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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 11, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Eating Mexican, Authenticity, Singers, Dragons

I remember my first really good Mexican restaurant. Up to then, my idea of Mexican food was Taco Bell and canned tamales.

(Don't diss canned tamales. They're still delicious, even if they have nothing to do with real tamales. Our brand of choice: Casa Fiesta. I also have fond memories of Lynn Wilson's brand of frozen tamales -- but I have no idea if those are even made anymore, since I only ever saw them in Utah.)

It was in Salt Lake City, back in the late 1970s, when some fellow editors at the Ensign Magazine had an after-work dinner party at Tampico, on a narrow downtown mid-block street -- almost an alley.

The unpretentious exterior hid a welcoming if somewhat dark restaurant space that wandered among three different buildings. One of our number insisted that we all share an order of nachos.

Now, to me "nacho" was a meaningless word on a kind of Dorito corn chip from Frito-Lay. I had never had the real thing.

And these were the real thing. Very simple: A single toasted tortilla in a circle, cut into wedges like a pie, with real cheese evenly covering them, and a single slice of pickled jalapeño on each of one.

I had never had jalapeño before, either, so I thought I was going to die. And then, after I recovered from the shock, I thought I was in heaven.

Tampico set a standard for me. They didn't try for authenticity so much as for quality. For instance: no ground beef on the premises -- it was shredded beef, when you had beef at all.

Digression on Authenticity

Authenticity is a tedious issue for me, when it comes to food. I've heard people go off on diatribes about how "chicken fajita" is a contradiction in terms, since a "fajita" means beef. Sure, that's what it may have meant in Spanish. But in America, the word exists only in restaurants, where it means "thin-sliced meat and vegetables served on a sizzling flatiron dish with tortillas on the side."

(Words mean what they mean here and now: Our highways don't have to be raised above the surrounding fields, our boulevards don't need to be built atop old military earthworks, our Persian cats don't have to come from Farsi-speaking households, and our fajitas can be made of chicken or shrimp, doggone it.)

What I care about is whether the food is good -- and whether each dish lives up to the standard for that particular offering.

I don't care whether my Irish stew has anything to do with anything they serve in Dublin.

I don't care whether my hamburger is anything like what they serve in Hamburg, or whether my little tinned sausages would taste right to someone from Vienna.

Nor do I let Parisians determine what pommes frites must taste like when they become French fries -- especially since "pomme" means apple, for pete's sake.

And the Italians should be so lucky as to get pizza as good as ours.

As with language and immigrants, we Americans take whatever food comes to our shores and make it our own. Thus what I loved about Tampico was not that it was authentic -- because I had no idea what "authentic" was. The food was simply good.

Mexican-Food Has to Be Cheap

Eventually, though, as downtown Salt Lake was transformed into an office park where no one lived, and new restaurants opened up in the suburbs, Tampico closed down.

Here's the ruthless fact of life for all Mexican restaurants: Most people think of Mexican food as cheap and fast. So if they come into a Mexican restaurant and see normal prices -- like what you'd expect to pay at a decent chain like Lone Star or Outback -- they're shocked and offended. How dare they charge prices like this for mere Mexican food?

Which is why good Mexican restaurants are hard to find. When the customers demand such low prices that all you can afford to put into your food is the lowest grade of ingredients, how can you possibly change their opinion of what Mexican food ought to be?

And so Tampico died, as so many other fine Mexican restaurants have died. That's why first-rate Mexican food is almost as rare as hen's teeth.

The chefs in most independent Mexican restaurants know how to cook much better food than they're serving their customers. But they know their customers would never pay for it. So what's the point of trying?

There are shining exceptions. Café Pierpont in Salt Lake City is still inexpensive (by rational standards), but they offer some of the best fresh-ingredient Mexican food I've ever had. In Reston, VA, there's the Rio Grande Café in the Reston Town Center -- part of a mini-chain, but the guac and salsa are brilliant.

The El Torito chain is adequate (which is ten steps higher than the ordinary Mexican restaurant chain, like Chi-Chi's, where I got sick every time I ate there).

It's no surprise that Los Angeles has some of the best independents and mini-chains. El Cholo is a favorite for partly sentimental reasons (Ray Bradbury used to hang out there, and it's close to an LDS meetinghouse so Mormons in LA have a longtime El Cholo tradition). And Poquito Mas, though it's a quick-serve chain, cooks everything to order and uses perfect ingredients.

But the best, for my money, is La Serenata on West Pico, which has amazing gourmet Mexican dishes.

Mexican Food in Greensboro

Which brings me to Greensboro. We lost Baja Fresh a few months ago -- not because of a bad location after all (though that spot has lost two good restaurants and kept none), but because the chain pulled out of North Carolina -- or so I've heard.

What we have left are mediocre national chains, hideous wad-o-food rubber-burrito places, and a mere handful of Mexican restaurants that are caught in that low-price trap -- serving the best dishes they can prepare and still make a profit at the ridiculously low prices that customers insist on for Mexican food.

Monterrey Restaurant

Mexico restaurant remains a local favorite at the two locations I've tried. But, feeling adventuresome the other day, we tried out Monterrey in the shopping center across Battleground from Brassfield. We'd heard from a friend that it was the best in town. ("Monterey" in California has one R; "Monterrey" with two R's is the city in northeastern Mexico. They both mean "King's Mountain.")

The waiters were certainly authentic -- we weren't sure that the young lady who served us water even understood our request for guacamole and cheese nachos. But our order arrived just fine. All our orders were right, in fact, and the service was attentive without ever being annoying.

But the guacamole and nachos were a depressing sight. The nachos were nothing more than regular chips with a drizzly white cheesish sauce poured over them, and the guac looked pureed, which usually means it comes out of a can.

Canned guacamole is, by definition, lousy guacamole, since the process of canning requires that the avocado be cooked. Fortunately, appearances were wrong. Upon close examination I realized that even though it had been run through a blender, there were still bits of actual (and fresh) avocado to be seen; and it tasted fine. And the waiter assured me (with just the right amount of horror) that of course the guacamole was made fresh on the premises.

Digression on Nachos

The nachos, alas, were just as bad as they appeared. What happened to nachos on their way to the American plate? Laziness, that's what happened. It takes time to do nachos right -- with good cheese evenly spread over the chips, then toasted so it melts.

Instead, places trying to make "good" nachos have turned them into a heap of food with chips on the bottom, so you can't actually eat them by lifting a chip to your mouth.

And movie theaters -- and other food-service bottom-feeders that don't even aspire to be good -- have trained a generation of kids to think of nachos as bad chips with runny cheese sauce poured over them. The result: soggy chips, nasty flavor, and ignorance of what real nachos can be.

Monterrey's "nachos" are no worse than in the average movie theater. But surely a Mexican restaurant has higher aspirations than that!

Back to Monterrey

Fortunately, the entrees were far better than those early signs would indicate. The tamales have an excellent massa that crumbles just enough, and even though the only tamale they offer is filled with chicken, it's very good shredded breast meat, and the beefy sauce on top of the tamale is delicious.

The cheese in the quesadilla and enchilada is the real thing, and my shredded-beef enchilada had lean beef in it and a delicious sauce. Between the good service and the very good entrees, we left the restaurant with a very good impression. Though I'll never order the nachos again.

Second Digression on Authenticity

I went to a midafternoon wedding banquet in Cary last week. The hosts had wisely chosen a Brazilian churrascaria for the event, because no time is wasted on ordering anything more complicated than drinks and desserts.

People can arrive, be seated, and be served at their own pace -- a valuable thing, when you consider that people arrive at many different times at such events (the bride's dress is never easy to work with and invariably makes at least a dozen people late -- and I'm talking about the traveling clothes, not the actual bridal gown).

