Our friends Amanda and Jared, new parents to beautiful baby twin girls, were gracious enough to find time to get together with us Sunday night for dinner (thanks, in part, to their live-in day care provider, Amanda's mom Brenda!). The girls are only a few months old, still waking up each night wanting to be fed, so Amanda and Jared's time is now, more than ever before, a precious thing. We were honored and thrilled to enjoy their company and see Aida and Ella.
All of us being a little worn out and not wanting to make a huge to-do over the actual dinner choice, we went with a guaranteed crowd pleaser - Mexican. Chelly's Cafe, located at 218 W. 85th, in Waldo. Located in a non-descript strip mall bumping up against a residential neighborhood just East of Wornall, the decor was typical... brightly painted walls and token Meixcan posters and art pieces. Nothing special but who cares? I don't rate places like this on decor. Ambience, in general, is nearly removed from the equation because you pretty much know what you're signing up for whenever you step into a strip mall ethnic restaurant. You're there for the food on your plate, not the aesthetics of the restaurant.
Pulling into the parking lot, we had a good laugh about the name. Chelly's? What could that possibly mean? Sounded like a culinary experiment. I was picturing a stew of shredded beef and beans with jalapeno jelly mixed in. Chelly. But of course not - it's just the name of the owner, Chelly Campos. She and her husband, Ruben, previously owned a Chelly's in Grandview but moved it up to Waldo a few years back.
I mention in a previous post a forthcoming soliloquy on bar-b-que. Similarly, I am developing a thesis of sorts on Mexican food or, more specifically, the Mexican restaurant scene in the greater KC area. It's not fully baked, but it revolves around my belief that Mexican cuisine is the most abused, under appreciated food out there... its identify beaten down to a nearly unrecognizable buffoonery, shaped by we American philistines who have allowed Taco Bell and the ubiquitous Cactus (enter anyone's first name here followed by 's) "American Mexican" menus to shape our definitions of Mexican food.
Don't get me wrong. I love a manhole-sized flour tortilla stuffed with shredded chicken and refried beans, topped with a mound of bagged shredded cheese with sides of red rice, superfluous shredded iceber lettuce and flavorless diced tomatoes as much as anyone. I really do. But that Americanized Mexican food only holds a place in my heart cohabitated by things like Vienna Sausages... I grew up eating them so I still have fondness for them. (For my wife, gefilte fish falls in this category.)
What I'm interested in now is authentic Mexican food (read: pozole, etc.). You can count the number of Mexican restaurants in town who make and serve their own mole' (one of the true treasures of Mexican cuisine) on one hand. It's a shame. But, for now, I digress. I still only know a little bit about authentic Mexican food myself.
The segue I'm getting to is that I was thrilled to find that Chelly's featured a section on its menu of authentic Mexican dishes. Why, oh why, can't all Mexican restaurants do this? It would go so far in teaching Kansas Citians the difference betwteen true, authentic Mexican dishes and their usual Prairie Village Burrito.
Needless to say, my order came from this section of the menu. After devouring a basket of chips and salsa (thin but very fresh - enjoyable) I had a generous serving of chiles rellenos, two beautiful, deep green, roasted poblanos filled with ground beef and cheese. Sadly, no pork, but tasty nonetheless. The gooey cheese stretched a foot long each time I forked another bite and brought it to my mouth. Another quality I appreciated - Chelly's chiles were barely battered, and I'd have to admit I felt far less guilty eating them that way. In fact, I'm convinced I'd enjoy eating a completely non-fried variation of this dish. I'll give it a test run and then post something about it when I have a healthy/ier Chile Relleno recipe nailed down.
[One small critique on plating: the choice to leave the stems on the peppers might need to be re-thought. My immediate reaction to the plate was that it looked like two fat mice were held by their tails and dippd in the fryer, then laid facing each other on my plate and topped. I'm not a squeamish person so I had no problem yanking off the stems and diving in, but I'd still recommend Chelly's lose the "tails", or at least reconsider laying them head to head this way.]
You'll notice in the photo of my plate that the side of beans was actually whole pinto beans rather than refried or black beans. I liked that. Nothing against the other beans, but I just don't get pinto beans at Mexican joints often and thought they were nice for a change. More healthy than refrieds, I'd imagine, even if they were cooked with some pork for flavor.
Amanda and Jared wisely ordered guacamole for the table, as well (credit Amanda for the artfully placed tortilla triangle in the photo at right).
Now, I'm a guacamole fiend. I absolutely love it and have strong opinions about its preparation and ingredients. The good thing is that most Mexican restaurants don't screw it up too bad. Chelly's certainly did it justice. Good seasoning and huge bonus points for including what I consider to be the most critical ingredient after tha avocadoes... fresh diced jalapeno!
But what was so great about the guacamole was simply the quality of the avocadoes themselves. Lately, the grocery stores have had the worst avocadoes. Mushy on the outside, eternally hard on the inside, and completely devoid of flavor. My guacamole as of late has seemed as waxy and artificial as the fake flan you see on a restaurant dessert tray. Chelly's guac assuaged my fear that I'd not have another good batch before next summer. What a godsend.
Not being in the mood for libation, I discreetly downed enough Diet Coke to drown a whale, but the others all enjoyed frozen margaritas (traditional) which they agreed were exceptionally strong. (Sly grins crept across their faces as they nodded in agreement and giggled at each other, so I got the impression they were right about that.) I'll need to return to sample one my way - traditional, on the rocks with salt. The quality of margarita says almost everything you need to know about a Mexican restaurant.
I was happy with the food at Chelly's, and the comfortable night out with good friends was a complete success. I'll bet we return again soon, knowing the dinnerwill satisfy and the atmosphere, if nothing else, will stay out of our way enough to allow us to focus on each other, the great conversation and good time we're all sharing.