Friday, November 6, 2015

Seattle - the Land Devoid of Good Tex-Mex Food

I suppose I could edit that title to say: "The Pacific Northwest - the Land Devoid of Good Tex-Mex Food" and it would still be true.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest - around Eugene, Portland, and then the Seattle area - I missed my comfort Tex-Mex food.  I didn't even realize how much it was a comfort food for me until I couldn't find it anymore!  It quickly became clear that I had to find a way to make my favorite foods for myself.

Growing up in south Texas, my family could afford to dine out one night a week.  Every Friday, almost like clockwork, you could find my family at a local Mexican restaurant named El Corral in Kingsville, Texas.  Of course it wasn't called a Tex-Mex restaurant; it was just called a Mexican restaurant!  When you are in Texas, there aren't any restaurants that advertise themselves as Tex-Mex.  Sure, if you strike up a conversation with the owners or other enthusiasts, they'll agree they are serving Tex-Mex food and not authentic Mexican food.  There are restaurants that tout themselves as "Authentic Mexican Restaurants" in Texas, and of course the food is very different than the Mexican food most Texans have grown to know and love.  Black beans and mole sauce, anyone?

I cried out for good Tex-Mex food in Oregon and Washington, and people would point me to a few restaurants.  I would leave utterly disappointed.

First of all, why don't these places have a simple staple appetizer on their menu - queso dip?!  Sure, some of them have queso dip on the menu, but much like certain droids, it is not the queso dip you are looking for.  Queso dip shouldn't be made with a stringy cheese; queso dip should melt beautifully!

American cheese is the way, and I'm not talking about Velveeta or Kraft singles.  Sure, we might have a special nostalgic place in our heart for those Kraft singles and Velveeta melted with a can of Rotel, but you know what?  We can have nice things now.  Velveeta and Kraft singles are perfectly acceptable in a pinch or when finances are tight, but you can indulge yourself now.  You've earned it.  Go to your deli counter and ask for yellow (or white) American cheese.  Boar's head, Land O'Lakes, Kroger brand - whatever you can get your hands on - will all work!  Deli yellow American cheese is made of a blend of cheddar and colby cheese, and white American cheese is a blend of white cheddar and jack cheese.  Both are perfectly acceptable choices when making a queso dip!

During my time in Austin, I found a Mexican restaurant called Matt's el Rancho.  While they did not have my favorite cheese enchiladas in town (that honor belongs to a restaurant called Maudie's - the Josie's enchiladas, without onions on top) they did have some amazing beef fajitas and a queso dip called the Bob Armstrong dip.

That dip was named after a friend of Matt Martinez, a man named Bob Armstrong.  They met each other through wrestling, and Bob is still a frequent visitor of Matt's el Rancho.  In fact, I had the honor of meeting him one day!  I ordered the famous queso dip (it's almost sacrilege not to...), and he walked up to my table and several others and asked: "Is that the Bob Armstrong dip?"  "Yes it is."  "Well, hi!  I'm Bob Armstrong!"  He was a charming, affable man, and you could tell he was immensely proud of that dip and its ability to strike up a great conversation.  Texans have a reputation for being friendly, and Bob Armstrong keeps that reputation going!

I've sent many friends to Matt's el Rancho for beef fajitas, and they have all agreed they are some of the best they've ever had!  One Mexican friend I grew up with is pretty loyal to her family recipes.  I told her: "Just try them out!"  She's hooked now.

The best part about Matt's el Rancho is that a lot of their recipes are available through their cookbooks!  Unfortunately they are out of print, but you can find them through used book stores and the like.  I have all three of Matt's books, but my favorite by far is the first one listed here:

Go.  Buy it now.

If you can't wait for it to arrive or if you can't find the book, here are a couple favorite recipes of his that I have tweaked to my own taste.  Once you get the hang of making beef fajitas and you have the Texas Sprinkle & Black Magic Finishing sauce on hand in your pantry, it will take you a total of 30 minutes or less to make fantastic fajitas for dinner!

Queso Dip
For Matt Martinez's Tex-Mex Spice:
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon coarse ground black pepper

For taco meat layer:
1/4 cup finely chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped white onion
2 tablespoons Tex-Mex Spice
1 pound lean ground beef

For chile con queso layer:
1 1/2 cups canned chopped green chiles or fresh chiles, peeled and finely diced
1/2 cup diced fresh tomato
1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced celery
4 teaspoons Tex-Mex Spice
1 cup chicken broth
2 pounds American cheese or more if needed, cubed, or if sliced, torn into 4 pieces

For guacamole layer:
2 large Haas avocados
1/4 of a package of Concord Foods Guacamole season (regular or spicy, your preference)
2 teaspoon King Cajun cream spice
1 teaspoon dried onions
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon Tex-Mex spice
2 teaspoon Salt Grass spice
Juice of 1/2 a lime

Additional serving requirements:
Tortilla chips for dipping
A glass baking dish & hot serving tray or Crock pot for serving warm, possibly an additional smaller one for serving a separate version without avocado.
  1. Prepare the Tex-Mex spice by mixing together the above 4 spices.  Store in an airtight container, and be sure to label it for future use in other Tex-Mex cuisine.  
  2. Prepare taco meat layer. In a cold skillet, stir together bell pepper, celery, onion and Tex-Mex spice. Spread the uncooked meat on top.  You can leave it in one solid piece. Place over medium heat. When meat starts to simmer, stir and break up the meat. Simmer on low for 20 minutes or until the meat is cooked throughout. Remove from heat; drain and discard any fat. Cover to keep warm, and set aside. 
  3. Prepare chile con queso layer. In a saucepan, combine chiles, tomato, onion, celery, Tex-Mex spice and chicken broth. Bring to a light simmer; gently cook for about 5 minutes. Reduce heat; add cheese. Simmer and stir periodically until cheese melts. (If mixture is too thick, add water; if it's too thin, add more cheese.) Remove from heat.
  4. Prepare the guacamole layer.  Halve avocados and scoop flesh into a mixing bowl; discard pits and skin. Add lime juice; mash together until mixture reaches a chunky texture. Add the other seasonings and stir to combine.  Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the surface of the guacamole. Set aside. 
  5. In either a large glass baking dish with a hot serving tray underneath, a Crock pot set on low, or other warm serving dish, combine the taco meat layer, chile con queso layer, and the guacamole layer.  Personally, I combine the chile con queso layer and the taco meat layer into one giant crock pot, stir, and then I pull put a smaller serving and put it into a 1 qt crock pot where I then add some of the guacamole to the mix.  Several people (read: non-Texans) in my circle don't like avocados, so I always serve the guacamole queso dip in a smaller dish.  It's easier to make more of that vs. removing avocado!  Plus if someone wants guacamole, they can just eat some guacamole with their chips!  Alternatively, you can warm the queso dip in a glass baking dish in the oven and pop it back in when it needs to be reheated.
  6. Also note that this recipe can be easily doubled.  Just make sure your pans and crock pot can handle a double amount!  This dish is always available at my house for Superbowl parties and the like.

Beef Fajitas (chicken, shrimp & veggie too - but choose wisely & make beef!)

For Texas Sprinkle:
4 tablespoons cracker meal or finely ground, unflavored bread crumbs
3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons granulated garlic
3 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons coarse ground black pepper
  1. Combine & store in an airtight container and label.  Rule of thumb for meat, chicken and seafood: Use 1 teaspoon per 4 ounces.  For veggies: Use 1 teaspoon per 2 cups.
For Black Magic Finishing Sauce:
1 bottle (10 ounces) light soy sauce
1/3 cup red wine vinegar (not balsamic)
1/3 cup red wine (recommended: Cabernet Sauvignon)
  1. Combine & store in an airtight bottle and label it.  This pairs well with fire-grilled and skillet-grilled foods.  Rule of Thumb: Use 1 teaspoon per 4 ounces of veggies, meats, chicken or seafood.  
  2. Black Magic should be added at the end of the cooking process.  When the product is cooked the way you want it, add the sauce, stir, flip, and coat evenly.  Let the sauce meet the heat to do its work.  Black Magic will react to a hot skillet or open flame and make lots of sizzle!  When cooking indoors, it may cause a little smoke, so turn your overhead vent on high.
For Meat Fajitas:
1 pounds beef sirloin or tenderloin (sirloin preferred), cut against the grain, on a bias; or boneless skinless chicken breasts or thighs; or 16-20 count shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 teaspoons Texas Sprinkle (recipe above, portioned according to the weight of your meat)
3 tablespoons cooking oil
2 cups sliced onions
2 cups sliced bell peppers
Black magic Finishing Sauce (recipe above, portioned according to the weight of your meat)
8 to 12 flour or corn tortillas, warmed
Shredded cheddar cheese or a tablespoon or so of queso dip (above)

Other optional garnishes:
Sour cream
Pico de gallo
hot sauce/taco sauce
  1. Set aside your Texas Sprinkle, Black Magic, and other ingredients mise en place so you can quickly combine ingredients.
  2. In a 10- or 12-inch (cast iron, preferred) skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of oil to medium-high.  Turn heat down to medium and cook meat 1 pound at a time:  For beef, cook for 1 minute first, then add onions and peppers to cook 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until redness is gone from the meat.  For chicken and shrimp, put down at the same time as the onions and peppers, and sauté for about 3 to 4 minutes
  3. Once meat is cooked, drizzle Black Magic over skillet and toss to coat evenly for 15 to 20 seconds and listen to that sizzle!  Place on a family style platter or in the warm cast iron skillet and serve immediately with tortillas, hot sauce, garnishes, and sides such as my borracho beans!
For Veggie Fajitas (no meat): 
  1. Use a combination of corn, chopped broccoli, and sliced onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash.  Allow 1 cup of veggies per serving.
  2. Cook 2 cups of veggies at a time: Use 4 teaspoons of Texas Sprinkle and 3 tablespoons oil.  Saute for 3 to 4 minutes on medium-high.  When veggies are cooked, drizzle with Black Magic and toss for 15 to 20 seconds.