Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dumpling Hunt Part 3 -- Alternative Dumplings

I appreciate all the suggestions everyone has sent me about dumplings. I am going to have to eat a lot before I finish this series.

Apart from traditional Chinese dumplings, there are a number of interesting alternatives and variations. This is a sampling of three:

Daniel Wong's is a quirky Chinese Restaurant on Bissonnet near Newcastle. Mr. Wong's cooking plays with both American and Chinese cooking styles -- in a way that is not pandering, but creative, playful, and very homemade. For instance, he makes a great seafood gumbo, and wonderful dishes such as Road Kill Pork and Hermann Park Duck.

Wong's steamed vegetable dumplings are more like ravioli than traditional dumplings. He takes a square of pasta, folds it into a flat triangle, and steams it. The pasta is not the best I have had, but the vegetable filling reflects a lot of care and attention. It includes finely chopped carrots, cabbage, greens, and green onions. This filling, unlike so many dumplings, actually has flavor.

Also excellent are Wong's pan fried chicken dumplings. For these pot sticker dumplings, the pasta and the preparation are more traditional. But Wong adds some finely chopped vegetables and green onions to the chicken to give it much more flavor than the ordinary chicken dumpling.

Benjy's -- a hip, modern American restaurant in the Rice Village -- also has dumplings on the menu at the moment. The dumplings themselves are not very interesting. They are fairly traditional pot stickers, limp fried posta with a lump of boiled pork in the middle. But they place the dumplings on a bed of cabbage and cover them with an extremely spicy sauce. The base ingredient is soy, but I also taste a lot of ginger and chili pepper. The sauce is even spicier than the extra spicy sauce at Doozo, and I spend a lot of time after finishing the dumplings just eating the cabbage to get the sauce. Unfortunately, I ordered an excellent A. Rafanelli Zinfandel, and the spicy sauce obliterates my palate for the wine.

Benjy's dumplings are far from ideal, but they suggest the possibilities of what a creative American chef might create when they tackle the Chinese dumpling. I wish they took more care with the pasta and filling to match their killer sauce.

Kubo's -- a hip, modern sushi restaurant in the Rice Village -- has an even better spicy dumpling called "wasabi shumai." Structurally, these are the kind of dumplings that stand up, with an open top, and look like tiny, just-opening flower bud. Although the filling seems like the ordinary lump-of-ground-pork center, the sides are encased with a spicy wasabi pasta. These dumplings explode with flavor in your mouth, even without any sauce.

Although I am not certain, I believe that Kubo's wasabi shunmai are not a traditional Japanese dish, but a creative variation on the Chinese dumpling. Although various Japanese restaurants around the US serve wasabi shumai, the word "shumai" is Chinese, and the construction of the dumpling is similar to some Chinese recipes.

Even after two thousand years, the evolution of the dumpling continues -- and splinters. There are hundreds, if not thousands of variations. Wikipedia's entry on dumplings describes different kind of dumplings in the cuisines of England, the Caribbean, Germany, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Siberia, Ukraine, Himalaya, India, Japan, Korea, Turkey, and the southern U.S.

If I try all of those, I will be writing about dumplings for the next year. So before I go too far afield, I will return in my next post to trying to find the best Chinese dumplings in Houston.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dumpling Hunt Part 2 -- Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's

My hunt for a really good Chinese dumpling next took me to Houston's two other restaurants with "dumpling" in the title: Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's Dumpling House.

These two restaurants look very different. Dumpling King is in a dark little space in a dreary strip mall on Westheimer near Voss. A wall cuts off most of the light that would otherwise come through the small front window. The restaurant's interior is dingy and depressing. At lunch, there are few customers, although about half are Asian.

In contrast Auntie Chang's is on the second floor of a high class shopping center on Westheimer at Shepard, near River Oaks. The interior is spacious, with many open windows that look out over the city. The design is upscale particularly waves of fabric on the ceiling. And, unlike Dumpling King there are many customers, representing all races, except Asians.

