About Steve

Hello, I am Steve of Steve's Gastronomic Home Page, which was started as a hobby to let others know about some of my favorite restaurants. This blog is an update and expansion of the original web site, and a chance for readers to leave their comments and suggestions. The most up-to-date restaurant reviews are at OKGourmet.com. For now I am including links to the reviews rather than try to move everything to Steve's Food Blog all at once. I am not a professional food person and I do not have a connection to any restaurant. As a geography major in college (Texas Christian University and the University of Texas at Austin) I am interested in different countries and cultures. This has now expanded to food in not only focusing on ethnic, national, and regional foods, but also in trying to determine what constitutes authentic ethnic food. My academic training and profession also inspired me to try to make a "master list" of restaurants, which I have included in the Blog as "Steve's List". I have included a box for comments on the list so that others can help me compile the list and keep it updated. At the very least, though, I hope it will serve as a list of interesting restaurants to try when traveling to different geographic areas.

Li’s Cafe–El Paso, TX

Li’s Cafe
632 Sunland Park Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 875-0509
Li's Cafe

Li’s Cafe


Li’s Cafe opened in 2010 as the “fast food” version of Moon Day, the now closed restaurant which served authentic northern style Chinese food. Lili, the owner of these restaurants, eventually closed Moon Day and sold Li’s Cafe (and for a while opened Coli Wok & Grille at Mesa and Remcon).

I mention this because Lili worked with the current owners of Li’s Cafe (who are not Chinese) to give them many of her cooking techniques and recipes. The food at Li’s Cafe is not the same as it was at Moon Day, but I think the owners are using enough of Lili’s recipes that the food here seems to be much better than I expected from a non-Chinese owned restaurant. This may be a backhanded compliment, but I truly enjoy the food at Li’s Cafe (at the same time I know its limitations when it comes to getting food that is authentic).

The menu here is targeted at people who like the Americanized version of Chinese food (sweet and sour, broccoli beef, etc.). For at least some of the dishes, though, I think the flavor is closer to the food at Moon Day than to the typical Americanized Chinese restaurants throughout the city. I am not going to compare every dish here to the ones at Moon Day, but for the ones that are especially good I am sure that Lili was a big influence in this.

I found out that Li’s Cafe can prepare dishes that are not listed on the menu (I asked for Szechwan pork and they were willing to prepare it even though it is not on the menu). They do have Szechwan beef on the menu but obviously there is some flexibility with what you can order.

Soup

Hot and sour soup

Hot and sour soup

The Hot and Sour Soup is the most obvious example I know of something that tastes like it did at Moon Day. Whether I am remembering this correctly or not, I can definitely say this soup has a very good flavor. I am impressed with the number of mushrooms it has and other “substance” (it is not just a big bowl containing mostly broth).

Egg drop soup

Egg drop soup

The Egg Drop Soup also has a very good flavor, and this is usually my preference if the meal I order is spicy so that this will provide an offset to it.

Won ton soup

The Won Ton Soup also has a very good flavor, but it seemed that the only “substance” to it was floating at the top (so this soup is mostly broth). I think it had one won ton but this is normal for this type of soup.

Dinner Menu
The dinner menu expands quite a bit from the items that are served at lunch, they come in larger portions, and the price is higher. Dinner includes items such as kung pao scallops (this is is not available as a lunch special but you can get kung pao shrimp). I think just about everything that is of interest to me is on the lunch menu, but dinner does have some interesting things I might like to try sometime.

Hunan pork

Hunan pork

The owners told me that the sauce on the Hunan Pork was “not sweet,” while the Szechwan sauce is sweet. It did turn out to be a good sauce. My main problem was with the vegetables, since I do not consider broccoli to be a Chinese vegetable or to contribute to the flavor of a Chinese dish in the way it should. (I had a take home order of Hunan chicken and had the same experience with it). There are some Chinese vegetables here such as mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrots, and baby corn, but these were in relatively small quantities.

The pork was good in this dish, and the chicken was good on my take home dish (these meats are not breaded). Hunan pork is only available on the dinner menu, but Hunan chicken and beef are available for lunch at a very good price.

The dinner portions are an awkward size for me in that they are usually more than satisfies my appetite but there is not enough to split and make two meals out of ii.

