Saturday, March 28, 2009


I was wrong about jellyfish.

A distant vague memory: As a food, I thought jellyfish was exotic.

In 1994, I went to a Chinese buffet in the Rice Village. Good Chinese buffets are rare, but this one had high quality and some not-so-Americanized dishes. (I believe the name may have been China Station, and I know the restaurant is long departed).

A jellyfish appetizer had many flavors -- pungency, sweetness, nuttiness. Yet I wasn't completely sure which part of the dish was the jellyfish.

Last week: In Hong Kong Market, a stand displayed three brands of salted jellyfish. One cost around $1.50. Another, $2.50. The third, $3.50.

In an Asian grocery, when I don't know the product, and the packaging is not English, I follow a simple rule: Buy the most expensive one. I did.

Salted jellyfish requires a little preparation and a lot of waiting. First, you boil the thin strips in water with a little vinegar until they just begin to shrink. Then, you let them rest in cold water - to get out the salt. I waited a full day.

The reality. As I pulled the prepared jellyfish from the refrigerator, I discovered that jellyfish, as food, are not strange. After the salt has leached out, they have little flavor. Instead they become pasta-like conduits of other flavors.

As I contemplated what to do with these bland, slimy strands, I remembered Vietnamese salads with glass noodles. Like glass noodles, jellyfish have a slightly slimy, slightly chewy/crunchy texture.

So the dish began to appear in my head: a Vietnamese salad with jellyfish instead of glass noodles:

The base consists of shredded carrots, shredded cucumber, and jellyfish mixed with a combination of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, crushed peanuts, chili pepper, and sesame seeds. To make it a meal, I topped it with strips of egg omelet, grilled chicken, and mint.

(In the photo, the bits of jellyfish are the translucent strips mixed in with carrots.)

A new understanding of jellyfish. As food, jellyfish is immensely utilitarian. It acts as a texture base and a platform for other flavors. But unlike pasta, it is high in protein, low in calories, low in carbs, low in fat.

It is only as exotic -- and only as good -- as the ingredients, flavors, and imagination that you add.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Vietnamese near downtown (Huynh, Thien An)

Downtown Vietnamese - not dead yet

For several years, I thought we were losing our Vietnamese community near downtown. Midtown began to lose most of its Vietnamese malls, shops, and restaurants. Non-Vietnamese developments moved in. It looked like an exodus to Bellaire.

I may have been wrong.

Huynh Restaurant (912 St. Emanuel) and Thien An (2905 Travis) and have opened attractive new locations in the old Chinatown (Huynh) and Midtown (Thien An).

Their dishes are among the best in Houston.


My friends Larry and Halcyon brought me to Huynh for lunch. They know the proprietor. So they get special treatment. But then, every customer seems to get special treatment at Huynh.

Larry ordered some soft pork (?) rolls. I didn't focus on the meat because I was so enthralled with the wrappers. These are thick rice wrappers that remind me of some dim sum pasta much more than the ordinary rice paper. They are made in the kitchen. Their texture is thick, toothsome, and delightfully slimy. Their flavor is fresh and ricey.

Cha giao is often just an ordinary egg roll. But at Huynh, the exterior has a completely different, crunchy texture. Somehow these seem healthier than ordinary egg rolls, but I'm probalby just kidding myself.

Huynh's bún bò Huế is outstanding. Yes it has clotted pig's blood. (The proprietor delicately called it "blood tofu.") Yes it has pig's feet. The family who runs Huynh are recent immigrants from Hue, which makese sense when you try this authentic dish.

I love Huynh's minimal modern decor. This is an inexpensive Vietnamese place that looks and feels much more upscale than it costs.

Thien An

Thien An began as a divey sandwich shop, well known for its banh mi sandwiches. It recently moved to a bigger space Midtown. And the menu has much more than sandwiches.

I used the promise of Banh Mi to coax my friend Patrick to join me. He ordered a pork banh mi. It looked looked like a steal at $2.50.

I asked him to describe it. "It's good," he said. "Care to add anything else?" I asked. "Nope."

As you might guess, Patrick is no foodie. But he likes Banh Mi.

A few months ago, Justin commented on this site that Thien An's bún bò Huế is the best in Houston. I might have to agree. The broth might not be quite as complex as at Pho Danh in the Hong Kong Mall. But the meat in this soup has a distinct, spicy flavor that raises it above ordinary meat hanging out in broth. The soup that benefitted from a wide array of condiments.

For days, I have had a spring in my step. Now I know that great Vietnamese food is back inside the Loop -- or maybe it never left.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bedford Restaurant

This isn't going to be a full-on review of Bedford, Robert Gadsby's new digs, both because I lack the time for a full review, and more so because a few weeks have passed since I dined there, and I do not think it is entirely fair to the establishment to pen a review after such a passage of time.

Really, then, this post is much less a review and much more an airing of the grievances, Festivus style.

First, I am happy to admit that I am generally a total Gadsby Groupie.  At its peak, Mrs. E and I were firmly convinced that Noe was the best restaurant in Houston.  We loved the setting and decor -- ambient blue is lovely, and appears at Bedford, too -- the service, which was first rate, and, above all, the cuisine.  Mrs. E and I know a thing or two about Japanese cuisine, and we were enthralled with the way Chef G worked these techniques, fused with a European style, that produced food that was both elegant, complex, and yet avoided the hoity-toityness regrettably common to fine dining (and food critics, I might add.  No one I know, of course.  *Whistling*).

We also particularly loved that Chef G tends to eschew heavy usage of butter and cream.  See, here's the thing, and this may be the worst kind of gastronomical blasphemy: I'm not all that impressed when a chef loads up butter, cream, and cheese in a given dish.  If a chef is unable to load up a dish with butter, cream, and cheese, and make it taste pretty damn good, then they really stink.  Note: I have no problem with butter, cream, and cheese.  Quite the contrary; I dearly love all three.  My point is simply that liberal usage typically underwhelms me.  See also: bacon.

In contrast, a chef who understands the loveliness of these items, but uses them sparingly and still manages to turn out incredible food tends to garner my undying admiration.  I, aspiring home cook that I am, can manage to make things taste wonderful with butter, heavy cream, cheese, and bacon.  I guess the analogy here is to Alison Cook's general suspicion of truffles (and truffle oil).  I adore truffles, but I think she is right to point out that adding truffles to a dish is basically Instant Fancy.  Make it taste good first, then add just a hint of truffles . . . 

Noe gradually decreased in quality as Chef G seemed less present, and, while I think it remains pretty good, it is not what it once was, IMO.  So, I was thrilled when Bedford Restaurant opened -- finally, Chef G's own restaurant, with everything directly from his brain and hands.  I was doubly comforted when I walked in to dine a few weeks ago, and saw the man himself in the front, talking to some Serious People (investors?).  The smile at seeing him present quickly left my face as I realized that he was not actually in the kitchen at that time.  Ah well, if you want the Man to cook for you, better reserve a private table . . . 

The short of it is, I was underwhelmed.  The amuse bouche and appetizer -- butternut squash cappucino -- were quite good.  But the main course was disappointing indeed.  Perhaps I should have gone with my instincts and chosen seafood, but I was hankering for some pasta, and order the rigatoni with house-made sausage and aged goat cheese.   The dish was fine, as far as it goes, but seemed strangely un-Gadsby-esque.  From experience, I tend to expect true Gadsby-style dishes to be reasonable-size portions (this harkens back to Gadsby's Japanese training, I am guessing, because portions in Japan are substantially smaller than in Houston), with a gorgeous, artistic, yet almost minimalist presentation.  The dish was none of this.  It was a giant bowl of pasta, with everything kind of tossed in.  Little care seemed to have been taken with the presentation, and it was a huge bowl of pasta.  I was not particularly excited to eat it.

