Wednesday, October 04, 2006

My hiatus and a parting thought about tongue tacos and fried shrimp heads

This site will go on hiatus for a while. I will leave you with a final thought.

Houston's fine dining scene has been growing more and more stale and less interesting. Some of the city's most creative restaurants have closed. Many of the other fine dining restaurants are treading water. Perhaps the scene will revive with some new openings this fall. But right now, our fine dining scene is years behind other cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and even much smaller cities like Las Vegas, Aspen, and Charleston. Yes, at this moment, Houston's top restaurants are probably inferior to Dallas. That is sad, sad, sad.

But there is hope. If you want some dining excitement in Houston, the best places to look right now are ethnic dives. In this category, Houston is better than almost any city in the country except New York. This week, I had two exotic surprises where I did not expect them.

La Jaliscience is a tacqueria on Yale near 13th Street. On a recent visit, I ordered a 99 cent "taco con lengua", which is a tongue taco. The beef tongue had an interesting texture, much like wheat roast or tofu. Still, I doubt any vegetarians will be eating it. The tongue came with onion, cilantro, lime. The lunch also came with a salsa caddy with some extremely spicy green and red salsas and pickled carrots. Although the tongue did not have an unusual taste, it reminded me that we Americans usually don't eat some of the more interesting parts of the animal. Recently, at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, I had a plate of lamb that offered seven unusual cuts of lamb that you do not usually get in American restaurants. I was surprised at the significant differences in tastes and textures. If we are going to eat meat, we ought to be braver in trying some of the other edible parts. The 99 cent taco is certainly a cheaper way to do that than the $210 fixed price meal at Per Se.

Nippon is a very traditional sushi restaurant on Montrose. A Japanese friend says it serves the most authentic sushi in Houston. During my last visit, I ordered a sashimi plate, which came with two whole raw shrimp. After I ate the meat, the waiter offered to have the kitchen fry the left over heads. These were large shrimp heads with eyes and long antenna -- the last thing that I would expect to eat. Of course, I agreed. When he returned with the fried heads, they looked much the same as before frying. I did not see any batter. But somehow, dipping the head in hot oil made the tough shell of the shrimp's head crunchy and edible. Everything was edible -- even the eyes and antenna. The taste was like any food that is fried, but had overtones of the sea. It was strange, entertaining, and very good.

Right now, Houston has no equivalent to the great American restaurants like French Laundry and Charlie Trotter's. It has no equivalent among the cutting edge American innovators like the chefs at Moto and WD-50. If you expect entertainment, art, and surprise from your food in Houston, don't bother with Houston's high end restaurants. Instead, you will have to try some Vietnamese sandwich shops, Asian supermarkets, Pakistani buffets, Korean food courts, sushi joints, and Mexican tacquerias.

Good luck.


Misha said...

This blog was a good read until you started whining. Have fun on your sabbatical. Don't forget to breathe.

"Bob" said...

I'll miss your blog, and hope that work is not "eating your lunch" these days, so to speak.

I do believe, though, that by concentrating on the dearth and short lives of a "new, experimental, artistic, imaginative" bent in the very highest end restaurants, you bemoan a Houston that probably never will exist. The strength of this town is in its basic democratic flattening, not in a see-and-be seen quality that may well be the ruling force in the cities you name (N.Y., S.F., L.A., Vegas, Napa). As an example, we have a mayor who started out as nobody, is not flashy at all, does not make a point of hanging out with the social elite, and makes a virtue out of being pretty ordinary - - but accomplished.

That's the strength of this town, and it is how we like out food. I think Houstonians are deeply suspicious (properly so) of those who think and act like "elites." Get over it, and continue to give us your very perceptive and witty comments on the broad and deep range of local and ethnic foods that really are the backbone of what Houston has to offer, and that Houston should celebrate.

I'm still looking forward to making my way to Jazzie's for shrimp po-boy, to Catalan for the garlic soup and lamb & mint sandwich, and to Lucio's for the spinach dip, all on your recommendations! And I recently shared your Banh Mi battle column with a U. of St. Thomas student who enjoys the midtown tastes and prices.

Hope your hiatus is not too long, and I really look forward to the next meal you share with us on your blog.

By the way, here is a link to a Seattle story on Battle: Batali's Salumi's v. Banh Mi, to put you in the proper perspective!

Anonymous said...

I too will miss your blog....
In response to Bob, I think that Houston, and it's food scene can and is totally "elite", pick up Paper city, or Houston mag, this city is full of socialites and big money folks. Look at Tonys, and gravitas, for example, places like this are completely see and be seen spots, and that's to name a few. Houston is in no way like Austin, a place you can wear flip flops to dinner, here people get dressed up to go to the grocery store...
But there are tons of 'ethnic dives', and some of the very best food in the city is not fine dining. There is a nice place I discovered by necessity the weekend after Rita came through, it was the only place open that weekend. It is behind Sinh Sinh on Bellaire. Tiny little place, that weekend I went, it was packed, all 8 tables, Byob, and I had to stand while I waited for my food. A family made some room, and let me sit with them, and in broken language we some how shared stories of getting stuck, running out of gas, and the misadventure of Rita. I recently went back to find the place revamped, they expanded to the space next door. I had amazing Beef tendon noodle soup, the broth was Anise infused, the noodles were hand made and the tendon was daring and fatty and good. We started with their handmade vegetable dumplings, and I was very sastified with the freshness, and still friendliness of the place... check it out, called Lucky Pot.
You do have to eat, so why not keep blogging about it? You were just on a roll, please continue if time permits. As well, using the whole animal is pretty common in alot of cuisines.... In Mexican food you will find yes tongue, tripe, and the soft meat of the head. Look at the influence of the French on many American new bistros in town, you will see livers of several types... some other cuisines favor brains, and then using the whole pig in creole cajun cooking... the food here is daring maybe people are making safe choices and not trying new things.

Misha said...

I'll have to try Lucky Pot. Sinh Sinh is hands down my favorite chinese restaurant in Houston, no matter how many gushing reviews of Fungs I am forced to read.

Try Thai Corner right next to Lucky Pot. It's one of the two best thai places in town (the second being Vieng Thai on Long Point).

We should keep this blog going in this comment thread until the self imposed hiatus is over.

Sarah said...

rats, i just found this blog tonight, and I see you've not been writing since october. ah well. I'm going back through old postings to see what you had to say about some restaurants I've wanted to try for ages. sigh. its sad that the dragon bowl place isn't authentic. i still haven't tried it, maybe i will one of these days. i eat my boring chinese dinners on crosstimbers- i bet you've never been there. its a bit scary (car alarms going off in the strip mall parking lot). down from there is the polish donut shop with the huge (2yr old) banner proclaiming Spinach Kolaches, but when you go in, he doesn't have them and never has but he gives you free samples of other kolaches and sells you spinach tamales instead!
well, glad i found a few useful comments on here. thanks. good luck.

neverfull said...

i googled lucky pot for our hot pot research and ended up on your blog! some good comments about it. and tell misha that sinh sinh is vietnamese-chinese which shouldn't really be compared to fung's.

med said...

How does it taste? the fried shrimp head.. I bet its very tasty.

lisamarieelliott said...

For my part everyone ought to glance at it.