El Ranchito Cafe & Club – Dallas, Texas

In the Mexican neighborhoods of west Dallas, adventurous “gringo” diners who grew up on Tex-Mex cuisine have apparently discovered the wonderful cuisine of Old Mexico. On the night we visited, this was evidenced by the lively and decidedly “white” crowd enjoying their meals almost as much as the generations of Mexican-American patrons craving (and receiving) authentic tastes of home.

Since moving to the United States from Monterrey Mexico, entrepreneur and owner Laura Sanchez has carved a niche in the Dallas Mexican food arena and has done so by not deviating from her roots. Authenticity resonates in the cuisine as it does in the corridos belted out by the Mariachis.

El Ranchito’s salsa packs a punch unlike the tomato and cilantro laden red stuff served in most Tex-Mex restaurants. The horchata is wonderfully sweet with just the right amount of cinnamon. An appetizer called choriqueso (known in New Mexico as queso fundido) combined asadero cheese and chorizo set aflame and was served with flour tortillas. It was the best of its kind I’ve ever had.

The restaurant’s specialty is Cabrito or baby goat, a $21 plus treat served on a grill. Although somewhat bony, Cabrito is a very tender and savory meat with a taste all its own. You’d be well advised to share an order of Cabrito as it’s more than enough for one person.

Kim and my sister Dolores who introduced us to this Mexican treasure, shared an order of Parillada, a mixed grill of beef, chicken, sausage and ribs. It was exquisite.

The menu includes several mariscos (seafood) entrees which we hope to try during a future visit.

El Ranchito Cafe & Club
610 West Jefferson
Dallas, TX

LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cabrito, Parillada, Horchata, Choriqueso

Kincaid’s Hamburgers – Fort Worth, Texas

Local, statewide, national and international acclaim for Kincaid’s Hamburgers places this former grocery and market in stratospherically elite company as one of, if not THE best hamburger restaurants in the world. In 2003, Michael and Jane Stern, America’s preeminent dining Americana authorities proclaimed Kincaid’s one of America’s top ten burgers. A book called The Perfect Hamburger, replete with effusive testimony by long-time patrons, was published in 1999. Call it blasphemy if you will, but I believe perfection can be improved. Add New Mexico green chile and you would have the very best hamburger I’ve ever had.

Even without green chile, Kincaid’s does serve a phenomenal burger, each one containing a half pound of 76 to 80 percent lean chuck roast along with ultra-fresh ingredients. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce if you’d like. Each burger is made to order and each is crafted to burger perfection. By not mashing the meat down with spatulas, the burger builders ensure you get a juicy, tasty treat you want to savor even though you might be tempted to inhale it so you can order another one.

The store’s motto is “where friends meet to eat” and while you might start off not knowing any of the other diners, by meal’s end, you will. That’s because your dining experience takes place in close proximity to other patrons. Whether you’re seated or claim some standing room only shelf space, you’re invariably drawn into neighborly discourse with other Kincaid pilgrims. The topic at hand is generally a recollection of the epiphany experienced by the diner upon savoring their very first Kincaid’s burger.

Kincaid’s is slightly off the beaten path and as such, is definitely an intended destination. The dozens of cars clamoring for a parking space aren’t there by accident. This is hamburger Mecca and boy are we ever grateful we finally made it and can claim to have partaken of a nearly perfect burger.

Kincaid’s Hamburgers
4901 Camp Bowie Boulevard
Fort Worth, TX

LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2004
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cheeseburger

Celebration – Dallas, Texas

To adventurous restaurant patrons, the term “foodie” is often used with derision to connote someone who won’t eat somewhere unless Zagat’s has proclaimed it fork worthy. In theory foodies won’t boldly go where Zagat’s (or in the absence thereof, the local fishwrap) hasn’t gone before.

Chowhounds, on the other hand, are (at least by definition) adventure eaters who blaze new trails and traverse the deepest, darkest regions under America’s spacious skies for undiscovered treasures. Sometimes the twain does meet and there’s consensus among foodies and chowhounds about a restaurant which both can agree is something special.

Such is the case with Celebration which for 30 years has prepared good home cooked meals fresh daily. The restaurant’s walls are adorned with recognition from Zagat’s, but there are also people’s choice awards, recognition from the Food Network as one of the top ten home cooking restaurants in the country and even a 1996 Gourmet magazine article by Michael and Jane Stern touting it as a place for cheap eats in Dallas.

In 2009, Southern Living magazine named Celebration one of the South’s best diners.  “Long-time residents come to this laid-back eatery for “the city’s tastiest pot roast.”  “Other classic Southern dishes include “spiced-just-right meatloaf and homemade mashed potatoes.”

Wood paneled walls ornamented with geometrically designed Native American rugs and evocative black and white photographs celebrating Texas help make Celebration a gracious yet homey dining establishment in which the high-brow and working class mingle comfortably. The menu features classic home cooking–all the comfort foods with which many Americans grew up: pot roast, fried chicken, meat loaf and much more. Best of all, you can have seconds on both entrees and the accompanying vegetables (which alternate daily).

