Thursday, August 31, 2006

Ko-mart: the Korean food court surprise

I found a wonderful surprise at Ko-mart, a Korean grocery store on Gessner just north of I-10. In a corner of the store, they have food stalls with about five different vendors. One has dessert. One has sushi. And the other three have traditional Korean food.

I went to the one of the stands and ordered bulgogi -- a popular Korean dish made from thin slices of sirloin marinaded in soy sauce, pear juice, sesame oil, garlic, onions, ginger, wine, pepper, and sugar. Although bulgogi is often grilled, I think this dish was pan cooked, along with onions, green onions, and shredded carrots. It was slightly sweet, slightly spicy, and very tasty. The generous portion of beef came with a bowl of rice, miso soup, a side of spicy bean sprouts, and a side of kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage).

This did not taste like food court food or even fast food. It tasted like a carefully made homecooked meal. It also was a lot of food.

Here is the surprise: my wonderful meal costs $5. No tax. No tip. It is hard to buy a fast food meal, or a even Starbuck's coffee, for that price.

I must admit, Bulgogi is "beginner" Korean food, and I am just a beginner. In the future I am going to try one of the more exotic dishes, like Korean sausage or blood soup. Fortunately, the vendors hang helpful photos to show me what the different dishes look like -- so I won't be too surprised.

There may be better Korean food in Houston, but there certainly is no better Korean food for the price.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Coming Soon: The Oceanaire Seafood Room

I am excited about a new Minneapolis-based seafood chain opening in the Galleria area this fall -- The Oceanaire Seafood Room. I tried the Dallas location last night and was very impressed.

I was not inclined to like the Oceanaire. I despise chain restaurants. They tend to lack real character. And the food usually lacks innovation. More importantly, my mother told me never to order seafood more than 60 miles from the ocean. Dallas is about 300 miles from the ocean. And the Oceanaire is based in Minnesota.

But the Oceanaire works because it is part of a relatively new trend that I call "airmailed seafood." High end seafood chains send buyers around the world to find interesting seafood, flash freeze it, and then airmail it overnight to the kitchens. As my waiter at the Oceanaire said, "most of our fish were swimming yesterday." That is pretty remarkable when the fish come from all over the world. For airmailed seafood, a big chain has a real advantage because of its buying power.

Consider two of Houston's best seafood restaurants -- Pesce and McCormick & Schmick's. Pesce is tops for gourmet seafood preparations in Houston. But it is not a chain, and their menu does not offer that much variety in the kinds of seafood. In contrast, McCormick & Schmick's is a huge chain. They have far more buying power, and therefore a much greater variety. For instance, on an average night, McCormick usually offers at least 12 different kinds of oysters from all over North America, plus a variety of fish like thresher shark from California, black grouper from the South Atlantic, or monkfish from New Jersey. Pesce has more interesting fish preparations. McCormick has more interesting fish.

The Oceanaire is a lot like McCormick & Schmick's - a huge variety of airmailed seafood. But if my one dish is any indication, the Oceanaire may be slightly better. I ordered a pan seared Virginian black sea bass, a fish I had never had. It was a thick white fish similar to black cod or Chilean sea bass, but the individual flakes of fish were thicker. Although I rarely eat fish skin, this skin had a tasty, crunchy crust. The fish was served with polenta and some sauteed tomatoes. The preparation was simple, but all the elements worked together to provide contrasting and complementing textures and flavors. Somewhere in the corporate hierarchy, a smart chef had given this fish a lot of thought and individual attention.

Like McCormick, the Oceanaire is purposefully retro. The inside is simultaneously elegant and cheesy. It is made to resemble a dining room in a 1930s cruise ship. The prices seeme higher than McCormick, but then the portions are larger. The waiter told me twice that most fish portions are over 18 oz. It is a good restaurant to split an appetizer, an entree, and a side.

Although scheduled opening dates frequently change, the Oceanaire currently plans to open here in late October or early November. If you decide to go, make a reservation. In Dallas, on a Tuesday night, the Oceanaire was reservation-only and every table was full.

(UPDATE: The Oceanaire, Houston is open for business, and I have tried it.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I have not been able to make my mind up about Mark’s. During some visits, I think the food may be the best in Houston. During other visits, I find it unextraordinary. Now I may know why.

Last Saturday, I tried a several outstanding, creative dishes. The best was black cod with foie gras butter. Black cod may be my favorite fish. It is a big, flaky white fleshed fish with a firm texture and buttery taste. The most famous preparation of this fish may be black cod marinated in miso by Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Nobu. Black cod marries well with the creaminess of miso. As Mark’s Chef Mark Cox has discovered, black cod also marries well with the creaminess of a sauce made with butter, wine, and foie gras. To make the dish even more interesting, Cox adds broccolini, tiny flavorful mushrooms (chanterelles?), fingerling potatoes, micro greens, and white pea shoots. The dish is complex, rich, and endlessly fascinating.

My wife ordered a ceasar salad. It was very good, but nothing original. Similarly, on an earlier visit, I ordered a seared beef tenderloin, which was served with mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The dish was executed well, but nothing about it was daring or interesting.

In short, Mark’s serves some dishes that are far more creative than any dish at tony’s. But not all of Mark’s dishes are innovative. Some other restaurants, such as laidback manor, have a more consistently creative streak. Yet Mark’s is almost always crowded.

Mark's combination of creative and ordinary dishes may be intentional. Mark's pleases all tastes -- real foodies as well as the steak-and-potatoes crowd. Everything is good. You just have to know which crowd you are in and order accordingly. When I have been disappointed at Mark’s, it was because I ordered food that was too mainstream. In the future, I will ask the waiter, “What is your most interesting dish tonight?” If I keep ordering the most unusual dish, Mark’s may again become my favorite restaurant in Houston.

If you have never been to Mark’s you should know that prices are very expensive. The wine list is excellent, but not one of the very best in Houston. The location on lower Westheimer has previously been a church, a head shop, and a pizza restaurant. It’s pretty, but there are more elegant places to eat. The real reason to go to Mark's is the food. If you go, you really owe it to yourself to try to order something more interesting than steak and potatoes.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Trip to Hong Kong City Mall

"Nobody stopped thinking about those psychedelic experiences. Once you've been to some of those places, you think, 'How can I get back there again but make it a little easier on myself?'"

-Jerry Garcia

I am driving outside the Beltway on Bellaire to Hong Kong City Mall. To prepare myself, I am playing "Dub Side of the Moon" - a reggae/dub cover version of the whole album of Pink Floyd's, "Dark Side of the Moon." Dub music is very trippy, and so is "Dark Side of the Moon." The combination of the two is pleasantly disorienting. And so is Hong Kong City Mall.

The mall has grown into a huge series of Chinese and Vietnamese shops and restaurants. The shops specialize in Asian music, DVD's, and hair styles. The restaurants sell Pho, Banh Mi, and Asian baked goods. But the highlight of the mall is the giant Hong Kong Market - the most wonderfully strange supermarket in Houston.

For an American of Western heritage, the foods at Hong Kong Market are downright weird. They sell some giant durian - the world's foulest smelling fruit - that are larger than my 7 year-old. They sell unimaginable varieties of fungus and Vietnamese herbs, giant thin purple eggplants, bitter melon, fresh water chestnuts, lime green gelatinous baked goods, dried fish parts, and animal parts that would never appear in a Western supermarket. In the produce section and at the fish counter, I don't recognize even half the products. They even have a whole aisle for products you can use to build your own little Buddhist shrine.

The market also has some incredible deals. I buy a large bag of bay leaves, which usually cost around $6, for 69 cents. I buy a tin of Jasmine tea, usually over $5, for less than $2. I also buy some strange products that I will almost certainly regret, like bitter melon tea. It cost less than $1, so it is worth trying.

It's lunchtime, so I buy this package wrapped in banana leaves and tied with a pretty bow. It is called "BanhChung" and it lists the ingredients as "rice, pork, mung bean, salt, pepper, banana leaves, onions, and msg." I untie it and find a square block of sticky rice. The first bite of rice isn't bad. I like the texture. Then I try the meat inside. It is savory, very salty, and has an odd flavor I can't quite pinpoint. It looks a bit like cat food. Then, after a few seconds, I start to recognize the taste . . . that's it! -- It's Spam! I stop eating. Suddenly a good trip has taken a turn for the worse. I start to feel a little dizzy -- maybe from the msg -- and nauseous -- probably from the Spam.

When I get home, I brew some Thai tea that I bought. It is flavored with star anise. The flavor reminds me of a milk and tea drink my grandmother used to make me. Or maybe the flavor is the combination of tea and anise cookies. The tea calms my stomach and brings me back from the nauseating experience of the block of rice and Spam.

When you don't know what you are doing, a trip to Hong Kong market can be very strange. Some surprises are pleasant; others are disturbing. It may help to have a guide -- someone who knows what the trip there is like and who can point you the right way.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 5 - Kojak's Deli

Some posts on say Kojak's Deli (on 18th near T.C. Jester) is one of Houston's best restaurants. These are their breathless comments:

"Kojak's is some of the most amazing food I have ever had the pleasure to eat!!! Everything that Chef Mark creates is a glorious experience for my taste buds."

"Mark is a trained chef and always has great food and extraordinarily reasonable prices!!!!"

"Simply put, one of the best restaurants in Houston."

I have been to Kojak's twice. It is an ordinary deli with unexceptional food.

Most of the menu consists of standard, uncreative sandwiches, salads, and pasta dishes. For instance, a pasta special with sun dried tomato came with two different pasta shapes, jarred red peppers, garlic, olives, olive oil, and a little parmesan Other than using two pasta shapes, which I would never do, it is the sort of pasta dish I might whip up at home after about 10 seconds thought. The other menu pastas are equally uninteresting -- linguini with marinara and meatballs, linguini with chicken and alfredo sauce, and linguini alfredo.

Another special, a pork tenderloin sandwich, was served on very good pressed bread, much like a real Cuban sandwich. But the inside was less interesting. Instead of large chunks of marinated pork, the sandwich used thin, watery slices. The pork was served with provolone cheese, a few sauteed peppers, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and a nice, slightly sweet sauce. It was good quality, but I have made far better pork tenderloin sandwiches at home. You can also order even less interesting sandwiches -- a burger, tuna melt, veggie burger, and a chicken club.

Kojak's is fine - maybe slightly better than a Jason's Deli. But it is not "amazing" or "glorious" or "one of the best restaurants in Houston." It is not even one of the best 300 restaurants in Houston. In fact, there are at least three other delis in town that begin with a "K" and serve much better food - Kahn's, Katz's, Kenny & Ziggy's.

You simply can't trust online food reviews. A review might be written by a competitor. Or the restaurant's owner. Or a real customer who doesn't get out very often. Or a kid spaced out on psychedellic drugs.

Or an opinionated food snob like me.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 4 - Vung Thai

"The lunch buffet offered everything I was planning to order so I tried it. Wonderful. I'll be back. Inexpensive as well, the buffet is $5.50."

-Review of Vung Thai on

Near northwest Houston is an interesting little corner of the city that has a lot of quirky, Mom and Pop, Americanized restaurants. The area has no fine dining, few chain restaurants, and almost no authentic ethnic restaurants. That is, none except Vung Thai.

Vung Thai fits the region in many respects. First, it is a quirky dump. The tables have bright yellow plastic tablecloths. The bottom half of the walls is tacky wood paneling, and the top half is painted bright lime green. There are some cheap decorations, an ugly fish tank, and metal and vinyl diner chairs. Some reviewers on allege that it is "dirty." But it's not dirty, just cheap.

Second, this place feels like a Mom and Pop shop. It is the opposite of Nit Noi, a decent Thai restaurant that grew too big and opened too many locations with suspiciously upscale decor.

I have had a hard time deciding whether Vung Thai authentic or Americanized. Is it real Thai food? Or is it Americanized like so many other restaurants in the area that claim to be "Chinese", "Italian", and "Mexican"?

My favorite restaurant reviewer, Robb Walsh, discovered Vung Thai in 2001:

Robb said the restaurant was authentic: "The food tastes like the kind your Mom would make if she were Thai." He also said the spice was really hot: "I like my food pretty damn hot, but I still find this heat level a tad too high."

In the 6 years since Robb's review, Vung Thai has changed. First, they have toned down the spice. Recently, I have tried at least 8 dishes, and I even requested some of them extra spicy. None was very hot at all. In fact, the spice was milder than many Thai restaurants around Houston. For instance, the basil chicken had far less pepper and basil than the wonderful version at Nit Noi downtown. (But, strangely, Vung Thai's version is spicier and better than the mediocre version at Nit Noi in Rice Village). And of course the spice level here is nowhere close to my favorite Thai restaurant in town - Kanomwon.

Second, the Americanization has begun. At lunch Vung Thai now serves a quaint buffet. It only has six items: tom yum soup, two kinds of spring rolls, pad thai, a curry, and a tofu-based entree. The curry is very mild. The pad thai has very little of the fish sauce and tamarind flavors that I expect from a good pad thai. And the tofu dish is downright dull -- an afterthought with lots of cabbage that seems to be included to please vegetarian customers. The only thing exceptional about this little buffet is the very cheap price: $5.50. The buffets at Patu and Thai Spice are much more extensive and much more interesting, but they cost twice as much.

Vung Thai is still home cooking in the sense that the vegetables are sliced unevenly and there is no attempt at presentation. Unlike the food at Nit Noi, which resembles the highly produced sound of Britney Spears in the 90s, Vung Thai's food remains more like the sound of the Rolling Stones in the 70s -- sloppy, ugly, and tasty.

