Kimberly: Sadly, I’m not sure it’s in my budget to do much international travel this year. But it’s alright because I just came back from Texas, which feels like its own planet, much less another state in the Union. Despite the extension of many offers over the past few years, this summer was the first chance I had to visit Celest’s family down in the Lone Star State. I’ve listened to her complain about the lack of Tex-Mex cuisine in New York, and heard her describe with almost pornographic detail dishes I’ve never tasted, or sometimes even heard of, that are commonplace for her back home. I never like feeling culinarily left behind, so for awhile now I’ve been dying to get my hands on some “chicken fried steak” and “tortilla soup.”
Celest: You must understand: people in Austin choose where to live based on proximity to their favorite breakfast taco stands. Migas with cheese, chorizo and eggs. At my Mexican Grandma’s house, all the babies quickly learn to say “papas!” and she knows what they want: eggs scrambled with bacon and potatoes, wrapped up in a hot flour tortilla.
While chomping on a few of these at the cleverly named Juan in a Million, I taught Kimberly how to wrap her pinky finger under and around the end of the tortilla to keep all the goodies tucked in side. No matter really, if you can’t get this technique down, since you just scoop up whatever falls outta there with a chip, dab a little salsa or guacamole on top. Perfect bite!
Kimberly: Celest’s family laughed at me when, at the restaurant, I asked if they had ordered the salsa extra spicy.
“Nope, that’s just they way they make it down here,” was the response I got.
I loved it. Revelation.
Celest: We hit all the three major food groups while we were there: Tex-Mex, barbecue, and Southern comfort. We spent a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Comfort, Texas, right in the middle of the Hill Country. That was the day for barbecue. After my uncle grilled (brisket, pork ribs, sausages) and led us through a hand-holding prayer of thanks to Jesus—bet Kimberly didn’t see that coming!—we were instructed to each take two plates: one for meat, the other for sides. Mother’s black bean and corn salad, macaroni and cheese, German-style dill potato salad, cheddar jalapeño bread (picked up at the Czech Stop on the way in from Dallas), and a salad of fresh spinach and strawberries (mostly for color). We washed it all down with cold Coronas. And my cousin played the guitar as we sat, digesting, telling stories and watching the sun set over the mesquite trees.
Kimberly: The Hill Country, one of the hottest spots in the country for food and travel right now, did not disappoint for beauty, food or hospitality. I loved all the clapboard rural shops, little farm stands and local wineries we passed on the drive between Austin and Comfort. We stopped at Wild Boar after having been tempted by tons of signs promising Texas peaches and other locally-grown items. I was so excited to see a huge wheel of orange cheddar sitting out under an old-fashioned cheese cloth dome. The cheese was covered in red wax and sweating from the heat (like 98 degrees!). We took a giant slice of the soft Longhorn cheddar to go, as well as some blackberries, a watermelon, and some beef jerky. This part of the trip really felt like we were in the Napa Valley of central Texas. Similar in ways, but with country music and cowboy hats abundant at every stop…
Celest: Not really Kimberly’s thing of course, but the homemade, Texas peach ice cream was to die…
Kimberly: Then, driving north to Dallas the next day, we made a stop at a place claiming the “Best Chicken Fried Steak.” I didn’t know from chicken fried steak, but it was accompanied by some tasty fried green tomatoes and a white gravy I’d never encountered before…
Celest: How has she lived without cream gravy?! My whole family thought it was nuts—even more disturbing than the fact she’d never heard of George Strait, only the most prolific of all country musicians. Ever.
“Never even heard of the song ‘All My Exes Live in Texas,’ Kimberly?” asked my dad, perplexed.
Kimberly: I sheepishly had to shake my head “no.”
Celest: I had to reassure her that it’s part of the charm of the place that people there really have a hard time believing anyone on earth exists who isn’t or doesn’t long to be a Texan. (And there’s more than a bit of naiveté on the part of some about the fact that everybody outside associates the state with the maniac who’s been running the country into the ground for the past several years—most Texans I know think hip cowboy boots, beauty queens and devotion to high school football are what the state’s known for. You could say it’s a bubble…)
Kimberly: We’d already done some good eating, but it wasn’t until we were in Dallas that we really got down to the business of drinking. Margaritas. My favorite summer drink. We sipped homemade ones as we floated around the pool working on our early summer tans. Well, Celest got a little tan; I burned, then peeled. But it was so liberating to be able to just walk up to a bar down there and order a margarita, specifying only “frozen” or “on the rocks,” “salt” or “no salt.” ‘Cause I’ve had decent margaritas here in the city before (recently at Bar Q, also La Esquina, even Butter and The Spotted Pig), but they always come with the hassle of having to specify exactly what I want in order to get the drink I desire—fresh lime juice only, premium tequila, no sour mix whatsoever, no juice of any kind, not too sweet…In Big D we ordered with abandon: at Chuy’s, Luna De Noche, Glorias, La Duni and hit the jackpot every time. They were strong and tart, the perfect accompaniment to the Tex-Mex food I was sampling at every opportunity.
Celest: We introduced her to the lusciousness of queso (ubiquitous throughout Texas), a creamy cheese concoction, seasoned, spiced and hopefully topped with dollops of ground beef and guacamole, then scooped into your mouth with crisp tortilla chips. I could eat buckets. It must be the heart’s nightmare food. Then, she was fed plates of enchiladas: chicken with sour cream sauce, topped with jalapeños, cheese and onion con carne, topped with jalapeños, cheese-stuffed with ranchero sauce, topped with jalapeños…
Kimberly: No wonder Celest misses this stuff when she’s in NYC. There really isn’t anything like these kinds of flavors here. You can find some decent Cal-Mex or Southwestern, but nothing as good as the tortilla soup she craves. I finally got to try some. It was simple: a cup with a slice of fresh avocado, some shredded Jack cheese and slivers of crisp tortilla strips at the bottom, over which was poured a deliciously seasoned broth with chunks of white chicken meat, onions
, tomatoes and peppers. Wonderful flavor…
Celest: Finally, we had to head back north, to the big city (and closets full of summer clothes that would surely fit no longer…), so we had a last meal at home with my family. Just some perfectly grilled Texas t-bone steaks the size of, well, the size of a whole dinner plate, served with mashed potatoes, asparagus and sautéed mushrooms.
Kimberly:Good whiskey while the meat was cooking, Chianti with dinner. Damn those Texans know how to drink! I’m into drowning some sorrows these days, so it was perfect.
The sunsets, the truck we drove, the cuts of beef, the pour of tequila, the welcome.
I’d heard it said; now I’ve seen it for myself—everything’s bigger…