doubled in size with four wheel drive trucks, ATV’s, feed corn, and camoflauge from head to toe. You can buy beer and liquor from the stores, and the gas at the gas station is some of the cheapest around. If you venture into Jerry’s Meat Market on the corner of 380 and 380, you can get incredible cuts of beef ribeye steaks, marbled to perfection and cut in the butcher room in the back.

However, across the road there sits a red building that locals know as the local eatin’ joint, and visitors know as the home of the best damn hamburger on Earth. This is: Another Hole in the Wall.

Oh, sure…there’s a drive thru if you are picking up groceries for the family after church on Sunday, but you’ll want to go in to experience what AHitW is all about. In addition to their hamburgers, they have a yearly Big Buck competition and a longest turkey beard competition. Adorning the walls are pictures from previous years; a “yearbook” of sorts showing trophys pre-mount of all the harvested deer and turkeys from the local hunts.

Understand that this isn’t the place to go for a prom date. It’s good food, good company, and all within the close confines of your friendly Newcastle neighbors.

You want coffee? Serve yourself. Cups are on the wall.

You want tea or cokes? The owner, Bob, offers that, too. He will refill your tea glass for you, but it’s all unsweet so you have to spice it up yourself. Cokes are charged by the can, and they have three or four different types of “cokes” here. (In Texas, any type of soda is a “coke”. We often ask, “What sorta coke you want? Dr. Pepper?” )

Bob will even sit with you to discuss OU football or the Cowboys, but if you don’t like cigarette smoke, I suggest you sit along the edges or even the front area. This is his restaurant, and by gawd he’s going to have a cigarette while he’s working.  You can always get your order to go if the smoke bothers you that much, but it’s worth the pain to have this food served right off the grill.

Another Hole in the Wall is named as such because it was the 2nd location of a restaurant in nearby Graham called Hole in the Wall. The owner opened this location in Newcastle, however the original Hole in the Wall is long gone and all that’s left is the sequel. The be frank, the Newcastle location was always the better of the two. When you walk in, you get a menu with an angry looking character on it. Now, AHitW is world famous for its Hog Burger. The Hog is the unofficial mascot, which you’ll find on both the menu and t-shirts available behind the counter.

There’s a daily special along with a list of different regular menu items. Breakfast is served early, and lunch and dinner menus are the same. You can even get a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, but as the menu warns, it’s $21.49 and takes up to 30 minutes to prepare. I’m sure it’s good.

Above the front desk, you’ll see Bob’s wedding photo and his prized Sooner gear. He lets Aggies, Raiders, and Longhorns eat there, but he’ll make sure you remember who won the most recent game.

Aside from the charm and décor, we are here for the food. I mentioned earlier that the burgers are the best on the planet. That’s no hyperbole…they are the best. They are all made to order per your specification, and aren’t stuck on the grill until you order them. In addition, you can get fries, but what you want are the “house chips”: thinly sliced potatoes, fried to a crisp. They are incredible. I think I could eat an entire bucket of these things before I gave up.

If you are hungry, get the mini-cheeseburger. If you are really hungry, get the regular cheeseburger. If you think you are a man, get the Piglet (which is what we are having today). You think you are a badass? Get the Hog. The Piglet is the mini version of the Hog, but you’ll feel your cholesterol and blood sugar spike after eating either one.

This is the Piglet with house chips:

It’s a regular hamburger with bacon, cheese, and a thick slice of grilled ham. A true “ham burger”. Those delicious chips:

I take my Piglet with mayo and all the vege.

This thing is massive, and it’s the smaller version of their famous burger. If you can get your hands around it, you may have to give it a squeeze to get it into your mouth.

I like to take some of the ketchup on the table and squirt it on to my chips, then dab a little of the ketchup onto the burger.

I’m telling you…this is the best burger you can find. There is no better burger than this thing.

For the little guy, he gets the mini with fries:

…and shows his appreciation with a hearty single Gigger. You’ll notice Bob in the background having a smoke and watching TV:

That, my friends and fellow Arcadians, is what small town is all about. Good food, good company, and an experience you won’t soon forget.

