Some of you may be aware, although many may not, that back a number of years ago, Mike and I made a family foray into the restaurant business. We purchased the area franchise rights to a concept out of Dallas, called ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food, which we were to own with our sons. The plan was that we would provide the capital, they the industry and expertise.
Though the boys worked like dogs and the food was delicious, for a variety of reasons, the concept failed to thrive and not just in our case, but in virtually every franchise that was bought outside the Dallas area, save for the ones in St. Louis, MO. Chief among the reasons were that although the preparation of the delicious, made-from-scratch food was labor intensive and the top quality ingredients were costly, the prices-to-the-consumer set by the franchiser were more in line with a Taco Bell, meaning that the resultant margins were shaved razor thin. One tiny misstep and you were in the red.
(If you’re in St. Louis or Dallas and get a chance to visit one of the few stores that are still open, pop by and enjoy the fresh salsa bar and some really authentic, inexpensive food from the interior of Mexico. The food is fabulous, though not low carb, so if you go, go armed with a couple of your own low carb tortillas and enjoy the salsa, salad, and a Chile Relleno or the Pollo Asado, if they’re still doing it.)
And after a couple of years of struggle and 16+ hour days for low pay, the kids had had enough; we all cut our losses and moved on. Our eldest son moved on to marriage and law school, our middle son went west to pursue his movie making dreams in Hollywood, and our youngest son, who had already headed off to college, kept on doing his thing at the College of Santa Fe, relieved that he’d never again be called upon to bus tables at the restaurant when he came home during breaks from school.
Owning a restaurant always seemed like a romantic notion: the sea of contented diners, eating delicious food in the peaceful dining room.
The hard reality (at least in our experience) is that whatever is going on out front in the dining room, behind the swinging door, the work is grueling and often thankless, the margins are slim, and the help notoriously unreliable. You have to absolutely love the restaurant biz to withstand the hours, the pressure, and the never-ending grind.
Mike had it right when on the night of our grand opening, at about 11:30 pm when, after everything was finally cleaned up and they could sit down at last and have a beer, our eldest son remarked, “Well, Dad, we’ve finally got us a ZuZu.”
Mike sighed and shook his head and said,”No, son, it’s got us.”
And that’s the truth of it. Once you’re open in a restaurant, you’re open and the work just never quits. It’s like Sisyphus in Greek mythology. Cursed by the gods for his treachery, he labored all day each day to push a giant boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll down to the bottom just when he neared the top, so that he’d have to begin all over again.
I anyone reading this ever hears me say I’d like to open another restaurant, slap me hard until I recant!
I am deeply grateful, however, that there are people in the world who love the restaurant biz and do it well, so that I can go to fabulous restaurants and enjoy good food and impeccable service in a beautiful, peaceful dining room and never ever again have to go behind the swinging door to the “back” of the house, where all is often chaos.
The ZuZu experience had its virtues, though. For one, we all know how to cook some really excellent fresh and flavorful Mexican recipes, one of which was for a luscious tortilla soup, which I’ve been craving since my recent bout with upper respiratory misery has left my taste buds sort of wanting some spice. The original soup recipe was made with lots of real corn tortillas, homemade chicken broth, and lots of fresh roasted peppers and spice. In the intervening years I’ve tinkered with that original recipe to make a lower carb, easier version, which, if I do say so myself, is delicious.
And, in plenty of time for Cinco de Mayo, here it is:
Ingredients for the soup
2 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
1/2 pound spicy breakfast sausage
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional to desired heat level
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small fresh pasilla (or poblano) chile pepper, seeded and diced
1 (4-ounce) can fire roasted diced green chiles, mild or hot
1 (14-ounce) can fire roasted diced canned tomatoes
1 quart chicken broth
2 small low carb flour tortillas, cut into ½” strips
For the garnish
1 small low carb flour tortilla
½ teaspoon olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon fine salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, minced
4 teaspoons Mexican cream or sour cream
1.) Preheat oven to 325 degrees for baking the garnish tortillas.
2.) In a soup pot on the stovetop, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat, add the pork sausage, breaking it up with a spoon; season with the cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and brown. Remove the cooked sausage from the pan and drain in a bowl lined with paper towels to the side, covered with foil to retain the heat.
3.) Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, add garlic, onion, and fresh chile pepper and sauté over medium heat until the onion is translucent and the peppers softened.
4.) Add the tomatoes and their juice, the canned chile peppers, and the broth, stirring to combine.
5.) Add the strips of soft tortilla, stirring well to distribute them throughout; increase heat to bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and let simmer for 15-20 minutes.
6.) Meanwhile, prepare the garnish. Combine all the spices in a small bowl and mix well.
7.) Brush the garnish tortilla with the olive oil, sprinkle lightly with the spice mixture, and cut into ¼” to ½” strips.
8.) Separate the strips, place on a wire rack in the hot oven, and bake for about 10 to15 minutes or until crisp.
9.) Puree the hot soup with an immersion blender. (Alternatively, transfer soup to a blender or food processor and process until mostly smooth. If using a blender, proceed very carefully, holding the blender lid on with a folded kitchen towel to prevent eruption. Puree in two batches if necessary to avoid overfilling the blender jar.)
10.) (If using alternate method, return the pureed soup to the pan). Add the cooked sausage to the soup, and stir to combine and reheat thoroughly.
11.) Ladle the soup into four bowls, garnish each with the chopped fresh cilantro, a squiggle of Mexican Creme or dollop of sour cream and a ‘haystack’ of baked spicy tortilla strips.
Protein per serving: 14 grams
Effective carb per serving: 12 grams
You could drop the carb content a bit by omitting the 2 tortillas that thicken the soup; the taste would be generally the same, but the consistency would be different and it wouldn’t be tortilla soup! Enjoy!