El Paso’s Best Mexican Food: Of Car Washes And Cemeteries

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Confession: With the exception of far too many layovers at DFW, I’d never been to Texas prior to two weeks ago. Despite having traveled all over the rest of the Southwest, as well as being possessed of a near-clinical addition to Mexican food, I just haven’t had a reason to make it to the Lone Star State.

That all changed when I was sent to El Paso by American Cowboy magazine to write about the city’s tradition of boot-making. And while my days were spent touring boot factories and learning the difference between a welt and a vamp, a girl’s gotta eat. Secondary only to my assignment at hand was unearthing the best local spots for Mexican or Tex-Mex food.

Fortunately, a friend of mine is from El Paso, and the kindly folks at the boot factories were also more than happy to aid in my research. It’s no secret that H & H Cafe and Car Wash and L & J Cafe serve some of the city’s best eats. After a disappointing experience at one of the nicer, much publicized Mexican restaurants downtown, I decided to focus on dives, exclusively.

Why? Because I’d much rather eat at a hole-in-the-wall imbued with local color, any day. They’re less expensive, and generally free of tourists. At least, the kind of tourists who frequent the type of restaurants I go to lengths to avoid (see aforementioned downtown eatery). There are no “2-for-1″ margarita specials, gringoized menu items, or attempts to temper the innate fire of the chiles used in the recipes. You’re getting the real deal, and eating amongst the folks who make these businesses the longtime landmarks that they are.

h & h coffee shop, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Take H & H. For over 50 years, this Formica and aqua-and-orange-hued dive near downtown has been dishing up El Paso’s best chile rellenos. It’s a car wash, yes. But the “coffee shop” has a single counter, and just three small tables. There’s a token flat-top grill that’s clearly seen a lot of use. The waitresses are of a certain age, and sweet as pie. The food is heavenly. Three times in four days, I showed up to stuff myself on everything from earthy, potato-studded Chile Colorado to the aforementioned rellenos (a dish I normally dislike, since it too often resembles and tastes like oil-soaked socks) Even the salsa verde, a chunky, firey rendition, is amazing.

On my final visit, it was the cook’s birthday; so a regular pinned a sheaf of dollar bills to the shoulder of her smock for luck, and wished her “Feliz Cumpleanos.” To be a fly on the way at joints like this is to get a true taste of local color, no pun intended. Eavesdropping on the two guys next to me (a biker and a businessman in a peach button-down), I learned they both collect and restore vintage muscle cars.

Then there’s L & J, known as “the old place by the graveyard,” which, indeed, it is. Located off of Hwy 10 West, this historic spot with the random, quirky decor was founded in 1927 by Antonio D. Flores as “Tony’s Place (as popular for bootlegging as it was for its food, the story goes).” When Tony’s daughter, Lilia, and her husband, John, took over in 1968, they renamed it L & J.

l & j cafe, el paso
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The restaurant has continued to draw crowds for its righteous combo platters, soft and fried tacos (here, “fried” means lightly crisped, not “giant tortilla chip tasting like sawdust”), queso (all creamy, stringy cheese and green chiles), and enchiladas with red or green sauce. Despite the caloric content, this is food that tastes fresh, and the love with which its prepared is evident. The place is almost always hopping, so get there early if you want to avoid the local lunch or happy hour crowds.

I tried a few other highly-touted places in and around El Paso, but found them wanting. So I kept returning to my favorite initialized eateries for a fix. Now, back in Colorado, I’m jonesing again, and wishing that my local car wash would consider installing a flat-top and some Formica. A girl can dream, can’t she?

Falling In Love With The World’s Most Hyped Churros At Xoco In Chicago

churros at xocoI’m almost never game to wait in a long line to eat. But I joined a line stretching outside the door at Xoco in Chicago last Saturday because I couldn’t stand to hear another rave about the place without experiencing what all the fuss is about for myself. Xoco is a fast food Mexican place owned by former “Top Chef” master chef Rick Bayless, whom my colleague Laurel Miller once memorably described as an “all-around culinary badass.”

The place has a whopping 1,662 reviews on Yelp – 897 of them mention the otherworldly churros – and about the only people who pan it are those who can’t get a table. (There are only four restaurants in Chicago with more reviews on Yelp: Kuma’s Corner (burgers), Hot Doug’s (hot dogs/sausages), Girl & The Goat (New American) and Smoque BBQ.) I’ve been hearing about how unforgettably good this place is since it opened in 2009 – the place is a tourist attraction in itself – but was reminded that I needed to try it after seeing a write-up on it from Grant Martin in our budget guide to Chicago in late January.We arrived at 1 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, which is probably the worst possible time to try eat here. But the line moved fast and I actually needed the half hour or so to study the menu and the daily specials. I knew that I wanted a torta, a Mexican sandwich made on fresh bread from Labriola Baking Company (another great place to eat in Chicago’s western suburbs) that is cooked in a wood burning oven, but I was torn between getting the Choriqueso, which is made with homemade chorizo sausage, roasted poblano, artisan Jack cheese and tomatillo salsa, and the Baja chicken, which comes with homemade chipotle mayo, Napa cabbage/radish slaw and black beans.

xoco chicken baja tortaI went for the Baja chicken, my wife got the pork carnitas and we shared an order of churros with sides of chocolate and soft serve vanilla ice cream. The bill, with no drinks was more than $40, including a hot chocolate we bought for our boys. My torta was absolutely mouth watering. The bread is crusty, the ingredients are fresh and the rich salsa and creamy mayo are an excellent accompaniment to a sandwich that is just about perfect. My only complaint is that at $11, it should be bigger. In fact, it was so damn good that I easily could have eaten two of them.

But the reason why I’m already salivating at the prospect of returning to Xoco is the churros. Good lord, the churros. Forget about the crunchy, flavorless things you buy from a cart on the street or in a hole-in-the-wall Mexican bakery. Those things don’t even deserve to have the same name as the treats that are served up at Xoco.

They literally melt in your mouth and the flavor is so intensely sweet and cinnamony that it brings a smile to your face. Really, I challenge anyone to walk into Xoco in a terrible mood, eat a churro and see what happens to your demeanor. These damn things could bring peace to the Holy Land for crying out loud. My wife liked to dip them in the sinfully rich, decadent chocolate but I preferred the cinnamon/vanilla ice cream combo. How do you want your Powerball winnings – lump sum or yearly payouts? You can’t go wrong either way.

xocoAfter visiting Xoco in the city, I found out there was a Frontera Fresco with many of the same menu items a Norris Hall on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, only a mile from my house. I went there with my wife on a Friday at 1:30 p.m. and there was no line whatsoever. Even better, most of the tortas were $1 or $2 cheaper than they are downtown. I had the Cubana, which comes with pork loin and bacon, black beans, avocado, artisan Jack cheese, chipotle mustard, Morita chiles and homemade cilantro crema. It was pretty damn good though not quite as tasty as the Baja Chicken or the carnitas.

But the campus location, alas, has no churros. Damn them! But they do have soft serve yogurt – try the coconut – and some very tasty almond cookies and bread pudding. My verdict: Xoco is worth the hype, especially the churros, but if you hate to wait, head north to Evanston.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

8 Delicious Street Foods From Around The World That You Can Make At Home


There is a certain beauty to street food: it’s simple and with one bite you have a true taste of the local culture. Some people even pick their destination based on how much street food they can get. But exotic street food doesn’t have to be restricted to the alleyways you found it in. With a little creativity and daring in the kitchen, you can turn your own dinner table into the best foreign street food stand around. Just make sure you get a stray cat or dog to sit next to it for the sake of ambience.

Bánh xèo
Bahn Xeo has always been a personal favorite of mine. The savory rice crepe, traditionally filled with shrimp and bean sprouts, is a common staple on Vietnamese menus, and despite its complex taste you can actually make your own in about half an hour. What’s key in this recipe is the mint and nuoc chom Vietnamese dipping sauce. Try this recipe from Closet Cooking.

Parisian Crepes
For a food lover, the ultimate question when roaming the streets of Paris is often: sweet or savory? It’s difficult to choose between a good crepe filled with cheese or one with gooey Nutella… or one with sugar and lemon… or one with gruyere and mushrooms. You get the picture. Look no further than the Parisian pastry master and food blogger David Leibovitz for this basic buckwheat crepe recipe, perfect for the savory versions.

Fish Tacos
Feet in the warm sand, a cold cerveza in your hand and a couple of fish tacos from the dilapidated stand at the edge of the beach. Life doesn’t get better than that. But for those times when you can’t hop on a plane to Baja, a super easy solution to making fish tacos is to coat pieces of fish in cornmeal. When you pan fry in a little bit of vegetable oil, the fish gets a nice crunchy flavor. The top with all the good seasonings: cilantro, red cabbage, pineapple, guacamole… whatever you have on hand. Foodista has this good basic recipe, which includes a spicy jalapeno mayonnaise.

Satay
A good satay, like the kind you’ll find in Malaysia or Thailand, complete with the perfect dipping sauce, is all about the marinade, which means taking the time to let the meat marinate. Of course having a barbecue will do wonders, but you can also make them with the use of a grill pan on your stovetop. Satay skewers are the perfect thing for an appetizer or dinner parties where you have to serve a lot of people. Start with this Malaysian recipe from Just As Delish.

Elote
I have a friend that brought this Mexican grilled corn to numerous dinner parties last summer, and it was always a hit. The trick is in its simplicity – it really is just grilled corn with a few additions – making it just what a street food should be. Warm and messy, it’s the kind of dish where you’ll definitely want some napkins. Try this easy recipe from Food Blogga.

Bolani
A common street food in Afghanistan, bolani is somewhere in between a calzone, a handpie and a quesadilla. In other words: fried, doughy goodness. The key in good bolani is in the filling. Go with a potato or pumpkin base and make sure to employ plenty of leeks and cilantro. If you are short on time, you can use tortillas instead of making your own dough, like Humaira at Afghan Cooking does, but if you’re up to it, it’s worth it to make your own. Conflict Kitchen from Pennsylvania has a solid one, although you may need to cut it in half depending on how many people you are serving.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee
I got used saying ca-phe sua dua (phonetic spelling of course) when I spent time in Vietnam a few years ago; there was no getting through a hot day in Saigon without one. You can of course get really complex with your coffee brewing and invest in a Phin, the filter that Vietnamese coffee is brewed in, or you can just use a good cold brew (let a French press stand over night) or some strong stovetop espresso, then just add sweetened condensed milk and ice cubes.

Socca
A sunny afternoon in Nice, France calls for a batch of socca. The gluten-free crepe made from chickpea flour is good on its own, or you can get creative with what you serve with it. Goat cheese and olives anyone? Drizzle with olive oil, serve with a good rose and it’s almost like you are on the Cote D’Azur. Try this recipe from The Kitchn.

[Photo Credits: MyDays, Charles Haynes, Serge Melki, abrowncoat, iPyo, sarihuella, Anna Brones, toehk, Tran’s World Productions]

Why Mexico Isn’t Central America, And Other Things I Learned From Writing A Book About Cheese

cheeseExactly one year ago, I was embroiled in final edits on my first book, “Cheese for Dummies.” It’s a 408-page, comprehensive primer on all things cheese, including an extensive geography section.

I was reviewing the “America’s” chapter, when I saw that my editor had taken the liberty of relocating Mexico from North America, and lumped it with Central America. Baffled, I spent the next hour researching, then polled my Gadling teammates; we are, after all, a well-traveled bunch. The consensus, of which I was already certain from years spent backpacking throughout Latin America: my editor was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It was at the urging of my Gadling colleagues, with whom I engaged in a lengthy discussion about the topic at hand, that I decided to write this article. They thought it raised some interesting arguments about geopolitics and cultural differences within a given region, and found it fascinating that cheese was the conduit. As Heather Poole put it, “Maybe you thought your book was about cheese, when really it’s about the people who eat cheese.”

Before my editor would concede, I had to present a compelling argument as to why there’s no way in hell Mexico is part of Central America. That’s like saying all Latin American countries are the same. Yes, there’s a common language in most instances, but the dialectical differences, indigenous languages and slang are vastly different.

Colonization may also play a commonality in most Latin countries, but the indigenous cultures and various immigrants differ, which can be seen in language, art, folklore and cuisine. There are also extreme variations in geography (known as terroir, in food or wine parlance) and climate, often within the same country.

Dairy wasn’t a part of traditional Mesoamerican culture. The Spanish conquistadors brought cows, sheep, and goats to the New World and introduced dairying and ranching to Mexico. Besides the Spanish influence, in more recent times, cheesemaking throughout Mexico, Central and South America is believed to have been inspired by immigrants from Italy, and Northern and Eastern Europe.cheeseWith regard to cheese, the majority of Latin America (which, for the purposes of this article, refers to Mexico, Central and South America) produces and eats cheese as a subsistence food in rural areas. Most families own a single cow, or sometimes goat, and rely upon the animal’s milk as an essential source of protein. Urbanites, regardless of social class, have access to the same crappy processed cheese we do here in the States; specialty cheese shops are a rarity in most of these countries, for various socioeconomic reasons.

