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August 01, 2011

Chicago Invades Texas

Texas and Chicago Get Hitched Dominic Armato

Until a week and a half ago, my personal experience with Texas was limited to a gas station in the middle of nowhere, and the Hooters in Amarillo (I loathe breastaurants, but not as much as I love the Chicago Bears). And so, last weekend, it was with a great deal of excitement that my ladylove and I left the chilluns with Grandma, piled into the car and set off for the wedding of a dear, dear friend in Marfa, Texas, perhaps the most remote destination I've ever visited in the contiguous 48. Texas and Chicago were gettin' hitched, as one of my high school friends found herself a feller in the Lone Star State and proceeded to plan a wedding invoking the spirit of both of their homes, blessed by patron saints Elvis and Johnny Cash, and fully branded with custom-made accoutrements like the stunning piece of pants-securing hardware you see pictured above. In short, it was a helluva time.

Chile Con Queso DipDominic Armato

Unfortunately, the whirlwind nature of the trip didn't leave much time for exploration. With Grandma outnumbered 2-1, we felt the only compassionate thing was to make the trip a surgical strike, driving through the night en route to less than 48 hours of jam-packed wedding festivities, followed by a sprint through the desert back home. But we did our level best to hit a few eats on the way, starting with a quick lunch at L&J Cafe, an El Paso landmark and hardcore Tex-Mex eatery. L&J dates back to 1927, and the family running the joint, spanning three generations, is completely open about L&J's prohibition-era roots as well as its prohibition-era... *ahem*... activities. It was a bar before it was a restaurant, and indeed, the dining room tacked onto the back almost seems like an afterthought, narrow, cave like and packed to the gills with patrons eating off of enormous, steaming plates. This is border food, a magical marriage of cultures that's been almost forgotten in the (completely justified) explosion of interest in regional Mexican cuisine. That trend will come full circle again, I'm sure. But in the meantime, it was both quaint and comforting to peruse a menu filled with enchiladas, fajitas, burritos and more.

I can't say whether it was a regional characteristic or simply L&J's approach, but when chips and green salsa hit the table, it was a thrill to discover that the salsa actually had some kick, enough to get a nice burn going right into our starter, the Chile con Queso Dip. Refined isn't the word I'd use here. Decadent is more like it. But sloppy and gooey and messy as it was, this was still a carefully constructed mess of roasted chiles -- mostly hatch, I believe -- onions, a blend of cheeses, cream and some other seasonings I'm sure, that was the kind of thing you don't want to station yourself next to at the party or you will eat the whole thing. Though heavy, it went down easy, balanced with a little sweetness and tartness and plenty of spice. Sophisticated? No. But really, really good.

Mexican CombinationDominic Armato

I followed that with the Mexican Combination, driven mostly by the urge to try as many items as possible. It was an enormous plate that was something of a hit and miss affair. Misses for me included the beef taco, its almost undetectable filling buried in shredded lettuce, sour cream, cardboard tomatoes and cheddar and jack cheeses. This is the kind of item that gave Tex-Mex a bad name, amounting to little more than a pile of flavorless vegetables. Better, though still kind of weak, was the chile verde con carne, chunks of dry pork stewed in an underpowered tomatillo and green chile sauce. I've sampled much better elsewhere. Rice and beans were tasty and well-made, and a beef flauta was crisp and delicious, possibly made with the same meat as the taco, but without all of the extraneous veg to get in the way. A chile relleno was also pretty good, stuffed with melty cheese and topped with some stewed vegetables that, unlike the taco filling, tasted like vegetables rather than water. The undisputed king of the plate, however, was a fabulous red cheese enchilada, warm and steamy and completely smothered in a deep, earthy sauce that was a blast of pure red chile flavor with a satisfying but non-abusive amount of heat. The menu had a large section dedicated to enchiladas, and that's where I'd focus if I were to return... and I'd return in a heartbeat, because despite a couple of misses, I really, really enjoyed the hits.

Baked Eggs with SpinachDominic Armato

And with that, we were back on the road, hugging the Mexican border before turning inland towards Marfa, population 1,981, a West Texas ranch and railroad town turned artist colony and tourist destination, simultaneously dusty and stylish and the perfect matrimonial locale for a couple prone to larger-than-life endeavors. After a rollicking rehearsal dinner and open mic catered with aplomb by Salt Lick BBQ of Austin, we crashed and crashed hard, and awoke desperately in need of breakfast. Cochineal anchors Marfa's refined dining scene. Or perhaps more accurately, Cochineal IS Marfa's refined dining scene. And though I heard great things from friends who'd arrived earlier in the week and was tortured by a great-looking menu, breakfast was sadly the only crack I'd get at them. But for a quick stop en route to wedding preparations, It was a mighty fine breakfast. Baked eggs, laced with cream and spinach, were beautifully done, firm around the outside, loose and slurpy in the middle and nicely crusted on top. I also had the good fortune of ending up with a few bites of a friend's pancake, which was nearly half an inch thick, light and fluffy in the center browned to the point of being almost crispy, and something I wish I'd had a plateful of myself.

And with that, I was sucked into the wedding whirlwind, fulfilling official duties as a (gender-neutral) bridesmaid, bouncing from one last-minute task to the next, before settling into a fabulous and undeniably unique ceremony overseen by a minister done up like the cover of "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." And once she'd pronounced them man and wife "by the power vested in [her] by God, The King and the State of Texas," it was time to chow down on the creations of Reata Restaurant of nearby Alpine (killer chiles rellenos), and two-step to the sounds of the incomparable Dale Watson, until the party finally broke up and we were in desperate need of a grilled cheese.

The RehabDominic Armato

I realize grilled cheese is the food trend du jour, but man, did this hit the spot. By day, Food Shark serves lunch from a truck parked "between the railroad tracks and Marfa Book Co.," but by night they take over the Museum of Electronic Wonders, turning it into the Late Night Grilled Cheese Emporium, "usually open Friday & Saturday 9:30pm-12:30 or 1am." You're on Marfa time here, folks. In any case, the MoEW is a small and amusingly mod space, featuring such wonders as the 8-track turntable (you read that right) and serving four or five varieties of grilled cheese through a small pass. The classic, with or without tomato, is traditional and perfect, gooey cheese bracketed by perfectly toasted, buttery bread. But it was The Rehab that stole my heart. Whether the name was its usual moniker or a temporary tribute to Amy Winehouse, I don't know, but it was essentially a reuben all out of whack. Rather than rye, it arrived on griddled white, but that aside, the only distinction between this and a reuben was the balance of ingredients, 80% swiss cheese with a single, thin layer of corned beef and a whisper of sauerkraut, and I was shocked by just how good it was. It was a grilled swiss cheese, with just a hint of salty meat and a touch of vinegary, vegetal tang, and it totally rocked me. How much of this was a function of the sandwich and how much of it was the timing of its arrival, it's hard to say. But I thought it was brilliant... a tiny little shift in balance that took something so familiar and created something completely new.

The next morning, after breakfast tacos and sad goodbyes, it was time for the sprint back home to relieve Grandma... but not without one more stop. Though a chain, I'd heard good things about Rudy's BBQ, and not only was it right on our rushed route, but they were kind enough to put gas pumps right out front so that we could fuel ourselves and our car all in one stop. In terms of presentation, Rudy's is kind of a corporate chain nightmare, a cavernous space decorated with copious kitsch (predominantly NASCAR), and outfitted with a Disney-style weaving line and lengthy condiment bar, coming across more like the Fuddrucker's of the Lone Star State than a dusty, smoky 'cue pit. But the food's what matters, and I figured that in Texas, even a chain was likely to have better brisket than I'd find back home.

BBQ BrisketDominic Armato

As it turns out, Rudy's 'cue isn't half bad. The sausage wasn't seasoned or smoked to my tastes, but the brisket, which I ordered moist (read: fatty), was pretty darn fine. Tender and succulent with a bright red ring, I would have preferred that it had sucked up a little more smoke, but what was present was entirely pleasurable. The best part, unsurprisingly, was the a tiny slice of the end I was fortunate to receive, charred with a sweet but not cloying rub that made me wish the whole thing could have been one big end. Sadly, unlike some other places, not a menu option at Rudy's. Slaw was creamy and passable, if a little uninspiring, and I apparently made the mistake of skipping the cream corn, which I've subsequently heard is awesome. A reason to return, I suppose. Y'know, for the next time I'm driving through El Paso. But on the strength of the brisket, I considered the stop a success, if something shy of earth-moving.

As is always the case with these trips, I wish we'd had more time. Texas was mighty hospitable to us for all 61 hours we were there, and it's a shame we didn't have the chance to enjoy that hospitality for a little bit longer. But the good news is that it's only two states away. May The King and Johnny Cash guide us back there before too long.

L&J Cafe
3622 E. Missouri Avenue
El Paso, TX 79903
Mon - Wed10:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Thu10:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri10:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat9:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sun9:00 AM - 8:00 PM
107 W. San Antonio St. (Rt. 90)
Marfa, TX 79843
Thu - Sun8:00 AM - 1:00 PM6:00 PM - ???
Mon - Tue 6:00 PM - ???

Food Shark
300 W. San Antonio St. (Rt. 90)
Marfa, TX 79843
Fri - Sat9:30 PM - 1:00 AM ("Usually")
Rudy's "Country Store" & Bar-B-Q
7970 Gateway East Boulevard
El Paso, TX 79907
Sun - Thu7:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat7:00 AM - 10:30 PM


As a former Chicagoan now living in the Lone Star State, I'm glad you enjoyed your trip.

Did you see the Marfa lights?

Happiness is now being able to get a decent Chicago dog down here. Although one place gets more points for calling it the "Abe Froman" (think Ferris Bueller's Day Off) than for authenticity.

[Trivia question: what nation was Texas a part of when it was a Two Star State?]

Wow, I almost fell out of my chair reading this!

I lived in Marfa back in the early 80's (in high school, yes I'm old). It was before Donald Judd moved in and changed the town into this bizarro arts scene watchamacallit. By now the arts crowd have pushed all of the older, authentic restaurants out of town, unfortunately. You would have been better served to drive the 60 miles south to Presidio and eat at El Patio - the BEST Tex-Mex place in Texas.

TO... No, sadly I missed the lights. They were taking a small busload of folks out to see them, but my ladylove was turning into a pumpkin. And night two was the wedding. I'm kind of embarrassed about the fact that the only brisket I've had in Texas is from Rudy's, but you do what you can on a tight schedule.

Ally... That's awesome! Truth is, we barely saw the town at all. From the moment we drove up until the moment we took off, it was completely nonstop wedding stuff. Which is really a shame, because it seems like such a neat little town. Would have LOVED to go to El Patio, but couldn't for reasons mentioned above :-/

Rudy's. Ha. My SIL lives in Houston and sent me some bottles of their sauce. The not hot one "sissy sauce", if memory serves, wasn't terribly interesting. But the hot one had a decent blend of kick and sweetness. If one is in the market for a bottled sauce, one could do worse.

Mmmmm...Salt Lick BBQ! We lived in Austin for a few years and the Salt Lick has stayed with us more than any other place. We've ordered the brisket by mail for parties (always a hit) and keep bottles of the sauce on hand. I could drink the stuff. Reading this whole post reminds me how much I miss good Tex-Mex and barbecue. I'll have to eat some New Haven pizza to remind myself of the goodness up here in the northeast. :)

@mar, I just checked out the Salt Lick BBQ website and they ship brisket?? I'm usually wary of pre-cooked food, but does this reheat well?

FYI - your so sure that Cochineal IS the Anchor of the refined dinning scene and yet you didn't even eat there. The Rehab that you liked so much was designed and cooked my Maiya Keck of Maiya's. Wish I could just sit around all day and write bogus comments about food businesses around the country - oh, and critic people on how I think they are doing there job. What a bunch of shit.

Hey, Marfa Native...

Gosh. Until now, everybody I met from Marfa *had* been incredibly friendly and welcoming. If this is how you react to somebody who really enjoyed the town and the people and had nothing bad to say about any of the above, I'd hate to see how you treat somebody who actually has something critical to say.

No, I didn't eat dinner at Cochineal. I said so. I had breakfast. I read about it a lot, and I heard great things from friends. The food at the other restaurants in Marfa looked to be significantly more casual, and I mean that simply as a matter of style. I wonder if perhaps you make the mistake of assuming I use the word "refined" as a value judgment? I don't. I never called Cochineal the best restaurant in Marfa. Unlike some, I don't consider more refined food to be superior. It's just more refined. I was under the impression that Maiya was more rustic. A notion that, incidentally, is supported by the photos on their website. If I was wrong, I'll happily make that correction. But if you're affiliated with Maiya, it's nice to know how friendly you guys are over there. If you're not, I hope you'll come back to elaborate so your comments don't reflect on them. You may not like my comments, but at least my name is on them.

