Since time immortal or, at least during my stint on this good planet, Wednesdays have been Enchilada Day. As a child in a Dallas public elementary school, we were offered a Wednesday lunch plate made up of corn tortillas, cheese and a simple sauce of chile con carne. Even as a young man I thought that was DISD's homage to the Wednesday special at El Fenix.
El Fenix was enchiladas in Dallas, at least for me. I knew no differently, and even today they are the bar against which all Tex Mex should be measured and all impostors revealed.
Later, in high school after I had wheels, I discovered lunch beyond the borders of my safe North Dallas haven and found men and women waiting in long lines while sitting on ice chests of beer, eager to enter a tiny adobe building on Maple Avenue that housed the original Herrera's Cafe.
Herrera's brought with it an element of adventure. Walking into the old building, which has since burned and been converted into a hipster dive bar called The Grapevine, Herrera's made you feel as though you were kind of going through a rite of passage. As you entered to the immediate left you saw a semi-open kitchen, as small as it was, and just outside that kitchen sat a beautiful, rotund Mexican woman who was busily making tortillas.
The tortillas were thick and had a strong scent of baking powder and lard. They were the real deal.
I have always maintained that archeologists will be able to detail the history of beer through the parking lot at that Herrera's, as the stacks of pull tabs and bottle caps might be buried dozens of feet deep in front of the old building.
Once the smoke cleared and Herrera's moved, the bloom was off the rose. I still meander into the newer incarnation located across the street from the old location on Maple, near Dallas Observer headquarters, but at the new location, the enchiladas never quite tasted the same as the old. I still make regular visits to Herrera's, but more for sentimental reasons.
This brings us to today's Toque challenge, The Beef Enchilada Rumble: the Tale of Two Tortillas.
Enter two opponents, each having their own booster club, boasting that their enchilada is the quintessential example of the Tex Mex staple. I eagerly offer Escondido's, located on Butler just off Harry Hines and Ojeda's, which has several Dallas locations. We chose its main hub on Maple Avenue.
The search for the perfect enchilada is no easy task. It is fraught with the hardened opinions of others who define their ultimate enchilada through the prism of their own childhood experiences with the dish. During my usual informal poll for enchiladas, Ojeda's name came up frequently. I had not been to an Ojeda's for many years and in approaching the restaurant, I noticed that time was kind to them, at least in the form of a larger parking lot. Walking into the building quickly brought a rush of memory. The room glowed with an eerie redness that I knew would wreak havoc on my photographs. I was greeted kindly by a young woman and seated in the lounge area. Moments later I was shoved a menu and asked for a drink order.
There is one thing that transcends all Mexican restaurants in Dallas: speed. You can go from ordering to paying the check in what seems like minutes.
I decided on the lunch beef enchiladas. I considered a beer--my favorite go-to Mexican beer was available for nearly five dollars--but I passed and settled on the enchiladas.
I snacked on chips, which were somewhat bland, and the sauce lacked the necessary punch-in-the-mouth feel that a salsa should possess. The lack of a good sauce was not important, I suppose, as my plate of enchiladas arrived quickly. The large meal steamed my senses and I dove in directly at the center aisle of enchiladas that was flanked by the usual pairing of refried beans and rice. The sauce for the enchilada seemed as weak as the table salsa. It had a creamy mouth-feel, and was not what I might consider a proper chili con carne. Difficult to label it con carne because it was sans the carne.
The cheese had a falseness to it, like the way Cheez Whiz tastes. The mushiness of the tortilla made the enchilada even less enjoyable? After a few bites I was done, pushed the plate aside and grabbed my check.
Escondido's is located less than a mile away from Ojeda's. It's nestled in the industrial zone a short walk from Parkland Hospital. This to me spelled enchilada pay dirt.
Entering Escondido's you cannot escape the large, hand-drawn sign that spells BYOB. Always a welcome sign in my book, so feel free to bring your own beer or margaritas.
I sat near the front and wasted no time ordering the lunch enchilada special. The plate was a few dollars cheaper than Ojeda's, and I noticed a sign offering free margaritas on the 15th to celebrate income tax day. Bonus.
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No sooner did I order the enchiladas than the plate appeared. It was like they anticipated my order or had some sort of wager in the back, knowing this gringo would select the lunch combo No. 1.
The enchilada's had a slight bath of what tasted like the real chili con carne of my youth. Smooth, pungent, and be-speckled with bits of meat. The cheese took on a fresh-grated appeal, as it should. The tortillas had a slight al dente bite. These enchiladas were as real as Tex Mex can be.
As for the condiments, the salsa was not perfect, but you know it was lovingly made on the premises.
For their liberal liquor policies, delicious enchiladas and nod to the working man paying his taxes offering free margaritas tomorrow, we award Escondido's Toque to Toque bragging rights. If we had a trophy it would be filled with cheese and slathered in the amazingly perfect chili con carne.