A Very Chile Thanksgiving

I’m about as Mexican as Donald Trump.

Don’t speak Spanish and have only been to the country twice in my life.

The only Spanish I know is, “Dos cervezas, por favor,” “Buenos dias,” and “Muchos gracias.” (I guess I speak a little tequila too, but that’s a different subject.)

The only Mexicans I’ve ever interacted with are people who work in restaurants or on my house. To them, I do a lot of loud talking (because that ALWAYS makes them understand my English better), punctuated by many buenos diases and muchos graciases. No matter how stupid I sound, however, they invariably smile at me and keep working.

I think I fell in love with the Mexican people during a family road trip my family took through the country in 1965, and no amount of inflammatory immigration rhetoric, drug wars, or negative stereotypes will ever cool my ardor for the country.

Speaking of stereotypes, the only ones I think should apply are how great looking and hard working they are. Plus, they have the happiest music on earth.

And great soap operas.

The thing about Mexican soap operas is, you can watch any scene any time, and I guarantee there will be two or three of the best looking people on earth chatting about something. As you watch, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Damn, I didn’t think human beings could get any better looking than that.” Then, two more people will walk into scene who are even prettier than the three you’ve been looking at! Try it sometime, with or without the sound on. (It works even if you’re looking at the men too, but I’m usually not paying attention to them.)

Our handyman Ulysses once told me I was a güero not a gringo and I considered this quite a compliment. (Gueros are white guys; gringos are white guys Mexicans don’t think much of, is how he put it.)

My closest connection to Mexico is through its food. It is a cuisine that both fascinates and intimidates me, with an inscrutability only the Chinese can match.

To say I love Mexican food would be a serious understatement. But the food captivating me has little to do with the tacos-burritos-enchiladas triumvirate most people associate with this cuisine — they being to true Mexican cuisine what hamburgers-hot dogs-pizzas are to American.

It is a shameful fact that most Americans have little knowledge of the Mexican states — areas as diverse as Montana is from Mississippi — and this ignorance extends to the food of these areas. Part of this sad state of affairs can be laid squarely at the feet of Mexican-American restaurateurs who, like their Italian, Greek, Indian, and Chinese counterparts, adapted the food of their native land to a one-size-fits-all template to pander to American tastes. As a result, with few exceptions in some big cities and barrios, you are as unlikely to find a Puebla, Oaxaca, or Yucatan  Mexican restaurant as you are a Republican in a sombrero.

That’s why I make my own.

And that’s why this Thanksgiving we are featuring the foods from Mexico and New Mexico at our table.

No canned cranberry sauce at the palatial Curtas manse. No sirree. This year we went all-in with chiles galore (see picture at top of page), with the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table being a molé poblano.

And to cook such an ambitious dish (20+ separate ingredients and 10 different techniques) we started at Cardenas Market.

If you’ve never been, Cardenas is a revelation. Unlike American supermarkets, it’s aisles are stocked with foods made for people who actually cook. The produce department alone is twice the size of any gringo grocery store in town, and people’s carts are filled with fresh food, not ready-to-be-reheated crap.

Like I said, that produce is fascinating and inscrutable….but it’s also beautiful:

But there’s always a helpful employee on hand to explain things to you, and give you a taste. Whether you cook Latin American foods or not, if you’re into cooking or just great food, you ought to spend an hour strolling the aisles of Cardenas. It is, by far, the best Latin American market I’ve found in Las Vegas, and the house-made fresh tortillas are worth a trip all by themselves.

To make a molé, a trip to Cardenas is essential. It is the only place to gather the dizzying variety of chiles, nuts, spices and vegetables comprise this intense, multi-layered sauce. Before we get to those, an overview of how we spice up our Thanksgiving is in order. (As of this writing — two days before Thanksgiving — we’ve been three times and a forth trip is planned for tomorrow.) Here’s our menu as it stands now:

The Starters

Spiced jicama

Chile garbanzos

Fresh fried warm tortilla chips (so much better than what you get in a bag)

Guacamole (made at the last possible minute, as it should be)

Chile con queso (from scratch, natch)

Four salsas — tomatillo chile verde, tres chiles with red beans, roasted tomato “Romana”, and arbol-pasilla red chile

The Vegetables

Calabacitas — New Mexican zucchini-corn

Red chile mashed potatoes

Arroz Verde — Mexican Green Rice

Esquites — Corn con crema with epazote

Grandma Schroader’s sour beans (a German interloper, but essential at all my Thanksgivings)

Lots of tortillas (from Cardenas, of course!)

