Finding one's way around a new city leads to all sorts of unexpected discoveries, especially for a dining editor.
In my case, it took a doctor's appointment in Oak Forest to bring me to my first Houston taste of cochinita pibil, the pit-roasted pork dish that I discussed with Rick Bayless the very next day. But as a Newstonian, downscale Tex-Mex is still just as exotic to me as the Yucatan classic, maybe more so. Last week, I tried both at Juanita's Restaurant & Cantina.
A pair of red salsas were presented with light, warm chips. The brighter red one at right was a perfectly good smooth, tomato-based iteration. But I kind of loved the darker one, with its mild jolt of spice backing a warm slurry of charred chiles.
I am well aware that there isn't a pit behind Solid Platinum where a sucking pig wrapped in banana leaves is slowly roasting underground. At least, I kind of hope there isn't. But the braised pork that did make it onto my plate was red and slightly sweet with annato, though it seemed to be missing the sour orange flavor I was craving.
And as much as I enjoyed the creamy black beans—and even the strange, pepper-topped rice to a lesser extent—the "fried banana and vinaigrette" listed with the dish on the menu were nowhere to be found.
When I asked a server, he said the kitchen was out of bananas. Thanks for letting me know... That was moments before he spilled water into my lap and didn't apologize, though, so I was expecting no favors.
What I was expecting was a Tex-Mex education and I got it. Above is my first queso puff. It was actually just a small taco bowl turned upside down, but I got the picture. It tasted like movie theater nachos, but if I said I didn't finish it, I would be lying. The ground-beef taco next to it was nothing I hadn't tasted before in my northeastern elementary school cafeteria.
At first, I assumed that I had imagined the other dishes I saw listed on the menu. After all, I knew I was only paying $7.25. But just as I finished the first plate, the server brought course two of the Rico dinner.
That was when I realized that there is no real cheese in the kitchen at Juanita's. Both inside and out, the cheese enchilada oozed a yellow-orange processed cheez product. A lot of people grew up with that stuff, but I did not, and never developed a taste for it. I pushed it aside in favor of the beef taco al carbon, which, though dry, had a charred flavor that made comforting sense to me.
I'm still learning my way around the world of Tex-Mex and maybe someday I'll learn to love yellow cheese. But until then, I'll be looking for places that serve the real thing.