View from the Suburbs: Quest for the Best Mexican Restaurant

Discovery of the weekend--Tostada Regia--on N. Gessner, Houston, Texas

If Prilosec is doing its job, Mexican food is my favorite, and when I lived “in town”, I’d get my fix about once a week.

My FFMP (forever favorite Mexican place) in Houston is El Paraiso, right in the heart of Montrose, on Fairview.  I started going there not long after I moved into Montrose in 1984.  Even through all these years, the great quality and homecooked taste of the food have never changed.  There’s even one waitress who has worked there since the days when I started eating at El Paraiso, and she still looks the same as she did “back in the day”.  It’s a favorite of business people and other workers for lunches, but starting later in the afternoons, every “type” of person you might encounter in Montrose might be represented among the clientele, and the atmosphere is one of the friendliest around.

When I moved near Memorial Park, I soon discovered El Rey at the corner of Washington and Shepherd.  Though the small interior can get crowded, nothing can beat going through the drive thru for either tacos al pastor or una torta.   Even jostled around in a styrofoam box, the portions are large and delicious.  El Rey’s frijoles a la charra are some of the best.  Since I moved out this way, there’s an empty lot about a mile away that says, “El Rey–Coming Soon”.  I keep wondering, “How soon?”

For the most part, I’ve been eating at home since I moved out here to the ‘burbs.  My kitchen is spacious, and I find that usually I’d rather make something for myself instead of going out.  There’s most every kind of fast food place and a wide variety of ethnic restaurants within a very short drive.  Even so, I haven’t ventured much beyond McDonald’s and a couple of Chinese buffets.

But for about the last month, I’ve been needing my fix of Mexican food.  Even though I’ve made some myself, it’s just not the same.  There’s every type of Mexican food place that one might imagine, from the mobile stands to chain restaurants.  With my taste buds hankering for some flavor, I’ve decided I have to try one new place every week.

There are several Mexican places right near the corner of Eldridge Road and S. H. 529, all in the strip centers that line that corner. I’ve tried two so far, Taqueria El Monarcha and Lupita’s Restaurant, both of which advertise themselves as estilo Michoacan.

First, I tried Taqueria El Monarcha.  Despite being in a storefront building, the place has a bit of character and the staff were attentive.  I ordered asado de puerco (roasted pork).  The meat came in the form of small pieces of meat, cooked almost to the point of being burnt, but were just crunchy and delicious.  The plate came with plenty of hot tortillas, good portions of refried beans and rice, and lettuce and tomato for any tacos you might roll up.  Ten bucks, including a tip, and I was out the door.  The food is good, but the back room, which might feel a bit cozier than the dinette style front, was filled with a family birthday party.

About a week later, I tried Lupita’s Restaurant.  Granted, it was long after lunchtime mid-week, but based on my experience, I won’t go back.  First, upon entering, there wasn’t the expected smell of spicy Mexican food, but just the odor of Pine-sol.   There was only one other customer in the bright, but sterile dining area.  The lone waitress seemed unsure of herself, somewhat hesitant to wait on this “gringo”.  I ordered carne guisada (stewed beef).  El Paraiso’s carne guisada has always been the gold standard for me; their version is simple but so good–nicely cooked chunks of meat covered in the thick gravy it has been cooking in.  Lupita’s carne guisada came floating in a dark red sauce, which I think was made from chile poblanos. I’m usually OK with dishes made with these chiles, but this tasted something like a soup made with chile powder.   The red sauce that came with the chips tasted very similar.  On the other hand, the green sauce was bright and delicious.  I can’t finish with Lupita’s without mentioning “the entertainment”.  Like El Monarcha and other taquerias, Lupita’s has two big screen TVs, but the court-type show in Spanish that was on while I was eating my meal was more disgusting than a Jerry Springer dream.  Obviously, the participants and the case were fake, but supposedly, these two 20-something girls had masturbated this rancher’s stallions in order to get the semen to use as face cream for themselves and to sell in spas–and all the details were included.

Today, I was out running errands, and by 1 o’clock, the toast and coffee I had while paying bills were long forgotten.  I decided to try one of the many restaurants along Gessner, north of I-10.  N. Gessner here in the part of Houston known as Spring Branch, and it’s peppered with Hispanic and Korean restaurants and shops as well as some Vietnamese noodle places.  These are all mixed together with the typical American Baskin ‘n Robbins, brake mechanics, donut shops, and Walgreens.

