Sunday, August 27, 2006

Indiana Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in Bloomington, Indiana

Location: Paris, France.

The Indiana Tex-Mex Café of Paris, France. Therein lies a story.

Once upon a time on May 17, 2002 I was in Paris on business. I came prepared. Between the two great wars, Paris became the home for many American ex-patriots and as a result a healthy jazz community developed and thrived. After years of sampling jazz clubs across North America, I assayed to ascertain for myself the state of jazz in Paris in the new millennium.

Weeks before the trip I scoured the Internet and found a cluster of promising clubs in the 1st Arrondissement, half-a-mile north of Notre Dame on Rue des Lombards. After several days of business, a day of freedom emerged and I hopped the metro to do some reconnaissance. I found Le Baiser Salé easily enough. The door was open, so I stepped in and found somebody who spoke enough English to tell me when the music started. I walked a block west and found Le Sunset, which was closed. I couldn’t find any signs in English among the riot of paper taped all over the door and windows. I looked around and noticed a woman sitting on a chair under the awning of the adjacent building.

I presented the only phrase I knew in French, “Parlez vous anglais?” No, she didn’t. At that point, I lamely commented, in English, of course, that I was just wondering when they started the music at Le Sunset. She said several things, in French, of course. We stood there for a few minutes, foolishly speaking at each other in tongues. Eventually I was able to interpret from her hand gestures, body language and use of the one word I did recognize, “amore,” that she was inviting me for a toss in the hay in exchange for some unknown number of Euros. I declined awkwardly, effusively and definitively, in English, of course, and wandered the neighborhood until I located a Thai restaurant just a few blocks over.

Thus armed with intelligence promising a night of great jazz (and a sincere hope that the lady was covering the afternoon shift and wouldn’t be there when I returned) I attempted to interest my co-workers in dinner and jazz on the town. They were all exhausted from touring the Louvre and rejected my offer.

And so it was that in the evening I set out for the metro alone. I was in a pleasant frame of mind. The weather was ideal and I smiled in anticipation of my favorite cuisine - Thai. I was not troubled by the lack of companions. I had a Graham Greene book in the pocket of my tweed jacket for dinner company and I knew I would be able to enjoy jazz as far into the night as I desired without annoying gestures at watches interrupting the music.

And as I foresaw, so it was. The dinner was excellent. Afterward I dropped Greene back into my pocket and strolled to Le Baiser Salé, paid the cover and listened to a set of excellent straight-up jazz. However, it was standing room only and after an hour I was ready to find a seat. I proceeded to Le Sunset, noticed with relief that my friend from the afternoon was not in evidence, paid the cover and went upstairs where I found a table and some incredible jazz. I stayed, heedless of the time, until 1am when they blew the last note and crashed the last cymbal and snapped the last latch on the case.

That was when I discovered that the Metro closes at midnight. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll take a taxi.” My lack of French wasn’t an issue. The hotel was near the Eiffel Tower and I had no doubt I could communicate at least that much. That was when I discovered that the line at the taxi stand was 30 feet long.

I checked my map. It appeared to be about 5km to the hotel, somewhere around 3 miles. If I walked around 3mph, a nice brisk pace, I would be there in an hour. It was a nice night and I had a Cuban cigar, so I set out on foot. However, about ten minutes into the walk, along Boulevard Saint-Germain I became acutely aware that I would have to make use of the facilities long before I arrived at the hotel. I began to scout around for an open bar.

That was when I spotted the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. (You thought I had forgotten what I was writing about, didn’t you?)

It was a welcome, if somewhat astonishing and mystifying apparition. Tex-Mex? In Paris? A waitress was dragging chairs from the sidewalk, closing up. I begged leave to visit the WC, and when I emerged I studied the menu closely. Sure enough, it showed enchiladas, tacos, tortillas, fajitas, everything you would expect. It also had burgers, steaks and other items familiar to Americans. I looked around. It looked like a Bennigan’s or Applebee's, lots of wood and framed pictures and trendy light fixtures. What would a chicken enchilada taste like in the land of haute cuisine? At that moment I purposed in my heart to return the next day for lunch.

I arrived at the hotel at 3:30am and soaked my aching feet in the tub for 15 minutes before going to bed.

