Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Recap Part 1

“We gonna put the MAS back into ChristMAS!!!”

That’s the message my friend Emily sent when she invited us over for a tree-trimming fiesta.

It’s the only tree-trimming I’ve ever attended, and it might as well be my last ‘cause I doubt anyone else could make it cooler. Emily served stiff margaritas rather than eggnog, and carnitas tacos with a trio of salsas instead of boring canap├ęs. Tony brought a ukulele and a six pack of Corona, and the lovely Molly Thomas joined us. Then we helped Emily and Kevin decorate their tree with Elvis figurines and miniature guitars and sock monkeys and psychedelic icicley things.


Emily shared her recipe for pineapple salsa, which added sweet crunch to the tacos, and tasted perfect with tortilla chips, too.

Emily’s Pineapple Salsa

2 cups of diced pineapple chunks (fresh or canned in juice, either is fine here)
1 cup of diced white onion
1 generously sized serrano chili, diced finely
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar
Juice of a small lime
Season generously with salt, to taste

Mix it all up, and feel free to add more or less of anything to taste. This salsa is all about the balance of sweet, crunchy, spicy, sour and salty. Make it like you like it!

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And speaking of Mexican-influenced experiences, I went back to Sopapilla’s in Franklin not long ago.

Earlier in the year, I spent 101 minutes there for Nashville Lifestyles and The Tennessean. Here's what I wrote:

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This month I decided to go it alone.

Up until now, I've spent my 101 minutes at restaurants with friends
because I like food shared. Discussed. Enjoyed over conversation. Its
ability to connect us is one of the main reasons I write about it.

But then there's also something special about eating alone, too. It
helps me pay closer attention to the soft texture in a slice of warm
bread, the hearty aroma of slow-roasted beef, the pop from a fleck of
cilantro. The colors both on and off the plate shine. It's an
opportunity to (try to) be completely in the moment. To wonder about —
and be grateful for — the people who planted the chile peppers,
harvested them, roasted them over an open flame. It's both a spiritual
act and an indulgent one, like meditation — or a spa treatment. My
friend Jaime has a favorite restaurant she likes to visit alone. She
calls it church.

So on a recent Wednesday, I snuck off for Sopapilla's in Franklin.

It was 4:30 p.m. when I took a seat at the copper-topped bar. It was
early for the dinner crowd, so the place was mostly empty. The
bartender — bearded and bald, tattooed with small hoop earrings — had
the music cranked (Seal and the Kings of Leon in the mix) as he
hustled to prep his station.

He stopped his side-work to get me drink. The Cucumber Margarita. His
choice. I loved how the crisp cucumber in fat slices added freshness
to a drink that can sometimes taste too sweet and too tart. Cucumber.
Ah. Spa treatment, indeed.

He also placed in front of me a bowl of salsa (my very own bowl!) and
a basket of warm chips. I later learned that Steve Dale, the
restaurant's owner, had spent months perfecting the salsa that he
would take in batches on tour when he played bass with artists like
Carrie Underwood and Little Big Town. The muted rusty-red color with
flecks of black pepper was a salsa more layered and complex than
standard Mexican restaurant fare.

Soon after my drink arrived, a couple of women who work at the salon
next door popped in for a couple after-work drinks. Sopapilla's sits
at the corner of Camden Commons, a shiny newish development that mixes
businesses with residential space on top. The bartender recognized the
women.

"We have $5 house wines and margaritas," he said.

Then he shot me a look.

"I'll give you a discount on that one," he said pointing to my
speciality margarita that wasn't part of happy hour.

"I didn't tell her," he explained to the ladies.

I didn't mind, but then I heard one of them order a drink that isn't
on the menu. The Key Lime, a creamy concoction that arrived in a large
martini-shaped glass. He reminded the ladies of his name again, and
introduced himself to me. Roland.

Next up, I ordered my meal. Should I go Green Tamale & Chipotle Shrimp
Taco or the Stuffed Sopapilla, I asked him. He didn't hesitate.

Stuffed Sopapilla.

Chicken or beef?

Beef.

I like a man who gives direction with authority.

