It’s All About the Tortillas
Garcia’s Kitchen satisfies with simplicity
No, in this case the discourse will begin with the fresh tortillas touted by a dancing, bling-wearing cherub of a man whose enchilada-laden image lures eaters on a daily basis to a place called Garcia’s Kitchen.
...in this case the discourse will begin with the fresh tortillas touted by a dancing, bling-wearing cherub of a man whose enchilada-laden image lures eaters on a daily basis to a place called Garcia’s Kitchen.
Here’s the précis to that diatribe: The tortillas are so good at the aforementioned Nuevo Mexicano restaurant that some diners purposefully eschew the more grandiose selections on the menu, ordering lightly so that they can fill their panzóns with the tortillas that come from Andy’s cocina.
That isn’t to say the rest of the choices are insufficient, are bereft of culinary value or lack the requisite comida para la alma taste and presentation that defines the basis for these reviews. In fact, the eating at Garcia’s Kitchen—founded in the dim past by one Andrew Garcia, food aficionado, businessman and all-around jovial dude—is some of the best chow in town.
But back to the tortillas. In a market where success is defined by the flaky goodness and deep-fried deliciousness of the sopapilla, Garcia’s Kitchen is one of the places where you don’t even have to think about that particular conceit. Sure, the puffed pastry pillows are available for consumption, but they are a recent addition. Tortillas bear the weight of the meal, literally and metaphorically, at this joint.
If I were still a structuralist, I’d say tortillas are potent cultural signifiers. Rather than try to explain that abstractly, here’s an anecdote that speaks to their ultimate relevance in Nuevo Mexicano cooking.
My father identified as Chicano. He was a Tejano whose family settled in the middle Rio Grande Valley in the early 20th century. Like me, he totally dug tortillas, although he would have phrased that declaration of his affection somewhat differently.
When he shipped out with the Navy to the north Atlantic he found the lack of tortillas heartbreaking and wrote home frequently to lament their maritime absence. So his parents sent him canned tortillas, a common 1950s New Mexico and West Texas grocery store item. Though they weren’t fresh (like their descendants at Garcia’s) they did the job and he carried on, fighting communism valiantly, one supposes.
Always a card, he once brought his can of tortillas to the officers’ mess, where a delegation of French captains—who had come aboard for diplomatic purposes —were dining with the old man’s cadre. Special preparations had been made for their visit, especially in the cutlery department. The ships stewards had laid out a fancy meal complete with the many forks, spoons and knives common to continental culture.
As the guests sat to eat, my dad produced a tortilla from the can, cut it up into pieces and told the gustatory gathering that much like the French, New Mexicans also had traditional eating implements galore. Except he noted, instead of a different fork for each course, Burqueños had a different tool for each bite. He then dug into the chipped beef and mashed potatoes on his plate, fork in one hand and tortilla-bit in the other.
So yeah, of course I was thinking of all of that when I stepped into Garcia’s Kitchen on Central last week for lunch with two Texan journalist friends of mine. I ordered the refried special—a compact plate of refritos, home-style potatoes and red chile with a fried egg on top—and three tortillas.
My mates ordered, respectively, the enchilada plate and the flautas plate. As the waitress retreated into the scullery to see to our order, I humbly hoped out loud for their tortillas as well.
The pre-meal chips and salsa were fresh, tangy and plentiful. An attentive server saw to their replenishment, as well as to the refilling of our icy-cold soft drinks with an enthusiasm buoyed by friendly conversation and suggestions for further indulgence.
After chatting at length about the state of print media in the Southwestern United States our meals arrived. While one of the writers fiddled with their guacamole, the other sampled Garcia’s green chile sauce, which she had ordered on the side, somewhat fearful, but mostly respectful of its presumed heat and digestive persistence.
Meanwhile, I divided my first tortilla into eighths, put aside the butter that came with and proceeded to employ my father’s methodology. Using a fork to scoop a bit of refritos, a healthy heap of home fries and plenty of red sauce onto that fine piece of non-leavened, freshly grilled flatbread, I brought the egg yolk drenched construction to my mouth.
Visions of my ancestors and the millions of tortillas they had eaten over the past 500 years filled by head as I took bite after bite and my pile of tortillas grew smaller and smaller. Somewhere far away, the North Sea roiled, somewhere nearby the desert blossomed in the heat of summer.
Though the refried beans were a bit thin to me, being mostly liquefied, they are awesomely engaging when combined with salty, soft-inside but crispy-outside pan fries and the pleasingly, bitterly smooth taste of Garcia’s red chile sauce. An egg on top adds another layer of naturally nuanced flavor to the ritual.
My friend from Austin said her flautas were delicious; tightly rolled, deeply fried and filled with slow-cooked tender-textured white bird meat. The guacamole traditionally served with this southern New Mexican dish was chunky, but not overwhelmed by spices and tomatoes, allowing the avocado flavor to rise up in tasty waves.
My other friend, the journo from Huntsville, said she likes her enchiladas plain, said she dips them into a ramekin of green chile to better appreciate the smoky, hot summer vegetable flavor that exudes from the sauce. The corn tasted like new corn, right from the fields and the cheese was lightly spread across them, to her liking, she said between grateful mouthfuls.
Near the end of the meal, one of them asked me about the habit of using tortillas as an aid to consumption. Before I could answer, the other interjected, telling how she was gonna say something about it too, but when she observed most of the folks at most of the tables doing the same thing, she realized it must be some sort of tradition and let it go at that.
As they wandered outside, I lingered at the pay counter, waiting for news from our server about the availability of tortillas to go and watching a roomful of eaters intent on following my father's fancy.
1736 Central SW
Hours: 7am-8pm Sun; 7am-9pm Mon-Thur; 7am-10pm Sat
Vibe: Super Padre!
Alibi Recommends: The Refried Special