Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego, California

Dining Outside the Home: Old Town Mexican Cafe in San Diego, California. Tortilla Ladies make it look so easy. It’s probably because they’ve been stretching and rolling dough into perfect tortillas since their youth. Look through the windows. See how easily they handle the rolling pins? After all, handmade tortillas are the staple for practically every single Mexican dish. Not to mention, delicious. At Old Town Mexican Cafe, the food is authentic and has been for decades. If it’s not broken, why fix it? Take the House Famous Carnitas, for example. Crispy fried chunks of seasoned pork are served with chopped onion, leafy cilantro, smooth avocado, garden tomatoes, fresh lime, and refried beans. Wrap them up in warm tortillas right off the grill. Is it any wonder I never tried another dish? Yeah, they’re that good.

Miguel’s Cocina in Old Town San Diego, California

Dining Outside the Home: Miguel’s Cocina in Old Town San Diego, California. When the menu captures the true spirit of Mexico, north of the border, it boasts of Miguel’s Signature Fajitas. What makes it so special, you wonder. Pay attention: Skirt steak and chicken topped with bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese and sliced poblano. ¡Ay, caramba! Now, you’re talking. Better order a hand-shaken margarita to wash things down. Look around. Handmade tortillas, crispy chips dredged between bowls of jalapeño white sauce and chunky tomato-fresh salsa. Is it any wonder if feels like a party?

Los Locos Bar & Grill in San Diego, California

Dining Outside the Home: Los Locos Bar & Grill in San Diego, California. Tucked in the main thoroughfare of Old Town, sits an authentic unassuming Mexican cantina that serves jalapeño margaritas with a twist of outdoor music. It should. After all, this is the perfect corner spot for people-watching. For an afternoon snack, order the special of the day: Spicy Corn Nachos. Under the California sunshine, the cheese transforms into an ultra-melty obsession. Scoop up some black beans and pico de gallo. It’s okay to lick your fingers. Dishes like this are meant to be shared.

Monico’s Taqueria in Kapaa, Kauai

Dining Outside the Home: Monico’s Taqueria in Kapaa, Kauai. Change is good, especially when location is involved. Monico’s Taqueria moved up the road where they can serve more customers. Sitting on the outdoor patio at the edge of a coconut grove affords a stunning view of the mountains at sunset. Nice. Kick back, sip on a salt-rimmed margarita, munch on tortilla chips dredged in smoky salsa or homegrown habanero sauce. It doesn’t get any better than this. When the plate of fork-tender crispy pork carnitas arrive, you won’t want to share. Stuff the corn tortillas with beans, rice, pork, and guac. Fold over and bite. As the juices run down your fingers, don’t despair. Lick them. After all, it’s family. There’s no judgment here. The atmosphere is as down to earth as the food itself.

The Three Amigos in Downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Dining Outside the Home: The Three Amigos in Downtown Edmonton, Alberta, Canada! Authentic Mexican food is as festive as Mexican blankets, wide-rimmed sombreros, and multicolored piñatas. The “Daily Special” boasted Fajitas Al Pastor—crispy chunks of marinated pork cooked with onions and green pepper strips served on a sizzling skillet. Homemade corn tortillas accompanied sour cream, guacamole, and salsa. We ordered a side of refried beans to use as a binding agent once the shells were filled. The finishing touch of habanero sauce sealed the deal with a nice kick of spice. An agave nectar margarita cocktail culminated the entire meal. Bueno!

Dos Reales Mexican Restaurant in Champaign, Illinois

Dining Outside the Home: Dos Reales Mexican Restaurant in Champaign, Illinois! When it gets steamy hot in the Midwest , rest assured you can cool things off at a casual spot for classic Mexican cooking and salt-rimmed margaritas that go down smooth and easy. Order a Taco Salad. It’s served in a fried flour tortilla shell, then cradled with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chunky guacamole, and spicy salsa. Saira can add seasoned ground beef or shredded chicken to suit your taste. Either way, you get a healthy dose of veggies that’ll keep you coming back for more…whenever you pass through town.

