The other day I was reading an advertisement that presented itself as being the product of serious academic research in a respectable leftward-leaning magazine. Advocating zero population growth and an end to immigration, this particularly vile piece of eugenics was clearly written by WASPs with no taste for the better things in life, and certainly not for good food. It occurred to me that, if these wretched individuals were to have their own way, and boot out of the country anyone not sharing their precise coloration and religious disposition, we'd be back to eating sauerbraten, boiled cabbage, fish and chips and blood sausage before you could say, "Madhur Jaffrey." Clearly this wouldn't do at all. After all, where would we be without the great regional cuisines of the world, except in gastronomic purgatory, where Wonderbread is seen as pretty neat stuff and the Frugal Gourmet is the arbiter of all things tasteful?
With these thoughts in mind, I decided that henceforth I should do my level best to patronize as many hole-in-the-wall eateries of as many diverse origins as possible in a dedicated display of culinary solidarity with my chums from all over the world who have made my life so far such a gastronomic pleasure. Sometimes you just have to sit back, take stock and realize that, however miserable things might look from the inside, there is solace to be taken in the fact that we're surrounded by great grub, and that not all of it is unaffordable.
So, where to start? Well, being essentially lazy, I decided this weekend to head over to a newish establishment just south of the Eli Lilly complex on East Street. Not the most auspicious location for fine dining, but I live nearby, so there. Don Victor's, which shares common ownership with the very fine tacqueria of the same name in Castleton, occupies the former location of a rather tawdry bar of Irish inclinations. The old place has undergone quite a facelift over the past year or so: The nondescript exterior belies the tilework and earth tones within, and the atmosphere is warm and inviting. Bordering on the cavernous, there's space for about 30 people to gather round the TV soccer games at the back of the restaurant without bothering the other diners. A well-stocked bar is off to one side, and the main dining room is on split levels, conveying the impression of even more space.
Service at Don Victor's is quick and friendly, although you'd do well to brush up on your restaurant Spanish (something everyone in this business needs to do) if you want to understand the subtler nuances of some of the dishes.
The menu here is a mix of traditional Mexican dishes and some familiar offerings, and even offers an authentic Caesar salad. To begin our meal, my friends and I chose the excellent house-made tamales (three for $4.50), which came to the table steaming hot, and needed to be opened with care. Packed with large chunks of savory pork, and topped with a savory and spicy (but not hot) sauce, these were almost a meal in themselves.
A large bowl of fresh guacamole (the only foodstuff to which I am unfortunately allergic) for $4.50 and some outstanding tortilla chips rounded out the first course. The chips, freshly made and about as far removed from Doritos as you can get, were demolished in pretty short order.
Next came a heaped plate of Jalisco Carnitas, slow-roasted pork, shredded and served with soft corn tortillas, rice and beans, for $7.95. This is a great dish: It"s fun to assemble your own tacos, doctoring them up with as much vegetation and hot sauce as you deem appropriate. Slow-cooked food lies at the heart of Mexican country cuisine, and these carnitas were first-rate examples.
Next came a vast portion of steaming Pozole, a hominy and pork soup into which you add your own shreds of radish, lettuce, spring onion and the like. This dish proved remarkably restorative, not to mention filling. This soup is large enough to feed two or three normal people, containing as it does approximately half a pound of pork, at the very least. In fact, as I write this, I'm finishing off the leftovers, which have gained in flavor with a couple of days of fridge-time.
A very fine torta al pastor for $4.95 came next. There's a special kind of bread that restaurants use for these fat, savory sandwiches, and I just love it. Crisp on the outside, airy within and slightly sweet, this bread might not appeal greatly to the baked-goods purist, but it works smashingly well in this context. The al pastor sandwich comes heavily laden with strips of deep-fried pork, lettuce, mayonnaise and fresh, ripe tomatoes. Splendid stuff, especially when you compare this sandwich with, say, a foot-long Subway. I know which one I would eat, any day.
Following this messy but essential treat, we tried the Veracruz-style fish, a generous serving of Tilapia smothered in tomatoes and vegetables, and served with rice and a salad. The mild flavor and firm texture of this fish lends itself well to the subtly spicy Veracruz sauce. The menu offers several fish dishes, including a grilled red snapper for $12.95. You'd be hard put to prepare such a dish at home for this kind of money, which certainly makes a good argument for eating out at establishments like Don Victor's.
At weekends, Don Victor's offers menudo, a beef tripe soup that is particularly effective at dispelling the evil effects of a hangover. In order to fully appreciate menudo, you need to sample a couple of Don Victor's first-rate and fairly-priced margaritas, and perhaps a Mexican beer or two with dinner the night before. Then come back the following day for a bowl of tripe soup. Sounds great, doesn't it?
After three visits over the past month or so, I can happily report that Don Victor's is my new favorite Mexican restaurant in town. Both locations offer similar menus, although the Castleton restaurant has more of a rough-and-tumble atmosphere, and can get pretty loud once the jukebox kicks on. If you like bright light, formica tabletops and loud accordion music, this is probably the place for you. If table service, subdued lighting and a slightly more restrained atmosphere are your things, then come to the Southside. I think you"ll find it"s worth your while.