Posts Tagged ‘Lunch’

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!

I wrote the following review of Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen about one year ago, but never got around to publishing it here on A Heck of a Kerfuffle. To properly remedy this omission on my part, I have below reproduced my initial, year-old review of Valentine’s, and followed it up with a brand-new update:

My husband and I had dinner at Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen yesterday evening. Don’t let the modest (but very clean) interior fool you: dishes here are prepared and plated thoughtfully, with an attention to taste, texture, and presentation. The shrimp ceviche, the tortilla chips, as well as the fish and shrimp tacos, were particularly impressive. The ceviche combined plump pieces of shrimp with just enough citral acidity, which itself was rather cleverly tempered with the creaminess of avocado purée. The freshly fried tortilla chips were crisp and airy, like thick and savoury triangles of phyllo pastry. (To be honest, Valentine’s tortilla chips are truly like none we’ve ever had before.) As for the tacos: the fish fillets and shrimp were plump and only lightly dusted in breadcrumbs—giving you some “crunch,” while still letting you appreciate the fish and shrimp meat—and rested on mini-tortillas that were sweet and tender. We look forward to visiting Valentine’s again soon, and wish them the best in a town that is tragically short on the kind of thoughtful and subtle cooking we had the pleasure of experiencing at their establishment.

UPDATE: Since our first visit there, Valentine’s has revealed itself to be one of the most accomplished local purveyors of pan blanco, a Mexican bread that, under their bakers’ care, boasts an incredibly soft crumb with unusually pleasant hints of tartness. (Pan blanco is the go-to bread for torta, a Mexican type of sandwich often named after its main ingredient. My own personal, homemade favourite: torta de gravlax! Truly, a match made in heaven that gives bagels and lox a run for their money.)

The happy discovery that Valentine’s bakery puts out one heck of a pan blanco has, I’m afraid, been accompanied by some not-so-happy developments on the kitchen and service fronts. To begin with, we have come to notice that Valentine’s struggles with one of the cardinal features of competent cuisine: consistency. Indeed, over the course of several meals, the kitchen mishandled key ingredients (by, for instance, overcooking fish or over-salting meat) and/or completely omitted key ingredients from their usually pitch-perfect recipes (namely, the avocado purée from the ceviche). Most tragically, however, Valentine’s has inexplicably opted to remove their fish and shrimp tacos—two of their strongest dishes, when prepared appropriately—from their menu. Also, we noted a decline in the quality of service. Indeed, our server (during our last three visits) had trouble reconciling her sulky demeanour with her customer-service responsibilities. This failure on her part had the unfortunate consequence of imposing a drab atmosphere onto our dining experience, an atmosphere which evoked a loss of passion on Valentine’s part. In fact, we have gotten the sense (one we hope is mistaken) that the restaurant is no longer committed to its craft, preferring instead to mechanically output food without attention to detail.

We sincerely hope that Valentine’s finds it within itself to rekindle its former glory by a) encouraging the different chefs that helm the kitchen throughout the day to attentively follow the strong recipes outlined by the original menu creator, b) reinstating strong dishes into its menu, and c) infusing a certain brightness and lightness of spirit back into its service. Promisingly, Valentine’s glory days aren’t buried too deep in the past. Surely, the time is still ripe for them to reach back and become relevant again.

BasicoMy husband and I recently visited Basico Bistro + Café for breakfast. Despite its hip and modern atmosphere, the restaurant ultimately failed to impress. To our disappointment, the breakfast menu on offer was a pared-down version of the (clearly not updated) breakfast menu displayed on the restaurant’s website. From this shortened menu, we ordered the Roman Empire omelette (instead of the intended eggs benedict), along with the banana & walnut pancakes. The florentine-esque omelette proved rather ho-hum, being so paper-thin it lacked any enjoyable texture. Testifying as to the omelette’s dullness, not even its overly salty fillings could bring it to life… Both light and fluffy, the pancakes fared a little better. Unfortunately, their appearance was rather anemic (lacking that golden brown quality) and their flavour profile disappointingly light on banana notes.

