QUICK BITE: GOOD 2 GO TACOS

2011 was the year we leapt the threshold between “taco” and “burrito” and the distinction began to seem meaningless.

In Mexico, tacos are petite things meant for quick snacks: A shaved bit of protein, a dollop of salsa, some melted cheese, a garnish of cilantro, maybe garlic. Whatever. The are designed to be small bites — one is rarely enough for a meal. You want a big meal? That’s a burrito.

But Texas proudly claims it does everything bigger, and that counts for tacos, too. And few are as big as the tacos at Good 2 Go.

At about four bucks each, they’re pricier than Jack in the Box — for good reason. I’ve never had more than one at a sitting, though I’ve certainly craved them.

The menu (it’s open for breakfast and lunch only, five days a week) is limited but endlessly inventive and devilishly clever, thanks to the camp sensibilities of partner-owners Colleen O’Hara and Jeana Johnson.

Feel like chicken spiced with jerk seasonings? It’s called the “Navin R. Johnson” — after Steve Martin’s name in The Jerk. Unlike Martin, I doubt this taco was born a poor black child, though it does have the taste profile of Jamaica, with coconut rice and mango conjuring a day in the islands — a terrific fantasy as the winter weather sets in.

The equally groan-inducing “swine bleu” (pictured) is actually exactly what its name implies: braised pork and blue cheese slaw. And boy is there pork:  The flour tortilla is as bulbous as a cast member of 16 and Pregnant: The ladle of slaw looks like it might smother the pork, but no: The flavors meld better than a barbershop quarter, the tang of blue cheese pitch-perfect.

Service is friendly and knowing. A taco I ordered to eat-in came out faster than a male drum major at band camp; a few minutes later, when I walked back in to grab some utensils to tame the cabbage and pork overflowing the large tortilla, the busboy barely glanced up before grabbing a fork and walking it toward me. They’ve seen this kind of behavior before. It’s weird feeling like you’ve been bested by a taco. But so worth it.

— A.W.J.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Play it again

With flavorful Moroccan dishes, Baboush brings Casablanca to Uptown

Baboush-lamb-kebab

MMMM... STICK-MEAT The lamb kebabs at Baboush are remarkably tender, and made even better by the tomato relish and juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Just a quick glance at Baboush — damask bolsters on the banquettes, invitingly overstuffed ottomans, tapestries clinging to the stuccoed walls with Persian tile behind the bar, all while Arabic music plays in the background — and you’re immediately caught up in its distinctively lush Moroccan atmosphere, without being drowned in clichés. The front wall of windows looks out on a grassy field along the distaff corner of the West Village, providing tons of light during the day and a twinkling calm at night. All that’s missing are Nazis coercing Rick Blaine while Sam plays “As Time Goes By.”

Dallas’ recent flirtation with Middle Eastern influences — from Samar to Kush to Fadi’s and more — is a welcome addition to a culinary landscape dominated by steakhouses, taquerias and, of late, Asian bistros. Baboush’s execution of the food helps validate the trend.

Certainly the kitchen doesn’t scrimp when it comes to forward flavors, a point of view that may catch inexperienced palates unawares. Take the spinach “cigars” ($7) — basically thick spanakopita tubes with goat cheese. My dining companion wanted more cheesiness to supersede the citrusy tang, though that didn’t bother me. But be prepared for lemony accents in many of the dishes.
Their babaganoush is garnished with pomegranate seeds, which don’t add much flavor but make for a nice presentation. While slightly sour, the lemon bite is nothing compared to the dolmas, which push citrus through the roof. That’s not a downside in my book, though my guest, unaccustomed to the staples of Mediterranean cuisine, found it excessive. (A greater issue with the dolmas was an inconsistent texture: leathery one time, mushy another.)

One of the things to love about Baboush, though, is the boldness of its flavors. Case in point: Mergueze ($9), a lamb sausage that’s as spicy as a Mexican soap opera. It packs a wallop, though the effect is insidiously cumulative, growing heat on your tongue with every bite. If comes with a Moroccan tomato relish (also available on its own as an appetizer spread, $5), which comes as delightful surprise. Thicker than catsup but salsa-like in its consistency, the acid from the tomatoes and chunks of garlic are softened with a hard-spice cinnamon savoriness as well as a hint of sweetness. It’s a complex dip, both familiar and unique.

I’ve often cast a jaundiced eye at kebabs: Stick-meats are hard to get right, especially if more than one type of food is on the skewer. That’s not a problem here, where a single protein per stick allows even cooking. That was true of the shrimp kebabs ($12), well-spiced and not overcooked; the lamb kebabs ($14) were an even greater success — the meat incredibly tender and deftly seasoned, given a soothing finish by the juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice.

The falafel ($7) is Egyptian-style (a green interior), with sesames covering the moist, crisp patties; and the spiced-beef kefta burger ($8, available at lunch) gets a final push from the smooth dipping sauce.

Although limited, the dessert menu is a definite attraction. The baklava here ($7) is among the best I’ve had in town: crisp but deeply saturated in honey with a great crunch of nuts. And the ganache-filled ice cream ($9) — a mini-bombe, sort of an exotic ice cream sandwich — was entirely indulgent.

It’s too bad service, while adequate, has failed to impress. On our first visit, we asked a few questions of our waiter (fairly uncomplicated ones about Middle Eastern food) that he couldn’t readily answer; on another visit, we were given lunch menus at dinner; on other, there were (short) delays in having the entree order taken and getting all the apps out. I’ll tolerate that in a shared-plate restaurant like this, where breezy hospitality trumps minor glitches. Baboush might not be the Casbah, or even Casablanca, but it is something better: It brings that sensibility to us.

Baboush, 3636 McKinney Ave., Ste. 160. Open daily for lunch and dinner. BaboushDallas.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Master of HIS domain

Ben Starr, the recently out Dallas cheftestant on Fox’s ‘MasterChef,’ camps it up on Gordon Ramsay’s cooking competition series

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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MASTERCHEF
Airs Tuesdays on Fox (Ch. 4) at 8 p.m.

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When Lewisville-based travel writer Ben Starr auditioned for Fox’s MasterChef, he doubted they’d be interested in his style of home cooking. But not only did he make the cut, he’s been one of the more memorable cheftestants — just this week, he had the judge’s favorite dish.

The series is only halfway through, but for Starr, it’s already made a huge difference in his life: It forced him to come out to his parents just last month. We talked to him about the experience and his favorite meals.

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You’ve been struggling since you wowed the judges at your audition. The audition kinda set me up to expect that I would do well in the competition, but we spun pretty quickly into an emphasis on gourmet cuisine, which is not my thing at all. My street tacos were a little bit spiffy, and I am extremely well traveled, but I tend to eat peasant food even when I travel. I was seeing all these people around me making restaurant quality cuisine and trying to compete on their level. Nice to make a good ol’ catfish in a skillet.

What was the hardest challenge for you? The biggest challenge has definitely been psychological. I’m competitive by nature and I want to feel like I’m competition, but I was surrounded by chefs that were a little more connected to the Food Network that I am. They’d use words like umami [a Japanese word for a savory flavor] and I had to go look it up. There was a common lexicon among the contestants about what these famous chefs I’ve never heard of are doing in their restaurants. I felt like an idiot stumbling around in the dark. That started to leak into my cooking and I began to question, “Is this sophisticated enough? Is this even sophisticated?” The episode this week was a turning point. I felt like for the first time I’m back in my own element.

You certainly have made an impression with your outfits. I don’t wear those hats at home, though I do wear an apron, just for practicality. But [the show] has started this storytelling legacy — people expect me to wear them when they come over. My mom made me the pumpkin hat and apron. Actually, she made me five or six pairs to wear. That’s why you always see a different one on me each episode. I was going through them.

Was wearing them part of a conscious effort to stand during the auditions? I am fairly myself, though I had to set myself apart that wasn’t just about food. I needed to be someone [the judges] remember when they go home at night. That’s why I talked about my rural upbringing, because I thought it would generate a memory.

Had you watched the show before? Did you know what to expect? I don’t watch much TV, but this is not my first time being on TV, which is ironic because I abhor reality television —it brings out the worst in our culture. But I did Rachael Ray’s So You Think You Can Cook in 2007. The audience there was much more caring and nurturing than the machine on MasterChef, but I was a little bit prepared for the frank judgment.

I did not watch the first season of MasterChef, but my friend Karen Rutherford said, “I’ll never speak to you again if you don’t audition [for season 2].” So I watched them all on Hulu. I just sweated my way through them. I knew how intense and stressful it is to cook on TV, and saw how brutal Joe Bastianich and Gordon Ramsay were with the contestants. I thought: Screw this. Then a few weeks passed and the terror faded [and I went through the lengthy audition process]. It was a lot of work — the most difficult full-time job I’ve ever had that doesn’t pay.

What’s your favorite kind of cuisine? While my DNA wants to say Mexican food — I had it in the womb six times a week — I am most intrigued by Thai food. It is so complex, yet so much of it is cooked on the street in a tiny little cart. From the richest to the poorest, everybody eats on the street.

How about a favorite meal? One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was in Egypt on New Year’s Eve in 2001. I spent it on Mount Sinai and hiked eight miles back down to the car for the drive back to our resort. [The driver] fell asleep at the wheel and we plummeted into a canyon. Eventually a camel train of Bedouins came by the bottom of this canyon. They took us onto the camels and rode four or five miles to their camp. All the women came out, killed a goat and started cooking while the men tried to pull our car out of the canyon.

It was a humble meal — just a goat stew and some flat bread — but the flavors were really intense and felt they came right out of the desert. I could not even communicate with these people who live in abject poverty, but still they were willing to kill one of their last goats and throw a big feast for us because it’s in their nature to be hospitable. I realized it was important to me to use food to nurture people in my life — I could never be a chef and be in the back. I need to be with the people. My partner is one of the main reasons I cook — we’ve been together eight years and I want to marry him one day.

Did you plan to be “the gay guy” on the show? When I was on [Rachael Ray] it was not addressed and I didn’t talk about it openly. At that point my family didn’t know I was gay — in fact, I didn’t come out to my parents until about five weeks ago. They were totally shell-shocked — they didn’t have a clue.

Maybe mom should have guessed since she made you all those hats. Ha! Maybe.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Razzle dazzle ’em with cake

IMG_0379Gym rats may have to lighten up on their carb restrictions. Once they taste Virginia Tidwell’s offering of Razzle Dazzle cupcakes, they might just go into sugar shock.

“I’m happiest when I’m in the kitchen baking and I thought this would be a nice offering,” she says.
Her company, Mostly Cupcakes, has introduced a special edition cupcake to celebrate this year’s return of Razzle Dazzle.

Tidwell’s rainbow buttercream frosted cuppies come in flavors such as root beer float, banana split and cherry limeade along with the usual. Then they are topped with a white chocolate Pegasus wing.
The cupcakes can be ordered now for $36 a dozen standard size or two dozen minis.
— Rich Lopez

To order call 214-718-58714 or email
mostlycupcakes@aol.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 27, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas