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Posts tagged ‘Ameri-Mex’

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Summer of Cheese

Nitehawk cinema queso tots

Nitehawk Cinema A lot of melted cheese was consumed
in a one-week period. I ordered the queso tots thinking this was some new unexplored
treat then remembered I’d ordered the exact same thing on my last visit to the
theater. Menu memory lapse happens far more often that I'd like to admit. So, how about that Frances Ha?

Taco chulo eggs benedict

Taco Chulo I also eat at Taco Chulo more than I'd
like to admit. It's never my idea, but it's a block from my apartment and seems
to appeal to picky eaters. If you love processed cheese like I do and can deal
with brunch on occasion, the queso benedict an underdog surprise. Velveeta
instead of hollandaise, sweet toasted cornbread in lieu of English muffins, and
enough spinach and slaw to give the dish a health halo. Save one half and eat it for
dinner once you emerge from your afternoon Bloody Maria stupor.

Artichoke racino pizza

Artichoke Basille's The fabled artichoke cheese dip slice has
certainly garnered a lot of attention since it appeared in 2008. Yet it was
only when I noticed an outpost at the Aquaduct casino that I felt compelled to
try it. It's heavy, for sure, and best consumed in a temperature controlled
environment like a casino food court, otherwise all that warm fat and starch
loses its appeal in 90-degree heat.

Waterman's crab house crab pretzel

Waterman's Crab House Sweat and melted cheese not mixing was
the lesson I learned while tearing into a crab pretzel (crab dip baked onto a
pretzel roll is very much a relative of the Artichoke pizza) on a dock
overlooking the Chesapeake Bay while being blasted with the sun's ray, despite
the table umbrellas. I'd still order the massive appetizer again, though. I
prefer the more demure Phillip's version that you can get a rest stops on the
drive to Baltimore.

Pat's cheesesteak

Pat's and Geno's A pit stop was made on the way back from
Maryland for more unnaturally colored liquid cheese. This was the greasiest
cheesesteak I've ever experienced (and I've experienced quite a few in my time)
and not really in an endearing way. I've always been partial to Pat's, though,
because it's less flashy. Geno's version was consumed for breakfast the
following day and not photographed. The only reason why Pat's was eaten on the
spot and Geno's was saved for later is because Geno's gives bags and Pat's does

Help. I just bought a 12-pack of Kraft Deluxe
American slices at C-Town when there are perfectly nice real cheese shops
within walking distance.


If anything, I wasn't put off by Oklahoma's gun culture, big trucks, or the cowboy regalia, which are at  odds with everything New York. My father was an aficionado of all of those trappings, NRA stickers were a window presence on our family's pick-up growing up, and a pair of custom-made shark skin boots lived in my parents' closet, and yes, a gun or two were tucked into dresser drawers.

Tarahumara's freebie starters

At Tarahumara's, and most Oklahoman Mexican restaurants, chips, flour tortillas, salsa, and queso appear as a matter of course, and are replenished as soon as they start to dwindle.  Even though I knew an onslaught of food was on its way, I couldn't stop eating the fluffy tortillas and pale, melted cheddar (not Velveeta, as I would've presumed).

Tarahumara's mexican combo

Tarahumara's chicken taco

Combo platters rule. My Mexican dinner (only $12, hardly anything crept into the double digits) consisted of two tamales (I hate to admit that I have no idea what the filling was–there was so much going on–though I want to say beef), a cheese enchilada, rice, beans, and a hard-shelled chicken taco with guacamole and sour cream. When James' coworkers (my visit was a business trip tag-along) complain about no Mexican food in NYC they mean no giant platters like this. It's true.  The melted cheese, masa, corn tortillas, and chili start blurring together, but it's a delicious mess.

Tarahumara's mixed grill

And a mixed grill, which is fajitas of all fillings (beef, chicken, and shrimp) like a Mexican happy family, with even  a few potato slices thrown in for good measure.

Tarahumara's drinks

I don't know if the long wait was typical or if it was more a case of a Mother's Day Sunday rush, but you can hang out on the patio with a giant margarita or a lime juice-and-salt-rimmed Negro Modelo.

Tarahumara's * 702 N. Porter Ave., Norman, Oklahoma

On The Border

Jose Tejas, the incongruously named Border Café that give the illusion of not being a chain, rules the Tex-Mex scene in Middlesex County. It’s always packed, the parking lot overflowing well past the time other restaurants in the area are thinning out for the night. Chevy’s in nearby Linden doesn’t really compare, so we kept going south down Route 1 until we hit On the Border in New Brunswick where you can always see a new movie in an uncrowded multiplex.

Not surprising for a Saturday night, the restaurant was bustling and we were quoted a short wait. What I was surprised by was the predominantly Indian clientele. That’s why I like New Jersey so much. Sure, it’s the suburbs but it’s not the all-American West Coast suburbs of my youth. The setting would've been ripe for painful Outsourced-style humor involving Sikh turbans.

On the border apps

The chicken-and-cheese stuffed jalapeños (they didn’t call them poppers) aren’t so different from mirchi bajji, really.

On the border fajita

Their fall Hatch chiles menu is kind of on trend. This year in particular, they’ve been getting a lot of press. The weird thing was that I didn’t really taste the green chile and I didn’t expect cheese on my grilled meat. Of course, melted cheese in the trademark of any fine chain, but I was asked if I wanted cheese or guacamole, and I went for the latter if only to lower my cholesterol marginally.

I ordered one agave margarita, which tasted bitter and lingered like it contained artificial sweetener. My second, a standard version, tasted exactly the same, so then I was confused. I will say that one thing Jose Tejas definitely has over On the Border is the margaritas.

On The Border * 51 US 1, New Brunswick, NJ


Jose Tejas

What exactly is the appeal of Jose Tejas, the New Jersey Tex-Mex Cajun chain restaurant that brings a surprising amount (by which I mean one-to-two searches per day—it doesn’t take much to surprise me) of traffic to this site and commands one-hour waits after 6pm?

Jose tejas interior

Without a doubt, it’s the prices. All ending in oddball amounts, nearly every dish is under $10 and the fanciest Patron margarita tops out at $8.50. I couldn’t tell you the last time dinner for two with drinks cost under $40 (ok, that’s not counting the $5.50 house margarita at the bar).

While doing my monthly Wegmans, Costco, Target, DSW rounds in Middlesex County, Jose Tejas won out over Cheeseburger in Paradise (I mulled over Ruby Tuesday, but I have an irrational reluctance to go there after throwing up dim sum in their bathroom a few years ago).

Jose tejas chorizo mexicana

You can have your ceramic dish of melted cheese two ways: Cajun ($6.94) or Mexican ($6.83). This is the latter, an above ground pool of pepper jack with chorizo, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms sealed beneath the surface.

Jose tejas fajitas

Naively, I thought fajitas might be a minutely healthier entrée than many of the fried, dairy laden options (I don’t even consider the Cajun items because that’s just weird). Grilled meat, vegetables and tortillas, right? Sure, and a whole block of grated cheese on the side. Rice and black beans or jambalaya come with all mains. 

I ordered a combination of chicken and beef, pork is nowhere to be seen on the menu and never seems to have a presence at Tex-Mex and Americanized Mexican chains. Why is that?

Jose tejas sides

You are encouraged to wrap everything unfinished to go in Styrofoam containers, even the free flowing chips and tortillas. Even though I’ve been diligent in my carb-limiting, I still packed them all in with my untouched cup of rice because I just can’t blatantly waste food.

I also wonder if part of Jose Tejas' appeal is that it gives the illusion of being a unique restaurant. It's not until you search the name that you realize it's part of a chain whose other locations in Massachusetts and Delaware are called  Border Cafe.

Previously on Jose Tejas.

Jose Tejas * 700 Rt. 1 N., Iselin, NJ


It’s not really Calexico’s fault that I’ve been so reluctant to try them. The neighborhood seemed excited to have their first bricks and mortar shop taking over the former Schnack space. I kind of miss Schnack and rarely have the craving for Ameri-Mex food.

Ok, technically this is Cal-Mex, and big burritos containing rice just aren’t my thing. I’m still trying to pin down what Americanized yet served in Mexican-run taquerias style I took a shining to in Portland. These burritos were dense, compact and greasy, the size of a frozen grocery store burrito and crammed with meat like carnitas, sautéed onions arne refried beans, no cheese and definitely no rice. Very much not Mission-style. I miss these gut-busting anomalies.

Calexico pork burrito

Calexico serves perfectly acceptable burritos with bold distinct seasoning. My only half-hearted beef was the uneven ingredient distribution; rice was on one side, beans on the other, and sour cream was all balled up at one end. I ordered mine filled with pulled pork that had an sweet-smoky flavor like the meat was bbq-sauced (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t) and nice vinegary tartness from the pickled onion, but I’m not sure if it’s that’s what I want in a burrito. However, I could imagine this pulled pork being great on a torta or cheesed-up in a quesadilla.  

I’ll probably try them again. Calexico is close to my apartment and inexpensive. This hefty fare is good for the cold weather that has set in coupled with lazy television watching. Sedentary stoner food, really. I’ve been so burnt out and tired lately—so much so that I forgot to take a photo of my burrito’s insides—that pot is the last thing my body needs. But if it’s your thing, you’d probably enjoy a Calexico burrito as part of the experience.

Calexico * 122 Union St., Brooklyn, NY

Taco Time

Taco time crisp bean burrito on tray

Did I love it? Yes, if only for nostalgia's sake.

It’s not as if we didn’t have Taco Bell in Gresham; I just never went. I always thought Taco Bell and Taco Time were on par with each other, not realizing the fast food joint with the green cactus sign was a rinky dink regional chain. It’s where we’d eat as kids and where we’d drive for lunch in high school.

Now, the appeal is obvious to me: fried food. They’ve diversified since the ‘80s but I’ll always associate this Eugene-originated restaurant with crisp bean burritos. A flour tortilla coated with a slurry of mashed pinto beans, wrapped into a tight cylinder and fried crisp more like a giant flauta than a burrito. Plain and simple.

The only side was Mexi-Fries, deep-fried tater tots coated with maybe a little cumin and chile powder. The thing about their frying that I remember is that it was intense, not just crisping but oil-heating until a shell formed on the tots and especially at the ends of the burrito, a treat akin to burnt ends in bbq parlance.

I had to pull over to grab a crisp bean burrito for old time’s sake when I saw a Taco Time on the side of the road in Sandy en route to Mount Hood. The beans were a little al dente, there’s nothing complex about the wrap and the salsa was kind of a mushy but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Taco time crisp bean burrito

I was snapped out of my reverie when I overheard a rugged elderly gent going table to table, “Who has the car with Texas plates?” Uh, I did, and being given a rental car with out-of-state plates was a source of embarrassment all week. I was half-scared he wanted to pick a fight with the Lone Star residents in his mountain town (it might’ve been worse if he knew we were New Yorkers). But no, in my excitement to get a burrito I had left the car’s lights on. Two rarities in my life: crisp bean burritos and driving.

Taco Time * 17475 Beers Ave., Sandy, OR


Did I love it? Not immensely. Either I’ve matured or the never-special menu has slipped into sub par territory. After a few margaritas you might not care, though.

I’ve always thought of Mezcal’s as a guilty pleasure but on my last visit I just felt kind of guilty. It’s getting harder and harder to justify mediocre Ameri-Mex with Calexico and Oaxaca now also in the neighborhood.

