We’re in Austin, Texas for the weekend to visit family and enjoy that great Texas tradition of barbeque. If you stop a couple on an Austin street and ask where to go for the “best barbeque” you’ll probably get two answers, maybe three, and – on rare occasion – trigger a divorce.
I said it was Texas and they do take it seriously. With literally hundreds of choices here in Austin, it’s hard to pick your next barbeque spot. The online reviews, available on countless sites, are rarely decisive. Right after a “best I ever ate” plug you are just as likely to read a “disappointing” assessment.
Near downtown, just below the lake, one spot, Green Mesquite, caught our eye. It’s seems almost everyone loves it. As you drive up, you get quite a site. An old wooden building with slopping sides – not a shack but not new – sits on a lot embraced by tall trees with branches extending over very grey shingles. Exit your car, and you smell meat and wood smoke with the first breath.
Walking through the door, there is an exceptional Texas-style boast: “Best Coffee in Texas.” Suzen ordered a quick cup, took one sip, and nodded yes with a smile. We sat back with confidence, took our time ordering, and had full confidence. The owner came by to chat and explained how he loves coffee and waged war with his staff until he got just the flavor he craved[he’s onto Seattle’s Best!]
Green Mesquite comes through on every level. Great meat, great side dishes. The ribs were dark red from long smoking, full of flavor, and yet incredibly juicy and moist. The secret? Fat. These pork ribs were not “lean” or mostly meat. They were very fatty and that fat engendered flavor and kept them moist.
It’s a lesson to apply in your home cooking. You are not just buying meat, you are really buying flavor. It’s the combination of fat, cooking technique [time, heat, …], and meat that generate the final flavor. Just shopping for red meat alone is liable to leave you wanting.
If you do get to Austin, then try Green Mesquite. There are multiple outlets, a passion for the best in food, and the skills to give you a great meal on an old picnic bench under a shady tree. The buttermilk onion rings are just as God designed them. The cole slaw has tang, the potato salad offers smooth comfort.
Just remember to grab some napkins. It may be good, but that moistness does dribble.
There are discriminating types, ones who have favorite cuisines and rarely stray. Say, someone devoted to Upscale American, French and Italian. For these types, maybe Japanese, if it is cooked. Maybe Chinese, if it is hot enough. Thai? Probably not. Mexican? Oh, no, definitely not.
There are as many foodie opinions on Mexican food as there are the strains of that cuisine. Most opinions are not good. And it’s all based on the variations of Mexican food we get to sample. But authentic Mexican? Very hard to find, even in New York City.
Yet, now there is a breakthrough in New York. There is La Camelia, 64 Downing Street at the corner of Varick. You walk out of the subway, turn the corner, and there is lovely, lovely food.
Mexican cuisine gets a knock because much of what is served in this country is either an Americanized variant [Tex Mex] or is so bloody fast-foody that there has been no time to nurture flavor. Cheap ingredients and preparation in under 45 seconds can only result in one thing: bad food.
Take chile relleno, for example. I’ve tried it many times and disappointment had always been my verdict. Then, once, in Santa Fe, I had the chile relleno. It was like eating the French cheese epoisse for the first time. It was brilliantly perfect. I returned to that restaurant five times over the next decade. Each time the chile relleno was abysmal. And so I despaired.
La Camelia is a newcomer on a foodie street in the West Village. I’d clipped an “opening notice” from the newspaper, planned to go, and then checked the menu online. And there it was, their chile relleno:
Chile poblano stuffed with Chicken, raisins, walnuts, sweet plantains, and fresh apple and topped with spicy chile de arbol sauce and Oaxaca Cheese
Now, that description has distinction. Open up a good Mexican cookbook, say 1000 Mexican Recipes by Marge Poore, and you find most relleno recipes are much simpler than La Camelia’s. La Camelia offers complexity and richness in their recipe. I had hope.
I ordered. I waited. I waited more. They have signature margaritas and I ordered another. The chips come with two salsas, a strong vibrant green that tingles your tongue and a subtle orange-colored one that the waitress warns you is hot. No, it’s very, very hot.
Did I mind the wait? Not at all. The drinks were good, the salsas interesting, the space itself pretty and quiet. And the wait told me that they were taking their time in the kitchen. Would interesting ingredients and that time produce great results?
This is the best chile relleno I ever had. Better than that great one in Santa Fe. Better than anything. Why? It was cooked to the right second, not just the right minute. You don’t want it undercooked, so that you need a knife with the pepper hard to chew and harsh to taste. You don’t want it overcooked into a soggy, limpid lump. And you want it blackened gently, not crisped. You want it cooked so it cuts with a fork and adds that unique pepper tone to what is inside.
The filling needs to be enchanting, not just a glob of cheap stuff. The dish needs to be broiled, not deep fried. It needs to be what they do here at La Camelia.
Their filling is complex in terms of the number, variety and categories of ingredients. You do get kaleidoscopic hints of those flavors with each bite, yet the overall feeling is of a rich “something” that you immediately love but can’t easily describe. All you say to yourself is “more.”
I’m headed back to La Camelia. If I can get the recipe to share with you I will. It’s that, that good.