27

Feb 16

Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, 2719 North Piedras Street, El Paso

Kiki's Mexican RestaurantDuring my first visit to Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, the kitchen committed a culinary crime that I would, under normal circumstances, have never forgiven: using an inferior ingredient as the centerpiece of a meal. Technically, this review should have ended here, with a stern warning to stay away from Kiki’s at all costs. However, the restaurant recovered from its usually fatal mistake. That it managed to do so speaks volumes about the quality of its menu.

In all honesty, I did this to myself. Since first arriving in El Paso a year and a half ago, I have come to notice that local restaurants struggle, to an unusual and annoying degree, with knowledge of basic ingredients. I have already written about a Brunch restaurant in town that claimed they served maple syrup (i.e., concentrated maple sap), when they actually served artificial table syrup—a mixture of corn syrup, artificial and natural flavors, artificial color, and other (mostly unintelligible) ingredients that, although not completely unpleasant, pours, smells, and tastes very unlike maple syrup. I have also been to a Japanese restaurant that claimed they topped their crab nigiri with crab that was removed, in their very own words, “straight from the shell in the kitchen,” but instead served me nigiri topped with imitation crab—a mixture of white fish paste, binders (like egg whites and starch), sugar, artificial and natural flavors, natural color, and other (again, mostly unintelligible) ingredients explicitly meant to mimic the taste, texture, and appearance of crab.*

Despite these negative restaurant experiences, I (perhaps naïvely) continue to approach every new restaurant I try in town with renewed optimism—with the hope that they will, at the very least, know the difference between cheap imitation foods and their genuine counterparts, and, ideally, use the real McCoy in their dishes (or a quality, preferably in-house, substitute that is properly labeled as such**).

So, when I saw that crab was prominently featured on Kiki’s menu, in dishes ranging from machaca (spiced and shredded protein, typically beef, here covered with various toppings) to enchiladas, I was pleasantly surprised, intrigued, and ready to be impressed. Without a moment’s hesitation, I ordered the crab machaca. However, to my great (but, in retrospect, somewhat inevitable) disappointment, Kiki’s did not produce crab in my crab machaca, as promised, but (you guessed it) imitation crab. (To be fair, a footnote on the menu clarifies that what is meant by “crab” is actually a mixture of crab and fish; but this is misleading, since the mixture is actually fish made to taste like crab.) Now, does Kiki’s mistakenly believe it is serving crab when it serves patrons imitation crab, is it purposefully serving imitation crab without properly labelling it as such, or, worse, does it serve patrons imitation crab, hoping they will be fooled? I did not attempt to find out whether Kiki’s is being misguided, imprecise, or deceptive, but the first option seems to me the most likely, given El Paso restaurants’ seemingly systemic issue with telling cheap imitation foods apart from their genuine counterparts.

I gotta say: Kiki’s was onto something. The idea of preparing machaca with crab instead of meat is absolute genius: crab boasts a stringy quality that is amenable to shredding, just like meat, and a briny flavor that would create a distinct variation on the dish (which is usually marked by the, for lack of a better word, “earthy” flavors of meat).*** Unfortunately, imitation crab (even when made of stuck-together strips) struggles to replicate the mouthfeel and flavor of crab, instead bringing to mind something akin to cooked wonton dough on the texture front, and diluted seasoned rice vinegar on the flavor front.

Kiki’s saving grace lies in its dismissive treatment of the imitation crab: in a wise (but probably unintentional) move, the kitchen does everything in its power to hide it. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I probably wouldn’t have guessed there was imitation crab in my dish: flavor-wise, it was overwhelmed by the toppings (grilled tomatoes, onions, and green chiles; a sunny-side up egg; green chile sauce; and cheese), and texture-wise, it was barely distinguishable from the goops of melted cheese. Sure, the end product wasn’t as innovative as a crab machaca featuring crab, but it nonetheless delivered (and this is what impressed me) even though it only had toppings to stand up on (the core protein being, in effect, absent): the sweet and tender vegetables, the runny egg, the bright and creamy sauce, and the gooey cheese combined into bite after bite of comforting, stick-to-your-ribs goodness. Indeed, eating Kiki’s machaca-less machaca (that sounded dirty, I know) was like eating a favorite dish from my childhood, an impressive feat given authentic Mexican cuisine was not a part of my (Canada-bound) childhood.

I would be doing readers a disservice if I ended this review without mentioning Kiki’s specialty dessert: Mexican flan. For those unfamiliar with the dish, Mexican flan is denser and richer than flans from most other countries (I grew up on European-style flan, or crème caramel, which is light and silky) and is often drizzled with cajeta, a thick syrup made of caramelized milk. Kiki’s Mexican flan is, simply put, one of the best in the region, equaling that of Barrigas (in El Paso/Juàrez) and besting that of Los Arcos (in Juàrez).

Notes

* Although kosher imitation crab contains only white fish (insofar as seafood ingredients are concerned), non-kosher imitation crab also contains (in addition to white fish) crab meat and extract. However, it would be misleading to describe non-kosher imitation crab as a mixture of both fish and crab, since the amount of crab is always negligible (often “2% or less”), its sole purpose to help steer the flavor profile of the fish (always the main ingredient) toward that of crab, by “rounding out” the artificial flavors.

** Patrons being offered imitation crab as a crab substitute (be it to accommodate diet restrictions or for originality’s sake) deserve a better substitute. I personally grew up eating the stuff, because my paternal grandmother, who is Jewish and abides by a kosher diet, could not use shellfish in recipes that called for it. And so, I am familiar enough with imitation crab to say that it is a poor substitute for crab when a substitute is preferred. Many substitutes—like vegan burger patties made of pumpkin and brown rice, or vegan bacon made of smoked and sweetened coconut—are more than (usually poor) replicas of the foods they seek to copy; they are interesting components that work on their own terms (which helps them transcend their limits as replicas). Imitation crab, on the other hand, fails on both counts.

It should be noted, however, that imitation crab is actually a case of a good thing gone bad. It is a form of kamaboko, a Japanese fish loaf prepared with white fish paste (surimi) and other ingredients (which may be partly artificial, as in the case of imitation crab, or completely natural). Kamaboko, when not made to pass as crab and when prepared with only respectable ingredients, is exquisite: smooth in texture and delicately fishy in flavor. Think Jewish gefilte fish with an izakaya twist. For a taste of kamaboko done properly in El Paso, visit Seoul Restaurant, the best Korean joint in town, and ask that your banchan (side dishes) include eomuk-bokkeum (i.e., stir-fried eomuk, the Korean equivalent of kamaboko).

*** You could even say that crab would be the perfect substitute for meat in this situation!

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