Another Hole in the Wall Café

510 Houston St

Newcastle, Texas

Remembering Aggie Bonfire

I met Tim and Janice Kerlee this spring.  They were the guest speakers at our annual Aggie Muster. Their presentation is remarkable…they explain the Bonfire Memorial in great detail with pictures and describe the meaning of the each of the symbols throughout the entire structure, which are quite numerous.

Losing Bonfire happened just a few weeks before I graduated, and hardly a week goes by without me thinking about that day in some way. It helps that my office is adorned predominantly in Aggie stuff, including a picture of the last Aggie Bonfire in 1998. In my sitting area I have a copy of the Texas Monthly issue about Aggie Bonfire. Nonetheless, it’s still something I keep fresh in my memory because from time to time something will trigger a memory of that day. I don’t remember eating or where I parked or any of the normal details of my day-to-day life.  Just the invisible mourning shared between my fellow Ags and the confusion that weighed heavily in all of our hearts.  We all waited patiently and rather quietly outside the perimeter fence watching rescue workers try to save my fellow Ags. RC Slocum’s football team assembled and were among the folks who were toting logs off the stack.

It was the first and last time I’d been a part of a national news item, much less one that was so near and dear to my heart. I don’t know that I even realized if was even a single camera at the Polo Fields when we were out there.  Obviously, there were.  There were helicopters in the sky and news vans everywhere, but I didn’t even think to notice them. I didn’t have a mobile phone back then so I was out of touch for most of the day. My mother was miserable, I’m sure, but she worries a lot.

Part of the Kerlees’ presentation was the picture that the Dallas Morning News ran on their front page of Tim’s decimated body. His hips were crushed, his legs were detached from his body and his arm was broken. He was in shock and wasn’t in pain, although very uncomfortable from having his body broken the way it was. People in the rescue crews said that he told them to go help the others before they helped him. His parents got to see him before he died in the hospital.

Tim Kerlee, Jr was Janice and Tim Sr’s only child, and they lost him twelve years ago today. It makes me think about my son quite a bit when I remember her talking about Tim Jr, and I wonder how I would respond if my only child died doing something he was so passionate about. I wonder how many Aggies still think about that picture of Tim Jr in the newspaper and get angry that the DMN ran it in the first place. I wonder if the next generation of Aggies or the leadership in place on campus can ever get close to comprehending the dedication and spirit that Aggies such as the twelve who died that early morning had, as well as the others who were there and injured or had to help dig their brothers and sisters out of fallen stack. We hear about Tim so much because he was the last one to fall, but there are 11 other Aggies that rarely get mentioned.

I can’t do anything other than wonder, but I still do and I do it regularly. I hope you do as well.

Here X 12. Fightin’ Texas Aggie Bonfire.

Miranda Adams, ’02
Christopher Breen, ’96
Michael Ebanks, ’03
Jeremy Frampton, FTA Class of ’99
Jamie Hand, ’03
Christopher Heard, ’03
Tim Kerlee, Jr, ’03
Lucas Kimmel, ’03
Bryan McClain, ’02
Chad Powell, ’03
Jerry Don Self, ’01
Scott West, ’02

French Onion Soup

I remember the first time I had French Onion Soup. Actually, I don’t, but if you allow me to totally make up a story, it goes like this: I was hitchhiking across provincial France one summer when I was in college. After stopping in a small town for some bread and cheese, I noticed a wafting smell emanating from a cottage close to the marketplace area of the town. It was heavenly. It smelled like perfume…the perfect blend of peasantry and precision in food that carried me through the air like a Bugs Bunny cartoon where he gets the perfumed inner thigh smell of a carrot in his nostrils, which renders him helpless and catatonic as he slowly drifts thru the air towards the source of the smell.

I approached the cottage, knocked on the door, and was greeted by the most beautiful French woman you could imagine. She was fetching in the most humble ways…naturally beautiful, however she was reticent in seeing a stranger at her door who was sniffing the air like a bloodhound. In my broken French asked, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

Looking perplexed and glancing down at her feet, she said, “Ils sont mes chaussures.”

Actually, I think the first time I had French Onion Soup was at a Jason’s Deli or a La Madeleine or something like that. Either way, it left an impression on me.