As far as I know, dinner comes with the same choice of soups you get at lunch (hot and sour, egg drop, or won ton). It has been some time since I went at dinner time and I am not sure about the soup, but my memory is that I got soup with the meal.

Special Dishes

Szechwan pork

Szechwan pork

The Szechwan Pork was something I got as a special order, but they only serve it in a dinner portion (the only lunch item with Szechwan sauce is the beef). The meat on this dish was tough (more so than on the Hunan pork I ordered). The Chinese vegetables on this dish, though, were far better than the broccoli and other American vegetables that came with the Hunan style dishes (although the Hunan dishes do have a few Chinese style vegetables).

The sauce on this dish was supposed to be sweeter than the Hunan sauce, but I did not think it was sweet to the point that it had an Americanized taste. Instead, I really liked it, and overall the Szechwan dishes are my preference over Hunan style when the vegetables are factored in. The meat was tough, but I think this was a fluke rather than that they purposely serve a different meat on this dish.

I do not know what other “special” dishes they can prepare. I have tried to ask for some of the some of the dishes that were served at Moon Day, and Li’s either does not have them or they have been morphed into Li’s version of them (which are good but they are not the same as Moon Day’s food).

Lunch Specials

Fragrant chicken

Fragrant chicken on the lunch special

Some reviewers on other web sites complain about the breaded chicken here where you get very little flavor of the chicken. With the Fragrant Chicken, though, the meat is not breaded (although there is a thick sauce on it similar to sweet and sour). The sauce is thick but it does not have the same sweetness as sweet and sour, and I thought it had a very good balance of flavors. The vegetables were excellent, and overall this is probably the best dish I have had at Li’s (for sure it seems to be one of the best items on the lunch menu).

Citrus chicken

Citrus chicken on the lunch special

Citrus Chicken was disappointing because it was not the same as Moon Day’s version (and I think think this is one of the recipes they got from Lili when they bought the restaurant from her). Li’s also refers to this as orange chicken, although I think it is better than the average orange chicken at other restaurants. The sauce here is not extremely sweet and it contains orange peels. Some reviewers say there is not much chicken flavor because of the breading, and it is true that this might be an issue. Moon Day had a whole chicken breast with a very light breading (it was somewhat like the breading on a German schnitzel). The way Li’s Cafe has changed the chicken has made it a different dish, although I think the sauce is still good.

Conclusion
The lunch specials here are definitely a good deal–it is hard to beat the flavor and quality of food here for the price you pay. My favorite lunch is the fragrant chicken but there are many dishes I have not tried.

For me they have extended the time I can get lunch past the 3:00 p.m. deadline, but I do not know their exact policy on this. I just know that because it is a family run business they are free to do things to help out the customer, and they have been very generous in doing this with me.

The hot jasmine tea is brewed in a large pitcher, and it is so good this has been a deciding factor at times concerning whether I go to Li’s Cafe or another restaurant.

I know they do not try to make the food authentic as it was at Moon Day, but I definitely think Lili has had an influence on the new owners by the sauces being less sweet and having a better flavor than at other restaurants, and by a high quality I find in the food. There is no MSG in the food here, and I can tell that the food and sauces are freshly made. Overall I have enjoyed what I have had here. If possible, though, go at lunch (the dinner prices are fairly close to Sun Garden, and I think Sun Garden has some very good choices that make it more attractive to me).


RATING: 22

Cuisine: Chinese
Cost: $$ (Lunch $)
Hours: Open Daily
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 14, 2019
Number of Visits: 7
Best Items: Fragrant Chicken, Szechwan Pork, Hot and Sour Soup

 

Asian Food Details

Tea: Jasmine (brewed)
MSG: No
Buffet: No

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Fragrant Chicken
star 5 Hunan Pork
star 4 Hunan Chicken
star 4 Szechwan Pork
star 4 Citrus Chicken
star 5 Hot and Sour Soup
star 5 Egg Drop Soup
star 4 Won Ton Soup

Karam’s–San Antonio, TX

Karam’s Mexican Dining Room (Closed)
121 N. Zarzamora St.
San Antonio, TX
Date of Review: Jan. 2005

Karam’s has been around for so long it is one of the few restaurants I can say I have gone to for more than 30 years. I also think it is one of the best examples of Tex-Mex food there is. So far, in fact, it has turned out to be the restaurant by which I judge Tex-Mex food. Many restaurants in Austin came close, and some had specific items that were better, but Karam’s seems to have captured the essence of Tex-Mex cooking to a point that it is almost equal in quality to other styles of Mexican cooking.

Known for its Cheese Enchiladas, I think they are some of the best I have had that are not New Mexico or El Paso style. They are interesting because the tortillas are soaked in a sauce that turns them the signature red of true Tex-Mex style.

Although the enchiladas themselves are good, a combination dinner is even better– there may be no better examples of Tex-Mex style Tamales than at Karam’s. These have a masa that is soft and seems to break away the moment a fork touches it, with a flavor that I could almost imagine all the times I had fast food and TV dinner tamales while on a student budget, but which even most Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin could not duplicate.

Karam’s is popular enough to have required building a parking lot across the street. In addition to the restaurant, Karam’s Catering, a separate portion of the building dedicated exclusively to take-out orders, does a brisk business. With the mild weather found in south Texas, the outdoor patio with a fountain is an added attraction.

I think that unless you are specifically hungry for meat items such as the fajitas at Mi Tierra, you really owe it to yourself to make Karam’s your one special San Antonio Tex-Mex meal. It is a San Antonio institution for a reason.

RATING: 24

Cuisine: Mexican Tex-Mex
Cost: $$
Alcohol: Beer
Special Features: Catering

Chile Index: chile 3

Most Recent Visit
Jan. 6, 2005

Number of Visits: 4

Best Items
Cheese Enchiladas, Tamales, Tacos

Special Ratings

star 5 Cheese Enchiladas
star 5 Chicken Tacos
star 5 Tamales
star 3 Refried Beans
star 5 Chips
star 4 Salsa

Menu (Date Unknown):

Menu courtesy of Eugene F. Michael El Paso Menu Collection, MS499, C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department. The University of Texas at El Paso Library.

Note to Readers:

This review is reprinted from my original web site (Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page) and the newer site (OK Gourmet).  By putting it on Steve’s Food Blog I hope to keep it accessible to readers and to preserve the information as something that I think is of historical importance for Tex-Mex restaurants.

Karam’s was quite possibly the best Tex-Mex restaurant I ever found in Texas (there were a couple in Austin that were close).  Unfortunately when I discuss Tex-Mex restaurants I often have to refer to ones that are now closed (of which Karam’s joined the ranks in about 2005).  I wrote a blog post about why I do not think the Tex-Mex food served now is as good as it was at these former restaurants which were considered leaders of the Tex-Mex restaurant world:

Why Does Tex-Mex Not Taste the Same as I Remember Growing Up?

The Karams’ daughter wrote a very informative comment about the restaurant, and it is certainly relevant to this review as well as a discussion of Tex-Mex food in general.

 

Pamela Karam’s Comment (Dec. 10, 2015):

Dear Steve,
Karam’s Mexican Dining Room of San Antonio had the absolute best Tex-Mex in the country.
My parent’s invented the style that chefs tried to copy without much luck.
All over the country to this day when I say I’m from San Antonio, strangers will ask me if I ever ate at Karam’s. Of course they go crazy about the food when I tell them who I was lucky to be.
My dad started me in the kitchen and I know the secrets to the taste of our food.
I miss a Deluxe Dinner as much as the next person.
Thank God I can whip one up when necessary..
I’m glad you enjoyed our place.
I loved it and miss it every day.

Las Palmas–El Paso, TX

Las Palmas Mexican Restaurant
1605 George Dieter Dr.
El Paso, TX
(915) 629-9898

Las Palmas


Las Palmas is located in a strip mall in east El Paso, and it seemed to be an unlikely candidate for being one of the best Mexican restaurants in El Paso strictly from its location and appearance. It gets packed at lunch time, but many El Paso restaurants are the same. Like most Mexican restaurants in the city it gets good reviews, but everyone has their own taste and everyone has their own opinion about what is the best Mexican food.

In the case of Las Palmas, I make the statement that this is one of the best Mexican restaurants based on my standbys, red enchiladas, chile relleno, rice, beans, chips, and salsa. In addition, though, there are a couple of outstanding items that I do not normally order that I also think are the best in the city or very close to it, namely the guacamole and albondigas (meatballs).

Even though Las Palmas is busy, it has not been “discovered” like some some of the more popular restaurants have been. This is a good thing, because I have seen some of the more popular places go down somewhat in quality because they have to expand, add new cooks, etc. in order to meet the demand of the customers they have. I think Las Palmas is small enough to maintain their quality and consistency (and I have to say that the majority of restaurants in El Paso are like this, but not many have a flavor that I like as well as at Las Palmas).

There are different lunch specials each weekday, but rather than regular menu items served at a lower price, they are items that are only served on that day (and only for lunch). These seem to be items that take longer to prepare than most dishes, and include such items as albondigas and mole (only available on Thursday). These are also items that they are not typically available at El Paso restaurants.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and salsa

The chips and salsa were a good indication that the food would be very good here, particularly because of the fresh and flavorful salsa. The salsa is not super spicy, but it does have a good kick.

Regular Menu

Las Palmas Special

All right, it is a little confusing that the Las Palmas Special is on the regular menu, but every day they have a “special” of the day. Actually the Las Palmas Special is equivalent to what most restaurants call the Mexican Plate, or with some it may be the combination plate.

Ordering the Las Palmas Special allowed me to enjoy what are usually my favorite items, and to even get some bonus items such as guacamole.

If I had to pick a best dish here it would be the Chile Relleno. The flavor of the relleno was probably the biggest factor in convincing me that Las Palmas is at one of the highest levels of Mexican food in the city. It is covered with cheese, and writing this review largely from memory I am not sure that it even had what I would call a sauce on top. It stuck in my mind, though, that the flavor was more than just the traditional chile itself and the cheese. The breading was excellent, and I think this was the source of much of the flavor that I thought was so good.

The Red Enchilada is typically my favorite item on a combination plate. The one here was better than any I had recently tried, and very close to some of my favorites that I had not eaten recently (Forti’s, Su Casa, etc.). It was very much a case that while I was not sure the enchilada was the very best in town, having both an enchilada and chile relleno together that were this good made Las Palmas one of the best restaurants overall in my book.

I put in my notes that the Guacamole was the best that I have tried, but this does not include some that I may have had in Mexico or some from now closed El Paso restaurants (Casa Jurado may have been one of these). In any case, the guacamole was extremely good.

I barely noted the Flauta because this were much the same as I could get anywhere. If you are from any city other than El Paso, though, I think this will probably be one of the best you have tried. The flautas here only come with beef (some restaurant also have ones with chicken).

Daily Specials

Albondigas

Albondigas is a special on Thursday

The Albondigas served Thursdays as a lunch special are a little deceiving because a bowl of soup like this does not look as filling as it actually is. It actually has several beef meatballs that make a very substantial meal, and the broth is so flavorful I could tell the restaurant really knows what it is doing when it comes to Mexican food. Albondigas are not typically one of my favorite Mexican foods, but I always enjoy something that is among the best in its class, as the one here proved to be.

Other Notes
The restaurant is very busy at lunch time, and the service is a little slow by the standards of when I was working in an office and only had an hour for lunch. After the usual wait for a table, though, things go pretty smoothly from that point forward.

So far my favorite dishes here are the ones that are my favorites at almost all Mexican restaurants, but the ones here were definitely better than most.

The prices did not strike me as being high or low–I think they are about normal. I had to wait for a table when I went for the albondigas, but on my other trip there was seating right away.

The Las Palmas Special was the only combination plate they had, and in this respect I would say the menu is fairly limited (I would like to have more choices for a combination plate). Of course if you have the time you can make multiple trips and try different items, but I think the Las Palmas Special gives a good sample of some of their best items.


RATING: 25

Cuisine: Mexican El Paso
Cost: $$
Hours: Open daily (breakfast Fri-Sun.)
Accessible: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Alcohol: N/A

Most Recent Visit: Mar. 11, 2019
Number of Visits: 2
Best Items: Red Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Guacamole, Albondigas, Salsa

 

Mexican Food Details

Chile Index: chile 4
Cooking Oil: N/A

 

Special Ratings
star 5 Red Enchilada
star 5 Chile Relleno
star 5 Albondigas
star 5 Guacamole
star 5 Chips
star 5 Salsa