Boxed Fudge Kits vs. Homemade Fudge: A Skirmish for the Season

Categories: Toque to Toque
fudging with the fudge kit
When I decided to pit boxed fudge against homemade fudge, I saw it as a way to repent for all those meals made from Bisquick and Stove Top. I pictured myself in front of my stove, delicately stirring a pot of sugar syrup to avoid scorching and sugar crystals. I pretended I could be a person who cared about scorching or sugar crystals.

The reality check came when I couldn't find a fudge kit at three grocery stores. I normally like Eagle Brand. The next best is Carnation, even if it does dry out too quickly and end up crumbly and flaky, like dandruff.

Either because the brands have been discontinued or holiday shoppers have pillaged and ransacked the grocery stores, I couldn't find either kit. So I recreated the Eagle Brand fudge recipe from memory:

1 (14 oz.) can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Handful of chopped walnuts

I think the kit may call for unsalted butter. I couldn't remember how much, so I skipped that part and crossed my fingers.

I believe the instructions went something like this: Dump everything but the nuts together in a bowl. Microwave it for one minute on high. Stir it all up until the chips are melted. Throw in the nuts if you feel like it. Pour mixture into greased 9 x 9 pan, and then the two of you can chill for a few hours.

Easy. So I moved on to the homemade recipe:

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Cuban Sandwich Crisis: Taste of Cuba vs. Caribbean Cafe

Categories: Toque to Toque

Taste of Cuba_500x375.jpg
Photos by Steven Doyle
Taste of Cuba was the fairest of them all.

Many people, when they consider Cuba, think of Fidel, Guantanamo Bay, the Bay of Pigs and cigars.

City of Ate thinks sandwiches.

Taking their cue from Caribbean, African and Spanish cuisine, Cubans have developed a flavor of their very own. Delicious are the many soups and stews, along with their own variety of tamales.

And did we mention the sandwiches? We really like the sandwiches.

Making a Cuban sandwich is a simple operation, but requires a specific bread to make it authentic. A true Cuban loaf looks something like a French baguette, but is flat with a hard, crusty exterior and flaky, delicate interior.

The sandwich itself includes layers of Serrano ham, cold roasted pork, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickle and a slathering of bright yellow mustard. Variations include salami for a Tampa Cuban sandwich, or the use of an egg bread for a sandwich called the medianoche. The medianoche is typically eaten after midnight, as the name implies, after an evening in a nightclub.

Some may wish to include mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, but a sandwich purist would nix these items. But a proper Cuban always is buttered and pressed, not too unlike panini.

The sandwich migrated to the United States with Cubans fleeing Spanish rule in the 1800s. One of the first bakeries to make the unique bread used in the sandwich was established in 1896 and would distribute the special bread by slapping the loaf onto a nail at the front door of houses in Tampa. It was sold for a nickel.

Today the Cuban is enjoyed worldwide for its simple ingredients and complex flavors. Locally we can find variations of the Cuban across our city. The popular Italian grocer Jimmy's Foodstore has a version that is enjoyed by many, but the bread makes it less authentic -- though still delicious.

Today we look at a few options in Dallas for the popular sandwich. We found a really good version of the Cuban at the State Fair this week and wanted to compare the sandwich sold at the Taste of Cuba food booth to one of the popular established Cuban restaurants in the Dallas area. When asking around for a good comparison, the name of a Frisco restaurant popped up in many times. The Caribbean Cafe has a strong Cuban following and made perfect sense to help with our comparison today in what we will call the Toque to Toque Cuban Sandwich Crisis: Taste of Cuba vs. Caribbean Cafe.

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Maple & Motor vs. Torchy's Tacos: The Breakfast Taco Battle

Categories: Toque to Toque

Sara Kerens
Taqueria El Si Hay in Oak Cliff
There is simply nothing simpler and more delicious than the utilitarian taco. And they seem to be everywhere days. You can't turn around in Dallas without seeing a taqueria, gringo stand or renegade gas station selling these tasty morsels. Another advantage: The taco is generally cheap, selling for about the amount of spare change you keep in your car ashtray or find under any seat cushion.

