Home is on the range

Thank God the holidays are over and we can all recover, not just from overindulgence, cold-weather flus, colds, and the other deleterious effects of close contact with too much family, but from related holiday maladies like homesickness. Holidays hearken to home in the most primitive way, and even when we technically are at home, we tend to feel homesick at Christmas. Think of the music: "I'll be home for Christmas--if only in my dreams," "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas--just like the ones I used to know." Home can be defined in so many ways; it's "where the heart is," it's "where, when you go there, they have to take you in," it involves not just the people and places that surrounded you in a time of innocence, but also the touch, the smells and, of course, the tastes. For most of us, homesickness is evoked by food, and homecoming soothes with a menu.

That doesn't just mean Mom's apple pie and turkey at Christmas. You're not a true resident of Texas if you don't head for a Tex-Mex restaurant if you've been out of the state as long as a week. And every other place has foods that set the sentimental juices flowing, foods that can only be prepared properly and enjoyed fully in their native setting. Jane and Michael Stern are America's encyclopedists of these dishes. Single-minded seekers of America's vanishing regional culinary resources, they indefatigably document the country's diners and chili parlors, reveling in the idiosyncrasies of fast-disappearing local cuisines--some whose attractions completely escape most non-natives. Who but someone reared in rural Mississippi could possibly crave a fried dill pickle? Surely no one but a southerner could eat a beaten biscuit and like it, and it's impossible to imagine a stranger taking to chicharrones at the first bite. Philadelphia cheese steak, Rocky Mountain oysters, Memphis dry ribs, Buffalo wings, and Cincinnati chili are other strange and, until recently, identifiably regional foods.

Alas, the melting pot is omnivorous, and it's the nature of modern American foods to leave their native region (after all, they are concepts with "legs") and creep into the culinary vernacular of exotic climes and places like Duluth and Des Moines. So here in Dallas, we eat Buffalo wings and debate the merits of blue cheese dip, we chow down on those inexplicable pickles, and we crave Memphis dry as much as Texas brisket, all the while declaring that New York will never be able to plate decent cheese enchiladas.

In the past few months, some distinctively other-regional places have opened in Dallas--Texadelphia, a cheese steak palace that arrived by way of Austin, and a branch of Empress Chili Parlor, the place that originated the numerical chili vocabulary of Ohio.

Texadelphia is located with great Austin style in a nicely refurbished old house on a street which owner Tom Landis describes, also in laconic Austin style, as "sorta right across the street from Fog City Diner." I should point out that Texadelphia has the best view of downtown at night outside the Crescent Club, and for only about five bucks an entree. I've eaten cheese steaks in Philadelphia--not at the hallowed Pat's, which claims to be the inventor of the famous sandwich (I hope you know a cheese "steak" is actually a sandwich)--but at Joe's, the second oldest Philly cheese steak house. I can only assume that Joe's so-called steaks are the genuine article, if not the original one, and therefore I guess I'll never be homesick for Philadelphia. I get the concept, and I appreciate it--no one could ever claim my tastes were too haute to appreciate Cheez Whiz melted over sizzled chipped beef--but it goes without saying that, being a Texan, I prefer my cheese food melted with Ro-tel. Texadelphia broadens the original Philadelphia dish (which is no more than beef and onions fried on a griddle, piled on a soft hoagie roll and squirted with said Whiz) by offering variations on the blackboard menu, which also lists hamburgers, subs, burgers, and a chicken cheese steak (I haven't been to Philadelphia in nearly a decade, and it's entirely probable that the city of brotherly love has also been overwhelmed by boneless chickens, so this may be "authentic" now). Jalapeno peppers are one of the add-ons (mushrooms, pepperoni, cherry peppers, lettuce, and tomato are more typical garnishes) you can order on your steak, and as a further concession to Texas tastes, you can also order chips and salsa, chile con queso, and guacamole.

But let's talk about cheese steak. Texadelphia's steak was different from Joe's--maybe it's the water, but I think more likely it's the cheese, which was actual mozzarella, not a processed cheese relation. (That ingredient change could be attributed to an eruption of Austin-style earnestness.) Texadelphia's sandwich, on a soft, seeded bun, held a pile of beef, which was so thinly sliced the resulting texture seemed minced. In fact, the texture was more like a sloppy Joe or the topping on a chili dog--I kept expecting to hit hot dog with every bite of the bun. The chicken version suffered predictably from being chicken, an all-purpose meat these days, but one which doesn't benefit from the harsh treatment given it at Texadelphia. Chicken doesn't have enough fat to stand up to this abuse, and the bits inside my sandwich were a little too leathery to be completely appetizing. Lower heat would help. On the other hand, the cheese steak was pretty good, pretty cheap, and a nice alternative to barbecue or burgers. And the beer was cold. Let's put it relatively: I liked Texadelphia's cheese steak a lot better than I liked Empress' Ohio chili.

The Texas and Ohio rivalry goes on only at the most basic common denominator level of society: Its two main battlefields, after all, are state fairs and chili bowls. The Ohio State Fair and the (great) State Fair of Texas are both contenders for the non-existent "biggest fair of the year" award. It's truly a meaningless competition when you realize that the Ohio fair doesn't even sell corny dogs. I don't know if chili is sold, either, but if it is, why bother. I've always been curious about this dish called Cincinnati chili; it's developed almost as much mystique as a Texas bowl of red, but if the Empress Chili Parlor in Dallas is serving the real thing, I'm still mystified.

The menu graphics and the old-fashioned, soda fountain look of the place are great, and make the storefront location a little snazzier than the typical burger joint. There's been a touching effort made to educate Texas palates to Ohio chili (lots of menu explanation, waiter education, framed articles on the wall) but right away you notice there are some outright surrenders--old Shanghai Jimmy's famous chili rice is on the menu, and there is a credible bowl of Texas chili served here. Which happens to be the best chili on the menu. Everyone knows that Cincinnati chili has its own peculiar numerical nomenclature, as easy to figure out as a Lubbock street map. It's served plain ("one way"), on top of (go figure) spaghetti ("two way"), or with cheese on top of spaghetti ("three way"). Three way with onions is, you guessed it, "four way," "five way" gets beans, too, and "six way" was probably invented just so Texans could taste the stuff--it's topped with jalapenos in addition to everything else. (Now you know you'll never get lost in Lubbock.) The predictable problem is that Cincinnati chili doesn't seem to have any chile in it. Tomatoes, yes, (it's actually pretty sweet stuff) and probably some cayenne, evidently some allspice--Cincinnati chili was invented by Greek immigrants in the 1920s--but no real chile. No amount of noodles can make up for this lack. Wrapping it in a flour tortilla and calling it a burrito just makes it one of those mule-like minglings that nature takes care of in her own way.

Empress Chili Parlor does serve excellent milk shakes, if you're interested. And some Ohio beer.

Dos Charros is the latest place we've found to eat away the Texas homesick blues. Sure, it's a small, smoky place with all the ambiance of a convenience store heated by campfire, but ignore the evidently malfunctioning Vent-A-Hood and pay attention to what's on your plate. Cheese enchiladas are what should be on it, here the classic version that is anathema to picky eaters because the edges of one thing ooze right into the next so you have to do exploratory probing with your fork to figure out exactly where the rolled tortilla is under that chile gravy. If you want a break from the basic, try the "Natalia" plate, which features avocado enchiladas (and, of course, beans and rice). I've never had anything quite like them before in my adult lifetime of enchilada eating. Each loosely rolled tortilla tube was filled with chunky, smashed, oily avocado, of the most silken, unctuous variety. You had to have a margarita to cut the cream. Carne tampiqueno is special at Dos Charros, too. Instead of the shoe-leather beef you've come to expect from Mexican steak (perhaps they get nostalgic about it in Tampico), this is a rich, russet-colored stew of tender chunks of beef to roll in thick flour tortillas, almost like a big meat chili, with more vegetable flavor and less fire, but with the unmistakable roundness that characterizes Mexican cooking, Texas style.

Face it--in an uncertain, mobile world, how often do you want to drink Ohio beer, or eat foreign chili and cheese steak, when perfectly good Texas or Mexican brew and cheese enchiladas are so easily obtainable? Why invite homesickness home?

Texadelphia, 2312 Leonard, (214) 969-0905. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday noon-3 p.m.

Empress Chili Parlor, 14760 Preston, (972) 458-8823. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.

Dos Charros, 108 University Village Shopping Center, Plano Rd. at Belt Line, (214) 783-7671. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Cheese Steak $4.25
Chicken Cheese Steak $4.75
Italian Sub $3.95

Empress Chili Parlor:
Shanghai Jimmy's Famous Chili Rice $3.95
Five-Way Chili, Regular $4.35
Empress Coney Island $1.20

Dos Charros:
Carne Tampiqueno $8.95
Natalia $5.95
Cheese Enchilada Dinner $5.95


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