For years I have disdained the basically flavorless Mexican beers that infest sports bars and low-rent Mexican restaurants in the United States. I often comment that if you put lime in them, they taste like lime.
But I have just learned that that’s the whole point. In the Brownsville, Texas, area, on either side of the border with Mexico, beer is just where you begin. You can make it into a michelada — essentially a Bloody Mary made with beer instead of vodka, which you might recall can even be found in New York if you look hard enough. Or you can make it into a chelada, which is beer with a squeeze or more of lime in a salt-rimmed glass. Those beverages are often drunk over ice.
If that’s what you want — something light and refreshing with some vitamin C and salt — why, a light innocent lager like the varieties so popular in the United States and Mexico does just the trick.
That’s one of many things I learned when Sylvia Casares Copeland of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston took me and her publicist Dick Dace on our cross-border journey into the world of Tex-Mex cuisine.
After dining at Vermilion last night (see the blog entry below), this morning we went to El Torito at the Brownsville Days Inn. The sign outside the restaurant just says “Mexican Food Restaurant,” but Sylvia insisted that its name was El Torito. Inside it was basically unadorned — a giant, ill-lit dining hall with some family pictures and string figures of guitars on the walls, but the breakfast tacos were like nothing I’d ever had.
Throughout the Tex-Mex world, flour tortillas, not corn ones, are the general rule, but in Brownsville the tortillas are massive, the size of dinner plates, and light and flaky like the rotis that Indians on the Malaysian island of Penang use to make murtabaks. Sylvia explained that on a hot griddle the dough, loaded with shortening, puffs up, allowing parts of the thin layers to toast to a yummy deep brown. The tortilla was folded in half over chorizo and eggs for me, chorizo with eggs and potatoes for Dick, and, for Sylvia, frijoles guisado, a tasty bean mush that was coarser and lighter than refried beans.
After two cups of good coffee we went to Las Palmas, a bakery at which the luxury items cost 75 cents. Sylvia loaded up a tray of stuff and, after an abortive visit to a tortilla factory that unbeknownst to our guide had just changed hands, we climbed into her car and drove across the bridge into the Mexican town of Matamoros.
We visited some of Sylvia’s favorite shops and then sat down to our first meal there, at Los Norteños, where the specialty was cabrito, or goat.
Sylvia suggested the plain, charcoal roasted cabrito al pastor, but I also was interested in the menu item that in English was called “goat in gravy” but in Spanish was cabrito en sangre. Goat in blood? The Bart Simpson in me couldn’t pass up anything with that name, especially if sangre were not merely a euphemism for gravy.
Sylvia asked and indeed the “gravy” was blood-based. Don’t get all creeped out, blood is a common thickening agent and adds a hearty richness to food (although, to be fair, the first, and probably only, time I saw it on the ingredient list when I was in cooking school — in a traditional civet de lapin, or rabbit stew — I was both delighted and a little scared).
It was served with frijoles charros, a simple bean soup that in this case was favored with fat back, cilantro and tomatoes.
After the cabrito en sangre, we also had a hunk of cabrito al pastor. Later in the day, as I was thinking about that straightforward, hearty smoked and grilled meat, I remembered a simple, narrow-minded woman at the James Beard House who, one night during a dinner there, saw fit to visit other tables and collect recommendations for restaurants in Barcelona. I recommended several places (Espai Sucre by reputation, Talaia Mar from past experience to sample some food by an Adria disciple), with my heartiest endorsement behind Rincón de Aragon for its roasted goat leg. She shuttered at my final suggestion and indicated that I was ridiculous. Hey, it was her loss. See if I ever share my civet de lapin with her.
Our excursion through Matamoros continued with a little more shopping, but not much, before we went to Los Portales, where I started with a chelada.
I started with a chelada at Los Norteños, too, but there it was simply beer with a squeeze of lime in a tall, salt-rimmed glass. At Los Portales it was a solid two fingers of lime juice in an ice-filled mug, served with a bottle of beer that was to be poured in the glass.
Then we had a picadillo — spiced ground beef and potatoes on a tortilla chip — more frijoles charros, and then their specialties, pollo and carne asada, which were straightforward grilled meats. Sylvia struck up a conversation with the table next to us and had foods she hadn’t tried before, like a sort of low-fat crispy (corn) tortilla made by simply toasting it on a comal.
Our neighbors started handing all of their food to Sylvia to try, and soon they were joined by César Rendón, a local politician whom I recognized from his campaign posters, which were all over town. I suppose I should have had my picture taken with him so you’d believe me.
Our last stop was a restaurant I won’t name because Sylvia and I both had the worst Margarita we had ever had in our lives there.
But it also introduced us to a puzzle that I shall explore in the next entry.