Thursday, January 27, 2011

All for the sake of research

Betty and I had one of our culinary adventures today--and one of the best ever. We went to check out Tolbert's Restaurant in Grapevine for my book on chili. For those who don't know, historian and journalist Frank X. Tolbert was the guru of Texas chili and a cofounder of the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship Cookoff. If anybody's chili is authentic, it should be Tolbert's. The restaurant is owned and managed by the late Tolbert's daughter, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan. We met years ago, at a strange dinner party, but I was delighted when I called her that she remembered me and was anxious to work with me on my chili book.
So today, she met us at the restaurant with a fabulous collection of pictures and posters for the book. And we had lunch. Now I'd been a bit worried--Tolbert was a chili purist (no beans, for one thing) and I worried that his chili would be too hot--after all, years ago I was a Yankee and my palate has never adjusted to really spicy food. And then of course I worried about eating too much fattening food. Not at all! Lunch was a delightful experience. We had donkeys' tails.
Puzzled? Well, it's a Tolbert invention--a pure beef hot dog, wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried. I'd seen this when I googled the menu, and of course I pictured sort of a greasy quesadilla with a hot dog in it. Forget that. The tortilla was wrapped tightly around the hot dog--we still haven't figured out how they do that--and not the least bit greasy, just crisp and good, a perfect contrast  to the texture of the hot dog. It's served with a mustard sauce that Kathleen told us is a mix of mustard and their salsa (a combination I'd never thought of but it was great) and a taster's cup of chili. We figured out later maybe you're supposed to pour the mustard and chili over the donkey tail and eat it with a fork. We treated it as finger food, dunking the tail into mustard and eating the chili separately, which I was glad I did so I got a taste of it. It was so good we each asked for one more small cup--and this time they came with spoons. We each ordered a side of cole slaw--it was clearly made on site, fresh and crisp and no preservative taste. Betty and I agreed that we each could have eaten another hot dog (we split one order) but prudence kept us from it.
We watched a bowl of red being delivered to an adjacent table, and I wished I had my camera out. It  looks like a bowl of small chips with a gorgeous, perfect green chile perched on top of it. Eye appeal was great, and by then I was sort of wishing I'd ordered a bowl of chili--except I wouldn't have wanted to miss the donkey tails.
Kathleen toured us around the restaurant, pointing out various pictures, lots of her dad and one wonderful one of her mom at Terlingua. She even took us back in the kitchen and Betty toured the walk-in. Betty and her husband own the Star Cafe in Fort Worth, and those two restaurant gals had a good time comparing war stories.
All in all, it was a great adventure--and I came away with a lot of illustrations and some new knowledge for my book. Plus a friend I can call on when I have questions. Kathleen is still chair or co-chair of the Terlingua Festival. Sometimes the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I guess she's been around chili most of her life.


Lisa B. said...

Kathleen Tolbert told me about your blog, Judy. So glad you enjoyed your visit to her restaurant. I'm a Yankee too, and never before had I had a bowl of chili like Frank's. It is without a doubt the best bowl of red I've ever had, although I must admit, I usually order the "north of the border" because it has beans in it. The donkey tails are incredible and we treat them like finger food, too. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog entry and glad you enjoyed one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Grapevine. Lisa Buick

judyalter said...

Thanks, Lisa. I really loved the donkey tails with that mustard sauce. Hope to go back soon and have them again. I'll have to try north of the border chili. I'm having lots of fun writing the book about chili, and Frank Tolbert and his restaurants will be a big part of it