I took a chance and stopped at Tostada Regia, which had caught my attention other times when I had passed by.  I was hungry and this place was the right choice to satiate my appetite.  I ordered tostada ranchera, but first came a large basket of chips and three dishes of salsa: a very good green one, a spicy cooked red, and then a pink one, which the waiter told me was a habanero salsa.  It was hot, but no hotter than the red.  My order came quickly, and the plate held this very large tostada–7-8 inches–with a crispy flat tortilla on both the top and bottom, filled with shredded chicken, lettuce, onion, and Mexican-style sour cream.  I added the green sauce to it, and I couldn’t stop eating it.  Not to mention, on the side, there was a cup of  delicious chicken caldo with rice.

Tostada Regia has a comfortable atmosphere.  With the attentive staff ready at the waiting to serve more tea and water and the rustic wooden tables and benches, it reminds me of the old La Jalisciense that used to me on Montrose near West Gray.  The restaurant had customers coming and going, though, not quite the diverse crowd that could be found at La Jalisciense.   That doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter that Tostada Regia is not quite in my vecindad;  it’s close enough that I’ll go back when I’m out running errands or just when I need “a fix” of good Mexican food.

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Mother’s Day: Remembering Mom . . . and Dad

This morning was going so well.  Soon after letting Annie out for her morning “go”, I decided to try out the new sprinkler on the thirsty front yard.  The spray and puddles soon attracted a variety of birds and even a squirrel that wanted to play in the rhythmic splashes on the sidewalk.

Then into the garage I went to pull a big bag of potting soil out of the hatchback in order to re-pot a monkey’s paw fern that had crashed onto the patio from its precarious perch from a nail not-so-carefully driven into a pergola post.  But the beans that had been soaking overnight for frijoles a la charra were on my mind, so I headed back inside to get them started cooking.   When I returned to the pots, I happily found that the fern could be separated, and I could share part with a friend.  In the front yard, the water continued soaking the dry ground.

With my hands covered with potting soil, I headed out front to turn off the water, only to find that ants had started another hill in the corner of the side flower bed.  Back to the garage I went for the Sevin.

With the ants taken care of, my puttering continued–filling pots, frying pieces of salted pork for the beans, sweeping the front sidewalk of the remaining puddles and twigs from the oak tree.

Enjoying my puttering on this unusually fresh southeast Texas morning.  Moving back and forth task to task until one and then the other was completed.  Even now as I write, it’s back downstairs to check on the nearly ready beans.

Enjoying my house.

Then one of those moments comes over me.  I know it’s Mother’s Day.  This is the second without Mom.  Last year wasn’t like this.

It’s the house.

Driving back from Kansas, a Christmas ago, less than two months after Mom had passed away, I had Annie in the car with me, and all of a sudden, for no obvious reason, I stopped the car, started to bawl, and said to her,  “I’m going to get us a house.”

————–

My parents spoiled me.  When you’re the last one by a ways, you get spoiled.  I didn’t see it that way so much when it was happening, but they kept it up even after I came back from four years in the military and should have learned to take care of myself.  The house on the farm, and later, the one in town.  Mom. Dad. Home.  Always there for me.   After a weekend or holiday spent with my folks, I almost always cried  after I got into my car and was heading down the road.  (There are some of those N.A.R.T.H.-type psycho-wackos that would say that’s why I’m gay, but if so there’s a helluva lot of spoiled straight people out there too.)

Even after Dad was gone, when I’d spend time with Mom at the house in Abilene, it’d be hard to leave, and later, when she wasn’t able to care for herself, she’d say things to show she still worried and cared about me, like when one of the last times I saw her, she said, “Don’t stop quilting.  You might need that to take care of yourself some day.”  Behind me now set two tables  piled with two sewing machines, fabric, and all  sorts of quilting supplies, not quite ready to start–or finish–a project.  When the things on those tables are organized, most everything in my house will have found its place.

————–

The full realization of why getting this house was so important never really hit me until this morning.

After my mom was gone, I no longer had a home to go back to.  Not that she’d even lived in her own house for the last years of her life.

So many things that I do now remind of my mom and dad.  (I can hardly breathe right now–remembering.)  My dad.  My dad’s blue striped overalls.  When I was a very little kid, I used to hang onto the loop on the side (the one that would hold a hammer) when I went along with him almost every Saturday to the grocery store.  Those beans downstairs.  I learned to cook, and not be afraid to experiment, from watching and helping Mom in the kitchen.  I could still pluck and dress a chicken if I had to.