Unfortunately, fried chicken isn’t on the menu every night and wasn’t on the night of our inaugural visit. Chicken fried chicken, while good in its own right, is usually a poor substitute for fried chicken, a true American standard. Not so at Celebration. A lightly-breaded chicken cutlet served with white gravy, the chicken fried chicken entree was indeed something special and even though I rue the fact chicken wasn’t on the menu, this “first runner-up” was delicious in its own right.

Vegetables of the day include mashed potatoes and green beans almandine, both of which were quite good. For dessert, the coconut cream pie is good enough to keep Gilligan and his castaway mates on the island.

4503 West Lovers Lane
Dallas, TX

LATEST VISIT: 28 May 2004
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chicken Fried Chicken, Seafood Gumbo

Joseph’s Table – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Hotel La Fonda de Taos, home of Joseph's Table

The Hotel La Fonda in Taos Plaza is home to Joseph's Table

When chef and owner Joseph Wrede launched Joseph’s Table several years ago in Ranchos De Taos,dining patrons and pedantic critics alike were ready to beatify him (a culinary Saint Joseph). In 2000, Food & Wine magazine named him one of the top ten chefs in America, extolling his use of locally grown organic produce in “surprising, sensual ways.” The London Times called him “the voice of modern American cuisine.” Even Food Network luminary Bobby Flay came calling during a visit to Taos. On June 28, 2002, Wrede closed his restaurant to contemplate the lucrative lure of a corporate chef position. The Taos culinary world breathed a collective sigh of relief when he launched his new restaurant in December, 2003.

Housed in the historic La Fonda Hotel, his new dining room is artistically inspired and bathed in vivid colors on which enormous hand-painted tulips and butterflies crafted by his wife provide a whimsical refrain. Flowing, elegant tapestries reminiscent of a Sultan’s tent titivate the walls. Along the back wall are several semi-private chambers the wait staff refer to as “love shacks.” As artistic as the ambience is, it is the congruence of the chef’s menu items that are the true masterpieces–at least the items on the frequently-changing dinner menu.

Joseph's Table

Joseph's Table

Perhaps engaging in his own “iron chef” challenge of preparing seven distinct menu items from one ingredient, chef Wrede’s “seven way lucky duck” dinner entree includes duck breast (with just enough fat for flavor), broth, confit, chicharrones, mousse, aspic and foie gras with corn crème brulee. With its citrus influence, the duck broth makes the other items sing. Even the foie gras, the preference for which is generally an acquired taste, is wonderful. The crème brulee is a sweet piece of heaven, albeit served in a small ramekin.

Another dinner entree nonpareil is Wrede’s American steak au Poivre, a peppercorn crusted organic maverick beef tenderloin on smashed potatoes with Madiera mix mushroom sauce. With the characteristic tenderness of an excellent slab of beef, the steak melded complementary flavors that prove more than palate pleasing. The smashed potatoes are a creamy accompaniment.

Our inaugural lunch experience at Joseph’s Table was as disappointing as our first dinner venture was memorable. While I rated our dinner “24” (placing it among my highest rated restaurants in New Mexico), our lunch meal warranted perhaps a rating of “17” and that may be generous. We were alarmed at the disparity.

A listing of local lamb and local green chile stew was too tempting to pass up. Thankfully it isn’t a good representative of local organic cuisine. The “green chile stew” was more akin to a vegetable stew with potatoes, carrots and celery with nary a piece of lamb. Worse, it was served warm with a green chile as piquant as a bell pepper (zero on the Scoville scale). Two pieces of sweet and delicious roasted cornbread were this appetizer’s saving grace.

A salad fashioned with organic mixed greens, five nuts, Manchego (a wonderfully sharp cheese), apples and Tarragon vinaigrette exemplifies the creativity for which Wrede is renown. Alas, as magnificent as this leafy concoction was, it was almost too small to split as we often do with gourmet salads. The sweetness and tartness of the apple contrasted wonderfully with the sharpness of the Manchego while the dressing pulled it all together oh so well. We surmised that the “five nuts” referred to on the menu celebrated the total number of nuts in the entire salad because the only nut we could find was pistachio–and there wasn’t many of those.

An entree of organic turkey enchiladas with white Cheddar and homemade tortillas was a poor example of an entree made so well throughout Taos county. Crusty homemade flour tortillas proved a poor base for stacked enchiladas drowning in a tasteless chile (okay, it may have had a little bite to it). Much better was the grilled pizza with caramelized onions, bacon and Danish gouda. The crust was as thin as traditional Armenian flat bread while the sweet onions worked oh so well with the not too sharp gouda and salty bacon. It was the best item we had during our lunch visit.

Until Joseph’s Table improves its lunch fare, I’m not so sure Chef Wrede warrants beatification. His formidable talent and impeccable reputation demand no less.

NOTE: Joseph’s Table closed its doors in May, 2010.

Joseph’s Table
108A South Taos Plaza
Taos, NM
LATEST VISIT: 8 May 2004
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Seven Way Lucky Duck, American Steak au Poivre