In the past year there has been a taco explosion here, and we just can't seem to get enough of them. Recently we've seen the second coming of Urban Taco with its newest location on McKinney Avenue in Uptown. There are a few other Urban locations scattered around the city--most notably at DFW airport and Parkland Hospital. Urban's tacos are ripe with quality ingredients--they're way of trying to make a dent in the ever-tightening taco market.

City of Ate has rallied around the taqueria craze. My compadre Jose Ralat Maldonado, the Taco Czar, enjoys El Tizoncito, La Paisanito and others that are hard for some of us to pronounce but good nonetheless.

We agreed to disagree recently when Ralat Maldonado tore into a few of the tacos at Taqueria Lupita, which happens to be one of our favorite extreme late-night spots for trompa tacos (made from the most savory part of cow lips). Our personal opinion might be influenced by its proximity to Neighborhood Services Tavern and the venerable Henderson Avenue wine bar Veritas. That, and it's open until 5a.m. on weekends, replete with mariachis.

All this notwithstanding, we started early one recent morning in search of a fresh breakfast taco. We got a hot tip that Jack Perkins was test driving breakfast tacos at his burger hotspot Maple & Motor. The gruff voiced caller whispered that the tacos would probably be just as awesome as his burgers and we should meet up at the crack of dawn to check them out.

This had the makings of a Toque to Toque challenge so we decided to pair up Maple & Motor with another gringo breakfast taco these days hitting many a radar screen--Torchy's Tacos on Forest Lane in North Dallas. Lets call this Toque Maple & Motor vs. Torchy Tacos:The Breakfast Taco Battle.

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Toque to Toque: 99 Ranch Market vs. Super H Mart

Categories: Toque to Toque

99 Ranch Bao
Years ago, few of my Caucasian friends ventured the into local Asian food markets, where they would have found incredible produce, fish so fresh it was still swimming, and meat counters with products that could stare back at you.

It seems like white folks have gotten wise. And who could blame them? Beef filet for $3.99 a pound, fresh mussels for $1.99 for two pounds, and produce for a fraction of what you may find anywhere else in town. A friend once called me late at night, screaming about King Crab for $5.99 a pound.

Those finds are amazing, but not uncommon, especially at the city's new mega Asian markets.

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No Holds Barred: Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen vs. Lemon Bar

Categories: Toque to Toque

Rathbun's lemon bar_500x375.jpg
Photo by Steven Doyle
A child shall bake them: our winner, the lemon bar at Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen
The lemon bar, that tasty pastry made up of a shortbread crust and lemon-curd filling, is easily found on tables across the Midwest, especially on Sundays at potlucks among Jell-O salads, meat loafs and the requisite dozen or so slow-cookers filled with assorted cuts of beast.

But the lemon bar needn't be relegated to Minnesota church dining halls, although we love our share of lutefisk (as long as our share is zero). Nothing as delicious and satisfying as a lemon bar should share a table with the Norwegian white fish and lye dish. A lemon bar is a supreme dessert delight that garners a space of its very own. The lemon bar is so pure, so divine that nothing should impede the path from a grubby hand to the mouth.

Lately, the lusty lemon bar seems to have made its way from church halls to bakeries and even finer dining establishments. Starbucks has a version that is sprightly satisfying with lemony ooze and a powdered sugar edge that cuts the extreme tartness. Another fine example of the lemon bar can be found at the Corner Bakery. I often find myself sliding into the bakery under the guise of needing free WiFi, only to grab a lemon bar and a cup of coffee for an added jolt of energy to carry me through the day. There's one Corner Bakery where they know me so well that they will start plating the pastry the moment they see my car outside. You can even find the ubiquitous lemon bar at venerable Steins Bakery at Preston Road and LBJ Freeway. There you can enjoy a slew of cakes and cookies, including a delicious cheese pocket.

What makes the lemon bar so enjoyable might be its roots in family tradition. Nothing could be more soothing after a terrible day at the office than the thought of our grandmothers telling us things will be just fine as she hoists a plate of the treats. Sadly, my grannie lives many states away, so I set out to find the perfect lemon bar in Big D, one that will bring back those memories of the sweet and tart pastry. Bring on the Lemon Bar Skirmish: Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen vs. Lemon Bar.

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Tapas Tumble: Si Tapas vs.
Sangria Mediterranean Tapas and Bar

Categories: Toque to Toque
Si Tapas tortilla.JPG
Photo by Steven Doyle
Our winner, Si Tapas' tortilla espanola
Many of us are familiar with the lowly and inexpensive appetizer. These easy to eat prequels to dinner are the tiny bites that often consist of finger food and little dips, and can foreshadow the quality of food to come. In the fine dining set, they might be called an amuse-bouche, the little taste that is offered by the chef as a means of thanking you for your patronage while at the same time displaying his or her witty, culinary ability.

Offering complimentary tastes is common in many societies but leave it to the Louisiana Creole French to come up with a name for this phenomenon, the lagniappe.

In the 1880s, Mark Twain was pleased to discover this amusing word in his travels to New Orleans, and wrote that it was both expressive and handy. He went on to describe the lagniappe as the 13th roll in a baker's dozen, a complimentary stick of licorice for a child, or a cheap cigar for a servant.

He also noted that the term originated in the Spanish quarter of the city.

That the Spaniards are refined in the art of the lagniappe is evidenced by tapas, the complimentary appetizer offered in taverns also as a means of expressing gratitude. Free food served on small plates offered benefits to the tavern keeper as well, keeping his guests  drinking more beer or wine without overly impairing their ability to do so. Tapas come in three categories: cosas de picar (finger food like almonds and olives), pinchos (food eaten with a fork or toothpick), or the more extravagant cazuelas (things cooked in a sauce like a meatball or stew).

In the United States the system of lagniappe has turned into a restaurant concept: We are now able to frequent a tapas restaurant and simply purchase what little bites and tastes we desire without relying on the generosity and whims of the tavern owner. Progress but at a price.

Today, we explore some tapas restaurants in Dallas and glimpse at the dish in what we call the Tapas Tumble: Si Tapas vs. Sangria Mediterranean Tapas and Bar.

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Burger Battle Round Two: Farnatchi vs. Square Burger

Categories: Toque to Toque
Square Burger
Earlier this year Toque brought you the throw-down between up-and-coming chain Five Guys Burger and the Oak Cliff standard, Wingfield's Breakfast and Burger. It was a messy proposition that actually took us to many burger fronts all in one day. We visited Smashburger and Mooyah, as they were new entries into the high-end burger market, and our goal at that time was to see if these glitzy burger fronts could compare to an old reliable such as Wingfield's.

As you might imagine, or possibly remember -- they couldn't.

For whatever reason, be it the economy or just our desires for simpler things in life, people across the country are reaching out for their inner-burger. Even our svelte president has fallen victim to the craze and was seen ordering Five Guys during the filming of a NBC special look at the White House.

We are pretty sure that it was the first and only time you will see Obama blazing a trail to order a burger. The president was not too happy with his handlers at the time and left them to order for themselves as he paid for his own meal, saying, "One cheeseburger and one fries for me." No burger bailout for the Secret Service gents that round.

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Clash of the Pupusa Titans: Pupusas Mama Tia II vs. Michoacan Tortas y Pupusas

Categories: Toque to Toque

Michoacan Pupusa

Just over a mile from the airport outside San Salvador you will find a tiny village ripe with what many would call the national snack of the Central American country, El Salvador--the pupusa. In the village of Olocuilta little shops sell these masa harina cakes, which are filled with any combination of beans, cheese, pork, yucca, shrimp, loroco, or squash.

There are so many shops selling the pupusa, "the competition is great so the prices are very low," explains, Eduardo Ventura, the manager of Pupusas Mama Tia II in Carrollton, which is owned by his family. "You can find pupusas for 25 cents a piece."

This major pupusa Mecca is where you can find people of all backgrounds scurrying to find the perfect pupusa as they watch the women of the village crank out dozens of these little pockets of flavor. Olocuilta distinguishes itself by also offering a special rice flour pupusa that is made only with beans and cheese, along with the traditional corn flour version that has unlimited possibilities for ingredients.

