Dear Foodies,

I’m sure you have read many articles and news reports addressing health code violations regarding eateries; a serious problem in every state. They write . . . “Ignorance is — bliss”; especially when you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes in a restaurants kitchen. I also understand we all have to eat and it’s almost like playing Russian roulette; you simply take your chances in hopes that the kitchen’s counter tops, refrigerators, utensils, and floors are clean. It’s bad enough walking into a dirty restroom at any venue only to imagine who is preparing your meal and how filthy the kitchen might be. That’s reason enough never to go back.

I recently visited Alhambra with my happy-go-lucky friends (Jenn Brown, Holly Kirby and Christina Amjad) during their ”Happy Hour,” and asked to see Executive Chef James Canter. Actually, we’ve become friends and have many things in common. I was born and lived in San Francisco and he lived and worked there. He loves to cook and I love to eat. Seriously, I see him as a successful chef with a vivid imagination and courage to explore, experiment and introduce new culinary feats to the world with complete confidence. I was thrilled when he said “Come, let me show you the kitchen.” It brought back old memories of when I worked in the restaurant industry.

As he was giving me a behind the scenes tour, I noticed the kitchen and food preparation area was spotless. I mentioned Chef Gordon Ramsay (he despises lazy chefs that cook in filth, etc.) from the TV show “Kitchen Nightmares,” would be very pleased about the cleanliness and organization at Alhambra. Then all of a sudden Chef James showed me the bobblehead next to the cooking station which happened to be Chef Ramsay (I’m sure whatever was written on the bobblehead had one of his favorite words, if you know what I mean) motivating the staff.

Local foodies already know about their successful “Farmer’s Market” held every Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; there’s music, wine and more. Chef James sources locally (farms and ranches) when possible; it’s apparent that fine dining here means cooking with high-end ingredients. We walked into the freezer and he showed me truffles, exquisite cuts of meat, and out of the ordinary vegetables — impressive. After that, I was like a little girl sampling the evening’s specials and treats. Pistachio goodness was made just for kicks that day. Did you know peanut and seed brittle is undergoing a revival in restaurants across the country? I could only imagine pistachio brittle crushed and sprinkled over their desserts for texture. Yummo!

Then, I was given a spoonful of zesty crushed tomatoes with a flavorful soy chorizo that was going to be stuffed into pieces of squash for a vegetarian special. I was left wanting more of the steamed shrimp dim sum and also noticed they were preparing some cutting-edge sorbet. I thanked Chef James for letting me catch a glimpse of where secret indulgences are created; he mentioned how lucky he was to have found such a creative and hard working staff for his kitchen.

I was happy to see my “Happy Hour” sangria ($4.00 loaded with fresh fruit) waiting for me and my friends having a good time. I ended up nibbling (a lot) on Christina’s “Burger Alhambra” ($14.00) which turned out to be one of the best upscale burgers around. This well presented plate had crispy sweet potato fries and a thick beef patty (Harris Ranch — raised naturally and grain fed) placed inside a gourmet bun. I’ve had the pleasure of eating and staying at the Harris Ranch Inn (Coalinga, Calif.) several times and let me tell you — their beef is aged to perfection and it’s of the highest quality. The hamburger also comes with cured tomatoes, house aioli (a sauce made of garlic and olive oil), julienne-cut beet-carrot escabeche and manchego cheese.

Rumor has it the black mussels and frites (your choice of house cut fries - $16.00) are to die for! Imagine smoky bacon, sorfrito (garlic, onion, tomatoes and olive oil), Madeira Wine and brava aioli. How delightful. Yes, I do plan on sampling more of Chef Canter’s Iberian and Mediterranean dishes — for a special occasion. The stuffed dates with blue cheese and the lamb-mint kibbeh are on my list!

Cleanliness is Godliness,

Madame Gourmand

odettemac@gmail.com

Alhambra Restaurant — bar — hookah lounge, 519 S. 17th Street, McAllen. 956-772-4252.

*Long on to “Food 4 Thought” (valleycentral.com) and get the health inspection reports: Goombadas Sandwich Shop — 0 demerits; Quick Wok (Chinese) — 0 demerits (McAllen & Edinburg). Good for you!