In this case, it was Rio Churrascaria at 107 Edinburgh Drive South, off US 64 just north of the intersection with US 1. The service was excellent, and the salad bar was very good, and the meat dishes -- which are brought on a spit to your table -- were fine.

The trouble is, I couldn't help comparing it with Greensboro's own Leblon. This is not fair to other churrascarias, because only in New York and in Brazil itself have I found churrascarias that are in Leblon's league -- and none that are better.

At Rio, there wasn't a Brazilian to be found (whereas at Mexico and Monterrey, there are plenty of Mexicans!). Now, there's many a French restaurant in America with nary a Frenchman on the premises (in fact, in L.A. and many other cities, most of the cooks in French restaurants are Mexican!).

So what difference does it make? I suppose I was the only person in the room who cared that the headwaiter mispronounced "churrascaria." He got the "rr" right, pronouncing it like an American "h." But he pronounced the "ch" as in "church," when it's supposed to be pronounced like the English "sh."

But I have to endure the same thing in Italian restaurants, where nobody tells the waiters that "bruschetta" is pronounced "broo-SKET-uh," not "broo-SHET-uh" -- it's like the "sch" in "school." I'm obsessive about pronunciation, but almost nobody else cares.

The place where it made a difference was in the meat-handling. The staff was so untrained that they kept trying to serve from the larger cuts of meat by slicing right down to the sword. Wrong! It defeats the whole point of churrascaria cooking.

When you have a big slab of beef or pork or lamb that has been turning on a spit over the fire, you bring it to the table and sliced the outer portion, which has been cooked. This exposes the increasingly raw inner portion -- but you simply take that back into the kitchen, put it back on the fire, and bring it out again when the new outer layer has been cooked.

This way, the piece of meet gets narrower, but the length remains the same, and it's all cooked.

At Rio Churrascaria they tried to make the meat disappear from the bottom to the top, by slicing right down to the sword and serving the whole raw bloody inner portion of the meat along with the cooked outer part. That's fine if you prefer to eat your prey alive, but most of us aren't lions, tigers, or bears.

But the attentive service made up for the lack of knowledge at Rio Churrascaria. They noticed I kept asking for the most well-done portions of meat, and rejected a few that were simply raw. Without any request from me, they brought me a plate of fully cooked meat of every kind they served.

It's not their fault that I come from a town that has a restaurant like Leblon. I've been spoiled. Most people who go to Rio Churrascaria won't have a thing to complain about.

But sometimes, authenticity does make a difference.

*

When Wicked opened on Broadway back in 2003, the two leading roles -- Elpheba, who grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, who becomes the Good Witch of the North -- were acted and sung by two gloriously talented performers: Idina Menzel (Elpheba) and Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda).

This was the first great musical score on Broadway in many years, and the vocal demands were amazing. These singers were up to it; it's an album I've listened to over and over.

Kristin Chenoweth came out with an album of Broadway songs not long after Wicked opened, and even though her performances tend to be just the tiniest bit overwrought (unlike, say, Mandy Patinkin, whose first solo album was extremely overwrought), she has a voice that can carry it off beautifully.

But now I have listened to the most recent albums by Chenoweth and Menzel, and I'm sad.

Chenoweth's album, As I Am, consists of Christian hymns. The trouble is, they aren't well arranged for her voice. She could have been powerful. Instead, the album limps along, boring whenever it's not sappy. And that's a shame. It's possible to arrange hymns to be extraordinary and original performances. She might have thought she was being "simple" or even "humble," but my feeling is, if God gives you a glorious voice, you don't praise him by hiding it. Something about "Let your light so shine before men ..."

And I'm not saying everything needed to be sung at top volume. Soft, whispery performances can be just as stirring -- but arranging it takes, if anything, more excellence from the arranger than the full-volume version of the same song.