"Every Salvadoran knows about Olocuilta," Ventura adds, "it is very popular even with tourists".

All pupusas are traditionally served with a curtido, a slightly fermented cabbage salad that is crunchy and dressed with vinegar. The salad is generally combined with carrots and onions, and sometimes red chiles. Since the pupusas are served piping hot off the griddle, the curtido acts as a cooling agent to take the edge off the molten queso fresco.

Dallas has growing pockets of Salvadoran immigrants who can be found in Carrollton, Irving and Garland, making these spots the happy hunting grounds for locating a fine pupusa. We took our search to Carrollton, and today offer up a few fine examples for our Toque to Toque challenge in what we happily offer as the Clash of the Pupusa Titans.

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Chili Challenge: Tolbert's Restaurant vs. Chili's

Categories: Toque to Toque

Chili's Chili.JPG
Photo by Steven Doyle
Hold the baby backs; give us a bowl of red.
Sitting in traffic when it is 105 degrees outside takes a toll on a person's spirit. The heat in Dallas seems worse each year, but we are Texans, and we can handle a little weather.

August was just as hot in the 19th century when the Chili Queens raced around the plaza in downtown San Antonio. Mariachi's blared their familiar tunes as the sirens of chili beckoned passersby, enticing them with chili and hot tamales.

Writer O. Henry visited San Antonio in the 1880s and discussed the chili senoritas in his short story "The Enchanted Kiss". The Chili Queens at that time numbered in the hundreds, and there were plenty of people intrigued by lines such as "Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night."
The chili at the time was often described not too unlike what might be served today, consisting mostly of chilies and meat -- venison, goat and sometimes beef.

"My great-grandmother was one of the Chili Queens. My mother would tell me stories of her and the other women who would sell chili in the plaza in San Antonio, and how the city eventually shut them down. Some of the women opened restaurants or sold chili in the Mercado. Most lost their livelihood and San Antonio lost a great tradition," remembers Gloria Faris, who now lives in El Paso with her family.

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Flapjack Flap: Mimi's Cafe vs. The Original Pancake House

Categories: Toque to Toque

Mimi's Cafe Pancakes
In one of those slow motion, cinematic moments that history brings us, a pancake went flying through the air as Napoleon (the impish emperor of France not the nunchuck wielding dweeb from the 2004 indie film, Napoleon Dynamite) attempted an intervention between his sausage-like fingers and the floor below.

Sausage-like fingers: 0, Floor: 1.

In this bit of bad luck, Napoleon blames his misfortunes in the campaign against Russia on the superstitious moment. Seems that dropping a pancake is bad luck. Certainly in this emperor's case.

The celebrated pancake has a raucous history, sweeping across our green planet in various tastes and forms, including the Russian blini (excellent with caviar and a dollop of crème fraiche), the Chinese Bao Bing (considered de rigueur for moo shu pork), pannekoeke (the bacon-infused, custard-stuffed Dutch griddlecake), or fairest of them all, the French crepe.

The pancake in the United States, with its requisite mounds of butter and maple syrup, are part of our early morning ritual, transcending cultural barriers. They can be found in most any restaurant regardless of economics, from the 5-star hotel to almost any breakfast-serving fast food emporium.

As Americans, we have been tugging at Aunt Jemima's apron strings since 1889 when the originators of the industrial pancake product first introduced it to the marketplace.

Chris Rutt, a newspaper editor in St. Joseph, Missouri, and his soon-to-be partner came up with the idea for the mix after purchasing a failing flour mill. Facing a glut in the flour market, the twosome sold off their excess flour in the form of pancake mix, freeing delighted homemakers of precious minutes during their morning pancake-making ritual.

It was some years later, in 1926, that Quaker Oats bought the rights to the product, bringing it to national fame and to breakfast tables throughout our nation and the world.

Today we enjoy a few rounds of pancakes in what we title the Flapjack Flap: Mimi's Cafe vs. The Original Pancake House. We will drizzle syrup, smatter butter and sip a cup of coffee to find the definitive pancake.

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