It tasted fine; the sausage was well-spiced, and it is, in my mind, impossible to go wrong with goat cheese.  But I was not wowed, with either the presentation, the portion, or the conception of the dish itself.  From Chef G's incredible culinary mind comes . . . a bowl of pasta with sausage and goat cheese? And it tasted extremely heavy, which I suppose might be expected from the dish I ordered, but seems to lack some key elements of Chef G's cuisine.

Anyway, I'll chalk this experience up to my ordering the wrong dish, and to Bedford perhaps still working out the kinks.  I'll be back, of course, perhaps after I scrape together the needed funds to sit at a private table . . .


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

They still open restaurants? (Benjy's and Cafe Byblos)

Restaurants are still opening?

Terrible economic times. Worst recession in our lifetime. Dozens of Houston restaurants have closed -- even Hue.

Yet somehow, someone keeps opening new restaurants.

A new Benjy's

Benjy's just opened a second location on the far west end of Washington. Last night -- a Tuesday -- every table was full, and the restaurant buzzed with energy.

The question that every fan of Benjy's will ask is: Is it different? The answer: a little.

The dining room seems bigger -- and much more brown. Wood dominates. The feel is a little 1970s, a little contemporary, and warm. For diners on Washington, you might expect an average age of about 25. Strangely, though, the crowd seemed about decade older than the Rice Village location, which has remained forever young.

The menu looks similar to the Village's menu. Only a handful of the listed dishes are different. But the teams of chefs are different. And the preparations also differ slightly.

Take, the tuna pizzette. It had most of the same ingredients as in the Village, but less wasabi cream sauce and a much thinner, more cracker-like crust. I usually prefer thin crusts, but this one was less like a pizza, more like a matzo cracker. Yet it had some nice flavor additions, including dried peppers and wasabi tobiko (flying fish roe).

One dish served only on Washington is crispy tofu steak with curried tomatoes. I enjoyed the tofu's texture - crispy outside and soft middle. And I especially liked the bright and spicy Indian-flavored tomato sauce.

Although Benjy's always has dabbled in international cuisines, this was the first dish I remember with an Indian twist. I hope they continue to experiment like this.

And I hope they continue to get the crowd.

Cafe Byblos

Although Cafe Byblos only opened in the past several months, the Press's Paul Galvani already called it "Houston's finest Lebanese restaurant." So what does he mean by "finest"?

Perhaps Byblos has the finest decor. The restaurant, on Richmond near Fountainview, feels like it could be in Vegas - a large dining area with a giant television projection screen, surrounded with oversized booths.

Or perhaps Byblos has the finest atmosphere. Byblos seems to want to sell itself as a party place. It often has belly dancing and flamenco. But last Sunday evening, only four tables were full. And the only entertainment was loud, sexually-suggestive Syrian music videos - something I didn't know existed. I enjoyed the videos, but they did not fit a quiet restaurant on a Sunday night.

Does Byblos have the finest food?

The babaghanuj had too much tahini and not enough smoky eggplant flavor. It tasted more like nut butter than an eggplant dip. I much prefer the babaghanuj at nearby Mint Cafe - and at least 4 0r 5 other Houston restaurants.

Byblos's Lahm Bi Ajeen (Lebanese pizza) was a nice surprise -- a mix of minced lamb and tomatoes on a thin crust. It is an interesting taste, not on many other Houston menus.

Galvani had recommended the mixed grill, which includes (1) a kafta kebob with mixed lamb, (2) a beef kabob, and (3) shish taouk - marinated chicken breast. I have had better shish taouk in Houston - especially at Mary'z. This chicken did not have much marinade flavor, and was not accompanied with garlic sauce. But the lamb had exotic spices and a nice charcoal flavor. And the beef kabob was the best of the bunch -- cooked medium rare and full of juice.

So, is this the finest Lebanese restaurant in Houston? I am not ready to say that about the food -- at least not yet. Byblos is off to a good start, but it has some tough neighborhood competition.

