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):

Image may contain: food

The Desserts

Flan

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. A pain in the ass if you do not.

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:

Image may contain: food

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:

Image may contain: food

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

Image may contain: food and indoor

…. will eventually look like this:

Image result for mole sauce

 

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 thank the people who made all that delicious food possible. Especially the Mexicans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Image may contain: food

 

 

First Bites – BOTECO, ELIA, MERAKI, SALUD et al

We at ELV don’t wish to alarm you, but there’s a mini-restaurant boom a’ happenin’ in our humble burg. And we’ve been a busy beaver checking them all out lately.

For every closure (Standard & Pour, Zydeco, Glutton) there seems to be several new kids on the block springing up.

Thus have we recently seen everything from Korean Chinese (Yu Xiang) to Israeli (2 Bald Guys) to barbecue (Sin City Smokers) to Mexican (Salud) to Greek (Meraki, Elia) to Spanish (Boteco) to badly-named, half-baked concepts (7th & Carson) become major blips on our radar. Don’t forget, the hit-from-the-get-go Sparrow + Wolf is only a month old, and try to wrap your head around the fact that two of our best new eateries are….wait for it….GREEK!

The one that has blown us away is Elia Authentic Greek Taverna.

The one that has intrigued us is Salud Mexican Bistro and Tequileria.

The two that are packing them in are Meraki Greek Grill and Sparrow.

The rest of them have major uphill battles ahead.

For now, though, let’s accentuate the positive.

Meraki is doing a land-office business based with a fast-casual concept that is being expertly executed by Nikos Georgousis (formerly of Milos) and Girair Goumroian. (Try saying those names after a few ouzos sometime.) It’s basically your best hits of Greek casual food — gyros, (pronounced HEE-roe, not GY-ro) souvlaki, salad, tzatziki, taramasalata, avgolemono soup, dolmades, etc. — and all of it done to a “t”. We’ve tried about half the menu and can highly recommend all of the mezze (appetizers) and the gorgeous lamb burger:

https://s3-media4.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/K9wmPVpv-KXTXaYHtzXYxw/o.jpg

There are a dozen or so “Mediterranean” restaurants around town doing this food (many of them being run by Bulgarians and Russians, strangely), but Meraki is a cut above them all. As good as it is, though, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its first cousin a few miles away, as you’ll read below.

The just-opened 2 Bald Guys did not impress, but we plan on giving it another whirl. The food (shawarma, tabouli) seems technically proficient but is woefully under-seasoned. It’s the first restaurant I can remember where I actively reached for the salt shaker multiple times during my meal. On the plus side, the house-made hot sauces are fantastic…and necessary. This place can fill a much-needed niche downtown if it ups the ante on its seasonings, but if the food remains this timid,  we fear people will stay away in droves.

No automatic alt text available.

Boteco was a treat. It’s got a big city/small tapas bar vibe, and a small menu of innovative small bites like botequito sliders made with smoked Gouda and caramelized onions:

Dungeness- Singapore Chilli crab dip:

…and off-beat items like avocado crunch salad, escargot croquetas, and braised beef and Piedmontese rice — all dedicated to showing off the chops of Executive Chef Rachel LeGloahec, a veteran of Joël Robuchon’s kitchens and a girl with serious skills. Boteco is a sliver of a place in a monster of a strip mall in the middle of a town (Henderson) that treats chef-driven restaurants like leprosy colonies. Like we told Cory Harwell when he opened Standard & Pour: “Good luck (Rachel), you’ll need it.”

Image may contain: food
 YuXiang is for fellow travelers (and adventuresome eaters) only — although the crispy beef (lower left in the picture above)  with sweet-sour sauce would make anyone happy.

Sin City Smokers (above) showed us the best brisket we’ve seen in Vegas (other than our own), along with some serious sides.

It’s not Central Texas quality, but it’s a durn sight better than a dozen other mediocre spots in town, and its house-made sauces (especially the pepper-vinegar) are a treat. We weren’t as keen on the chopped pork, but the ribs were first-rate and smoky — not the borderline-inedible, chewy ones passed off by some joints in these here parts. There is definitely a return visit to SSS sometime in our future.

Image may contain: food

Salud is something of a mystery. It sprung up almost overnight in the old Rosemary’s space on west Sahara. We went in on a weekend night and it was mostly empty. Our hearts sank but our bellies were growling, so we took a seat, ordered some peppers stuffed with chorizo, ceviche, and guacamole, and expected some same old same old stuff. What arrived (above) showed the freshness and snap you don’t usually encounter in by-the-numbers, south of the border cantinas. “This is a lot better than I expected,” said the Food Gal®, and we had to agree with her. Time will tell if this place finds an audience in a ‘hood starving for good things to eat.

And then there’s Elia, which means olive in Greek.

One of my cousins told me I had to go. “It’s real Greek food,” he said. “No hummus, good bread, not pita (which Greeks consider Arabic bread), real pork souvlaki, out-of-this-world fish, amazing tyrokafteri (spicy whipped feta), great vegetables,” he continued,  “actual gigantes beans in fresh tomato sauce, just like my mother makes (ELV side note: his mother is a wonderful Greek cook), you’ve got to go!” He was so excited he drove me there. One bite in and I could see what he was talking about.

Those beans were a treat unto themselves:

 

The lamb as perfect as lamb can get:

 

Those potatoes beside the lamb were beyond wonderful; the french fries with the souvlaki as crispy and melting as fries can be. (Real Greeks, not Bulgarians-pretending-to-be-Greeks, have a thing about seasoning potatoes correctly – with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon.)

They even do a beets thing here, topping them with chunky, garlicky potatoes sprinkled with green onions that is so good (this from a beet hater) you will want the recipe:

 

The galaktoboureko is the best I’ve ever had (outside of my yia yia’s house):

 

..and the 40 seat restaurant is a charm to sit in, with a small selection of good Greek wines at soft prices.

Elia might be the most exciting new restaurant in town. (I’m not saying this because I’m part Greek.) It certainly is the best, most authentic, beautifully composed Greek food Las Vegas has ever seen. You might be tempted to drive right past it (on south Durango) thinking it’s just another souvlaki/gyro shop. Don’t. Stop your car. Park it and walk in and taste this cuisine the way it’s supposed to be.

Kali Orixi! (“bon appetit”  in Greek).

(End of) Summer Dish Review – Tacos y Frijoles at EL SOMBRERO