Friday, January 7, 2011

With Respect To Mexican Food, I’m Fickle

First of all, I'm in love with Mexican food, but I’m fickle. The problem isn’t that I like it but don’t want to eat it all that often. I’d eat it every day if it was possible and practicable for me to do so. Also, I’m not one of those who like some of it, but not all of it. I like it all. My problem is that I can’t decide which Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country I like best. Well, that’s not true. I can decide, and I do decide, but I change my mind nearly every day. That’s where my fickleness with respect to Mexican food comes into play. It’s not exactly true, but it seems that the “best” Mexican restaurant for me nearly always seems to be the last one I visited.

Given its relatively close proximity to Mexico, and the important influence that Mexican-Americans play in the region, the fact is that there are really no disappointing Mexican restaurants in the hill country. On the contrary, and, in my opinion, they are all very authentic, and all very good. Of course, I’m not Mexican-American, so my credibility to judge what authentic Mexican food is or isn’t may be questioned, but I do the best I can. Given the sheer number of places serving up Mexican food, it would be impossible to for me to actually visit them all, let alone do any kind of subjective or objective rating. So, I won’t try, and neither should you. You’ll just have to take my word for which one is best, and, continue to take my word for which one is best in the future. But, as I’ve already warned you, I change my mind from time to time. We’ll, that is not exactly true either. I change my mind very frequently.

My latest favorite place has been hiding from me in plain sight for years, and is just over in Leander, Texas. As in the past, my wife had to steer me away from my natural inclination to return to the haunts of previous “best” places, and try something new. Quite some time ago, a friend of my wife had told her about this great Mexican restaurant in Leander, but my wife didn’t remember what the name of the place was, or, just where it was located in Leander. That part didn’t bother me too much, because Leander isn’t all that big, and I’m fairly good with finding my way around places. And, like most men, I pride myself in doing it without asking anyone for directions, and I can’t be bothered with GPS devices.

Later, after driving around Leander for a half hour or so, and, after heeding my wife’s advice, I pulled the vehicle over and asked someone for directions to a Mexican restaurant whose name I didn’t know. Apparently, everyone in the hill country knows about this place but me, because even after giving a half-assed and extremely vague description of it, I got clear directions, and we quickly found the place. In my defense, I’m quite sure that within another 45 minutes, I would have located it without needing the assistance of others. We might not have been there in time for lunch, but we surely would have arrived for dinner. And, let me remind you that I’m only writing here about Mexican food, not what meal of the day I’d be eating it.

The restaurant at the end of our search, or as Texans say, at the end of our trail, is a place called Jardin Del Rey. Conveniently located (I can say that now that I found it) on Highway 183 in Leander, right by the Post Office (see, I’ve done all the hard work for you), it sits back off the road a bit, but is clearly marked by a huge multi-colored road sign right on the highway which clearly states, “Jardin Del Rey Mexican Restaurant.” I can’t believe I missed it after driving by it 3 or 4 times. I must have been distracted by my wife telling me to stop somewhere and ask for directions. Yes, I’m quite sure that was the issue now that I’ve had time to reflect upon it all.

Jardin Del Rey, is impressive, and at least for now, is clearly my favorite. Starting with lots of parking in the front , back, and side of the building, there is no doubt that friendly, prompt, and courteous service dictates the whole experience from the time you pull off the highway coming in until the time you pull onto the highway going back out.

The interior of the restaurant was clean, colorful, and festive, with a lot of booths. Booths seem to be an important seating choice in all restaurants these days. It’s a little strange when you think about it. People want to go out and eat among others, in a public place, but would prefer a booth where they are somewhat hidden and separated from the other people eating there, but, I’m getting a little bit off target.

After requesting our booth, we were quickly seated. Immediately thereafter, warm chips and salsa were placed in front of us. The salsa was spicier than at most places, but not overly so, and it was freshened with the taste of fresh chopped cilantro. During the course of our meal, my wife and I went through two servings of chips and salsa, which should tell you that we liked it quite a bit. Normally we hold back on a second serving, so as to have enough room for the meal. But on this occasion, we made an exception to our “hold back” rule and made that second round of chips and salsa disappear in a hurry.

Jardin Del Rey’s menu offers a lot of food choices, and those choices are inexpensive. There are breakfast plates, lunch specials, and a wide selection of appetizers, enchiladas, platters, plates, caldos y ensaladas, and especialidades. As with most Mexican restaurants, many side orders are available at Jardin Del Rey, and include Mexican rice, Chile con queso, frijoles charros, refried beans, as well as other selections.

Passing up on any appetizers, we ordered our lunch while munching on the chips and salsa. My wife ordered the Soft Taco Mexican Plate, and went with the beef tacos instead of the chicken. They were served with pico de gallo, sour cream, and rice and beans. I opted for the Chile Rellano, which is always a gamble depending upon the restaurant where they are served. In a lot of places around the rest of the country, this food order would have resulted in a small, shriveled, and miserly stuffed Chile pepper being served up. Not so at Jardin Del Rey, where I got an unbelievably large Poblano pepper with the stem still attached, generously stuffed with beef and cheese, and served with guacamole, pico de gallo, rice and beans, and an order of soft warm tortillas. I have to tell you, if you like cheese like I do, you really need to visit this place. The cheese was hot and melted, and literally poured out of the pepper along with the beef when I cut into it with my fork. And, to top it all off, the pepper was covered with a liberal amount of cheese, and salsa.

With the great food and outstanding service at Jardin Del Rey’s in Leander, Texas, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the best Mexican restaurant in the Texas Hill Country. Well, at least it is until the next time I head out in search of Mexican food.

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