Since I can’t recreate pastoral France nor is there a deli anywhere around me, I have to create my own FOS if I want some. Fortunately for me, my FOS is world’s beyond what you can normally find in a chain restaurant. Every young onion dreams of someday being the main ingredient in this powerhouse soup. So, without further adieu…he we goes.

Mise en place:

-two large yellow onion

-one large red onion

-one large white onion

-3/4c of cabernet sauvignon

-1/4c of port

-6 strips of bacon

-4-5 cloves of garlic

-carton of beef broth

-carton of beef stock

-provolone cheese

-a nice french loaf

Boil some water in a large pot and add a bit of salt to soften the water.

Add the onions:

Blanche them for 2-3 minutes.

Then dump into an ice bath to stop the cooking.

This will make the skins easier to remove. You want to remove the outside layers that are papery. They’ll be quite toothsome in the soup, and you don’t want that.

While they are cooling off, get your big stock pot out and render 6 strips of good bacon. Don’t cook on high…you need to be able to crisp the bacon up but not burn.

Remove the skins of the cooled onions.

Half the onions, then julienne into strips. You want nice bite-sized strips. If you cut them too thin, they’ll disappear in the cooking. Make them too big, and they aren’t very fun to eat.

Do this will all the onions.

The red onions make a beautiful addition to the soup. They’ll leach that red color out into the soup.

Once the bacon is crispy and the fat is all cooked out, remove the bacon. Save it for a BLT or something. Don’t throw away good bacon.

Add all of the onion to the bacon fat.

Stir them so they are good and coated with the fat. Add some salt to make them start to cook down to translucent.

Five cloves of garlic, smashed and diced. I like to leave the garlic in small chunks so it has some texture to it in the soup.

Curl your fingers in and let the blade of the knife hit your knuckles. That way, you don’t get cut.

Add the garlic. More salt if you need.

Fresh ground pepper.

While the onions and garlic are cooking, measure out ¾c of red wine. I like using a tasty table wine that is good enough to drink along with the meal. The combo of the wine plus the soup is a great complement.

Plus 1/4c of your favorite port. I had an open bottle of vintage in my bar and needed to use it.

After a few minutes, the onion will start to become translucent so that you can see thru the edges.

Gorgeous.

Add the wines to the onions. The wine will immediately lose its deep ruby color and turn kinda brown. We need it to mellow a bit before we add the stock/broth.

And a bit more salt. Taste this along the way. The salt helps drive the moisture out of the onion and make them soft.

After a bit, the wine will mix with the moisture rendered from the onion and turn all of the onion a nice pink color.

Now, since we are going to be serving red wine with this meal, I like to mix in beef stock and beef broth. Beef stock will have fat where the broth should be just about fat free. When you drink a red wine with big tannins, serve it with a fatty dish. The fat will coat the mouth and calm the tannins so that you can experience the fruit w/o drawing your mouth up.

Stock. In.

Broth. In.

Bring it up to a simmer, then cover and reduce the heat to a low simmer.

That needs to simmer on low for an hour and a half. At this point, salt and pepper to taste, but be careful. Over the next hour, the flavor is going to change drastically as all the flavors meld together. Now, notice that all we’ve added so far is salt and pepper for flavor. No herbs, no spices. That’s by design. The beef stock should be prepared with a bouquet garni for flavor. The natural flavor of the wine, the bacon, and the onion/garlic is going to be complex enough for us.

Taste it along the way. You’ll use more salt than you’d think, but be careful not to oversalt it. It’s best to get it to the point where you think it still needs just a bit more, then after the rest you’ll find that it’s perfect.

After an hour (notice the fat glistening on top):

After the hour and a half long simmer, turn off the heat and let it rest uncovered. While it’s resting, cut a french loaf into 1″ slices.

Olive oil.

Brush the olive oil onto both sides of each slice of bread, then salt and pepper for each side.

Into a 425deg oven until nice and brown.

The crispy bread is integral to a FOS.

When the soup is finished, ladle portions into a high-sided bowl or a crock.

Put a crouton right in the middle of the bowl just on top of the soup. Don’t push it down…just float it right on top.

Take a slice or two of provolone cheese and lay it over the crouton.