Vung Thai remains a quirky little restaurant with home cooking, but the food has been changed by its location. Ultimately, most restaurants -- even funky Mom and Pop restaurants -- cannot resist the pressures of their environment. A restaurant's cuisine is not just the product of an isolated chef. It also is the product of the customers, the surrounding culture, and even the local air and water. When it opened, Vung Thai may have resembled a real Thai home kitchen, but it is becoming more and more like near northwest Houston.

UPDATE (June 4, 2007): Vung Thai seems to have changed owners, changed its name, and changed the items on its lunch buffet. My verdict is still out on the new restaurant.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


My first experience at tony's was awful. It was New Year's Eve in 1999. The old location in the Post Oak area was dark and stuffy, coats were required, the prices were outrageous, and the food was no better than banquet food. It was the worst rip-off I have experienced. Sure, a big part of the problem was that I went on New Year's Eve. But I was still unimpressed. It felt like a restaurant on its last leg.

But tony's was reborn in Greenway Plaza, and I finally tried it. Tony's has not recaptured its long-lost status as Houston's best restaurant. But it is the place to go for elegance. And for a foodie, it's not bad.

The most impressive aspect is the interior design. The stand-alone building is modern, elegant, and bright. Initially, you walk in through a door between two walls of running water. Inside, the emphasis is on glass, Mediterranean colors, and an almost Asian modernist feel. It also incorporates pieces by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jesus Moroles. Along with Trevisio, 17, Quattro, Americas, and Uptown Sushi, it is one of the most creative restaurant designs in Houston. It also may be the most elegant. Yet the feel is now younger, a little more casual and less stuffy, which befits the new location near West U.

Tony's is known for its service, and it was good. The waiters were knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly. But not flawless. They dropped a drink next to our table, and never picked up some large ragged shards of glass next to my chair. They also seated our party of non-socialites in Siberia, even though the restaurant had plenty of interior tables. By the time we finished, we were completely alone, even though the interior of the restaurant was buzzing. At least dining in quiet allowed us to focus on the food.

Unfortunately, the food is not the main reason to dine at tony's. The menu choices are not tired or clichéd, but they are fairly safe. The focus is on top quality, expensive ingredients in simple preparations. Most dishes are well prepared, but few dishes amount to more than the sum of their parts. And there was almost nothing on the menu that I have not had previously at another restaurant. These are some examples that I tasted:

-Veal with a morel mushroom sauce was the best dish I tried. I did not know what to expect because I find veal dull, but morrels are one of my favorite ingredients. Fortunately, the morels dominated the dish and made it sing.

-Rabbit with garlic, olives, and porcini mushroom sauce. This was one giant rabbit -- legs much bigger than a large chicken. Unfortunately, the sauce was a little too acidic and vinegary and did little to integrate or enhance the tastes of the rabit, garlic, and olives.

-Ravioli with braised short ribs. Dull. Dull. Dull. And it did not have to be. I have had similar dishes that were far better, such as the ravioli with brawn at laidback manor. At tony's, the short rib meat was remarkably flavorless. The white cream sauce was advertised as "sage essence" but I barely tasted any sage. I only tasted a white and creamy blandness.

-Pasta with shaved truffles. The truffles were great. It is rare for a restaurant to freshly shave the truffle on a dish at the table, which was really neat. The rest of the dish was just a vehicle for the taste of truffle. There was no interesting combination. It was the sum of its parts, but one part was really good.

-Bosc pear salad with gorgonzola. Passable, but dull. I have made much better salad with pears and cheese at home. The dressing did little to bring the flavor of the pears and cheese to life. Again, the sum of its parts.

-Chocolate Souffle. Everyone orders tony's souffle. They have one chef whose sole job is to make it. It is huge and fluffy, but they use far too much sugar. The sugar not only makes the dish too sweet, but it makes the texture too grainy. I have had much better versions of the same dish at other restaurants in Houston, such as Le Mistral. Tony's version was fun, like cotton candy is fun. But it was not great.

Finally, the wine list is one of the best in town. If money is no object, they have four good vintages of Screaming Eagle at about $2,500, and 100+ year-old wines from Bordeaux for over $10,000. But they also have a good selection of wines from around the world in the $50 range, and a great selection of wines in the $100 range.

Tony's is expensive, elegant, and fun. Plus, the food is reasonably good. But of six dishes, only one was magic. That is why tony's is no longer the best. There are at least 10 other restaurants in town with a higher batting average.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 3 - Jazzie's Cafe

Once again, I go to for a recommendation on a restaurant in near northwest Houston. I find a lot of people talking about the shrimp po-boy at a little food stand on W. 19th east of Shepherd called Jazzie's Cafe.