The Proteins

Traditional turkey with sausage stuffing

Ancho chile-rubbed turkey with poblano molé

New Mexican pork posole

New Mexican (beef) green chile stew (which contains a buttload of these deceptively fiery little monsters):

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The Desserts


Trés Leches cake

Chocolate Trés Leches cake

Mexican dark chocolate tart

As for that molé, all I can say is, I slaved away for an entire day, and I hope people eat it with a grand olé!

Seriously though, it was a lot of work. A labor of love if you like standing on your feet for hours on end, toasting spices, soaking chilies, chopping this and blending that.

The nuts alone will drive you nuts — toasting them, chopping them, cooking them, pureeing them, and straining them — all to make a smooth paste which gives the sauce that certain je n’ais ce quoi.

Without going all recipe nerd on you, I’ll recount the steps just to show you how labor intensive the process is:

First you toast the chiles, which gives you a mess of crackly brown stuff:

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Then you soak, toast, saute, blend and toss until your arms fall off.

After that is the batch cooking (of all of these disparate ingredients) that seems to take half a day.

What you end up with is a big ugly brew: a stew of three chiles, multiple nuts, fruit both dried and fresh, herbs out the yin yang, and spices galore. Various alliums add their accents, and three or four hours after you started, you’ve got a mess that looks like this:

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Which, after more cooking, looking, stewing and straining:

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…. will eventually look like this:

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The dish has more than a little in common with the great spiced stews of Indian cuisine (dots not feathers), and the complexity and intensity is almost overwhelming.

Is it worth it? To anyone who loves the alchemy of cooking, yes. To the average casual cook? Not in a million years. To the diner? Of course, even if 98% of them will have no clue what went into the making it. Some will note the depth, the complexity, the soul-warming essence filling their olfactories; others will be vaguely aware of these things in passing. Both groups will gobble it up in a few minutes. And therein lies the pleasure for the cook. As with any art or craft, the pleasure must come from the making of it, not the end result. If the final product is spectacular, more’s the better. But the satisfaction, as pure and deep as those flavors you created, is in having done it — in creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is the cook’s reward.

Thanksgiving is the one holiday American media and marketing hasn’t managed to ruin. It is solely about food, family and friends, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t really commercialize it. Cultures the world over think about food 365 days a year, while America sets one day aside in late November. We should be thankful for this — for a holiday so tasty that the only people profiting from it are food purveyors. No matter what your table looks like, I hope you take some pleasure in creating it, and thanking the people who made all that delicious food possible. Especially the Mexicans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A Hamburger and a Hot Dog

People have lots of opinions about hamburgers and hot dogs.

Only about pizza are they more passionate.

This is understandable because all three are among the most widely-consumed foods in America.

Rich or poor, everyone’s been chowing down on burgers and frankfurters for their whole lives.

Even my 94 year old mother — a committed vegetarian for half a century — admits to a hankerin’ for a hot dog occasionally.

The whole elevated-burger-thing started with Daniel Boulud’s DB Burger back in 2001. By putting braised short ribs and foie gras inside a patty of deluxe ground beef, Boulud created a sensation, and also cleared the way for restaurants large and small to upgrade their burger game, and figure out how to charge $27 for one.

For a while, the the burger wars escalated beyond all reason. Few restaurants wanted to pursue the haute cuisine route pioneered by Boulud, but everyone wanted to get in on the game of making a better burger that would have diners beating a path to their door.

These burger wars begat monstrosities more renowned for their verticality than their taste.

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Thankfully, the past several years have seen a retreat from these belly busters to creations more in line with what a hamburger is supposed to be: a simple, juicy, fresh, hot meat sandwich between two pieces of easy-to-handle bread.

A hamburger doesn’t have to be gourmet to be great. All the perfect burger requires is two things: proportion and taste. Gargantuan burgers — no matter how fabulous the ingredients — whiff on the first part of the equation, rendering the second half a nullity. (Fabulous flavor gets lost when you’re wrestling with something to get it into your mouth.) Don’t get me wrong, the taste of any burger from a great steakhouse (great steakhouses always make a terrific burger) trumps anything Shake Shack or In-N-Out can throw at you, but cheaper cuts of meat — well-handled, seasoned and cooked — can make for a very satisfying burger experience.

But let’s be honest here: when a great chef sets his mind to making a superb burger, the nominations close pretty quickly. I’m not talking about gourmet burgers as a social status signifier of omnivorousness, but rather, the simple fact that great chefs make food taste better than anyone else can.

And when Daniel Humm — the man some consider the best chef in America these days — puts his mind behind a beef patty, you can bet your bippy it will be memorable.

The cheeseburger at the top of the page is more than memorable; it is extraordinary beyond all beefy belief. It may be the best burger you’ve ever tasted.

It is made with dry-aged beef, in-house ground, and displays a dense, beefy funk on the palate like your average upscale burger can only dream of. You take a bite and immediately you recognize something is different with this ground meat. It haunts you as you chew, filling your olfactories with extreme beefiness, beckoning for another bite, a feat only the best dry-aged steaks achieve. This is not a burger for the masses; this is the ultimate connoisseur burger. Bradley Ogden used to make one (at Caesars Palace) that made you dream about it, days after you were done chewing, but this one tops it.

That it is of modest size is to its credit. Plenty for one, probably too small for two, it attains the longed-for sweet spot of being the perfectly-proportioned beef sandwich — just enough insanely fresh, sesame-studded bun, dribbled and dripping with cheese and dabbled just so with (thousand island-style ) special sauce.  Quantity-over-quality ‘Muricans might blanch at its dimensions, but feinschmeckers will be licking their lips in satisfaction.

Then there is the Humm Dog:

…what might well be the apotheosis of the tube steak.

There’s not a lot we can say about it that hasn’t been said before.

All beef, and (again) of modest girth, it claims its fame from being deep-fried with a bacon overcoat, and served with truffle mayo, melted Gruyère, and a tart, mustard seed/celery root relish. It is an impressive feat of food architecture, made more stunning by its elevation of the mundane to the magnificent. (Eating it can be a bit of a chore, as the balancing act of the sausage on that split bun must be overcome (or mushed down) before organoleptic bliss can be achieved.)

Both of these modest sandwiches represent a culinary transcendence of the ordinary into a realm they were never meant to approach. They are to be praised and damned for this. Praised for what they represent; damned for spoiling you for anything else.

I often tell people that in food and wine, you can never go back. Once you’ve tasted a certain level of quality — be it in a taco or a tempranillo — your mind and your mouth buckles at the thought of retreat. Neither my body or soul allows me to drink cheap chardonnay anymore. And now that I’ve tasted this hamburger and this hot dog, going back to what I used to be satisfied with will be difficult indeed.

The cheeseburger is $17 and the hot dog is $15.


NoMad Hotel

3772 Las Vegas Blvd. South



My Legal Life in Las Vegas – Part II – Lessons Learned

Image result for Oliver Wendell Douglas(Oliver Wendell Douglas: the patron saint of burned-out lawyers)

(Ed note: The following was written for the Clark County Bar Journal — a magazine for Las Vegas attorneys. Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you might find some of its life lessons interesting.)

Every day it seems, my respect for my chosen profession sinks a little lower.

I picked up the State Bar Journal yesterday and was disheartened to find, yet again, another three seasoned attorneys getting either disbarred or suspended from the practice of law. This is no longer a surprise to me, as it seems every month I see a familiar name of a practitioner being disciplined by the State Bar of Nevada.

These aren’t rogue lawyers or “bad boys” who got in over their heads (e.g., Nancy Quon, Rob Graham, et al), but experienced attorneys, with decades of practice under their belt — folks who get caught siphoning funds and taking advantage of clients. They aren’t wet-behind-the-ears newbies, but long standing members of good firms, or practitioners of (formerly) high repute who get caught up with either a difficult client, personal issues, or tough financial circumstances (usually a surf and turf platter of all three).  Then, they start dipping into money that doesn’t belong to them, and their downward spiral becomes uncontrollable.

For these practitioners (and those who might learn from them), I offer a few words of wisdom.

1) Never, ever get sideways with a client. And when you do (it’s inevitable) cut your losses and run. So many bar complaints happen when a practitioner is owed money from a difficult client, pushes to get paid, and then gets a bar complaint thrown at him by a jerk who will say anything to get out of the debt. Many times their complaints are groundless, or perhaps there was something you should have done, but either way, the last thing you want is a team of lawyers dissecting every move you made to see if you breached some ethical tenet, or forgot some legal maneuver. The money isn’t worth it – either negotiate with the client and deeply compromise the bill, or walk away and say good riddance.

2) Quit trying to be rich. Lawyers are one of only three classical professions — the clergy and doctors are the other — and the point of all three is that we are granted a privileged license and are supposed to serve a higher power other than just making money. As with the ministry and doctors, our livelihood is supposed to be secondary, even tertiary, to the protection of the interests of our clients. Doctors and lawyers and ministers are supposed to be comfortable (so they are free to attend to the needs of those who need them), but we were never intended, as a profession, to be rich. So many attorneys lose sight of this as they scramble up the practice ladder — seeking ever bigger salaries and payouts — all the while ignoring the fundamental calling of our job. Show me a lawyer who got disbarred for money mismanagement (or worse), and I’ll show you someone who wanted to be wealthy.

3) Get help. Whether it’s with your personal life or being in over your head with cases and clients, every bar association in America has a myriad of ways to help a struggling practitioner. This is the hardest one of all, because lawyers, by temperament, don’t like being told what to do. And most of our egos are so big, we always think we can figure it out, and work our way out. Many of us can (I know I did, but it took years of struggle and a little luck), but the problem just gets worse as you get older — making an admission of weakness all the harder. When you combine a big ego with substance abuse, large debt, and sloppy business practices, you have a recipe for disaster…especially if you think you have to make $300,000 a year.

4) Don’t be shy. Pay attention. Be a friend to your fellow attorneys. Look for signs of distress and don’t be shy about intervening if you think someone needs help. Many times you will be rebuffed, sometimes you may even lose a friend, but make the offer. I’ve personally known eleven lawyers who have committed suicide (including the man who gave me my first job as a public defender, and one of my former partners), and there was probably nothing I could’ve done to prevent any of them. But for a few, I kept my distance (out of respect, embarrassment, timidity, who knows?), and I deeply regret it to this day. Lawyers are also very good at hiding things like drug abuse and financial troubles, so the signs are often not there until it’s too late. But if you see something, or sense something, speak up….either to the person themselves or someone close to them.

5) Get a mentor.  I never really had a mentor. I think my personality makes me mentor-averse. Wise old mentor types probably looked at me through the years and thought I was too much trouble, or not pliable enough for their wisdom. Or maybe I just didn’t fully appreciate what others had to teach me until it was too late. Either way, most of what I’ve learned as an attorney I picked up with my own wits, not because any senior attorney took me by the hand and showed me how to do something. I am both proud of this fact and wistful for what might’ve been had someone taken the time to show me the ropes. By not having the safety net of a more seasoned attorney around, I was pretty much on needles and pins every day of my life for three straight decades. “Is this the right way to do this?” “Is there a better one?” “Am I missing something” “Making a fool of myself?” These were nagging at me almost daily…and at times drove me to drink, drug, or womanize myself into oblivion. (Two divorces in the 90s didn’t help matters.) What I needed was a steadying influence; what I got was a lot of cheap thrills that kept me on my back foot for most of my career. I don’t care if you’re twenty-five or fifty, find someone you can talk to, about your cases, clients, and yourself.

6) Calm the fuck down. Easy to say, hard to do….especially if you’re a trial lawyer. (Please note: I’m not talking about “litigators.” Litigators are a dime a dozen. Litigators move a lot of paper and take a lot of depositions, and make a lot of money, and don’t know shit about trying cases in front of judges and juries. I’m talking about real trial lawyers who have stresses litigators couldn’t handle if their lives depended on it.) I don’t try many cases anymore (I stopped counting my jury trials after doing 125 of them, 20 years ago), but I know my way around a courtroom as well as anyone. Back in the day, I approached every case like a gladiatorial fight to the death, and my insides roiled with the stresses and nervous energy needed to engage in such combat. If I were to do a jury trial now, I think I would be much more effective. I’d still want to win, but calm reflection — on my case, my opponent’s case, the witnesses, etc. — would replace me being a strutting peacock who had something to prove every minute. Once you remove your ego from any situation, you deal with it much more effectively. This is true whether you’re trying a case, making love, or frying a steak. It is really true when you’re knee-deep in acrimony with another human being in the midst of a trial. Calm the fuck down. You’ll be a much better lawyer. And if you can’t calm the fuck down, go buy a fucking farm. You’ll be much happier.

After 40 years of legal practice (33 in private practice), I feel like the ultimate, battle-scarred veteran. The profession has changed greatly since 1977, and like our politics, it’s become cruder, more polarized, and money grubbing. Civility and nuance no longer count for much. In the civil arena where I practice, it’s all about the process these days (endless rules and procedures and fighting over minutiae), and all of the incessant pettiness seems to exist for its own sake. I used to give a speech in seminars that began with “You are not in the litigation business, you’re in the problem solving business,” but that statement is belied by everything I now see, in and out of court. I talked my youngest son out of going to law school six years ago, and I don’t regret it one bit. There really are too many lawyers, and too many of us are paying the price.

John A. Curtas is a former President of the Clark County Bar Association, and has been practicing law in Nevada since 1981. He is currently a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas.