Archive for February, 2010

Chilito’s Sabor Casero

Chilito’s Sabor Casero (might not trust the map on this one)
4444 West Jefferson Boulevard, Dallas, TX 75211-4611
(214) 337-3033‎
Open 7:30am – 9:30pm
$4.99 for a 3 taco plate served with rice and beans
$1.75 per gordita

The next time you crave Chipotle try Chilito’s instead. I recently made a lunch hour visit to my nearest Chipotle.  This popular burrito joint (doesn’t have the same ring to it does it?) has filled the massive appetites of busy students, businesspersons, or poor bloggers on a cheap date (yes we consider splitting tacos anywhere a date) for many years now and I will gladly claim to be a devoted follower of their lime-salt dusted chips.  This recent visit was the first one since our taco blog start up.  D will tell you that my taste buds lack discernment.  Just sit me down with a coke, bucket of fries, and some frosted cookies and I couldn’t be happier with this well balanced meal. You can see why I was shocked to find that when I bit into my taco I found that  Chipotle was too salty for me.  Over salting food (along with adding a dash of MSG) has long been the easiest way to snag faithful fast food followers who fawn over the tastiness of a particular mass produced menu item. This is a shame because Chipotle really seems to care about serving quality food. Its too bad that their naturally raised pork, chicken, and beef end up hidden beneath thick sodium crust. Maybe it was just an off day. Or maybe tasting the purity of a family recipe for slow cooked barbacoa, perfectly seasoned, juicy and tender, has refined my palate to the finer things in south of the border dining. While I still love to scarf down the aforementioned soda, fries, and sweets, when it comes to tacos I now crave simplicity over a full belly and I’m grateful.

Chilitos delivered this tasty simplicity on a recent visit. Located in the economic heart of the .6 square miles that is Cockrell Hill, Chilito’s sits on a busy corner of the new Plaza de Oro shopping center at the southwest corner of Jefferson Blvd and Cockrell Hill Rd. The region dubbed ‘Oak Cliff’ includes a huge area of south Dallas county. Included in this large swath of land are two municipalities, Cockrell Hill and Dallas. Dominated by newly erected beer, wine, and liquor stores Jefferson Blvd remains ridden with pot holes big enough to swallow a Smart Car or two. Where the tax money goes is anyone’s guess (or perhaps you know- let us, won’t you) but its obvious that little is being done to improve the city’s roads. For now, Cockrell Hill seems content playing the part of the loser old dude, invited to the party just to supply drinks to the cool kids. Maybe we’re being too harsh on this neighbor of ours. We wish the town and its residents success, but fear an eroded infastructure may not be able to sustain such quick economic growth and development.

That said, Cockrell Hill has a few things going for it. The primary, most endearing and enduring of its appealing traits is Tia Dora’s Bakery. This place has been baking up some of Oak Cliff’s best pan dulce for decades and show no signs of stopping. They better not because we have plans for our little one to grow up enjoying the occasional sweet treat from Tia Dora’s.

Chilito’s is also a great asset.  The restaurant has created a unique space in the taco serving world. The neon boasts burgers and beer, tacos and burritos, a perfect mix of cultures and tastes.  The burgers, mixed with some Foo Fighters blasting out of the house P.A. told us this was not the typical taqueria. The atmosphere is a mixture of worn in dive bar and newly minted sandwich shop (think a slightly edgier Potbelly’s). We arrived at dinner time one Saturday evening to find the 40 seater restaurant with only a dozen or so customers seated at the inviting booths.  The patrons included a couple of regulars who chatted up the owner and a family with 3 young girls who gained the attention of our baby girl (she’s ready to be a big girl!). This night, the long narrow eating area restricted a feeling of communal dining and enhanced a bar like atmosphere (minus the bar) though a night with more patrons might have evoked a different vibe.  I’m guessing come March Madness or NBA playoffs, this place will find itself packed. Full height windows flank two sides of the eatery so we imagine during the day it is bright and airy.

We came for the tacos (this is a taco blog right) but OH the burgers looked so delicious. While I could have gone for a burger smothered in queso with slices of avacado (one of many options) we settled for the 3 taco plate ($4.99 with rice and beans) and 2 gorditas ($1.75 each). We owe you a review of the burgers because any place with authentic tacos and a decent burger would be unprecedented and worth at least a weekly visit if not more. Check back for an addendum.

The simple menu made ordering easy but also offered plenty of variety, including burritos, tortas, and even breakfast (including tacos and pancakes). We decided on a sampling of fajita, barbacoa, and carnitas tacos as well as gorditas (thick corn masa tortillas, puffed to make a pocket for the filling) stuffed with picadillo (ground beef with chunks of potato) and pollo. While we craved a mexican coke, the place was out and offered a $1.50 Bud Light as an impromptu Saturday night drink special. Not ever our first choice of beverage (hardly qualifies) but we accepted the offer, more for the building of good will than our own enjoyment. Dinner arrived soon after. This was our first time ordering gorditas and the newness of the dish quickly gained our attention. What a great idea, probably created by accident. The flavors of the carnitas taco and both gorditas were mild in flavor, the ubiquitous salsas verde and roja adding brightness and spice. We have had some great barbacoa lately and Chilito’s kept this streak going. I love the way shredded barbacoa comes together to make a soft but satisfying bite that quickly falls apart in the mouth, evenly distributing the flavor of the meat while never tiring the jaw like steak can. The salsas paired perfectly with the tacos and I found myself applying a fresh dab on each and every bite. I can hardly remember the fajita taco, possibly because I was really hungry, but probably because it was not memorable. The beans and rice were surprisingly good. As we finished our meal we kicked ourselves for not ordering a burger as one was taken out to another table, piled high with french fries. Even if you’d prefer a Chipotle burrito, you’ve gotta wish more places like Chilito’s were in existence, serving two classic fast food staples from two very different cuisines under one laid back roof.

P.S. If you live in and love Cockrell Hill please tell us about it! We’d love for our opinion to be challenged and changed!

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Tacos Chanos Para Llevar

Tacos Chano’s
934 West Jefferson Boulevard, Dallas, TX
75208-5049 (214) 948-1846‎
Open 8AM to 10PM
$1.25-2.00 per taco

The sun reflected brightly off the white facade of Tacos Chano’s warming my skin, causing me to squint as I walked toward the door. I knew I was at the corner of Jefferson and Polk. But I was transported to somewhere else as the combination of sunlight, blue sky, and exotic smells surrounded me. This miscellaneous far away feeling was reinforced as I made my way into the taqueria. The interior is utilitarian, focusing on packing in as many tables as possible and not much else. Windows do allow a good amount of light into the room, but this just brought attention to the cheap tile and white walls. It would have looked quite depressing if each table had not been seated to capacity. The dining room holds 4 large banquet tables seating about 8-10 people and each was full of families. This made the room come alive and it told me that this was a place worth coming to if it was packed in the middle of the afternoon. Sometimes a lack of attention to decor is a sign of an establishment that focuses on the food. From what I could tell, Tacos Chano’s is such a place.

The menu boasts tacos, burritos gigantes, tortas gigantes, menudo (served all week as opposed to just the weekend), and the house specialty – Carne en su Jugo (meat in its own juices). This meat is the cornerstone of Jalisco-style Mexican cuisine. Rather than flame broiled meat, it is instead slowly simmered and served in its own juices. I am not sure how it is served as the menu pretty much just lists the name of the items  and little else ( don’t expect to see prices!). Again, a spartan approach to customer relations, but perhaps a good sign that the place hosts many regulars who don’t need prices to help them decide what to order.

Another good sign was the great wait staff that quickly approached me as I entered. This was a great relief as there are no counters to walk up to, no hostess station, and no discernible waiting area. I quickly decided on carne asada, pollo, and barbacoa tacos for me and “A” to share. While I was happy with my selection, I noticed a vertical spit of carne al pastor roasting in the corner of the kitchen and regretted not trying some. I guess I’ll have to make another visit sometime. Tough luck.

With our order came two containers of a mild salsa roja and a bag of pickled jalapenos and carrots. The briny spicy flavor of the crunchy carrots was refreshing and made for a good palate cleanser in between tacos. Speaking of tacos…

Opening up the foil wrapped pollo taco I was excited to see nice browning on the large chunks of chicken breast. The flavor was less spectacular than some we have tried, but still good. The carne asada was unlike any we had ordered, served in the meat’s own juices. The sauce was light and did not overpower the meat, adding just enough saltiness to make the tougher than usual meat deliciously appealing. The barbacoa was the standout, rich and meaty, tender and  slightly smokey, set off by some unusually sweet onions and cilantro. We are always a little nervous about getting a more than manageable piece of fat in our barbacoa, but this meat was lean with the consistency of chopped brisket.

I will definitely be back for the barbacoa and to try some other items like the carne en su jugo and the al pastor tacos. Next time I will remember to either bring cash or order more than $5 worth of food if paying with credit (caused some confusion and possibly overpayment), grabbing an order to go. But its more likely that I’ll linger a bit, sharing the experience of good food with others, gazing out the big windows then down towards a plate full of delicious tacos.

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This week’s main find was the tortillas at Gonzalez Restaurant. This got us thinking about the elevation of simple foods of all cultures: airy-on-the-inside-crusty-on-the-outside breads like the baguette; the tender pocket flat breads of the Middle East; the elegant noodle of the Far East. There are benchmarks for such staples. This is why they were adopted by their cultures in the first place, right?. An abundance of minimal ingredients with minimal prep and a high yield of taste and nutrition ensures a food will catch on. But those are just our thoughts.

What about you?: Is there elegance in simple foods? Does the video below go too far in elevating a staple?

Also: Where have you found the perfect tortilla? What makes it perfect? Any secret family recipes you care to share? Let us know!

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“How have we missed this place?” I asked my wife as we walked into Gonzalez Restaurant Saturday night. While seeking out some of the neglected corners of the taco world is a relatively new past time for us, we are familiar with many Oak Cliff eateries. El Fenix was the place for “A’s” family to lunch after church. My church flocked to Tejano’s, but my family preferred El Ranchito on the rare occasion we went out after church. We even remember having a few delicious meals at La Calle Doce or the old Ojedas before (or even after) our families moved from Oak Cliff to the southern burbs. Each of these restaurants provide food, atmosphere, and service that keeps their customers loyally coming back Sunday after Sunday, birthday after birthday, etc. I’m not sure if there is much difference in the way a cheese enchilada is prepared in any of these establishments, but each has their own way of standing above the rest, whether by specialty items or a gimmick or two (Elivis impersonators at El Ranchito or $5 Enchilada night at El Fenix)
The Oak Cliff El Fenix still holds fond memories of being the place A and I’s families first sat down for a meal together after we had begun dating as 15 and 14 year olds. For a few teenagers in love it was plenty good. We got our ordering down to a routine: a cup of queso, a side of flour tortillas, a Taxco plate to split, and a Shirley Temple for the lady. While our palates have evolved somewhat a dozen or so years later, we still make it back with some regularity for the lighter than air chips and to reminisce.
But on Saturday night there was a part of us that was upset at ourselves and maybe our parents for never trying out Gonzalez Restaurant. The beautiful storefront, cozy floor plan, and colorful décor immediately endeared the place to us. Apparently Dallas was well aware of this quirky cute restaurant as we found a few write ups on their website. (Perhaps this place is old news to you too. Was this your family’s cocina away from home? If so, tell us about it.) How we ever neglected this place is a mystery to me, but as of this weekend, we have righted this wrong.
The menu at Gonzalez’s is similar to most tex-mex places you find around the metroplex. However, their specialties include cabrito (goat) as well as an all day breakfast menu…oh, and their dinner plate in diameter,  quarter inch thick (maybe an exaggeration) sized flour tortillas. We naively ordered 4 tortillas with a cup of queso (just like we would at El Fenix) thinking we would be satiated enough to continue reading the menu then wait for our meal. Instead, “A” was full after eating two of these tortillas leaving me to order the only entree.
Let me tell you, the pressure of choosing one good item off the menu to represent a restaurant is a daunting task. I did not take it lightly, spending at least 15 minutes looking over the menu. The tacos they offer are mainly of the crispy, ground beef variety. However, they do have Tacos al Carbon on the menu as well as Tacos Nortenas made with shredded beef in a crispy shell. But I thought I’d order something special.
“Maybe I should review a steak -it is Valentines day, and people love to eat steak on Valentines day” – too self serving.
“Maybe the breakfast. Huevos Rancheros or eggs with chorizo and potatoes look good” – too late night college student.
“Ooo, they have steak and eggs.” – …..
As the waiter made his way over to the table for the 5th time to ask if we were ready, I quickly decided on a burrito. Hang on before you ready an angry letter calling for taco purity. The burritos at Gonzalez’s are very similar to the tacos we so often review here at TacOCliff. One big difference is of course the tortilla. Instead of two small thin corn tortillas, these burritos come on the small blankets they call tortillas at Gonzalez’s. Filled with carne asada with a side of guacamole and a quite fresh, quite spicy pico de gallo, I was in taco heaven after ordering a burrito!
The meat was definitely grilled over a fire. While slightly chewy the filling made a delicious contrast to the pillowy soft tortilla. The guac and pico set it over the top. As I had only eaten one tortilla as we waited for our meal, I thought I would be able to finish off just one burrito. But was I wrong! We are glad to report a first for TacOCliff…our first leftovers. We made sure to box up an extra tortilla along with our half eaten burrito, dreaming of the best breakfast taco in the world to be made in our very own kitchen.
So, whether Gonzalez Restaurant has been a family favorite since childhood or a newly found treasure, whatever you do, take it easy on the tortillas and save room for a taco/burrito or two.

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Dispatch: Chicago, IL

Greetings from Chicago. South Chicago. Hyde Park, to be exact. A brother attending university and a fun-fare from Southwest were enough for me (D) to book a trip to the city in the dead of winter. Snow in St. Louis almost halted my journey north. Luckily I made it to Chicago, greeted by a kinder, gentler snow. I heard last weekend’s weather was well below freezing, hovering between 8-10 degrees. So, with temperatures in the low 30’s this weekend, I consider myself fortunate.
And my lucky streak has not ended. I have landed in a food metropolis. Minutes after leaving the airport I was burying my face into an Italian Beef Sandwich and a Maxwell Polish Sausage from Al’s Beef. So far I’ve had pizza (no deep dish so far), soul food, freshly baked croissants, and an epic burger from, where else, Epic Burger. And of course there were tacos from Maravilla’s Restaurant! I love to discover a city traveling from meal to meal and Chicago has not let me down.
According to a long time resident of Hyde Park, Maravilla’s Restaurant opened up far from the neighborhood near Chicago’s Midway airport. Supported mainly by hungry police officers from a nearby precinct station, the restaurant’s reputation traveled east to Hyde Park and the students of University of Chicago. It became a popular place for U of C students to visit and when time came for a move the owners of Maravilla’s moved closer to the University, having just moved again into a beautful art deco building in Hyde Park.
Hyde Park is a wonderful neighborhood, full of inviting turn of the century brownstones built around the 600 acres that held the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Today it is anchored by the University  and the Museum of Science and Industry, the only remaining building from the Fair. The neighborhood was home to a famous American who has moved from Hyde Park to a slightly more recognizable residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The people of this area of Chicago are proud to be associated with their president, their neighborhood, and their city.
Of course, no city is without its problems. There is a sharp racial divide that cuts across the city, separating Chicago’s North and South Sides. I saw this play out while riding on the “L” train. As we  passed U.S. Cellular field, home of the White Sox, the racial makeup of CTA passengers was relatively diverse. By the time we had made it to Wrigley Field in northern Chicago we had left much of the diversity behind, causing me to turn to my brother and ask about such a drastic change in ridership. His words about Chicago’s long history of racial tension and segragation were sobering. It made me think of Dallas, of our own North/South split, of the hurdles we have overcome in the past, of the challenges we now face. The thought overwhelmed me. But then I remembered something I had witnessed the day before.
I saw another Chicago while at Maravilla’s: People of all types, gathered around a “common table”, sharing what else but tacos. The stream of people looking for a delicious Saturday lunch time could not be categorized by age, race, gender, or income bracket. The desire for good food overruled any cultural norms dictating who can eat what and where. It reminded me of similar scenes found everyday in Dallas at taqueria’s like El Si Hay, at burger joints like Wingfield’s, and many more establishments focused on serving great food to whoever might walk through their doors or up to their window. It gave me hope…
And a full belly.
Maravilla’s offers many favorite dishes including tortas, burritos, soups and specialty plates like milanesa and fried fish. We were there for the tacos. The menu boasts 12 filling options as well as the option of combining any two ingredients making the possible unique taco offerings to enter triple digits (somebody check my math on this…) We opted for a barbacoa, chile relleno, carne asada, chorizo y aguacate (avacado), pollo, al pastor, and lengua tacos, throwing a chicken tamale in the mix at the last minute (we are celebrating diversity aren’t we?).
I had heard that living in Chicago is not cheap so I did my best not to flinch at the $2 price tag on each taco. The tacos proved to be worth the price, stuffed to the max with deliciously prepared fillings. Immediately my brother JP started unwrapping the steaming tamale. Its lack of dripping grease while he unfolded the tamale husk looked promising. We were not disapointed. Perfectly cooked, moist masa held incredibly tender chicken, all generously portioned. We moved on, trying bites of each of the tacos. I am happy to report that we have found the perfect vegetarian taco. The chile relleno taco was perfectly breaded, the pepper soft and mildly spicy and stuffed with just the right amount of cheese. Unfortunately we have not found this taco in Dallas (let us know if you have), so the search continues.
Chile Relleno Taco
The pollo taco was underseasoned and the chorizo drowned out the flavor of the avacado in the combo taco. However, we were inspired to do some of our own taco making there at the table, combining the bland chicken with bits of chorizo left on the plate. We created a pretty good taco, making the chicken a viable option again. Again, I was blown away by the flavor of lengua and loved the way Maravilla’s prepared their lengua taco.
I am presently undecided as to how to rate the glass of horchata I drank with my meal. As I took my first sip I realized this was not the flavor I was used to tasting back home. But it was a familiar flavor. Then it came to me: melted Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla! Its a delicious flavor that every Texan knows by heart and it made me smile to taste it coming out of a straw at a taqueria in Chicago. Even if they might need to work on the horchata, Maravilla’s got plenty else right especially by making a magnificent chile relleno taco. I can’t get back to Chicago soon enough!

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