Saturday, April 26, 2008

Vietopia - Vaguely Vietnamese

Vietnam Restaurant was part of the first wave of Vietnamese food in Houston. The second wave is represented by Vietopia.

The Promise of Vietopia

Vietopia opened with great promise in 2000. A lot of Houston foodies thought it might be the first in a wave of quality Vietnamese fusion restaurants -- much like the current wave of high end sushi restaurants. Sadly, I tried Vietopia then and was unimpressed.

I remembered Vietopia recently when a French-trained chef, who works for a local publication, told me that Vietopia is one of her favorite restaurants. So I asked a Vietnamese-born friend about Vietopia. She won't go because it has so many white customers. My friend isn't racist. She just knows that all the white customers means Vietopia is not very authentic.

Still, I thought Vietopia might be worth another try.

Vietopia is a swank restaurant near US59 and Buffalo Speedway. The decor is lovely. Most of the customers seem to be from West U. It is one of Houston's priciest Vietnamese restaurants.

The Food

Vietopia's menu reads like the creation of an American-trained chef with pan-Asian influences. It includes dishes that appear to be Thai (sate chicken, basil duck) and Chinese (Peking duck, sweet & sour chicken), but most appear to be at least vaguely Vietnamese.

Last week, I tried three dishes. One was very good. One was mediocre. One was awful.

The good -- Vietopia's "roasted duck" appetizer was a surprise. The duck was nicely roasted with a crispy skin. It was served with rice patties, with a sticky, chewy texture. The star of the dish was a sweet, viscous garlic/honey sauce. The sauce did not seem very Vietnamese, but more like the kind of honey dipping sauce that some American restaurants serve with chicken fingers. That may not sound very authentic, but the dish is a delicious mix of textures and flavors.

The mediocre -- Vietopia's Ground Shrimp is a common Vietnamese dish. The cauliflower-looking balls consist of ground shrimp rolled into a tree shape with sugar cane as the trunk. At Vietopia, the dish looks better than it tastes. The shrimp have a rubbery consistency and not much flavor. Fortunately, it is served with pressed steamed rice vermicelli, onion rings, lettuce, Vietnamese basil, and an overly sweet fish-sauce-based dipping cause. When you wrap the noodles, shrimp, and basil in some lettuce and dip it in the sauce, it tastes pretty good. But you can get better, cheaper versions of this dish elsewhere.

The bad -- Vietopia's "grilled" shrimp and chicken with vermicelli is neither traditional nor good. The shrimp served with this dish were edible, but rubbery and lacking in flavor. Most shrimp in cheap restaurants is not very fresh, and does not taste much like shrimp. But for the price of this dish -- around $16 -- I expected better.

But the really bad part of this dish was the chicken. Some Houston Vietnamese restaurants serve a fantastic Vietnamese marinated and grilled chicken. This is not that dish. Vietopia seems to bread its chicken instead of marinating it. My wife immediately identified the flavor --Kentucky Fried Chicken without the spices. The chicken was dry and overcooked. It appears to have been cut before cooking, which ensured that little moisture remained. Although the sides are the same as for the ground shrimp, they could not rescue this dish.

Vietopia has a good idea -- a fusion of Vietnamese dishes with pan-Asian and American influences. I wished I liked it more. The big problem seems to be consistency and execution. One good dish out of three is not a good ratio.

Pagoda - Hope for Vietnamese Fusion?

Another Vietnamese fusion restaurant will open soon in the Heights, called Pagoda. Note the marketing theme from its website:

"We are the first Vietnamese eatery west of downtown with a full menu comparative in traditional quality that can be found in Southeast Houston . . . . surely to be a neighborhood favorite to the Heights hippies, Midtown young professionals, Montrose eclectic crowd, Museum District artisans, River Oakies, and the Downtown/Allen industry professionals."

Translation: bringing Vietnamese food from Bellaire to a non-Asian audience with nice decor and high prices. Sounds like Vietopia? Those goals are not necessarily bad. But the food has to be compelling for it to work.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vietnam Restaurant: getting back to its roots


For food critics, "Americanization" is a dirty word. Americanization takes the food of another culture and fries it, sweetens it, strips away strong flavors and eccentricities. Yet once in a while, Americanization creates something good.

Good or bad, the process is fascinating. Ever since Houston's first Vietnamese Restaurant --Mai's -- opened in 1978, we have seen the Americanization of Vietnamese cuisine up close. It takes different forms. Some local Vietnamese kitchens try to shape their cuisine to appeal to American tastes. Others interact with American ideas and ingredients to create something new. Still others return to the traditional roots.

The next few posts will consider some Vietnamese restaurants geared to an American audience. It is too easy to dismiss these restaurants as overpriced and inauthentic. It is too easy to say you can get better Vietnamese food on Bellaire. You probably can. But sometimes Bellaire is too far away. And there are some interesting, quality Vietnamese dishes in other parts of town.

History of Vietnam Restaurant

Vietnam Restaurant is the best Vietnamese food outpost in the Heights. It sits among a strip of antique shops and other restaurants on 19th Street, east of Shepherd.

Vietnam Restaurant was not originally in the Heights. It opened, with the first wave of Vietnamese restaurants in 1980, on Main Street near Elgin.

I first tried it around 1988. It had a $2.95 all-you-can-eat buffet, with mostly fried Chinese food and sweet sauces. Most of the customers seemed to work in construction. The interior was one of the grubbiest in town. Even as a poor college student, I thought the place was awful -- a Marvin Zindler report waiting to happen.

Then around 1992, a group of friends told me the secret to enjoying Vietnam -- pay twice as much, skip the buffet, and order Vietnamese food from the menu. I discovered a set of Vietnamese dishes that were spicy, exotic, and very good.
I could tell from talking with the owner that the Vietnam was struggling with two possible paths. First, it could go the route of Chinese buffets sprouting all over the city and use high volume/low cost economics and cater to a working class crowd. Or, second, it could capitalize on the more adventurous clients who were willing to pay more and order real Vietnamese dishes.

In 2003, the Vietnam made its choice. It reinvented itself in the Heights. It killed the buffet. It picked a bright, cheery location. It placed modern art (for sale by artists) all over its walls. Its website even re-wrote the history of its Main location:

"'Vietnam Restaurant, The Untold Story' is a famous downtown Houston restaurant which became a gathering place for artists, writers, designers, historians, curators, collectors, educators, doctors and other professionals."

Famous? Designers? Historians? Doctors? So did they come disguised as construction workers? Perhaps you can forgive Vietnam Restaurant for trying to glorify its dingy past location. After all, this is America.

In the last 5 years, the Vietnam's personal mythology has become a reality. The restaurant is popular with a mostly non-Asian, Heights crowd. I don't know about historians, but these days it is visited by a lot of artists and professionals -- and very few construction workers.

Vietnam Restaurant's food now

On the menu, dishes are listed in English and Vietnamese, but they are carefully described for the English-speaking crowd.

One of Vietnam Restaurant's the best dishes is Bo Luc Lac, or Vietnamese Beef. These beef tips are marinated in wine and butter, caramelized, and served in a slightly sweet fish sauce with garlic, onions, and jalapenos. The beef tips are seared on the outside, tender, and medium rare inside.

I have tried this dish all over town, but not found a better version than at Vietnam. The proprietor once told me that they have an old Vietnamese woman in back who makes it. I believe that one.

Another great dish is Ca Kho To, or Peppery Fish. It includes bits of catfish simmered in a hot pot. The sauce -- a mix of caramelized onions, fish sauce, and pepper -- is an exotic blend unlike any other fish sauce-based sauce that I have tried. The flavor notes remind me of Vietnamese marinated and barbecued pork.

I suspect that both of these dishes have changed little since the founders immigrated from Vietnam. But elsewhere on the menu, there are signs of Americanization. For instance, the Vietnam Restaurant's menu includes sweet & sour pork and sesame chicken. Quite a few dishes are battered and deep fried.

Even some of the Vietnamese dishes are dumbed down for Western tastes. The Vietnamese dish Muc Xao Thom, or Squid with Pineapple, traditionally is served with a thick, concentrated fish sauce mixed with fresh pineapple. But the Vietnam Restaurant's sauce has only a hint of fish sauce and appears to consist mostly of corn starch and water. Although the squid are cut beautifully, and the pineapple is tasty, the sauce is almost tastesless. The key traditional ingredient, which happens to be my favorite ingredient, is the concentrated fish sauce. It is all but missing from this dish.

The Vietnam is one restaurant where fusion has worked better with the decor than the food. I don't mind the artsy interior, the mostly-white crowd, or dishes priced over $10. But the Vietnam's kitchen does spectacularly well when it sticks to its traditional roots. It took the right step when it eliminated the Chinese buffet. Now the Vietnam Restaurant just needs to learn that some Westerners really are willing to eat a strongly-concentrated fish sauce.

OMG Armando's has a sign

In these pages, I have never said "OMG." The phrase is juvenile, overused, overly dramatic. Yet OMG is appropriate in certain circumstances -- those amazing, nobody-will-believe-this events where all you can do is invoke the divinity. Situations such as . . .

When frogs fall from the sky.

When pigs learn to fly.

When Armando's puts its name on a giant sign.

The allure of no sign

You have to love a place with no sign. Consider Last Concert Cafe, a little Mexican restaurant and live music venue in the warehouse district near downtown. Famously, they have no sign. You have to knock on the door so someone will peek through the curtains and let you enter. There is a legend that the building once housed a bordello. Somehow, I doubt it.

I never thought the food at Last Concert was special. But when I was younger and single, I used to bring dates there because it was so cool and mysterious to go to a restaurant with no sign, a restaurant where you have to knock to get inside. It took my wife -- at that time my girlfriend -- to convince me that my "insider" status at Last Concert was not nearly so cool as I thought.

Or consider Marfreless, the venerable River Oaks bar that lies behind a bare door under a stairwell in the River Oaks Shopping Center. Marfreless was once famous for wild parties. And that dimly lit room upstairs, which has beget many legends -- and other things. But the big selling point -- the first thing anyone mentions -- has always been the fact that it has no sign.

For three decades, another classic no-sign establishment in Houston has been Armando's. Armando's is a new wave (1980s) Mexican restaurant that has lived in several locations near River Oaks. Currently, it resides at the corner of Westheimer and Kirby. Armando's was always hipper-than-thou. The key to its hipness has long been its refusal to put up a sign. You could not read 3 sentences of any review of Armando's without reading about its signlessness.

A sign!

Yesterday, driving down Westheimer, I saw something that Houston has not seen for 30 years. After three decades, Armando's put up a sign. Not a modest plaque, but a giant, red sign emblazoned with the name "Armandos."

I haven't eaten at Armandos in more than a decade -- and more than two locations ago. All I remember is a lot of sour cream. So I can't speak to whether the sign represents some change in the kitchen. But I can say that in one fell swoop, Armandos has given up its signature, its brilliant marketing ploy, its very identity -- by putting up this sign.

First Zula goes "Girls Gone Wild." Now this.

Maybe it's a . . . sign.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gelato at Paciugo

My gelato credentials

Last month, I made my way through Italy with bribery. To persuade our 9-year-old to hike though miles and miles of streets, art museums, and coastal walks, I had to use the gelato bribe:

"If you will just finish walking through this museum, we will get you gelato."

As a condition, I got to taste a small bite of every scoop she ordered. I must have tasted at least 25 different scoops from gelaterias in Venice, Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre.

I know gelato.


Gelato is Italian ice cream. It has less butterfat than American ice cream. It often has more intense flavors. In Italy, it often uses unhomogenized ingredients. It melts faster.

For years, the best place to get gelato in Houston was Dolce & Freddo. But it closed its last Houston location a few years ago. In recent years, Nundini Food Store, on Shepherd between Washington and Memorial, has been Houston's best gelateria. Yet for many people, Nundini is a little out of the way.


Paciugo, a big international chain of gelato shops, now has opened locations in West U and at Willowbrook Mall. It advertises itself as "Handcrafted Artisan Gelato."

My daughter and I ordered a cup with three small scoops for $3.19. Even with the bad exchange rate, that is about an average price in Italy.

I also ordered an espresso. It tasted more like real Italian espresso than Starbucks.

The big test was ice cream. Although the tiramisu and vanilla flavors were fine, they were not as intensely flavored as the best -- or even the average -- gelato of the same flavors in Italy. In contrast, Paciugo's dark chocolate was very intense -- more intense than any chocolate I tried in Italy. It was absolutely delicious.

Of course, the real authority on gelato is my daughter. In one overseas trip, she ate more gelato than I have in a lifetime. So I asked her how Paciugo compared. "Well," she said, "the tiramisu and vanilla are as good as in Italy, but not the chocolate."

So who do you trust? The guy who recently sampled a taste of 25 scoops in Italy -- or the little girl who ate the rest of those 25 scoops?

Either way, Paciugo is at least a decent facsimile of the real thing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Zula's new "Girls Gone Wild" theme

"Vegas decor, and haphazard pan-world food that's even worse than a sleazy casino"

-Fearless Critic's Houston Restaurant Guide on Zula

I have been to Zula several times -- always when someone else suggested it. But I have never written about Zula because the food is uninteresting. Now, Zula is trying to generate interest in a new way.

Cleverly's Blog reports that Zula is changing to a new theme. It will involve giving guests a "Girls Gone Wild experience." "Our girls are dressing in tight uniforms (similar to Hooters) but more upper class." Plus, Zula will host "Las Vegas shows, bikini shows, model contests, fashion shows." Friday nights, no one under 21 admitted.

It seems Fearless Critic was strangely prescient when it compared Zula to a "sleazy casino."

After shuddering, then chuckling, I had three immediate reactions:

1 - An upscale Hooters is still a Hooters.

2 - I have never been to a dinner-and-show combo where the dinner was any good.

3 - When the food doesn't bring in a crowd, try sex. When sex doesn't work, try bankruptcy.

I won't be going to the newly-themed Zula (or Hooters). It's not prudism. It's not morality. It's not about the objectification of women. It has something to do with my aesthetic philosophy about food and a sense of misplaced priorities.

But I would love to hear reports from anyone who does.

UPDATE: minutes after I posted this, I found out that she eats did a post on the same subject that is more detailed and funnier than mine. ("[T]his was a serious restaurant at one time. And what they’re suggesting for their future plans has about as much “class” as the sticky floors of your local adult theatre. ") Nice work -- great site!

She eats is one of several great new blogs about Houston food. I just updated my link list in the upper right corner. Check out some of these outstanding local blogs.

Update (July 2008): All signs of the GGW theme have now disappeared from Zula's website. Perhaps this was just a bit of temporary insanity.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Eating the Whole Fish

Why the whole fish?

Last week, an anonymous commenter raised a good question: Where can you go to get a good whole fish in Houston?

But first, why eat the whole fish? A recent New York Times article gave two reasons why eating the whole fish is better.

The first reason I knew -- honesty. As Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan has said, "you should at least have the guts to look it in the eye." Or as my anonymous commenter asked, "Where to [go] for a fish that stubbornly returns your glance when eating it?"

The second reason never occurred to me -- eating the whole fish reduces waste and helps fish populations. The NYT article explained, "Millions of pounds of good meat are dumped into the sea after the fillets are removed from a fish’s carcass." In a time when overfishing is a serious problem, and fish prices are rising, it makes sense to avoid waste.

Plus, in my opinion, the best fish meat is in the back top of the head -- a part that doesn't show up in a fillet.

Whole fish in Houston

In Houston, whole fish is difficult, but not impossible, to find in restaurants.

For the last two weekends, I have had an outstanding whole fish special called "huanchinango entero" at Pico's Mexican Restaurant. This is a delicious, high quality snapper. The restaurant's standard preparation is with garlic and olive oil. But I prefer Pico's delicate Veracruzana preparation -- a light, barely spicy sauce of tomatoes, onions, and green olives. I can't remember the exact price, but I believe it was around $24.

A much cheaper whole fish is the steamed tilapia on the menu at Chinese Cafe on Richmond. Although I am often disappointed with the quality of tilapia, the tilapia at Chinese cafe is very good. I have eaten it at least 10 times without complaints. Chinese Cafe prepares whole fish several ways, including steamed fish smothered in black bean sauce and fried. My favorite is the simplest and healthiest -- steamed with ginger and green onions. The cost less than $10 -- a real bargain.

An unsual whole fish is the tempura fried bass with dipping sauces, called "fish and chips," at Soma. The dish is visually interesting, but exterior of the fish I tried tasted a bit dry. Also, it is too heavy for one person. It is a fun dish to share for a large table.

Other commenters suggested a few restaurants that serve whole fish dishes, which I have not tried. These include Mykonos Island and Da Marco's. Arcodoro and Pesce also make whole fish dishes that I would like to try.

Unless it is a large fish (tuna would be difficult), I much prefer eating a fish whole. It is surprising that more restaurants do not offer that option.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mandarin Cafe - the Chinese menu problem

Great Chinese food hiding out on Long Point

Houston has three great strips for cheap ethnic food: (1) Hillcroft between 59 and Westheimer; (2) Bellaire from 59 to Beltway 8; and (3) Long Point. Long Point is best known for Central American and Korean food -- not Chinese food. But at the intersection of Long Point and Campbell, in a center with a Mexican meat market and a Korean restaurant, there is a wonderful little Chinese cafe called Mandarin Cafe.

The take-out menu explains that Mandarin Cafe's "Master Chef" is Danny Lee, formerly chef of Ocean Palace. It claims to serve "the finest and most renowned Chinese Cuisine offered in west Houston." When you consider the full scope of west Houston, that may be a slight exaggeration. Yet Mandarin Cafe probably does serve the best Chinese food north of I-10.

So far, Mandarin Cafe has attracted little notice beyond the Asian-American community. As far as I know, no restaurant critic or blogger has discussed it. The only review I found online was a short comment on b4-u-eat, which concluded "We all felt light and full, not heavy and greasy when we left."

I walked in to try it several months ago because it had certain hallmarks of authenticity. Most of its signs were written in Chinese. And the crowd inside was almost entirely Asian American.

Since I knew so little about this restaurant, the big question was what to order. It is a question I have struggled with since that first visit.

"So what dish is best?"

I started by asking the waitress what she would recommend. "Maybe you would like sweet and sour pork?"

It was not the waitresses, fault, but she didn't get it. I had gone out of my way to pick a Chinese restaurant based on the hallmarks of authenticity. The last thing I wanted was sweet and sour pork. So I thanked her for the suggestion, but explained I didn't want anything deep fried. "Perhaps seafood?" I asked. "Shrimp with mixed vegetables," she suggested. That didn't sound too interesting either.

Finally, I found part of the menu called "Chef's Specialties." It included sauteed green pepper with pork. Again, the dish did not sound particularly unusual or enticing, but it was more expensive than most other dishes ($10.99). So I thought it might be good.

It was. On the surface, it looked like an ordinary stir fry -- cubes of pork, green bell pepper, green onions and a light sauce. Yet, as I looked more closely, I noticed the care and the artistry of how each ingredient had been chopped.

Food critics don't talk much about how food is chopped. Yet kitchen knife work is an art. And it takes a lot of time and care to chop all the ingredients in a single stir fry dish. This dish had been prepared by a master for customers who would appreciate his artistry.

It tasted as good as it looked. The ingredients were quite fresh, particularly the star of the dish -- bell pepper. I was most impressed with the complexity of flavors. I tried to guess ingredients: garlic? certainly; ginger? probably; black pepper? yes; onion? perhaps; vinegar? not sure. Yet, just as the dish was complex, the flavors were well balanced. It achieved the goal of so much Chinese cooking -- a harmony of acidity, saltiness, and sweetness, of yin and yang.

"I want what they're having"

With later visits, I struggled to find the best dishes at Mandarin Cafe by trying to get more information from the waitress, who kept guiding me toward Americanized dishes, and the menu, which gave few clues about which dishes were most interesting. The menu reads like so many Chinese menus -- cryptic titles with little description: "Happy Family," "Seafood Treasures," "Scallops with Spicy Salt." Other dishes just did not translate well into English: "Sliced Beef Toungue" (ouch), "Mustarded Three Seafood" (?).

On each visit, I noticed that at least one person at every table of Asian diners had ordered a dish of noodles in a thick, black sauce that looked like squid ink. So finally, I asked another customer, "What is that?" They said, "Chinese spaghetti with seafood."

On the menu, "Chinese spaghetti" had not stood out as an interesting dish. Yet it was. The noodles were shaped like spaghetti, but denser and firmer. The thick black sauce tasted lightly salty and was filled with carefully diced onion as well as shrimp, scallops, and jellyfish.

I still don't know what was in the black sauce. Perhaps it was dark soy sauce thickened with corn starch. Perhaps it was squid ink, but I doubt it. Although the sauce did not have a strong flavor, it combined with the noodles to create a satisfying comfort food. Yet like the b4-u-eat critic, I "felt light and full, not heavy and greasy" when I left.

The Chinese menu problem

The problem for a non-Chinese customers in a restaurant like Mandarin Cafe is translation. Many non-Chinese-speaking Americans would like to be adventurous with Chinese cuisine. The problem is that most English translations on Chinese menus do not describe the dishes well. And the descriptions of many dishes don't sound very good. Perhaps that is why so many Americans stick to sweet and sour pork. Perhaps that is why they flock to pale imitations of Chinese food, such as P.F. Chang's and Pei Wei, whose menus are descriptive.

So how can Chinese restaurants communicate their unusual, flavorful dishes to non-Chinese customers? They need to hire a Chinese menu consultant. This ideal consultant has three skills: (1) some knowledge of Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques, (2) an understanding of modern American restaurant trends, (3) English prose writing skills.

For instance, the menu consultant might make these edits:

•"Cow Ribs with Bean Curd Sauce" changed to "Braised short ribs with tofu essence"

•"Chinese Spaghetti with Seafood" changed to "Mandarin Noodles with scallop, shrimp, and jellyfish in savory black sauce" (if I knew what was in the sauce, I might say more)

•"Fresh Squids with Black Pepper Sauce" changed to "Mandarin-style crunchy, spicy calamari"

With the new menu, and a little publicity, Mandarin Cafe's tables would be packed with both an Asian and non-Asian crowd. So what do you think, Mandarin Cafe? Need a menu consultant? I will gladly do the job without charge.

All you need to do is list the ingredients for all your dishes -- and let me taste each dish for free.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Top 10 cheap restaurants in Houston

The cheap list

A few days ago, I posted my favorite "upscale" restaurants. Those were pricey. The ones on this list are cheap. You can eat well at all of these for under $15, and at many for less than $6.

Houston has so many great cheap restaurants of so many varieties. The cheap ones are even more fun to find than the pricey ones.

This list is completely subjective because I don't have enough time to eat at every cheap restaurant in town. So I list the taqueria I enjoy the most, but I have not tried even half the taquerias in Houston. Nor have I eaten at even one fourth of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants on Bellaire. These cheap restaurants just happen to be my favorites.

My top 10

1. Asia Market and Thai Fast Food (Cavalcade). I go once a week to this Thai food store with a small kitchen on the back wall. I am working my way through every item on the menu, and each one has been outstanding. Nothing is over $7. I reviewed it here.

2. La Sani (Hilcroft). Pakistani food. Great lunch buffet. More sheer spice (not heat, spice) than any restaurant I know. I reviewed it here.

3. La Jaliescience (Yale). Tongue tacos. Fish soup. For breakfast, a whole pork chop, two eggs, beans, and potatoes with chips costs $3.50. Best and hottest salsa in Houston. It helps to speak some Spanish. I discussed the tongue tacos here.

4. Cafe Mezza & Grille (Westheimer). Looks like a bad chain restaurant. It isn't. This Mediterranean-American fusion cuisine may be the least authentic and most creative food on the list. Everything is delicious. Plus they let you bring your own wine. I reviewed it here.

5. Vieng Thai (Long Point). Wierdest, spiciest, and most challenging Thai and Laotian food in Houston. (That's a good thing.) I reviewed it here.

6. Teotihuacan Mexican Restaurant (Airline). Houston has a lot of restaurants that serve massive Mexican plate meals for cheap. Teotihuacan just happens to be the best, and one of the cheapest. I recommend carnitas, anything grilled, and homemade corn tortillas. But everything here is better than the same dishes at every Mexican chain restaurant in Houston, even the taco salad with grilled chicken fajita. I reviewed it here.

7. Mary'z (Richmond). At the moment, my favorite Lebanese restaurant in town. Mary'z marinated grilled chicken is the best I have had.

8. Thelma's Barbecue (Live Oak). Best brisket, best fried catfish. One helluva wait. I discussed it in my post on barbecue.

9. Lankford Grocery and Market (Dennis). Unless CFK is the daily special, get the burger. Nothing else matters.

10. Udipi Cafe (Hillcroft). Vegetarian Indian food, which is completely different from other Indian food served in America. The lunch buffet is amazingly good, and amazingly cheap.

Runner Ups

Pico's (Bellaire) - Too cheap for my upscale list. Mostly too expensive for the cheap list. Still, Pico's is one of the best Mexican restaurants in Houston. Their moles are unbeatable.

Ko-Mart food stalls (Gessner) - Korean food stands in a Korean supermarket. I reviewed one stall here.

Mint Cafe (Sage) - fresh Middle Eastern food that is a step above most other Houston Lebanese restaurants

This Is It! (Gray) - Mmmmm. Oxtails.

Mai's (Milam) - My favorite Vietnamese food for so long that it is hard for me to branch out and try new places. I'm working on it, but haven't found anything I like more - yet

Cafe Montrose (Westheimer) - Belgian restaurant specializing in mussels. One large order with Belgian fries and mayo will feed two. Great beer made by monks. I talk about the mussels here.

the breakfast klub (Travis) - Very good breakfast food that is pricey for breakfast food, but cheap enough to make my under-$15 cut off. Grits are the best in town.

Oporto Cafe (Richmond) - Portuguese tapas bar. I reviewed it here.

Pepper Tree Veggie Cuisine (Richmond) - Who knew there were so many delicious dishes to be made with tofu? I reviewed it here.

Les Givrals Sandwich and Cafe (Travis) - Now that my favorite Banh Mi shop (Huang Banh Mi - The Original Givrals) closed, this is the next best one I know. It is only a matter of time before I find one better. My Banh Mi comparison is here.

Treebeard's (various locations downtown) - If you have never worked downtown, you probably have not eaten at Treebeard's. That is a shame because Treebeard's has the most distinctive, though perhaps not the most authentic, Louisiana-based food in Houston. Some prefer Zydeco's Louisiana Diner, Rajin Cajun, and Brennan's. For red beans, etoufee, and corn bread, I want Treebeard's.

Chinese Cafe (Richmond) - Good cheap Chinese food. This is the cheapest place I have found in Houston to get good-quality, whole, steamed fish. The stranger-sounding Chinese dishes are pretty good too. Avoid the Americanized part of the menu, including anything fried.

100% Taquito (SW Freeway) - I may like the idea of this authentic Mexico-City-style taqueria on the edge of West U than I like the flavors. No one else has the guts to bring this sort of food to West U. Who knew it would be so successful?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Houston's Top 10 Upscale Restaurants 2008

Why do a new list?

I posted top 10 lists back in 2006 and 2005.

It is time for a new list for several reasons. First, since 2006, two of my favorites (Noe and Bistro Moderne) closed. Second, some great new restaurants have opened. Third, I need two lists -- an upscale restaurant list and a cheap eats list. I will post my favorite cheap eats soon.

Top 10

So here is my current, utterly subjective list of my top 10 upscale restaurants in Houston:

1. Indika. My favorite restaurant is the one that blows my mind. On my last two visits, Indika has been better than ever. No other Houston restaurant currently offers the the exotic combination of ingredients and flavors that blow my mind like Indika does. Indika also has one of the best small, low-priced wine lists in town. Discussed more here.

2. Da Marco combines the best quality ingredients in town with both creative and traditional Italian preparations. Best Italian wine list in Houston, but be prepared to pay out the nose for a bottle. Discussed more here.

3. Le Mistral never waivers in its position near the top of my list. The combination of Chef Denis' creative southern French cuisine with a great French wine list and family-like service makes this wonderful restaurant consistently worth the drive to far west Houston.

4. Ristorante Cavour. Chef Denis designed this menu too. But this one is Italian. How can a French chef come up with Italian food that rivals Da Marco? And how can everyone fail to notice, even though the restaurant is in Uptown Park? Discussed more here.

5. Backstreet Cafe is my wife's favorite Houston restaurant and often near the top of my list. For about 20 years, it has featureed some of Houston's best upscale comfort food, plus one of Houston's most well-considered wine lists, in a charming, casual setting. Desserts are amazing. One dish is discussed here.

6. Reef has so much promise. Inventive, multi-cultured seafood dishes. Amazingly inexpensive and deep international wine list. Hip atmosphere. I worry whether the menu will continue to show innovation and whether service is already suffering because of success. Discussed more here.

7. Catalan has a great philosophy - let the chef's continually play with the recipes and ingredients. And let the wine guy provide one of Houston's deepest international wine lists at near-retail prices. If I had to work in one kitchen in Houston, it would be Catalan. The only problem is that dishes are occasionally uneven -- which may be part of the fun. Discussed more here.

8. Feast. Is Feast too young to show up on this list? Perhaps. But in just a month, the kitchen has demonstrated that it can experiment with ingredients and preparations from Old Europe, and excite most of Houston's foodies. Feast's dishes are unlike anything else in Houston. Is it anti-modernism or post-modernism? Who cares -- it's good stuff, even if a bit on the heavy side. Discussed more here.

9. Soma. Has Soma officially emerged from its extended "soft opening" period? Its first several months have been a rough ride. Already, the pastry chef - one of Houston's best - has left. The pairing of fairly ordinary sushi-bar fare from Azuma with Chef Gatsby's strange creations is incoherent. Service is inconsistent, and the pre-party crowds on weekends are annoying. Yet my 5 meals at Soma have been jaw-dropping, primarily because of Chef Gatsby's restless creativity and his brilliant combinations of ingredients. Discussed more here and here.

10. Bluefin. My family eats Japanese food once a week, and Bluefin is in a dead heat with Kubo's for our favorite. Kubo's bi-monthly specials showcase its continuing innovation. But Bluefin gets a slight edge because of the fish quality and the artistry of the sashimi presentation. Also, Bluefin's dining room may have the most spectacular design in Houston. Discussed more here. (Update July 17, 2008: Blue Fin has closed)

My next 13 favorites

Mockingbird Bistro
Dolce Vita Pizzerea Enotecca
Cafe Annie
Sushi Jin.


How can you do a top 10 list in Houston without Mexican food? Or a steak house? Or Vietnamese? How can you not list Tony's? Or Cafe Annie?

If you have criticisms -- or your own list -- let me know. The best part of a top 10 list is not the list itself, but the discussion it creates.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Feast - Rustic European Fare

Warning: This post contains material for an adult audience. Children, sensitive readers, and vegetarians should read no further. They also should not go to one of my new favorite Houston restaurants called "Feast."

Parts of the cow I've never eaten

The American steakhouse is for sissies. The standard steakhouse only serves 3 or 4 select cuts (fillet, strip, rib eye) from the whole animal. The only other varieties of meat you might find are veal chops, pork chops, rack of lamb, or chicken breast. How spoiled we have become. How effete.

Real carnivores eat meat from the whole animal.

At least that is what I told myself Saturday night, as I was trying to decide whether to take a bite of the dish called, "Tongue and Testicles with Green Sauce." I thought this small plate would arrive as bits of organ meat discretely covered and disguised with a green sauce.

When it arrived, the dab of green sauce was off to the side. The tongue and two testicles sat before me in all their naked glory. The tounge was unmistakably tongue-shaped -- a long tower from the bottom to the top of the plate. The testicles were carefully placed on each side of the base of the tongue.

It looked just like . . . well, you know.

Of course, this visual joke could only be dreamed up by a Brit. They are the culture where every pub is required to serve a long phallic pudding with spots called "Spotted Dick." Or at more posh restaurants, "Spotted Richard."

The tongue and testicles tasted far better than I expected. I have had tongue in taquerias, but this one was less greasy, more firmly textured, and more tasty. As organ meats go, tongue is relatively healthy, with only a bit more cholesterol than ordinary meat, plus all the extra vitamins.

I had never tried testicles. After searching the internet, I simply cannot find their nutritional content. They were firmer than I expected, and chewy. But the flavor was not as strong as many organ meats. They tasted a bit like dense meat balls. I just don't know what is inside them -- well at least not from the standpoint of nutrition.

The strongest flavor in the dish was the green sauce. It was a mix of raw garlic, vinegar, dill, and some other herbs. For people who might have a hard time stomaching tongue or testicles, the pungent sauce might help.

British pub food -- but much more gourmet

The three principals at Feast are Chef Richard Knight, manager/master butcher James Silk, and Meagan Silk. I am guessing from the accents, the humor, and the food that they are British.

The menu, which changes daily, is unlike anything in Houston. One of the more interesting features is the huge variety of meats. Today, the menu includes not just beef tongue and testicles, but pork belly, pigeon, lamb shank, lamb's tongue, rabbit, merguez sausage, gizzards, squid, swordfish, and as I discovered, pig's feet.

Another feature is the cooking philosophy, which is summed up by the restaurant's slogan "Rustic European Fare." Today's menu includes rustic soups, terrines, braised meats, and two different bean-based dishes. The style is mostly British, but there are French, Spanish, Italian, and Alsatian influences.

For food of this quality, the prices are very reasonable: $6 - $7 for small plates and $16 - $23 for large ones.

Best Cassoulet in Houston - with pig's feet

The best dish of the meal was a surprise -- cassoulet. This pot-of-white-beans dish is one of my favorite comfort foods. But too often it can be dull and uninspired. Feast's cassoulet was amazing. The beans were cooked firmly. The unusual meats served whole in the beans were rabbit and merguez sausage.

The most interesting aspect of the dish was the texture of the tomato-based sauce. It was thicker, starchier, and chewier than I had tried in cassoulet. There were crunchy bread crums on top, but that could not explain the wonderful, gummy texture of the sauce. I asked James Silk how they made it, and he responded that the chef had played around with the dish for a long time looking for the right consistency. He said the chef found it when he "boiled down some pig's feet." He may have mentioned some other ingredients, but I couldn't understand his accent.

Two other dishes we tried were also good, if not quite as inspired. Roast pork belly was served with crisp, a clean-tasting radish and orange salad -- a nice contrast to the fatty belly. "Lamb, Asparagus and Mint" consisted of cold, thinly sliced lamb leg with thick asparagus and just a touch of mint. Although it had the lamb flavor I love, the leg tasted a bit like cold roast beef, which is not my favorite beef preparation. My wife liked it, which was good because she wasn't about to eat the testicles.

Wine and Desert

Feast has a brilliant small wine list. It consists of small-production European wines from outstanding lesser-known regions such as Apulia, Jumilla, Monstant, Prioriat, and Basque Country. Although they have wine glasses, their default wine glass is a tumbler. I guess it's a pub thing.

We passed on the spotted dick and ordered a dessert named something like, "chocolate mousse with lemon pudding." Either I missed the name or it was a bit misleading. Most of the dish consisted of a wonderful, thick, dense chocolate ganache. A little lemon cream was splashed on top. It tasted far better than the description sounded.

Rustic Atmosphere

Feast is in an old house on lower Westheimer, formerly the home of Chez Georges. The walls now are covered with rustic-looking European paintings of, for instance, a peasant eating a giant bowl of beans.

The dress is fairly casual, as is the vibe -- which is what you might expect from a place that serves a dish designed to look like a steer's penis.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Neighborhood French: AURA and Cafe Rabelais

This photo is a rare sight at Cafe Rabelais -- an empty table.

The joy of neighborhood cafes

Houston needs more cafes, bistros, and trattorias -- unpretentious small restaurants that focus on wine, food, and atmosphere without cooking anything too fancy. These types of restaurants usually cater to a particular neighborhood, rather than drawing customers from across the city. The food preparations are usually simple, ingredient-based, and use traditional European techniques rather that cutting-edge cooking styles or ingredients.

In this category I include restaurants like DiVino, Bistro Calais, and Bistro Provence. They are affordable restaurants that are a perfect neighborhood hangout.

Recently, I ate at two good neighborhood French cafes: Cafe Rabelais in Rice Village and AURA Restaurant in Missouri City.

Cafe Rabelais

To eat at Cafe Rabelais, the biggest hurdle is the wait. This tiny French cafe in Rice Village does not take reservations. On prime nights, the wait can be over two hours. Is it worth it?

I have tried to eat at Rabelais many times, but have only secured a table about 5 times. The last was the Tuesday night of the primary elections. After caucusing, it was 9:15, and my wife and I thought that Rabelais surely would have an open table. Instead, we had to wait 20 minutes.

Rabelais' food is always competent, always authentic, but rarely challenging or inspiring. I suspect that the kitchen's philosophy is to re-create a high quality French cafe or bistro with simple preparations, quality ingredients, and nothing more. This is not a criticism. I always enjoy the food. But it is hardly special enough to inspire me to wait for two hours.

For instance, one dish on my last visit was characteristic -- a pistachio-crusted rack of lamb served with a plum wine sauce. Although I barely noticed the pistachio crust, the lamb was well prepared. The sauce was based on a traditional French red wine sauce, with bits of fruit added for texture, but not so much for flavor. The sauce was highly competent, but not very lively. It was, however, a perfect foil for red wine.

Wine may be the big selling point for Rabelais, and the reason why the wait is so long. Rabelais has the best French wine list in Houston. Sure, a few pricey Houston restaurants may have more bottles of high-dollar Bourdeaux. But no other list in Houston has the breadth and diversity of this one. It includes thousand-dollar wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, fantastic $40 Rhones from regions like Gigondas and Vacqueryas, and some decent $15 Bourgogne Rouge (These are a bargain now because you can still get 2005s, the best vintage in years).

The other selling point is atmosphere. The space is small. Tables are cramped. Lighting is low. Candles flicker. The walls are cluttered with hundreds of bottles of wine. If you were blindfolded and taken to Rabelais, you would think you were in Paris.

Rabelais may not be worth that two-hour wait, but I will continue to drop in about once a year, late on a Tuesday night, when I am looking for a good neighborhood French restaurant.


AURA is the new home of Chef Perrier, formerly of Cafe Perrier near Highland Village. Warning: It is so far out US59 that you have to drive beyond Sugar Land!

I first grew to love French food eating at Bistro Provence and Cafe Perrier. In 15 years, Chef Perrier's cooking has not changed much. That is not a bad thing. His food is reasonably priced, simple, and accessible.

At AURA, we tried two dishes that Perrier has been cooking for years: escargot; and steamed mussels. The recipes are traditional. The firm-textured escargot arrive in a special escargot plate, with a mini-bowl for each snail. They swim in butter with lots of minced garlic and herbs. The mussels arrive in a large bowl and are mixed with diced tomatoes and a flavorful white-wine broth. Although I liked both dishes, my wife thought the mussels were a little too gritty and had too much smell of ocean funk.

AURA's pork chop is a thick, French-cut chop with a horseradish crust, served with sides of haricot verts and mac'n cheese. I appreciated the quality of the chop, although it was cooked too well done for my taste. The green beans were very fresh, simply prepared, and tasty. But the macaroni side was not much of an improvement over the cafeteria version.

AURA has a well-chosen, mostly-American wine list. I was surprised to find so few French wines on the list, but maybe they are hard to sell out in Missouri City.

The blessing and curse of AURA is its location. On the one hand, it is probably the best restaurant for miles. If I lived in Missouri City, I might go once a month. On the other hand, it is hardly a destination restaurant -- one that justifies the time and expense of a long drive. Still, if you are a fan of Chef Perrier, as I am, it is worth at least one trip.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The 1968 Junior League Cookbook

A New Junior League Cookbook

The Junior League of Houston will soon publish its fourth cookbook. The name will be, "Peace Meals: A Book of Recipes for Cooking and Connecting." In other words, "Kumbayah Cooking."

If you have never seen a JL Cookbook, it is a collection of recipes submitted by the local ladies who are members. It is the successor to the East Texas tradition of church cookbooks, collections of recipes by parishioners sold to raise money.

Some may question whether Houston needs another JL Cookbook. In the last cookbook from 1996, many recipes were good, but few were cutting edge. Plus, today, most home cooks don't need their neighbor's recipes because the internet gives them access to vast databases of gourmet recipes. So is there any reason to buy a JL Cookbook?

Absolutely. For me, the real value of a JL Cookbook is as a local historical artifact. Each of the JL Cookbooks is a snapshot of the foods that Houstonians were eating at home in a particular era.

The Original 1968 JL Cookbook

In my large cookbook collection, one of my favorites is the original, 1968 Houston Junior League Cook Book. In 1968, Houston home chefs were beginning to break out and explore the wide world of international cuisine.

Green Beans

Take, for instance, green beans. The 1968 book included two versions of the favorite East Texas recipe, Green Been Casserole. You probably know the dish: one can green beans, one can cream of mushroom soup, plus canned fried onion rings.

But in 1968, sophisticated Houstonians were beginning to give green beans the international treatment:

Green Beans Canton - frozen green beans with canned water chestnuts, canned bean sprouts, mushrooms, cream sauce, American cheese, plus canned fried onion rings

Party Green Beans - canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, 2 cups grated cheese "Velveeta, preferably," plus canned fried onion rings

Creole Green Beans -- frozen green beans with bacon, a can of tomatoes, "Dash Tabasco", and an onion (for making fried onion rings).


In 1968, as now, Houstonians' favorite high cuisine was crab. The 1968 JL Cookbook has 32 crab recipes. Among these gourmet delights are:

Crabmeat Quickie -- a pound of crabmeat mixed with canned cream of mushroom soup, canned cheese soup, plus a lot of Cheddar cheese

Crab Burger -- includes one cup mayonnaise, plus one cup Cheddar cheese

Crab Elegante -- no canned cream of muhroom soup here; this fancy recipe uses "1 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced" and "2 cups thick cream sauce."

An Essential Cultural Artifact

Other dishes from the 1968 Cookbook are classic, just from their title alone:

Fanny's Potato Icebox Rolls

Snappy Cheese Bake

Frosted Green Bean Salad (???)

Creamed Shrimp

Cucumber Ring Mold.

The 1968 JL Cookbook reminds us how much cream we ate in 1968. And it reminds us of the many ways we can use a can of cream of mushroom soup.

Even if you have no other reason to buy the new JL Cookbook, buy a copy for your grandchildren. Forty years from now, you can tell them, this is what we all cooked at home in Houston way back in 2008.

Then you can grin as they respond, "Eeeeuw, did you guys really eat that?"