If you're Maiya, killer grilled cheese. Loved it.

Whoa. Just a few comments:

1. Given the review of the breakfast, is it not clear he did in fact eat at Cochineal? He just didn't eat there for dinner, which was clearly stated.
2. Refined doesn't always equal "best", which if you followed this blog at all, you would know.
3. Where is anyone's job being criticized? All I see are positive, if not enthusiastic, comments about the town, food scene and people.
4. The last entry was 7/13/2011. That's hardly what I call "sitting around all day". Wish people could learn some manners rather than sit around all day making anonymous attacks on the internet. Get over yourself.

In other news, I thought this was a wonderful review, and I'm glad you finally made it to Texas! Next time you come, go to Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, TX (outside of Austin)- you won't regret it.

The email address left by Marfa Native (not publicly displayed) suggests that it's Maiya Keck, chef (owner?) of Maiya's Restaurant. I just dropped a line to the restaurant via their website to be sure. I'd hate for these comments to reflect on them if they aren't actually coming from them. I'll report if I hear back.

For real brisket come to central TX and hit Kreuz's or Meuller's. I think you'd get a kick out of the no-fork, no-sauce, no-plate policy at Kreuz's. [It's all about the meat, and all you need is paper and maybe bread.]

I've heard great things about Snow's, but haven't made the pilgrimage yet. I think that's the place an old roommate of mine would hit on a day trip from Arlington. [http://www.texasmonthly.com/bbq/venue/5017] They'd drive down, hope they made the cutoff, eat BBQ if they were lucky, then turn around and drive home.

Yes, the Salt Lick does ship brisket. As a thank-you for years of reading your blog, if you e-mail me your address I'll have a Salt Lick brisket shipped to you. You can then let Anon Man know if it holds up well or not.

The Salt Lick is also available in the Austin airport if you're flying through. But the last time I ate there it was a little embarrassing to be burping up BBQ on a crowded plane.

I endorse Token Omnivore's approach.

FYI, I just traded emails with Maiya of Maiya's Restaurant in Marfa. I think (I hope!) we're cool. I'll just say that I think it's important to remember how difficult it is for the folks who run restaurants to see all of the stuff that's written online, both from a professional and an emotional standpoint. They're always under a microscope, and unlike some other professions, this has been a recent and drastic change. This isn't what some of them signed up for when they made this career choice.

Important to always bear in mind, I think.

There's also a new restaurant in Marfa that's hit in the past few months - The Miniature Rooster, referred to by many as The Little Cock. Just as refined as anything else in Marfa, it's a great take on Southern U.S. meets Indian cuisine. Several folks in our party were raving about it upon multiple trips there that week.

And it's too bad you missed out on that Salt Lick brisket, there was tons of it but you must've been hip-deep in cobbler - which is not a bad place to be. We must've donated 15 lbs of leftover brisket amongst the fine folks at Paisano, Thunderbird, Pizza Foundation and Planet Marfa. If Adam had been around, he would've got some too, sans beef and with enough sausage to jump rope with!

I would like to have been able to dine at Maiya's during my multiple trips there over the past years. Sadly, it was not open on any of those occasions. But I also missed out on some amazing late night grilled cheese fare as well...too much going on I guess.

Also, on Sunday they did let me make a pizza over at Pizza Foundation when the owner took his lunch break. They've got some amazing pies coming out of that little joint, especially since most Texas pizza could never be considered a rival to East coast variants. I was able to persuade the lady behind the counter there to let me make my own pie since the owner bailed. Fortunately, like riding a bike, my pizza-slapping skills from my college-era pizza career were still intact. Plus a Salt Lick dinner for the staff can be quite a strong bargaining chip on a busy Sunday afternoon!

You will definitely have to plan a return trip to Austin at some point. A trip out to Driftwood to the Salt Lick is a most memorable experience, and a very scenic drive to boot. Austin is no longer a mecca for barbecue and Mexican cuisine, it's broadened substantially in the last decade...

I'm really bummed that we didn't get to Austin either. I had dreams of BBQ and Uchi. Would it be overstating the obvious to say that Texas is simply too big a place for two and a half days? :-)

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