You guessed it, my first impression is that Dumpling King is highly authentic and Auntie Chang's is not. In Chinese restaurants, there usually is an inverse relation between the quality of the interior decorating and the quality of the food. The interior decorating at Dumpling King is so horribly awful, that the food must be great. But then, the real proof is in the dumpling.

First, I should mention that my assessment focuses on a dumpling's three components: (1) the pasta, (2) the filling, and (3) the condiments. A great dumpling strikes a balance between the pasta and filling. If the pasta is too thick, it smothers the filling. If the pasta is too thin, it lacks the toothsome quality of a great dumpling. Additionally, the filling should not be an afterthought. The filling should be able stand on its own as a tasty food, without condiments. A good set of condiments adds the finishing touch -- some individualized extra flavor and spice to turn a great dumpling into a perfect dumpling.

At both Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's, I am immediately impressed with the condiments. Dumpling King offers jars of vinegar, ginger, soy, sesame oil, and chili paste. Auntie Chang's adds a yellow sweet and sour sauce and a second kind of chili peppers, and has all the other condiments except vinegar. This is a bit disturbing because vinegar is a crucial dumpling condiment. Nonetheless, at both restaurants, I am able to mix up condiments into my own spicy, flavorful sauce.

Dumpling King's plate of 10 assorted steamed dumplings is good, but not great. The pasta is a nice texture, but some of the fillings are indifferent. For instance, the pork and chicken dumpling fillings look and taste like lumps of boiled meat. The best of the bunch is a vegetable dumpling. I could not identify the ingredients, except greens and cabbage, but it tastes like the filling for a very good egg roll. I can imagine better vegetable dumplings, but these have more flavor than the veggie dumplings I have tried at other restaurants during my hunt.

Auntie Chang's plate of 8 assorted steam dumplings is no better, but no worse. These dumplings are somewhat smaller, and the pasta a bit lighter. Like the restaurant's decor, Auntie Chang's seems to take more care in creating the look of these dumplings. The pasta has an oblong shape with carefully constructed ridges on top. If you are a Star Trek fan, you would recognize that they look exactly like the alien spacecraft in the first episode of the first season of Next Generation. Coincidence? Or did Star Trek's set designers order Chinese take out.

Like Dumpling King, the fillings at Auntie Chang's seem a bit indifferent. The pork and chicken are tasteless lumps of meat. The shrimp dumplings look like they use miniature shrimp, which are usually frozen and inferior, instead of chopped fresh shrimp. And the veggie filling -- basically just greens -- is not as interesting as the veggie filling at Dumpling King. Overall, Auntie Chang's has a slight edge for the pasta, and Dumpling King has a slight edge for the fillings. At both places, the dumplings are just so-so on their own, but they improve greatly if you know how to mix a great sauce from the condiments.

Now I have exhausted all four Houston restaurants named "dumpling," and I am left wondering, surely there is a better dumpling in Houston? Surely some restaurant can make a more flavorful dumpling without having to add strongly flavored condiments? Surely the inside of a dumpling can be more interesting? But where can I find this elusive great dumpling?

NEXT: Alternative dumplings at Benjy's and Kubo's

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Great Dumpling Hunt Part 1 - Doozo Dumplings

Happy Chinese New Year.

I have been thinking a lot about Chinese dumplings. And I have been hunting for Houston's best dumpling. This is the first in a series about that hunt.

Why would someone give so much attention to dumplings? Two reasons. First, for me, the dumpling is the perfect comfort food. There is something very comforting about these warm, pasta wrapped morsels.

Second, Chinese dumplings have an important history. At least 4,000 years ago, some Chinese cook mixed ground flour with water and made the first pasta. By 300 A.D., another Chinese cook took the pasta and wrapped it around a filling, making the first dumpling. A historical myth holds that Marco Polo brought pasta back to Itally, but most food historians now think that Italians independently created pasta about 200 years before Marco Polo visited China in 1266. However, Marco Polo may have introduced the dumpling to Eurpope. There is even evidence that the Italians were making ravioli by 1290, only shortly after Marco Polo's trip. Perhaps the food he brought back from China was not the noodle, but the dumpling.

The hunt for Houston's best dumpling is a daunting task. Houston has at least 390 Chinese restaurants, plus other restaurants that make dumplings. I can't try them all, and I probably will never know about some little authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant that really does make Houston's best dumpling. But I can try.

There are several techniques to narrow the search for dumplings. One clue is when a restaurant is so serious about dumplings that it puts the word "dumpling" in the name. There are four Houston restaurants named after the dumpling: Lai Lai Dumpling House, Doozo Dumplings & Noodles, Dumpling King, and Aunti Chang's Dumpling House. Another clue comes from various people posting on my favorite populist food review website, www.b4-u-eat.com. Many of the claim to have found the "best dumpling" in Houston. I have investigated those claims. And sometimes, finding a good dumpling is just the result of good fortune.

To start, Lai Lai Dumpling House, despite its name, can be crossed off the list. It is like Berryhill Hot Tamale; the tamales for which it is named are nowhere nearly as good as its famous fish tacos. For over 20 years, I have known that Lai Lai's dumplings are not very good; rather, its best dishes are its famous, cheap, giant plates of hot, flavorful noodles.

Next, I turned to the place that many downtown workers claim serves Houston's best dumpling. Doozo Dumplings was once known as the "yogurt shop in the Park" but is now more commonly known as that "dumpling place in the Park." Consider these laudatory comments posted on b4-u-eat:

"these things are incredible."
"Best dumplings Ive [sic.] ever had and best place for lunch downtown period."
"By far the best dumplings in town."

Doozo began as a frozen yogurt stand in the Park Mall. The Chinese proprietors put up a little sign advertising a dumpling special. Within a year, the yogurt shop became known as the "dumpling shop" and the line for dumplings began to stretch throughout the mall.

I have been to Doozo many times, and I have tried every dumpling they sell. The dumplings are quite good, but not Houston's best. One problem is that the pasta is a little too thick and doughy. A bigger problem is that the fillings have only minimal flavor. Its best filling is probably Doozo's veggie dumpling, which contains greens and tiny glass noodles. The filling has a nice texture, but not much flavor.

My guess is that Doozo is so popular because of its fantastic dipping sauce -- especially the famous "extra spicy sauce." This sauce is a mixture of soy, possibly some vinegar, sugar, and lots of chili pepper. The sweet and spicy sauce is so wonderful that it is easy to ignore the dumpling, which becomes merely a sauce delivery device.

Doozo's dumpling and sauce combination might be one of the best cheap eats in downtown. But Doozo is not great because it does not give enough respect to the dumpling itself. Any place that serves this many dumplings in the short noon hour has to cut some corners, and it shows. The powerfully spicy sauce covers up the lack of serious time and effort in making the filling. I am not trying to downplay the importance of dumpling condiments, such as Doozo's outstanding sauce. But it is the dumpling that should be the star, not the supporting cast.

NEXT: Dumpling King and Auntie Chang's.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Breakfast in Houston

My usual breakfast is a bowl of (non-instant) oatmeal. Somehow it makes up for all the dietary sins I commit later in the day.

But I eat breakfast out enough to have some strong opinions. These are my favorite breakfasts in Houston:

Omelet: "The Chicken and the Egg" -- 59 Diner. At the hands of an expert French chef, a delicate, subtly flavorful omelet is a glorious thing. But in the hands of a typical American fry cook, omelets are oily and bland. This 59 Diner omelet may be an oily, fry-cook omelet, but it is hardly bland. It is a spicy beast -- loaded with grilled chicken breast, cheese, and lots of jalapeno peppers. It would make a French chef cry.

Catfish and eggs -- Goode Co. Tacqueria. A lot better than it sounds, the catfish has a wonderfully smoky grill flavor that overcomes usually muddy taste of all catfish. It goes remarkably well with eggs and salsa.

Pork chops and eggs -- La Jalisciense. This little Mexican restaurant on Yale at 13th has the best salsa, and the best breakfast deals in town. My favorite is a plate of pork chops, eggs, refried beans, potatoes, and tortillas for $3.50. Most other breakfast plates are under $2.50.

Grits, biscuits -- Breakfast Klub. This soul food breakfast joint on Travis at W. Alabama is well known for some of its more exotic breakfasts like waffles & fried chicken and catfish & eggs. But I am happy just with a plate of eggs, biscuits, and grits. At most restaurants, grits are too bland. Not here. (It's probably the butter). The Klub's fluffy biscuits are also my favorites in town.

Huevos Rancheros -- Texas Cafeteria. This classic Tex-Mex breakfast comes on top of a pile of corn chips at this working class, small-town cafeteria on N. Shepherd at 24th Street. But the best part of the dish is the spicy, chili-heavy salsa they pour over the eggs. A strange side dish is their sweet biscuits. Although this is one of the most Southern restaurants in Houston, sweet biscuits are usually a Yankee dish.

Croissants -- Andre's. Most croissants in Houston are awful, soggy rolls of bread that don't deserve the name of France's famous bread. But the croissants at this wonderful little pastry shop on River Oaks Blvd. at Westheimer are like the croissants in Paris. Almost as good are the croissants at Croissant Brioche in the Rice Village and Epicure Cafe in the River Oaks Shopping Center.

Bagels -- The Hot Bagel Shop. I don't understand why people will pay twice as much at big chains for bagels that are half as good. A great bagel has the right texture and is hot. At this little shop on N. Shepherd, the bagels are cheap, they have the perfect texture of a New York bagel, and they are almost always hot out of the oven.

Breakfast tacos -- La Mexicana. I was turned on to this Montrose restaurant back when it was a convenience store with a small taco stand in one corner. Now it is a big restaurant, perhaps a bit too big for its britches. But it still has those great tacos. I love the huevos con papas y jamon taco (eggs, potatoes, and ham) on a flour tortilla with some salsa verde.

All-time best Breakfast -- Alfred's -- Alfred's deli closed over a decade ago, but damn I miss it. Alfred's had the best Eastern European kosher food in Houston. For breakfast, I loved their scrambled eggs with lox and onions and their fabulous potato pancakes. And their incredible bagels, dipped in egg batter, were unlike any other bagel I have had. Kahn's Deli is owned by Alfred's son, but it doesn't serve breakfast. Nothing has replaced Alfred's. Nothing ever will.

Some overrated breakfasts:

Starbucks -- I love the coffee, but their pre-fab bread products are far too sweet. Yuck.

Avalon Diner -- The old-fashioned Diner thing is cute. I wish the food was better.

Buffalo Grille -- As much as I want to like this quirky West U breakfast haunt, I just don't find any dish here to be all that special. I prefer the pancakes at IHOP and the egg dishes at more than a dozen other Houston restaurants.

Le Peep -- Bland, boring, uninventive. I cannot understand their huge weekend crowds.

La Madeleine -- Good coffee, horribly overpriced fast food. Their croissants don't hold a candle to Andre's.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The death of Vietnamtown?

A reliable source says that the 2800 Milam shopping center in the middle of Houston's Vietnamtown is about to be demolished. Apparently, the owner plans to replace it with more Midtown apartments.

Here is some of what we will lose:

Le Bec Fin -- My favorite French cafe in Houston, and one of the best lunch places near downtown. (See my December 20, 2005 post.)

The Original Givrals -- Sandwich shop that makes the best, and cheapest, Banh Mi sandwiches in Midtown. (See my February 4, 2006 post).

