Saturday, February 28, 2009

ملوخية - Molokhia at Mint Cafe

Ever run across a food that you have never tried -- never even heard of -- and it blows you away?

That is exactly what happened last night at Mint Cafe.

Mint Cafe

Mint Cafe is one of Houston's best Middle Eastern restaurants. The young guy who manages the floor is one of the nicest folks in the Houston restaurant business. He once explained that his family is from all over the Middle East, including Egypt.

Last night, I asked him about the daily special - a dish I had never heard of. He said that it is one of his favorite foods. He usually eats it every Friday, the only day that the kitchen makes it. But he can't eat it now, because it's Lent.


This dish -- named after its main ingredient -- is ملوخية in Arabic. But in English, there are at least 18 different ways to spell it. Mint Cafe uses different spellings on their specials sign and the receipt. Google seems to prefer this spelling: molokhia.

Molokhia is one of Egypt's national dishes. (The other is ful mudammus, which is also one of Mint Cafe's best dishes.)

Mint Cafe's molokhia is basically chicken, water, garlic, and the finely chopped molokhia plant. It may have a little spice -- most recipes use corriander. At the table, you add rice and a vinegar sauce with chopped onion, which enhances the flavor even more.

So, you ask, how good can a chicken & rice soup be? Chicken and rice usually don't excite me. But this was something completely different.

Molokhia is often described as similar to spinach. It may look like spinach, but does not taste like it.

The flavor is very distinctive. I don't have a good flavor reference point. It tastes less green and vegetal than it does earthy and almost meaty. Of course, that may be the interaction with chicken and spices. But the flavor is completely unlike any chicken stew or soup I have ever had. It also is quite addictive.

Keep in mind that Mint Cafe only serves molokhia on Fridays. And they don't sell beer and wine. So bring your own.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On Airline (Triple A and El Bolillo Panaderia)

Going to the Triple A with Houston Foodie

Triple A Restaurant, next to Canino's Market, is a time capsule, transporting you back 50 years.

On Friday, I introduced it to Houston Foodie - another blogger with deep East Texas roots. I tried to explain to HF that the best aproach to Triple A is to order one of the daily specials, which all come with 3 sides. So I ordered the special gumbo with sides of greens, pinto beans, and peach cobbler. Although all of these were good, the best were the greens and cobbler.

But HF had something else in mind. He saw that the regular menu listed chicken fried steak. The waitress warned him, "That takes 20 minutes. The specials take about 2." HF didn't care.

When the chicken fried steak arrived (before I got my daily special), it was a monster -- so big that its sides fell over the edges of the plate. As HF worked his way through the steak, he was obviously enjoying it. "Want to try a bite," he offered?

As I bit into the steak, I noticed the crispy batter with large flakes. It covered a tender, thin layer of beef. HF suggested that he could not think of a better CFS in Houston. I thought a minute. "Maybe Barebecue Inn?" Then again, maybe not.

Triple A's CFS was unexpectedly wonderful, and quite possibly Houston's best CFS. It's a shame I didn't take a photo.

Bread at El Bolillo Panaderia

After lunch, HF suggested that we walk across Airline and try El Bolillo -- a Mexican bakery in a giant new building.

I go to a lot of Mexican bakeries. I know about their deliciously sweet breakfast breads. I did not expect to be surprised by El Bolillo. But I was.

El Bolillo is a Mexican bakery on steroids. This enormous bakery has dozens of varieties of sweet breads, tortillas, pastries, cakes, and custards.

I only tried two sweet breads -- one that resembled cheesecake, and another that was like bread pudding without the pudding. Both were delicious.

Don't be surprised to hear more about El Bolillo in these pages.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Iceman Cometh and Eateth Hamburgers and Proclaimeth

I was frozen in time on November 22, 2007. On October 8, 2007, AE was gracious enough to toss me the keys to this fine blog. I wrote several posts, enjoying myself immensely, and then, I vanished, much to the shock and horror of my legions of adoring fans.

Yes, that's correct, legions.

Gentle readers, have mercy, for just a few days later, I encountered the true nemesis of fine dining everywhere:

a screaming doodiemonster.

This was the birth of my beloved Baby E.

Not having the benefit of having extended family Deepinthehearta, Mrs. E and myself immediately went from foodies who live to eat out to housebound parents, which has been a lovely ride but for quite awhile put a serious damper on our eating out.

It did give me the opportunity to work on my cooking, which has improved substantially, if the diners' reports are to be trusted. Though this is a food blog about Houston, I will from time to time post reports of my latest culinary stylings, such as they are, if AE and the readership of this blog will indulge me.

But, Baby E is barrelling towards toddlerdom, literally and figuratively, and the (Foodie) Iceman has begun to thaw just a bit. For some reason, AE agreed to give me the wheel of FiH again, and I will do my best to earn his trust in this regard.

Enough with the chat-chat; on with the food. One of the few restaurants Mrs. E and I did manage to make it out to whilst Baby E held us hostage began to make em's way was Reef, which any good reader of this blog knows inside and out. The short of it was that we both loved it, and were particularly impressed with the way Caswell captured Houston cuisine. Southwestern elements, Tex-Mex, Vietnamese, Cajun, Southern, barbecue all seem to find some kind of a place on his menu, with spectacular results. I would have laughed in your face if you would have told me I would like jalapeno mint jelly with my (yeast) bread, but hey, I'm a believer.

So, I was stirred into action by AE's latest missive on burgers, which, I have to say, puzzled me quite a bit. As I remarked to AE privately, what is not to like about burgers? Nice fatty beef, grilled, topped with outraged onions (which suit my perpetual sense of outrage at just about everything), served on lovely bread, with a side of freedom fries . . .

I can only eat hamburgers every once in awhile, and I don't know how Alison Cook, bless her heart, does it every Friday, but I was surprised at AE's muted response to Little Bigs (esp. having tried the sliders at Reef), and resolved to give it a proper test drive myself. This weekend, Mrs. E and I gently removed the soldering iron Baby E was using to affix emself to us, and went to hear Helene Grimaud play Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 (glorious, and superior to the more famous No. 2, I think), followed by a stop at Little Bigs. I ordered two beef sliders and a spicy chicken, and Mrs. E did the same.

Pause for a moment to query why the heck portobello still finds its nasty, mealy self into fine dining (yes, I consider Little Bigs at least fine dining-esque, since its genesis was in the kitchen of Reef and the brain of Caswell)? I was watching an Iron Chef America competition in the last few months and had to restrain myself from cheering when one of the judges took Bobby Flay to task for using portobello. Since cost is not a factor in Kitchen Stadium, the judge asked, why use portobello? Aside from being so 1994 (his words), they just don't taste very good. Why not morels (it was a beef dish)?

I love mushrooms. Oyster, shiitake, chanterelle, porcini, cremini, morel, even baby bella mushrooms are good with me. But portobello? The flavor is overpoweringly woody, and they are just so meaty and mealy, you have to literally drown them in fat to have any chance at softening them. They're gross. Those who like portobellos are wrong.

(mostly kidding, but I do find them nasty). As such, especially in anything like a fine dining scenario, portobellos have no business with much of a presence. There are infinitely tastier, more refined fungi than portobello. And so let me also say that using them as a vegetarian substitute for meat -- because of the meatiness of portobello -- only serves to highlight what makes these shrooms so foul to begin with. Get them out of there, Mr. Caswell.

For the record, I adore vegetarian food, and am a huge fan of all manner of veggie burgers (esp. black bean burgers). But portobello is a bit uninspired, especially considering the source, and does not belong on the menu, IMO.

Second point: the spicy chicken burger was too spicy for Mrs. E. After nigh on a decade in Houston, Mrs. E is slowly developing some capacity to handle spice, but cayenne pepper is rough stuff for her, and I did not even think to suggest that most Southern batter recipes do feature cayenne to some extent.

This did not prevent me from eating her spicy chicken burger, of course . . .

Overall, how were the burgers? Excellent, really. Enjoyable little bites, and where else can you go spend $20 dollars for six gourmet sliders, two heavenly baskets of freedom fries (very very good), and contemplate spending roughly twice as much on a Turnbull blend that is almost certainly sold at or near cost ($37)?

