Friday, December 12, 2014

Where I've Been

For those of you that have read any/all of these posts, you may wonder where I disappeared to. If you follow along on Twitter you'll know I haven't completely fallen off the face of the earth. Simply put, life got in the way. My wife and I sold our home in one suburb and bought a house in another suburb 48 miles away from the previous place. But this is not a forum for my personal life, it is about the food. So here's some quick hits on where I've been eating:

We said goodbye to Katy favorites such as Alicia's Mexican Grille (not world changing, but solid Tex-Mex that we've yet to replace in our new area), Marini's Empanadas (cheap, tasty empanadas and a very good craft beer selection), Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, and Ritter's Frozen Custard.

We said hello to some new neighborhood haunts: Tita's Taco House - very good, very affordable and Tipico Cafe which has all of the charm and quirk of a family owned establishment.

We had some mighty swings and misses at other north side excursions, including "guacamole" that was literally someone smashing half of an avocado on a plate and perhaps the worst plate of food I've ever seen masquerading as Italian in my lifetime.

Of course all of this change hasn't kept me from frequenting some of Houston's hotspots.

There's been a decadent on-the-house truffle dish at Coltivare and amazing sandwiches at Common Bond.

I now live entirely too close to Corkscrew BBQ. If you'd been there in the past and not fallen in love with their brisket, go back. They bought a new smoker and the smoked meat it's churning out is second to none. I might even prefer it to Killen's brisket, and that would be saying something.

Speaking of Pearland's Prince of Beef, there's been trips there too in these almost five months since I last posted.

There was the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, which fell right in the middle of our home selling/buying madness. Snow's was a standout that day for me.

A work trip to Austin included a Louie Mueller detour and an incredibly underwhelming first visit to In-N-Out Burger.

I had yet another thought provoking visit to Oxheart, where Chef Yu and company continue to astound my palate with their mastery of vegetables.

There were first and second visits to new Houston places such as The Honeymoon in Market Square - solid food if not perfectly executed and in my opinion slightly overpriced.

I found time for a quick jaunt through the Market Square bars as well, including Justin Vann's newest venture, Public Services. I only wish I lived closer so that I could become a regular. My wife said it right when she proclaimed it a hipster granny's living room. They're just missing the plastic covering for the couches.

Of course my usual work lunches in the Sharpstown and Chinatown areas will never stop.

Oh, and how could I forget the time I was held hostage in my car by kitchen staff for trying to take a photo of a restaurant's sign in the Hillcroft area? Not surprising, this place is no longer open.

Pondicheri Bake Lab opened with much less fanfare than other bakeries this year, but takes a backseat to no one with its fragrant and beautiful baked goods.

There was a beyond overdue first visit to Triniti. The food and service were top notch, and it will only take another visit or two for me to be confident in saying it's the best higher end Houston restaurant no one talks about.

Another overdue visit was made, this one to Ciao Bello where Tony Vallone wowed a dining companion with his commitment to service as well as amazing flavors. Three words: sweet. corn. pansoti.

Multiple stops at Revival Market (I contend they serve the best cup of coffee in the city) for various breakfasts.

I've added Cafe TH to my monthly lunch route. So affordable, so delicious.

2015 is shaping up to be another exciting food year:

Richard Knight, whose prior restaurant Feast was ahead of its time for our fair city, prepares to wow us all again.

P.J. Stoops is getting set to unleash fiercely authentic Thai food.

The H-Town Streats boys will be serving us some Hugs and Donuts in the new year - I think/hope, has anyone heard any progress on that venture?

I promise I'll try to stop being such a stranger next year!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Cost of a Second Chance

As the check was brought to the table, I knew the moment of truth had arrived. The plates had been cleared, the offer of dessert declined. In fact, dessert at another destination had already been planned once my wife and I resigned ourselves to the disappointing truth: this meal was not in any way what we'd hoped it would be. We'd read the reviews and heard from our trusted food sources around town that told us this place provided superb food filled with its style of cuisine's signature bursts of flavor. So in to the city we went, as we do on most weekends to experience the best of what Houston's culinary landscape has to offer. Most of our ventures are aedquate, if not overwhelmingly successful. This meal, however, completely missed the mark. The internal problem I faced when receiving the bill was something I imagine a number of non-paid food writers have encountered. Is this place beyond my price point for a second chance and, if so, is it unfair for me to write my opinion on this establishment's food when my thoughts were based on a single visit? The first part of the question was answered quite easily; the latter required more thought.

