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Monday, April 18, 2016

Endless Inspiration in the Rio Grande Valley: Jay’s Take on Everything Edible in McAllen, Texas

by Jay D. Ducote

I knew very little of the Rio Grande Valley when Trisha Watts, a representative of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau, invited me to go there for a media trip. These days, I find myself more and more on the receiving end of invitations to travel for food and beverage while at the same time being less and less available to make those trips happen. Sometimes I truly don’t have the space on my calendar, and sometimes I just don’t feel like it will be worth my time. But McAllen felt different from the beginning.

Shishito Peppers, Sweet Onions, Toasted Garlic, Sea Salt, Aioli at Bodega Tavern & Kitchen in McAllen
Shishito peppers, sweet onions, toasted garlic, sea salt, aioli at Bodega Tavern & Kitchen in McAllen

In 2014 I emceed the Great American Seafood Cook-off at the convention center in New Orleans along with Chef Cory Bahr from Restaurant Cotton in Monroe and TV star Anthony Anderson. While there, fighting back a hangover from the pre-party the night before with a microphone in my hand, I had the pleasure of meeting chefs from around the country who were competing for the seafood title. One of those chefs, representing the State of Texas, was Larry Delgado. His Texas Gulf shrimp tostada took home second place in the cook-off, but even more appetizing was the way he genuinely seemed happy to be there, bringing friends and family with him to have a good time, soaking in the experiences and representing his state with honor.

Great American Seafood Cookoff
Jay, Cory and Anthony at the Great American Seafood Cookoff

Larry’s restaurant, Salt: New American Table, is in McAllen, Texas, and despite growing up in Texas, I had never been to or even heard of McAllen.

I had to do some research to find it on a map: in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Mexican border, and about an hour drive inland from the place they locally refer to as “The Island,” South Padre Island. I was raised at deer camps around Cotulla, a few hours drive south of San Antonio. I thought that was south Texas.

carrot rita
Carrot-rita: jalapeño cilantro infused tequila, carrot juice, orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice and cilantro simple syrup

The Rio Grande Valley occupies vast, flat lands of deep south Texas, on the fertile flood plains of the region’s namesake river. It is a cradle of culture, as American as apple pie yet as Mexican as menudo. People are genuine, friendly, and passionate.

McAllen, the second largest city in the valley after Brownsville on the coast, sits near the Rio Grande River across from Reynosa, Mexico. The influences of Mexico are present at every turn. The population, largely hispanic, clearly has ties to the other side of the border.

There are taco stands on most corners, especially since one of the more well-known taco chains operates out of gas station convenience stores called Stripes. A few years back, the Laredo Taco Company ran a promotion to come up with a new breakfast taco by having local radio stations compete to come up with the best recipe. The Q, 94.5 (KFRQ) in Harlingen, Texas, won, and the Q-taco was born. The combination of potato, egg, cheese, and refried beans on a soft flour tortilla proved to be a hit. Still, locals will advise you to order your Q-taco with the addition of bacon. So I did just that. For a gas station taco, that thing was legendary.

Breakfast tacos from Tortilleria Emmanuel in McAllen, TX
Breakfast tacos from Tortilleria Emmanuel in McAllen, TX

On a breakfast taco tour of McAllen, Trisha brought Blair, my Chief Confusion Coordinator and Spin Doctor, and I on a gastronomically challenging journey to the best taco spots. We inquired about whether there existed a definitive guide to the best tacos in the valley, and upon hearing nothing like that existed, we volunteered for the job. However, that would have to be saved for a later trip. On this excursion, we visited Ms. G’s Tacos & More, Laredo Taco Company inside Stripes, El Pato Mexican Food and Tortilleria Emmanuel. We ate too much, undoubtedly, but it was worth it.

Many places throughout Texas stake claim to the breakfast taco. Most notably, Austin and San Antonio almost go to war over it. If you’re interested, read this article from Texas Monthly. However, if you read deeply even in that article, you’ll see McAllen mentioned. Deep south Texas, right at the Mexican border, also claims to be the originator of the breakfast taco. The originals include beans and eggs. Everything else such as bacon, cheese, sausage, and more, are lagniappe.

Hangar steak, fingerlings, hominy, manchego crisp, jammy tomato vinaigrette, local greens from Bodega Tavern & Kitchen
Hangar steak, fingerlings, hominy, manchego crisp, jammy tomato vinaigrette, local greens
from Bodega Tavern & Kitchen

Blair and I ate at several restaurants in McAllen that impressed us. Blair previously documented her favorite bites of food from the trip on the blog. Beyond the restaurants themselves, perhaps what impressed me the most was the sense of culinary community in the Rio Grande Valley. Many chefs really view it as their mission to raise the bar for cuisine there, to elevate from their rustic heritage to modern American cuisine that is still true to its south Texas roots.

One of those chefs is Adam Cavazos, owner and executive chef at Bodega Tavern & Kitchen. Adam is from the area and is on a mission to create a culinary identity for the Valley. Bodega is a new, beautifully built out restaurant with an open area patio out front despite being in a shopping center. On the inside there’s a massive window looking into a charcuterie aging room that used to be an aquarium. Adam’s menu reflects his pride in being local and seasonal.

Like several other places I visited in McAllen, Bodega boasted a nice selection of Texas craft beer as well as specialty cocktails. The drinks utilized seasonal ingredients while celebrating the spirit of local libations. We undoubtedly drank some good margaritas in the Valley, but the adult beverages didn’t stop there. Whiskey and vodka focused cocktails were also very popular, and the Texas Ruby Red grapefruit played a key role in the citrus offerings.

Panna Cotta from Chef Marcel at Lunchbox on 10th
Panna Cotta from Chef Marcel at Lunchbox on 10th

Over at Lunchbox on 10th, Dutch Chef Marcel Fortuin cooks inspired food. Part cooking instructor, part fine dining chef, and part nourisher of souls, Chef Marcel has a way with food. His panna cotta is one of the most divine dishes to ever lace my taste buds. The perfectly creamy gelatin-molded vanilla cream played music on my tongue. Never have I tasted anything quite like it.

On our last day in McAllen my trip came full circle, bringing me back to Chef Larry Delgado. The chef I’d met a year before in New Orleans represented why I wanted to visit McAllen in the first place. That particular Wednesday in February was dubbed Larry Delgado Day as I tried to convince Blair of the amazing food journey we were about to enjoy. Larry has two restaurants in McAllen; his first, House Wine and Bistro, started as a wine bar with food and developed into a restaurant with wine. There, Blair had her first taste of escargot and, after stuffing myself with an endless array of dishes, I couldn’t help but devour an amazing apple tart with cheddar ice cream.

For dinner we ate the meal I had eagerly awaited. The more I look forward to some dining experiences, the more they have a chance to disappoint. On this occasion, there was a slight concern that I’d overhyped Larry Delgado Day to Blair and in my own head.

jay ducote
Chef Larry Delgado (left), Jay Ducote, and Chef Adam Cavazos 

We arrived at Salt, a gorgeous restaurant with natural wood, brick, stained concrete and lighting that evokes a sense of place and comfort. We sat at a long table underneath portraits of nearby farms adorning a dusk-blue wall. I looked out over the restaurant to the open kitchen with a team of talented young culinarians running the restaurant without Chef Delgado in site. He was running a bit behind, but he wouldn’t be going to the kitchen upon his arrival. His plan was to sit at the table and have dinner with us, along with his wife, Jessica, Trisha from the McAllen CVB, and Gaby Jones, a local craft beer rep.

Compart Duroc bacon wrapped sweet breads, habanero glaze, fingerling potatoes, morels, chanterelles from Salt
Compart Duroc bacon wrapped sweet breads, habanero glaze, fingerling potatoes, morels, chanterelles from Salt

The kitchen sent out dish after dish. With a round of appetizers at the table including the above pictured bacon wrapped sweetbreads with a habanero glaze, fingerling potatoes, morels and chanterelles, I quickly discovered I had no need to fear disappointment. This meal would live up to my expectations. After a few cocktails and the appetizers, Chef Larry and Jessica joined the party. They had been at a meeting with the City of McAllen talking about branding the city into the future. The Delgados don’t simply run their restaurants, but they are also leaders in the community and directors of the Rio Grande Valley chapter of the Texas Chefs Association.

We continued to eat, drink and be merry while chatting about the food of the Valley and how Larry’s restaurants came to be. We dined on the single best pork chop that I’ve ever had in my life, steak that melted in my mouth, and fried chicken that had been deboned and sous vide. Salt impressed the hell out of me, and given my lofty expectations, that blew me away even more.

My tour of the Rio Grande Valley and specifically McAllen felt authentic. People were genuine, happy to see me, happy to be seen, and sincere in their appreciation of home. I drank beers with great people, ate some of the best value tacos I’ve ever had, and enjoyed several truly memorable meals. McAllen delivered everything I’d want to make me want to go back. Next time, though, I’ll be prepared to do even more research on the best tacos, and I’ll keep some tricks up my sleeve for Gov’t Taco!