I’m ecstatic that New Orleans has finally upped its game when it comes to Mexican cuisine. If anyone asked me what I missed most about living in California, other than the fact that my whole family lives there, I would have to say two things: 1) the Pacific Ocean and 2) Mission burritos. Thankfully, a man after my own stomach, owner David Wright, opened Del Fuego Taqueria early this summer bringing the Mission burrito to the Crescent City.
Although I’ve been living in New Orleans for over ten years, there are still a quite a few places I’ve never been. For example, I have yet to dine at Galatoire’s for a Friday afternoon lunch, set foot inside the Superdome or seen a Saints’ game, for that matter, and until a few weeks ago, I had never been to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
My friend Dani and her 3-year-old daughter Posie just happen to have an annual family membership to all of Audubon’s attractions and one day they asked John and I to come along. We strolled through the cool, dark halls and gawked at jellyfish, garfish, turtles and sharks. We visited Parakeet Pointe and tried to feed sleepy, colorful birds $1.50 sticks clumped with what looked like honey and birdseed at one end. But, either the birds weren’t hungry or simply sick of sticks, because none of them really wanted what we were offering.
We saw penguins and sea otters and stood inside the pre-fab jaws of a prehistoric shark to take pictures. We experienced what it’s like in a subtropical climate (wait…don’t we do that everyday?), climbed over a waterfall and saw river creatures like catfish and anacondas, though the snake was hiding in a hole. Shortly after sauntering through a glass tunnel built right through one of the main tanks (does anyone else remember Jaws 3?), we all started to feel hungry and decided that eating in the aquarium’s small food court was not an option. As we were heading out to scrounge something for lunch, Posie was waylaid by all the glittering goodies in the gift shop. While she was picking out a souvenir, I hopped onto my trusty smart phone to see what restaurants were nearby and the first name to pop up was Felipe’s Taqueria.
So that’s where we went…
I’d been to the Uptown location many times and knew what to expect. While Felipe’s is not exactly “authentic” Mexican cuisine, as they tout, they always use bright, fresh ingredients and there’s some excellent bang for your buck. As we discovered, the French Quarter location was very much like Uptown, although larger with a huge bar area. It’s basically like a cafeteria where you decide whether you want — burrito, nachos, flautas etc.– and then you choose what you want inside from a large list of ingredients and watch them while they pile it on.
This time, I wanted a taco salad which was a crispy, flour tortilla bowl filled with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, refried beans, black beans, fried Gulf shrimp, crumbled queso, creamy guacamole and a dollop of sour cream. John opted for a burrito filled with Al Pastor, or caramelized pork marinated in a pineapple sauce, with refried beans, crumbled queso, pico de gallo, rice and guacamole. Posie got a cheese quesadilla and Dani also got a taco salad but with char-grilled chicken. I must have been ordering with my eyes, because I also got nachos with lots of cheese, refried beans and guacamole for us all to share. It turned out to be way too much food. I was only able to eat my salad, not including the shell, and a few bites of nachos. Everything was delicious and we were all extremely satisfied, or so we thought…
As we were leaving the restaurant, Posie decided she wanted to go back to the aquarium, but since we had such a late lunch (almost dinner!), the aquarium was already closed. While she threw a hissy fit out on N. Peters Street, I seriously considered stepping back into Felipe’s for a margarita…heavy on the tequila please!
Someone once told me that in order to taste the best a restaurant has to offer, you have to try the appetizers. These telltale “beginnings” often represent the true creativity lurking in the kitchen and hold the promise for a fabulous meal, but sometimes you might want it to be both a beginning and an end.
Last Sunday for Mother’s Day, John and I took our good friend Dani (who is also a great mom) out to lunch at Santa Fe Restaurant. Well, we were expecting lunch, but when we arrived at 2PM, they were still serving brunch, and only brunch, instead of their usual menu. We decided to “go with the flow” and taste what was offered at this Southwestern-style restaurant for brunch.
While munching on some jalapeno cornbread muffins drizzled with honey, we selected two “salads” to share around as appetizers. If we had been aware of the size (and quality) we would have probably stopped there. First, there was their wonderful Santa Fe Ceviche with puppy drum, shrimp and calamari topped with a ton of sliced, fresh avocado and organic greens in a tangy lime and olive oil marinade. It was fabulous! The forks were flying, but it still took some time for this huge mound of ceviche to diminish, even under the strain of arduous eaters like us.
But that wasn’t all…the other dish we shared was a Seared Tuna Tostada that was piled just as high as the ceviche, only loaded with strips of perfectly peppered and seared tuna, delectably-spiced black beans, shredded lettuce, creamy guacamole, corn relish, fresh pico de gallo, a gob of sour cream and pickled jalapenos all sitting on top of a crispy, corn tortilla. By the time we devoured both of these most excellent dishes, we really could have, and probably should have, stopped right there.
Unfortunately, I also decided to try my luck with a Santa Fe Seafood Omelet with shrimp, crawfish and cheddar and jack cheeses served with a roasted tomato Creole sauce. The resulting dish was nothing like I imagined, resembling a big, flat cheesy mess with tough bits of overcooked crawfish and shrimp as opposed to the fluffy, folded concoction it was meant to be. After the seafood splendor I had experienced with our two appetizers, I was really let down by such a dismal entree.
But, I was alone in my disappointment since my dining companions fared a lot better with their selections. John ordered the Steak & Eggs that featured a petite tenderloin filet topped with a wild mushroom poblano sauce and two, sunny-side eggs. The steak was tender and moist and the sauce had a rich, pepper flavor without a lot of heat. Dani’s dish was (in my opinion) the best entree at the table. She chose the Roasted Pulled Pork Burrito that included roasted vegetable and potato hash, black beans and cheese. The meat was tender and well-spiced and the burrito was humongous, covering more than half of the large plate it was served upon.
Finally, for dessert we chose Chocolate Ganache Cake to share, though we were all stuffed to the gills and were unable to finish even half of our entrees. They brought out a huge slab of moist cake topped with fresh sliced strawberry and some of the best whipped cream I have ever tasted. Okay, so I fibbed a little…the end was pretty great, too.
*P.S. Sorry I was so late in posting this blog…everyone has funks now and then…right?
Perhaps it might seem odd, but when the weather starts getting warmer and daylight stretches into the evening, an itch comes over me that cries out for tangy guacamole scooped up by warm, crispy tortilla chips and an icy margarita made with fresh lime, the glass supporting a thick rim of salt. I swear, in the months between April and August, I make Mexican food almost exclusively at home; Fajitas, enchiladas, taco salad, quesadillas…even huevos rancheros! The cool, fresh vegetables, spicy meat and seafood are literally synonymous with warm weather in my eyes. So even though we’ve seen a deluge of rain in the past week, the times in between were bright with sunshine and muggy warmth and that’s when we visited Panchita’s.
Although disappointed by the disappearance of Big Shirley’s on Carrollton Avenue, I have to admit when a new Mexican restaurant took it’s place, I was intrigued. You really can’t miss this new addition with a building painted a bright pink-orange color and large, white letters exclaiming Panchita’s Mexican Criolla Cuisine. I was amazed at the use of the word “panchita” considering, in California, I had mostly heard that particular term used derogatorily. Additionally, I had never seen “Criolla“. I thought perhaps it was a way of saying “Creole” in Spanish, but upon further investigation, I discovered that “Criolla” is a term applied to a specific cuisine born in Puerto Rico heavy with Spanish, Caribbean and African influences.
Though I have enjoyed plenty of traditional Mexican food, I have had yet to try Puerto Rican cuisine and was excited by the prospect. On Thursday night, John and I decided to visit Panchita’s (1434 S. Carrollton Avenue) for my 32nd cheat. I am down 57 pounds.
As anyone living in New Orleans right now can understand, traveling on Carrollton Avenue these days can be a serious pain in the butt. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sudden effort to improve our roads and sidewalks, but did they have to do it all at the same time? Folks living off Carrollton are certainly not the only ones suffering from crazy traffic delays, excessive concrete dust in the air and improvised obstacle courses…but sometimes it certainly feels that way. At any rate, through patience and perseverance, John and I managed to find our way to Panchita’s, sandwiched between the Basil Leaf and GNO Cyclery on Carrollton Avenue.
When we stepped inside, the first thing I noticed was the oddly shaped chairs. “My behind fits perfectly in this chair!” I exclaimed to John as we sat down. We both laughed but agreed, they were among the most comfortable wooden chairs we’d ever sat on. Our server came straight away to bring us a basket of tortilla chips and four different types of sauces before handing us menus and taking our drink order. We looked over the menu while munching on the fresh, crispy tortilla chips and sampling the sauces.
Of the four sauces I only recognized one, a spicy green chile salsa. The others were unfamiliar to me but all of them were delicious and ranging from mild to very hot on the Scoville scale. The spiciest sauce turned out to be a creamy chipotle sauce, full of flavor and most certainly fire. The menu was sort of a mixed bag of items, which included dishes that would serve for any meal of the day; breakfast, lunch or dinner. All of the prices seemed more than reasonable and John and I were easily able to come to a decision. I selected the Enchiladas de Mole and John chose the Entomatadas.
Before we managed to demolish the entire basket of tortilla chips, our entrees came out on brightly decorated plastic plates. My enchiladas contained shredded chicken seasoned and then wrapped in fresh corn tortillas and smothered in a delicious Mole sauce. The dish was also served with rice and refried beans. The sauce was very flavorful, rich and dark and I was easily able to detect the signature chocolate and cinnamon flavors common to most moles I have tried. At first glance at the plate, I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough food, but by the time I finished, I was quite full.
John’s Entomatadas were still crispy and warm from frying and the tomato sauce it was soaked in was light, but really flavorful with garlic, onion and a hint of jalapeno. This particular dish could be served with fried eggs or steak and John had opted for the steak. There were only two small strips, but the meat was so moist and delicious, it tasted like it had been marinated quite some time before grilling. John was equally surprised when he found himself full when he finished his plate. We figured our diet is definitely working since it has been taking a lot less food to sate us. But you know me, I still wanted dessert!
Panchita’s offered basic Mexican desserts like flan, but they also touted a “Mexican Fruit Snoball” which featured a selection of fresh fruits like mango, tamarind, melon and watermelon. Unfortunately, the server informed me that they only had a Tres Leches Cake and Flan Napolitano available that night, so we chose the Tres Leches. If you’ve read my cheat blog on Mayas, you’ll know that Tres Leches cakes are thick butter cakes soaked in three different kind of milk; condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. Although the cake at Panchita’s was lighter and more porous than what I am used to, it was still quite delectable.
Because our meal was so tasty and so very affordable, I couldn’t help but change my negative connotations for the word “panchita.” Now when I think of it, Panchita’s will mean a savory sneak peak into the world of Puerto Rican cuisine…it’s all about perspective after all!