Wednesday, January 31, 2018

West Texas Breakfast Insights / The Deeper Meaning of Salt

So aside from the Sturm und Drang of my operatic failure with regard to the Huckleberry breakfast in Grapevine, Texas at Old West Cafe, how was the show, Mrs. Lincoln?

I have many thoughts to offer; nuggets earned at steep physical and emotional expense, given the massive over-consumption (I couldn't get the Monty Python "Bucket" sketch out of my mind) belied by my seemingly feeble execution (the waiter, removing my plate, only barely concealed his contempt).

This was my first meal ever meriting two separate postings. And here, once again, is the "Huckleberry" - "a hand-tenderized, hand-breaded chicken-fried ribeye steak smothered in homemade sausage gravy served with two eggs, hash browns, and Texas toast":

Objects are larger than they appear; that golden disk in the background is an entire rib-eye.

Old West Cafe appears to have one main function for the world: it's the closest real good meal to monster DFW airport, which half the world likely passes through in a given year. The restaurant is a mere 13 minute ride, so it's always recommended in those perennial "Where do I eat during a layover?" online forum discussions.

Alas, once the world has determined your function, you're stuck with it. What else is Old West Cafe? Well, it's super-delicious, if that counts for anything. And extremely well-run, with excellent service. And authentic; their chicken-fried steak is as good as any I've had. Deliciousness and authenticity aside, the kitchen's QA amid massive Saturday and Sunday morning rushes was remarkable. I highly recommend this place, and would certainly hit it up for lunch or dinner, as well.

Here's the web site, and here's the Yelp page. Note that there are also locations in Denton, Bedford, and Arlington, but I can't vouch for them. For southern food (which has considerable overlap), I'm an even bigger fan of Babe's Chicken Dinner House (particularly out-of-town branches) and Babe's semi-fast-food-ish outlet, Bubba's Cooks Country, which I covered last trip (I fly to Dallas any winter when I find an airfare under $80 round trip).

Weirdly, I was out of there in about eleven minutes flat. And I wasn't the only one. The table churn in this place was like a hyper-accelerated time-lapse. That's unexpected given the landscapes of food. But I've seen this happen at dim sum, too, where super-hungry diners say "yes" to every cart lady, wail through their dumplings in a flash, and slink out woefully clutching their stomachs. Bigger portions may actually accelerate turnover (the higher food cost may be more than offset by this effect). It seems counterintuitive until you consider that especially attractive romantic partners seldom elicit more prolonged attentions. It's exactly, precisely, like that.

These hash browns were the Platonic ideal of this type of breakfast spud. Fancy French chefs don't know how to wield the magic of cusp burntness. I could write volumes on cusp burntness. If so, this would be one of my primary examples:

A seriously righteous chicken fried steak with sausage gravy. Flavor-wise, there is not a lot going on in such a simple dish. No big, bold flavors. Mostly fat, salt, pepper, and fat. But the subtleties are infinitely provocative.

Really, the main appeal was textural. Having been tenderized within an inch of its life, crunchy highlights gave way to a gummy, gravied inner stratum surrounding a core of infinitessimally chewy beef. Here's a cross-section:

When salt and pepper are pretty much the only things going on, and it works, you need to really consider that salting and peppering. So here goes...

I didn't grow up in a black pepper household. When it was used, it was with onion, for a flavor effect evoking grandmotherly/old-world (which tied together for me only this year, when I finally visited a Belarusian restaurant). Other than that, I don't really "get" pepper. It's the flavor of cheesy moderately upscale restaurants - assuming you've bent to the considerable pressure and cared to have some freshly black pepper with that, sir. I don't grok that bizarre ritual, and I don't grok the omnipresence. I get why people expect salt, but much of the time black pepper strikes me as gratuitous. Good dishes would be better without it, and lousy dishes are never saved by it.

But in this context, I totally totally get it. The pepper is necessary. It achieves miracles. It sophisticates the grease and offsets the salt. It lends personality - though, without onions, it's the personality of someone else's family. Who doesn't groove on the cooking of other people's families?

It's also added in great profusion, and I usually only experience massive black pepper in two contexts:

1. A certain type of nouvelle Texas BBQ where the entire outside of the meat is crusted in peppercorns - which are portioned to the customer along with the meat, which turns me off because I'm there for delicious, complex, expensive beef, not some pretentious, dull, monotonous, clobber of black pepper.

2. Certain Thai dishes which demonstrate that black pepper, in sufficient doses, can ignite a spicy roar of its own. Thai food reminds you that black pepper, the original trendy spice, still retains its enigmatic character even in an era when all of us are savvy spice veterans.

Chicken fried steak and sausage gravy is a comparatively new wrinkle in a 4000 year continuum, plumbing fresh profundities with the oldest of spices.

"Salt and pepper" is the mantra, and grease is the medium, but there’s another elusive flavor in there; a subtle complexity tying it all together. It took a few bites before I understood what it was. It was salt! But a deeper salt. This dish was obviously salty, but beneath the environmental saltiness lurks an inner kernel so unfamiliarly salty that it’s hard to identify, short-circuiting any “too-salty” response. The chef has actually hacked salting; altering the brain's reaction.

I kept taking bite after additional bite, trying to confirm a stealthy tang of vinegar. Nope. Beneath the grease and the meat and the black pepper and the big-picture salting, there's only a subtextual salt tang that I do not - and may never - understand. I am, culturally, 10% Latino, 10% African-American, 5% Spanish, 5% Mexican, and 1% lots of other things, but I've got precisely zero cowboy in me. Never even played one as a kid. Never saw a western film (no John Ford, no Sergio Leone...nothing). So don't ask me to explain this salt thing.

Dallas is Texas' most cosmopolitan city (Austin, the state's most provincial town, is merely the apotheosis of hipsterism, quite a narrow thing), and cosmopolitanism is normally the product of confusion and alienation. Too far west to be Southern, too far east to be Western, and too far North to be Hispanic, Dallas is everything and nothing, so you don't see much insularity. Despite my New York accent, no Dallas native has ever suspected me of being a tourist. And so I choose to attribute this wall sign to that cosmopolitan spirit:

I returned the next day to try the migas ("Three eggs scrambled with chorizo, diced tomato and onion, crispy tortilla strips, cilantro, and cheddar cheese. Served with warm tortillas, fried potatoes, refried beans and salsa"). Killer. By the way, if you want to know the origin of migas - which are from Aragon, a lesser-known region of Spain - see my smartphone app, Eat Everywhere (migas are covered in the "Spain" section, under "The Short List").


Unknown said...

Thanks for this. Those hash browns.

I must speak up... Dallas is not West Texas. Abeline is as east as you go in West Texas. A yankee (I am the first yankee ever to marry into my husband's family) might not see the differences in the people.
If you drive back and forth across TX a few times, you get to know the shift in atmosphere. West Texas people are a touch more formal, courteous, polite. They twang. East Texans speak just a little faster, laugh a bit quicker and louder. They drawl. Also, the land changes.

Q: How do you know someone is from Texas?
A: Oh, they'll tell you.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for the comment! I noted this myself, above....see the paragraph titled "The Enigmatic Wall Sign"!

I've spent a bunch of time in El Paso, and Dallas is surely. It that. But this restaurant gets it as right as my other fave, Bubba's, gets southern food (though Dallas ain't southern, either!).

Blog Archive