Not long after I moved in to my house, I “had” to get a wooden bowl for the Christmas nuts, not only the bowl, but add to it the old flat iron that I already had and a hammer to crack the nuts.  A similar set for nut-cracking was what my parents had had for as long as I can remember.  The once kerosene lamp, turned into an electric one by an uncle, which sat forever on the desk in the house on the farm, after being passed around the family for awhile, came to me and now is on my desk in the corner of the living room, not so different from its place back on the farm.

My house has already become more than a nice place to live; because of it, I am able to live in a way that I couldn’t in an apartment.  More than ever, I realize how much of my own self comes from my mom and dad.  Because of them, I pushed myself to buy a house, and I’m sure that they would be happy for me, knowing that I’m “home” again.

(And the beans are done, the cilantro added.  And my first attempt at barbequed ribs on the big-ass grill is happenin’.)

Home-cooked Pinto Beans, Refried Beans, and Cardinals To Boot

Less than 1/10 of an inch (near 529 and Huffmeister), but the new rain gauge is ready to take on more.

Friday has brought another tranquil morning, and as I’m on vacation I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest.

This morning when I got up to take Annie out, there was a light rain coming down, so I was more ready to go out that she was.  Yesterday, I had put up a rain gauge.  The farm kid in me wanted a rain gauge to go along with my new garden.  There’s a perfect post right at the garden gate that’s right out in the open away from the influence of the surrounding trees.  Because it was still almost dark at that time, I couldn’t see how much precipitation–if any–had collected in the gauge.

I went back inside, but soon was ready for something to eat.  I don’t know what it is–on a work day morning, I’m not hungry when I get up, but when I have a day off, I feel like eating and usually make a substantial breakfast.

Yesterday I had made chile colorado and cooked some pinto beans.  (I’ll post the recipe for chile colorado later.)   I had wanted to make frijoles a la charra (ranch-style beans), but I didn’t have all the ingredients.  Anyway, when it comes to cooking, sometimes simple is better.  Here is what I did:

Home-cooked Pinto Beans

2 cups dry pinto beans  (Wash the beans in a colander, place in a large bowl, and add at least twice as much water as beans.  Let the beans soak for at least 4 hours, but overnight is even better.

When the beans are soaked and ready to cook:

1 medium onion chopped

1 cloves garlic (smash the garlic with the side of a big knife and then finely mince

2 tablespoons olive oil.

Heat the olive oil in a 2-quart pot and add the chopped onions.  Sauté the onions until they begin to change color, and then add the garlic.  (Garlic tends to burn if you cook for the same time as the onion.)

Once the vegetables are sautéd, dump the beans and water into the pot.  Add more water for a total of 1 1/2 quarts.  The water should be an inch or two below the rim of the pot.

At this point add a bit of ham, bacon, or salt port.  I had some thin deli ham, so I put in a couple slices, not very much at all.

Turn up the heat to medium-high, put the lid on the pot, and bring the water to a boil.  After the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat and partially cover the pot with the lid.  Cook the beans at a very low simmer for at least an hour and then check on them.  When the skins start to split, strain one or two beans out of the liquid and check them for doneness.  If they are still grainy, they’ll need at least an hour more.

In the food processor, pulse together: 1 can of stewed tomatoes, 2 tablespoons grape jelly, and 1/3 cup ketchup.

Add this mixture to the beans before they are completely cooked and let everything finish cooking together.  When the beans are completely cooked, salt and pepper to taste.

The broth is very tasty, so you could serve this as a soup, or strain the beans and serve them just as a vegetable.

Quick, easy, and yummy!For my breakfast this morning, I decided to take advantage of what I had cooked yesterday, so I strained out about a cup of the beans and pulsed them in the food processor.  Don’t overdo it, you want to keep some bean texture and not have a dip!

So in my non-stick frying pan, I cooked two eggs and added the beans for refried beans.  Why do they call them “refried” beans?  They’ve already been cooked, but “fried”?  Only once.  Maybe the refrying is in the method.  To get the beans nice and crispy on the outside, keep turning and turning them, something like you might do with a potato pancake.  Never made them?  Well, keep turning the beans until they look tasty.

Breakfast is ready!The light rain let up and I went out to eat my breakfast on the patio.  Once again, I feel like I’m truly on vacation.  My back yard is such as pleasant place.

Just to add to the peaceful environment, a pair of cardinals came to scratch in the grass and have a bit of breakfast while I was enjoying mine.