Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Que pasa queso dip?

I grew up on the northwestern finger of East LA which means I've eaten more than my fair share of really good and really bad for you Mexican food. From sit down restaurants, to street taco cart vendors, to all-night sopes stands, my tummy gets rumbly just thinking about a triplet of $.99 carnitas taco with some raw radishes and pickled yellow chiles.

East LA kind of Mexican food.

Not to be confused with TexMex, or Baja Mex, or Connecticut Yankee-ketchup-with-chives-masquerading-as-salsa Mex.

In my small town, we're fortunate to have an honest to goodness family-run Mexican restaurant. While it's technically not a chain-type joint, there are a dozen or more of these restaurants sprinkled around the state -- all owned and operated by different members of the same big ol' Mexican family. How cool is that?

The food is decent, the portions are huge, and the place is always packed, but the menu has been tailored for the local consumer. This is good business sense, from a restauranteur point of view, however this also means there are very few surprises on the menu's offerings, and some of my favorites are AWOL.

What they do include along with the complimentary chips and salsa is something that I've found is served in almost every Mexican-themed restaurant I've eaten here in Oklahoma -- melted cheese dip, or queso as the locals call it.

Basically, it's a spicy, melted, velveety-like cheese product to be used for chip dipping, and tortilla spreading.

Now, don't get me wrong, this stuff is addicting and Okies love their Mexican food as evidenced by the abundance of restarants bearing names such as El Chico, Abuelo's, Chellino's, Maria's, Alvarado's, Serapio's, and Ted's (okay, what happened there? Maybe Ted is short for Teodoro).

But it's almost too much to deal with. Heck, give me a basket of chips, some salsa, this queso dip food product, and a plastic tortilla keeper full of "softies" -- my M-i-L's term for warmed, flour tortillas, and I don't need to order anything to get my munch on.

I'm not sure if the "queso" tradition is an Okie thing, a southwest thing, or anywhere-but-in-East-LA thing. But I'm sure it'll soon make it's way to my home turf, and pretty soon, King Taco and other all night taco stands on Whittier Blvd. will be dishing out cups of the stuff to gringo's asking for a side of "chips and cheese."


WarWagon said...

My wife & I can't get enough of the queso when we go to OKC for various family gatherings. Here in the Tulsa area, there aren't any decent Mexican places and none of them give queso as part of the appetizer.

OKDad said...

I've heard from many OKCitian's that Tulsa was like another state entirely -- different culture, politics, attitudes ,etc.

But no decent Mex-eateries....how can this be?

tuesday said...

Around where I live, we were used to the fake mexican stuff that when an authentic mexican restaurant finally opened up, it was hard to adjust our tastebuds to the real-deal.

When I was down visiting a friend in Texas, we stopped at a grocery store and I couldn't believe it, but they were making "softies" right there in the produce section. I couldn't get enough of them. I got so jealous when I came back home and couldn't get them anymore. Guess there's not a big enough population of mexicans up this way.

OKDad said...

When my wife's brother and sister-in-law were living up in Joe Paterno-ville (State College, PA), they were dying that the closest thing to restaraunt Mexican food they could find was at a Chili's.

But they said the Chinese food was decent...go figure.

Emily said...

No decent Mexican in Tulsa? You're obviously running with the wrong crowd. For authentic Mexican tacos (read: tortilla, meat, cilantro, and onion, with maybe a spritz of lime over the top if you're so inclined -- no lettuce, tomatoes, or cheese like you get at Taco Hell), try Don Francisco's, over at 31st and Mingo. To my knowledge, they're the only place in town where you can get goat tacos, and they're absolutely wonderful.

Las Americas, over on Third Street, has good authentic tacos, too; I've had the tongue and the tripe, and both were good.

Rio Verde, up on the north side, and Cancun, a few blocks north of 11th Street on Lewis Avenue, aren't bad, either, although I didn't like either of them as much as I liked Don Francisco's. (The Don Francisco's on 11th, however, is nowhere near as good as the one on 31st.)

If you're into the queso thing, I seem to recall ordering something or other (cheese tacos, maybe?) drenched in queso at El Rancho Grande on 11th Street. It's kind of geared toward a heavily gringo palate, but if you like that sort of thing, it's not bad.

The best quesadillas in town are to be had at Taqueria Jerez, which is way, way, way out on East 11th ... and Mexico's Fast Food, a relative newcomer located behind the QuikTrip on 42nd Place in Red Fork, has the best beans I've ever eaten. Their rice isn't bad, either, and they serve a lot of really sturdy stuff like chalupas, big burritos, and enchiladas, all with plenty of meat.

But for tamales, you want to head to Josie's, out on east 21st Street. It's carryout only, but the tamales are hands-down the best I've ever had.

There's plenty of good Mexican in Tulsa. Just ask my hips. I've gained 20 pounds since we moved to town two and a half years ago. I blame Mexican restaurants for at least 15 of those pounds.

OKDad said...

Again..it's all relative.

The first time I took my then-future-in-laws out to eat for some authentic East LA Mexican food, they weren't all that pleased. Not what they were used to and it was my fault for not seeing the writing on the walls.

Since that first taste of culinary culture shock over 20 years ago, they've grown to love the more street Mex-fare that I grew up with and are actively seeking out the less queso-ey menus when they hunt for latin based cuisine.

Good to know that street tacos are available up in Tulsa-land. We're tentatively planning a Tulsa-road trip for our spring break this year and will definitely be adding Don Fran's and Josie's to our itinerary;

Mucho gusto.

Emily said...

Tamales from Josie's would be good fare for a picnic at the Blue Whale on Route 66 in Catoosa. :)

Paul said...

"I've heard from many OKCitian's that Tulsa was like another state entirely -- different culture, politics, attitudes ,etc."

You're right about that. Tulsa has more of a Midwestern feel than the rest of the state. There has always been talk (in jest?) that Tulsa should secede from the rest of the state and join Kansas, one of the main reasons being that the politicians in "The City" love to build turnpikes in Tulsa. The entire city is locked down with turnpikes.

Oh, and there are rivers of queso. ;-)