Looking for bulgogi in all the wrong places

Looking for better bulgogi

A disclaimer: I know very little about Korean food.

But I do know that I fell in love when I first tried bulgogi at one of the Ko-Mart food stalls. The thin slices of beef hinted at BIG flavors -- the umami of soy, the sweetness of sugar, the heat of peppers, and the bite of raw garlic and green onion. I loved those flavors. I wanted more.

Yet every bulgogi dish I have tried since then seems to have less. Most bulgogi dishes have little or no heat and much less of the other flavoring ingredients.

When it comes to bulgogi, I am the Ugly American. I want more flavor. If authentic Korean bulgogi is about subtlety, I don't get it.

Korea Garden lunch

As an illustration, some friends and I recently tried the lunch specials at Korea Garden on Long Point. We ordered bulgogi, spicy pork bulgogi, and bulgalbi (a similar dish made with short ribs instead of sirloin).


The sides were fantastic. Tempura vegetables had a delicate, crispy bite. The kimchi was appropriately old, spicy, and funky. And I particularly liked a side of some unusual, sweet vegetables. I had the sense that Korea Garden would be even better at night, when you can cook at your table, and they bring more sides.

But of the three meat dishes, the only one with the BIG flavors was the spicy pork bulgogi. Its flavor was mostly spice, not the wonderfully strange sweetness I like in a bulgogi marinade. The other two dishes had no heat and only a little sweetness. I did not find that bulgogi flavor explosion that I have been seeking.

The bulgogi burger at home

On Monday, my wife brought home some buffalo burger paties. Surely she knew that I am not a fan of ordinary burgers. Surely she knew that I would turn them into something goofy.

As I opened the refrigerator, trying to decide what to do with the burger, I saw a jar of kimchi. The mission became clear.

First, I chopped up the spicy kimchi, and then added even more chili paste. I incorporated the spicy goodness into the meat. Then, as the meat grilled, I threw together a "bulgogi" sauce of soy, mirin, sugar, crushed garlic, and green onions.

As I first bit into the the kimchi burger covered in bulgogi sauce, I knew I had found it -- that explosion of Korean flavors that I had been missing,

Sure, my "bulgogi" burger is no more authentic Korean food than a pizza burger is authentic Italian food.

But sometimes authenticity doesn't matter when you need a lot of flavor.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fratelli's - regional Italian food

What's missing in Houston Italian food?

A few weeks ago I listed some cuisines that are missing in Houston. Some of you added your complaints about our Italian-food scene. You said we don't have enough:

1 - authentic regional Italian restaurants; and

2 - good inexpensive Italian food.

Then Nord responded that we should try Fratelli's - a restaurant I had never heard of. So last Friday night, I loaded up the family and drove outside the Loop to see what I had been missing.

An inauspicious start

If atmosphere matters, you may not like Fratelli's.

It is in a depressing strip center on 290 near 34th. Outside are planters with herbs -- a good sign. But inside, the decor is equally depressing. The walls are scattered with tacky prints, some that are not hung straight.

On a Friday night, at peak hour, the restaurant was about 1/4 full. About half of the crowd was elderly. My wife gave me a blow-by-blow account as two old guys across from her wiped up butter from a bowl with their fingers, then greedily licked them.

Fortunately, the service was very friendly. A nice older lady greeted us at the door. Our young waiter seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the food.

The wine list was short, but had some good Italian wines. They did not have the wine we ordered, so the owner upsold us a "better" bottle -- $15 more expensive.

Perhaps Fratelli's needed to make up for the cheap food prices. Most pizzas and pasta dishes are around $10. Entrees with chicken and veal run around $14.

Good food overcomes all complaints

Most of Fratelli's menu focuses on the food of Emilia-Romagna. Many foodies think this region, just north east of Tuscany, is the best region for Italian food. It is known for handmade pasta, parmigiano, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and Bolognese sauce.

My daughter started out with a dish that is not a specialty of Emilia-Romagna -- pizza.

