Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Not many gifts

It started at work. Like me, few Houston office workers received the usual gift baskets this year.

Then it happened at home. Like many Americans this year, my family negotiated treaties for no adult gifts. My wife's side of the family limited themselves to a lottery-drawn gift exchange. But even with these detailed arrangements to avoid spending, a few family members insisted on opt-out clauses.

The gifts I did receive were outstanding:

Flavored olive oils, a new sauce pot, and a bacon-chocolate bar.

My family understands me.

Merry Christmas

I leave town this afternoon. So these pages will be quiet for a few weeks.

I leave you with this scene from somewhere in Briar Grove.

See you in 2009.

-Anonymous Eater

Friday, December 19, 2008

local food at Avenue Grill

For a food philosopher in Houston, one of the greatest quandries is this:

What is our local food?

All the pricey restaurants talk about local ingredients. But usually their "local" means locally grown, by small-production farmers. It rarely means indigenous ingredients. (Apart from Gulf seafood, we don't have many). And it rarely means local-style cuisine.

Does Houston even have a local cuisine? You might say that Houston's local cuisine is the diverse cuisine of its many immigrant communities.

Yet there are older food traditions here that date back to the 19th Century. As a sixth generation Texas, I should know. At family reunions and Baptists churches in rural East Texas, I have encountered local food.

This kind of food is dying out in Houston. But you can still get it at a few places. One of them is Avenue Grill.

Avenue Grill

This little steam-table cafeteria near the corner of Washington Avenue and Houston Avenue has been serving local dishes for years. It has a faithful crowd of police, traffic court employees, traffic court jurors, and the kind of lawyers who don't wear expensive suits and ties.

Yesterday, I had lunch at Avenue with two other lawyers. Let's call them "Bob" and "Jim." None of us wore expensive suits or ties.

Bob ordered chicken fried steak and gravy. Jim had beef enchilladas. I got chicken and dumplings. Avenue makes a quintessentially East Texan chicken fried steak, fried in the manner of fried chicken. The chicken and dumplings had a wonderfully gummy texture and a strong, chicken-broth flavor.

Somehow, we all ordered greens. I assume they were collard greens, but the chalk board did not specify. Greens are very local. Although cooked a little too thoroughly, they had the correct earthy, bitter flavor of good East Texas greens. My side of pinto beans also was sufficiently Texan.

Avenue serves a generous basket of yeast rolls and unsweetened cornbread. This is exactly the sort of bread I remember eating on the lawn of small churches in East Texas.

Can our local cuisine ever get respect?

I enjoy Avenue Grill. I wish Houstonians would take this sort of food more seriously.

I asked Bob and Jim why East Texas food has been relegated to cafeterias, steam tables, and cheap cafes. I wondered why no one will open a high-end restaurant that combines local produce, contemporary techniques, and traditional East Texas recipes? Bob mentioned Ouisie's Table. It dabbles in local cuisine. Yet its menu includes just as many non-Texan dishes like rare tuna, curry, veal picatta, and crepes. (Crepes? Get a rope.)

Then again, maybe this sort of food simply can't be fine cuisine. Maybe it belongs in little joints like Avenue Grill, Barbecue Inn, and This Is It.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hollywood: capitalism and Vietnamese food

The rise of Hollywood

When I returned to Houston in 1993, I noticed that Montrose was dominated by Hollywood food stores. Hollywood offered convenience food, cigars (in a humidor!), and a wide diversity of porn.

Some years ago, Hollywood opened a superstore of sorts behind Cafe Noche. The signs advertised "hair and nails", "real estate and investments", and "cafe." Wow: one stop shopping for a manicure, a bowl of pho, a new house, and maybe even a dirty magazine.

The Restaurant

Last year, Hollywood took over the old Cafe Noche building on Montrose. It advertised its food as "Vietnamese and Chinese." It put up etched glass drawings of a pirate ship and a panda bear.

I confess, I was drawn in by the quirkiness of it all. I wanted to try the food produced by this empire of cigars, porn, land, real estate, pedicures, and pho.

When I finally stopped in to Hollywood, the menu was disappointing. Although large, it listed all the ordinary dishes you find in Americanized Chinese restaurants. The Vietnamese dishes were fairly standard too -- chargrilled meats with rice, lemongrass chicken, hot pot fish, vermicelli bowls, and pho. I could not find any dish that I had not tried somewhere else.

My chargrilled pork lunch was decent. I started with a vegetable soup. It had an oddly chemical taste, not quite like vegetables. The pork was served with long-grain rice instead of the crushed rice I prefer for this dish. The fish sauce was watered down and sugared up.

But the pork had a delicious, smoky, chargrilled flavor. I have tried making this dish at home, and just can't do it. I suspect it requires a high heat. Regardless, this chargrilled pork was much better than average.

Ho Chi Minh wouldn't like it

I made a bad assumption: A business that sells everything from porn to investments to Vietnamese food does not do it to be quirky or funny. They do it to make money.

Hollywood has discovered formulas for making money. It is not going to make money in mainstream America by producing something authentic and edgy. It is only going to profit by giving people exactly what they want.

And when it comes to Vietnamese food, Americans prefer grilled meats, carbs, and lots of sugar.

So if you live near Montrose, and are not a Vietnamese food snob, Hollywood makes a pretty good version of chargrilled pork with light, sugary fish sauce. You should buy it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Houston restaurants in the eyes of Dallas

Here is a fun article. Bill Addison is a food critic for the Dallas Morning News. He identifies 10 great restaurants that define Houston's diverse dining scene.

News Flash: Houston and Dallas are different

Addison says dining in Houston and Dallas is different. Yes, our restaurants are different. And our food writers are different. Addison writes that his "recent sprint through the gamut of Houston restaurants illuminated just how different its culinary canvas is from Dallas'." I can't see a pretentious sentence like that being written by Robb Walsh or Alsion Cook.

Despite his florid prose, Addison says some nice things about Houston, so I should say nice things about Dallas. Dallas has some excellent restaurants -- world class restaurants even.

I just have one complaint: when I am in most Dallas restaurants, there is nothing to remind me that I am in Dallas instead of New York or Chicago. That makes sense. Dallas likes to think of itself as a smaller version of New York or Chicago. It isn't. But it likes to think that.

Houston is happy to just be Houston.

Do these 10 restaurants really tipify Houston?

Addison concludes that 10 restaurants tipify Houston. Let's see how he does:

Chocolate Bar
Que Hong

I seriously disagree with three choices:

1 - The Chocolate Bar is great. But how does it tipify Houston? Addison tries to explain, "A city as sultry as Houston needs a fantastical retreat." What in the heck is he talking about?

2 - Pizzitola's serves decent barbecue. But it does not tipify the barbecue of the region nearly as much as Thelma's, Burns, Goode Co., or even Luling City Market. Plus, I am not sure I would include any barbecue joint on this list. There are plenty of Texas towns better than Houston for barbecue. (Blame air quality regulations).

3 - Irma's is quirky. But I have been disappointed at my last several meals there. Houston has far better Mexican food, and plenty of restaurants that better tipify the local scene. For instance, I would pick a representative of the Ninfa's school of grilled Mexican food that began here in Houston. Probably the best current example is El Tiempo.

I have not eaten at Que Hong or Textile yet. But there is no question that some Vietnamese restaurant belongs on the list and that Scott Tycer's cuisine belongs on the list. So I'm cool with those choices.

The rest of Addison's list is excellent. There are few better examples of the diversity of Houston dining than Catalan, Feast, Hugo's, Indika, and Reef.

I might round out that list with a few suggestions of my own:

Fung's Kitchen or Szechuan Cuisine (representatives of the amazing area near Chinatown)
Vieng Thai or Asia Market (deeply authentic Thai and Laotian food)
This Is It or Alameda Cafeteria (East Texas soul food)
Frenchy's (fried chicken) or Barbecue Inn (fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and stuffed crabs)

Addison's list is pretty good, especially for a food critic from Dallas. Plus, I have to give him credit for recognizing the best aspects of Houston's food that set it apart from Dallas -- Houston's breadth and diversity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bedford - Robert Gadsby's new restaurant

Chowhounds at Bedford

Bedford is a new restaurant in the Houston Heights. I shared a 7-course meal there with 24 Chowhounds on Monday night. We had the restaurant to ourselves. Although no one knew we were Chowhounds or bloggers, we were given special attention.

These are my initial impressions.

It's the chef

Although Bedford has a beautifully ornate bar, and an attractive chef's table, the dining room feels cavernous, cold, disjointed and incoherent. I spent a long time staring at the walls, ceilings, and fixtures just trying to figure out the design concept. I never did.

The service and wine list are not great just yet. Servers wear uniforms that look like gas station attendants. Although they were trying hard, it does not flow well, yet.

The wine list is standard. It is hard to for a restaurant to get a deep list with interesting wines when it opens. But the wine guy was very insightful in pairing wines with Gadsby's complex dishes.

Despite all that, Bedford has the potential to be one of Houston's best restaurants for one reason -- Robert Gadsby.

The arc of Gadsby's short career in Houston

Gadsby moved here from L.A. and blew us away with his innovation and distinctiveness.

At Noe in the Omni Hotel, his signature style was maximalism -- the combining of as many as 20 or 30 disparate ingredients in a dish. His style was an ecclectic blend of Asian and European cuisine. For many Houstonians, Noe's location in the Omni Hotel was too hidden. And it was perhaps too elegant and expensive for Houston.

At Soma, Gadsby employed a similar style in a more causal, less expensive location. Some dishes continued his maximalism, especially salads. Yet other dishes, particularly the Japanese-influenced dishes, were simpler. The problem was that Soma was operated by the owners of Azuma, who ran the restaurant and the sushi bar. Gadsby's contribution was brilliant. In other respects, Soma was just a sushi restaurant, with a noisy nightclub crowd.

This one meal at Bedford reflected elegance and restraint. The Asian influence is still there, but muted. His style shows some experimentation, but more tradition. Bedford is not as exciting as Noe and Soma when they opened. Yet this new phase of Gadsby's cooking may taste even better.

The seven courses

An amuse bouche was a Thai-inspired mushroom risotto with pomegranate. This bit of rice was served in the tiniest skillet, about two inches wide. The mixture of pomegranate, mushroom, and some hot spice was intriguing. But a layer of flour tortilla on the bottom was just odd.

Tuna tartare was topped with an avocado fondue, a quail egg, sesame seeds, and cauliflower foam. I think I tasted wasabi too. Raw tuna is everywhere now. Yet the combination here was unique.

Perhaps the most unusual dish of the night was a hot pot soup served in a tea pot. We were instructed to first drink the broth, which had an intense, tangy, complex flavor. Rarely have I been so excited about broth. Inside the pot were nicely cooked bits of tofu, sea bass, scallop, and hazelnut.
As an alternate, some of us recived a gingery butternut squash cappucino. The high quantity of ginger made this normally bland soup spicy hot.
Perhaps the best dish was foie gras served with bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, and a dash of truffle oil. The eggs were scrambled French style -- constantly stirred while cooking over low heat. Because it takes a lot of effort, few American restaurants use that technique. Sure, the foie gras was great. But it was the finely textured eggs that pushed this dish over the top.

A "Shanghai style" duck ravioli was topped with firsee, vegetables, and a bechamel made with duck fat. It was a small bite of Gadsby's old signature maximalism.

In tasting meals with wine pairings, I begin to lose focus after four or five courses. Gadsby served some sausage rigatoni with the best Italian sausage in Houston -- even better than Candelari's. And dessert included carmelized pear and chocolate "sticky loaf" with Bailey's sauce, a chocolate pistachi nut cookie, and an orange chcolate truffle.

A caveat: I have heard, but cannot confirm, about service issues at Bedford on weekends. For now, go on a weeknight. And don't expect Tony's-like service anytime soon.

Never Eat Alone

A final note: The Chowhound group reminded me of the value of dinner conversation. I sat with seven other delightful people who I barely knew. Our only connection was a love of food. Yet our conversation took unusual turns, ranging from profound to silly but always fun.

A friend wants me to read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazi. Ferrazi talks about dinner parties as a way to experience a "fast and meaningful" slice of intimacy. You don't have to know your companions to achieve that slice of intimacy. There is something about great food, and wine, and folks who enjoy it that makes it possible.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Yum yum cha - dim sum all the time

Yum Yum Cha is a small made-to-order dim sum restaurant in Rice Village. It does not serve the best dim sum in Houston -- probably not even close. But some dishes are very good. More importantly, Yum Yum Cha makes dim sum convenient.

The inconvenience of dim sum in Houston

Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine involving small plates served with Chinese tea. For some reason, dim sum in Houston is almost always served on weekends in giant restaurants. Servers whisk around carts with a variety of dishes for diners to choose on sight. The wait for a table can be long.

Until a few years ago, if you were craving dim sum on a Wednesday, you were out of luck. (Now one or two weekday dim sum restaurants have opened up in Chinatown.) And no restaurants serve Dim Sum at any time inside Loop 610 -- except Yum Yum Cha Cafe in Rice Village. It is open all week (except Monday after 5 and Tuesday all day) for lunch, dinner, or an afternoon snack and tea.

What is good, what is not

The quintessential dim sum dish is dumplings. Yum Yum Cha's dumplings are disappointing. The shiu mai standing dumplings are poorly constructed and did not have much flavor. Pan-fried potstickers are dry and rubbery.

But I have liked everything else.

Let's start with the strange stuff. Yum Yum Cha serves some outstanding chicken feet, cooked in a viscous, slightly sweet sauce. Despite the wierdness of the fatty feet with tiny bones, my daughter loved the dish. Beef stomach with black bean sauce is much more stomach than sauce. It has an odd texture, much like another dish on the menu called "tripe", but a better flavor. [Edit: as a commenter noted, tripe is beef stomach. I can't explain the distinction on Yum Yum Cha's menu.] The sauce adds a peppery spiciness. It is worth trying once, just to say you did. But the flavor may be odd to most Western tastes.

Gai lan is a bright green, steamed chinese vegetable that resembles broccoli stalks with spinach leaves. It is one of my favorite greens of any cuisine. Yum Yum Cha serves it with a tasty oyster sauce. Even my 10-year-old daughter, who is not big on vegetables, loves this dish.

Yum Yum Cha serves a number of dishes called "rice roll." They involve large slippery rice noodles, shaped like lasagna pasta. These are served with barbecue pork or shrimp. They are hard to pick up with chopsticks, but it is a neat sensation to feel these silk-like noodles slide through your mouth. Another savory rice noodle dish is pan fried with green onions and topped with a sauce that tastes like hoisin. It may be my favorite dish.

Other standouts are rice balls with shrimp and a custard tart dessert that will have you craving tea.

It is hard to spend more than $10 per person at Yum Yum Cha. Its customers look like they come from Rice and the Medical Center rather than nearby West U, which makes sense given the adventurous food and good prices.

Update: Where did the comments section go?

Blogger has a bug that causes the comments link to disappear when I use a third-party program, such as the slide show. I really like my slide show, but I also really like your comments. To comment, click on the link to the Yum Yum Cha post in the Archives on the upper right side. The page will reappear with the comment link.

I do this site for free, so I take whatever Blogger can give me for free.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Love Street Light Circus: What the Savoy Truffles Looked Like

Last Saturday, the Love Street Light Circus and more than 70 local musicians covered the entire Beatles White album, plus more. The show looked like this:
I could talk about what a great job the musicians did of recreating the White Album, or MC Bob Boudreaux's Seargent Pepper outfit, how much the event made for Purple Songs Can Fly, or the remarkable job my college roommate Patrick Waites did in putting together the event.

But this is a food blog.

The food was remarkable for a charity event. Hors D'oeuvres and Savoy Truffle desserts were provided by some of the city's best restaurants: Mark's, Ibiza, Catalan, Voice, La Toretta Resort, and Gravitas. Each restaurant was asked to imagine a Savoy Truffle.

Catalan got into the color of the event with chocolate muffins with strawberry icing. (Get it? Strawberry Fields?)

Mark's had the most elaborate Savoy Truffle:

I also was impressed with the real gold leaf used on the chocolate balls from La Toretta Resort at Del Lago. I'm looking forward to Albert Roux's new restaurant there in February.

My favorite dish of the night came from pastry chef Plinio Sandalio of Gravitas. Plinio made smoked brownies with bacon white chocolate barbecue sauce. Was it dessert or barbecue? Does it matter? Too often we restrict our imaginations too much with desserts. Plinio doesn't.
I wondered what this dessert might have to do with the post-psychedellic White Album, but then it hit me. The White Album was all about breaking boundaries and experimenting. Plinio's brownies are the Revolution No. 9 of Houston desserts.

Houston is lucky to have such creative chefs and such generous restaurants that will help with a charity event like this.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Antidote Coffee (the modified post)

Update 11.24.08: I am re-posting my original post with a few modifications based on a heated exchange of comments with some very devoted followers of this Heights coffee shop.

Like Austin, but not

Antidote Coffee is just another quirky coffee shop that somehow was sucked up by a UFO in Austin and deposited in the Houston Heights.

Even if you have never been, you know the place: mismatched furniture, and affable but slow wait staff who have mastered the fine art of slackerdom. They also are serious about coffee. My brother particularly recommends a coffee called "cajeta" which involves goat milk caramel. I just stick to the dark blend coffee, black.

Baked Goods

One thing sets Antidote apart: the quality of its baked goods.

If you arrive before 9:00, Antidote has a remarkable collection of baked goods: sun-dried tomato/asiago scones, chicken pomegranate quiche, tofu quiche (no, really, it's fantastic), cranberry ginger scones, all sorts of muffins, deep chocolate brownies, and killer zucchini bread.

Antidote is a small shop without much of a kitchen. So I knew they couldn't make all these baked goods themselves.

When I asked, an employee explained that they collect pastries from different bakers around town. "We get the best of the best," she said.

Some of the pastries come from Scott Tycer's Kraftsmen Bakery -- truly the best of the best. But Antidote also buys their favorite baked goods from other bakers, particularly in the Heights. For instance, they get baked goods from some of the same folks who sell wonderful baked goods at the T'afia farmer's market on Saturdays.

The Antidote to Starbucks?

The word "antidote" means a cure for poison. And it is not hard to figure out what the owners see as poison. On Halloween, the owners pretended to be the scarriest thing imaginable. They covered up their sign with a giant Starbucks logo. The staff even put on Starbucks "costumes."

[Note: Some folks have commented that the name Antidote refers to a sister establishment that serves alcohol. Even so, the Halloween episode demonstrates that the folks at Antidote see themselves as an alternative to big corporate coffee.]

Starbucks-bashing is popular now. And I'm not sure it is fair. Before Starbucks, coffee in America was not very good. Starbucks made it stronger, more flavorful, more European -- plus much more expensive.

But Starbucks does a terrible job with baked goods. Every breakfast bread or muffin I have tried at Starbucks has been entirely too sweet -- sickly sweet. It is the sort of food that would be inedible without a big cup of intensely strong coffee to counteract it.

Antidote's pastries kick Starbucks' ass. You would think that Starbucks would learn the lesson. You would think that a corporation with that much money could simply buy baked goods that are as good as the one at Antidote.

Or perhaps, pastries this good can only be made by small artisinal bakers -- the type of bakers who make the pastries in Antidote's fabulous morning collection. And perhaps they can only be sold by small-scale, sophisticated collectors.

Antidote does not make great food. Instead, it makes an art out of collecting it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Randy Rucker at the Rainbow Lodge

Last week Randy Rucker started as the new head chef at Rainbow Lodge.

An ideal marriage

For years, I have called Randy Rucker my favorite chef in Houston. Randy knows who I am now, but I was calling him my favorite chef long before we ever met.

Randy's cooking has transformed from the chemistry-lab aesthetic of laidback manor to the home-grown pure flavors of his tenacity home dinners. His progression has been fascinating to watch.

Rainbow Lodge is a fantastic venue for Randy. It has a history of game and regional food, a large outside space for growing regional produce, and a large dining space for customers in various rooms and on an outdoor patio. It is a perfect vehicle for his creativity to reach a wider audience.

And Randy is a fantastic chef for Rainbow Lodge. The location is in a charming lodge, now located at Ella near TC Jester. It sits on top of a rolling landscape of beautiful gardens. Its patio is perhaps the prettiest in Houston.

In my last few visits to Rainbow Lodge, the food was uninspired. The kitchen served high-quality game and local seafood, but did not do much with it. I even spent the last New Year's Eve at the Lodge. The atmosphere was fun, the wine was fantastic, but the food was little better than banquet food.

Randy is going to change that.

Before the menu changes

Before you rush over to Rainbow Lodge, know that Randy has not had time to change the menu. The new menu may not be unveiled until the end of the year. And the old menu is a bit dull.

But if you call in advance, you might be able to line up a chef's tasting menu, especially if you go during off hours.

Last Friday, I arrived with a friend after the lunch hour. When Randy saw me, he grabbed the menu and asked me how many courses we wanted. The resulting five-course meal was an amazing impromptu tasting experience, comparable to Houston's very best restaurants. That was after Randy had been in the kitchen for only four days!

One highlight was a flounder crudo with radishes, apples, Meyer lemon zest, and fresh herbs. These clean flavors sums up Randy's recent cooking philosophy and points to the direction in which he will be taking the Lodge.

Another fantastic dish was a Randy Rucker classic -- sauteed compressed pork served with a deconstructed potato salad and barbecue sauce. (Pictured at top). This strikingly modern dish is loaded with smoke and local flavors that remind me of East Texas pot luck church dinners.
The pairing of Randy Rucker and Rainbow Lodge makes so much sense because both believe in high quality local ingredients and a regional, Gulf Coast-based cuisine.
I will have much more to say about Rainbow Lodge in 2009 after trying the new menu.

Friday, November 07, 2008


I finally tried Hue - the new Vietnamese restaurant at Kirby and Richmond. It is owned by the same folks who run Azuma and Soma.

My expectations were not high. Most reviews have been lukewarm. Alison Cook liked Hue, but concluded that it does not always live up to its promise. I'm never full finds it pretty good, but over priced.

Yet I discovered that I liked Hue -- much more than I expected. Yes, its beautiful modern decor may raise suspicions for people who prefer Asian hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Yes Hue serves traditional Vietnamese dishes that you can order in Chinatown for less. And yes, the crowd reflects West U more than Chinatown.

Still, Hue may be serving the best Vietnamese food inside the Loop -- and in a very pleasing environment.


My daughter ordered two starters -- cha gio (crispy spring rolls) and chao tom (Vietnamese ground shrimp wrapped around a sugar cane and grilled). You can get both dishes at most Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.

I usually find cha gio as dull as a Chinese egg roll, but these had a strong crunch and a tasty interior. They were among the best I have tried in Houston.

Chao tom is another dish that usually disappoints me. Too often, the ground shrimp lose their shrimp flavor, and the sugar cane is dry and fibrous. But at Hue, the shrimp had the flavor of fresh shrimp hot off the grill. And the sugar cane was full of sweet juice. Certainly, this was the best version of this dish that I have found.

A rant about fish sauce: Both starters were served with a wimpy dipping sauce, which included too little watered down fish sauce overpowered by the flavor of sugar and lime. Too often, Vietnamese restaurants that cater to a non-Vietnamese crowd will water down their fish sauce. And they almost never serve white people the strong stuff -- thick fish sause with silvery bits of fish and pineaple. They assume that Westerners don't like it. They are wrong. Fish sauce has a funky, adult taste that it is one of my favorite flavors. I wish more Vietnamese restaurants would serve the good stuff to non-Vietnamese.

Much to my chagrin, my wife and daughter really liked the watery sweet dipping sauce at Hue.

Calmari Salad, Clay Pot Fish

A stronger tasting dish was the calmari salad. The dish was loaded with cucumber, limes, and cherry tomatoes. But the best component was a strongly flavored dressing that included lime and a lot of lemon grass. I have never had a Vietnamese salad this good. It reminded me of a cold and spicy Thai salad.
The only dish I tried that was not superlative was Ca Kho To (salmon simmered in a hot pot). Like most very good ca kho to, the flavors were deep, dark, and murky -- garlic, soy, fish sauce, and just enough caramelized sugar. The only problem was the salmon. It was tough and not very flaky. Either this was not the best piece of fish, or it had been overcooked.
I did like the unusual idea of making this dish with salmon, instead of the more common catfish or snapper. These flavors marry well with salmon. Perhaps next time, the fish will not be overcooked.

Desserts were unexceptional. But then again, desserts in Vietnamese restaurants usually are not special. A banana rum dessert was a bit to dry and chewy. A chocolate mousse cake had some flavor, but was not very interesting.

As an amateur food critic, I feel a little guilty for liking a restaurant for its atmosphere. My judgment should be based on food, right?
But I really dig the simple, high modernist feel of the decor in Hue. Like all the Azuma-related restaurants, it has a natural, minimalist touch that transports me to Asia, and somehow puts me at home. Hue is without a doubt the most beautiful Vietnamese restaurants in Houston.
Hue's food is about consolidation, not innovation. It takes a "greatest hits" approach to Vietnamese food. And it does a very good job with standard Houston-Vietnamese dishes.
I will be returning frequently.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Breakfast

The young white guy with a mullet, a mustache, and a Catepillar baseball cap is the picture of red state America. Suddenly he sits up and listens to the big screen TV. The speaker is Barack Obama. Mullet guy is interested, almost fascinated. When the newscasters return, he slumps back in his chair, returning to his eggs.

At breakfast today, I remembered that, in politics, things are rarely as they seem.

Food and politics

I have not had many posts lately. I could blame it on too much work or the bad economy. I could blame it on minor heart surgery I had a few weeks ago.

But it probably has more to do with my recent obsession with politics.

So on this election day, I wanted to put my finger on the political pulse of Houston. I went to breakfast at Texas Cafeteria.

Why Texas Cafeteria?

This working class cafeteria, on N. Shephard near the North Loop, is a microcosm of blue collar working men in Houston. I say "men" because the crowd is 90% men. Most of the guys wear baseball caps. Almost all are in jeans, except me, a police officer, and an albino guy who is dressed like a Southern Baptist preacher.

I discovered Texas Cafeteria back when I drove a forklift in a nearby warehouse. The food is decent and cheap -- a prerequisite for workers on warehouse wages.

The guys who eat at Texas Cafeteria are diverse. Of course, they would never use the word "diverse." But they are a mix of white guys, blacks, and Mexican-Americans, sitting in a safe male world surrounded by hunting and fishing photos and mounted deer heads.

But today, the feeling is a bit different.

Not always what you would expect

I catch snippets of conversations, facial expressions pregnant with meaning.

A large white guy with a thick accent is prognosticating about the evils of straight-ticket voting.

Some Mexican Americans tell an Obama joke in Spanish. I only translate part of the joke. It does not seem favorable.

Most of the African Americans are eating in silence this morning. Pensive. I can't imagine what they are feeling.

I have learned that it is impossible to generalize. Two good black friends of mine are voting for McCain. Some of my rural Texas relatives, known for telling racist jokes and always voting Republican? They are voting for Obama. My slightly liberal college roommate who drives a Prius to help the environment? McCain, the last I checked.

The polls tell us the Texas vote is a foregone conclusion. But I can't get a read at Texas Cafeteria. Surely these folks are at all ends of the spectrum.

The appearance - and race - of these working guys really does not necessarily predict how they will vote. They are not a voting block. They are not a demographic. They are complex individuals with eccentricities and deeply-rooted values that a pollster can never fully know.

Huevos Rancheros

Texas Cafeteria's huevos rancheros are the same as always. Two over easy eggs are served on top of chips and covered with a mild salsa.

But today I notice a difference. Compared to six months ago, the portions seem smaller. Texas Cafeteria has not raised its prices. It can't do that to its blue collar crowd. Yet food costs have risen dramatically. Corners have to be cut. The economy really does affect what we eat.

As always, I am puzzled by the sweetness of the biscuits. They taste like biscuits I have only had in the Northeast U.S.

Even the deeply-Southern Texas Cafeteria is hard to predict.

My Vote

This election feels different for me. It matters on a personal level. Because I appear in court before many state judges, I know about half the candidates on the ballot. I also know many of their challengers. Candidates on both sides are good friends.

This is the first time in years that the outcome in local judge races is uncertain. Some of my friends will keep, or get, the job they want. Some won't.

I found myself voting, not on the basis of party affiliation or political philosophy. I found myself voting on basic traits like intelligence, experience and -- most importantly -- fairness. I know these traits in the candidates from my personal experience.

I wish the guys at Texas Cafeteria knew the judges like I do. I hope they have more information to vote on the judges than just their party affiliation. I wish the downballot races were not an afterthought to the big race.

I know democracy isn't perfect. The most competent person does not always win. But democracy works fairly well.

And on days like today, it is very exciting.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Another November Food Event

Apparently, November is the month for food events.

I previously mentioned the Savoy Truffle and Miracle Berry II events.

Another event takes place next Saturday afternoon, Nov. 8. The Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring the Red White and Blue Food and Wine Festival in Levy Park on Eastside.

The event will include food from Mark's, Laurier Cafe, Pesce, Shade, Whole Foods, The Restaurant (?), and Rio Ranch. The event benefits Houston's veteran community.

Info and tickets are here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Fusion Now: 3 dishes at Jenny's Noodle House, Dragon Bowl, and Bamboo House

Pan Asian fusion several years later

A few years ago, pan-Asian fusion cooking seemed so exciting. Would it bring us unusual, creative dishes? Would it draw out new flavors we have never tasted?

Now Houston has many pan-Asian restaurants in not-so-Asian neighborhoods with not-so-Asian crowds. Pan-Asian restaurants tend to fall into the middle market -- not too cheap, not too pricey.

As for the food, the results are mixed. Some pan-Asian cooking is little more than watered-down, Americanized dishes with less flavor. But some pan-Asian cooking is a real improvement over the standard Chinese-American menu.

These three pan-Asian dishes typify some of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.

1. Jenny's Noodle House: Art Car Curry

The best thing Jenny's Noodle House ever did was move. Its first location, near Kim Son on the outskirts of downtown, drew unfortunate comparisons. You could go to Jenni's for a mediocre, inauthentic vermicelli bowl and pay around $8, or buy the real thing in nearby midtown for $3 less.

Then Jenny's moved to Shepard at West Alabama. Now it has little competition from cheap, authentic Asian restaurants. Plus Jenny's new hippie/granola theme fits right in with the neighborhood. So do its vaguely Asian/health-food fusion dishes.

I like Jenny's Art Car Curry. It is a soupy green curry with far more coconut milk and far less spice than a real Thai green curry. As a Thai waiter told me recently, Thai restaurants find that Americans prefer curries with more coconut milk. This sweetens the dish, and waters down the heat. Jenny's mild curry has interesting textures, with potatoes, tofu, mushrooms, and carrots.

Sure, Jenny's curry tastes more like Whole Foods than Vieng Thai. And it would be improved by much more spice. But it is a tasty, warming soup that feels good in the mouth, especially on a cold day.

2. Dragon Bowl's Special Pan Fried Rice

At first, Height's Dragon Bowl seemed too inauthentic, too unfocused. But I have since become a fan, enjoying many of their fusion rice and noodle dishes.

Still, I don't know why I ordered DB's Special Pan Fried Rice. Inevitably, fried rice in American-Chinese restaurants is too greasy, too Americanized.

But DB's fried rice was remarkably good. It had a mix of meats -- chicken, Chinese sausage, decent quality shrimp. It also had a huge mix of vegetables, some of which rarely appear in traditional fried rice.

Despite this maximalist, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach, the dish had a refreshing ungreasy, toothsome texture. And every bite was unique.

3. Bamboo House: Pad Thai

My favorite of these three restaurants is Bamboo House. This soothing fusion restaurant on Waugh near Allen Parkway is in a peaceful setting. Soft, New Age music wafts through the minimally-designed dining room.

The minimalism also extends to the food. Most of Bamboo House's simple Japanese, Thai, and Chinese dishes are very good. I especially like the vegetarian Monk's Delight, Shimeji Udon, and Singapore Noodles.

But Bamboo House goes a little too minimalist with their pad thai. Today, it arrived as a brown bowl of noodles sprinkled with brown peanuts and a single cilantro leaf. I searched around the bowl in vain for a lime.

The noodles had a lovely texture, almost like risotto. The dish achieved a marriage of the soft, traditional noodles with broth.

But something was missing. Unlike really good pad thai, this dish did not smell like the elephant cage at the zoo. It had little aroma at all, probably because it did not use fish sauce. And the flavor was not the careful balance of sweet sugar and sour tamarind. The noodles tasted of a slightly savory stock, with perhaps some garlic and soy. But when I closed my eyes, I barely noticed the dish was Asian.

There was nothing wrong with the dish. But it was less than real pad thai.

When fusion works, when it doesn't

Fusion chefs should feel free to play with traditional dishes. It is possible to improve them, or at least create variety.

But fusion does not work as well when chefs subtract flavor. You can add new ingredients and make a good fried rice. But pad thai loses something without fish sauce and tamarind. And curry loses something without all the spice.

We Texans are international sophisticates. We have learned to like stinky fish sauce and sour tamarind and hot chili peppers.

Don't take away those strong flavors and treat us like scrod-eating Yankees.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

2 Psychedelic Food Events

Two psychedelic food events are coming up in Houston. These sound very fun.

1: Savoy Truffle

The 40th anniversary of the Beatles White Album is November 16. Love Street Light Circus is hosting a benefit concert with various local artists to cover the entire White Album. It benefits kids with cancer. There also is a food event.

The White Album includes one of the best food songs ever -- Savoy Truffle. The song is about a box of sweets. The sweetest one of all was the Savoy Truffle:

"Creme tangerine and Montelimar
A ginger sling with a pineaple heart
A coffee dessert--yes you know its good news
But you'll have to have them all pulled out
Afte the Savoy Truffle."

Yet no one knows what a Savoy Truffle is.

Starting in mid-October, Houston's top pastry chefs will be serving their own imaginings of the Savoy Truffle in their restaurants. You can try them there, or you can try them all at the concert on November 16. Restaurants include: Catalan, Gravitas, Ibiza, Mark's, Tenacity, Bouchon's at La Torretta Del Lago and Voice -- many of my favorite restaurants.

Details are here. (Disclaimer -- I was a bit of an advisor on this project.)

2: A second (and third), even better, miracle berry party

The Houston Chowhounds are having a second Miracle Berry Flavor Tripping Party at the St. Arnold Brewery on November 7 from 6:30 to 8:30. A third party is set for November 23 from 5 to 7.

In an earlier post, I explained miracle berries make sour and bitter foods taste sweet. At the last party, the berries may not have profoundly changee the flavor of every food. But they did make raw lemons and limes taste like candy.

A $35 ticket includes 1 miracle berry, a banquet of foods, and all the St. Arnold's beer you can safely drink. The beer alone makes this one worth it.

There's a very good cause too: A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Koonce Family Benefit Fund, set up for James and Katherine Koonce who were injured in the Brennan's fire.

At the party, you also can buy copies of Fearless Critic's Houston Restaurant Guide, plus The Wine Trials. Fearless Critic is donating a portion of sales to the Koonce fund.

Tickets are available here. I hear only 25 tickets remain for the first date.

I have been too busy to post much lately, but I hope to post soon about great experiences Kubo's, Sasaki, and Teppay.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brasserie Max & Julie

I had not been that interested to try Brasserie Max & Julie. Perhaps it was a series of dull meals at M&J's sister restaurant, Cafe Rabelais. Perhaps it was because Max & Julie took the space formerly occupied by the great Aries. Perhaps Max & Julie's menu just looked uninspired.

But something about the dishes at Max & Julie snuck up and grabbed me.

Roasted bone marrow was far better than I expected. Three large ossobuco-like bones were served without meat, but with a generous serving of creamy marrow inside. Bone marrow is a simple dish. So M&J wisely serves it with two simple complements: thin toasts of bread and sea salt. Although my wife thought the marrow had little flavor, I tasted a meaty flavor. But the marrow's best quality is a creamy consistency that is much tastier than fat and matches well with the crunch of large-grained salt and toast.

Crawfish cakes were filled with bread crumbs, corn, red pepper, and crawfish. I rarely get excited about crabcake-like dishes. But this version had excellent accompaniments: a mustard sauce plus a dense salad of frisee and lardons (bacon) in a vinegary dressing.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was a skate wing, served with croutons and a lemon butter, caper sauce. Along the Gulf Coast, we rarely see skate on menus. It is a delicious, mild fish in the ray family that has curious ribbed, almost corduroy-like texture. The buttery croutons on top of the fish created an interesting texture contrast. And the lemon butter, caper sauce complement the skate's delicate flavor.

Our only disappointment of the night was a goat cheese salad. The greens, cheese, and dressing were perfectly good quality. But every ingredient in the dish -- dressed greens, cheese, marinated mushrooms -- had a slimy texture. That would not have been a problem had there been something crunchy in the salad to balance the texture. The two small bread crisps served under the goat cheese were insufficient.

I like M&J's large, French-only wine list. I like the simple interior, which has not changed much since the space housed Aries.

On a Friday night, the crowd seemed split between two groups: young, 20-something professionals in jeans and untucked shirts; plus the usual over-50, French restaurant crowd. For some reason, French cuisine does not seem to popular with my generation. Perhaps, that might change if we had more casual, high quality, creative French restaurants like Max & Julie's.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More hurricane thoughts

This is a supplement to my last post about Hurricane Ike.

-Brennan's. After my last post, I learned that Brennan's GM and its sommelier and his daughter were severely injured in the fire. That is the real tragedy of Brennan's. Several restaurants will have benefits to assist them. If you have details, please post them in a comment. I will do my best to spread the word.

Jenny says that "catalan will be offering a $65 [edit: $60] tasting menu starting tonight of which $10 will be donated to the fund for brennan's sommelier james and his daughter katherine."

-Open restaurants. I'mneverfull has a list of restaurants now open.

-Birds. This week has been surreal, but nothing has been stranger than the disappearance of birds. I have only seen or heard a few live birds in southwest Houston this week. The ones I saw were pigeons who probably survived under freeway underpasses. In the Kroger parking lot on Buffalo Speedway, I saw hundreds of small bird bodies. As I walked neighborhood streets after the storm, everywhere I saw and smelled dead birds.

Fortunately, Jay Lee found and photographed some birds who made it through the storm.

-Kids. For the neighborhood kids, this has been a great week -- no school and little to do but play. Several days ago, I found my wife supervising a clean-up crew of 10 kids aged 5 to 12. They swept up our street's debris. My wife paid them a total of $40 -- a pretty steep rate even for illegal child labor.

-Lines. For those of us whose houses remained intact, the biggest annoyances of the week were the lack of power and the lines. Lines at gas stations. Lines for ice. Lines for cash. Lines at the PODs. Lines behind the dead lights at intersections. When I needed to drive east to Beaumont on Monday, I could not find a gas station with a line shorter than an hour. I first had to drive west past Katy to Brookshire, just to find gas without long lines.

Even today, one week later, at 2:00 p.m., there was a line of over 20 cars in line at the drive through for Whataburger. Our perspective has changed. We now are so desparate that we will wait an hour for a Whataburger.

-Ice. Without electricity, the single most important commodity is ice. Ice keeps you cold. Ice preserves food. Ice becomes cold drinking water. Finding ice was the first goal at the beginning of each day. Gas and food came later. Kudos to Central Market for shipping in a lot of ice. Still, it wasn't enough. Now, I finally appreciate the old Texas tradition of the ice house. The appeal wasn't just beer. It was the coolness provided by ice.

-Himalaya. Jenny organized a Chowhound group to have lunch at Himalaya. Unlike Whataburger, Himalaya had no wait. This Indian/Pakistani restaurant had been flooded, so they did not have a full menu. The kitchen was offering a tasty sampler lunch plate with chicken tika masala, karahi gosht (minced goat), chapli kabob (ground beef formed into a hamburger patty, spiced with corriander seeds and pomegranate seeds), rice, and mint yogurt. Under the circumstances, it was an impressive effort. I am looking forward to trying this restaurant with a full menu.

-The non-viability of life in Houston and the Texas coast. I have to wonder whether people were meant to live here. Before "civilization" -- that is, before shipping ports and oil -- very few Native Americans lived along the Southeast Texas coast. There are few native foods in this region. Without air conditioning, the weather is miserable. And a giant wall of water sweeps away life on the coast at least once a century.

Houston was lucky that the hurricane veered east, and that the wind was not more severe. Yet our civilization has been turned upside down for a week.

I am a sixth-generation East Texan. I love this city. Yet, I question whether it makes any sense for our city to be here.

Hurricane Ike: a strange week for food in Houston

4 leaks. 1 broken window. 1 refrigerator full of spoiled food. 5 days without power.

And my only internet access is at my temporary law office in the food court at Memorial City.

It's been a strange week for food.

"FEMA send beer" - a week of cooking out on the street

There is nothing like a neighborhood barbecue - especially when nothing in your kitchen works.

I had no idea that former sportscaster Bob Boudreaux lives on my block. But the night after Ike, he put up a cardboard sign, pointed upward, that read, "FEMA send beer." And he fired up the grill. I had to meet this guy.

So I brought two magnums of Sonoma cult wines as an offering. Of course, Bob was drinking beer. But he was happy to share his thawing freezer full of grilled venison and pork chops with the neighbors.

We stuffed ourselves on grilled meats, wine, and beer. And I got to know a lot of neighbors.

The following nights, we scored other food to grill. A friend fled town, leaving her barely frozen wild salmon. After a few days, Kroger started selling frozen tuna, and then offered a great deal on rib eyes ($9.99 a pound). Nightly we had cocktail hour with neighbors and then went home to grill.

A hurricane is a community-building exercise.

Anniversary dinner at Mockingbird Bistro

Last night, my wife and I went out for the first time. It was our anniversary. Many restaurants were closed, but some were open. We found ourselves at Mockingbird Bistro.

It is just not fair to review a restaurant when you have been eating hand-to-mouth for a week. Last night, Mockingbird was fantastic. They had a full menu. Every ingredient was fresh.

Mockingbird's beef tartar is a delightfully retro dish topped with a raw quail egg and served with toast and olive tapenade. A nicely seared filet of king salmon was served with a twice baked potato, brocolini, and a beef reduction sauce. A flourless chocolate cake was delicious.

Others fared worse

Before the power went out, I heard the tragic news about Brennan's. It was at Brennan's that I learned to love turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish, and bananas Foster.

I never wrote much about Brennan's. Perhaps I took it for granted. Now, I miss it terribly.

Yes, Brennan's was retro, still serving food two or three generations behind the times. But most dishes were good, and some were fantastic. The only good news is that most of the wine cellar was saved because the restaurant had iced it down with dry ice before the storm, which became a fire.

On Monday, I traveled east to rescue my elderly uncle from Sour Lake, Texas. I drove by Baytown and Nome and a lot of small towns on the coast between Houston and Beaumont.

I saw a house blown onto the middle of a service road. I saw mobile homes flipped over. I saw power lines scattered in fields like matchsticks. I saw large homes crushed by trees or wind. I saw a damaged world with few traces of civilization. I was reminded of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

I saw misery that utterly dwarfs a broken window, some leaks, and a week of camping out with the neighbors.

Monday, September 01, 2008

17's Wesley Morton and the new minimalism

17 Restaurant in the Alden-Houston has a new executive chef, Wesley Morton.

17 has had a string of talented chefs come and go. That isn't a bad thing. The frequent infusions of new blood let us see what is going on in that national food scene.

The national hotel chef scene

The American restaurant system is a lot like the hierarchical French model. Baby chefs come out of culinary school. Then they train as underling chefs at many different restaurants as they slowly rise up the ranks. Many of these restaurants happen to be in hotels.

The result of all this moving is that the top young chefs get to know each other. They all speak the same language. They follow many of the same trends.

Take Wesley Morton. After culinary school, he worked in D.C. at Circle Bistro, Cityzen Restaurant, and Citronelle (D.C.'s best restaurant). He last worked in Half Moon Bay, California at the Ritz Carlton's restaurant.

The next step is natural. For your first exec chef job, you start in a small, elegant hotel restaurant in some backwater market, or in this case, downtown Houston.

Morton's stated themes

17's website lays out Morton's themes, which happen to be many of the current culinary trends:

•local foods: "his passion for bringing the 'farm to the table'"

•seasonal ingredients: "his philosophy of creating dishes that are at their seasonal peak in terms of flavor and eye appeal"

•organic: "I hope to play an instrumental role in helping change the way Houstonians eat in terms of local, fresh, and organic."

The unstated theme: minimalism

17's website doesn't mention the most accurate description of Morton's approach -- minimalism. His dishes focus on simplicity, with remarkably few ingredients and basic flavors.

Consider Morton's ceasar salad, called "gita's baby romaine." Under Chef Ryan Pera, 17 served a wacky, fried ceasar salad. [Correction: the fried salad was prior chef Jeff Armstrong's creation, even though it was served for a while under Pera]. Morton returns it to basics: large strips of romaine leaves stacked in neat rows, with a light dressing on each leaf, a few crutons scattered around the edge of the plate, and a single large anchovy draped across the middle.

Similarly, "crudo of kona kampachi" is a beautifully simple dish raw fish, dressed with lime juice and sea salt, and served with thin slices of cucumber and baby shiso leaves. The lime and granules of salt highlighted the flavors of this fish, making it much more interesting than the sashimi version served in many sushi restaurants. But it was the spirit of minimalism that guided the appearance, distinct flavors, and small size of this dish.

My only question: if Morton is so high on local foods, why use a Hawaiian kona kampachi, a type of amberjack, when we have outstanding amberjack right here in the Gulf?

Under the header "local market fish," the special was king salmon. Again, king salmon is hardly a local fish, but I guess you can buy at "local markets." The waiter said it would be served with morels. I told him, "Morels, really? those are my favorite mushroom." He assured me it had morels. When it arrived, it had a completely different kind of mushroom, probably a chanterelle. Deprived of morels, I still enjoyed the dish. The salmon was thick and cooked rare. It sat atop a small bed of soft potato gnocchi and mushrooms. On the side was a small dab of tartar sauce -- not the kind you get in Luby's, but a delicious, smooth, herbed tartar sauce.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was an heirloom tomato salad. The tomatoes were a mix of different sizes and colors, all tasty. They were served with baby arugula and burrata cheese, from Puglia, Italy (hardly local). If the dish had stopped there, it would have fit perfectly into Morton's minimalist aesthetic. But it was topped with a delicious, fried squash blossom stuffed with a soft cheese. This one excess made the dish a home run.

The verdict

Morton undercuts his "local" theme by serving salmon from Alaska, amberjack from Hawaii, and cheese from Italy. But the truth is, Houston does not have a wealth of great local ingredients. And the market for good local ingredients may have been locked in by Monica Pope. So in Houston, unless you are Monica, you almost have to ship in some non-local foods to make a good meal. [Correction: Ok, that was a silly exaggeration. But seriously, in Houston good local foods take a lot of work to find.]

Morton's real theme -- minimalism -- works. Minimalism is hard to pull off. You have to have great ingredients. You have to use smart techniques to highlight an ingredient's flavors without changing them. And you have to have thoughtful ingredient pairings. This type of approach is hard work.

But when it does work, minimalism can bring out the pure flavors of distinct ingredients. It can make you look at an ordinary ingredient in a new light. And it can make you feel good because you know exactly what you are eating.

I recommend that you try Wesley Morton's minimalist cooking at 17 before he moves on to bigger and better things.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

10 Houston classics from my childhood

Tomorrow I turn 40. So I have been remembering my favorite Houston foods and restaurants from my childhood.

These are my 10 favorite Houston classics -- 5 still here, and 5 that only live in memory:

Houston classics you can still get

1. James Coney Island Chili Cheese Dog. Thankfully, JCI is still here. For 85 years, JCI has been serving amazing chili dogs. The secret is the chili. Apart from the cumin, there must be something wickedly decaden in that chili to make it so good.

2. Antone's Po Boys. Antone's is a little older than me. Their po boys -- and their stores -- may seem ordinary now. But in the mid 1970s, stepping into the Antone's on Taft or South Main was like being transported to Europe. And the classic po-boy was one of the most exotic sandwiches in town. Even now, there is something very unique about the mixture of sweet and sour chow chow, sweet pickles, and salty meat and cheese.

3. Triple A Cafeteria's rolls. I had very good cafeteria rolls at Luby's, Picadilly, Black Eyed Pea, and Cleburne Cafeteria. But it is hard to beat the basket of rolls and moist, unsweetened corn bread that they have served forever at the Triple A. The Triple A has been around since 1942, and I assume they have been overcooking their vegetables ever since then.

4. Barbecue Inn's stuffed crab. Houstonians have always gone nuts over crab. The stuffed crab at Barbecue Inn is the first crab dish I learned to love. It is not much more than a casserole of bread and crab stuffed in a crab-shaped tin shell. But it it is comfort food that brings back many memories.

5. Ragin Cajun's oyster po boy, boiled crawfish. I did not know cajun food before I found the Ragin Cajun. Now it is owned by the Mandola's and has become a 4-location chain. In the late 70s, this was undoubtedly the best cajun food in town.

Houston classics now lost

1. Alfred's Deli bagels and lox and eggs. I have never had bagels that came close to their unique, egg-washed bagels -- sweet, chewy, absolutely delicious. It also was at Alfred's that discovered the joy of eggs scrambled with lox and onions. Like the bagels, I have never found a better version. Alfred's made me want to be Jewish -- except then I might not have had the JCI chili dogs.

2. Monterrey House's tamales. Ok, maybe this was not a Houston classic, but a nationwide chain. Still, Monterrey House was my first Mexican food, which I remember better than my first girlfriend. Over time, the quality declined seriously. But when Monterrey House first appeared in Houston, its dense beef tamales with chili gravy taught me to love Mexican food. Plus, I dug the brown sugar candy at the bottom of the basket.

3. Felix's enchiladas. I was in mourning for a week after Felix's closed. Felix was where I learned to love the classic, Tex-Mex, cheese enchilada with gravy. My friends and I would collect yard-mowing money and ride our bmx bike to Felix's just to get those enchiladas. Today, Mexican food in Houston is much, much better than the ground-meat and American-cheese based Tex Mex of the 70s. Still, when Felix's closed, we lost an icon.

4. Britain's Broiler Burgers. This burger store across from Memorial City was quite possibly my first burger. It had a merry-go-round that moved slowly so that kids would not throw up. It also served a remarkable flame-broiled burger with sharp cheddar cheese. It was a unique flavor that I rarely see replicated. Just like I rarely see any more spinning rides in kid's restaurants.

5. Asian Restaurant. This mostly-vegetarian, mostly-Chinese restaurant and Weslayan and Richmond served remarkably tasty, restorative food. Almost every dish was completely different from food I have had in any Chinese restauarnt. Plus, prices were cheap.

runners up:

mashed potatoes and brown gravy at Picadilly Cafeteria (closed)

crepes at the Magic Pan (closed)

chess pie at Luby's (open)

breakfast at One's-a Meal (1 location still open, but not quite the same)

enchiladas at the Mexicatessen on Crosstimbers (closed)

pepperoni pizza at Antonio's Flying Pizza (open)

eggrolls at North China near Memorial City (closed) [Correction: it's still open. Woo hoo.]

fish at Monument Inn (closed)

fried fish and fries at Alfie's Fish 'n Chips (closed)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Your NYC suggestions 3 - Eleven Madison Park

When I asked where to eat in New York, Justin responded, "Eleven Madison Park. Notice the period." EMP may have started out slowly. But last year, it hired new head chef, Daniel Humm. If EMP was ever mediocre, those days are over.

Quite simply, EMP was the best meal of my life. I have been fortunate enough to go to some of the country's best restaurants -- Charlie Trotter's, Chez Panise, Alan Wong's, Citronelle, Per Se. EMP was better.

A 12-course tasting with wine pairings began with an amuse bouche -- a delightful platter of small bites, including roe, fish, and foie gras topped with an odd green jelly. Food is indeed a visual art.One of the best tasting dishes came first. Wild char roe was served with baked potato ice cream, chives, a waffle potato, and edible flowers. Caviar goes remarkably well with the flavors of potato and with the texture and temperature of ice cream.

Humm is famous for his plate of heirloom beets, served with chevre frais and nasturtium greens and powder. Baby beets are on menus everywhere now, but this version stands out in the crowd. Each beet had a different texture and style. Yet beets need other flavors to set off their earthy, round, sweet flavors. The natural flavors of the tender beets matched surprisingly well with the curd-style cheese and the green flavors of nasturtium.I was surprised that a plate of raw "Big Eye Tuna" would be one of my two favorite dishes. Raw tuna is so prevalent that it is tired. Yet this plate was magical because of the pairing with pure-flavored heirloom tomatoes and strongly-flavored basil seeds and micro basil.

Another standout was the creative foie gras course. A small bowl with foie was topped with a foamy cherry custard. A light foie gras terrine was served with a dash of lemon balm, and a delicious cherry stuffed with foie. Overall, the dish tasted like a dessert.

Nova Scotia Lobster was poached and served with sweet corn. The white border around the lobster is a bacon panna cotta with embedded herbs and flowers. I love the combination of lobster and corn, and this lobster had been cooked expertly.

EMP manages to mix high elegance with sheer creativity. Perhaps no dish was as creative as slow cooked Chilean Turbot topped with a thatchwork of incredibly thin slivers of zucchini, paired with a stuffed zucchini blossom, and finished with a saffron fumet.

Perhaps Humm's most famous dish is a confit of sucking pig served with cipollini onions, apricott chutney, and cardamon jus. The confit was meltingly tender, but topped with crispy skin. The pairing with cardamom jus was brilliance.

Almost as good was slow, herb-roasted lamb flaavored by cumin and served with an eggplant puree and sheep's milk yogurt. The meat was uncaramelized and uniformly rare. The Middle Eastern flavors highlight the fact that Humm's cuisine is not just French-inspired.

After a remarkably good cheese plate, I was served a light dessert of greenmarket raspberries served on a crispy crust and topped with balsamic vinegar, with some sort of sorbet.

It became hard to focus late in this 12-course meal with wine pairings. A custard of bittersweet chocolate was served with a caramelized banana (think Banana's Foster with chocolate) and passion fruit. This second dessert was followed by a plate of mignardises, but by then I and my camera were out of focus.

If I had to compare EMP with another American restaurant, it would be Thomas Keller's elegant Per Se, also in New York. The meals were similar. Butt Humm's dishes were more creative. More importantly, each dish highlighted the purity of of simple flavors. In short, this food tasted better. Humm's cooking at Eleven Madison Park is contemporary cuisine at its finest.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Your NYC suggestions 2 - Prune, WD-50, falafel cart

You told me where to eat in NYC, and I listened.

Two restaurants encapsulate two major trends of the past decade. Prune is a fine example of a greenmarket restaurant -- serving no-nonsense seasonal food from local markets. WD-50 is a temple of molecular gastronomy -- creative food as a science experiment, yet with post-modern playfulness.


Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune has a small, rough interior feels like stepping back to 1972. It doesn't hide the fact that it is a hippie restaurant in the East Village.

The food reflects the greenmarket trend, which is the outgrowth of older ideas from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I started my lunch with a bowl of borscht, topped with dill and cucumber cream.
Borscht reminds me of my well-worn Moosewood Cookbook. It is quintessential hippie, vegetarian food.

But this borscht was something special. It was served cold, and had the texture of a puree. The essence of beets stood out, but was not monolithic. The cucumber and dill flavors added a green quality that balanced the earthiness of the beets.

I asked the waitress what she would recommend for the second course. "The burger." I started to protest that I had not walked all the way across Manhattan to try this restaurant and just have a burger. But then I thought about how long it had been since I had ordered a burger. I relented.

The burger was pretty darn good. It was served on a toasted English muffin with a light-textured cheese and a delicious herb spread. The highlight of the sandwich was the beef, small in diameter but insanely thick. I ordered it rare, and it was. It was also remarkably juicy.


If Prune is about keeping it real, WD-50 is about keeping it surreal.

Plinio and an anonymous commenter recommended Wylie Dufresne's WD-50. I met up with my brother and ordered a 12-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, it was the sort of food that I will never fully understand, but I am astounded by its brilliance.

Corn pebbles were balls of dry powder with essence-of-corn flavor. They were sweet. They were spicy. They were odd.
Bonito was served raw with mace, a thin chip of purple potato, and tiny granules consisting of brown butter and finely minced jalapeno. This dish made a lot of sense to me, but I couldn't stop wondering how the kitchen had turned brown butter into dry granules.

Eggs benedict was the real mind blower. Somehow the kitchen had turned egg yolks into a firm, upright, yellow tube. It was topped by a thin slice of dried bacon. Even stranger was a fried cube filled with hollandaise. This dish was as delicious as it was strange.

I can't begin to imagine how the kitchen had turned foie gras a light-as-air paste. The delicate liver was complimented by some sort of crunch balls and dabs of kimchi sauce.

Chicken liver was turned into spaetzel and served with thin slices of radish in a bowl coated with a green sauce labeled as "pine needle" with cocoa nibs.

Perhaps the tastiest dish of the night was a thin slice of beef tongue served with a cherry miso paste, fried quinoa, and palm seeds.

WD-50 is big on tubes. This tube consisted of yogurt and was served with crispy dry shreds of rhubarb plus an olive oil jam (?) and pine nuts.

As the deserts started coming fast and furious, the wine kicked in, and I began to lose concentration. It was hard to tell exactly what the dishes were, even with the menu descriptions. The next dish was called called "Jasmine custard, black tea, banana." It included another tube was served with foam and something like icecream. It was tasty, but beyond my comprehension.
Next, toasted coconut cake was served with carob, smoked cashew, and a brown butter sorbet. As tasty as brown butter is, I am surprised I have not previously seen it turned into a sorbet or ice cream.
Finally, yuzu ice cream was coated with chopped marcona almonds. The bits of cream were served with packets that looked like plastic that needed to be opened. As my brother and I struggled to open the packets, it occurred me, "eat the whole thing." I did and solved the puzzle.

More than anything else, WD-50 plays with the texture of food. Ordinarily runny ingredients such as egg yolk and yogurt are turned into plastic-like tubes. Foie gras is made light and airy. Chocolate is turned into edible paper-like packets.

Everything tasted very good, but the biggest appeal of this food was its playfulness. It was not the best meal I had ever had, but it was certainly one of the most creative.

The Falafel Cart

Sheeats reminded me that I had to try a falafel cart. So I returned to an old favorite cart, All Halal Foods, somewhere in Midtown Manhattan. I told the vendor that I wanted some additional spicy sauce. After frying up the falafel, he spent a while squeezing the red bottle into my sandwich.

The falafel had that ideal texture that is so hard to find in Houston -- a light, airy, crumbly chickpea interior surrounded by a crispy exterior.
The hot sauce, however, may have been a bit too much. Halfway through my sandwich I suffered a serious attack of hiccups. It was a rare New York occurrence -- finding food that is almost too spicy for this Texan.

Next: Eleven Madison Park -- the best meal of my life?

Your NYC suggestions 1 - Chinatown

Dear Readers,

Thank you. In New York, I relied almost entirely on your restaurant suggestions. They were great. Although this is a blog about food in Houston, the next several posts will be about the state of food in NYC.


NYC's Chinatown is bigger and more vibrant than I remembered.

Yes, there are Chinese funeral parlors, Chinese banks, and acupuncturists. But mostly Chinatown is about food. The array of exotic foods on every corner is remarkable.

Joe's Shanghai

Misha, Bob, and Jenny all suggested I tried the soup dumplings at Joe's Shanghai. Joe's is known as the benchmark for soup dumplings. The crowd proves it. Even in mid-afternoon, the wait for a party of two at one of the large communal tables was 30 - 40 minutes. But since I was alone, I got a spot immediately.

Joe's dumplings are art. The skin is fresh, firm and chewy. The soup inside is thick, glutinous, and savory. And the filling had far more flavor than ordinary lump-of-meat filling.

Joe's provides a pre-mixed dumpling sauce. I didn't need it. The flavors inside the dumplings were so good that they did not need any tampering.

Joe's also makes a good plate of Singapore Noodles. The dish is appropriately dry and spice-drenched. As I ate, I kept reciting that line from Dune. "The spice must flow."

To Wah Fung with Love

Jenny sent me a guide to cheap Chinatown food that recommended Wah Fung No. 1 Fast Foods, formerly a street cart, but now a hole-in-the-wall takeaway stand. The line out the door was 20-minutes long, and the customers were exclusively Asian -- all good signs.

Wah Fung is famous for a roasted-pork box lunch. The mound of sweet-roasted pork sits atop some steamed vegetables and a giant pile of rice. This amazing lunch is $2.25.
I may have never had an Asian pork dish this good. The pork has a chewy texture, but a jelly-like substance on the outside. It is smoky and sweet with a tasty mix of spices, similar to five-spice powder.
The Chinese / U.S. basketball game in the Olympics had just ended. Dozens of teenagers had come out to a park with basketball courts to play. With my tin stuffed with rice and pork, I sat down to eat and watch the games. It began to rain a slow drizzle. As ate, I had an epiphany:
This moment -- this dreary New York afternoon, this remarkable plate of $2.25 food-stand pork, these Chinese-American kids playing basketball -- this is America.
Next: Prune, WD-50, Eleven Madison Park