For a week every September, Fort Worth, Texas, is home to the Chile Pepper editorial staff as we prepare for our spicy food extravaganza, ZestFest. When we're on the road, we naturally turn on our heat-seeking senses. Fort Worth is a fantastic place to eat zesty—here are some of our favorite bites from our week of feasting.
While we were in town for ZestFest, the Central Market grocery store in Fort Worth celebrated the Hatch chile festival by introducing an absurdly wide range of Hatchy delights. We wandered the aisles, drooling over Hatch brownies (no, not hash, Hatch), Hatch cheddar, Hatch sausages on Hatch hot dog buns, Hatch salsa, Hatch biscuits, Hatch tortillas, Hatch gelato, Hatchuccino (Hatch plus cappuccino) ... we could go on. We loved the Hatch chile-cheddar sliced bread, which makes excellent, rich, slightly spicy toast. We also enjoyed the sturdy, crisp Hatch tortilla chips—they're mild, but full of wonderful earthy, deep-green pepper flavor.
Another Central market zesty favorite: the jalapeño bagel. We're purists when it comes to bagels and usually don't approve of oat bran-lingonberry pseudo-bagels, but a little hot pepper confetti in the batter just makes a bagel better—and certainly more eye-opening.
Central Market: 4651 West Freeway, Fort Worth TX; 817-989-4700; www.centralmarket.com
The Original Mexican Eats Café
These folks claim to serve the best cheese enchiladas in the world, and we think they come pretty darned close. We suspect the recipe hasn't changed since TOMEC opened in the 1920s—the combination of tortillas, melted cheese and chili sauce makes a quintessential old-school enchilada. The refritos are the real deal too—smooth, creamy, nutty and lardy, these beans complete the picture of a classic Tex-Mex meal.
The Original Mexican Eats Café: 4713 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth TX 76107; 817-738-6226
Speaking of sides, the heavenly fresh guacamole at Mi Cocina is not to be missed, especially atop killer Tacos de Brisket. A sumptuous chunk of seasoned, braised brisket is wrapped in delicate corn tortillas and supported by melted queso blanco. It's the perfect marriage of two of the all-time comfort foods: tacos and pot roast. We'll be making these at home for sure.
Mi Cocina: 4601 West Freeway, Fort Worth TX; 817-569-1444; www.mcrowd.com
Railhead Smokehouse BBQ
There's certainly better Texas barbecue out there, but it's a long, long way to Lockhart. The jalapeño and cheddar smoked sausage at the Railhead eased the pain and kept us from attempting the four-hour drive. This boldly smoky beef and pork blend is a sausage inspiration generously studded with bits of zesty chile and creamy cheese; it's perfect all by itself–no condiments required. The good news for us non-Texans is that it's available by mail order.
Railhead Smokehouse BBQ: 2900 Montgomery Street, Fort Worth TX 76107; 817-738-9808; www.railheadonline.com
What began in 1946 as a grocery store serving hamburgers on the side has risen to fame as a full-fledged burger joint. The room features canned goods stacked in old wooden shelves, and the ceiling is dotted with inflatable balloons advertising food products. One of our colleagues remembers when Kincaid's was strictly a stand-up affair, though tables are now available.
Frankly, we were a little disappointed in our cheeseburger. Whether it was the burger meat or the cooking method, the meat was on the dry side and drastically under-seasoned. The onion rings were perfect, though—thin slices of sweet onion surrounded by thick, crisp crust.
The hot highlight of our visit: the stuffed jalapeños. As zesty thrill-seekers, we knew we had to order them, yet they just didn't look appetizing as they reposed in their Saran-wrapped Styrofoam coffins. We became believers with one bite. Good old pimento cheese slapped in the center of a raw jalapeño—who knew?
Kincaid's Hamburgers: 4901 Camp Bowie Boulevard, Fort Worth TX; 817-732-2881; www.kincaidshamburgers.com
Prompted by Ed Levine's rave review of Babe's Chicken House in Roanoke, Texas, we had to check out Babe's for ourselves. We visited the branch in Burleson, just outside Fort Worth.
Was it zesty? Well, no. But sometimes some serious starch and grease is a necessary part of a balanced diet on the road, and helps counteract the fire of previous meals. Babe's in Burleson has a truly wacky atmosphere with a gingerbread house decor and comfy chairs on wheels, presumably provided so that you can push your way back from the table or hobnob with your neighbors without bothering to stand up. When I asked directions to the ladies' room, I was told, "Just pass through the turret."
It's a fryfest at Babe's—entrée choices are fried catfish, chicken-fried steak and fried chicken, with a pot roast option for the fry-phobic. All the locals at the packed restaurant had heaps of perfectly stacked fried chicken on their tables, so we yielded to peer pressure. The bird delivered with a perfectly golden crisp, salty crust and succulent, well-seasoned and juicy meat. In a true test of great fried chicken, it was just as good cold the next day.
A cheerful waitress refilled bowls of family-style sides. When we ordered diet Coke, the waitress offered instead the local favorite, Diet Dr Pepper from down the road in Waco. "What makes these green beans so good?" one of our party asked. "They're cooked in bacon fat!" she chirped.
Silky mashed potatoes were served with a peppered white gravy that clung to a suspended spoon for more than a minute (we gave up and licked the spoon clean at that point) Heavenly creamed corn beat any we've tried. And we turned down dessert (chocolate meringue pie, peach cobbler, banana pudding...regrets, regrets) in favor of extra flaky biscuits doused in Texas honey and local sorghum. We groaned all the way back to Fort Worth.
Babe's: 120 South Main Street
Burleson TX; 817-447-3400; www.babeschicken.com
Old Town Smokehouse
Across the street from Babe's in Burleson is the "no non-smoking section available" Old Town Smokehouse. It's not the best idea to try a new BBQ joint when you're stuffed with fried chicken, but we found the hospitality and the hot links to be warm, snappy and inviting. The sliced brisket is moist and smoky. And the restaurant is reported to be haunted–we suppose a little John Cusack "1408" action is good for the digestion.
Old Town Smokehouse: 114 South Main Street, Burleson TX; 817-447-6366; http://localbizalliance.com/oldtown/oldtown.html
Check out ChilePepper.com for more spicy travel tips and recipes!
With writing and reporting by Andrea Lynn and Laura Dankowski