Pho Tau Bay -- A good Pho shop.

Hoa Binh Supermarket -- A wonderfull little Vietnamese market.

The New Midtown of box apartments and young professionals is forcing out the old Vietnamtown. In 20 years, few people will remember why the street signs in this part of town are printed in Vietnamese.

I hate to see this wonderful bit of character and diversity leave the area near downtown. But at least it is moving elsewhere. The Vietnamese community and restaurants are thriving in Little Saigon - area officially bounded by the Bissonet, Gessner, the Westpark tollway, and Highway 6. I hear that Le Bec Fin will relocate to northwest Houston off of Antoine. And Pho Tau Bay already has another location off of Veterans Memorial.

If you work downtown, the next week may be your last chance to get a wonderful French lunch at Le Bec Fin or a Banh Mi sandwich at the Original Givrals.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bistro Moderne

My experience with Bistro Moderne is like drinking a perfect bottle of wine. With the first few tastes, I knew it was good, but I did not yet appreciate its greatness. With time, after opening up, I began to appreciate its complexity, depth, and unique flavors. Now, after many visits, I have completely fallen for it. In fact, at this moment, Bistro Moderne may be my favorite restaurant in Houston.

The restaurant sells itself short by calling itself a bistro. It lacks the rustic country quality of a bistro. Instead, this is contemporary high cuisine, rooted in French tradition, but more innovative than any French restaurant in Houston.

On my last visit, I tried three great dishes. First, my wife ordered a tartiflette with frisee salad, which had three parts: (1) an architecturally fascinating tower constructed with thinly sliced potatoes, lardons, and pont l’eveque cheese, which is a soft cow’s milk cheese from Normandy, (2) a simple frisee salad, and (3) a frozen onion mousse. The tartiflette seems like a classic French dish, but is actually a recipe that was developed in France in the 1980s. The dominant tastes are comfort food: potato, cheese, bacon. The accent that puts the dish over the top is the onion mousse, which seems more like onion ice cream. It is a strange and tasty counterpart to the tartiflette.

Second, we ordered veal cheek with thin open lasagne and a morel mushroom sauce. I was a bit disappointed when the dish arrived with long, thin, smooth mushrooms that were clearly not morels. Morels – my favorite mushrooms – look a lot like brown prunes, but have an intense, unique flavor. But the menu promised only morel mushroom sauce, not morels, so I cannot complain. The veal cheek was fantastic – slow cooked, and very tender and flavorful. A nice compliment was the beefy mushroom sauce spread on a thin layer of flat pasta, and coated with a thin layer of white foam.

Third, we had a whole Mediterranean dorado fish, pan seared with fennel and tomato and oven roasted vegetables. Like the morels, I expected to find chunks of fennel, but could not locate them. No matter. This dish was interesting and delicious. The dorado was about the size of my hand, and served with the skin, head, and tail, and most of the body intact. When the size of a fish permits, I prefer the more realistic experience of being served the whole fish and not just some chunk cut out of the side. This fish had a thin crunchy crust, but light and flaky flesh. It was served with a reddish sauce that reminded me of romesco, as well as a beautiful row of thinly sliced rings of zucchini, squash, and tomatoes.

The desserts here are always brilliant – a combination of unusual flavors and strange preparations. For instance, this time we tried the chocolate bomb, which consists of a chocolate coating over white chocolate mouse and orange cardamon creme brulee with an orange caramel sauce and pistachios. That’s a lot of ingredients, in a tasty little dessert.

I love Chef Philippe Schmit’s cuisine because it engages the mind. I love the architecture and design of the food on the plate. I love the unusual ingredients (dorado, veal cheek) and inventive preparations (onion ice cream, crab and avocado bombe).