This Neptune pizza was loaded with anchovies and squid, plus a few shrimp and generous amounts of basil. The best part of the pizza was the crust -- a cracker-thin crust like most pizzas served in Italy.

Behind Dolce Vita, this might be the best, most authentic pizza in Houston.

We also started with spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce.

The potato/spinach dumplings were large, handmade, irregular balls -- completely different from the elegant light pillows at Ristorante Cavour. These gnocchi taste more like you would expect from someone's home kitchen, rather than a professional chef. Yet that is not a complaint.

The sauce was thick, cheesy, and pungent, much like I remember an gorgonzola gnocchi dish in Rome.

Again, this may not be the best gnocchi in Houston. But it is authentic and awfully good -- especially for $6.95.

A final surprise was Saltimbocca alla Romana.

Thin strips of veal were sauteed and rolled with prosciutto and sage, resting on a very light bed of butter sauce. The dominant flavor was the fresh sage. Most Houston Italian restaurants are too shy to use this much fresh herb.

Even the sauteed green beans on the side were full of flavor -- something I have not come to expect from most Houston Italian restaurants.

A few other dishes were merely good -- a Cesari salad (not an Italian dish, despite its name) and a chocolate torte that tasted more of fruit than chocolate. We learned that it is better to stick to Fratelli's regional specialties.

Fratelli's deserves more attention. Its food may not be in the same league as Da Marco's, Dolce Vita, Ristorante Cavour, or Arcodoro. But it's better than at least 200 other Italian restaurants in Houston. And it may be Houston's best Italian food value.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Ragin' Cajun

The original Ragin' Cajun on Richmond inside the Loop is over 30-years old. Although the Mandolas have turned it into a small chain, the original doesn't feel like a chain.

I first discovered RC as a Rice student. It was where I had some of my earliest tastes of boiled crawfish, cajun red beans, and oyster po boys.

When my Rice-friend Lizzette suggested RC for lunch last week, I had not visited it in ages. We found that in the past 20 years, the prices have gone up -- and there are a few new rooms. But the restaurant feels the same.

The walls are covered with faded college sports posters and Louisiana paraphernalia. And on a Friday, during Lent, it was full of customers.

Red Beans

RC's red beans is a classic Louisiana dish. It looks like a beautiful work of art, or rather folk art:

RC's red beans make an interesting comparison with Treebeard's, where I had eaten a few days earlier. RC covers the beans with white onion. Treebeards uses green onions.

But the bigger difference is flavor. Treebeard's beans taste a little more complex. RC's beans have a pastier texture and taste one- dimensional.

In cooking beans, I have found that complexity comes from using ingredients like onions, celery, green pepper, and bay leaves. I suspect that both restaurants use all those ingredients But Trebeard's may just use more -- or cook them longer. I also think Treebeard's beans may have more fat, which smooths the texture and spreads the flavor.

Still, complexity doesn't matter much when you eat red beans like I do -- covered in tabasco sauce. After a liberal dose, I didn't notice a difference.

Boiled shrimp

Lizzette ordered the better dish -- shrimp with cajun seasoning and a remoulade. Fortunately, she was not hungry enough to eat them all:

The spice mix tastes like the same spices that go into RC's boiled crawfish. It is fairly hot.

But these shrimp stood out more because of their quality. I had two bad batches of shrimp earlier in the week -- a shrimp dish at Dharma Cafe and some shrimp I cooked at home from Central Market. Both had an overwhelming flavor of iodine and little fresh-shrimp flavor. But RC's shrimp had that distinct flavor of shrimp straight from the ocean. And the flavor stood up to the heady spices.

Given the nearness of Louisiana, I am surprised Houston doesn't have more Louisiana restaurants. But we do have the Ragin' Cajun. And for casual cajun food, it's pretty good.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Houston's professional food critics

Alison Cook on Rainbow Lodge

Alison Cook published a magnificent review yesterday of Rainbow Lodge.

I don't say her review is magnificent because she loved the restaurant. (She did). Nor because her opinions are similar to my previous comments about the restaurant and its new chef. (They are.)

It is magnificent because it is so elegantly written, thoughtful, and insightful. For instance:

-"I felt my eyes welling with tears. . .I've never watched someone turn into a great chef right in front of me."

-"Thin-cut apple divides the ribbon of fish from a swoosh of cilantro pistou that is low-key enough not to dominate."

-"Rucker's more in love with his ingredients now than he is with his own mad skills."

And best of all:

-"Hansen and Rucker are running one of the best - and most interesting - restaurants in this corner of the world. Sometimes revenge is best served with a side of dashi gelee."

Many of Alison's published reviews are so polished, clever, and professional that they put the New York Times' critics to shame.

Houston's professional food critics

I remember a few years in the 90s -- after Alison left us for a while - when Houston had no full-time food critic. We are so fortunate now to have two of the best in the country.

Robb Walsh's writing is completely different and far more informal. And I disagree with his restaurant reviews more often than Alison. But he is my favorite American food writer. He articulates relationship between culture and food perhaps better than any critic writing in America today.

The coming end of professional food criticism?

It's no secret. The web is slowly killing off newspapers. And it is causing the layoffs of professional critics nationwide.

As Leisl Schillinger explained in a NYT blog today, "the old paradigm of publishing -- in which editors cautiously selected content, anxiously assessed its potential appeal and profitability, then painstakingly edited and proofed before printing their costly pages - has been overtaken by . . . 'mass amateurization,' or, in lay speak: blogging."

Houston's recent food blog explosion is part of that mass amateurization. I'm one of the amateurs. And I think there may be some real value to pithy stories, full of misspellings, about my efforts to cook a pig's head or find corn smut.

But if we ultimately do lose our professional critics -- people who write as carefully and thoughtfully as Cook and Walsh -- it will be a great loss for Houston.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The tale of the pig's head

This is the story of how I:

•went to a Vietnamese engagement,
•brought home a whole pig's head, and
•tried to figure out how to use it.

The engagement

One of my best friends is marrying a lovely woman who is a Vietnamese immigrant. In Vietnam, the key ceremony is not the wedding but the engagement. Last weekend was the traditional engagement party.

The ritual began with a procession of the fiance's representatives bringing the fiancee gifts covered in bright red cloths.
Notice the box on the right? That is a whole roasted pig from Sinh Sinh.

After the gifts came the introductions, the granting of permission to start dating, prayers to the ancestors, the presentation of the ring -- and then the feast. During the feast, we ate some of the gifts, including much of the pig. But not the head.

Traditionally, the pig's head is a special gift taken home by the fiance's parents. The problem is that my friend's parents are not Vietnamese. They don't eat pig's heads. So the fiancee consulted her elders about whether it would be a bad omen for the fiance's parents to give away the head. It wasn't.

Then they gave the head to the only person on the fiance's side who might eat it -- me.

What do you do with a pig's head? - day 1

My wife refused to allow the head in the refrigerator. "I'm not going to look at that." So the immediate task was disassembly.

The ears were a gift to my dog. I like pig ears. But I love my dog.

Then I removed the roasted head meat. A pig's head has more meat than you might think. Much of it is in the cheeks. I was permitted to store the meat until I figured out how to use it.
But what to do with the remaining skull? After much research, I finally decided to make broth.

In Western cooking, pork broth is rare. But it is widely used in Asia. And soup guru James Paterson highly recommends the full flavor of a pork bone broth. (Although he says nothing about heads).

So I made a stock with the skull. The problem was that the broth took about 3 hours. And at about hour 2, the house really started to stink.

It is hard to describe the smell. It was sickly sweet, foul, pungent.

My wife left the house.

After refrigeration, the stock turned into the texture of jell-o. The skull had leached a lot of collagen into the broth, giving it an amazingly thick texture.

I stored away my stock/jell-o and pig's head meat. As I lay in bed, falling asleep, I wondered what I might do with them on Sunday.

