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Tacos Rápidos, Casi Perfección – Tacos El Rey

Years ago, I slapped together enchilada plates for a chain, so-called “Mexican” restaurant.   A name which shall not be mentioned here.  It was terrible.  I learned a lot about cooking from the people who worked there, incidentally, all of the food I learned about were dishes not on the menu.  They were the lunches and dinners of the Mexican, Guatemalan and Salvadorian folks who I worked with.


This ushered in a new appreciation for Mexican, Central and South American food that I couldn’t seem to get enough of.  There I was, white boy in the kitchen, keepin’ up with the jokes, the sexism, nationalistic racism and homophobia from people not of this land.  I went with the flow.  It’s called culture, and though people don’t realize it, it isn’t always a bowl of cherries, and you just have to deal with it.  Besides the awesome free language lessons (I speak okay Spanish these days) one of my favorite things about these kinds of adventures in labor were what I learned of the food.  Food brings people together, it shows off the best any culture has to offer, and the traditional non-European Hispanic foods are some of my favorites.  Using parts of the animal left over from making a living selling the good stuff, seasonings bold and yet simple, delicate sauces and a heavy but energizing way of combining proteins and starches.

When I don’t attempt traditional tacos for myself, I get them at Tacos El Rey.  They exemplify fast, Guadalajaran Mexican food in the best way I can find in town.   “Mexican Food,” colloquially, is something of a misnomer in the United States.  Like Chinese, Italian, and other countries’ delights, they’ve taken on a life of their own, and usually, not in a good way.  Once you’ve had traditional food (or as close as you can to it while living in the U.S.) you know what side of the line you stand on, the Americanized side, or eating it the way the natives have and do.   Tacos El Rey, from everything I have learned about food of this region, does a great job of doing it traditional.

They serve a multitude of good stuff:  Burritos, ceviche, horchata, caldo (soup), even desayuno (breakfast plates) with chorizo con huevos…which is my next mission.   Through and through, the things that really seem to shine at this place, as should be due to the namesake, are the tacos.   Yep, fish tacos, goat tacos, trip tacos, carne asada, al pastor (pork), cabeza tacos (cow head), lengua (tongue)… they have a lot of choices.   They’re a buck a piece.  They’re stuffed full of your choice of meat, cilantro and wonderful onions.  Served with limes, radishes and a few tasty salsas, it’s fantastic.

I’ve delved into their burritos, which were alright, but not as good as the tacos–I like tacos more than burritos, though.  I tried the ceviche, which is an acid-cured mixture of fish and/or shirmp (usually with limes and lemon juice), but I found it a bit too on the acidic side.  I had a bite of their refritos (refried beans)…which were really good.  I have yet to try their tacos pescados (fish), but if they’re anything like the other tacos, I’ll probably die of happiness.

Nope, their tacos are it.   Best I’ve had in town so far.

Tacos aren’t something for the “food adventure snob,” nor are they something you should get at a place like this if your experience with Mexican food is Taco Bell.  In fact, if the only “Mexican food” you’ve eaten in this town is Taco Bell with the amount of good Mexican/Central American/South American food, well, you’re just lame.   Tacos are the classic go-food, catering food, food for a picnic, or food for a gathering.  You can make them out of just about any kind of protein you like (as Tacos El Rey demonstrates).  Tacos are a working man’s food.  They have the energy you need with none of the utensil requirements.   Tacos are a culinary purity that’s been bastardized by commercialism, American palettes, fast food joints and laziness.   Laziness, ruining a taco?  Yep.  Because it’s so easy to screw up something so easy, apprently.

With two locations, one on Sutro (2145 Sutro St # 1, in the shopping center just north of the Salvation Army, which also contains a killer panaderia, if you’re so inclinded) and one at Mae Anne/McCarran (5100 Mae Anne, in that shopping center with the Safeway/Kohl’s, nearest the Pet Smart, next to nasty-ass Wing Stop), what are you waiting for?  Go have some awesome tacos.   I think both locations are open until 9:00PM.

Try having an apple soda with them.  That’s how I roll, usually.

Do try some of their other fare, they have sit-down-and-you-get-served type eating, too.  This means combo plates, that kind of thing.    Both locations are clean and comfortable, well-kept and charming.   If you have the choice between some of the local places, Miguel’s, Micasa Too, Bertha Miranda’s, the Hacienda… give this place a shot instead.  You’ll save a few bucks and probably leave happier, that is, if you’re more the traditional-food kind of person.

(image courtesy Cia B)


Lunchtime – 775 Gastropub

The 775 Gastropub is where I ended up for lunch today.  I’ll be the first to admit the recent colloquial term “Gastropub,” isn’t my favorite–it kept me at a distance from the place for a while, like someone was pulling a “hoity toity,”  on us yokels.   The “775,” preceding its name, which is a step up from attaching the ownership of the word “Reno,” or “Reno’s,”  in a town where the self-image isn’t always the nicest, classiest thing.  Declaring something is “Reno,” seems to  indicate the insecurity of the project or establishment–to me anyway.  We know where we live if we live here, yet we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to show the world Reno actually matters, and on top of that, prove it to ourselves.  Luckily, 775 Gastropub is indeed improving Reno, which I’ll go into below!

My father and I like to lunch out about town quite frequently, and he had always wanted to try this place.  Apparently there was a recent review in the RGJ about it, which gave it some pretty solid reviews.  I have not read that review quite yet, even after my visit.  Located on the west side of Meadowood Mall, (next to the JCPenney entrance) it’s located pretty center-of-town for most to get to easily.

Entering from the parking lot entrance, we were immediately greeted nicely and seated.  The bar seating was ample, the space was laid out nicely, and to my surprise for how busy it was, it isn’t a loud place at all.  The non-90′ degree angles and layout had a huge part to play.  It is a little dark, but not cave-like.  The colors and styling are very “old pub classic” in an American way.

I could see right away the whole point of the place:  It’s a classier-than-normal drinking/food hangout.  It isn’t trying to be anything more than that.  I just plain liked it.  It isn’t a sports bar, it isn’t a proper restaurant.  They are indeed meeting this goal, even if the bar seems a little weirdly situated and not visually as well-stocked as their menu implies.  With a pool table and down-home selections of public games available to take to  your table, they’re saying “Come hang out with us!”  It’s warm, and I like the atmosphere.

The beer and drink selections are marvelous, with the prices being pretty standard:  not downtown bar expensive, not hole-in-the-wall cheap.  Apparently they’re known for having a pretty lovely Bloody Mary, but that isn’t my style of drink.   Sorry, kids.  I had water.

The menu is centered around appetizers and burgers.  There’s a few entrees, and other classic fare, but largely this place isn’t a “take the family out for a birthday,” kind of place.  I mean, you could, but if you’re looking for a steakhouse or waffle joint, this isn’t it.   I love places like this, personally.   The most exciting, to me, was the Sunday Brunch menu.  Only available on… well, Sundays.  While the prices are a little steep for a “food and drink hangout,” the Sunday Brunch menu is a bit easier if you’re on a budget, and I can see it being a wonderful place to hang out on a late-morning Sunday.

My father ordered a chorizo burger, and I the Eggs Benedict (spinach variant, option for steak or chorizo on this one as well).  The food came out very reasonably considering it was a full house.   I wouldn’t say I’m an “eggs benny” connoisseur,  but I know my stuff.   One of the two best places in town for Eggs Benedict are PJ’s & Co. on Wells, and the Anchors restaurant in at the Sparks Marina.  I prefer a light, not-too-salty, not-too-lemony Hollandaise.   The rest is pure magic, and even with my culinary experience have a terrible time with making a good sauce myself.   775 Gastropub’s variant leans toward the “too lemony/acidic,” side.   Luckily, the spinach on top, lightly pan-fried asparagus and new potatoes that came with it were superb.  The eggs were perfectly poached and shaped.  Really, really well executed.   Spinach and asparagus lend themselves well to a bit of acidity, which I would have been disappointed over had I ordered the dish with steak or chorizo instead.

My father’s chorizo burger was a mess, but it came with a big steak knife for a reason.  I have to admit, he’ll hate me for printing this, but no sooner had he said, “I wonder if I should eat this with a knife and fork,” did he pick up the burger in a classic manner to have the patty shoot right onto the plate.  It was almost skit-like.  That answered THAT question.   The chorizo was an excellent mixture, cooked perfectly, bold but not eye-tearing spicy, excellent fries and nice, quality bread for the bun.   He was quite happy.

Our service was great, and my father and I vowed to come back again when the “after work,” shift was en force, and we’ll certainly be back for lunch.   While the prices are a bit high, the atmosphere has a classy-but-down-home feeling, that isn’t trashy nor haughty.  The food seems to be well-attended to, with back of the house folks that know what they’re doing.

A great place to experience the good side of the culinary and hangout side of Reno!  Hopefully whatever the RGJ said about them was in-line with my opinions, because this is a worthwhile stop for your food and drink needs, for sure.

Sautéed Swiss Chard & Mushrooms–Yummy & Fast

The chefs among you already know what to do with ingredients like kale and chard and arugula.  Feeling my way through food has more or less been my approach over the years, so finally after seeing it at the store for an eternity, I picked up a bunch of Swiss Chard to see what I could do with it.  What I came up with is salty and earthy and will likely become a go-to side dish for me in the future.


Sautéed Swiss Chard & Mushrooms

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms
1 leaf Swiss Chard
1 –1.5 Tbsp Sesame or Stir Fry Oil
Salt & Pepper
1/2 tsp Chinese 5 Spice

Take a leaf of the chard and wash it off then cut the leaf off the center shaft and slice the leaf into strips about an inch wide and 3 inches long.  For the mushrooms I like to use the kind that are already sliced, available in pretty much any produce department.  Pictured here are regular white mushrooms but shiitakes would be awesome in this recipe.  Sprinkle the chard & mushrooms with salt and pepper.  I like to use kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a sauté pan.  Add the vegetables and stir frequently over medium low until the vegetables get darker and lose most of their volume, about 3 or 4 minutes maximum.  Since this dish cooks up so fast and there is water in the vegetables, you don’t need much oil – try your luck to see how little oil you can use.  (I kind of like this dish a little oily for some reason)

Toss with the Chinese 5 Spice and finish with salt & pepper to taste.

What I love about this recipe is that it takes next to no prep: the most complicated step is washing and cutting up the chard leaf which takes about one minute, and it’s fast to cook in the pan.  I like to eat it with rice and some orange slices alongside pretty much any protein.

Lion Meat: Pride of the Taco

Tasty Simba

According to this article, Boca Tacos in Tucson is serving lion meat.  No, I ain’t lyin’, either.

I’ve eaten a lot of strange things in my life.   Ungulate testicle, whale fat, coyote, reptiles, chicken gonads, various insects and sea creatures unknown, but I’ve never feasted on large cat.  Maybe it’s time I had.

Yeah, just so you know, it’s totally legal, too.  Lions, not being endangered, have usually been lumped into the “endangered,” category unfairly along with the other actually endangered animals of the African savanna.   Why unfair, do you ask?

Because this taco shell is empty, and I’m hungry.  That’s why.

Pre-selling a month in advance at almost $9.00 a pop,  I’m not saving up my pennies for such things, but I am curious.

The next time a taco wagon is available to me here in Reno, I just might ask curiously, “Taco con carne lion?”  … just to see what I might get.  Hopefully not the neighborhood tabby.   She’s only worth $2 to me in a taco, anyway.

(photo courtesy lionking.org and probably Disney)

Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People

Amy Sedaris, is cooler than you, you know why? Because she’s not. Think about it, I haven’t.

Cooking 101: Sticky Non-Stick Situations.

My mother is like most mothers, and likes to forward me helpful things via email. She recently sent me this NYT article regarding the fallacies of most people and how they use their non-stick cookware. She admits, even she, in her decades of cooking experience, has been doing it wrong. Symptoms include burnt build-up of margarine and sprays, pitting and wear from improper cleaning and quite plainly, using the damn thing with too much heat.

I know there was some public scare lately (that never happens!) of non-stick cookware (mainly polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE a.k.a. “Teflon,” a.k.a. the DuPont miracle) being the next great Satan, but like many scares, the scary part was the scare rather than the reality. Yes, there were some concerns over people using the cookware improperly, such as leaving an open pot or pan with a PTFE coating on high with nothing in it killing household pets and making people nauseated. The problem here, to be frank, was stupid people, not Teflon. I don’t have statistics, but somewhere it would probably show that stupid people are more of a danger to other people (and themselves) than anything else.

Personally, I’m a ceramic-based non-stick kind of guy. Yeah, there’s such a thing, they’ve been used in professional kitchens for years. Many people started becoming interested in this new cooking technology after the Teflon scares above, and, now everyone fancies themselves a “professional home chef.” What I was most interested in was the fact it is tougher than Teflon. Not by a lot, but the occasional metal-to-metal contact or wrong cleaning sponge could be shrugged off, provided it wasn’t a habit.

My other choice is, hands-down, cast iron.  Recently, collectors have been making it tough to find cast iron cheaply in thrift stores, but you can still get cast iron that will be handed down to your children as heirlooms if you do your research and shopping.

I have about four total years of professional kitchen experience. I was a sauce cook, line cook, bistro chef and still occasionally help my chef brother-in-law at his hotel at Lake Tahoe. I have about 12 years of “professional home chef,” experience.

One of the main reasons why I hated non-commercial non-stick cookware was how sensitive it was. Cleaning it meant you had to use proper sponges, don’t even think about metal utensils being used inside it, never put it in the dishwasher, and never use too much heat. I got all of that, those are basics.   My suggestions are these,  the four most important things one should know with non-stick cookware:

1) When you buy it, you season it. A tablespoon full of your favorite cooking oil, medium-high heat, five to seven minutes. Use a brush to coat evenly. This will double the life of your pans.

2) Use oil. Always. Not non-stick spray, not butter, not margarine. All of these either burn at too low a temperature, defeating the non-stick properties, and they making cleaning a bitch.

3) Don’t crank up the heat. It doesn’t take high heat to brown. I don’t think I ever use heat beyond 3/4 of the dial, unless it’s outside and I’m really giving something the what-for. Or I’m using cast iron or a wok, which sometimes requires the setting “volcanic.” No-no for non-stick.

4) Buy quality, but don’t pay too much.  $30 or so, max.  Get a thick pan, get a coating you can work with (I like ceramic-based non-stick) and realize that even with care, they won’t last forever.  Read reviews on the Internet.

I have the same set of ceramic-based non-stick pans that I bought in 2004. They’re only now, after almost seven years, starting to say, “…please replace me.” Food is sticking, and discoloration is happening in the bottom. I use the living hell out of these things, almost daily. They have plenty of brown-black grease burns on the side, because hey, I’m a restaurant cook at heart, pretty cookware means you ain’t working (or the dish washer isn’t).

Again, non-stick isn’t forever.  They have to be replaced. They aren’t something you want to buy second-hand, or at a garage sale. They aren’t something you should hand over to your college-age kids. Just get new stuff, and treat them right. Save the cookware heirlooms for their cast-iron counterparts, which are apocalypse-strong.

Next time, I will tell you how to find a proper cast-iron piece of cookware (amongst the crap that’s being sold for way too much money), how to season it properly, and maybe a few favorite recipes!

Happy cooking.

(photo courtesy iStock)

Best Winter Treat. Ever.

There are lots of Nevada traditions that people from outside the state probably aren’t aware of.  That’s one of the great things about being known for one thing and one thing only.  One of these traditions that bears a mention is that of the Nevada pinion pine nut.

Up in the hills of Nevada are actually quite a lot of trees.  One tree in particular ranges far and wide:  the single-leaf pinion.  This tree bears a wonderful edible nut.

These nuts are great raw (make sure to take the shell off!)  But they also work really well when prepared according to this recipe, which in addition to being awfully tasty, pretty much couldn’t be any easier.


1.5 cups Nevada pinion pine nuts (in the shell)
3 cups water
7 tsp Kosher Salt

Add three cups of hot water to the kosher salt and stir well until the salt is dissolved.  To make the water, boil some water and let it cool down for about 5 minutes.

Pour the water over the pine nuts in a throwaway plastic container.  Don’t use your good bowls or pots and pans, the pitch could ruin it.  Soak overnight.


To cook, drain off the water from the nuts in the brine, and then spread them out in an even layer on a cookie sheet.  Sprinkle liberally with salt.  Bake at 350° for 25 – 40 minutes depending on how you like them.*

You can get pinion nuts if you’re in Reno at the grocery store usually in October or November, you just have to look near the produce department.  On the internet, you can get them from Goods From the Woods at www.pinenut.com and Liston Pine Nuts at www.liston.biz.

* Some people really like these things well done, some like them soft and juicy.  I personally like them both ways but usually err on the side of soft and juicy.

MSG-SPAN Exhibit A: Mixing Chiu Chow Chili Oil with soft (spreadable) cheese.

MSG and other highly processed foods will probably take years off my life, but they add so much zest and vigor to my life that the sacrifice may be worth it.

In this series on preparing food with overwhelmingly processed ingredients available in most any metropolitan area, we take you to a special place – the place of cheese and crackers.

MSG-SPAN is so named because of this author’s profound love for and addiction to Monosodium Glutamate, an ingredient found in overwhelmingly processed Asian foods sold round the world.  Today’s food contains no MSG, however it does contain DSG:  Disodium Glutamate.  What food?

Chiu Chow Chili Oil

It should first be noted that Chiu Chow Chili Oil is not food.  DO NOT EAT CHIU CHOW CHILI OIL AS FOOD. (Read that last sentence, the bold one there, again.  Good, proceed.)

Let’s look at what’s going in to today’s recipe (per serving):

1 Laughing Cow Creamy Swiss Cheese Wedge (I found mine at the local Wall-Market.)
1 tsp. Chiu Chow Chili Oil (Go to the Asian grocery for this)
4 oz roast beef
6 Triscuit crackers

Yeah, we’re makin’ appetizers today.

Here’s what you do:

Mix the cheese and the chili oil with a fork until you have a nice creamy, orange, red flaked cheese mix.  Yum!  Spread a roughly equal portion of the cheese mix onto half of each cracker.  Chop up the roast beef by rolling a stack of slices into a roll, and then slicing the roll into equal size pieces.  Cut up each pile of roast beef separately to keep track of quantities and then put an equal portion of roast beef on the remaining half of each cracker.

Make a bunch of these for yourself or a party, serve with beer or a zesty cocktail and enjoy!

One final word:  Try not to get too addicted to Chiu Chow Chili Oil!