Sunday, June 25, 2006

Carne Seca

I recently visited Tucson, Arizona, determined that in between all the meetings and planning sessions and other work-related chores I would track down and sample carne seca, which, by all accounts, is one of Tucson's unique delicacies.

It turned out to be harder than I expected. My colleagues were all up for a big Mexican meal our first night in town, good Mexican food being something that's hard to come by on the South Carolina coast, so I spent some quality time on the web and came up with a list of likely restaurants near our hotel. And, we seemed in luck: there were at least 3 highly-recommended Mexcian spots only a mile or two away, and all of them offered carne seca on their menus.

A word of warning about Mexican restaurants in Tucson. Most of them--the good ones anyway--are closed on Mondays. We learned this the hard way as we drove to each of the three recommended restaurants in succession and found their parking lots empty and all the lights off. We settled for a touristy-looking Mexican spot that was open but otherwise had nothing going for it. The lackluster menu was devoid of carne seca, and even the margaritas were awful, ruined by the high fructose corn syrup of a bad prepackaged mix.

The next morning, our client asked us, "So, do you like Mexican food? There's a pretty good place just a few blocks from here." I figured my colleagues would lobby for something else, since we'd just had Mexcan the night before, and it was pretty crappy Mexican, at that. So, I jumped in with a loud "yes" before they could say anything. I feared it was going to be another tacos-and-bottled salsa joint. It wasn't. It was really good, starting with the hot, smoky salsa that awaited us on the table. And carne seca featured prominently on the menu.

Carne Seca (literally, "dried beef" in Spanish) is made from strips of flank steak that are marinated in lime juice, dried in the open air, then shredded and browned in vegetable oil along with chiles, onions, and tomatoes. At El Charro, one of Tucson's oldest Mexican restaurants, the marinated beef is placed in wire cages and dried in the sun on the roof of the restaurant (see a photo here).

I'm not sure if sun-on-the-roof is how it is done at Casa Molina, where we ate lunch, but the beef was definitely marinated and dried, and it had a potent effect on the flavor. I ordered a carne seca burrito "enchilada style" (with a savory red chile sauce over the top), and the the filling had a wonderful aged flavor that many would find too strong. Indeed, not knowing exactly what to expect, I was surprised by how pungent the flavor was. After a few bites, though, the strong taste began to grow on me. Halfway through I was absolutely stuffed, but I couldn't stop. I pulled the meat from the second half of the burrito and ate it all.

Surprisingly, in a world teeming with books that trace the historical roots of virtually every obscure dish, and food blogs where tens of thousands of recreational eaters delve into every nook and cranny of food trivial, there seems to be very little written about carne seca apart from a few newspaper reviews of Tucson restaurants. But, I've had it once and I'm hooked. Now I just need an excuse to go back to perform more "research".


It's only taken me three months, but I can finally move one of the entries from the "Charleston Restaurants Where I Have Never Eaten But Have Been Meaning To" list to the main list of recommended items.

Friday night my wife and I ate at Amuse, an interesting combination tapas/Italian restaurant in West Ashley. Not surprisingly, considering they serve tapas in a strip mall some 10 miles out from downtown, it wasn't terribly busy on a Friday night. The interior is ordinary--a single large room with a bar along the back right wall--but it is comfortable. All in all, it was a very pleasant evening.

The menu, while not extensive, had sufficient choices that two diners couldn't try everything. Of the six or seven plates we ordered, our favorites were the fried Manchego cheese, a duck confit with dried cherries, little skewers of lamb, and the plate of hams and olives. The sopressata from this latter plate was so rich and tasty that I bought a big chunk the next day at the supermarket to have here at home.

For twenty bucks we got a decent bottle of Spanish tempranillo, which went very well with the food.

One of the best things about the night was the service. Our waiter was personable and helpful, but never overbearing or intrusive, and he made several recommendations for selecting dishes that were right on.

There was one big disappointment, however: they were out of the seared pig trotters. They were the first item that caught my eye when I picked up the menu, and it is my philosophy that if you see something unique on a restaurant menu that you can't order just anywhere you've got to try it. And they were sold out.

So I guess I'll have to go back.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Market Finds

We hit the Marion Square market yesterday, and I got a pretty good haul: new potatoes and sweet onions from the Green Grocer Farms stand, some intriguing multi-colored carrots from Kennerty farms, along with some fresh snap beans and two handfuls of tiny, bite-sized plums, half of which I ate before leaving the market.

I've got a beef stew underway that will use some of all of these finds, except the plums. It's simmering in the kitchen now and I plan to let it go all day.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Eggs Make It Breakfast

I was traveling this week and had the misfortune of trying to find something to eat for breakfast around 9:00 am in the Phoenix, AZ, airport, which meant lots and lots of food court style chains. I noticed once again something that intrigued me in the past: apparently all you have to do to turn an ordinary crappy fast food lunch item into a crappy fast food breakfast item is add scrambled eggs to it.

Thus, the breakfast burrito, which is pretty much the same as any other burrito (shredded beef, cheese, and salsa wrapped in a tortilla)--except that scrambled eggs are mixed in. And, breakfast pizza, which is just a regular sausage and onion pizza with clumps of scrambled egg added.

I'm not sure what it is about the eggs that make it breakfast, but that seems to be the new rule on the American fast food scene.

The breakfast burrito was okay, by the way--but it would have been better without the egg.

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