Now, some people like to turn their broiler on, slide the crock into the oven, and melt the cheese under the searing heat of the broiler. That’s a great way to do it. However, I like to use my kitchen torch to do it. I can be a bit more precise and get the cheese cooked to the perfect sear up close.

Seared:

Served with a bit of that tasty wine, and you’ve got yourself a delicious meal.

Here it is in its full glory. Bust thru the crouton that’s been soaking up that soup and spoon up the cheese with those onions.

And there you have it. French Onion Soup that will change your life.

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.

Dad’s Mustard Brisket

Of all the things I cook, the most requested recipe is brisket. As a Texan, it should be required in order to graduate high school to know how to properly cook a brisket. It doesn’t have to be smoked, but right before they hand you a diploma, if you can’t answer “slow and long” to the question of how a brisket should be cooked, they should send you back to class.

My brisket is a world-stopper. You’ve never had BBQ quite like this, and the key is yellow mustard. Not fancy brown or Dijon mustard, but plain ol’ French’s mustard. Here’s my secret, though: This isn’t my recipe. It’s my dad’s. When he first told me how he was doing his brisket, I just about squeezed my eyeballs out of my head squinting at him. Sure enough, though, he was right. He’s right about a lot of things that I challenge him on, but none moreso than mustard brisket. Here’s to you, dad.

I’ve never officially gone thru this procedure before because of one major component, and we might as well tackle it head-on right out of the chute. To properly cook a brisket, you’ve got to dedicate an entire day to doing it. Not a “day” as in “when the sun is up”, rather a full 24 hours. An entire rotation of the friggin Earth. If you aren’t willing to put in the time, sacrifice some sleep, and do this right then don’t bother with it. Go get yourself a nice margarita and rent Brokeback Mountain. When you get started on this, take notes of time and do it right. Don’t come bitching to me if you pull this thing after the sun goes down and it tastes like shit. Not my problem. You’ve been warned.

Your timeline is:

Day 1: Brine for 4-6 hours, up to overnight

Day 2: Marinate overnight

Day 3: Smoking

4-6 hours unwrapped

12-14 hours wrapped

4-7 hours in the cooler

Example:

1) Put the brisket on at noon unwrapped

2) Wrap it at 6pm

3) Put it in the cooler at 7am

4) Serve at noon.

24 hours.

Good so far?  Good.

Now that we have the unpleasantness of the requirements out of the way, let’s get to the basics of Texas BBQ beef. The brisket was just a trash piece of meat until just a few decades ago because no one knew how to cook it right. For reference, picture a delicious bovine:

The brisket is the cut just above the front legs. Think of it as your chest if you were to get down on all fours. Because of where it is, more than half of the entire body weight of the animal sits on this piece of meat. Therefore, it has to be strong, long meat fibers that are filled with fat and connective tissue. In addition, there are three different muscles that come in, and therefore three different meat fiber directions. This makes things really difficult to manage, especially when it comes to cutting the finished roast.

Ranchers would just toss this thing because it was so hard to cook. There’s an entire cap of fat on one side, and all three muscles are separated by  layers of fat and membranes that are really deep and hard to get to before it’s cooked. Even then, you can easily mess up the presentation by cutting it wrong. The direction of the cut is almost as important as how it’s cooked. About 50 years ago, though, ranchers started noticing that their Mexican hands were taking the briskets and making incredible dishes with them. They figured out that what they were doing was cooking it over low heat for a long time in a braise. They took the braised meat and cooked it over dry heat, and the modern Texas BBQ was born.

Now that I’ve officially scared hell out of you for cooking this thing, let’s get things prepped. We’ll need:

-an untrimmed brisket. UNTRIMMED by the butcher, that is. Don’t get a trimmed brisket.

-Bottle of Allegro marinade

-French’s yellow mustard (generic will do; I’m using French’s here so you see it’s not anything special)

-An oven bag

-Your favorite BBQ rub

That’s it. Not a whole bunch to this thing. Your brisket needs to be untrimmed. Competition BBQueers will try to tell you to trim a brisket, but that’s just because they are trying to skip on time. Keep it untrimmed…we are going to need as much fat as we can get. What size?  Hell, I don’t know.  About this big will do:

Doesn’t really matter. When you go to pick it out, what you are going to be looking for is a solid cap of fat on the backside of the brisket (they always put the label on the opposite side because it’s prettier). I had someone tell me one time that they went to Central Market and bought a “prime” brisket. I’m not sure that it even exists. This is meant for trashy cuts of beef, so the sinewy-est, fatty, marbled up slab of brisket you can find is perfect. If you spend more than $2.50/lbs for your brisket, you got taken. Look for it on sale, and buy it when it’s around $1/lbs and freeze it.

Take your brisket out of the plastic and rinse it under water to get off all the extra blood. Let’s examine:

You see the long meat fibers here? They lie just under that membrane on top of the meat. Don’t peel it off…I just want to point out how the meat runs for later. We are going to cut AGAINST the grain when we serve.

I pulled back that membrane a little bit to get a good shot. See how the direction of the fibers curves away? When we start cutting, we’ll need to look for that, and stop when we get to the point where we aren’t cutting against those grains.

The fat cap:

One of my favorite tools is the Reynolds turkey bag. They are just plastic bags that you can marinate/brine your meat in. Take one out, and put your brisket in, with the fat cap side DOWN.

I like to put it into a pan in case there’s a leak in the bag, and there’s always a leak in the bag.

Now, take that Allegro marinade and pour in enough so that it comes up about halfway up the brisket.

Make sure that it’s the fat cap side that’s down, and not the meat fibers. What we are trying to do is use that salt and acid that’s in the Allegro to break down the fat and the muscle fibers around the fat. If you brine this with the meat side down, you are going to turn the meat into mush, and we don’t want that. Seal up the back and put into the fridge for 4-6 hours, up to overnight.

When you are finished, pull it out and lay it into a pan big enough to hold the whole thing. This is key…you are going to be flipping it in just a bit. Start with the fat cap side DOWN.

Get your yellow mustard out and squeeze LIBERALLY all over this thing, and then smear it with your hands so that it’s thick all the way around. Go ahead and rub it in kinda hard into the cracks and crevices where you can get your fingers. I always start mine out right:

Coated:

When you get a good thick layer on it, grab your favorite bbq rub and sprinkle it LIBERALLY all over. You don’t have to use the Arcadian Rub, but you want to make sure you use one with some brown sugar, salt, and spicy cayenne. You know what? Just use the damn Arcadian Rub.

Flip it over and get the other side as well (fat cap back down). DON’T RUB IT. Just sprinkle on top of the mustard. If you’ve disturbed the mustard coating, make sure it’s even and then re-sprinkle to cover.

A close-up:

Now, we need to put this back into the fridge overnight. Don’t skimp. Needs to be overnight. If you put it in unwrapped, though, your fridge is going to smell like this for weeks, so grab a new trashbag (unscented) and put the whole thing in, pan and all. Seal it up and let it sit in the cold.

After a night in the fridge, poke that bad boy’s head out and take a look. The rub has gotten wet with the mustard and has made an incredible coat around the meat. That will be important for the next few hours as we slow smoke this

Close-up:

When you take it to your smoker, make sure you’ve let your smoker go enough so you are regulated to about 225deg constantly. Don’t try to singe this or sear it at first. It’s totally unnecessary, despite what you may hear from BBQ “experts” on tv. Just make sure you have a hard rolling smoke going, and your temp is around 225deg. 250deg at the highest.

I’m using mesquite.  Not pecan and especially not oak, which is good for firewood and that’s about it.  Use mesquite wood on your beef.  I could almost accept someone mixing in some pecan, but it’s not needed.  Just use mesquite.  Stop asking questions.  Use mesquite.

Put it into the grill with the fat cap UP. UP.

There are differing opinions on whether or not you should smoke fat side down or up. The folks who say “down” say that it helps keep the meat from charring. However, it you run your smoker right, it should never char since we aren’t getting above 250deg. Also, if the cap of fat is up, then it will melt down inthru the meat fibers, coating them with the delicious fat and Allegro brine. Does it matter? In the long run, probably not. However, this is how I do it and I know it works. Try it this way and see if it’s not good. If not, do it however you want to do it. This is America, baby.