I still maintain that for pure burger satisfaction, one would be hard-pressed to find better work than Lankford Grocery or PappasBurger (hey -- they do it well, frankly), but I am certainly no authority on burgerdom.

I am champing at the bit in my haste to try Bedford, as I absolutely adore Robert Gadsby's food. I am especially keen on trying it after reading Jennifer's wonderful review in 002 and learning what Mrs. E and I had discovered after multiple trips to Noe (when he was still cooking there): the man can make incredible food without butter or cream. Amazing, that.

More on that in future posts. For now, the Iceman must retire to his ice cave and contemplate the greater quandaries of life.

(And prepare Baby E's milk)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bún bò Huế at Pho Danh

I called one of my best friends to ask his Vietnamese fiancee what is her favorite Vietnamese noodle soup in Houston.

There was a pause. She isn't into superlatives.

"It is hard to find better than the Bún bò Huế at Pho Danh in Hong Kong Mall."

Bún bò Huế isn't Pho

Bún bò Huế is pronounced something like "boon-boh-hway." Say it rapidly without emphasizing any syllable. It is so fun to say that it's addictive.

Bún bò Huế is a Vietnamese noodle soup. To a Westerner, it is a lot like pho. But it isn't pho.

Pho is from Northern Vietnam. Bún bò Huế comes from Hue in Central Vietnam.

Pho's broth is flavored by star anise, cinamon, cloves. Bún bò Huế's broth typically has lemongrass and shrimp paste.

But the biggest difference is this. Pho uses only one meat -- beef. Real Bún bò Huế uses beef flank, but it also uses pigs feet, and cubed blood clots.

Still hungry?

Bún bò Huế and Pho are two of world's most complex, and best-tasting soups. And if I had to chose, I would have to pick Bún bò Huế.

The ever-changing soup of great complexity

These are two photos of the same bowl of soup. Bún bò Huế has a way of changing as you eat it.

The soup arrives with noodles, broth, and meat. But Pho Danh also gives you a giant mound of fresh ingredients to add:

bean sprouts
raw jalapenos
and a secret sauce that is so foul and stinky that it must be kept in a sealed container:
When I first opened the container to smell it, I refused to put it in my soup. Fortunately, I reconsidered. The foul paste added a complexity and depth to the soup that improved the flavor.

The tables at Pho Danh have other ingredients you can add -- soy, hoisin, sriracha, fish sauce. But I didn't want to tamper with this already complex dish.

As I worked through the bowl, I encountered the ingredient my friend warned me about -- the blood clots. They had the texture of tofu with a mildly meaty flavor. It is more edible than it sounds, or looks:

Ultimately, the real beauty of Bún bò Huế is not the spaghetti-like noodles, the strange meats, or the dozens of ingredients -- it's the broth.

The broth borrows flavors from everything that has been put in the soup. It becomes a mysterious mix of the garden, the sea, meaty flavors, the vegetal heat of jalapenos, the tanginess of lime, the aromatics of basil, and the funkiness of shrimp paste. The broth changes with every bite, drawing you further into its complexity.

For me, no broth in Western cooking can compare to this.

notes - Mandola's deli, Ibiza, grains for breakfast

A new format

I'm trying a new format. Fewer long essays. Fewer in-depth restaurant reviews. More short notes about food.

Why? You don't have time to read essays. I don't have time to write them. Besides, most meals are worth a few good thoughts.

So you might see long essays here occasionally. But the plan is to focus on shorter notes.

Mandola's Deli

Mandola's Deli was an unexpected find. When my friends Larry and Halcyon invited me, I expected another upscale chain restaurant that I have come to expect from the Mandola family.

Instead, Mandola's Deli is just a joint.

It serves lunch only. And it has a good crowd, despite its location in a barren industrial area on Cullen, east of I-45.

The biggest surprise was an eggplant parmesan sandwich. I expected the usual eggplant parm grinder -- a giant grease bomb. Although this one came with the mandatory tangy tomato sauce and Mozarella, the eggplant had a thin, delicate but crunchy crust and very little grease.

The breading on the eggplant reminded me of the unique method of frying at the now-closed Frankie B. Mandola's restaurant on Kirby. That Mandola restaurant had crumbled up good-quality bread as a batter on frying. I suspect that Mandola's Deli's eggplant parm may use the same technique.

No matter how they do it, Mandola's makes a mean eggplant parm.

Ibiza for lunch

Ibiza Food and Wine Bar serves one of my favorite soups in town -- the Basque green pepper and crab bisque. Yet Charles Clark's recipe is a mystery to me. Although the soup looks green, you don't taste green pepper. Instead, it has a spicy earthiness unlike any other soup I have found. The chunks of sweet crab are a delicious lagniappe in addition to the green creamy goodness.

At lunch this Wednesday, I also ordered another favorite, Ibiza's salad of roasted beets, pistachio, and goat cheese. As a child, I hated beets. My brother used the word "beets" to mean vommit.

Fortunately, as an adult, beets taste better.

Ibiza's beets were firm and sweet, balanced nicely by the tangy goat cheese. On this visit, the plate came with only red beets. A beet salad is more striking with a mixture of beet varieties with different colors. But the flavor of just red beats is quite good.

Bittman's savory, grain breakfast

The NYT's Mark Bittman wrote a thought-provoking piece this week about eating savory grain dishes for breakfast. He offered several ideas and recipes.

So for Thursday's breakfast, I skipped my usual oatmeal and experimented. I boiled some Israeli couscous with spicy curry powder and a variety of dried fruit.

Perhaps I overdid the curry. My mouth was on fire by the end of breakfast. And I wasn't sure how that made me feel.

Culturally, we have come to expect breakfast to be comforting -- and bland. The spice made me full. And it woke me up. But it was perhaps too abrasive. I worried that I would stink all day of curry.

Even if my execution was poor, Bittman's idea is interesting. It creates a new use for a pantry full of quinoa, couscous, polenta, and farro.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sandwiches big and small (Little Bigs and Lee's Sandwiches)

Little Bigs is a new slider stand on Montrose near Westheimer. It is owned by the same guys who own Reef. Although it just opened, Little Bigs is a hit. I went on a Thursday at 11:15 a.m. - before most restaurants get their first lunch customers. Little Bigs was packed.

I watched as the kitchen delivered a plate of fries topped with a single, tiny burger to a lanky high-school student. He stared at the slider in disbelief. "That's it?" he asked. "What a rip."

Sliders and sandwich economics

This is not a review. It is a tale of sandwich economics. Still, I should start by saying that Little Bigs sliders taste pretty good. I tried all three kinds.

The first was a burger with onions and sauteed onions. I am no expert on burgers. Little Bigs' 3 oz. beef slider was fine. It was a little dull. But then, I find most burgers a little dull.

The 'shroom slider was more interesting. It consisted of a portobello mushroom with a crispy crust.

Easily the best was easily the chicken slider. Little Bigs calls it "all-natural, hand-breaded spicy chicken." It was indeed spicy and had a very crispy crunch. The flavor and texture of this little sandwich puts Chick-fill-A to shame.

All three sliders were served on delicious yeast rolls. It was primarily the rolls that elevated these them above ordinary fast food.

Yet the most remarkable quality of these sandwiches is their size. Each slider is about four bites. They are undeniably cute. And their tiny size means you can eat all three kinds of sandwiches without getting very full.

Then there is the question of price. A meal at Little Bigs will cost most folks around $10. One slider is $2.08. Three sliders are $5.78. Cheese is extra. Fries (which I did not try) are $1.62. Shakes are $3.70.

So was the high-school student's $2 slider "a rip"? That question took me a whole week to ponder. And I did not find the answer until I went to a Vietnamese sandwich shop.

More sandwich for the $ at Lee's Sandwiches

Lee's Sandwiches is a wildly popular sandwich shop, on Bellaire outside the Beltway. It serves Banh Mi -- Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread. Lee's, part of a California-based chain, is perhaps the largest sandwich shop I have seen. On a Sunday afternoon around 2:00 p.m., it had well over 100 customers.

Lee's grilled pork sandwich is a monster. It comes on a loaf of French bread more than a foot long. The loaf is filled with grilled pork, marinated onions, carrots, and cilantro.

This is not the best Banh Mi in Houston. But it is pretty good. The French bread is fantastic -- crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle. The condiments are tasty and varied. Yet I have had much better grilled Vietnamese pork elsewhere. It was overly fatty, and the marinade was not as flavorful as some Vietnamese pork. Still, the sandwich was respectable.

Lee's giant Banh Mi easily is as much food as 3 Little Bigs Sliders. It costs $2.45. Double meat is an extra $0.75. For Banh Mi in Houston, this sandwich was average price. But compared to the cost of a meal at Little Bigs, it was a bargain.

What explains the price difference?

Why is a meal at Little Bigs so much more expensive? The answer lies in the uniqueness of a tiny sandwich. There is something special about these diminutive sandwiches that captures the imagination. We like them because they are small, cute, squeezeable, bite-sized.

But more importantly, Little Bigs' sliders do not have competition. Lee's competes with dozens of Banh Mi shops in Houston. That keeps the price low. But Little Bigs (as far as I know) serves the only fast-food sliders in Houston. So when Houstonians feel like eating a cute little cheeseburger without going to a fancy restaurant, there is only one place to go.

So I applaud the founders of Little Bigs. They have found an ingenious way to make us pay more for less food. They will make a lot of money -- at least until 20 other slider joints open around town.

UPDATE - It's over already: Hours after this post, I saw a new ad for Burger King sliders. The message? Hot young women adore little sliders because they are so cute and squeezeable.

I'm sure Little Bigs sliders are better than Burger King. But Little Bigs' monopoly of the Houston slider market is over before it began. After all, it wouldn't be fair to allow just one business to capitalize on all the extra money that the American consumer will pay just to get a cute, tiny, little sandwich.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Updates: Bedford, Beaver's

Bedford and Beaver's Ice House are works in progress. Both Inner Loop restaurants had slightly awkward starts. But both have oustanding chefs and the potential to rank among Houston's top restaurants.

Bedford for lunch

Bedford is now open for lunch. With most items in the $10 - $14 range, lunch is the most economical way to try this upscale restaurant.

A plate of braised short ribs is served with short ribs, braised pork belly, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, and a vinegary jus. The short ribs and belly were remarkably lean for those cuts of meat. But they fell apart with the touch of a fork and were full of flavor. My guess is that they benefited from a lengthy braising time. I also was impressed with the meaty, vinegary jus, which had more bite than I expected. It is a warming dish on a cold winter day.

In December my biggest complaint about Bedford had been the space. It felt cavernous, cold, and empty. Part of the problem was that chairs and tables had been moved to accommodate a large group. And part of the problem was the lack of color.

Now the space seems warmer now with new modern art on the wall. And when the tables are configured normally, it does not feel so cavernous. Still, I just don't get the dull brown light fixtures.

Officially, Bedford is not open yet. It's "grand opening" is February 28th. But it is unofficially open for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch.

Robert Gadsby is one of our best chefs. If it can survive the downturn, Bedford should be one of Houston's best restaurants.

A tasting menu at Beaver's

Beaver's had a rocky start. The dishes I tried in the first year were nothing special. But I knew that the food would improve with the addition of Chef Jonathan Jones.

Last week, a group of food bloggers tried Beaver's for a tasting menu lunch. Food Princess has a longer description with photos of the event.

Many of the best dishes are not currently on the menu -- raw oysters, oyster nachos, a fried fish, and vegetarian tamales. Sadly, the barbecue was mostly gone before the platter reached me. But I did try some flavorful smoked chicken.

Based on what I tried, Chef JJ is living up to his promise. And the food at Beaver's is much, much better.

But one puzzle remains: why is it taking so long for Chef JJ's creations to make it on to the menu? The menu continues to include a number of older, dull dishes, that pre-dated his arrival. I'm hoping to see the menu change rapdily and start including some of these great new dishes that the bloggers tried last week.

The Beaver's concept captures the essence of Houston's laid-back culture and our local food. It could become one of the city's defining restaurants -- the sort of place where you want to take your out-of-town guests to show them what Houston food is really like.