There are two good reasons why people are so proud of finding this spot. First, Jazzie's has Houston's best shrimp po-boy. It has long amazed me that no restaurant in Houston could replicate the unique flavor of a shrimp or oyster po-boy from New Orleans. Some cajun restaurants, like New Orleans Po-Boy, don't get the bread right. Others, like Rajin' Cajun, don't get the filling right. Still others cajun restaurants, like Treebeards, don't even bother with trying.

But Jazzie's pulls it off. Their shrimp po-boy comes on fresh french bread. It is perfectly dressed -- just the right amount of mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes. It also includes a huge quantity of perfectly fried shrimp. The readers on b4-u-eat all gush:

-"VERY GOOD shrimp po-boy"

-"their po-boys are excellent"

-"This place has an awesome shrimp po-boy ... nearly a foot long on a fresh soft baguette, properly dressed ... I could only eat half of it. On the half I didn't eat, I counted 22 good-sized shrimp. The thing was stuffed! It was easily the best shrimp po-boy I've found in Houston."

This time, I agree with their 4-sentence reviews. Jazzie's sells a great shrimp po-boy. It tastes more like New Orleans than any other po-boy in Houston.

But there is a second reason why the b4-u-eat reviewers and I love Jazzie's. Part of the joy -- and part of the reason we want to tell others about it -- is our surprise and pride in the journey we took to find such a perfect food in such an unexpected place. To get to Jazzie's, you have to drive down an ugly side street in a dull part of town to find a dingy little stand that doesn't look like it could possibly be any good. And when you find it is good, you know it must be authentic. This joy of discovery is why so many Inner Loopers love joints like Lankford Grocery and Market and Christian's Tailgate -- dirty looking shacks that sell sandwiches so good that they could only be made with some authentic, primitive magic, unknown to our civilized, urban world.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 2 - Texas Cafeteria

As I continue to search Near NW Houston for restaurant finds, I again turn to the populist restaurant review site, I discover a joint on Shepherd near the North Loop called Texas Cafeteria. See if you can catch the common theme in these reviews:

“Do not let the outside scare you off.”

“Probably would'nt [sic.] think twice to stop in if you were driving by.”

“Won't find any Roll Royces in the parking lot, it is a working class group that goes there.”

Everyone agrees: Texas Cafeteria is butt-ugly. From the parking lot, it looks like they only let in customers who drive beat up pickup trucks. So as an adventurous, anonymous, amateur food critic, this was a place I had to try.

A litmus test for cafeteria food is the rolls. At Texas Cafeteria, they serve hot, yeasty clover rolls that are the Platonic ideal of cafeteria rolls. And they are free!

The rest of the food is mixed quality, but generally decent. The only healthy entrée I noticed on my first visit was a grilled chicken breast with some bell peppers, mushrooms, and a little cheese on top. The dish was nothing special, but at about $6 for the main course, 2 veggies, and a roll, it was a steal. On my next visit, I succumbed to the lure of the fish special – some chunks (not fillets) of catfish or tilapia that were fried fresh to order. This fish was hot and crispy, yet not greasy. It came with a few fried shrimp that were good sized and, amazingly, deveined. Again, at about $6, the dish was a real bargain. Most of the veggies looked over-cooked or over-cheesed. I ordered the sweet potatoes, which turned out to be over-cooked and over-sweetened, but not too badly.

In short, the food is fine, but nothing to drive across town for. I hear their breakfast is good, but have not tried it.

The real reason to come here is the atmosphere. Inside are photos, wood paneling, and lots of fishing memorabilia. It feels like a hangout in a small town. About 80% of the customers are men – working men. Many of them have their name sewn onto their shirt pockets. The owner plays fishing videos and football clips (even in the summer off-season). Plus, the nice serving ladies keep your ice tea glass full.

Cafeterias are a phenomenon of the South, and Texas Cafeteria feels like the South. It is the new South – a mix of whites, blacks, and Mexican Americans. But in other ways it is not so diverse. It is very male and very blue collar. Nope, you won’t find many foodies here. Or intellectuals. Or metrosexuals. Or (gasp) Yankees. And you might be a little overwhelmed by all the fishing stuff, pickup trucks, fried fish, and over-cooked sweet potatoes. But you also might just relax and enjoy the feeling that aliens have beamed you up from urban, inner-Loop Houston and transported you to a quaint, small-town Texas cafeteria.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 1 - Golden Cafe

I am exploring the region that I call "near northwest Houston." This region is described in my last post

Because I am exploring this region for the first time, I need a guide. I cannot look to food critics Robb Walsh and Alison Cook because they rarely review any restaurants here. The region also is not well represented on Citysearch. Instead, the best guide for the area is -- the best site for populist restaurant reviews written by average folk. These 4-sentence reviewers don't think too much of fancy food, and they love their bargains.

Armed with, I ran a search to find the best Asian food in the area. The best reviews were for Golden Cafe. These were some of the gushing comments taken from the 4 most recent reviews [with my reactions in brackets]:

-"I have tried almost every Chinese restaurant in the area, and this is by far the best of the best. They are extremely clean and friendly." ["Clean waiters" -- that's a real plus.]

-"the food is great, abundant and reasonably priced." ["Abundant" sounds like "overweight"].

-"Excellent high quality food. I'm picky about white meat chicken and don't have to worry about that here. It's all white meat." [Someone should tell her that real Chinese chefs prefer dark meat. It has far more flavor].

-"Excellent food, large choices, reasonbly priced and great service. Can't ask for more." [except maybe authenticity or innovation?]

Assured that the waiters are clean, the portions are huge, the chicken meat is all white, I had to try the restaurant.

In every respect, Golden Cafe is a classic, thoroughly Americanized Chinese restaurant circa 1975. The restaurant is inside a dingy, gaudy colored building on 19th near Ella. Inside, I first notice the plastic holders on every table with yellow mustard and day-glo orange sweet sauce. Preserved under the glass table top is the traditional red paper placemat with the signs of the Chinese zodiac. As I might expect, the menu does not have a single unique dish. Every item is exactly the same item you find at any other cheap Americanized Chinese restaurant. They have about 30 specials that come with soup (egg drop and sweet and sour, of course), egg roll, and fried rice.

Trying to stay healthy, I order garlic chicken, because it looks like one of the few non-fried items. I also asked for white rice, even though the menu does not give that as an option. As I waited they brought me an amuse bouche -- a bowl of fried strips to eat like tortilla chips -- just in case the egg roll, fried rice, and fried entree are not enough fried for one meal. I began to wonder, does the "Golden" in Golden Cafe really mean "golden fried"?

When my garlic chicken arrived, it came with many chunks of the promised white meat, covered in a sauce amply thickened with corn starch. But this garlic chicken had a secret ingredient. Rather than adding a lot of garlic, which tends to be too strong for some white folk, they had added copious amounts of sugar. This must be the sweetest garlic chicken in town. The egg roll was well-executed and exactly what you would expect. It was a crispy fried roll filled with cabbage and finely ground mystery meat (white meat chicken?) that pairs nicely with the msg-laden mustard and the day glo orange sweet sauce.

Yes, the portions are large. Yes, the price is cheap ($4.95). Yes, all the chicken is white.

No, there are no Chinese American patrons. No, this place has absolutely no authenticity or innovation whatsoever.

But Golden Cafe is quaint and nostalgic, in an American way. It reminds me of the Chinese food I learned to eat when I learned to eat Chinese food in the early 1970s -- back before we had Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean reastaurants and Chinese restaurants that actually tried to be authentic. Sure, I would rather eat at Mai's or Kanomwon or real Chinese food at a great restaurant like Fung's Kitchen. But I can understand why so many white people like Golden Cafe: It tastes more like home.

Near NW Houston - Introduction

I am currently obsessed with near northwest Houston. This is the region bounded by the Heights on the east, I-10 on the South, the West Loop and Northwest Mall on the West, and the North Loop and Garden Oaks on the North. The epicenter of this region is Ella and T.C. Jester.

The near northwest is notable for the restaurants it does not have -- no "fine dining," no trendy eateries, no exotic ethnic restaurants, and surprisingly few chains (although there is a Dairy Queen). It feels a bit like small town America before it was franchised. Many of the restaurants are like a time capsule to the 70s or 80s. They tend to be Mom 'n Pop establishments that cater to an unpretentious crowd. And they can be a little quirky.

In the next few weeks, I will talk about some of the representative restaurants in this area, including: Golden Cafe, Texas Cafeteria, Jazzie's, Kojak's Deli, and Cavatore's Restaurant.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wine and the Middle East

"Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more."
-Proverbs 31: 6/7

"I'm sure that being sober all these years accounts for my ill humor."-Fran Leebowitz

This post has almost nothing to do with Houston. It is about Israel and Lebanon and wine.

Five months ago, I took my family to Israel. We visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Masada, and Galilee. But the thing that impressed me most was the quality of new Israeli wines.

We went to a party at the Grape Man, a wine bar in Jaffa outside of Tel Aviv. where I tried at least 10 different Israeli wines. These were not your ordinary, overly-sweet Kosher wines. They were modern wines, such as cabernet sauvignons, merlots, and shirazes. They were concentrated, balanced and elegant. Many were indistinguishable from outstanding wines that you would get from California, France, or Australia.

One wine in particular caught my attention -- the 2003 Galil Mountain Yiron. It was a concentrated blend of 60% Cabernet and 40% Merlot. It was a rich and complex wine with strong fruit. At first, I thought it was a Syrah/Grenache blend because of its jammy fruit. The grapes are grown in the Golan Heights in the northeast part of Israel. I brought a few bottles home in my carry-on luggage, which now thanks to Al-Qaeda we can no longer do.

A few months ago at Saffron in Houston, I had a bottle Chateau Kefraya, which is a Lebanese Cabernet. It too can compete with outstanding cabernets from elsewhere. It is grown in southeast Lebanon.

The current fighting makes me think about these wonderful wines. These Four people died a few days ago in a bomb attack in Kefraya. With the large scale exodus from these regions, will even be a 2006 vintage? At a minimum, the new wave of outstanding vinticulture in Israel and Lebanon will surely suffer.

I have a forward-thinking Middle East peace plan: get all the warring factions together and make them all drink these wonderful wines. Then they would stop shooting rockets . . . and go back to making wine.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Green Tea Rendezvous

"Ok, who ordered the green tea?"
-Samurai Jack, Episode 9

I get excited when a chef takes an ingredient out of its usual context and transports it to a new setting with unexpected results.

That is why I am such a fan of the Green Tea Rendezvous dessert at Kubo's. The chef takes a good, but ordinary tiramisu and covers it, and the plate, with matcha -- a fine, powdered green tea. On the side, he serves a bowl of green tea ice cream, some mint leaves, and an odd raspberry-like Japanese berry.

By itself, matcha is strongly flavored and bitter with a seaweed-like flavor. When I have tried tea made with matcha, I wanted to like it, but it was too bitter and odd. But I am a fan of green tea ice cream, which is usually made with matcha. Green tea ice cream is not as sweet as American ice cream. The matcha flavoring gives it a slight bitterness, and sea-like quality. It is subtle and complex. Somehow, it makes me think about the flavors more than an overly sweet American desserts.

The pairing with tiramisu is brilliant. Like green tea ice cream, tiramisu is not very sweet. Yes, it has been overexposed for the last 15 years. (The line about tiramisu in "Harry Met Sally" was the turning point of over-exposure.) But the addition of green tea makes tiramisu interesting again. It brings adds complexity and an exotic quality to the dish, and pairs well with the coffee flavors in the dessert. The dessert is simultaneously familiar and strange -- a great way to introduce the American palate to the flavor of matcha, which most of us Americans do not like by itself.

I have written about other food at Kubo's before in my posts on June 22, 2006 and December 18, 2005. It really is one of Houston's culinary gems, and the atmosphere is very hip. The service -- particularly one waiter, Jake -- is outstanding.

Monday, August 07, 2006


"Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's perfect food."

--Michael Levine (a nutrition researcher), The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars

We are on the cusp of a second revolution in chocolate.

Fifteen years ago, most chocolate fell into one of several categories: overly-sweet, mass-produced American milk chocolate candies and chocolate bars; specialty "chocolate box" stores like Russell Stover with chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-covered nuts, and the like; and a few kinds of imported European chocolates, like Lindt. In the last 15 years, we have had two revolutions in chocolate that give chocolate lovers some new, outstanding choices.

Revolution 1 -- "Pure" chooclate bars. About a decade ago, there was a revolution in the kind of chocolate you could find on the shelves of Houston's best food stores. The revolution happened after the European Union, in 1994, began requiring chocolate makers to identify the percentage of cacao. Suddenly, chocolate producers began to compete to see who could make the most hardcore, "pure" chocolate. The 70%-plus cacao bars are my favorites. Typically, this new, stronger tasting chocolate was marketed based on its country or region of production. This revolution was much like the Starbucks revolution in coffee -- an overnight shift from weaker, less flavorful coffee, marketed by brand instead of by growing region to a much stronger, intensely flavored coffee specifically marketed by region of origin.

Revolution 2 -- Gourmet chocolate. Now, a new revolution is emerging. It is the use of this wonderfully strong chocolate in combination with other gourmet ingredients. This is the revolution I appreciate because the real artistry of cooking is in creating new, wonderful combinations. This movement goes where chocolate has never gone before.

