This post is about food, drink, and memory.
The original Cyclone Anaya's
I have good memories about the orignal Cyclone Anaya's on Durham. Yet I remember very little about its food.
As a college student in the late 1980s, Cyclone's had certain benefits. It served delicious margaritas. My friends and I were never carded. And as college students on a budget, we appreciated the giant margaritas. They had a generous alcohol-per-dollar ratio.
Yet that was also a problem. After two Cyclone's margaritas, I never remembered the food, nor for that matter, the rest of the night. At best, I had vague, impressionistic memories of grilled meats and chile rellenos. I recalled struggling to calculate the tip -- and not much after that.
Was the original Cyclone Anaya's the best Mexican restaurant of its day? I can't tell you. I don't remember.
New Cyclone's, same old margarita
After closing for some years, Cyclone Anaya's has reopened in multiple locations. Recently, I found myself at the location on Woodway.
Apart from Cyclone's giant photo, everything feels different. The crowd is not the inner-city cool, but Memorial-area families. The restaurant feels like a chain.
Yet memories flooded back when I tasted a margarita. My brain instantly recognized that recipe -- sending conflicting signals of pleasure and danger. The margarita is full of flavor, and full of alcohol. It is the first margarita that I ever grew to love, and one I will never forget. (I felt like Proust biting into the madeleine and experiencing the rush of memory.)
Before food arrived, I already had finished my large margarita. I faced a hard choice. "Would you like another?" the waitress asked.
My brain raced. On one hand, this may be my favorite margarita anywhere. On the other hand, if I had a second, I might not remember the food. I might not ever know what Cyclone Anaya's tastes like.
No, I decided. Now I am an adult. Tonight, just one margarita.
Finally, I eat and remember Cyclone's food
Enchiladas Anaya's grabbed my attention. The menu describes them as "gourmet enchiladas." They include chicken or beef with chile ancho sauce, cheese, and mushrooms.
I liked the strong, earthy flavor of the ancho chiles. And I thought mushrooms worked surprisingly well in an enchilada. But something struck me as wrong.
After a few bites, it hit me. The sauce had a lot of sugar. Then I began to notice sugar in other parts of the meal. The beans tasted sweet. Even the salsa tasted sweet. Was the kitchen trying to pander to the American palate, like so much industrially processed food?
Sugar has its place. But not in enchilada sauce. I remember a California-based fast-food Mexican chain from the 1980s (Del Taco?) that served a sweet sauce. I never liked it. In Tex Mex, even in "gourmet" Tex Mex, sugar just seems wrong.
My wife ordered ceviche.
I asked her what she thought. She shrugged. I tasted it. I shrugged.
The fish was fresh, and the lime was strong. But nothing about this simple dish grabbed us. Perhaps we are jaded after eating such fabulous ceviche recently from chefs like Randy Rucker and Bryan Caswell.
Since the kitchen liked sugar, we thought they might make a great dessert. Tres leches had a texture more like "una leche" -- a lot of creamy icing, but a comparatively dry interior. Yet we did like the cinamon flavor of the cake.
No dish was bad. Yet no dish was memorable. Nor did they trigger any memories about how Cyclone Anaya's food may have once tasted.
Did I have these dishes 20 years ago? What did I think about them then?
I haven't a clue. All I remember is the margaritas.
And perhaps the margaritas are the best thing to remember about Cyclone Anaya's.