The following day I joined the gang in some shopping and sightseeing in the 18th Arrondissement. When it came time for lunch I announced my intention of testing out the French version of my native cuisine. Most declined but Ryan and Bobby decided to join me. We took the metro and in a few minutes we were seated in the Indiana Tex-Mex Café. I ordered the chicken enchilada, which is my usual choice the first time I try a Tex-Mex place. Bobby followed suit. Ryan ordered ribs. Go figure. He also snapped a picture. (You can find pics of the restaurants here and here and here and here and here.)

We spent the time trying to figure out why Parisians thought Indiana was the fountain head of Tex-Mex. Surely they have US maps in France. Can't they figure out that Indiana is over 1,000 miles from Mexico and is practically in Canada?

The food was passable. I later learned through some internet research (because not much later I had a lot of time on my hands) that in the 90s a Tex-Mex craze swept through France. Still haven't figured that one out. In 2002 when I was researching the place, little could be found. In the past 4 years several people have posted info about it. Regarding the food, Chris and Alice Hodapp described it as “Tex-Mex grub that is like Mexican food that was seen from outer space and copied from that vantage point alone.” WikiTravel had the most clever comment. “Of note also is the truth in advertising: this is Tex-Mex food prepared exactly as you would expect to find in say Bloomington, Indiana.” And most interesting of all, we missed David Sadegh's reluctantly Indian Tex-Mex experience by one mile and one month.

We had a decent lunch and that was that. Until 3 days later. By that time I was back in Honolulu, so the sudden necessity to spend 3/4 of every hour on the toilet was not as inconvenient as it might have been on the 9 hour flight to NY or the 6 hour flight to LAX or the 6 hour flight to HI. A visit to the doctor confirmed that I had food poisoning, specifically a very high concetration of Campylobacter jejuni, which evidently is present on almost half of the chickens sold in the US. Cooking kills it, but if you touch the cooked meat with the same utensil used to handle the raw meet, you transfer live organisms right over.

The bacteria has an incubation period of 2-5 days, has symptoms lasting 7-10 days, is sometimes fatal and results in Guillain-Barré syndrome (in which the nerves that join the spinal cord and brain to the rest of the body are damaged, sometimes permanently) in some individuals. You'll be relieved to know that this development happens in less than 1 in 1,000 cases. As I sat in bed during the brief respites from the WC and read those odds, you can be assured I was not reassured. If the lottery had odds like that, there would be 300,000 winners in the US!

During the week I missed work I spent my spare time trying to figure out where I got it. Was it the raw seafood at the Eiffel Tower or the crab at the Dragon Elysees or the rare steak at the hotel? As I queried other diners I discovered that Bobby had fallen victim to the same fate and the mystery was solved. We both missed a week of work.

A year later, on the anniversary of our lunch, we ate at Jose's in Kaimuki. This time with no adverse side effects. So, if you got to Indiana Tex-Mex, get the ribs. Seriously.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Mongolian Grille

If anybody Khan, Gengis Khan.

Location: 117 San Jacinto Blvd, Austin, TX 78701 GoogleMaps
Phone: 512-476-3938
Hours: Sun-Thu 11a-10p, Fri-Sat 11a-11p

Other locations:
12636 Research (Northbrooke Plaza) 512-335-8888
115 Sundance Parkway, #420, Round Rock, Texas 78681(La Frontera Village) 512-716-1900

A Wikipedia entry claims (without any reference) that Monogolian BBQ originated in Taiwan in the mid to late 20th century, contradicting the story I've heard many times over that the style originates from the 12th century Mongol armies of Genghis Khan, who evidently ate their way through Asia and Europe like a termite through your back deck. Legend says that the army fed itself by pillaging and scavenging what ingredients they could find and then cooking the mixture on their shields over open fires.

Regardless of its origin, it's fun to eat. You grab a bowl and pile it to overflowing with veggies and meat, then hand it over to a guy to cook on his shield. Actually it's a giant round grill, but who's counting?

A few details of importance:

  1. Be sure to pile it to overflowing because once it's cooked it takes up less than half of the space it took while raw. If you try to be polite and just pack a reasonable level bowl, you're not going to have much to eat when they bring the cooked bowl to you. I pack mine so full that when I stop at the sauce table, I'm constantly having to put stuff back in that fell out.

  2. Speaking of the sauce table, that's your next stop, where you pour different sauces over the pile. You can follow one of the recipies or create your own combination. The sauces include light soy, dark soy, garlic, hoisin, sate, orange, pineapple, sweet and sour, hot, rice vinegar, rice wine, madras curry, green curry and sesame oil.
  3. You also get white rice and sesame bread.
  4. It's pretty healthy eating. Fresh veggies and a light spray of unsaturated vegetable oil cooked quickly at high-heat so the nutrients and vitamins aren't cooked out.

