DALLAS — We really should have been back at the Fourth National Conference on Gastronomy, eating a luncheon of a lot of hard to pronounce French dishes (cassolette de coquille St. Jacques et d'oursins, fricassee de volaille aux epices, millefeuille aux pommes...) and drinking enormous quantities of wine. That's what 350 other wine and food professionals were doing at the American Institute of Wine & Food affair.
Instead there we were, hunkered down in the window of a vast tortilla factory eating incredibly hot food with our fingers and drinking Corona from the bottle.
Blame it on Calvin Trillin. Invited to be a speaker at the Conference, the inventor of the chili-line, the man who claims the 10 best restaurants in the world are in Kansas City and our nation's most ardent defender of real food, had been remarkably patient.
Just last night he sat through a la-di-da dinner with nary a frown. While the rest of us exclaimed about the genius of Stephan Pyles, whose Routh Street Cafe has been setting the pace for new Southwest cuisine, Trillin allowed himself a couple of remarks about his favorite neighborhood restaurant.
While we ate fabulous shellfish chowder with jicama, lime and cascabel chile aioli (a sort of Texas bouillabaisse), Trillin spoke wistfully of the 100 kinds of soup on the menu at a funky restaurant in New York. As we appreciated smoked pheasant salad with fried cayenne pasta (it works, it works), Trillin was talking about Chinese food.
When the poblano stuffed with wild boar sausage (a sort of nouvelle chile relleno) appeared in little pinwheel slices, Trillin polished off the tidbits in a trice. He ate quietly while people all around enthused about tamarind lamb chops with smoked corn sauce, and when the pumpkin pecan cake with caramel sauce and cherimoya ice cream finally signaled the end of dinner, Trillin looked, above all, relieved.
The next day he appeared clutching an article from Texas Monthly; it was clear that he had had his fill of fancy food. "They talk about this tortilla place. . . ," he said rolling words like "barbacoa" and "carnitas" off his tongue with glee. "They told me were going to be seated next to some very interesting people at lunch. . . ," demurred his wife Alice with a guilty air. "They'll be so disappointed." Trillin looked pained.
Taking masterchef Alice Waters with us, we sneaked out of the conference. Trillin drove happily past barren Western storefronts--auto repair places, machine shops, the occasional liquor store.
"Isn't this a wonderful landscape?" he enthused. Thin dogs skittered across the road and the planes from nearby Love field roared overhead. Trillin was charmed. When we pulled up in front of the Imperial Tortilla Factory, both Alices looked doubtfully at the lopsided bars across dusty windows, but Trillin strode inside with the step of a starved man who has found food.
There was one table and three chairs; clearly most people get their food to go. But although he seemed surprised to see our little quartet, the man in the red cap behind the counter cheerfully agreed to supply us with plastic forks; he even dug up a couple of paper containers to be used as plates. Waters went off to buy beer.
Trillin said we'd have some tamales. The man nodded. Then Trillin said we would have some barbacoa. He weighed it out. Trillin said we would have some carnitas too, and a couple of packages of tortillas. But it was not until he got to the other pots of food that the man behind the counter realized that he was up against some serious eaters.
"You want beans?" he asked. We said yes. "You want rice?" We nodded. We said we wanted pico de gallo and guacamole and pork in red chile sauce. We said we wanted everything.
"Even this?" asked the man in red, pointing to a pot filled with pig skins in a green sauce he claimed was so hot it melted metal spoons. Even that we said. "You'll need napkins," said the man.
And that is how I happened to find myself perched on a window ledge, maniacally making a tortilla mess while my companions wiped the grease off their fingers and exclaimed over the food.
"I love this rice," said Alice Waters, spooning some of the spicy stuff onto a tortilla, topping it with beans and guacamole and pico de gallo, rolling the whole thing up and taking a bite. "The pork in red chile is wonderful," said Trillin, starting on his third tortilla. "Has anybody seen a chicken tamale?" asked Alice Trillin.
The man in the red cap had rarely seen strangers greet his food with such enthusiasm. "You should have come on a weekday," he said, wandering over to survey the mayhem. "On weekdays we do lot more food. My mother does the cooking; it's just like home." He began to describe chorizo rolled in potatoes, and Trillin's eyes glazed over.
Clearly this is a man who means it when he says, "Alice let's eat." For just as we are all starting on the last tortilla, the one we know will be one too many, Trillin looks up from the salsa and says, "Save some room. We still have to stop at Sonny Bryan's for ribs."
Imperial Tortilla Factory, 8116 Denton Drive, Dallas. (216) 352-4881.