I give her full points for singing from the heart and singing songs of faith. Though maybe Idina Menzel also thinks of her new album, Still I Can't Be Still, as being at least as sincere and heartfelt as Chenoweth's.

But "sincere" and "heartfelt" are no replacement for "melody" and "lyrics." It's just sad to see a great voice wasted on humdrum, tedious music that is little more than an echo of the current musical fad. So she envies pop singers. She wants to be an American Idol winner. And maybe she's even good at it -- it's hard to tell, with a shallow, dull song, whether the singer is doing it "well" or not.

It's not the first time I've felt this disappointment. Fantasia's hip-hop album did very well on the R&B charts and sold millions. She had an audience she wanted to reach, and she reached them. Unfortunately, it's an audience that can be pleased by voices far less powerful and brilliant than hers. But she did what she wanted and I imagine she's happy with it. It's only those of us who loved her singing great standards who are disappointed at what we're not hearing.

Ditto with Menzel and Chenoweth. You can sing whatever type of music you want, ladies. But can't you find good songs, within that genre, that give you a chance to use your brilliant voices?

*

Here, There Be Dragons, by James A. Owen, has a strong premise for a fantasy novel. In the midst of World War I, three chance acquaintances in England find themselves caught up with a strange book, the Imaginarium Geographica, which is a magical atlas of imaginary lands -- places from legend and myth, but also from fiction.

As a result, during their adventures they run into, for instance, Magwitch, whom readers of Great Expectations will recognize as the escaped prisoner Pip encounters in the first chapter. Practically every legend commonly known in Western literature (with a few perfunctory nods to other cultures) shows up here.

As a pure adventure story, Here, There Be Dragons works quite well. We are immediately caught up in headlong chases and escapes, sea battles (which don't always turn out well) and land battles (which turn out worse) and encounters with strange, quirky figures -- like the women who turn out to be Pandora and the three witches from Macbeth.

I have only two quibbles. First, the characters never have a chance to become real. Because there are three protagonists, no one of them has a chance to become personally interesting -- though their adventures are interesting. Their relationships do not rise above the level of banter -- though the banter is charming.

It feels like missed opportunity. This is especially disappointing when the identities of the three main characters are revealed. I happen to know details of all their lives, and they are gold mines of fantastic possibilities that the writer simply ignores. Indeed, he flat contradicts well-known facts about them. Too bad.

Second, author Owen seems to make up the rules as he goes along, so after a while it seems that the author decides on some cool thing he wants to have happen, and only finds the explanation for it after the fact. And the things that do happen usually seem to be obvious archetypes that it is hard to believe nobody in the story guessed from the start.

The result is that readers remain detached from the story. Entertained, but not ready to be moved.

Not that the official target audience -- YA readers -- will notice or mind. But in the fantasy genre, the boundaries between books for children, for teenagers, and for adults is somewhere between blurred and nonexistent.

Besides, will children get many of these literary references anyway? Clearly the book is meant to cross agegroup lines, and I think it does so successfully. Kids won't get many references, but they'll love the adventure and the sense of wonder about it; adults might find some elements of the story predictable, but the in-jokes and allusions will add a new layer of delight.

Not every story has to aspire to Greatness. Part of my frustration here is that I think Owen did aspire to do something truly fine, partly in homage to some of the writers he references in this novel.

But this sounds as if I'm panning the book, and I'm not. I enjoyed it a lot. It clips along so briskly that it qualifies as a "fast read," and it's fun, though not required, to catch the literary references.

And there are moments of originality that are quite delightful -- like the tower where the geographer who made the map book lives.

If Owen is a bit too cavalier about killing off characters invented by other writers -- well, Jules Verne has been dead long enough that I suppose his characters are fair game.

And Owen's own illustrations are quite good -- he has a fine style with the appearance of engravings, and it makes me jealous, for good illustration is a great help to a story, but I rarely get them in my books. (No one would be pleased if I tried to draw my own.)


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