Peru and Bolivia, which suffer from extreme poverty and are largely rural, primarily produce fresh, simple cheeses like queso fresco. These cheeses can be consumed quickly due to the lack of refrigeration, and provide an immediate source of nutrition and income. Venezuela and Brazil, with their largely tropical climates, also rely upon mostly fresh cheeses, some of them highly salted for preservation. Cheese production in Central America is also mostly about fresh cheese, the result of poverty and climate.

Argentina, a more industrialized nation, is one of the world’s leading producers of Parmesan, an aged cow’s milk cheese that approximates Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is due to Argentina’s large population of Italian immigrants. Aged cheese production is only feasible if there’s a facility to store it as it matures, and, usually, an additional source of immediate income – such as fresh cheese.

Ecuador (photo at right), which has a high proportion of Swiss immigrants, also produces a handful of aged, alpine-style cheeses, in addition to fresh cheeses (being on the equator, much of the country is tropical rainforest and not conducive to aging dairy products).
milking
Mexico is one of the few countries in the America’s that has a long, distinguished cheese history, and is one of the world’s largest consumers of cheese, despite a relative lack of diversity in styles and varieties. In recent decades, an artisan cheese movement has developed, and parts of Querétaro, Chiapas, Tabasco and Michoacán are major cheese-producing states. Oaxaca, Mexico’s culinary capital, is the producer of one of its most famous cheeses, Queso Oaxaca, a string cheese also known as quesillo. Cotija, from Central Mexico, is the country’s most renown cheese.

Any book on food, regardless of topic, is going to acknowledge differences due to the terroir and microclimates of a given region. Northern Italy, for example, produces rice and dairy in its lush pastures and fields, while drought- and poverty-stricken Southern Italy has a notable absence of cow’s milk, because sheep fare better on sparse vegetation. As in the North, pasta is also a staple, but it’s eggless.

Writing a book on cheese taught me far more than just how to argue with my editor about where Mexico is located. I learned more about world history, geography and politics in the year it took me to write my book than I did from 12 years of school and earning two degrees.

History has always been my poorest subject, and I’ve only ever been able to learn it by traveling. I was staggered by how much knowledge I’d gained just from writing about cheese.

I think two of the most visible examples of what cheese has taught me came shortly after I submitted my manuscript. I was watching “Jeopardy!” with a friend, and answered a question – that would previously have left me scratching my head – by screaming out (correctly), “What are Visigoths, Alex!” My friend stared at me, flabbergasted.

The other incident occurred during a discussion with some friends about why Spanish cheese doesn’t have a greater foothold in the U.S. (something that’s rapidly changing, by the way). I explained that it was the cumulative effect of the Spanish War, two World Wars, and Franco’s rule, which suppressed the country’s agricultural and commercial progress.

It’s not my intention to sound like an obnoxious smartypants. I’m just incredulous that something as simple (yet complex) as fermented milk made me a more educated, well-rounded person. I’ve always believed that travel is the best educator, but by writing a book on a seemingly limited topic, I’ve also learned that food is, indeed, more than just mere nourishment.

[Photo credits: cheese, Flickr user marimbalamesa; spray cheese, Flickr user xiaming; milking, Laurel Miller]

7 Deadly Sins: The Best Fast Food Mexican Restaurants In Southern California

fish tacos at bull taco californiaIt really isn’t fair. California has sun, beaches, mountains and legions of fit, attractive people. But Californians also get to enjoy otherworldly tacos and burritos too. I know, I know, there are good tacos and burritos to be had in other parts of the country, but when it comes to fast food Mexican, California is still king.

Here’s how I like to roll when I’m visiting California: start the day with a breakfast burrito, feast on an grilled fish burrito for lunch and cap the day with shrimp or lobster tacos at dinner time. If I wasn’t always falling asleep early on the West Coast due to jet lag, I’d probably do another round of tacos late night too, if I could only stay up late enough to squeeze it in.

It’s very hard to distinguish where to get the best fast food Mexican fare in Southern California. Try one place and you’ll think it’s the best thing you ever tasted and then travel down the block to realize there’s someplace even better. But what follows is a run down of the best fast-food Mexican seafood tacos and burritos I had on a recent trip to Southern California (save for Rudy’s, which doesn’t do seafood).


La Sirena Grill (Laguna Beach, El Segundo, and Irvine)

I had a blackened shrimp burrito and my wife had a blackened wild salmon taco and a blackened tilapia taco here and everything was incredibly fresh and tasty. They have a sweet, tangy salsa that is out of this world. Much of what La Sirena serves is organic and even the containers they serve tacos in are made of corn.

carne asada tacos rudy's californiaRudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach, La Costa)

This place is the polar opposite of trendy La Sirena – there are no advertisements boasting about sustainability or humanely raised beef at this hole-in-the-wall joint but their carne asada is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and their chips are first rate too.

Rubios (Locations are mostly in suburban San Diego with a handful in other cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Vegas, Phoenix and L.A.)

I know that some foodies are suspicious of chain places, but I am rooting for this one to make it out to Chicago. I had two grilled mahi-mahi tacos with roasted corn, cabbage and creamy chipotle salsa and a gourmet shrimp taco, which came with toasted mozzarella, jack and white cheddar cheese, bacon bits, avocado and two chili sauces.

fish tacos rubiosBoth were ridiculously good and were served with chips and beans on a real plate. The nice young kids who work at the Carlsbad location I patronized were fascinated by my interest with the place. To them, it probably seems a bit odd to be fussing over tacos and taking photos of them, but they’re spoiled they can get these beautiful things anytime they want them.

Bull Taco (Cardiff by the Sea, Oceanside, Petco Park)

This beachside taco stand advertises itself as “Inauthentic Mexican” but has become something of a local institution in just five years, serving unusual taco creations. Nathan, one of the chefs at the Cardiff by the Sea location, told me that all the cooks who work there are classically trained chefs. Only in California would serious chefs be found working in a taco joint and thank God for that.

bull taco shrimp tacosI devoured three tacos – grilled sea bass, shrimp curry and the coup d’gras, a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Purists might balk at some of their concoctions but I would kill to have this place near my home in Chicago.

Bahia Mexican Restaurant (near the zoo in San Diego)

This modest little fast food place, with its colorfully painted chairs and tables, made me feel like I was in a working class neighborhood outside Puerto Vallarta. Big menu, low prices, no frills and it smelled great. After a long morning spent pushing my sons around in a stroller at the San Diego Zoo, I was starved, so I ordered a fish taco (grilled tilapia, $2.30), a shrimp taco ($3.30), and a lobster taco ($3.80).

bahia restaurant san diegoThe tortillas were very light and flavorful, the tacos were packed with seafood and everything was wonderfully fresh and delicious. My only complaint: the place is filled with vending machines selling junky toys and temporary tattoos, which my sons nagged me into buying. Halfway through my lobster taco, I relented and bought two sets of tattoos, but my 3-year-old didn’t like the one that came out of the slot for him. But even the tantrum that ensued couldn’t diminish the experience for me.

Taco Surf Taco Shop (Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego)

taco surf taco shopFor a place that’s filled with surfboards and is just a block away from the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach boardwalk along the ocean, this place is dark and slightly depressing. Taco Surf Taco has been featured as one of the best places to get a burrito in the country by Fox News and was also singled out by USA Today. I don’t agree with Fox News very often and I don’t agree with them on this call either.

The people working at TSTS are very friendly and my mahi-mahi burrito ($7.66) was big and tasty, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. Another diner told me I should have tried their California burrito, which has steak, cheese and fries, but I’ll leave that one to Fox News and others. One other beef: horrible music. I had a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” earworm for days after hearing it at this place.

poquito mas tacosPoquito Mas (7 locations in L.A.)

I had two shrimp tacos ($6.50) at their West Hollywood location and I thought that the name of this place, which means “a little more” in Mexican, was appropriate – there were only three shrimp in each taco – not nearly enough for my tastes. They were tasty though and I especially liked their array of spicy salsas, but not their dicey tortilla soup.

Conclusion: If I had to crown my very favorite seafood, fast-food Mexican meal in California, and it really isn’t fair because all of these places are great, it would be a tie between La Sirena and Rubios. Their tacos and burritos literally brought a smile to my face. Please, please, please guys, come to Chicago. I’m begging you.

There are thousands of places to eat seafood tacos and burritos in Southern California and no list of the best places is comprehensive. What’s your favorite place?

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]