Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

Dish of the Week: Mark Special, Charlie’s Front & Back Door, ABQ

Two joints in one—the cozy, family-oriented Front Door & the dark, boozy Back Door—Charlie’s opened 45 years ago (in 1966) & has remained my sentimental Albuquerque fave for about half that time. Is it the city’s 5-star best? I can’t honestly say it is, since the red & green chile are inconsistent—& red & green chile are, of course, the be-all-end-all of Southwestern & especially New Mexican cookery. But when they’re good, they’re great, & everything else rocks all the way out, from the chicken & jocoque (a type of sour cream) enchiladas

to the como se llama with Polish sausage & beans to the torta de huevo—a sort of frittata in red chile—to the Navajo taco & all the oddities in between, containing such incongruous stuff as pastrami, sauerkraut, & 1000 Island dressing.

Still, I met my match this week while in town for Thanksgiving: the Mark Special.

It starts with carnitas whose crisped chunks, like good barbecue, almost slide unctously apart rather than break up in strands. These are scattered across generous mounds of chopped fideos—think soupy, ultra-comfy Mexican spaghetti; cheese-smothered calabacitas—think succotash, here with squash & corn; quelites—think sauteed spinach; potatoes fried with onions; & of course frijoles. But don’t, as you eat it, think at all; just take giant forkfuls of everything, separately & mixed together, letting a rich bit of this enhance the flavor of a tangy bit of that, combining & contrasting until suddenly you find you’ve eaten nearly the whole thing. Then scoop up that last bite with a piece of 1 of the fried dough squares known as sopaipillas.

Then squeeze some honey from the bottle on the table into the rest of the pocket & munch until your eyeballs pop out.

If you’ve got another millimeter or two of space, snitch a little of your mom’s smoky, indeed practically blackened, chiles rellenos

or grab 1 more chip to dunk into the guacamole or the kill-you-softly salsa on the appetizer sampler. (I’m not such a fan of the queso, done Texas-style with Velveeta, though I realize it’s not illegit.)

Then take a nap & have kaleidoscopic nightmares about how on earth you’re going to stuff down turkey with all the trimmings the next day. Yes, do it all exactly like that. Such are holidays in the Land of Enchantment.

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Chiles Rellenos at Cecilia’s Cafe, ABQ

For better or worse, in episode 510 of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Guy Fieri featured a crumbling little corner joint in downtown Albuquerque called Cecilia’s Cafe,

which, even if it weren’t just the sort of fiercely local, downhome fave gastrobsessive-compulsives like me & the author of Gil’s Thrilling Web Site (whose trusty blog I consult regularly before trips down south)—&, of course, Food Network bloodhounds on the scent of “authenticity”—gravitate toward, could obviously play one on TV.

Cecilias1
Gil’s abovelinked blogpost provides plenty of background insight; the most useful tidbit I can offer you is as follows: #4.

Cecilia'schilesrellenos
That’s the chiles rellenos plate with beans, rice & your choice of red or green chile; both are among the purest forms of the stuff I’ve ever encountered, containing little more, so far as I could tell, than roasted hot peppers distilled down to their very essence. (More on the green variety in a later post.)

The beauty of the stuffed chiles themselves was likewise their purity. So often they’re battered beyond recognition, amounting to giant jalapeño poppers. Hell, amounting to giant blobs of fried cheese. If Cecilia’s coating contained any flour at all, it was negligible; if my life depended on guessing by sight & taste exactly how these were made, I’d guess they were dipped in egg, fried, then rolled in cheese, topped with sauce, & broiled. Is that even doable? I don’t know, but these made me believe it is.

They’re filled, of course, with more cheese, but not too much; the chile, in short, isn’t just a vehicle for fat but the ingredient in its own right it should be. Fine  frijoles too, cooked simply & with respect for the integrity of the pinto per se.

***

Read more about Cecilia’s here.

Dispatch: Sweetlacoche! Hell’s Kitchen (NYC)

We’re on holiday in New York, where a few paces in any direction lead to the doorsteps of restaurants Ukrainian & Uzbeki, Tunisian & Burmese, Swiss & Scottish & Singaporean. If there were a country with a population of 2, 1 of them would be here running a restaurant. The most obscure, exotic, anthropologically fascinating cuisines are all around for the sampling—& where’s the first place we fly in from Tacolorado to go? An upscale Mexican joint called Hell’s Kitchen.

Scoff though you understandably might, it turned out to serve up one hell of a meal indeed.

What made this savory if stock guacamole special were the chips, all thick & addictively tricked out in guajillo chile powder.

Hkguac

Seems someone in the kitchen was in fact a bit masamaniacal, a bit cuckoo for corn doughs, which showed up almost everywhere in one form or another, mostly another. The amuse bouche (what’s that in Spanish? Diverte boca? Let’s say boca haha) that was this intriguingly sweet black bean dip—spiked, I’d swear, with cinnamon sugar—came with crisped wedges of cornbread,

Hkbeandip

Hell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

while unusually tender venison graced this sope—in itself a sort of corny naan or fry bread but as a whole essentially a grilled tostada:

Hkvenison

And then there were the huitlacoche crepes.

Hkcrepe

Needless to say, supple though they were, the starchy parts were not the stars. Their role was complex but supporting—to simultaneously cover up & reveal corn’s own dark side,* to allow it to unfold before our tastebuds while remaining thankfully folded before our eyes, sparing our corneas the deep & lasting scratches more than brief glimpses of this stuff could cause.

For those who need to bone up on their smut: huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn. I have always wanted the opportunity to try it, which is not the same as wanting to try it, ever since I first read about it some years ago over at The Sneeze. Steve, Don’t Eat It! is a tear-jerkingly, jerk-tearingly (I don’t know what that means, but it sounds right) brilliant occasional series of posts detailing the author’s experiences with foods those of us who grew up stateside ingesting the likes of say this or this might super-ironically find gross: natto, pickled pork rinds, etc. According to Steve, I could expect huitlacoche to look like “imported sludge,” smell like “corn that forgot to wipe” & “burst in [my] mouth like a black pus-filled blister.”

True all that—& yet, & yet. Per the static head-space analysis—Jesus, does that mean smelling? I think it means they smelled it—3 scientists did on it, huitlacoche’s main aroma compounds are sotolon & vanillin, which per Wikipedia respectively evoke caramel & vanilla. Sure enough, there’s enough sweetness softening the earthiness to make you glad you’re consuming what the dictionary defines as “something that impairs growth, withers hopes & ambitions, or impedes progress & prosperity.”

In that sense, the mascarpone-drenched dish was par for the course; everything here, as the Director put it, “edges toward sweetness” even as it sidles spiciness’s way. Here the heat doesn’t creep up on you so much as shadow you from a safe distance. The heat basically wears a trenchcoat & fedora to hang around these pork taquitos, for instance,

Hkporktaquitos

whose smokiness contrasted with a whole sweet-&-sour spectrum of garnishes, from tamarind sauce to cranberry-jicama relish. As for perch steamed in banana leaf,

Hkperch

I can say only this: no glass of wine at Hell’s Kitchen is over $10. As far as I could see straight, the fish was still swimming. You get my drift.

*In the movie version, huitlacoche would be played by Marlon Brando, who, after all, really knew how to act like a Mexican. &, obviously, like a fungus.