Mezcal's quesadilla

Gooey, melted cheese on flour tortillas has its place. I’m a sucker for Tacos Nuevo Mexico’s “gringa” quesadilla. But this chorizo quesadilla was a sad specimen. The corn tortillas weren’t very pliable and the cheese didn’t even keep the sides adhered to one another, meanwhile the thing was topped with what tasted like thin Hunt’s tomato sauce, not even canned enchilada sauce, which would’ve also been kind of sad.

Mezcal's mole

The mole seafood enchiladas were fine for what they were. Of course, this wasn’t a sauce painstakingly ground from 25 ingredients but this sweetish mole-lite is a bit more interesting than the taco+burrito+chimichanga combo platters that many diners favor.

I noticed that they have removed their outdoor seating (they do have a back garden, which is where everyone except us were sitting on this particular balmy evening. I prefer indoor dining, though it ended up not mattering since the front floor-to-ceiling windows were all open and I was harassed by tiny mosquitoes anyway) now that Buttermilk Channel has set up theirs on the corner. I don’t know that one has to do with the other, but I would feel less ostentatious dining in front of Mezcal’s on this still mildly ratty (by Carroll Gardens’s standards only) stretch of Court Street than eating my New American fried chicken and waffles alfresco. Frankly, my favorite thing in that immediate area is the greasy crab rangoon at Wing Hua.

Mezcal’s * 522 Court St., Brooklyn, NY

Su Casa es Mi Casa?

32235-Qdoba_card What happens something I love: chains (duh) teams up with something that makes me want to cry: faux speakeasies? Inner turmoil.

Su Casa, the semi-secret bar above the kind of new West Village Qdoba, is serving appropriately freakish cocktails and a benign roster of burritos and such. Orange Kool-Aid and Patron? It’s a shame that I’ll be out of town on their official open date of September 10 because I could really go for a Satan’s Horse (raspberry liqueur, tequila, minced ginger and Red Bull).

Cowgirl Sea-Horse

Cowgirl Hall of Fame will always be the '90s to me–squarely in the same camp as Moustache or Mugs Ale House–places I ate when I first moved to New York and didn't give much serious thought to food.  Cowgirl Hall of Fame is where birthdays tended to be celebrated or large groups would convene. Just last month a vegetarian friend (I point this out because people who can only eat a small proportion of the menu don't always have the best sense of what's generally good) asked for restaurant advice to give to visitors from Germany. She had steered them to toward Cowgirl, among others. Eh, if they wanted "American" food, The Redhead might be a better choice. Clearly, Cowgirl still holds sway with many, though.

2009 or not, I, myself, was curious about Cowgirl Sea-Horse (I’m still not clear why seahorse is hyphenated—would you say cow-girl?). It's quintessential Friday night fare. By 6pm I've all but given up and fried food and beer walking distance from my office sounds like the best idea I've had in ages.

A week after opening, the restaurant, on a lonesome corner across from the Brooklyn Bridge's underbelly, was hopping. An enormous party of 25+ youngsters were attempting to take over the back room (where we were seated), little kids were running around and falling over each other, a few of James' coworkers even randomly stopped in. Service was upbeat but clearly overwhelmed. I wouldn't want to make any strong judgments about the slow as molasses pacing so soon. I expected as much on a weekend.

Cowgirl seahorse texas caviar

Texas caviar, a.ka. black eyed peas in a vinaigrette, were a gratis starter despite being listed on the menu for $3.50.

Cowgirl seahorse rattlesnake bites

Rattlesnake bites are grilled bacon-wrapped jalapenos stuffed with shrimp. These smokey vegetal poppers are a form of Russian roulette, every third one you get a seriously hot chile. As you can also see, some are more done than others.

Cowgirl seahorse clam fritters

I wouldn't have ordered the clam fritters, not only because we already had plenty of starters but because inevitably you end up with a mouthful of bready filler. There was a decent amount of firm meat in these, though. More jalapeno in the tartar sauce.