What do you do with a pig's head? - day 2

By morning, I had decided to make soup. But what kind?

Again, I turned to James Paterson. His book includes a few Asian pork soups using an ingredient I had never seen -- Szechuan preserved vegetable. I didn't use his recipes, but I went looking for this ingredient. After a few stores, I finally found a can at Super H Mart. The can had rusted outside, as though it had been shelved a very long time.

Nothing prepared me for the foulness inside:

The preserved vegetable is ugly. But the smell may be worse than any other food -- even durian.

I heated my stinky stock, added the stinky vegetable, and the pig's head meat. Then I added some noodles, szechuan peppercorns, and green onions, thinking they could only help.

By this point, I was nauseous from the smell of the stock, and even more from the stinky vegetable. I knew this soup was going to be bad.

So what happened? If you have watched Tony Bordain or Andrew Zimmern, you know that stinky, gross food stories always have one of two endings:

1 - the food tastes just as bad as it smells.
2 - the flavor is a nice surprise.

This story has a happy ending.

The broth was one of the richest, meatiest broths I had ever tasted. The stinky vegetables added a sour note, which made it more complex. The meat looked different from normal sliced pork, but tasted good. The noodles added body.

The only problem was the preserved vegetable. It helped the broth, but the chunks of vegetable were so sour, so putrid, and so foul, that I only could eat a few.

But now, two days later, the preserved vegetables taste just fine. They have mellowed, with no more pungency than a slightly-pickled cabbage. And the broth tastes even better.

So dearest Ann and Mark, I wish you the happiest joy and the best luck on your engagement and marriage.

And thank you so very much for the pig's head.

Houston's diversity - food for thought

Last week, many of you commented about ethnic foods that are not well-represented in Houston.

Today, the NYT has an interactive graphic showing the number of foreign-born immigrants in every American county. It helps explain why Houston restaurants have a lot of some cuisines, but not others.

Some facts are obvious: Houston has more Vietnamese immigrants than Russians. But other details are fascinating:

•Houston has more Vietnamese-born residents (more than 44,000) than anywhere outside of California. But three California counties (Los Angeles, Orange County, and Santa Clara) have more.

•Houston has far fewer Russian-born immigrants (2,876) than well over a dozen counties around the country. That may explain why we have no Russian restaurants.

•But, Houston has fewer Japanese-born immigrants (2,665) than Russians. Yet we have 140 sushi restaurants.

•Houston had fewer Chinese-born immigrants in 2000 (16,115) than California, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle.

•Compared to some areas of the country, Houston does not get many immigrants from the entire continent of Africa (21,574). The Northeast, California, and even one county in Minnesota (!?) get more. But Chicago has fewer.

•Only two cities in the U.S. -- Los Angeles and Chicago -- have more Mexican-born residents than Houston.

Houston beats Dallas and every other Texas city in every immigrant group -- with one exception: Dallas has slightly more Koreans.

Conclusions and Questions

This data suggests that Houston is the most immigrant-diverse American city outside of New York and California. (Chicago has as many immigrants, but is a much larger city.)


-If we have more Russian-born immigrants than Japanese, why do we have 140 Japanese restaurants and not a single Russian one? Who is cooking all of Houston's "Japanese" food?

-If we have more African-born residents than Chinese, why do we have so few African restaurants and so many good Chinese restaurants?

-Does it make sense to refer to that long stretch of Bellaire as "Chinatown"? We have far more Vietnamese immigrants than Chinese. I suspect our Chinatown may be much more of a Chinese/Vietnamese hybrid.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Corn Smut

So, I was at a party this week. I'd had some drinks. I was about to leave, but everyone was having a good time. One thing led to another.

And then someone brought out the corn smut.

Huitlacoche Crepes

Corn smut is a disease in corn. It is seen as a pest in the U.S. But in Mexico, it is a delicacy called huitlacoche.

Huitlacoche turns corn into large fungus-like tumors. It is a black, mushy mess. It looks unappetizing at best.

