Thursday, August 27, 2009

tacos a go-go

Tacos A Go-Go is a little taco shop next to the Continental Club on Main. It has been getting a lot of attention in the press. Like its neighbor, the interior tries hard to channel an Austin vibe -- colorful decor and kitschy artifacts, including a shrine to the virgin surrounded with Christmas lights, and a giant bust of carmen Miranda.

When a place looks like that, I get suspicious about the food.

Fortunately, the food turns out to be pretty tasty. A chorizo breakfast taco was loaded with a generous serving of egg and sausage. For lunch, a carne guisada taco had large chunks of tender, stewed beef in a light-textured gravy.

I have had more flavorful chorizo elsewhere. And the guisada could have used some more cumin. Yet the quality of both tacos was far above average. And the hot red and green salsas will help if you are looking for more flavor.

The big surprise is barbacoa. After one bite I knew the flavor wasn't beef. It was my favorite meat -- lamb. It has the texture of the best taco-truck tacos, yet it is the gamey flavor of lamb that takes it over the top.

For my admittedly warped palate, this is as good as barbacoa gets.

Friday, August 14, 2009

tall sandwiches, egg on top

If it happens once, it is an oddity. But when it happens twice, it's a movement.

Gravitas and Beaver's are serving narrow sandwiches that are so tall -- at least 5 inches high -- that neither will fit in your mouth. And both are topped with a messy fried egg.

Gravitas's Aussie Burger

Gravitas's Aussie Burger comes on a thick but narrow Kaiser roll, with a thick but narrow meat patty. Then it is stacked high with lettuce, tomato, beets (!), pineapple(!!), and an sunny-side-up egg (!!!).

I wasn't sure how to eat this burger. It did not come close to fitting in my mouth. So I tried cutting it with fork and knife. But that created an unwieldy mess that wasn't really a burger. Ultimately I had to eat the component parts separately.

The combination of flavors was intriguing, even if it was difficult to eat them all at the same time. The meat was juicy. And the whole thing looked stunning. But architecturally, it was a mess.

Would I order it again? Heck yeah.

Sadly, Gravitas's chef, Jason Gould announced his departure last week on Twitter. I hope he isn't leaving town and taking his tall burgers with him.

Beaver's Pit Boss Chickwich (pictured above)

This sandwich is almost as tall, topped by a fried egg, and extraordinarily messy. But the very architecture is an admission that you can't eat this one by hand. And that's ok.

Jonathan Jones' chickwich mixes shredded chicken with a spicy barbecue sauce. The bottom bun lays on top of a layer of sweetly dressed cabbage slaw. The chicken is topped with slices of jalapeno, an over-easy egg, and some thin, crunchy onion rings.

This sandwich simply can't be eaten by hand. The bottom bun is soaked by dressing from the slaw on one side and the sloppy chicken on the other.

Unlike the Aussie burger, this one was easier to eat by fork because the component parts were smaller and soggier. You could get a bit of chicken, slaw, egg, bun, and jalapeno in every bite.

A philosophical movement?

What's behind these impossibly tall sandwiches topped with an egg?

These chefs, like me, may be sick of the tiny little sliders, which are so cute and can be popped in your mouth in one bite.

In contrast, these behemoths aren't cute. And they can't be popped in your mouth. You can't even get your mouth around them. They are an argument for the sandwich as a manly, messy monstrosity that refusees to be reduced -- in size or flavor.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Restaurant closings

Like everyone, I have felt a little pain from the recession. I have lost some income. My savings have been cut in half.

But I am lucky that nothing truly terrible has happened. I haven't lost my job. And none of my favorite restaurants closed.

That is, not until now.

Goodbye Mint Cafe, La Jaliscience

Mint Cafe was one of my favorite casual restaurants. The food was simple, Middle Eastern food, with a few interesting surprises.

Mint was run by a family. And the more we went, the more we felt like family. That makes the closing even harder to swallow.

La Jaliscience on Yale was one of my two or three favorite places to eat Mexican food. Like Mint, it was nothing fancy, just simple, inexpensive Mexican food. It also felt like family. And I felt like the crazy gringo cousin who could speak just enough Spanish to get by.

In the past few weeks, I have gone to both restauarants and found them shuttered.

