Evolving idiom

El Nuevo Leon offers subtle, delicious Mex-Mex mutations

I went down to Austin last weekend to waste time and eat Mexican food.
That's only a slight paraphrase of one of my favorite motivating sentences in fiction--the one that starts the whole chain of nonevents in Larry McMurtry's book, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers--a favorite because it rings so true: The very specific desire to do nothing, nourished and encouraged by some really good enchiladas, can get you going in the right direction--which, in the case of McMurtry's Danny Deck, is toward Austin.

I guess I didn't get enough Mexican food to get rid of the craving (I know I didn't waste enough time), so, almost as soon as I got home to Dallas, I headed out in a different direction to check out El Nuevo Leon, a Mexican restaurant that apparently everyone has tried except me, though it's been on my list of must-visits for several months.

Sure enough, out in Farmers Branch, we circled around out on Josey Lane to the back of Turner's hardware store and found a fiesta in progress. Two weeks after Christmas, the colored twinkle-lights here were still bright.

We were greeted with a smile at the door and, while a guitar player was singing happily that we had lost "that lovin' feelin'," were settled in with a beer, tostados, two kinds of salsa (a fiery, thin green brew and a gentler, chunkier red), and our own smiles in short order.

El Nuevo Leon Tortilla Factory bills itself as "Mex-Mex," implying a purer style of Mexican cuisine than that which Texans have inflicted on it.

Of course, in defense of Tex-Mex, virtually everything we think of as "pure" Mexican food came over from Spain in the wake of Christopher Columbus, just like everything we think of as Italian food went back with him in the opposite direction. Cabrito, pollo, arroz, queso--all were European additions to Mexican gastronomy. (They must have been welcome additions, too, to the Aztecs, who until then had had to be content with their diet of locust tacos and turkey.) In other words, neither Tex-Mex, nor Mex-Mex, nor any other gastronomic variation is fixed; food, like language, is constantly evolving, and only the chauvinist French seem determined to resist the fact that there really is no pure cuisine, or pure language.

Still, El Nuevo Leon's food is not in the standard idiom we're used to. At dinner, there are only three enchilada plates and no real combination dinners, but there's a whole section of guisos, or stews.

The service stands apart from most Mexican restaurants, too. Our waiter, Scott, recited the specials, describing cooking techniques and ingredients as suavely and surely as if he were a tuxedoed server at The Riviera and selling us on both of them.

A parfait glass filled with sweet whole shrimp and minimally piquant red cocktail sauce, topped with blocks of just-diced avocado, was one appetizer we chose, passing it around the table so everyone could dip in, ignoring the basket of individually wrapped Saltines served with it and balancing the cold shrimp on tostados instead. From the menu, we ordered chile con queso, a seemingly unimaginative choice, but this bowl was brimming with lumpy, white, melted cheese, as unappetizing-looking as hour-old Cream of Wheat, but creamy and tangy, with a back-of-the-mouth burn, a dip as far from the gelid orange glop usually served here as Dallas is from Mexico City.

A double-header platter was the other special we ordered, the twin stars nothing but meat: cabrito, big, dark-fleshed chunks of sweet baby goat on stark, white bones, and carnitas, hunks of fibrous, tenderly braised pork, rich with translucent layers of fat, to roll in fresh hot tortillas and dip in salsa, making a soft taco to remember.

Tamales came unshucked, with a thick pork filling in the crumbly masa, and smothered with chilorio sauce, which Scott, when asked, described succinctly as "a fancy word for meat sauce." It was a fine-textured chili, almost reminiscent of a Bolognese sauce and much richer than the usual gravy; it covered the masa rolls and the cheese enchiladas as well.

Pollo tinge was chicken meat, stewed and served in a smoky-hot chipotle sauce, set off by wide strips of sweet sauteed onions.

The chile relleno, a deep-green pepper, was encased in a meringuelike egg-white batter whose delicate taste and airy texture contrasted with the nearly bitter pepper flesh and the thick cheese filling.

The spicy, reddish rice that came with most of the entrees was flecked with shrivelled peas and bits of carrot. Instead of refried beans, we were served borrachos, soup-like and soothing in a little cup.

Scott brought us Styro' clamshells before we'd even quite finished as it was clear the meal had defeated us. We were already doing nothing, even though there were still things on the menu we wanted to taste--mancha manteles, beef in red mole, chimichurri sauce--so we'll head north again.

We did manage to try one more thing--the tres leches cake, which, again, we're not used to seeing on local Mexican menus. Traditionally, according to Scott, the three milks used in the cake are cow's milk, donkey's milk, and goat's milk. El Nuevo Leon used sweetened, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and fresh milk to soak the hot, half-baked cake and make the filling and icing. The result was as soothing as mother's milk must be, and it got us going in another very specific direction: home to recline.

El Nuevo Leon Tortilla Factory, 12895 Josey Lane #100, Farmers Branch, 488-1984. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner, 5 p.m-9 p.m; for lunch Saturday, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; for dinner, 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Open Sunday, 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

El Nuevo Leon Tortilla Factory:
Chile con Queso $3.95
Enchiladas $5.95
Tinga de Pollo $6.95
Chile Relleno $5.95
Tamales en Chilorio
$5.95
Three-Milk Cake $2.25

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