Monday, July 7, 2014

Just Gotta Wonder

Original Donut Shop
3307 Fredericksburg
(at Babcock)

In the seamy section of Fredericksburg Road between Hildebrand and Loop 410, there are relatively few decent taco houses; surprising in this town. I can only think of two, one at each end of that strip of road (though there is one other, in between, that I haven't yet tried). And unlike almost every place in the country north of Waco and Ponchatoula, we don't find donut shops in every strip-center around here. Maybe, then, it's the novelty of a donut shop, and the relative novelty of tacos in that area, that keep this neighbourhood taco house going. Whatever it is, it's worked for decades. It sure ain't the food.

I've tried the food here half a dozen times over the past twenty years. Today probably marks not my last visit, but the experience has been sufficiently consistent over all those visits to write now with some confidence.

Today, for the first time, I tried the donuts. (To be honest, I never before realized that they actually sold donuts; I've always come in from the Babcock Road side, and never before noticed the small donut-shop area at the other end; or if I did, I'd forgotten about it.) The donuts were good, not spectacular: better than HEB, but more expensive; not as good as Shipley's, but cheaper. The variety on offer is substantial, with something to surely satisfy whatever craving your sweet tooth has. Enough said about that.

The taquería side of the business is poorly laid out. The food is set out in steamer tables, and the line to order at the register forms in front of those tables. When your food is ready, they call your number and you collect your tray from the counter over the steamer table. The coffee dispenser is there too, though the sugar and creamer supplies are kept to the left of the register, and napkins and eating utensils are at the other end of the counter. This arrangement guarantees that everybody will be in everybody else's way at least twice, possibly three times. More if you decide to get a refill on coffee.

What's that mean?
Last city inspection: January 2014
14 demerits
The coffee was, to us, not worth a refill. It took double doses of creamer, and a packet of salt, to make that bitter, acidic brew palatable. How the coffee attained that level of unpleasantness without also being Starbucks-strong is beyond me.

I ordered a potato and egg taco and a bacon and egg taco, both on corn tortillas. My friend Rick (now on occasion known to me as Sidekick Max, after a movie character) went for a couple of beef fajita tacos on wheat tortillas. In both cases the tortillas were well-made, and held together fairly well.  Rick was happy enough with his meal, and had nothing to complain of in it. He rates them at two and a half chili peppers -- ordinary.

My bacon and egg taco was a disappointment. It was overly salty, there wasn't much bacon in it, and the eggs were way too dry to be pleasing. That happens when they sit in a steamer table for who knows how long. The same eggs were used in the potato-and-egg taco, but in that taco the big chunks of potato (which had only improved from the long steaming) imparted enough moisture to make the overall texture much more pleasant, and the addition of a little fair-quality red salsa gave the taco a little flavour.

Otherwise, the place is good enough: the dining room is fairly clean despite a constant turnouver, though the hard-tile floor made it impossible to find a table that didn't wobble with every touch. If you keep your foot on the table-leg, it'll hold still.
Original Donut Shop on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

First Impression: Better Than Average

Mama's Kitchen
504 West Hildebrand
(between San Pedro & Blanco, by the railroad tracks)

There used to be a different little family-owned Tex-Mex restaurant in this space; and another one before that; and probably another one before that, and so on all the way back to when this was a house on the edge of town in the 1940s. Both predecessors that I tried were pretty run-of-the-mill on a good day, and they didn't seem to have that many good days.

Knowing that, I only went here for breakfast because of my halfway-serious desire to try and review all the restaurants along what I call the Hildebrand Corridor, that stretch of the avenue between McCullough and Fredericksburg, along with the side-streets.  I put off dining here for a long time, expecting something not worthwhile in a town filled with so very many good Tex-Mex cocinas

I'm happy to say that this place was, if not a revelation, at least a pleasant surprise. 

The interior is not substantially different from what it was under the former régime: clean enough, not too many ticky-tack tchotchkis around; a few interesting or amusing wall hangings (including an enormous map of Mexico, such as one would find in a schoolroom in Morelia). The furnishings are all small-family-restaurant standard, apparently in decent enough shape. One noticeable drawback is the adhesive quality of the heavy clear vinyl table covers, which make it difficult to move things around on the surface. Not really a problem until you go to slide a water glass out of the way and, oops! Top moves, bottom doesn't. Also the noise from the hardworking window-unit air conditioners is distracting at first, until you get used to it and it becomes just another bit of white noise competing with the stereo and the conversations from other tables. 

The server was prompt and courteous; she spoke just enough English to be able to deal with my friends who speak no Spanish, but clearly Spanish is the preferred language here. And although my own Spanish has rusted away to dust in most applications, I still retain enough restaurant-Spanish to place the right order and answer most questions a server is likely to ask, even if it's only slowly and with poorly-constructed sentences.

What's that mean?
Last city inspection: February 2014
3 demerits (very good)
I went with one of my standard orders: one machacado taco on flour, one chilaquile taco on corn, with coffee. The coffee was in the average range: not too bitter, not too acidic, not too strong, not too weak. Really not too anything. There's nothing about it to recommend, but nothing to condemn either.  It's just ... coffee.

The chilaquiles here are of the variety that I like best, often called a la mexicana: prepared with eggs, tomato, peppers and onion. The chilaquiles themselves (meaning the fried pieces of corn tortilla) were done a little past perfection, but maintained enough crunchy texture and toasted-corn flavour to satisfy. The egg and vegetable mixture was very well done, clearly not rushed as so many kitchens will do. The vegetables were cooked through but not overdone, and the eggs were cooked to moist solidity. There was a satisfying quantity of cheese, and the salsa picante roja in the mixture gave it just the right kick.

The machacado was even better. The meat was dry and chewy, as it should be, though a good deal saltier than I like; the egg mixture accompanying it was as perfectly done as with the chilaquile taco. (No surprise, since they were made at the same time.) I added a little salsa verde to this taco, and the result was exceptional: a very satisfying blend of textures and flavours.

The menu states proudly that the restaurant makes its own flour tortillas. They also make their own corn tortillas, and if I were running this restaurant I'd be prouder of those. The flour tortillas were on the high side of good, but the corn tortillas had outstanding texture and coherence, and very good flavour. I recommend them to all my gringo friends willing to step back from the flour tortillas.
Mama's Kitchen on Urbanspoon