My only puzzlement is why this restaurant is not packed. On this Saturday night at 9, there was a bigger crowd in the restaurant’s bar than in the restaurant itself, which was only about two-thirds full. Potential customers may be turned off by the trendy, sometimes loud, Hotel Derek in which the restaurant is located. Or they may remember the series of lousy restaurants that preceded Bistro Moderne in this space. Surely, Houston foodies will wake up someday and discover this outstanding restaurant.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Thai extreme - I finally discover Vieng Thai

Everyone else knew about Vieng Thai before me. Food goddess Allison Cook knew in 2005 when she described it as "authentic" and an "adventure." Robb Walsh also knew in 2005 when he called it Houston’s "most authentic" Thai restaurant. The Houston Press knew as far back as 2000 when gave it the award for Houston’s "Best Thai."

All these years, I have missed Vieng Thai because of a simple mistake. I thought Vieng Thai was the same restaurant as nearby Vung Thai. So I have been going to Vung, thinking that it is Vieng, and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Like a lot of other people, I finally found Vieng Thai. In fact, it is one of those places that everyone takes credit for discovering. The trip out to a strip center in an economically challenged part of Long Point near Northwest Mall feels like a pilgrimage. Most people would not come here if it were not for some really good food. This feeling is reflected in the clientele. I noticed some adventurous Inner-City twenty somethings, as well as some older died-blonde women who looked like Memorial housewives slumming. Everyone in the restaurant seems proud that they "found" this place.

The critics all say Vieng Thai is unique for two reasons. First, it has a big menu with a lot of dishes you can’t find anywhere else in Houston. Second, unlike most Thai restaurants in Houston, the food here isn’t dumbed down. It doesn’t use too much sugar. And it refuses to compromise traditional Thai flavors for the timid American palate.

Inevitably, my first trip did not live up to the hype. I order hot tea. "Sorry, we’re out," says the waitress. Then I order Yen Tar 4, described as "authentic flat noodle soup with pork, fish balls, squids, ong choy and home-made red sauce." "Sorry, we’re out," says the waitress. No tea, no soup – I am beginning to wonder if they are out of hot water.

I then order the cheapest item on the menu – soft spring rolls. These are fairly standard and completely bland. They come with a peanut dipping sauce that has less oil and sugar than usual, but also less flavor. The texture is like a bernaise sauce which has curdled. It may be different, but I am not that impressed.

Then I get Pad See Ewe, described as "Stir-fried flat noodles with black bean sauce, egg and Chinese broccoli." The noodles are great - thick, chewy, and slightly browned – but not unusual. I have had this kind of noodle elsewhere. The sauce is subtle, and only slightly sweet. It has the smell of old shrimp, but in a good way. I don’t see any black beans, or black sauce, but the old shrimp smell probably means that it is flavored by fermented black beans. The dish is good – not strongly flavored, not particularly complex – but satisfying and slightly exotic.

On later visits, I ordered the strange stuff and discovered why Vieng Thai is so great. Pad Grapaow with mixed seafood is a spicy, basil-flavored dish with shrimp, mussels, squid, and long beans. Long beans look like thin green beans, but they have a more herbal, brighter flavor. The dish is spicy and different.

But the really strange dish is Som Tum, Laotian Style with salted crab. This is a papaya salad with strong garlic and lime flavors, tomatoes, long beans, cucumber, and a lot of spicy chilis. The strangeness come from fermented crab sauce and small purple crab claws that you eat whole in their shell. The claws make the salad very crunchy. The fermented craw sauce has a similar flavor to Vietnamese fish sauce, but is a much stronger and funkier. To the American palate, this flavor is very bizarre. After getting excited by the strangeness of the dish in my first few bites, I realize that the peppers are extremely spicy, so hot that I had to stop and wait for 30 minutes before I can eat more. It seems I finally have found Thai food extreme -- extremely wierd, extremely funky tasting, and extremely spicy.

The critics are right. The food at Vieng Thai is strange and uncompromising. The trip there is adventurous. And if you like that sort of experience, it probably will become one of your favorite Thai restaurants too.