After 4 hours:

After six hours (with a couple of sweet potatoes thrown on to smoke for dinner):

You notice how black it is? That’s GOOD. We call that “bark” in the BBQ world. It’s the blackened layer right around the outside that has all the seasoning flavor from the mustard mixed with our rub. After six hours, we need to wrap this. You can go a little longer if you like, but I think six hours is plenty.

Get your handy prep table out, and lay two layers of heavy duty foil (the long package). Lift your brisket right out of the grill and onto the foil.

Fold the first layer of foil around the briskets. Fold it TIGHT and do it so that all corners are covered. I start at the bottom, fold across like you are putting a diaper on a baby (old style diaper on a baby, that is).

Do both ends, tucking in each loose piece, pinching them together, and making sure they are sealed up TIGHT.

When you get it all sealed up, a nice fold or pinch will keep it together. Just like a good marriage.

You might have some spots left exposed after the first wrap. No worries..we’ve got three more layers to go. Second layer from the bottom:

After both bottom layers go on, take another large piece of foil and wrap all the way around the top, covering that hole at the top, tuck under, but make sure you fold corners so that it fits like it should. Do that twice. You should have used four sheets of foil so far.

Then you’ve got your tight wrapped brisket, ready to go on for the long burn. Again, make sure you are watching your fire constantly and keeping it between 225-250deg.

Back on it goes. Let’s add up the time so far:

-Allegro brine (4-6 hours, potentially overnight)

-Mustard and rub down (overnight)

-4-6 hours on the smoker at 225-250deg.

Up next, this needs to go for 12-14 hours wrapped at the same temps. Crazy, right? Yeah, just trust me on this.

After the smoker has done it’s work, the pretty foil will go from a nice golden yellow to a dark brown.

After 12-14 hours, take the entire brisket and place it in to your BBQ Cooler and let it rest for up to seven hours.

Do NOT open the cooler or disturb the foil until you are ready to cut.  That’s important.  Let it rest, and the rest is just as important as the other steps.  Don’t skip on this…let it rest.  Up to 7 hours max, no less than 4 hours.

When you are ready to carve, here’s a little trick.  You’ve got the fat side up still, so reach into the cooler and either rip the foil with your fingers or take a knife and cut the foil open.  You should be able to pick it up from underneath and flip it out onto your carving board.  However, get a pan so you can collect the drippings before you flip it out.  I use the same pan that I used to marinate the brisket.  Just tip it so the drippings run out, flip your brisket out onto your board, and then collect as much of the drippings as possible.  If you have some drippings that come out onto the board, go ahead and try to rake those into your pan also.  It will make the carving so much less messy.

Big ol’ slab of beef.

From the bird’s eye view:

When you start to cut, keep in mind how the meat fibers run.  Again, we are going to cut against the grain.  There’s a little secret to make sure you do this correctly.

a) start at the “skinny” end of the brisket

b) start on one corner, where you think you need to start

c) cut off the top of the corner on a bias (or on an angle) to make sure you are starting right.  If you chose the wrong corner, you can easily go to the other corner w/o too much of a do-over.

How do you know if you’ve cut it against the grain?  The part you cut should fall apart, with the meat fibers being really short.

I like to use an electric knife.  Honed steel is good, but don’t foresake the precision of an electric knife here.  Start making about 1/4″-1/2″ slices along that same line that you started on just a bit of a bias.

Excuse the blurriness, but you get the idea.

This is what I’m talking about being “against the grain”.  See the short meat fibers now that seem to fall apart?  That’s what you want.  This will be so tender that the meat will literally fall apart when you try to pick it up.

Here’s your brisket slice, about as whole as you can get it.  It’s ok if it falls apart.  It’s going to be so good and tender, it doesn’t matter if it stays in long slices.

Continue on until you get to the point where the meat fibers begin to turn.  You’ll know you are there when you get to the big thick part of the brisket, and your slices look like they are slanted.  Then, turn the brisket 90degrees and start cutting right across the top, which will now be against the grain.  You’ve got two different muscles in here, but they’ll both be going the same way.

A close-up of the muscle, with a thin membrane separating.

Here are the long meat fibers.  Cut against then so your knife is perpendicular to the muscles.

Close-up, of the slices.

When it’s all sliced up, you have should be able to peel some of the extra fat off and keep it in a pile up at the top.  Plus, you have tons of extras left over.

There’s all the brisket cut up.

That fat still has tons of potential to it.  Let’s not throw it away.

If you take your fat trimmings and put them into a skillet, you can start to render some of the extra fat off.  Brown on both sides for a bit…

Then add a little beef broth or some of the drippings back to the pan and let it suck as much of the fat out as possible.

Then take that hot grease and drippings and pour it right back over the sliced brisket.  Cover it with foil, put it into the oven at 170deg for a few minutes just to keep warm until it’s time to serve.

Presentation on the plate:

In the pan, you’ll have this deliciousness:

I’m not opposed to putting sauce on this, but if you are going to use sauce, let’s use the WGD brisket sauce and not just some sugary sweet crap off the shelf.

That’s it.  My dad’s mustard brisket, cooked for a full 24 hours and about as perfect as Texas BBQ can be.

Shiner Bocker Beans

You know what I like? Beans. You know what else? Shiner Bock. You know what’s REEEEEEL good together? Beans and Shiner Bock. Your life as a bean-eater is about to change. For the better. Bocker better.

A quick glance at the ingredients:

-2lbs of dry pintos

-a medium yellow onion (I’m using a fresh one here with the greens still attached, right out of the garden)

-a tomato or two, homegrown if possible

-a juicy ripe jalepeno, homegrown if possible

-pork (I had a hambone from NYD that I needed to get out of the deepfreeze)

-SHINER THUMS UP BOCK

Pour the dried beans into a colander and rinse them off really good under cool water.

Get your best stock pot out and put a few cups of water in, just enough to cover the beans. A thick bottom on your pot will keep the beans from scorching. It makes a difference because we are going to be cooking for a LONG time. Add some salt when you turn the heat on. The salt will soften the water and flavor the beans.

Pour in the beans and bring the water to a boil. After the water boils, let it go for 10 minutes and then cut the heat off and cover the pot. It will need to sit for an hour in the hot water.

After an hour, strain the water off the beans back into your colander. Don’t rinse the beans…just pour the water off.

Add enough water back to the pot to cover the beans plus another inch and then add the beans back in. Throw the heat back to the beans and bring them back to a boil. Add a little bit of salt, but not too much if any at all. We’ll add our seasoning later on.

Now…before we go any farther, let’s discuss pork and beans. Pork is good, too. Pork is real good. I save all my bacon drippings in an Illy Coffee can. It’s perfect for storing bacon grease so I can use it for cooking. Nothing other than bacon drippings goes into this can. No vegetable oil or olive oil or butter…just pork fat. I’d drink this in a pinch if I had to. Add a couple of good scoops of fat to the pot.

I mentioned my New Year’s hambone. I make a ham every NYD to go along with my blackeyed peas and cabbage. That’s also my birthday, so I get a pineapple upside-down cake, too. When I’m on death row, that might be my last meal. Anyway…(tense)…back to the pork. If you don’t have a spare hambone laying around your freezer, get some hamhocks from the grocery store. They are a close 2nd place on the pork scale for me when it comes to beans. Hambone is the way you want to go if possible, though.

I like to leave a bunch of meat on the ham when I carve it just for the reason that I know that at some point in the next few months I’m going to make beans, and the ham in the beans will send it over the top. If for some reason you don’t have a hambone and have to use hamhocks, it’s ok to get a couple of slices of country ham from the meat counter at your grocery store.  Don’t use deli sandwich slices…the ham you add needs to be thick cuts.  If you are using a hambone, make sure you take off all the cloves and you’ll want to separate the joint, but other than that just pitch all that pork into the pot.

Heat. Cover. Go.

After it comes to a boil, set it to simmer and uncover. It’s going to slow simmer ALL DAMN DAY. 5 hours at least. After it starts to simmer, let’s start putting in some flavor. Take an onion and quarter it. If you are lucky enough to have a whole fresh onion, go ahead and rough chop the greens, too.