Easy Empanadas

What’s Cooking in Gail’s Kitchen? The Food Whisperer: Easy Empanadas! Imagine this: a light, flaky, buttery pastry pocket filled with tender savory meat. Now add a kick of spice and a finish of pimento-stuffed olives. Mmmm. Sure you can add cheese or go completely vegetarian. That’s the beauty of cooking at home. Make it to suit your personal taste. Either way, in three bites, you’re ready for seconds. Don’t forget the dipping sauce.

EASY EMPANADAS

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound ground beef, lean

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup pimento-stuffed olives, chopped

1 egg, whisked

1 package (2 sheets) puff pastry sheets

Instructions:

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside. Warm olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped onions. Sprinkle with garlic powder. Cook until soft, 5-7 minutes. Add oregano, sweet paprika, cumin powder, and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Add ground beef. Stir and cook until meat is crumbly. Season with kosher salt and black pepper. Remove from heat. Fold in pimento-stuffed olives. Cool meat mixture completely, about two hours in the refrigerator. Cut pastry sheets into 4” rounds. Place 2 tablespoons of filling into the center of each round. Brush water around the outer edge of each round. Fold round in half. Press to seal. Using fork tines, press down on edges. Carefully transfer empanadas to the parchment-lined baking sheet, spacing 1” apart. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to prevent leakage while baking. Brush empanadas with whisked egg. Preheat oven to 375°. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with your favorite dipping sauce or salsa.

Barbacoa Banana Peppers

What’s Cooking in Gail’s Kitchen? The Food Whisperer: Barbacoa Banana Peppers! More and more supermarkets are offering a wide variety of prepared meats to help make mealtime as effortless as possible. You can take advantage of these precooked packaged options or make use of last night’s leftover roast in the refrigerator, turning it into Barbacoa beef. I have great respect for everyone who juggles their time between work and home. This recipe combines fresh produce with convenient seasoned alternatives. Meet me halfway for this labor of love.

BARBACOA BANANA PEPPERS

Ingredients:

6 mild banana peppers, sliced lengthwise; ribs and seeds removed

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt

6 sticks mozzarella string cheese

1 cup Barbacoa beef, shredded

1/3 cup fresh sweet corn

1/2 cup pico de gallo

2 green onions, sliced into curls

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400°. Arrange in a single layer, without touching, on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with seasoned salt. Roast for 10 minutes until banana peppers begin to soften slightly. Remove from oven to cool. Tuck one mozzarella cheese stick into each pepper.(It may be necessary to pull the cheese apart into strings to fill the pepper from end to end.) Divide shredded Barbacoa beef between peppers. Top with sweet corn. Set oven to Broil. Return stuffed banana peppers to the oven. Broil for 1-2 minutes until cheese is bubbly and golden in spots. Watch carefully. Remove from oven. Top with pico de gallo. Garnish with green onion strips.

Enchilada Cheesy Hash Browns

What’s Cooking in Gail’s Kitchen? The Joy of Eating: Enchilada Cheesy Hash Browns! This time-honored recipe came to me from a friend who had perfected the art of authentic Mexican food. Monica shared some of her trade secrets on more than one occasion, but warned me about one unwary pitfall. “Once you perfect these traditional recipes, your husband may be less willing to take you out to dinner as often.” So be forewarned. Choose this perfect alternative for those nights you need a “meatless” meal.

ENCHILADA CHEESY HASH BROWNS

Ingredients:

4 baked potatoes, peeled and shredded into hash browns*

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper

3/4 cup Spanish onion, chopped

10 ounces baby peas

1 1/2 cups Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

1 1/2 cups extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

10-count package corn tortillas

15 ounces tomatillo salsa

Green onions for garnish

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a 9″x13″ glass baking dish with nonstick oil. Pour tomatillo salsa into a pie plate. Set aside. Place the corn tortillas on a plate nearby. In a large skillet, sauté onions in olive oil. Add hash brown potatoes, garlic powder, sea salt, and black pepper. Cook until slightly crisp. Add peas and mix well. To assemble enchiladas, dip one tortilla into tomatillo salsa on both sides. Transfer to a dinner plate and fill with potato mixture. Add 1 tablespoon of each cheese. Gently roll enchilada and place seam side down in glass dish. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Drizzle remaining salsa over all. Spread cheese over top of enchiladas. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and brown cheese 5 minutes longer. Remove from oven. Garnish with green onion snips. Olé!

*If time is of the essence, you may substitute with frozen shredded hash browns.