December is a month for celebrating. Observing happy gatherings at the tables and bar of Leon’s in the Carousel Village strip mall in Ballston Spa, we knew we had come to the right place.
A booth had just become available. Hostess Roberta handed us menus and assured us she would send over Mike right away. The laughter and smiles of customers were infectious. Music throbbed at the bar but did not interfere with our conversation. Three-dimensional tin stars studded with brightly colored lights hung from the ceiling, a large mural of an array of Mexican people covered an entire wall and a board announced this evening’s special: $2 tacos (usually $2.95).
Sipping our beverages, we listened to server Mike describe the taco specials. Leaving us alone for a few minutes, we read the menu and enjoyed chips and salsa. Craving a little more heat, I added a few generous drops of hot sauce to the salsa. It makes sense to start spicy food on the cool side. In my younger days, I was convinced I had inherited my grandfather’s cast-iron stomach. But recently, I seem to be losing the asbestos lining.
Nibbling and sipping, we made decisions from the seven categories on the menu — starters, taqueria, ensaladas, burritos, sides and extras, from the grill, seafood and other specialties, and combo plates.
We began our Mexican feast with a small, four-legged black pot of guacamole ($4.95) and additional salsa ($1) to finish the generous basket of chips. John requested three tacos (two chorizo, homemade Mexican sausage; and one ground beef at $2 each) as an appetizer, and I chose the chicken tortilla soup ($5.95). Although we were unable to decipher which small taco was beef and which were sausage, all three were flavorful and colorful with red tomato, yellow cheese and green lettuce — a great deal at $2 each.
My chicken tortilla soup ($5.95) was a winner. It arrived in a large, flattish bowl loaded with large pieces of chicken, bits of cilantro, onion, tomato, strips of tortilla and topped with a generous dollop of sour cream.
If a Mexican venue offers a mole, I order it. Mole is one of those sauces with an unusual flavor and an even more unusual history as described below in Napkin Notes. Leon’s mole chicken enchiladas ($14.95) were served on a rectangular white plate, flanked by refried beans, rice dotted with yellow corn kernels and garnished with chopped tomato, shredded lettuce and the ubiquitous wedge of lime. The satiny deep brown mole which blanketed two enchiladas filled with shredded chicken was flecked with cilantro, chopped sweet white onion and quesa fresca (Mexican cheese).
At Mike’s suggestion, my dinner date ordered the arroz con pollo (rice with chicken, $14.95). A hearty meal on a square white plate, a mound of golden Mexican rice with a hint of corn was topped with juicy fajita chicken and crema de poblano salsa topped with cilantro and sweet chopped onion. “Exactly what I wanted!” exclaimed an elated Johnny P.
“Dessert?” asked Mike as I licked the last of the salt off the rim of my margarita, which had been served (as all our beverages were) in traditional blue-rimmed recycled Mexican glass. I nodded enthusiastically. John chose the flan ($6.95) while I opted for the fried ice cream ($6.95).
Even kids know you can’t fry ice cream. Ice cream melts all over the back seat of the car on a hot summer day. So how does this oxymoronic dessert work?
Much like baked Alaska, fried ice cream (usually vanilla) is super-cooled, rolled in egg white, then crushed corn flakes, deep-fried for a few minutes to make the shell crispy, sprinkled with a little sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with chocolate sauce, placed in a dish and topped with whipped cream.
John described his flan as “meaty.” By that, he meant dense, as if cornmeal or flour had been added to it. We were both used to flan that was unmolded from a small custard cup with caramel on top. But Mexican flan (Flan de Queso or Flan Napolitano) is more like cheesecake, thickened with eggs, cream cheese, cracker crumbs, cornstarch or crushed almonds with a layer of caramel on the bottom. Even the caramel puddle surrounding the cake-like flan on John’s plate disappeared.
The story of mole is much like the tale of Stone Soup. A prominent representative of the clergy was paying a surprise visit to a small, poor Mexican village. In order to feed him, each woman added an ingredient to the pot: a taco, a chili, tomato, garlic, onion. The last woman had only a square of chocolate in the cupboard and humbly contributed it. The sauce was a hit!