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.