While you are at it, throw in 5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled but whole. The simmer: (note the delicious fat on top)

The vege mise en place:

In they go:

Stir it in well, and let it simmer again. For an hour. Uncovered. UNCOVERED!!!! WHOOOOOP!!!

After an hour or so, cover it back up but make sure you lower the heat so you don’t burn it. The onion and garlic will break down and leave you with a nice full body of flavor. Plus, the starch will start leaking out of the beans and the fat and connective tissue will start melting from the pork. It all leaves you with a delicious brown color and a thick gravy.

Now we are going to start adding flavor. Remember the Arcadian Rub? Let’s sprinkle in 2tblspns.

Now we are starting to resemble real live beans. Make sure every 15 minutes or so, you give them a good fold. Try not to stir too hard and break up the beans…just a gentle fold.

You should be to the point where you can see the line along the side of the pan where the liquid started. We’ve lost a lot of liquid so far from the beans soaking it up and the constant simmer evaporating the water out. If you ever get to the point where you are running low on liquid, you need to add some back in. And that’s where the Shiner comes in.

I set a bottle out at room temp so I’m not adding cold beer to the beans and ceasing the simmer. Pour it in slowly…it will foam up as the carbonation fizzes out.

The foam will subside pretty quickly, but be careful so that it doesn’t overflow onto your cooking surface.

While you are here, go ahead and throw in a quartered tomato or two. If you like it spicy, pitch in a whole jalepeno. Don’t pierce it or cut it up. Just throw it in whole. Any real Texan will tell you that the Jalepeno not only packs a solid wallop, but it also has a delicious fruity flavor. Let it boil for a while…if you don’t want it too spicy, take it out after 30 minutes, bifurcate the pepper and remove the seeds and inner membrane with a spoon. That’s what makes it spicy. You can then throw the pepper back it so it can continue its purpose in life.  If you like onion or think that it needs a bit more of the onion flavor, you can throw in another quartered onion.

All along the way, you should be tasting this to see how it is coming. I like a lot of cowboy in my beans, so after an hour with the tomato and the jalepeno I’ll add Arcadian rub every 5-10 minutes and taste. If the spice/flavor is there, but you want it a bit more salty go ahead and add some fine grain salt like table salt. Pull the beans from the heat and let them rest for a few minutes, covered. Then you are ready to serve ’em right out of the pot.

The essence of Texas ranch-style beans. Serve straight up or with some of momma’s cornbread like a good boy/girl. Congrats to you; you are the proud new eater of the Shiner Bocker Beans.

Trav’s Corner: Southwestern Chicken Liver Pate

I have been trying to get more liver into my diet lately, as it is the richest source of vitamin A out there. The vitamin A found in liver is much more readily absorbed and complete than the beta carotene found in plant sources and is one of the best antioxidants around. That being said, liver can challenging to make appetizing, especially when you don’t want to fry it (for carb avoidance reasons in my case). This recipe is not only appetizing, but simple and inexpensive to boot.

1 bucket of chicken livers (about 1 1/3 pounds)

½ an onion, chopped coarse

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 bay leaf

2 t dried thyme leaves

2 t dried basil

1 jalapeño, sliced

4 Anaheim or New Mexico chiles, roasted, peeled, and seeded

1 t bourbon

1 stick of butter, room temp

Put everything except the last three items in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer for three minutes. Remove from heat and cover for 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Using a slotted spoon, move everything to a food processor. Add the chiles and the bourbon. Pulse a few times to combine, season with salt and pepper (I recommend kosher salt and freshly finely ground pepper), and while the processor is running, add the butter a pat at a time until fully incorporated. Continue processing until silky smooth. Scrape into ramekins or small bowls and chill for at least three hours before serving. If you want to keep it longer, put some melted butter on top and cover in the fridge for a week or the freezer for 2 months. Serve with crackers, toast, or tortilla chips, or even with veggies.

Variations: If you like it spicier, throw in a Serrano pepper with the boil. For a smoky flavor, take out the jalapeño and use a chipotle with the chiles. For a more Mexican flavor, substitute Poblanos for the chiles and throw in some chopped cilantro with the butter.

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.

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.