Posts Tagged With: tacos

Fish are Friends..and Food

(Once again, I am back to the blog in anticipation of the 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, coming in just a couple of weeks.  Over those weeks I’ll be re-living the meals and mood of last year’s Symposium, El Sur Latino, by way of these written reflections.)

From toddler days through college years, much of the time I spent at my maternal grandparents’ house was on the golf course at the Redmont Country Club (in Red Bay, Alabama).  My grandfather, Pappy, was a pretty decent golfer; when it came to long drives, however, I was more interested in the cart than the club.  But my golf course memories actually have very little to do with golf, because most of that time we were fishing.  There’s no telling how many hours my brother and I spent out there with Pappy and Ma-Manie, our great-grandmother, who absolutely loved to fish.  In the early days we fished on the lakes for bream, maybe some bass. Later, they built another lake, and it was there that I first came across the catfish.  

Generally, Pappy did all the hands-on work once Younger Brother and I reeled them in – he didn’t want us to get cut by the fins, and that was perfectly fine by us.  Once they were cleaned (again, Pappy), Granny took over and handled the frying: usually whole fish coated in cornmeal and scored into finger-sized segments.  Oh, and she cooked it in the same oil every time.  (Fun fact: Granny passed away in 2013, and she had probably not fried fish since sometime shortly after Y2K.  Not long ago, after much wondering aloud about where it may have ended up, we found her cast iron pot in a corner of her outside kitchen…still full of grease.  We opted not to fry in it.)

Of course this was long before aquaculture (a fancy word for catfish farming) became one of Mississippi’s top five agricultural products (netstate.com).  And long before I was introduced to Taylor Grocery and some of the fine folks from Simmons Catfish.  Over the past few years, thanks to the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, those introductions have turned into friendships.  

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Okay, I don’t know if you can have a friendship with a catfish joint, but I do like spending time with it.  Or in it, as the case may be.  Son even had some of his senior pictures made there.  In all the years I’ve gone to the SFA Symposium, we’ve been bussed out to Taylor for the Friday evening meal.  At first it was just a big plate of fresh-fried catfish with all the trimmings, and that was enough.  For folks like me who attended the Ole Alma Mater, it is a nostalgic trip (made even more so by the school bus style of carpooling.)  For those coming from out of town, out of state, and outside of the South, it provides a true taste of an Oxford institution.  In the past few years, however, the organizers have upped the ante, adding a couple of appetizer stations outside the restaurant.  

I’m not talking about fried cheese and wings here, people.  Not that kind of appetizer.  These are special.  The chefs who are invited to make these have essentially one guideline: they have to use the Simmons Catfish Delacata cut.  I’ve talked about this cut before, but let’s review.  The Delacata is a deep-skinned filet cut from the center, thickest part of the fish.  It’s skinless, boneless, hand-trimmed, and mild in flavor – sort of the filet mignon of the catfish.

Lis Hernandez, Chef-Owner of Arepa Mia in Atlanta, was manning the first station we came to.  Again, a quick review.  An arepa is a sandwich made from a corn cake that is split and stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness.  Chef Lis is originally from Venezuela, where she learned to make arepas from her mom.  A few years ago she served us breakfast arepas at the symposium, and I fell in love.  Just this year I was able to make it to one of her two Arepa Mia restaurants in Atlanta.  I’m a big fan.  On this night she made Delacata arepas, with a piece of the fried fish, jalapeno pico, cilantro sauce, lettuce and tomato.  Ours came right off the grill, piping hot and could have almost served as a small meal of its own.  That didn’t stop me, of course, and I didn’t leave a single crumb. 

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Arepa Mia Delacata

Up on the porch, Chef Jesus Carmona from Tacos Mariachi in Dallas, was dishing out Delacata tostadas.  I haven’t been to Dallas in a few years, but after taking a look at his menu, I think a trip may be in order.  He offers all the normal fillings like chicken, pork, steak, and tongue.  For the more daring, there are also tacos with grilled marinated octopus and huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle, aka corn smut).  I also noted mole fries and pork chicharron-crusted cod.  I already know my order.  For Symposium attendees he grilled the Delacata and dressed it with avocado crema, a dab of pico-like relish, and a generous portion of cilantro.  It was crunchy, creamy, and salty all in one great bite. 

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I call this, “Delaca-ta-co with Halo.”

 

For those who travel, particularly those who eat while you travel – or like me, those who travel to eat – consider this column a travel guide.  East to Atlanta for arepas, West to Dallas for all manner of tacos, north to Oxford for catfish and the trimmings, and south of the border to see where El Sur Latino was born.  And please save a seat for me.  

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Taco Tuesday

Taco Tuesday. It just has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? According to Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA, How Mexican Food Conquered America, a number of restaurants claim the original idea – one even copyrighted the term. No matter who thought of it first, I think it’s a great idea. And not long ago I had an inadvertent (but delicious) Taco Tuesday I won’t soon forget.

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A book you should read

The scene was Jackson, the capital of our fine state. For the purposes of my day job, which is medical in nature, I found myself spending the day at the Medical Mall. Until 24 hours before my trip, I didn’t even know there was a Medical Mall. For others unfamiliar, it’s an old shopping mall, retrofitted with clinics, pharmacies, health education and the like. Not necessarily the sort of place you’d think would harbor a great lunch spot. But pharmacists gotta’ eat, right?
When lunchtime came, my colleague gave me a quick tour of what served as an extended food court: Subway of course, because the next closest Subway must have been at least a half mile away. (I’m convinced they have the same expansion plan as Dollar General.) Chick-Fil-A in miniature (not a full-size restaurant – more like a stall with sack lunches.) And Picadilly Cafeteria, an apparent holdover from mall days, I’m betting. There were a few other places scattered about, but the one that caught my attention was a little kiosk halfway between Subway and Picadilly.
The sign said, “Sameerah’s Healthy Kiosk.” A bigger sign listed five or six varieties of grits: grits with bacon, grits with ham, grits with sausage, etc. The idea of grits for lunch brought me back, but when I looked at the menu – abbreviated but intriguing – it was a taco that sealed the deal.
It’s always tough to make a decision when:
1)I’m at a new place,
2)so many things look good,
3)I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to go back.
The struggle is real. Thankfully, there was another customer waiting for his order that was happy to help. I didn’t get his name, but I did get that he worked in the building. I also got that he had eaten with Ms. Sameerah every day, Monday through Friday, since something like January. He also revealed that she made everything fresh daily – if she ran out, she ran out. She even cut her veggies right there in front of us. I watched her shave slices of carrot right into our wraps. In the end, though, he wasn’t as much help as I had hoped: he had tried everything on the menu, and it was all good. I was right back where I started.
I finally settled on the black bean taco – it was a healthy kiosk, after all. She cut the veggies fresh, after all. Plus it was after 2 o’clock and I knew I’d be eating dinner in a few hours, so something lighter seemed the right thing to do. She started with one of her homemade wraps. I didn’t get details on how she made it, but I could see that it was special – chances are it was a secret, anyway. The next layer was something she called Sameerah Sauce – no secrets divulged on that one, either. Next she added black beans heated on the electric griddle, then fresh-cut carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and more. Another squirt of Sameerah Sauce and it was done. Simple and delicious. On the side were grilled veggies unlike any I’ve ever had. Thin-sliced cabbage, green pepper, tomato, onion, and zucchini – heated up on the griddle with a blend of herbs that I assumed she wouldn’t share. (And she wouldn’t share.) I’ll just have to experiment and figure it out, because those veggies were ten times better than any side of fries. And healthy to boot.

Sameerah's Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Sameerah’s Black Bean Taco and Grilled Veggies

Lunch was a lucky surprise, but dinner had already been decided. I left the Mall after work and went a few minutes down the road to Fondren for my first visit to the Pig & Pint. As I approached the entrance, I was enthusiastically welcomed by one of the P&P servers. I told him I’d never been there before and requested his recommendation. Ribs were his first thought – apparently they’d won an award for being the best in Jackson. Next on his list was the taco sampler. Now he had my attention.
I think it’s ironic that a dish most old-school pit masters would never have offered in a roadside barbecue joint is now de rigueur in the newer places. And despite the purist streak in me, I dig ‘em. But I did take the time to peruse the menu. I had already heard about the pork belly corn dog. I was intrigued by the pimento cheese served with house made pork rinds. Boudin burger? Ordinarily I would have gone for it (I’m odd like that) or at least persuaded someone with me to order something different. That allows me to pretend to be a real food critic and try as many dishes as possible. But alas, I was alone and not quite starving, so I went with my gut and got the tacos.

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

Taco Trio @ Pig &Pint

The trio included one each with pulled chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. All had pico de gallo and mango jicama slaw, the slaw another rendition you are unlikely to find at a typical joint – yet it fit right in at the Pig and Pint. I think the brisket was my fave, but I didn’t leave a crumb from any of them. And despite my state of satiation, I geared up for the ride home with a decadent chunk of Parker House Bread Pudding, infused with cranberry jelly and covered in white chocolate sauce.

Decadence in a paper tray

Decadence in a paper tray

A long workday transformed into an unforeseen Taco Tuesday. That’s the kind of day I like.

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