On The Range: Enchiladas

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Let's face it: A true Tex-Mex establishment succeeds or fails on the strength of its enchiladas.

I realize I'm speaking only for myself, at least as far as popular dishes go. Many patrons of an El-or-La-something-or-other (as Rosemary Kent dubbed Tex-Mex restaurants in her Genuine Texas Handbook, released a generation ago) are perfectly content to order fajitas, tacos, or quesadillas every time. However, one can always learn volumes about the cook's commitment to authenticity through enchiladas.

So if that's your quest, it's best to start off a new place by ordering the staple, either alone or as part of a combination plate. Deceptively simple, these seemingly easy-to-make, hand-rolled beef or cheese beauties should melt in the mouth with a buttery, almost velvety smoothness. They preferably come topped with chili gravy or chili con carne that is beefy and savory enough to be served on its own.

Robb Walsh, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook, describes a perfect example thus: "As you work away at the rolled tortilla, a miracle takes place on the plate: viscous cheese sauce oozes into the dark chili gravy creating a delicious masterpiece of brown and yellow swirls." Wow...although the best indication of a perfect example might have something to do with the post-prandial appearance of the plate, the entire contents devoured and leftover cheese and chili scarfed down. The plate should appear as pristine as if it had just come out of the dishwasher.

Some might cringe, but Walsh bemoans the absence of lard and processed cheese in modern Tex-Mex. Apparently, so do many long-time aficionados. In a recent article, "Bless us, O Lard," he reveals that when the Houston-based Los Tios chain was sold a few years ago, the new owner made the mistake of replacing the powdered cheese in the chili con queso with real cheese. For his pains, he was accosted by numerous patrons, including his own mother--proof of the emotional attachment people have to their Tex-Mex.

A quick survey of cookbooks, however, indicates that the change to real cheese is already firmly under way. Both Jane Butel's Tex-Mex Cookbook and Dorothy Mcconachie's Our Texas Heritage use sharp cheddar and Monterrey Jack in their sample recipes rather than Velveeta. Not surprisingly, the late Tejano stalwart Matt Martinez in his book Mex-Tex, straddles the line between the old and the new, listing not only cheddar, jack, queso fresco, and Swiss, but also American as his cheeses of choice, noting that he prefers American for its "smoothness and melting quality." He also calls for a staggering eight tablespoons of lard or duck, chicken, or pork drippings in his Texas Original Enchilada Sauce, assuring that his cuisine will please dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists.

Innovation and tradition share center stage at Cyclone Anayas, a Houston-based bastion of Mex that has made its way to Dallas in recent months. Fans of hole-in-the-wall establishments might be nonplussed by Anayas street-smart digs, from the high-energy central bar to the Dante's post-industrial inferno décor. If you're of an innovative bent, there are such creations as lobster enchiladas in Chardonnay cream sauce and lump crab
nachos, but a sampling of the basics proved that traditionalists should be pleased as well.

Enchiladas Suizas combined roasted chicken, sour cream, and white Mexican cheese--a stretch of tradition. Basic beef enchiladas, however, stand out because of a welcome mixture of chili con carne, beef and onions that might just be the sleeper of the menu. The house salsa has significant bite, the guacamole fresh-made with chunks of avocado. Finally, Enchiladas Anayas are blend of old and new: Beef and chicken fajita chunks married to a mushroom-chili ancho sauce.

If you don't want to start at some little hole in the wall joint, this place isn't a bad substitute.

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