One of the party-goers named Vivianne had brought some canned huitlacoche from Mexico. And she had used it to cook up a pan of huitlacoche crepes. She also cooked chicken crepes. But everyone preferred the huitlacoche -- even after we told them what it was.

Huitlacoche has a lovely soft, creamy texture. The flavor is mellow, not strong. It is earthy, and just a little sweet.

I had tried huitlacoche before -- in an egg dish at El Mirador in San Antonio. (Plus ethnic food guru Jay Francis may have given me a bite of huitlacoche. He brings odd foods to Chowhound events). But I have never seen it in Houston restaurants.

Vivianne had discovered that crepes are huitlacoche's perfect delivery vehicle. The thin, delicate pancakes and a light layer of cheese complimented its mild flavor.

I left the party wanting -- no, needing -- more huitlacoche.

Can someone help me? Are there any restaurants where I can get this stuff in Houston?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Houston restaurants - What's missing?

Houston is proud of its food diversity. We have over 140 sushi, 450 Chinese, 170 Vietnamese, and 840 Mexican restaurants. In America, only New York and parts of California are more diverse.

But a lot of good cuisines are missing. There are types of food that every city with 5.6 million people should have. And we don't.

1. Portuguese. I love Portuguese food -- especially seafood stews. When I lived in Boston, there were countless Portuguese restaurants within 3 miles of my apartment. Houston only has Oporto, a Portuguese bar with a limited tapas menu.

2. German. After the Spanish, many of early European settlers to Texas were Germans. German place names are everywhere west of Houston. Yet our only German restaurants are Rudi Lechner's and Old Heidelberg. That's it. (It's a shame that Alfredo's sausage house on Montrose closed).

3. Ethiopian. I only know of two good Ethiopian restaurant in Houston - Addisaba and Blue Nile. Yet many smaller American cities, like Boston and D.C., have dozens.

4. Delis. Yes, Houston has over 100 places that claim to be delis. But good delis? New York-quality delis? Hardly. Instead the market is dominated by bland chains that hardly deserve to be called delis. Years ago, Houston had a fantastic Jewish Deli -- Alfred's. Today, we don't have any quite as good. The only ones that excite me at all are Khan's, Nielsen's, Kenny & Ziggy's and Specs. For a city our size, we should have more.

5. Moroccan. We have one Moroccan restaurant -- Saffron. It is quite good. But one Moroccan restaurant isn't enough for 5.6 million people.

6. New Mexican-Mexican. Mexican food in New Mexico is different. It uses ingredients like green chiles and blue corn. It is famous for dishes like posole and a unique kind of chile relleno. It can be extremely spicy. And it is quite different from Tex Mex. We have Chuy's and Canyon Cafe -- restaurants with a slight New Mexican influence. But we have little authentic New Mexican food.

7. Russian. In the past, Houston had some good Russian restaurants. Currently, I know of none.

8. Eastern European. We have three very good restaurants representing three Eastern European cuisines: Polonia (Poland), Charivari (Romanian), and Cafe Pita (Bosnia). But that is about it. Where in Houston can you get a Hungarian bean soup, Croatian mushroom-stuffed tomatoes, or Bulgarian red pepper stew?

9. Rural Texas food. There are fascinating rural foods in Texas that Houstonians just seem embarassed to serve. Central Texas from Schulenberg to Fredricksburg has a unique mix of German, Czech, and rural American food. And East Texas has a distinctive brand of Southern American cooking. These local cuisines get little respect in Houston are barely represented in our restaurants.

10. Molecular gastronomy. Most major cities have at least one restaurant that features avant garde cooking, i.e., WD-50 (New York), Alinea (Chicago), Minibar (D.C.), and Bazaar (Los Angeles). We had laidback manor for less than a year. But currently we don't have anything close to MG or any other branch of the avant garde.

UPDATE: Come to think of it, what Houston really needs is conveyor belt sushi so we can do this.