Further, although we had requested the pancakes be served with pure maple syrup, and not artificial table syrup, we were nevertheless served the latter. In the end, our server, along with the cooks, reluctantly (yet apologetically) admitted that they thought the artificial table syrup they had on hand was pure maple syrup. (Further questioning on our part revealed that they did not know what pure maple syrup was.) Suffice it to say, we were not impressed with the staff’s lack of knowledge regarding basic breakfast ingredients (in so far as North American cuisine is concerned, which the restaurant’s fare falls squarely into). Moreover, we felt misled by the restaurant’s promise (one implicitly made to customers via its hip and modern décor) of serving only thoughtfully sourced ingredients. In this regard, Basico Bistro + Café stands in stark contrast to Crave Kitchen & Bar, which proudly announced, when we last visited and requested pure maple syrup along with our order, that they “most certainly serve the real stuff.” That being said, in Basico Bistro + Café’s defense, our server did seek to remedy the “situation” as best she could, by enquiring about the origin of pure maple syrup and the process via which it is made, an effort the “produits du terroir québécois” enthusiast in me greatly appreciated.

Crave Kitchen & BarCrave Kitchen & Bar satisfyingly delivers on both the breakfast and lunch fronts. Breakfast-wise, my husband and I generally share their buttermilk pancakes. The pancakes are surprisingly low on sugar, which suits us just fine, because we get to pour even more genuine maple syrup on top of our stack! (Being from Québec, I appreciate Crave not automatically serving artificial table syrup along with their pancakes, like most other breakfast joints in town.) Lunch-wise, we generally share their tuna ceviche and shrimp quesadillas, which are both tastily put together. (I should mention at this point that Crave kindly accommodates diet restrictions. Indeed, being pesco-vegetarian, I always ask our server to hold the chorizo on the quesadillas, a request which never seems to inconvenience the kitchen.)

Given Crave’s strengths in both the breakfast and lunch areas, the promise of enjoying both their breakfast and lunch items at the same time, in the form of their advertised Sunday Brunch, had me excited. Unfortunately, Crave defines Brunch in a rather unusual way, one that, in my eyes at least, negates the whole concept of Brunch. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Crave does not, for all intents and purposes, actually serve Brunch, even though their website claims they do.

The portmanteau word “Brunch” implies that both breakfast and lunch overlap, with breakfast being served beyond breakfast-time (over lunchtime), and lunch being served beyond lunchtime (over breakfast-time), thus allowing patrons to enjoy breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time, or breakfast and lunch at lunchtime, depending on their preference. Crave’s definition of Brunch, however, gives the “lunch” part of the expression the short end of the stick, with breakfast being served all day long, and lunch being served at boring, old lunchtime. In other words, Crave serves an all-day breakfast on Sundays, not Brunch (lunch being served at the appropriate time). And so, those looking to have Brunch in the “breakfast and lunch at breakfast-time” sense of the word will be disappointed. Indeed, when I first visited Crave for their purported Brunch (around 11AM or so) and ordered both breakfast and lunch items, I was informed by my server (who did not seem to realize the irony of her statement) that part of my Brunch (i.e., the lunch part) would have to wait until noon. For these reasons, those looking to enjoy a genuine Brunch experience (i.e., breakfast and lunch at the same time, starting late morning and ending mid-afternoon) should, unfortunately, look elsewhere.

Café Italia

My husband and I visited Café Italia a few months ago and were thoroughly impressed with their pizza. (So much so we ordered three of them, and finished every last slice, right then and there!) Looking to celebrate New Year’s Eve out on the town, we decided to visit the restaurant again and explore the rest of their tantalizing (and refreshingly diminutive) menu.

This time around, we limited ourselves to only one pizza, which we preceded with an antipasto platter and followed with shrimp linguine. Although featuring mozzarella and salami, the antipasto platter eclipsed both Italian staples with perfectly roasted and seasoned vegetables (including, among others, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and carrots). Once again, the pizza was immaculately composed: the crust combined perfectly balanced flavor (subtly salty and yeasty on the tongue) and texture (crispy on the bottom and doughy on the edges); the toppings (buttery mushrooms infused with fennel and rosemary) weaved potent aromas; and the mozzarella delivered fresh and delicate flavor and texture.

Regarding the shrimp linguine, I was bracing myself for disaster: when I asked our server, “Can you make sure the pasta is al dente?”, he shot me a quizzical look and answered, “What’s that?” (Certainly, servers shouldn’t be expected to know as much as chefs; still, I stand by my expectation that a server in a dedicated Italian restaurant should, at the very least, know what “al dente” means, if only to reassure worried patrons like myself that we are, indeed, in good hands, and that our meal won’t be botched.) Fortunately, I had, for the most part, nothing to worry about: on the cusp of being overdone, the pasta nonetheless retained enough of a bite. Further, it was tossed in one of the most exquisite Alfredo sauces—equal parts creamy and buttery—I have ever tasted. That being said, the shrimp were, at best, superfluous: coated in Alfredo, they acted as a vehicle for the sauce—redundantly, pasta already filling that role—as opposed to playing off of it somehow with complimentary flavors and textures (e.g., by getting some char on the shrimp and resting them on top of the sauce, instead of folding them into it).

Typically, the best international restaurants in El Paso are satisfactory by local standards only (something that may change as the city continues to overcome its cultural isolation): put them up against their equivalents in most other large cities and they would pale in comparison. Café Italia, however, stands toe-to-toe with some of the best restaurants on offer in Little Italys across North America. Locally, Café Italia remains unmatched, surpassing other restaurants billing themselves as authentically Italian, as well as those serving Italian fare as part of an eclectic menu. Some examples: the pizza at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing suffered from a bottom so soggy it couldn’t support its toppings, and pasta from Café Central was so overdone it had to be returned to the kitchen.

Café Central

Café Central certainly looks the part: servers clad in classical waiting garb, tasteful (albeit outdated) décor, old favorites playing in the background, verbose yet diminutive menu set in leather covers… Everything you’d schematically expect to see in a fine-dining establishment. Patrons who know better, however, will not be fooled. (Incidentally, “better” is just a few steps away, at Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant.) To those unversed in genuine fine-dining, make no mistake: Café Central is all appearance and no substance, the mass-market version of fine-dining that safely caters to people’s conceptions of what fine-dining is, as opposed to the formative version of fine-dining that, vanguard-like, seeks to shape people’s conceptions of what fine-dining can be.

My husband and I have visited Café Central on two occasions, once to confirm its status as an El Paso institution, and a second time to, well, give them a second chance at making us understand why exactly they’ve come to hold institutional status here in town. With one rousing exception, every dish we ordered on both of our times there left us, at best, unimpressed, and, at worst, frustrated: lackluster sauces, unevenly cooked seafood (i.e., varying wildly from moist and succulent to criminally overcooked), pasta so far past al dente it had to be returned to the kitchen… The list of grievances goes on an on.

To make matters worse, the tendency to fall short systemically extends from the kitchen to the bar: their old fashioned, that old standard by which every bar should be judged, was so lazily assembled its flavor profile was, as a consequence of this, utterly boring. (You know you’re in trouble when a barman grabs a bottle you’ve seen advertised on TV, or plops a store-bought candied cherry, in all its Red #4 glory, into your drink!)

That being said, one dish partially redeems Café Central: pastel de tres leches. Their elevated take on the Mexican classic (one of my favorite soaked cakes, right alongside French Canada’s pouding chômeur, Britain’s sticky toffee pudding, and France’s baba au rhum) is, I assure you, something to behold: light and airy sponge cake, saturated to perfection in sweet, fragrant milk, and draped in velvety smooth frosting. If only the same amount of thought and quality of execution permeated the rest of their menu, Café Central would live up to its name. As mentioned earlier, if you’re looking for the true center of fine-dining in El Paso, visit Anson Eleven’s second story restaurant: it will challenge you, surprise you, inspire you, satisfy you, leave you wanting more. It will do for you what fine-dining—genuine fine-dining that uses food to edify—should do.

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