September 18, 2013

Taste Bud: A big ol’ plate of meat

The headline pretty much says it all. But I have a whole column to fill, so I’m going to give you the details of this soon-to-be-legendary big ol’ plate of meat.

Many people, when I mention Ramiro’s Cantina in Clifton, make the assumption that it’s one of those hard-to-distinguish Mexican restaurants that all have similar menus and lots of specials you mostly order by number rather than name. You know those restaurants — they’re not bad, but the 20 or so specials usually are just 20 ways of rearranging the same items into different combinations.

“You don’t want a No. 5? The enchilada with one taco and rice or beans? Then I would suggest the No. 8, which is an enchilada with a chile relleno and rice or beans. Or you could substitute a taquito for the enchilada … except that would be a No. 15.”

I suppose that would be a fair assumption since Ramiro’s is owned by Ramiro Gandara, who is a former partner in the Sol Aztecas family of restaurants, but it would be an incorrect assumption. Having eaten at Ramiro’s a number of times, I can say with confidence that Ramiro’s distinguishes itself in many ways. The avocado salad is outstanding, and I do enjoy the chicken tacos dinner.

So, imagine my glee when I was told recently by a fellow named Jason, from whom I was purchasing a car (yeah, I pretty much talk to everybody about food), that Ramiro’s had added a smoker along with a new dish called “brisket bites.”

First of all, a smoker at a Mexican cantina blows my mind. What a great idea. But brisket bites? I had to check it out, especially after Jason texted me a photo of the dish a couple of evenings later as he dined at Ramiro’s (yeah, I pretty much make friends with everybody, too).

So when my girlfriend Cynthia and I got our lunches on a recent Saturday at Ramiro’s, and I looked down at my brisket bites, with my added side of black beans, I felt at peace with the world.

“That’s the Atkins special, isn’t it?” Cynthia said. “Black beans and a big ol’ plate of meat.”

She was right, of course. A smart aleck, to be sure, but not an incorrect one. And the brisket tasted as good as it looked. Basically, it was just a big hunk of well-smoked brisket that had been cut up for me as if I were a messy 3-year-old whose mom didn’t want him eating with his fingers.

The brisket was tender, just moist enough, and the bites that had bark on them provided that perfect taste of smoke meets char. Yum.

You also get to choose one of two dipping sauces with an order of brisket bites: a spicy mustard barbecue sauce or a sweet barbecue sauce. I asked for both, because I’m annoying that way. I’m glad I did, because both sauces are complex and unique.

The mustard sauce is actually not as spicy as I expected, but the chunky texture and intense flavor made for a great complement to the brisket. In fact, this mustard barbecue would also be quite tasty with a big pretzel.

The “sweet” sauce is actually very tangy; it appeared to be tomato-based with plenty of pepper, and it was Cynthia who pointed out that it bears a resemblance to the red-pepper infused peanut sauce many Asian restaurants serve with lettuce wraps. It was my favorite of the two.

Another aspect of this big ol’ plate of meat was that, for only $7.99, there was a lot more of it than I ever expected. I took home what I couldn’t finish and had it for dinner the next day, and there was plenty left.

I think what surprised me most is that hearing the name “brisket bites” unfortunately put me in the mind of food that had been processed and shaped into something bite-sized, like a McNugget or a fried ball of cheese. But this really was just a big slab of delicious brisket chopped into squares by someone in the kitchen.

Honestly, the only thing that could make this appetizer dish better for a carnivore is if it came with a side of bacon. Probably best it didn’t. My head might have exploded.