Thursday, May 12, 2016

DINNER at El CHILITO


Outside dining at the new El Chilito on increasingly trendy Burnet Road.
It's gonna be a hot & spicy summer.
In mid-June 2015, hungry for steaming hot white meat on the bone in a jacket of crispy batter, I walked up the street to the local Church's Fried Chicken, and though I had passed by the day before, smelled the chicken, and seen customers coming and going, the first thing I saw on this day was their sign jaggedly quartered and in a pile behind the restaurant. I walked around front, and sure enough the windows were boarded up. In less than twenty-four hours, a landmark had disappeared from the little world of my stomping grounds. How strange it must have been to serve up the last piece of chicken, if the servers had any sense of the history of the place, which they probably didn't. They were probably watching their watch and wondering how long that application at McDonald's would take to go through.

As if to rest and think a while about what it would become, the little building sat idle for several weeks. I nominated it for a portal in Google's walking game, Ingress, on the basis that its remarkable fifty-year existence was sufficient grounds to make it a historical point of interest, and far less culturally significant points in town than that have been selected as portals. Then finally three construction worker pick-up trucks—you know them: paint splattered and dusty, expensive power tools scattered about in the bed—appeared in the parking lot, and not long afterwards a sign announced this would be the site of El Chilito. What is entering this world through this building isn't Ingress's XM but trendiness, yet another indication that this neighborhood is shedding its old dinosaur skins in exchange for some sleek gentrified leather.
A puffy beef taco at top; and a fish plate.
Across Burnet, the old marquis for the
Burnet Drive-In, now a storage facility,
the waxing crescent moon in the sky.

Tonight I had serious cravings for tacos, so I walked up the street to El Chilito. This was my second time there because my first time left me with the impression that this is the kind of restaurant that I really love if only I can find something on the menu that I like. I suppose it's good that Mexican food is evolving toward something at once new yet more authentic. I like it, but the Mexican food I grew up with was a comfort food. Maybe this is why I like Jack in the Box tacos and Taco Bell tacos, which in terms of healthy food are close to the trashiest tacos out there, but to me that's what tacos are: they're cheap fast food. The fish nuggets on my plate and the beef in my puffy taco with the fixings and a bottle of Topo Chico added up to $18.13 and a two-dollar tip. Certainly this food was made of somewhat higher quality ingredients, but I think mostly I was paying for the growing prestige of sitting on—I'm trying to stay this with a straight face, having known Burnet Road when it was two-lane blacktop—I was paying for the prestige of sitting on Burnet Road and for the privilege of eating politically correct authentic tacos. I am a long-time lover of fish, by the way, and I have to say that sealing fish in deep fried fish cubes is a crass thing to do to the world's most delicate meat. No fish, including the fish in a taco, should be anything less than a fillet until you cut or bite off a piece for your mouth.

My Hispanic friend Harry curses the original Tex-Mex as a hundred combinations and permutations of beans, ground mystery meat, melted pasteurized American process cheese food, shredded lettuce, and corn tortillas. All those names we learned—tacos, enchiladas, encheritos, chalupas, burritos, chimichangas—were just a structural variation on more combinations of the same ingredients. It was, he said, white food cooked by and for white people. But it was what I grew up with, and Harry's intellectually condescending attitudes led us into greasy spoons (not El Chilito, by the way) where I found hairs in the menudo and an excess of cumin in the meat, but Harry was content that we had eaten the right way courtesy of his sharing a tiny slice of his genius. This is where the market has taken Mexican food.

I admit that the new Mexican food is healthier. And I've traveled extensively throughout Mexico, and travel amounts to taking a culinary expedition on the road. And I liked the food there. By definition, food in Mexico is authentic Mexican food, and that authenticity is not the authenticity we're getting here. In the States the new Mexican food carries the pretentiousness of a rich man dressing down to blue jeans: he's casually dressed, but the demeanor and the register in which he speaks will not let you forget who he is. These tacos attempt to dress down a pretentious haute taco without letting you forget.


Long before Topo Chico became a staple in
neo-Hippie fridges, I tried to persuade the bottlers
in Mexico to let me import the effervescent water
into the States, but my long hair and obvious
lack of capital scared them a bit. Perhaps I would
have made a fortune, but the bottled water fad had
not yet caught on in the US yet, so... who knows?

BOOKS ON SALE

The collection of my poems, Counting Stars at Forty Below, will be substantially discounted between 13 and 20 May. The discount will be best on the 13th. Each day afterwards the price takes a small step back toward the original price, which it will reach on the 20th or 21st. If you like the poems I've been publishing on my Monday blogs, now is your chance to seize the book for a good price.