Say cheese!

Macho Nacho turns apps into entrees, with queso the star

EVEN PILES | They layer the cheese on thick at Macho Nacho for the short stack, above, though the namesake dish isn’t for the calorie-conscious: It weighs about 8 lbs. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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

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OVERALL RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Macho Nacho, 4000 Cedar Springs Road. Open daily at 11 a.m.
Macho-Nacho.com.
Reimagined Tex-Mex with a cheeky retro vibe and kick-ass queso.

Food: 2.5 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 stars
Service: 2.5 stars
Price: Inexpensive to moderate

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If you name your restaurant after one piece of food, you’d better be prepared to do it well and have people judge you by it. The Black-eyed Pea can’t take black-eyed peas off its menu; Chipotle had better damn well have roasted jalapenos every time I come in — and good ones, at that.

So if you’re gonna call your joint Macho Nacho, you’re saying two things: First, we do nachos well. Second, and they can kick your ass, cowboy.

To a foodie, that’s more than a promise —that’s a dare. Bring it on, pendejo.

The fact is, I’ve never actually ordered the signature macho nachos here, a party platter-sized combo of tortillas, cheese and the remnants of a raucous cinch de mayo fiesta: pork, brisket, beef, grilled onions and more. For a single diner, or even two on a date, maybe that is macho (if you consider clogging your arteries “macho”). But the other nachos available? Those are more manageable. And pretty good … if you can get yourself in the right mindset.

One problem is that, while some of these nachos are entrée sized, the concept of nachos themselves conjures up an appetizer — something the comes before. We’ve all ordered the app-portion of quesadillas and made do with them as our main course (or, occasionally, gone to the dark side, making flan and sopapillas the entrée). But actually shoehorning them in as the main dish feels both indulgent and unsatisfying, like using the chapter menu on a DVD to fast-forward to the good parts.

Of course, there’s no reason you have to make nachos the meal; there’s enough else on the menu that you can treat this upscale yet reasonably priced diner with Tex-Mex familiarity.

I was taken aback when my waiter suggested complimentary chips and salsa after I’d ordered the short stack of nachos ($5 at lunch — a great deal), but I said yes anyway. You’d think that the snack chip and the tortillas in the nachos would be the same, yet ours were different. With the salsa (a bland, chunky style), the chips were dusted with chili seasoning, arriving thick-cut and long; as part of the nachos, they were triangular and thinner, though still sturdy.

That’s nothing to take for granted: Nachos — good ones, at least — are harder to get right than you might imagine. The chips have to be engineered to withstand the weight of melted cheese and salsa, not to mention any protein you add on like grilled chicken or, in this case, brisket. But you don’t want heavy pita-like crusts, either — a tortilla needs to be firm but pliant, like a new boyfriend. Macho Nacho’s style held up, never becoming soggy and limp (a sad ending to a good beginning), but hearty, with juicy brisket as the capper.

There are non-nacho items, too, some of which soar. We ordered the “skinny” queso ($6.95), but fattened it up some by adding “muscle” (a dollop of ground beef). So, the beef probably counteracts the fit benefits of the skinny, but what’s not to like about chucks of meat bobbing around in a sea of melted milk fat? It’s like a reunion of cow parts with flavor.

Only the skinny version (60 calories per quarter-cup) has less cheese than the regular version, though you’d be hard-pressed to  notice. It’s creamy and gooey, though the body comes from a cauliflower purée, detectable only if you concentrate on parsing the slight vegetal aroma from the other ingredients.

Similar kudos are warranted for the guacamole, made obviously fresh with big chunks of avocado — like much guacamole, pretty tame on the palate.

Torta is a catch-all phrase for a panoply of sandwiches, though I was disappointed that the one I ordered did not come pressed a la cubana, but on a fluffy, torpedo-shaped hoagie roll. The fajita torta ($7.95), though ordered without onions came with. The beef, while moist, lacked finesse, as if it had been overcooked and reconstituted, and the “spicy” mayo was not, in fact, spicy, though it was improved by dipping in the skinny queso. (That dish goes with anything; I may pour it on corn flakes, just to try it out.)

The street tacos (again, two for $5 at lunch) were hit-and-miss. The chicken was acceptable, like the fajita meat in the torta, but did not pop; the pulled barbecue pork was significantly better, infused with hard-spice aromatics (cinnamon, mace) that kept it interesting. The small corn tortillas were wrinkled and firm but not hard, though no garnishes (salsas, cremas) were offered — they arrived pretty much as-is.

The décor is oddly soothing and slightly elegant — quite a departure from the rough-and-tumble burger dive look of Hunky’s that used to occupy the space. (The move across the street classed up Hunky’s as well.) Macho Nacho looks like a high-end Tijuana cantina moved into a middle-class living room in the 1970s. If I sound like I’m making fun, I’m not — at least no more than the designer, who imbued the space with a sense of humor and whimsy: Dance music echoes off the dark-stained beadboard paneling and retro clocks with go-go leather seats and funky, dia-de-los-muerte colors on the signature “moustache” painting behind the bar. Maybe that’s the real “macho” part of Macho Nacho: A bandito whose affection for Tex-Mex grows not just hair on his chest, but his upper lip, too. If that’s the results of eating here, I can only add, “Ole!”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Rocky Mountain highs

New Mexico’s cool, outdoorsy antidote to Texas summer heat

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

POT PALACE | Porcelain goddess Heidi Loewen makes gorgeous art in her gallery to buy, or you can take her class and learn to make your own. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

>>> See the SLIDESHOW for more photos

When you live in North Texas, New Mexico, our neighbor to the west, seems like a backbreaking drive. Well, no more. A year ago, American Eagle began a direct route to Santa Fe. This is big news at the single-gate Santa Fe airport; it means celebs (Daniel Craig was in the security line next to me) can get to the arts enclave without flying to Albuquerque an hour away and renting a car. And gay-friendly Santa Fe is surely worth a visit.

Once you get downtown, a car isn’t really needed either (which is good, because parking is hard to come by). Even in the summer, Santa Fe is a very walkable city of about 65,000 people that stays reasonably cool due to its elevation. (At more than 7,000 feet about sea level, locals joke they “look down on” Denver.)

Not much gets taller than that, either. (A skyscraper here comes in at about five stories.) From the air, the buildings recede into the landscape, as if a modern town where free wifi is widely available doesn’t exist yet. You might think this is still an Indian pueblo.

The Inn and Spa at Loretto, a luxury hotel that abuts the famous Loretto Chapel, is, like virtually every other building in town, a short, adobe-like edifice of brown stucco, but the décor works. Inside, spacious rooms are decorated in earth tones with high-end amenities (lush furnishings, wide-screen TVs). The common areas are also beautiful.

Nothing more so, in fact, than Luminaria, the exceptional on-site restaurant. Much of the seating space here is outdoors, giving chef Brian Cooper’s creations an al fresco elegance. The housemade breads alone are worth a visit, though there’s much, much more to enjoy.

New Mexicans are proud of their culinary traditions; you’ll find pinon-flavored coffee, syrup, nuts and more, plus loads of green chiles. That makes for an unapologetically caliente cuisine, from Luminaria’s quesadillas with chipotle salsa and spicy pico de gallo to a power-packed gazpacho to a green chile burger charred beautifully on the outside and pink as a prom dress in the middle.

You could spend much of your trip just eating here and lying by the pool or enjoying a relaxing, aromatic massage at the acclaimed Loretto spa, but Santa Fe is worth a venture outdoors. Indeed, that may be the best reason to come here: To commune with nature away from the sweltering Texas heat.

Northern New Mexico is home to many Pueblo Indians, among them the Santa Clarans, whose centuries-old Puye cliff dwellings are still a sight to behold. Carved out of the pumice-like rockfaces of low-lying mountains, the tours here, conducted by tribe members, only recently started up after a decade when fires had all but closed the attraction. Even if you don’t consider yourself a hiker, it’s a fascinating look at the history of our nation before it was a nation.

In fact, this year Santa Fe is celebrating its 400th year — it was founded when William Shakespeare was a living playwright. That makes it the oldest state capital in the U.S. (Not the biggest, though: Despite New Mexico’s size — geographically, it’s the fifth largest state — the population of the entire state is about 2 million — less than that of Dallas County.)

The Santa Fe Opera is an open-air facility that operates in repertory in the summer, producing major operas and world premieres against a sage-brush landscape. An on-site cantina makes for a casual way to enjoy high culture.

Indeed, Santa Fe town is justly known for its thriving arts community, which may account in part for its gay-friendly reputation. Many galleries are concentrated along Canyon Road, a five-minute walk from the Inn and Spa. Here, you can peruse literally hundreds of collections from local, national and international artists.

CLIFF NOTES | Santa Claran Indians give guided tours of the Puye cliffs near Santa Fe. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

If you think the only thing to buy here is turquoise and paintings of cow skulls, you’re sorely mistaken. While Native American art is plentiful, the styles range from classic to contemporary. You’ll get an especially diverse selection of edgy, intriguing work — from paintings to sculpture — at InArt Gallery, run by the McKoskys.

Don’t just stay near Canyon Road, though — visit the Heidi Loewen Porcelain Gallery, with handmade pottery from the positively charming Heidi herself. You can buy one of her beautiful pots or take one of her classes and learn to make your own (she’ll even glaze and fire it for you).

If you’re not planning to buy, of course you’ll need to stop by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, devoted to the state’s most famous painter. The current exhibit of her work in abstraction (on through September) illuminates how her notoriously vaginal flowers were part and parcel with her overall style.

The New Mexico Museum is also worth a stroll, boasting its current exhibit of artsy cowboy boots. Among the works are several drawing by Delmas Howe, the gay artist who is to cowboys what Tom of Finland is to European leathermen. (This fact apparently escaped the curator — the notes fail to mention the homoeroticism of the art.)

If you enjoy gambling, Indian casinos dot the landscape, but really, for comfortable tranquility and outdoor adventure, everywhere in Santa Fe is a safe bet.

Read Part 2 of New Mexico’s summer travel pleasures later this month in Dallas Voice.

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LITTLE BLACK BOOK


ACCOMMODATIONS
The Inn and Spa at Loretto and Luminaria Restaurant, pictured, 211 Old Santa Fe Trail. InnatLoretto.com.

ATTRACTIONS
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson St. OKeeffeMuseum.org. Heidi Loewen Porcelain Gallery, 315 Johnson St., Santa Fe. HeidiLoewen.com. InArt Gallery, 219 Delgado St., Santa Fe. InArtSantaFe.com. Loretto Chapel, 207 Old Santa Fe Trail. Loretto Chapel.com. New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave. NMArtMuseum.org. Puye Cliff Dwelling National Historic Landmark, 104 S. Riverside Drive, Espagnola. PuyeCliffs.org. Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive. SantaFeOpera.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas