A many of my regular readers know, I’ve got a regular tradition of going on an annual “Death March”, in which I and a bunch of friends pick some random large US city (New York, San Francisco, and Chicago in previous years), pick a nice walking route through it (usually around 20 miles), and spend a day walking and eating our way through the city (you don’t feel too guilty about stopping for a hot dog, pizza slice, or taco if you’ve been walking 20 miles!). One of the challenges is that many large cities, particularly in business areas, can have large stretches that don’t have a lot of takeout food, or if they do, the places require some advanced scouting. So this last weekend, we did an exploratory trip looking for more stops on next month’s Boston Death March. So that’s how we found ourselves wandering around Berkeley Street in Boston’s South End, stumbling upon El Triunfo.
It’s never a good thing when you hear that Restaurant Impossible (or any of its counterparts on other networks) is coming to town. To even be eligible to be on a show like that, your restaurant has to be on the verge of failure, and the owners up against the ropes. Being on a show like that literally is one of the last grasps of the desperate. So which local, failing, and desperate restaurant was Restaurant Impossible here to fix? Sadly, I can’t say I was surprised to hear it was Gusanoz, our local Mexican restaurant (indeed, probably the only place locally I can call Mexican without putting quote marks around it).
Gusanoz is no stranger to these pages. Indeed, since I started writing Offbeat Eats, including this review I will have written them up four times (a record!). And, indeed, I’m not sure the paint had even dried on Restaurant Impossible‘s renovations back in May before my readers, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances started asking me if I had been by and checked out the “New” Gusanoz. Well, in short, I hadn’t. I might have checked it out right away, but that time of year was busy (back to back trips to Austin and Chicago, indeed, the very day Gusanoz was getting its makeover I was eating Carnitas at Carnitas Don Pedro in Chicago). And then several other trips (in no particular order, San Antonio, Iceland, and Germany) came up, and I decided that, overall, it was best to give them some time to settle in to the new state of affairs and see if the Restaurant Impossible changes “stuck”.
Shortly after the trip to Pane Bianco, my coworkers started to arrive at Phoenix, so pretty soon we were all packed up with our gear and heading out to Gold Canyon, AZ. Except Gold Canyon isn’t exactly known for having a lot of restaurants, so we decided to grab dinner on the way out of town. Wanting to give them a taste of something that my VT and NH coworkers weren’t likely to experience back at home, I decided to take them out for New Mexican cuisine. And for that, I took them to the nearby branch of Los Dos Molinos in Mesa.
Los Dos Molinos is a small Phoenix-based chain of New Mexican restaurants, with about a half dozen locations spread throughout the metro area. The focus at Los Dos Molinos is on New Mexican cuisine, with a particular emphasis on using Hatch chiles, and on New Mexican specialties like carne adovada (marinated pork). And they definite like to apply the chiles liberally, with the result that Los Dos Molinos is a particularly good antidote to the moderately bland Mexican food that I usually get up in New England.
So, after a decent day of exploring the Riverwalk and downtown San Antonio, we decided that was a good time for dinner. And we were craving Mexican food. Well, San Antonio, particularly the Riverwalk, is probably one of the densest concentrations of Tex Mex places in existence, with at least a dozen Tex Mex places (mostly with some sort of “Cantina” motif) accessible either directly on the river, or a short staircase away. Well, we didn’t go to any of those places. Instead, we headed up to street level, and walked several blocks south to the edge of the King William District to El Mirador.
El Mirador is one of the elderly statesmen of San Antonio Mexican Places, having been there since 1967, when the owners built the place to be near the HemisFair ’68 World Fair a few blocks to the east, and it’s been doing steady business ever since. It’s also relatively popular with the locals—there’s even a room in the back called the “City Council Room”, since the San Antonio City Council has a tendency to hold informal lunchtime meetings there. In any case, El Mirador was a nice little destination for u to get a nice dinner away from the Riverwalk crowds.
For the first part of this trip to San Antonio, we were staying at the JW Marriot San Antonio Hill Country. While it’s a rather nice resort (and indeed, has a really good water park and some nice bars), I didn’t find any of the breakfast options there appealing. Since the general area is well known for Tex Mex food, we ended up looking for a good Tex Mex breakfast place in Northeast San Antonio (since the JW Marriott resorts is rather far outside of downtown). We ended up finding one place that had a lot of good reviews: Grumpy’s Mexican Cafe on Farm-to-Market Road 2252.
And now it’s on to San Antonio, where I joined Carol partway through a conference. The day I arrived in San Antonio, Carol was off at a BBQ and rodeo hosted by the conference, which started too early for me to join in. So my first act after arriving in San Antonio was to drive up to the Boardwalk on Bulverde food court, a rather substantial cluster of food trucks, for some food truck action…
…and learned that sometimes I need to research things better. The Boardwalk isn’t open except Thursday through Sunday. So I had to find someplace else nearby for a food truck fix. Luckily, just over a mile away was Erick’s Tacos on nearby Nacogdoches Road, so I headed on over to check out their fare…
You know you’ve been traveling a lot when you can’t even keep track of every place you’ve been. I was getting ready to write up a few places from our New York City trip, when I realized that one place in Austin I hadn’t actually reviewed.
So, going back two weeks in the time machine…. Before heading out for a second day of BBQ, we decided breakfast was needed. I’m not sure why, but I’ve found over the two Austin trips that a good breakfast taco is a great way to start out the day. This time, we decided to descend on one of Austin’s better known taco joints, Maria’s Taco Xpress…
So, the morning of May 11th, we officially embarked on the 2012 Austin BBQ tour. But I’ve found that it’s best not starting your day beginning with a bunch of barbecued brisket and ribs; despite the fact that most of the day was going to be dedicated to eating large quantities of meat, we both decided that it would be a good idea to start things out with some breakfast.
And Austin has a rather good breakfast taco scene going on, particularly since it’s a town that already has a large population of taco joints and taco trucks. The previous night’s stand, Torchy’s Tacos has quite the breakfast menu, for example, as does Maria’s Taco Xpress over on South Lamar (we’ll get back to Maria’s in a few posts, I promise!). But between our hotel and our first BBQ joint (JMueller) was a fairly simple Austin taco joint: Flaco’s Tacos (aka “El Flaco”, as it is still named on some of the signage).
The Chicago Death March proper started at 8am on May 5th, at the 18th Ave station on the El’s Pink Line. After a mere 30 minutes of walking (and one stop for pastries), we got to our first major food stop: Carnitas Don Pedro.
The entire Pilsen neighborhood is filled with various Hispanic grocery stores and convenience stores, several of which had the pleasant smells of roasted pork coming out of them. But as we approached Carnitas Don Pedro, I could start smelling an intense roasted pork smell almost a block away. As we arrived at the fairly plain storefront of Don Pedro, it was clear, we’d arrived at the epicenter.
Walking in the door, the first two things I noticed about Don Pedro is that the interior is cramped, and it’s warm. Right inside the door, it’s a fairly narrow aisle between two serving counters, one to the left with tacos and stews, and one to the right that’s purely for ordering the meat products. The latter of these is the really interesting one, since at any given moment the meat counter has a giant tray of chicharrónes, the wall behind it has an impressive array of chorizo hanging up, and the carving station in the front window a giant pile of carnitas. And when I mean giant, I mean giant, with probably 60-80 pounds of meat on it (see below)…
As I mentioned before in my Blue Ginger review, I generally eschew the restaurants of celebrity chefs, since they generally seem to be busier attempting to be celebrities than being successful chefs and restauranteurs. That said, there are several prominent chefs who I think manage to run consistently good restaurants without selling themselves out, keeping the focus on the food. One of these is Rick Bayless (author of one of my most-used cookbooks), and owner of several good restaurants including Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.
I really want to do Topolobampo, but since the primary purpose of our trip was meeting up with friends (for our annual Death March 20+ mile walk through a metro area), and the fact that I’ve been a bit organizationally challenged recently, we just weren’t able to work the reservations (what little effort we put into trying to score good reservations was spent on an unsuccessful waiting list slot for Alinea). So Topolobampo will have to wait for another time, and I can live vicariously through my friend Emily (who is a meticulous planner when it comes to food trips), who posted photos of her trip in 2011. But there’s a nice consolation prize here: right next door to Topolobampo is Frontera Grill, and with a modicum of effort you can generally get in without trouble; most of the seating at Frontera is reserved for walk-ins…