Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mexican Food and a Saturday Night

Red Hot Chili Peppers live at Pinkpop Festival...So, there we were, the three of us, driving through downtown Champaign on a rainy Saturday night, looking for Mexican food. I was at the wheel, my room and classmate from school in the back, and a smart, sweet, down-to-earth young woman from Northeast Ohio was riding shotgun and deftly handling navigation. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were red hot on the radio but the outside temps rendered navy sweatshirts the evening's dress blues.

Now, I admit I wasn't sure what to expect. Mexican food can be good, great, or merely an approximation of edible, depending on what part of the country you're in. Back east, I'm afraid to say, it's called Mexican but that's about as close as it gets to the real thing. Illinois is closer to the Source, but one never knows. Anyhow, new in town and weary of our own cooking, any risk seemed tolerable as we pulled into the parking lot of what was probably once the home of fast burgers and fries. We were ushered without delay to a booth where our waiter, a gentleman of Hispanic descent, quickly placed a basket of fresh, hot chips and two bowls of homemade salsa on the table. One bite told me we'd made no mistake.

Crowded with students and parent-types, Dos Reales is clearly a local favorite and for good reason. I don't recall hearing Mariachi music in the background, but the walls are painted in desert tan overlaid with murals reminiscent of life in the Southwest, making me feel right at home. I ordered my usual chicken enchiladas while my partners, a poblano pepper dish and vegetarian something or other. I didn't quite catch the latter's name because the gal with us ordered in Spanish, a little tidbit I realized would be helpful when I asked the waiter for more time to reflect on the menus and he looked at me with a face like a question mark.

In between quizzing each other on board review questions -- this was meant to be a "working" dinner -- we made fast work of the salsa and then forgot all about the Comlex and USMLE when our meals arrived. The last time I recall having freshly made refried beans was in Southeast Colorado when I served as a substitute pastor for a small Hispanic church in La Junta. But that's what I discovered on my plate last night. I wouldn't be surprised if the tortillas were made on the premises. It was simply sumptuous. At one point, my female friend commented she wished she'd ordered more -- until she finished her meal, that is, and then said, "I couldn't eat another bite." We knew exactly what she meant.

Ordinarily, I'm all for a bedtime snack, despite the fact that my instructor has admonished us that any food consumed after 8.00 PM gets metabolized straight to cholesterol -- an fyi to anyone who wants to lose weight and, like me, can't always resist a late evening close encounter with the refrigerator. Last night, the thought never even occurred to me. If I was rich and self-indulgent (which I'm not -- rich, I mean) it would be tempting to fly out here just to have dinner now and then.

If you're ever on a trip and you can reroute near Champaign, I'd encourage you to do so. Dos Reales is located on North Prospect Ave. and my guess is, all you have to do is follow the crowd and bring an appetite. The staff is attentive, unobtrusive, and the food, like my program, is one of the mid-West's best kept secrets.

(Creative Commons image of The Red Hot Chili Peppers via Wikipedia)

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