Tex parked in the drive-thru behind the old Burger King on South Avenue. We walked in, seating ourselves in a corner by a glass wall, next to a family that was quietly eating chips and salsa.
Tex wanted Mexican food. Real Mexican food—the kind that comes on a heated oblong plate, with red rice on one side and a puddle of beans on the other, all sprinkled with melted cheese. The fact that Viva Mexico is located in an ex-Burger King earns major style points. But these presentation details are not the deciding factor. Tex, a onetime writer for a leftward leaning newspaper in Houston, is a crusty conservative when it comes to food, especially Mexican. What would he think of the chow?
“Ya know,” said Tex, “I’m kinda disgusted by the gourmet fajita explosion that has taken over Texas.” His voice rose, gaining momentum. “Mango fajitas with saffron glaze,” he mourned, “chanterelle fajitas, endive fajitas, roast duck fajitas...I mean give me a FRIGGIN’ BREAK. The whole point of fajitas is that you use the shitty leftover skirt steak that the boss left behind. The whole beauty of fajitas is that you are turning shit into gold. And to do this right, you need to start with shit. You hear me, SHIT.”
Out of the corner of my eye I watched salsa-laden corn chips pause on their way to gaping mouths. Silence at the table next door, followed by the sounds of forced conversation.
After studying the extensive menu, Tex ordered enchiladas and I almost ordered chicken mole but ordered chiles rellenos instead. Damn. Watching the waitress vanish into the kitchen with our order, I knew in my gut that it was a mistake. Their chicken mole is so very extra sabroso, what are the chances of doing better?
I’ve learned through brutal experience that when it comes to deciphering a menu, it pays to listen to my gut. And if you want to become a menu black-belt like me, you must be prepared to do the stalking chicken and switch gears on a dime. I followed the waitress into the kitchen and changed my order. Sergio, the cook, nodded. “And don’t make it gringo style,” I added. “Give it to me straight. I can take it.” Sergio smiled.
“OK,” he said. “You ask for it.”
Back at the table, I took a moment to admire the post-Burger King decor. Ornate sombreros hung from earth-tone pigmented plaster walls beneath a pressed metal ceiling. Ceramic figurines and vases of plastic flowers filled all available nooks. I should note that plastic flowers might seem cheesy in some contexts, but in the context of a reinhabited Burger King, they are a brilliant masterstroke of kitsch.
The food arrived, huge. Even Tex, from a place where food is normally served extra-large, was impressed. He ate his enchiladas approvingly. “This here,” he said, “is the no bullshit real deal.”
As for the mole, all I could say was “Ole!” It too was the non-gringo-style real deal. Tex gave it a try.
“Oh dear,” he said. “That there mole is a bit too spicy for my tender sensibilities.”
Mole is a sauce made from a mixture of spices and unsweetened chocolate. This may sound wierd to those who like their chocolate as candy, but Ay Caramba, does it ever work. You take a hot corn tortilla from a little container next to the plate. Fill it with rice, beans, salad, mole and salsa. Then roll that tortilla and start munching. Sweat was beading up on my neck, but the overall flavor balance was such that the heat fit in perfectly. Didn’t even need mayo.
On the way out, I asked Sergio how he does it.
“Entonces,” he said, leaning against the open door frame of the kitchen, “first you grind all of the spices, everything together. Black pepper, garlic, oregano, cumin, paprika, chili powder, pumpkin seeds, peanuts and cocoa powder.
“If you want spicy, better to add red peppers, like cayenne. And to give it more body, you can fry some tortillas and crumble them in the mole. Mix it together, and then you can keep it in the cooler.
“Or you can get it ready-made,” he said. “La Mexicana is a good brand.
“Entonces,” he said, “when you are ready to cook, boil the chicken. Pour some of that broth into a frying pan with some salt and lard or oil. Then add mole and little pieces of chicken, and simmer it all together.
“And for the gringos,” he cautioned, “I usually cut the mole with a little peanut butter, because if I don’t sometimes I get complaints that it is too strong.”
No thank you please. Do I look like a gringo? Do I taste like one? I wanna taste a meal that burns you twice—import and export. And Tex? Last anybody heard, he’d joined an elite squad of undercover poultry inspectors. He was the only member not to quit eating chicken.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: email@example.com