An outstanding local gourmet choclatier is Richard Kaplan, who sells chocolate under the name Brown Paper Chocolates. Kaplan makes a large, unadorned 4.5 ounce cube of chocolate that he sells in a brown box. Each chocolate has a mixture of gourmet ingredients, such as:

-Dark chocolate with almonds, tequila, ancho chili;
-Dark chocolate with pistachios, cointreau, dried cherries, orange peel;
-Dark chocolate with espresso, Kahlua, cocoa nibs;
-Milk chocolate with cashews, Jack Daniel's and sea salt;
-White chocolate with pistachio, coffee liquor, caramel, orange peel.

Brown Paper Chocolates are for people who don't just love chocolate, but who need chocolate. They are quite simply the best chocolate I have had anywhere. The chocolate flavor is particularly intense. Unlike traditional American chocolate bars, Kaplan heightens, rather than dilutes, the flavor of the chocolate with small amounts of other ingredients. For instance, ingredients like ancho chile, espresso, sea salt bring out some of the best aspects of chocolate flavor.

These chocolates work particularly well with dessert wines. For instance the dark chocolate with ancho chili is great with late harvest zinfandel. The white chocolate with pistachio is great with sauternes.

I bought Brown Paper Chocolate when Kaplan first began selling them himself at the Saturday morning Midtown Farmer's Market at T'afia. He made helpful suggestions about wine pairings. Now you can also get them for around $6 at Spec's downtown, or for around $9 in the cheese aisle at Central Market. I also saw them at Berring's Hardware (!?). Soon Brown Paper Chocolate will be everywhere.

An outstanding local chocolate vendor is the Cutting Garden. The Cutting Garden does not make their own chocolates; instead they buy them from around the country. These resemble the old Russell Stover-style of boxed chocolates, but they are the prettiest, most artistic chocolates I have ever seen. A box of these chocolates is an impressionistic swirl of colors, and true to this style, each chocolate has a surprise flavor inside. Plus they taste a lot better than Russell Stover.

To try this revolution, go to the Cutting Garden for little chocolates that taste good, look like art, and make a wonderful gift. Or get a Brown Paper Chocolate if you want to gnaw on an ugly block of chocolate that explodes with wonderful flavors.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Café Mezza - something for everyone

"My menu has something for everyone; hearty pastas, traditional American sandwiches, fresh homemade soups and salads. While at the same time we have marinated grilled kabobs, steaks, and ‘mezzas’ or assorted Mediterranean appetizers such as hummus and baba ganooch."

-Chef Mike Tibi, Café Mezza & Grille website

Café Mezza looks like a bad idea -- an Americanized cross between Middle Eastern food, Italian food, and the Cheesecake Factory. The bright, casual restaurant is in a strip center on Westheimer, outside the Loop just west of Fountainview. They play loud, bad 80s music. They offer well over 50 different dishes, including salads, pastas, sandwiches, and grilled meats. Their food sounds vaguely Middle Eastern (kabobs, hummus), vaguely Italian (fettuccini alfredo, chicken parmigiana), or just American (turkey melt, fish taco, veggie burger).

Yet I keep going back to Café Mezza. Every dish I have tried has been surprisingly good. Here are some of the best:

-Baba ganooch is usually a puree of eggplant, tahini, and olive oil. But at Café Mezza, it also includes diced tomatoes and walnuts, which really improves the texture. On comes on a plate with two other appetizers for $10.

-Fatoush salad is usually a salad of tomato, cucumber, olive oil, and vinegar. But the Café Mezza version adds crumbled feta, crispy bits of pita bread, and generous amount of mint, which greatly improves the flavor.

-Chicken apple sausage ($13) is fabulous. It comes with angel hair pasta, creamy spicy chipotle sauce, baby spinach, and carmelized granny smith apples. The dish is rich, smoky, sweet, and very spicy.

-A beef tenderloin salad ($12) sounds like a list of trendy ingredients from 15 years ago: chuncks of beef tenderloin, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted garlic, and garlic dressing. The flavor of the dressing, and the combination of the ingredients, make this a very tasty dish.

-The fillet mignon on the shish kabob platter ($13) is good, as are the grilled vegetables on the side. But the best part of this dish is the basmatti rice, which is more flavorful than any basmatti rice I have ever had.

Café Mezza offers various kids platters for $5 and over 25 different sandwiches for $6 - $8.

Café Mezza also is BYOB. They do not charge a corkage fee.

Yes, the food at Café Mezza is a cultural mishmash. Yes, the menu looks like a Mediterranean version of Cheesecake Factory. Yes, Café Mezza blatantly panders to mainstream American tastes. But every dish I have had is innovative enough to be interesting. It tastes a lot better than Cheesecake Factory, or any other restaurant of that ilk. I get to bring my own wine. And it's cheap. How bad can that be?