Cowgirl seahorse pork tacos

Trying to avoid any more oil-bathed items (James had the oyster po boy and onion rings) I went for the tacos. Weird, yes. Sometimes I like the American shredded lettuce and cheddar style, but hard shells would've been too much. I wasn't expecting wheat tortillas as the "soft" option, though. These were floppy fun handheld drinking snacks. The pulled pork was on the dry side, even if it wasn't sharply obvious with all the accouterments.

Afterward, I wandered over to the Water Taxi Beach to see how it compared to Long Island City’s version. Well, for one you don't have to pay $10 to enter in Queens. At umbrella’d tables on the other side of the barrier next to the shops, groups had set up their own party complete with R&B blasting from a boom box. Smart? And as you continued around the back of the shopping center, the crowd became whiter and whiter until it suddenly became very '90s for the second time in one hour. The big stage was encircled by a tightly-packed crowd, disproportionately gray-haired and crows-feeted, bobbing up and down to Superchunk. Yes, Brooklyn babysitters must've made a killing that night. Despite being of that demographic, I was never a fan, but that didn’t stop me from grabbing a $6 plastic cup of beer just to stand a while and ponder the state of 2009.

Cowgirl Sea-Horse * 259 Front St., New York, NY

Lucky Mojo

3/4 Cajun, Tex-Mex, bbq and sushi? Sounds like kitchen nightmare waiting to happen. The cuisine at Lucky Mojo is about as convoluted as the restaurant’s history. This cavernous bi-level, barn-like space is the current incarnation of the now-shuttered Upper West Side Jacques-Imo’s, which was an offshoot of a popular New Orleans restaurant.

Lucky mojo interior

I liked my meal on a visit to Louisiana some time ago, never heard anything good about the NYC version and was even more scared of this Long Island City mishmash. It’s not the kind of place you go out of your way for, but if the urge for sushi and etoufee strikes while you’re at the Water Taxi Beach, Lucky Mojo is your place.

Lucky mojo crawfish sushi

There’s a full on sushi bar upstairs, which churns out standard rolls in addition to specialties like this one using crawfish and Tabasco.

Lucky mojo shrimp & alligator cheesecake

I was not weirded out by the shrimp and alligator cheesecake because it’s a Jacques-Imo’s signature that I’ve had before. It only sounds creepy because they call it a cheesecake, which it is–oh, and because alligator meat doesn’t sit well with some. The alligator is in sausage form and with all of the cream and spices you would have no idea you were eating a water reptile unless someone told you. No, this is not healthy food but split among four it was reasonable.

Lucky mojo bbq shrimp

Bbq shrimp is another frighteningly rich New Orleans dish that has nothing to do with barbecue sauce or grilling. I’ve had a wonderful rendition of this buttery, Worcestershire and black pepper drenched treat, and this didn’t quite match. The rice was on the undercooked side, too. And they forgot my side of collard greens.

 Lucky mojo shrimp po boy

I did not taste this shrimp po boy.

Lucky mojo catfish sandwich

Nor the catfish sandwich.

Lucky mojo vegetarian tacos

Vegetarian taco. What more needs to be said?

As we finished our meal, my dining companions and I began discussing a movie we were about to watch, The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, about gender reversal host bars where young Japanese women pay good money for the attention of hired men. The Japanese propensity for fantasy indulging and role-playing gave us a brilliant idea: Beta Kappa McPaddysteins.

This would be a faux frat house where Japanese girls would shell out big bucks for a simulated American-style date rape experience. Don’t worry, no sex would actually occur, this would be a professional establishment. First, our patrons would be serenaded by Dave Mathews and sloppily wooed by gentleman in cargo shorts, flip flops and baseball caps. Beer pong would be played and jello shots would be in abundance. Good clean fun, a little cosplay never hurt anyone.

Huh, and then our waiter broke up our genius business plan when he stopped by with a tray of shots. Did he overhear? Did he want in on the action? No way, mister, Beta Kappa McPaddysteins is all mine.

Read my less date rapey take on Lucky Mojo for

Lucky Mojo * Long Island City, NY