The economy and restaurants

For the most part, restaurants in Houston have faired ok in this recession. Most of my favorite restaurants inside the Loop have stayed afloat.

Yet the Greater Houston area has had a lot of closings. Many of these are listed at b4-u-eat.

This lists suggests that the suburbs have been hit hard. Sadly, the end of nationwide recessions is often the hardest part for the Houston economy -- and for restaurants struggling to stay open.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pho Binh 3

Who makes Houston's best pho?

That is a question food bloggers can debate endlessly. In Houston, right now, the debate centers on 3 contenders:

-Pho Danh
-Thien An
-Pho Binh

The debate is complicated by the fact that Pho Danh has 3 locations, and Pho Binh has at least 7.

Pho Binh 3

Yesterday, I finally made it to Pho Binh's Mangum location. Apparently, it was the 3rd Pho Binh opened, but it is also the headquarters. So I thought it was a good location to sample.

The restaurant is a collection of smart business ideas:

1 - focus on only two Vietnamese dishes that every likes: Pho and grilled meats;
2 - open only for lunch;
3 - give a choice of exactly what meats to include (so the less adventurous can avoid tripe and tendon); and
4 - make the pho cheap ($6.45 for a generous "regular" bowl; $7.50 for a large).

It works. The dining room was packed by noon. And the crowd was diverse -- although about 80% were guys. (There is something manly about noodles).

Pho details

I tried a traditional version with rare steak, brisket, tendon and tripe:

The ultimate test of pho is the broth. This broth is much better than the average pho because of its spices. Pho almost always includes star anise and cinnamon. You might also find cloves, cardamom, or ginger.

This pho smelled and tasted like a spice market. It may be the most concentratedly spiced pho in town. I suspect this is why some bloggers think it is the best.

I sllightly prefer for Pho Danh for a few reasons. First, its broth tasted more complex, like it was cooked longer, even if the spice wasn't as strong. Second, Pho Danh provided a wider selection of accompaniments, including a variety of herbs. At Pho Binh, you only get one herb, plus japalenos, sprouts, and lime.

Still, these are minor quibbles. Pho Binh, Pho Danh and Thien An all make pho that is far, far better than your average soup with noodles, including all the swill that is often passed off as pho.

All 3 contenders demonstrate why pho is one of the world's great soups.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Venezuelan empanadas

Empanadas again

In May, I started hunting for good empanadas. I didn't like strange crust flavor of the fried Argentinian empanadas at the Original Marini's. The fried hemp empanada at Ruggles Green were a little too greasy. The baked Argentinian empanadas at Manena's tasted best. Still, I had a feeling that I could do better.

Then a good friend offered to make her favorite empanadas from a Venezuelan recipe.

Feast of empanadas

When Lizzette brought out the platter of fried empanadas and arepas, I was a little overwhelmed.

Fried empanadas are usually heavy. So it is hard to eat more than one. Yet within 30 minutes, 5 people devoured the entire plate. Strangely, these fried empanadas almost tasted light.

There is no question. These empanadas were far, far better than the fried empanadas at Marini's and Ruggles. They didn't have the frozen burrito flavor. The crust had a clean, light flavor and a crispy texture.

Although we had a few varieties, my favorite had a filling of queso blanco and sugar cane. It was a striking contrast of sharp cheese flavors and with the sweetness of the sugar cane.

The secret - masa

Lizzette let me in on the secret of why these Venezuelan empanadas were so much better -- the crust is not made of flour, but masa corn meal.


The last batch was a real treat. Lizzette tired of rolling out and folding empanadas. Instead, she used the same masa crust to make arepas.

We cut open and stuffed our own arepas with guiso de pollo, a stew of chicken, raisins, and spices. We then topped them with a fabulous green sauce called guasacaca -- made with a pepper called aji dulce, avocado, onion, bell pepper. tomatillo, garlic, parsley, and cilantro. The sauce was mild on pepper but heavy on wonderful garden flavors.

In both the arepas and empanadas, the masa added a texture of grainy earthiness. It also soaked up less grease than fried empanadas with flour crust. This crust was far superior.

Where to get Venezuelan empanadas?

Although you might not get the chance to have Venezuelan-style emapanadas at my friend Lizzette's house, I hear they serve them at Tuttopane bakery. I can't wait to try them.