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.