A bowl of fideo loco from Pete's Tako House, available daily.
There are times when I regret not having had a Mexican grandmother. Yes, I did have a German one; her sauerkraut was especially good. And while it’s true that I remain a sucker for anything pickled, it would have been good to have gotten a head start on menudo, barbacoa … that sort of thing. To have grown up with simple sopa de fideo as comfort food strikes me as an advantage in life. I persist in the notion that every abuela in San Antonio has her version.
One of the simplest renditions is in Lucy Garza’s South Texas Mexican Cookbook
, a modest but revealing look at our cooking culture, published in 1982. A home economics instructor in the Valley, Garza credits her mother with inspiring her in the kitchen, and her sopa recipe contains just six main ingredients: broken vermicelli (fideo), canned tomatoes, garlic, water, a cumin and peppercorn mix, and bell pepper. Sub out the bell pepper for chopped onion and you have a minor variation. The fideo gets fried, the garlic and spices are ground together, the other ingredients are thrown into the pot with the pasta to simmer with a little salt — and that’s it. Fancier versions abound online, including one that has you roasting fresh tomatoes, blending them with the onion and garlic, frying that mixture, and using chicken stock instead of water. I think I’d go that extra step.
My current obsession, however, is with fideo’s supercharged cousin, fideo loco. Garza simply calls her version fideo con carne, adding cubed and browned chuck to the original recipe. But at most restaurants serving la sopa loca in San Antonio, ground beef is the carne of choice, and charro beans (preferably with bacon) are added — but no two are exactly alike. Blanco Café, for example, describes theirs thusly: “A mix of fideo, picadillo, and ranchero beans cooked in a tomato gravy.” For $1.50 more, you can substitute spicy asada a la Mexicana in place of picadillo. Let’s taste a few.
Carmelita’s sits at the intersection of Broadway and north Alamo, and its fideo ($6.99) is always available. The bowl brims with pasta that seems stubbier than some, there’s an impressive island of picadillo in the middle, beans bob in and out of the broth … and it’s these “whole” charro beans that give the soup much of its salty/bacony flavor; on its own, the picadillo isn’t highly seasoned. But as with most soups, it’s what’s in each spoonful that counts, and on this score, kudos to Carmelita.
In the joyful jumble that is Maria’s Café on Nogalitos, it’s hard for anything to stand out. That the fideo is an occasional daily special helps, but know that it’s available every day ($6.50) and order accordingly — maybe with a half-order side of Tom’s amazing barbecue brisket nachos if you’re really hungry. (That I managed to finish both was noted by the neighboring table.) Maria’s fideo delgado does give the impression of having been duly fried, the picadillo packs a flavor punch on its own, there are beans, bacon, green pepper, large cubes of potato … in short, a winning combo that practically demands to be finished to the last, savory drop.
Blanquita Mexican Restaurant is, nevertheless, housed in a rosa Mexicano building whose interior sports almost every color but white. A collection of Fiesta posters is perfectly at home. The colors and the service contribute to the friendly atmosphere, but the fideo seals the deal; uniquely, as far as I know, it’s available in three renditions: picadillo, pollo and with albòndigas, all at $5.99. (A half portion is available.) I’ve had it twice and have never made it past the meatball version, always amazed at their delicate texture and robust taste. Though the noodles don’t appear to have been fried, they are appropriately short and skinny, the broth is more tomato-laden than most, and there are unabashed jalapeño slices lurking amongst the beans and bacon.
The fideo con carne ($6.99 including tea) at Patty’s Taco House on south Hackberry is yet another version I tried about a year ago and liked, but be warned: it’s a Tuesday-lunch-special-only affair. On the one Tuesday I had available, the sopa was already sold out by about 1:15. Guess that means it’s still good.