21Jan2009

Food Musings Part One – Mexican

We often get asked what our favorite places to eat are, and specifically what do we like to eat when we go out.  Recently we’ve been away (hence the fewer blogposts) to Denver to visit family for the holidays, and then driving on the way back home, we spent some time in Virginia – visiting good friends of ours in Purcellville and then speaking in Warrenton at the Airlie Center.  Well, busy travelers still need to eat, and dining out happens to be a favorite pastime of ours, so the research began and so, if you’re ever in Denver or near Warrenton, VA – we’ve got some fantastic finds that we were pretty excited about!  This first installment is on one of our favorite all-time topics, Mexican food.

In Denver there are 4-5 main restaurant stops that must be made by us to ensure a good visit home: Las Delicias, Tommy’s Thai, Ethiopian Restaurant, Saigon Bowl or New Saigon Restaurant.
Being from the southwest and being weaned on beans and chile, going out for Mexican is a no-brainer.  What is a challenge, though, is finding a great consistent restaurant that will be around for generations so that you can share it with your loved ones in years to come.  This is food memory at its best.  Where we come from, it is crucial to have a good Mexican restaurant in your back pocket to return to time and again so that you can order that good old standby: for Spencer and me it’s always the bean burrito, smothered with green chile, topped with lettuce and cheese, occasionally with a side of a single chile relleno.  For Spencer’s dad it’s always the Mexican hamburger, for my dad it was always a bowl of green chile with 2 warm tortillas and a side of guacamole or bean tostadas.  The pitcher of house margaritas is also something you want to be able to count on.  Nothing is worse than going to a restaurant that you know and love, get addicted to a dish, and return to find that something has changed.  In the words of Mario Batali, “As a chef, it’s important to be consistent.  If you choose to be an inconsistent cook, then you are a d*ck.”  My father lamented the loss of a good Mexican restaurant like a bad breakup with a girlfriend that he was sure was “the one.”  One case in point was the iconic Denver Mexican restaurant standby La Hacienda.  

My dad ate there with his dad.  He grew up on that food.  It was a divine pleasure for him to be able to take me and my siblings to La Hacienda as soon as we could be trusted in a restaurant.  This was done with reverence, there was an expectation that we would love all the same dishes he loved, and perhaps there was a chance we would order something the grandpa we never knew had once ordered.  It was possible, it was genetic.
One of my dad’s favorite sayings was, “No wonder we both like it, we’re related!”  We 

were always striving to connect through food.  I’ll never forget the day that we went to La Hacienda for our youngest sister’s first La Hacienda experience.  There was so much hope and expectation built up for my dad, he could barely contain himself.  “Ooooh!” he’d say, “Maybe she’ll like the bowl of green chile like me” or “I bet she’ll really like tostadas!”  What he didn’t expect was that there had been some major menu restructuring since the last time he’d been there.  It began with the new menu arriving at our table, “This looks different” my dad said quietly.  There was a moment of panic when he couldn’t find his favorite dish on the menu, but then found it in the a la carte section, to everyone’s relief.  The meal took a turn for the worse when the margaritas came, and after dad’s first sip, “Something’s not right here, a little watery maybe”.  When the waiter brought our meals, my dad got a very sad expression on his face as he looked at his bowl of green chile.  He could tell at the first glance that the recipe had changed. “There’s not enough chile in here”.  

What started out as a jubilant feast of hope and possibility ended in the saddest meal I’ve ever seen my dad eat.  There could have been a country song written about it, or better yet, a mariachi ballad with lots of sobbing and mentions of “mi corazon”. 

 I always saw it as my dad’s personal mission to keep the Mexican restaurants in Denver honest.  
One that comes close to his impossibly high standards for us is Las Delicias.  Consistency is their main commodity, that and the Special Nachos.  This is the Mexican restaurant of Spencer’s childhood – he’s been eating there since he could eat solid food.  With the demise of La Hacienda, I latched onto Spencer’s family tradition and so we go there every time we’re in town.  I don’t think my dad liked Las Delicias very much, apparently their beans weren’t up to his liking, but we like them just fine.  Las Delicias has those traditional great Mexican restaurant markings: murals on the walls, a velvet painting or two, dusty old sombreros hanging on the walls, plastic pseudo-straw baskets for the chips, and the classic, ubiquitous red plastic tumblers for your water or pop, preferably with the Coca-cola logo emblazoned on it; yep, it has all of these things as well as crowds at all hours of the day.  While we’re socked away deep in winter here in Vermont, and Spencer wants Mexican food, what he really means is that he wants Las Delicias’ Special Nachos.  Of particular fascination for me is the popularity of the place.  They have 5 locations all over Denver, and the beauty of the thing is that the Special Nachos are identical at every single location! 

 This is culinary wizardry in my book!  That kind of thing is reserved in my mind for places like fast food chains.  However, at every Las Delicias location we’ve frequented, we swear it’s the same family working there with the little grandmas in the back making chile.  Amazing.  And pretty darn delicious!  The last time we went to Las Delicias, we had a brief “freak out” moment when the menus came, they were different.  Slicker.  Updated.  Flashbacks to my dad’s La Hacienda meltdown were dancing in my head.  But, no worries, the Special Nachos were still special, and the waitress still asked if I wanted lettuce and cheese on my burrito.  But, more importantly, it tasted exactly like it did last time!  Yum!  Click here to check out their homegrown website to see their 5 locations.  Next time, some new favorites in Virginia!

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