As I waited for my meal, a fourth guest rolled up to the bar — a
middle-age man in shorts and polo with a tan, gray hair and
sunglasses. He was just killing some time, I learned, by eavesdropping
between verses of a Tom Petty song. He ordered a margarita and read a
book off his iPhone. Meanwhile, my sopapilla arrived smothered in
sauce, chock with hunks of green Hatch chili and a melty layer of
cheese. Swaddled inside it was a mound of spicy, shredded beef.

Dale, who moved to Nashville in 1995 for music, grew up in Phoenix and
Albuquerque.

"From the get-go when I got here, I felt like there wasn't the Mexican
food I was accustomed to in Phoenix and Albuquerque," he told me after
my visit. "I started cooking my own food."

He had fallen in love with the Hatch chili while busing tables at a
restaurant during high school.

"Just the heat of the chilies and rich, roast flavor," he said.

The chilis grow in Hatch, N.M., where the soil and humidity suit them
well. Dale now orders them 1,500 pounds at a time, about every three
months.

In addition to his salsa experiments, Dale treated his musician
colleagues to "fiestas" while on the road.

"We'd break out the Crock-Pots and slow cook meats during the day," he
said. "After the show, we'd have a big thing of margaritas ...
quesadillas ... and tacos."

His restaurant's concept and menu development — about three years in
the making — happened on the back of a tour bus.

"Not bad for a margarita," Roland said to the sunglassed man.

"It does not suck," he said. "Hits the spot. Thank you, Roland."

Then he ordered a second one.

With hardly anything — but everything — happening around me, I didn't
remember to be grateful for my time alone until 5:06. Shame on me. But
the man in sunglasses was asking Roland about his past. I just had to
hear.

Roland came to Nashville from Columbus, Ohio, for music. He played in
a Christian hard rock band. His father had been a musician, too.

"What's for dessert?" I asked him.

He suggested the sopapillas again — this time without a savory
stuffing and just with a drizzle of honey — which are on the house.

Dale explained later that sopapillas typically arrive mid-meal in New
Mexico, "like we would have biscuits here." And while he sees himself
as a bit of an educator on authentic New Mexican cuisine, the timing
of the sopapillas hasn't resonated here. Guests would often ask the
servers to take them away until after dinner so they would stay warm.

"We kinda lost that battle," Dale said, though he's OK with that.

I, too, would be having mine for dessert. They arrived as dreamy
little pillows, soft and studded with pockets of air. With just a thin
layer of crisp on the outside from the hot oil and a dribble of honey,
they'll make you want to lick your fingers.

Sopapillas originated in Albuquerque hundreds of years ago. The
Indians were making fried bread when the Spaniards arrived, adding
their own twist.

"It's really an art form," Dale said. "We call it getting the bump."

When the staff gets it wrong, he'll tell them: "We're not called
'Indian Fried Bread.' Throw those away. It's our namesake."

I offered my second sopapilla to the man with the sunglasses.

"Oh, no, thank you," he said. "I would eat it."

And as the bar began to pick up, it was time for me to leave.

A trio of regulars had convened at the end of the bar to drink
happy-hour margaritas and talk football, and it reminded me how
restaurants embody so much life as places to play, work, nourish,
socialize.

When my check arrived, I learned that Roland had not discounted my
drink. He just didn't charge me for it at all.

"Thank you, Roland," I said waving over the heads of the regulars. I
sort of wanted to be a regular, too. Despite my time alone, I couldn't
help but feel the call of connectedness.

"Hey, have a good night and come back," he said.

And then it occurred to me, I was never really alone at all.

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Sopapilla's

1109 Davenport Blvd., Franklin

615-794-9989, www.sopapillas.net

What to order:

Try the blue corn chicken enchiladas with a fried egg on top.

"That's probably the most authentic dish that we have," said owner Steve Dale.

And while the traditional sopapillas with honey come on the house,
they're also good with meat tucked inside. When given a choice, go
with the beef. It's road-tested.

What to drink:

The Cucumber Margarita arrives in a tall glass with ice and several
thickly sliced hunks of cucumber. Or ask for Roland's off-menu drink,
The Key Lime, which works well as a precursor to the peppery cuisine
of New Mexico.

The restaurant has also upped its wine list since the bar was
installed in January.

About the Series

It's been said that a proper chef's hat has 101 folds representing the number of ways you can cook an egg. So we're choosing a local restaurant to visit each month — just for 101 minutes

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