Best Enchiladas Ever: Tons of Choices- Most of Them Good- at Monica Greene's Latest.
Much to my chagrin as a kid, the only things I was ever capable of doing quickly were reading and writing. Neither skill was especially valuable in gym class.
But in a newsroom, where deadlines are perpetually looming, high-speed literacy isn't just a parlor trick. It's extraordinarily helpful to be able to "produce clean copy in a timely manner," as one of my more pedantic editors once put it.
And that I can do. Usually. But this week I stalled out on my review of Best Enchiladas Ever, Monica Greene's cheery new Latin wrap joint in Oak Cliff. I first attributed my laggardness to seasonal distractions, what with the wagering possibilities posed by March Madness and the time change allowing me to pedal out to dinner at a godly hour without having to switch on my handlebar lights. Yet I finally figured out I couldn't blame bikes or basketball for my problems. (We fast-typing sorts don't excel at self-introspection.) I was putting off writing about B.E.E. because it represented what I'll miss most about Dallas when I move to Seattle next month.
I'm leaving Dallas after a very short time here: To stick with Greene's theme, there are honeybees buzzing about who can recall my arrival. But I've discovered I'm severely allergic to short Texas ragweed—and an army of other pollens I never encountered until I came to North Texas—so Village Voice Media, which owns the Observer, has agreed to reassign me to the Seattle Weekly, where I'll do the same job I do here. Until I started suffering, I would have ranked allergies somewhere between bunions and gout on the serious health problems meter, so I feel compelled to explain my symptoms weren't trifling: I ended up with a mess of digestive issues that aren't appropriate to discuss in a column devoted to eating. Suffice to say I got pretty sick.
I'm looking forward to feeling better, but I know there's much I'll miss about Dallas. I'll miss the burgers, chicken-fried steaks and grilled quail popping up in improbable restaurants. I'll miss the kolaches, salty Gulf oysters and smoked sausages, glistening with pork fat, served with raw jalapeños, a hunk of cheddar cheese and white bread saturated in hot sauce. Mostly, though, I'll miss the enchiladas, a category B.E.E.'s audaciously and persuasively made its own.
Enchiladas got their start as Mexican street food. According to Robb Walsh's authoritative Tex-Mex Cookbook, the first enchiladas were tortillas dipped in chile sauce and topped with diced onions and grated cheese. When the genre migrated to New Mexico, restaurateurs there stacked the flat tortillas and called the result an "enchilada" on their menus. Mexican and Texan restaurant owners developed a slightly more elaborate presentation, rolling the chilied tortillas around various proteins. The classic Tex-Mex enchilada is the cheese enchilada, a corn tortilla stuffed with slick cheese made for melting and heaped with husky chili gravy.
Tex-Mex law doesn't require enchiladas to be sloppy, though. So long as there's stuffing and plenty of coverage from sauce, the concoction qualifies as an enchilada (although some purists are inclined to classify an enchilada that doesn't see the interior of an oven as a burrito, enchilada style). Without the sauce, the sandwich automatically becomes a burrito. Unless, of course, the fillings are especially scrawny, which could mean the wrap's treading on taco territory.
Semantics are important at B.E.E. because all three tortilla-and-filling variations are listed on the menu. It's up to customers to indicate their exact desires on cards similar to those distributed at the city's Which Wich sandwich chain, a contrivance I find as proactively nostalgia-inducing as Bob Armstrong dip. Dallas is inordinately fond of the check-off style of ordering, which briefly surfaced at Smoke when the restaurant first opened and remains the only way to express roll preferences at most every sushi bar. I suspect it's because Dallas is a white-collar town, and eaters feel comfortable filling out forms. It's supper as spreadsheet.
Menu cards are intended to make ordering efficient, but matching up the right tortilla, filling, sauce and cheese can be laborious. Sure, spinach-and-mushroom belongs on a wheat tortilla, but should it be smothered in poblano crema sauce? Or does it make more sense to save the poblano crema for an enchilada of slow-cooked chicken on a blue tortilla? Such questions become more pressing with the realization that it's impossible to fill up on fewer than four of the design-it-yourself enchiladas, which translates to 16 critical decisions, not counting the choices awaiting at the glass-walled assembly station. Do you want onions on your enchilada? Radishes? Cilantro? Zucchini? Cotija cheese?
"B.E.E. is all about choices," an energetic staffer told my dining companion and me the fourth or fifth time he dropped by our table to gauge our enjoyment levels. "Which is why it takes so long," my friend quipped.
Fortunately, there are staffers positioned near the entrance to explain the ordering system and offer samples of the restaurant's nine housemade sauces. In true Dallas tradition, Greene often handles the greeting herself. I've never been the beneficiary of the glad-handing I've watched owners of fancier restaurants ladle on their important-seeming guests, but appreciate the role it plays in the city's dining scene. And, having been exposed to Greene's approach, I can understand why: Her hospitality is enormously appealing.
B.E.E. uses exquisitely fresh ingredients, some of which have certifiably organic pedigrees. So, it's almost silly to waste an order on a cheese enchilada with con carne sauce, although the sturdy Jack cheese is far more flavorful than what most Tex-Mex eateries use, and the sauce has a succinct beefiness. Instead, consider a juicy, slow-cooked beef picadillo or edgy pork carnitas, sporting just a trace of welcome ancho chili heat. Nothing at B.E.E. is really spicy, including the "bee-ware" salsa, but various chiles are used smartly in the simmered meats and well-constructed sauces; the broiled chicken is underscored by smoked chipotle. Beef brisket's not a bad choice either, although the portion I sampled was slightly dry.
Sauces are generally more engaging than the meats. A sheer avocado verde tastes springy and clean, while the ranchera sauce has an attractive tang. B.E.E. and its customers dote on a surprisingly light chipotle crema sauce, which figures in two of the four enchiladas made according to the kitchen's specifications. If your tastes run toward shrimp, fish or tofu, you're relieved of all your decision-making duties: B.E.E. dictates how those enchiladas are served.
The "enchiladas especiale" are $2-$4 more expensive than the standard enchiladas, and the expense isn't always justified. The shrimp diablo enchilada is terrific, thanks to a clump of perfectly cooked shrimp, but the vegetarian preparations are disappointing. While staffers stress the 9-inch length of their enchiladas so frequently that the measurement begins to sound dirty, the enchiladas made with sweet potato and quinoa are skimpy and uninspired. The sweet potato enchilada—featuring a hunk of baked sweet potato wrapped in a tortilla and doused with a peppery Amarillo sauce—is pretty pathetic. And the kitchen cooked all of the crunch out of the quinoa in my enchilada.
Still, B.E.E. has the basics down. I have little doubt the restaurant will add another two locations before the year's out, as a proud staffer promised me. B.E.E.—with its apiarian puns, fresh ingredients, pleasant sauces and customizable menu—is surely franchise-ready. It just doesn't get more Dallas than that.
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