On The Range: Tostadas

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On The Range is a weekly exploration of the history and lore of Texas menu items.

How do you describe a tostada? As with many Latin dishes, it often depends on what side of the border you come from.

In Texas, or most of the other Estados Unidos, the tostada ("toasted") is most familiar in its classic Tex-Mex, taco-salad-wannabe incarnation: Seasoned ground beef or refried beans spread on a flat, fried corn tortilla, then covered with diced tomato, shredded lettuce, cheese, and salsa.

You know them well, and your corner Taco Whatever has them readily available for your late-night runs when you are beset by the drinking munchies. Tostada perfection, yes?

Not so fast, says Rick Bayless, frequent Food Network guest and author of Mexico: One Plate at a Time. His South-of-the-border-inspired Black Bean Tostadas with Smoky Salsa are made Oaxacan-style with anise-scented avocado leaf, pasilla or chipotle chiles, and goat cheese. As usual, he elucidates further on his favorite lunch snack's sexy savoriness:

"Of all the personalities you find in the street-side snacks of Mexico, tostadas can be the raciest. They have a way of tingling the tongue, tangling the nostrils, even racing the pulse. I've most often found myself nibbling a tostada as I've ambled away from the jangling, glaring street stalls that stand cheek-by-jowl, each piled high with towers of wavy, not-quite-flat tortilla disks. These humble little spots entice shamelessly. They etch their presence in the impatient, pungent exhaust of traffic with their dangling, naked bulbs, and the biting, vinegary chili perfume they exude. You have to be pretty uptight not to succumb, knowing that any topping will take you on a ride with surprise twists and sharp-edged turns."

Gol dang it, Mr. Bayless! You use your tongue purtier than a twenty-dollar whore!

Moving right along...As you can probably imagine, virtually any kind of meat or vegetables can and have been used to top tostadas. Needless to say, along the coast, seafood is often the featured item. Boston Globe food writers Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven told of California-style tostadas topped with broiled swordfish and mahi-mahi.

In fact, just about anything can sit atop the crispy chips, as the aforementioned Mr. Bayless proved when he included his recipe "for the adventurous," a version using pigs feet.

In any case, suggests food guru emeritus Diana Kennedy, "There are no hard and fast rules and it depends very much on how high you can stack (the tostada) and eat it without a major disaster."

Chitos Mexican Restaurant, a tiny taqueria-style place tucked in a strip mall behind a gas station in far north Plano, serves tostadas that are far from disastrous. In fact, the pork al pastor and pollo varieties, laden with refritos, lettuce, tomatoes, crema, and queso fresco atop hand-made tortillas, may be some of the most satisfying this city has to offer. At a mere $2.50 each, they are quite a bargain, and Chitos also makes steak, shrimp, bean, and ceviche versions if your so inclined.

At once cool and fresh, these tostadas are miles ahead of the simplistic Taco Whatever versions you usually encounter. But sorry, Rick--no pig's feet.

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