Sunday, March 06, 2011

Searching for Salpicon in El Paso

Salpicon is ubiquitous in El Paso restaurants. It's a salad of shredded beef (or chicken or whatever but usually beef) with peppers and a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had it Thursday at the restaurant friends took us too, but I was afraid of the peppers and had a club sandwich was was, at best, ordinary.
We stayed at the Camino Real which, in the good old days used to be Paseo del Norte, a grand hotel with a magnificent Tiffany dome, now over the bar area. The hotel is to be blunt a bit shabby, though they were quick  to fix a leak in our sink and a lightbulb that wouldn't work (we didn't know to turn on the switch by the door!). But downtown El Paso is a strange mix of decline and update--lots of empty buildings, cheap store fronts, mixed with apparently recently redone plazas, a great museum, library. Many things were under construction, and it got worse Saturday as they blocked off areas to prepare for Mardi Gras. So we were hard put to find restaurants.
Thursday night we had a drink in the hotel bar--pretty watery chardonnay--and then went across the street to The Oasis, which surprised us. Really nice food, wonderful presentation, all with an Oriental touch. I had smoked salmon on whipped cream cheese--ok, not culturally indigenous.
Breakfast was a problem. We had been warned away from the hotel coffee shop which only offered a buffet for $13.99 that wasn't very good. But friends who arrived a day earlier had found a home-cooking style restaurant about four blocks away, so we went there both mornings and were greeted by hordes of others who were attending the Texas State Historical Association meetings. I never did try the Mexican breakfasts, though they looked good. Carol had menchaca one morning and choked on a piece of jalopeno, so I knew it was not for me. But I had grand hash browns, eggs, and, one morning, the rare treat of breakfast links.
Lunch was another problem. Thursday a friend took us to a restaurant out by the University of El Paso, and I got a chance to view the campus. We were four jolly females and had a good time at lunch in spite of my ordinary club sandwich--I should have ordered salpicon.
Friday was an awards luncheon for the convention and a TSHA board member who shall remain nameless snuck us into the luncheon--Carol had a ticket but had left it in the room, and the board member passed me off as an author. Well, it turned out that an author named Alter had won an award but wasn't there to accept it--so I ate his lunch. Except his wife turned up to accept the award. No one evicted me, and I enjoyed a good lunch of chicken with a cherry sauce, on spinach and rice.
The highlight of our El Paso dining came when we explored, on recommendation, and went to a new restaurant, La Jolla Kitchen, way out in a strip mall. It was worth the long trip. The management was still experimenting, so they served us two complimentary amuse bouche--one a hamachi with too much pepper for me, the other a marvelous sea scallop on risotto. For an entree Gayla and I shared a rack of lamb with asparagus and fingerling potatoes, and Caitlin and Carol split a rib-eye steak (grass fed). Absolutely delicious. Lamb is such a treat to me, and this was cooked to perfection--still pink but warm. The waiter convinced us that one rack of lamb wasn't enough for two people, so we ordered crispy quail with hoisin bbq sauce--too hot for all of us but Caitlin, and I noticed they didn't charge us. For dessert, which we wouldn't have ordered, they brought two samples--a cheesecake with agave sauce (superb) and a chocolate cake that was too dry. All in all, it was a wonderful dining experience. I don't expect to be back in El Paso soon but if I am, I'll go back to La Jolla Kitchen.
Saturday lunch was more problematical. The Oasis was closed, the Central Cafe, a block away but fondly remembered by Carol, was closed. Someone recommended a restaurant about four blocks away--hah! More like eight. We walked and walked. Carol walks fast, and I got winded. She'd sit me on a bench and go ahead to explore. When she finally found the restaurant it was closed. So we went back to the hotel, to that much maligned casual restaurant, and had a fair to good meal. I finally had salpicon, although the chicken wasn't shredded. It struck me as nothing more than sliced chicked on greens witha chipotle lime dressing. But it was good.
I've since looked up recipes for salpicon--I thought it was pronounced with a soft "c" but Carol thought it was a hard "c" and turned out to be right. I made it once several years ago. The recipe included poblanos in adobo sauce, and I had no idea how hot adobo sauce is. Even the first night it was too hot for me, and I gave it to a friend who said it kept getting hotter and hotter until they couldn't eat it. Now I'll try again, with a better idea of what it can be and a better control of the flavors.

No comments: