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

Monday, August 04, 2008

if I was going to be in town for Houston Restaurant Week

Houston Restaurant week is August 11 - 17. A lot of restaurants -- mostly good ones -- are serving 3-course meals for $35, and donating $5 to charity. Details are here. More importantly, menu choices are here.

Sadly, I will be in New York City. But if I were in town, this is where I might go, and what I might order off the special HRW menus:

Americas - Woodlands. I mostly want to visit this restaurant to see the interior design and taste more of Plinio Salndalo's desserts. Course 1 choices are very dull -- surely these guys can do better than the tired mixed greens salad with cilantro dressing. Course 2 - Carnitas sous-vide looks interesting. Course 3 - No question; skip the Tres Leches and order Raspados (piahaya, banana, chocolate soy, lucuma, coconut) -- surely a Plinio creation.

Arcodoro. Arcodoro's food is sometimes hit-or-miss and always pricey. But the HRW menu looks like a really good deal. Course 1 -- Fregula Belvedere (Sardinian couscous with rock shrimp and shitake mushrooms in a saffron basil broth). Course 2 -- Ravioli al Granchio e Crema di Bottarga (pasta stuffed with crab and topped with a bottarga cream sauce). 3 - the desserts are a tossup.

Caffe Annie. 1 - Butter lettuce with Chorizo and Chopped Egg - I am a sucker for chorizo; 2 - Grilled Gulf Shrimp with Grilled Watermelon Salad and Garlic Butter - grilled watermelon sounds interesting. 3 - the choices sound dull, but I might opt for the Brownie with Rocky Road Sauce.

Gigi's Asian Bistro - Another hit-or-miss restaurant, but this menu looks so good, with some of Gigi's best dishes. 1 - Shu Mai; 2 - Wok Panang Beef; 3 - Molten Chocolate Cake.

Gravitas - Possibly my favorite HRW menu. It looks like the kitchen took the opportunity to really try and be creative: 1 - Shaved calamari and cucumber salad - how in the heck does one "shave" a calamari?; 2 - Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder with Asian (?) and watercress salad -- I dig Gravitas' slow roasted meats, and I dig watercress, so this is a no-brainer; 3 - marshmallow and chocolate tart.

Le Mistral - 1 - Mushroom Soup - I have had this many times and love it; 2 - Double pork chop confit served with apricot chutney, mustard sauce, zucchini beignet; 3 - Chocolate fondant with Marie Brizard Cafe-infused vanila shake - one of my favorite desserts in town.

Pesce - The prices are usually so expensive, that the HRW menu is a steal. 1 - Seafood Martini - a classic; 2 - Potato Crusted Red Fish with a jicama, cilantro, micro green salad and Jack Daniels sweet corn salsa - the sides sound interesting; 3 - creme brulee.

Voice - My other vote for best-sounding menu. 1 - Mushroom Soup Cappuccino - Chef Kramer's signature, and possibly the best soup in town; 2 - Slow Braised Beef Short Ribs with Yukon potato puree, and celery-apple salad - short ribs in August? why not?; 3 - Chocolate Cream Pie, 5-Spice Ice Cream, Orange Tuile.

Go out. Enjoy yourselves. Have a chocoalte fondant for me.

And if you have some suggestions on where I should go in NYC (I already have reservations at WD-50), please let me know.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Last week: Blue Nile, Miguelito's, Quattro, Reef

Last week I was busy writing a paper about corporate shareholder liability, so I could not write much here. But that doesn't mean that I didn't eat.

Blue Nile

Ever noticed that every major American city has an Ethiopian restaurant named "Blue Nile"? Compared to Boston, D.C., and New York, Houston does not have much Ethiopian food. But we do have a Blue Nile. And it's pretty good.

A Chowhound Houston group went to Blue Nile last Sunday and tried some of She Eats favorite dishes. Compared to Ethiopian food I have tried in other cities, Blue Nile's dishes lacked the same level of spice and heat. But the ingredients were fresh, and the flavors were varied and vibrant.

I was particularly impressed with Blue Nile's Ehtiopian honey wine, which I had never tried. Perhaps the best dish of the afternoon was Alicha Minchetabish, a bowl of nearly rare ground beef with intriguing spices.


Venezuelan food does not seem very complex or nuanced. It strikes me as very basic -- no fancy techniques, few herbs, few vegetables. Just meat, bananas, and grains and legumes.

So for my first meal at Miguelito's, a Venezuelan restaurant on Richmond near Chimney Rock, I thought I should stick to the basics. The Pabellon Criollo is a traditional Venezuelan plate served with carne mechada (shredded beef), white rice, black beans, and plantains. The beef is mildly spiced with onions and cumin.

Although most of the customers speak in Spanish and presumably have Venezuelan roots, this is not exotic food. It is comfort food that would appeal to the appetites of most Texans.


Tim Keating opened Quattro in the Four Seasons as an affordable take on creative Italian cuisine. Since Keating left a few years ago, Quattro's exec chef position has been a revolving door: Paul Wade, Gaetano Ascione, and now Andrea Ossola.

With the newest chef, there is one significant change: the prices have risen to among the highest in Houston. Most entrees are $30 - $40. Some appetizers are over $20. And wine prices have a big markup.

Fortunately, I was a guest of an old friend who is one of Houston's top wine collectors. We drank amazing wines -- an '05 white Burgundy, and a Grenache made by Sine Qua Non, my favorite American wine producer.

With such incredible wines, I did not want to order any food that might interfere. A chilled zucchini and mint soup (with a spoon of caviar) was light and flavorful. Osso Bucco alla Milanese looked beautiful -- a giant bone of braised meat standing upright and surrounded by a bright yellow/orange risotto. The dish was a bit underseasoned, but an excellent foil for the red wine.

Quattro seems to have abandoned Keating's project of attracting Houstonians downtown with creative dishes and moderate prices. Instead, the focus is on the hotel's base -- conservative business travelers who desire quality and consistency and have an unlimited budget. So the food is high quality, consistent, very expensive, and perhaps just a little dull.


When Reef opened, I was very excited. Since then, large crowds and a few service problems have kept me from being a regular. Yet I remain mostly impressed by the food.

Why just "mostly impressed"? The menu does not seem to change that much. And many dishes just are not right for the season. Why, for instance, would anyone order "Seafood Hot Pot" in August?

Still, Reef's style is creative. Often the best part of a dish are the garnishes. For instance, we started with two raw fish plates - kona kampachi and snapper carpaccio. The best part of the first dish was a small salad of watermelon, onions, radish, and something that tasted like a gerkin pickles. The carpaccio was livened up by a sprinkling of parsley, basil, and mint. The herbs were a simple addition, but they made the dish work.

Similarly, a ravioli of ricotta and greens was livened up by splashes of a beet puree. Although I was not too impressed with a runny corn pudding served with Seared Grouper, I did like the grilled half peach on the side, plus a salsa of tomato, green onion, cilantro, and radish.

Most Houston restaurants could use more variety and seasonality in their menus. Perhaps it is unfair for me to expect that of Reef. Yet with dishes this good, the next logical step for this restaurant is greater versatility.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Randy Rucker dinner 7.26.08

Last Saturday, I went to yet another Randy Rucker dinner. As I have said, these are the most exciting food events going on in Houston.

Randy is serving dinners at his house near the Heights, at least once a week. The dinners are BYOB, and the suggested donation is about $60 - which is remarkable for 6+ course meals of the highest quality and creativity. Announcements of upcoming dinners are here.

The reason I keep talking about these dinners is that each one consists a new batch of dishes that blow me away. I am consistently amazed at Rucker's creative techniques. But more importantly, I am delighted by the intensity of flavors, play of textures, and artistry of presentation. These dishes may look or sound unusual, but they are seriously delicious.

Among the surprises at the last dinner were:

·A candied watermelon rind - crispy, sweet, only slightly sour
·The most uniformly cooked soft-boiled eggs I have ever tried, cracked on top of a salad of hijiki and crispy bits of potatoes
·garlic scapes (the green shoots of green garlic) preserved like kimchee
·the Southern flavors of cornbread gnocchi
·balsamic vinegar broken down into whey and curd, like cheese


This is what it looked like:

The Menu

These are the dishes pictured in the photos:

1: calafornia abalone, pickled watermelon rind, marigold mint, & caramelized miso

2: chilled geoduck clam, sudachi, corn juice & tiny basil leaves

4-6: egg(s) salad, hijiki & crispy potatoes

7: pacific sea urchin roe, bread & butter pudding & preserved garlic scapes

8: cornbread gnocchi, baby onions, compressed pea shoots & espresso

9: long island duck, spaghetti squash & ancho chili

10: balsamic sponge cake, lavender, brown fig & local chevre puree