My favorite Mongolian place in Honolulu is no longer in business. They used to age the tomatoes until they were just on the verge of spoiling. The first few times it freaked me out, but it became an acquired taste and now when I eat Mongolian I find myself wishing for almost-rotten tomatoes to mix in. (In case you're wondering, the tomatoes at the Mongolian Grille are fresh.)

If you're not near Austin, look for a place that does Mongolian BBQ in your area. It's an experience you don't want to miss.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Funny Name. Serious Sandwich.

Website: [See website for locations and hours]

Delis are a dime a dozen and they all pretty much do the same thing. Or they did until the 1971 when Schlotzsky’s opened a store in Austin, TX. The first time I had a Schlotzsky’s sandwich was the late 70s. We were playing a gig in Dallas. While we were setting up, the guy who booked us asked if we’d like something to eat. Of course we did and he came back with Schlotzsky’s sandwiches, the original. I was skeptical, but I reserved judgment and took a bite.

Before that moment, I would have laughed at the thought of sending out for sandwiches. “Heck, we can make sandwiches. If you’re going through the trouble, get some real food,” I would have said. After that moment, I no longer regarded sandwiches with such a cavalier insouciance. It was a watershed experience in my understanding of the nature of sandwiches and their place in the culinary and gastronomic universe.

First you must understand that they make their own bread. From scratch. Every day. And of course we al realize that the bread is the foundation of the sandwich. A sandwich cannot achieve greatness with indifferent bread anymore than a Motown band can achieve greatness with a marginal rhythm section. To that wonderful sourdough bread add lean smoked ham, Genoa and cotto salamis, and melted cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses layered with black olives, red onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and their signature dressing. (If this sounds familiar to faithful readers of Eating Fred, Texas, note that when designing the sandwich many years ago, they based it on the muffaletta.) The way to go is the meal deal, with their own brand chips (plain, don’t want to sully the palate with chemicals attempting to taste like something else) and iced tea.

In the 30 years since I first bit into a Schlotzsky’s sandwich I have eaten them all over the place, including in Honolulu, where they had a store in the Ala Moana Food Court up until 2003 or so. The menu has expanded to include all other manner of sandwiches, divers pizza and sundry soups and salads. I’m sure they are all excellent. I wouldn’t know. Why eat pizza when I can have The Original?

OK, if that wasn’t enough to send you straight to the website looking for a location, be advised that they provide free WiFi internet access in many of their stores. You know I’m all over that. And why the heck not, I’d like to know. If I can still recall a specific sandwich experience 30 years later, you know it is a consummation devoutly to be wished. So do more than wish. Find one. Consume it. Be the sandwich.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant

Big quality Mexican cooking in small-town Texas.

Location: 494 Hwy. 71 West, Suite 180, Bastrop, TX 78602 [For other locations check their website]
Phone: 512-321-3002
Hours: Mon-Thu 11am to 10pm, Fri-Sun 11am to 11pm

In Texas, TexMex is the old reliable. You can’t swing a dead gato without hitting half a dozen joints. TexMex has the virtue of simplicity; it’s hard to screw up a taco or enchilada. (Although I have seen it done.)

The Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant in Bastrop, TX is TexMex done right with fresh ingredients, but also goes beyond the standard taco/enchilada/burrito formula with items like the spinach enchilada, seafood enchilada and deep-fried stuffed avocado, plus steaks, ribs and pork chops. Plus, it has a fajita buffet for a great price.

And, since you know you’re going to fill up on chips and salsa, despite the fact that every time you leave a TexMex joint you promise yourself that next time you’ll exercise more restraint so you don’t leave wishing you had brought your wheelbarrow along, you’ll be pleased to hear that the chips are thick and crispy without being too greasy and the salsa is chunky and tasty enough to satisfy those who might wish it were a bit spicier.

The Morelia tacos and chipotle enchiladas hit the spot, particularly since they came with a side of guacamole and the charro beans instead of refried. The service was prompt and friendly. We met some old college friends there and talked for almost two hours. Even thought it was the Sunday lunch rush, they kept trying to bring us more chips and tea long after the plates were cleared.

Bastrop is growing and there are a lot of options, but you can do worse than stop at the Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant.