Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hillcroft Part 2 - Anand Bhavan

“Curry - the best comes from India. An imitation is made of one ounce of coriander seeds, two ounces of cayenne, a quarter ounce of cardamom seeds, one ounce salt, two ounces turmeric, one ounce ginger, half an ounce of mace and a third of an ounce of saffron.”
-Charles Ranhofer (Chef at Delmonico’s 1862-95), The Epicurean

The Hillcroft Project: At random, I pick a restaurant on Hillcroft, eat there, and write about it. My Thesis: By randomly choosing restaurants on Hillcroft, I am going to find good food that is exotic and cheap.

Today, I randomly chose a restaurant in a strip center at Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway called Anand Bhavan. Anand Bhavan serves a vegetarian Indian lunch buffet for $4.95. To quote Barefoot Contessa, "How bad can that be?"

Anand Bhavan is the name of the majestic, ancestral home of the Neru family in India. The Houston restaurant of the same name is a dump in a grungy strip center. Its chairs and tables that look like they were bought second hand from a cheap 1980s fast food restaurant. On the walls are some faded photos of Indian dishes that do not look very appetizing. Even more ominous, at noon on a Wednesday, I am the only customer.

Most of the buffet dishes feature a particular vegetable or bean, such as chick peas, spinach, potatoes, green beans, or lentils. Each dish has a very spicy curry or broth with plenty of exotic flavors. Although I have a high spice tolerance, this food is so spicy that by the end of the meal my eyes are watering, and I need to blow my nose. In fact, if I did blow my nose, no one would hear. The proprietor has gone into the back room, and I am the only person in the restaurant.

My only other reference point for vegetarian Indian food buffet is Madras Pavilion on Kirby near the Southwest Freeway. The dishes at Madras Pavilion and Anand Bhavan are very similar, but there are some differences. Anand Bhavan does not serve dosai (an Indian filled crepe) that comes with the buffet at Madras Pavilion. Anand Bhavan's curries are spicier than Madras Pavilion. Anand Bhavan looks much dingier inside than Madras Pavilion. Anand Bhavan is a lot cheaper; the buffet costs $4.95, but Madras Pavilion's lunch buffet costs around $10. Yet Anand Pavilion has far fewer customers. Today I am the only one.

Why is no one else here? Perhaps there is another place on Hillcroft where I can get even more exotic food for even less money. I must find out where.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Great Goat at the Great Greek

"I had to go to Greek school, where I learned valuable lessons such as, ‘If Nick has one goat and Maria has nine, how soon will they marry?’"
-Toula Portokalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Alexander the Great Greek is a restaurant on Sage near the Galleria that serves outstanding Greek food. It also has a lot of culture and atmosphere. On a visit last weekend, my seven-year-old daughter discovered belly dancing, and I discovered the Great Goat.

Several weeks ago, my family first visited Alexander on a sleepy Sunday evening. A matronly Greek woman who seemed to run the place immediately fell in love with my daughter. They sat, they talked, they drew pictures. The meal began with some very good pita bread with olive oil, olives, and feta cheese. I ordered a braised lamb shank that was tender and had lots of flavor. We ordered a Greek wine from Nemea that was made from unique Greek grape, had an interesting flavor, and was a good value. It was a quiet evening with good company and good food.

This past Saturday, however, Alexander was packed. A Greek music duo played synthesizer with accordian sounds and a bouzouki -- a Greek stringed instrument. After being seated, we waited an hour for menus, but we did not care. The music was lively and various diners frequently jumped up to dance. Then, the older, bald bazouki player announced that it was time for the belly dancers. My daughter's eyes grew wide as two beautiful women began dancing. A few songs later, two men began traditional Greek dancing. During one song, the women dancers came, grabbed my daughter, and took her to the stage. She tried dancing while shaking her tummy for at least 10 minutes. For the next song, the dancers grabbed various customers to form a big dance line. My daughter missed that part; she had to go to the restroom to throw up.

My college friends had a name for this type of behavior: "Party Hero / Party Goat."

Appropriately, I ordered the goat. Goat is one of my favorite meats because it has so much more flavor than beef, pork, or chicken. But it can be tough and stringy. This goat had been braised for a long time in a salty broth and was as tender as the best pot roast. It also had some interesting spices that I could not identify. Ths spicing did not compete with the flavor of the goat; it accented it. I have had some great goat dishes in Pakistani and Mexican restaurants, but this goat may have been the greatest.

For a quiet evening with authentic Greek food, go to Alexander the Great Greek on a weeknight. For a raucus, long evening with lots of music, dancing and revelry, go to Alexander on a Saturday night. Either way, make sure you try the goat.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hillcroft Part 1 – Darband Shish Kabob

"What are the odds of running into a Serbo-Croatian-speaking Afghani at a Persian restaurant in an Indian neighborhood?" I joke with my tablemates. I'm about to begin my "wonders of Hillcroft" speech when I'm interrupted by Loreta's baklava."

-Robb Walsh, Baklava Bravissimo, Houston Press April 1, 2004

Indeed -- the "wonders of Hillcroft." The restaurants on Hillcroft are the most concentrated mix of cultures in Houston or, for that matter, in Texas. Within a space of a few miles, there are restaurants that represent the food of at least 20 countries.

To experience this exotic world, I have begun a project of visiting restaurants on Hillcroft that I pick at random. Yesterday, I randomly picked a restaurant on Hillcroft near Harwin called "Halal Wok" - expecting some bizzarre Muslim/Chinese fusion. The problem was that, at lunchtime on Saturday, Halal Wok had no customers. I noticed that the restaurant next door had a line that ran outside the door. I decided against randomness in favor of my default rule: pick the crowded one. I went to Darband Shish Kabob.

Darband Shish Kabob looks exotic. Although the restaurant is in the middle of a simple strip center space, the dining room surrounds a running, Eastern-looking fountain. The walls are covered with photos of Iran. The crowd is a mix of Iranians, Turks, Asians, Hispanics, and Caucasians. Above the counter are photos of the different dishes. I had visions of exotic spices and flavors that I have never had.

Then I remembered that Persian food, while often quite good, is never as exotic as I expect. You might think Persia's food would reflect a wide mix of interesting spices because Persia is in the middle of the Medieval spice routes. Instead, every Persian meat dish I ever order is powdered with sumac. Sumac is good, but not quite so flavorful as more pungent spices like cardamom or cumin or curry. Also, most of the Persian restaurants I have visited serve the same dishes: a few grilled meats (lamb, game hen, ground beef), bread, and rice.

Darband Shish Kabob is no exception. I order the lamb shishkabob. It comes with an oblong piece of flat bread, much like a cross between pita bread and a grilled tortilla. The side order consists of some chargrilled tomatoes that have a nice smoky flavor. The lamb comes grilled and sprinkled with lots of sumac.

As I eat the lamb, I am reminded how much more flavor lamb has than beef. Why do Americans prize beef above all other meats when other meats, like lamb, have so much flavor? Perhaps Americans do not want so much flavor in their meats. Perhaps that is why most Americans prefer bland chicken breast to the more flavorful dark meat. This lamb is particularly good because it combines the characteristic flavor of lamb with a smoky grill flavor.

My lamb kabob was perfectly good, even if it was not so exotic a food as I might find elsewhere on Hillcroft. I suspect that the line goes out the door because of the price. The generous kabob and flat bread cost me only $5.95. Hillcroft can be exotic, but it also can be very cheap.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


"Ibiza's real attraction in recent years, however, has been its booming club music culture. Club promoters from Britain and elsewhere have turned Ibiza into the party capital of Europe."

-An online trave guide's description of the island of Ibiza

Ibiza is a very hip, slightly Spanish-influenced restaurant in Midtown. There are two reasons to visit the restaurant.

First, their ever-growing wine list is the best value in Houston. Last night, we had an Australian Shiraz, Torbreck "The Struie", for $56. The same wine retails at Specs for $52. Most restaurants mark up their wines two or three times retail price. At Ibiza, they sell wines for just above retail.

Second, Chef Charles Clark makes a handful of great dishes, mostly appetizers. The following are the real stand outs:

-Basque Green Pepper and Crab Bisque. The idea of green pepper soup does not sound so good, but this is great. The flavors of crab combine with the green pepper, which gives the soup great depth rather than the vegetal flavor you might expect.

-Local Goat Cheese with Morcilla Sausage and Sweet Roasted Beets. The genius of this dish is the combination of the three flavors. The beets are sweet and properly cooked al dente. There is nothing so good as blood sausage mixed with a pungent goat cheese.

-Spanish Piquillo Peppers stuffed with Smoked Duck Breast and Pistachio. Although I do not get a strong duck flavor in this dish, these tiny red peppers have a tasty sweet, meaty stuffing.

-Risotto with Crimini Mushroom, Grana Cheese, and White Truffle Oil. This dish is nothing revolutionary, but they do a good job with the texture of the risotto. Plus, I am a sucker for truffle oil, which they add generously to this dish.

-Crispy Baby Crabs with Moroccan Harissa Dip. Weird and wonderful. The crabs are about the same diameter as a quarter. You pop the whole fried crab -- legs, shell, and all -- in your mouth. The dip is a very spicy, flavorful sauce that makes we want to dip dozens of these crabs in it.

On the down side, the entrees are generally good, but do not stand out like the appetizers. When you go to Ibiza the first time, consider ordering just appetizers so you can sample the best the restaurant has to offer.

Also, the menu does not change that much, which is good and bad. It is good because I can usually order Ibiza's signature dishes, but bad because I rarely find a new dish at Ibiza that is really outstanding.

One final complaint - Ibiza is so hip and cool that it sometimes feels chilly. At night, the noisy crowd is mostly a mix of well-dressed older couples, groups of young fashionable gay men, and slick straight guys with sleazy women who look like they work at a men's club. The chic/trashy element of the crowd reflects the island of Ibiza more than the food does. Also, the staff and owners add to the chilly atmosphere. They rarely seem to recognize me, even though I visit their restaurant about once a month.

But I do not mind the noise, the sleaze factor, or the chilly reception so much after I have had a few glasses of wine and a plate of crunchy crabs.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bánh Mì Battle

"Whose cuisine will reign supreme?"
-Iron Chef

The Bánh Mì is my favorite sandwich. It is a Vietnamese sandwich on French bread, typically filled with a marinated meat, small slices of carrots and sometimes onion, cilantro, and raw jalapeno. The Bánh Mì is a study in contrasts. It has contrasting flavors: the slightly salty flavor of the bread, the tangy and sweet marinade, the funkiness of the fish sauce in the marinade, the meaty flavor of the pork, and the spicy garden flavors of cilantro and jalapenos. It has contrasting textures: crunchy french bread combined the meaty texture of barbecued meat and the crispy textures of the vegetables. And it reflects contrasting cultures: French bread combined with Vietnamese flavored ingredients. The Bánh Mì is wonderfully flavorful and complex.

Oh, I almost forgot. They cost about $2.

So where can you get the best Bánh Mì in Houston? The short answer is Midtown. The long answer is a lot harder. Three shops in midtown make fantastic Bánh Mì. First, Cali Sandwich and Fast Food, 3030 Travis, is a wait service cafe that has an ethnically mixed crowd, a sunny but not too appealing interior, and often a long wait. Second, Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe, 2704 Milam, is a counter service cafe that has a hip, minimalist space, hip music, and a small crowd that is young, hip, and not very Vietnamese. Third, Hoang Bánh Mì - The Original Givral's Sandwich Shop is inside the Hoa Bin mall at 2800 Travis. It a grungy shop that has counter service, no natural light, and a mostly Vietnamese crowd.

To decide the best, I sat down with a barbecue pork sandwich from each shop. Here are the results by category.

Bread. Cali and Les Givral's were neck and neck, serving wonderfully crunchy french bread with a soft interior. Perhaps they buy their bread from the same bakery. The bread at Hoang Bánh Mì was slightly better, but only because it seemed to be straight out of the oven. Edge: Hoang.

Meat. The barbecued pork at Cali and Les Givral's was very similar -- irregular chunks of spicy, marinated pork. To my surpirse, the barbecued pork at Les Givral's had the more marinade flavor and more spice. The pork at Hoang was sliced thinly and did not have the same strong marinaded flavor. Edge: Les Givral's.

Vegetable condiments. Les Givral's had more cilantro - a big plus. Cali served slightly firmer julienned slices of carrots, which had a better texture than the other two shops. Cali also adds onions. But the condiments at Hoang were more flavorful. Hoang concentrates the marinade flavors of sweetness and fish sauce in the vegetables more than in the pork. Edge: Hoang.

Price. Les Givral's sandwich, with tax, is $2.75. At Cali and Hoang, it is only $2.00. But Cali is the only one of the three shops with wait service, which raises the price of the bill. Only at Hoang can you walk in the door with only $2 and walk out completely full. Also, if you buy 5 sandwiches at Hoang, you get the sixth sandwich free. Edge: Hoang.

Final verdict. Although the barbecue pork in the sandwich at Les Givral's is superior to the pork at Hoang, but I do not usually eat the pork alone. The deciding factor must be the overall taste of the sandwich. Therefore, the winner is . . . Hoang Bánh Mì - The Original Givral's Sandwich Shop.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Chinese Food: Décor vs. Cuisine?

"Welcome to Chinese Restaurant. Please try your Nice Chinese Food With Sticks. The traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history and cultual."

--Chopstick wrapper in many cheap Chinese restaurants

A co-worker of mine – let’s call him "Bob" – has a theory. Bob says the best Chinese restaurants have cheap décor. If the restaurant spends money on decorating, then less money is spent on making great food. I have a similar theory. In San Francisco's or New York's Chinatown, the best restaurant is always the one with dead chickens hanging in the window.

Today I visited a new Chinese restaurant on Waugh near Allen Parkway called Bamboo House. The moment I walked in the door, I saw trouble. The room was far too pretty. On the ceiling were fabulous white light sculptures made to look like elaborate flowers. The tile, the tables, the chairs, and even the pretty New Age music were all too attractive. Plus there were no dead chickens in the window. Remembering Bob’s theory, I was sure the food would be bad.

Of course, Bob’s theory is not always correct. For instance, Chicken ‘N Egg Roll has awful décor. The food is equally bad. Fung’s Kitchen has a fabulous dining room with elaborate, over-the-top decorations. Yet Fung's is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Houston.

But most Chinese restaurants prove Bob's theory. Some Chinese restaurants with fabulous décor have some pretty ordinary food. West U’s Qin Dynasty has an astonishingly elegant interior with mahogany windows, elaborate drapes, and Asian artifacts. The food is standard Americanized Chinese food. River Oaks’ Café Le Jadeite also has fabulous décor, including brass castings, huge Buddhas, carved stone guards, and a full-sized chariot. The food is mediocre and unauthentic. P. F. Chang’s also looks very nice, but serves uninteresting food that panders to Western tastes.

In contrast, some of the better Chinese restaurants in town, like Daniel Wong’s Kitchen and Chinese Cafe, were decorated for no more than $10.

At the Bamboo House today, the hip, attractive décor was my first of many warnings. I noticed that no other customers were Chinese. I also thought the pan-Asian menu sounded dull. It listed many standard American-Chinese dishes plus ordinary dishes from other Asian countries: Vietnamese Pho, Thai curry, and Japanese teriyaki rib eye. Finally, the waiter asked if I wanted "white rice or brown rice. " No self-respecting Chinese restaurant offers brown rice.
I ordered Monk’s Delight – a vegetarian dish that usually consists of cabbage, straw mushrooms, baby corn, and tofu. My hopes were low.

Then it arrived. The dish was visually arresting: perfectly cubed chunks of brown, marinated tofu were mixed with thick beautiful slabs of white lotus root, bright green endamame beans, and some other sculptural-looking vegetable I could not identify. This was something unusual. The dish tasted great. The tofu had a nice marinade, sweet and earthy. The lotus root and endamame added an interesting contrast of textures and flavors. Of all the different Monk’s Delight dishes I have tasted, this one was the most unusual, the most well balanced, and the most flavorful.

I wonder whether the other ordinary dishes on the menu at Bamboo House are equally extraordinary in their execution. On this one visit, though, I learned my lesson: looks are not everything.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

La Sani Restaurant – Powerful Pakistani Food

“The spice must flow.”
-Frank Herbert, Dune

La Sani Restaurant is a Pakistani restaurant on Bissonnet just north of the intersection with US 59. They serve a lunch buffet, which I have tried four times. Each visit is a revelation.

One reason to go to La Sani is the unusual meats. Often the buffet includes goat curry. The intense curry spice goes well with the gamey taste of goat. Today, they had braised mutton. Mutton is often too tough and gamey. This mutton, though, had the tender texture of a long-cooked pot roast. It had some spice that complimented, rather than overpowered, the light, only slightly gamey taste of the meat.

But the real reason to go to La Sani is the spice. When I go there with my co-worker – let’s call him “Bob” – we like to guess at the spice in each dish. Some spices we can identify. Others remain a mystery. Today, my first bite came with a whole pod of cardamom. Usually, cardamom is reduced to powder. Sometimes, a restaurant will open the pod and serve whole the little “seeds” inside. La Sani is the only restaurant I know that serves the whole pod. When I bit into it, there was an explosion of exotic flavor.

Another dish (Chicken Karachi?) had a dash of raw ginger on top.

Trying to determine one spice, I ran into disaster. “What is that green thing?” Bob asked me about a small tubular ingredient in a stew of ground chick peas. I examined it carefully. “It looks like a small asparagus,” I said. Then I put it into my mouth. The initial taste was mild, and a little vegetal – much like an asparagus. I bit into it and rolled it all across my tongue to make sure. I began to think that the flavor was not quite asparagus, but maybe more like a mild green pepper or maybe more like a chili pepper. Then, after about 15 seconds, I realized it was a chili pepper, and it was not mild. A few minutes later, I was dying. I began to beat my hands on the table and stuff Nan in my mouth, hoping to find some way to end the pain.

Of course, the best way to end the pain is dessert. One dessert was fairly easy to figure out – rice pudding with ground pistachios and a spice, probably cardamom, on top. It soothed my mouth after the chili crisis.

Another dessert looked like golf-ball-sized fruit in a brown sauce. Bob asked the waiter, “What is this?” “Sweet balls,” said the waiter. “What kind of balls?” “They are balls with sugar sauce on top.” Either he could not explain, or would not explain, what these “balls” were made of. When I first bit into the “sweet balls,” I was expecting fruit. Instead, it was a very light fritter made of corn or chick peas or who knows what. The sauce on top was sweet, but Bob detected a flavor in it besides sugar. “Is that rose water?” he asked. “Maybe,” I said, “but it is lighter than rose water usually tastes.” Bob then wondered, “Perhaps orange blossom water?” Again, Bob asked the waiter. The waiter responded, “it is golden sugar." “What is golden sugar?” “It is like white sugar, but different. Tomorrow we have dessert with white sugar. Maybe you come back?"

Heck, I can’t even begin to identify most of the ingredients in this food. They may not translate into English. I just know that, whenver I go to La Sani, I leave the restaurant only $10 poorer, and every taste bud in my mouth feels completely alive.