With snow starting to fall on the ground, and the end of the year drawing near, I realized it was time to exercise a holiday tradition, the annual consumption of a bowl of menudo. This Mexican tripe stew, a special-occasion dish and supposed folk remedy for hangovers, isn’t for everyone. But on a cold day it can be a wonderfully comforting dish sided with warm tortillas and the traditional embellishments of pepper and herbs.
Driving along Longmont’s main drag, I noticed the low-slung Las Palmeras, which appeared to be a typical Mexican family-style restaurant. Venturing inside with colleague Lisa, my hypothesis was confirmed. The lunchtime crowd spoke English and Spanish in equal measure, and the laminated menus revealed few culinary surprises. Higher-end items included $15 seafood fajitas, while more inexpensive options included tacos, burritos and enchiladas. There are also small plate specials, such as $5 portions of shrimp wrapped in bacon. The familyfriendly quotient is boosted by child’s plates in the sub-$5 range, including tacos, burgers and pizza with sides of fries.
The meal began with the obligatory basket of tortilla chips and a bowl of red salsa. The chips were appropriately fresh and crisp, and the dip was pleasingly peppery with a decent tomato and onion flavor.
Like that offered by most Mexican restaurants in this price range, the salsa’s texture was more thin than chunky. Nevertheless, this starter possessed the addictive crunchy and salty qualities that will lead to my inevitable attendance at a Chips and Salsa Anonymous meeting.
Lisa’s $7 chicken mole platter was pretty much everything you’d expect in an affordable Mexican joint, with plenty of refried beans and rice on the side. There was enough for at least two meals, although this didn’t make up for the blandness of this presentation. The mole sauce was more akin to simple brown gravy than the richly complex mélange of chile, chocolate and cinnamon that’s a hallmark of the best examples. Those used to whole pieces of chicken in this dish may need to adjust to the smaller shredded bits of poultry that gave this preparation a stew-like quality.
Of course, I had to experience the $7.50 menudo with the expected accoutrements of diced raw onion (I prefer red onion over the white on offer), dried oregano and red pepper. Texturally, Las Palmeras hit all the right notes, as the tripe had the appropriate measure of tenderness without regressing into the realm of the rubbery. Typical of restaurant preparations of this dish, the broth could have benefited from a deeper, meatier flavor, or even a squirt of citrus juice. The accompanying flour tortillas were dinner plate-sized and piping hot, and fine for dipping into the liquid. Overall, the soup made for an acceptable annual foray into the heady depths of menudo.
While many choices are inexpensive here, there’s still room for improvement, even at this price. It wouldn’t be fair to fault Las Palmeras on quantity, but those with a more than passing familiarity with family-style Mexican will desire some deepening of the flavors. The chicken mole would have benefited from more assertive seasoning that would have highlighted this dish’s earthier qualities. Similarly, the menudo tasted like it was 85 percent there, with a broth needing a boost.
Clay’s Obscurity Corner Cattle drive fare
It´s likely that both menudo and fajitas trace their history back to Texas cattle drives, where vaqueros relied on livestock for both making money and short-term sustenance. It didn’t make financial sense for these cowboys to save all the filet mignons for themselves, so the less desirable parts of the cow became cattle drive staples. That’s why tripe, or stomach, in the form of menudo, took center stage as a working hand’s meal. Skirt steak, a traditionally inexpensive cut that possesses decent flavor, was initially the favored meat for fajitas, which were easy to prepare over a grill or cook fire.
Las Palmeras 199 S. Main St., Longmont 303-848-0103