While I may dine out as though I have an endless budget, I assure you I do not. I tend to stick to more afforadble lunches and, as my wife would eye-rollingly admit, the vast majority of our disposable income is spent on dining experiences. Our bill for this dud of a dinner, which included two drinks, an appetizer and two entrees, came to $76.00 after tax and tip. While not a king's ransom, that is the type of pricetag that will give someone like me pause before making a return trip when the meal fell as flat as this one had. During the car ride from dinner to our chosen dessert venue (I freely admit dessert was consumed at the newly opened The Honeymoon in Market Square - an interesting place with promise) it had been decided that, while we might be open to happy hour or even a solo work lunch for me, we would not pay for dinner at this place again. That choice made, I had to decide for myself whether I should write about this experience. After some debate, I came to the conclusion that I needed to tell the full story. It is important that I make it clear that this was one experience at a place that has received much praise from far more established writers than myself. But I don't want to be one of the food voices in Houston that only writes about their best experiences. I don't fault those that do write only positive reviews, as that is their personal choice, but I believe if I'm going to share my food experiences on a public forum they should be as complete and honest as possible. So, without futher ado, I present you my Saturday night at Cuchara.

The murals at Cuchara, splendid displays done by the hand of Cecilia Beaven, immediately catch your eye when you walk through the door. We were seated toward the back of the main dining area, a good place to people watch and take in the full scale of the restaurant's unique decor, and quickly perused the cocktail list. While I am normally one to try a house margarita at a place that bills itself as authentic Mexican cuisine, I was compelled to give a try to the Paloma, a tequila based drink with fresh grapefruit juice, grapefruit soda and chamoy. The drink was well made and had a great balance of fruit flavor without losing the presence of its alcohol base. My wife inquired about the margarita of the day, which the server had to go back to the bar to learn about (he would later explain the ceviche of the day as simply "Tilapia," which explained little about the dish. Uninformed servers are a personal pet peeve of mine). She eventually decided on the regular house margarita, which was also well executed and not overly sweet. Cuchara does seem to have a talented bar staff.

For our appetizer we shared the quesadilla de huitlacoche, which wasn't a bad dish but lacked the beautifully funky flavor one would expect from the "Mexican Truffle." The tortilla was unfortunately the dominant flavor of the dish, which struck us both as odd. The one thing I can usually count on in traditional Mexican cuisine is pronounced flavors, but the boldness was missing in this dish. The introductory course would prove to be the theme of the night.  Having heard a lot of talk about their enchiladas, I couldn't have my first Cuchara experience without trying them. The enchiladas were stuffed with panela cheese (think paneer or perhaps a distant cousin to mozzarella if you're not familiar) and coated in three different salsas. I have to assume these enchiladas were supposed to have but a light smattering of cotija cheese on top and that the bombardment bestowed on the plate I'd been served had been a mistake. Surely this was not by design. I quite enjoy cotija - the salty bastard offspring of Parmesan and Feta - as a nice accent to Mexican dishes when used in moderation. Sadly, the heavy hand that drowned my enchiladas in this cheese ruined any chance I might have had to distinguish the flavors of the salsas. There was also a textural problem with the dish. Soft cheese inside of soft tortillas that have been made soggy with salsa, served with a side of refried black beans did not provide much in the way of contrast. This could be partially forgiven if the dish had not become the salty cheesy mess that overtook my palate.

My wife chose the pork tenderloin in mole verde, which came with sides of refried beans, rice and white corn puree (again with the soft textures Cuchara!), a dish I had to force myself to avoid ordering. I'm a notorious sucker for a well made mole. While the presentation was amusing if a bit campy (all components arrived at the table in individual mini crocks), the dish as a whole was poorly executed. The mole had none of the complexity one would expect in Mexico's mother sauce and the pork was terribly overcooked. Add to it the under seasoned refried black beans that I was familiar with from my own plate, forgettable rice and an utterly unnecessary white corn puree, the dish was as uninteresting as it was disappointing.

I genuinely hope we came on a bad night for the restaurant, that the problems we saw with Cuchara were a series of hiccups and not inherent issues. With such a broad range of restaurants around the Montrose area, neighborhood residents surely wouldn't continue to patronize a place if they'd been served similar dishes to the ones we received. But for fellow suburbanites who travel twenty-five miles into the city and devote portions of our budget to eating great food, we simply cannot justify repeat visits based off of subpar experiences. I am not trying to discourage anyone from trying Cuchara - decide for yourself - but it's not a second chance I can afford.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Food Traditions

Perhaps it just speaks to my peculiar nature, but I have never been a big fan of traditional foods or meals. Sure, I'll eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but I don't think I'd miss the old bird should it go away. I don't need it to be July 4th to consume copious amounts of barbecue; anyone that has followed along on this blog or my Twitter can see that's a regular occurrence no matter the date on the calendar. What I have noticed, though, is that my wife and I have started forming our own food rituals.

  • Pre-football Sunday brunch at Hugo's: the Sunday before Labor Day also happens to be the last Sunday before the NFL season begins. My wife knows that once football returns to Sunday, the chances of getting me to brunch drop below zero. Thus, we celebrate the end of "brunch season" with the splendid feast at Hugo's. We sip cafes de olla and overindulge on all of the savory and sweet offerings the Ortega family has to offer.
  • First football Sunday crab boil: This one is a solo venture as the wife detests most things shellfish. The first Sunday of the NFL season, I boil some blue crabs, lay out some newspaper across the dining room table, pop open a couple cold beers and crack crab until I can eat no more while watching the games. Pro tip: shrink wrap the remote before you begin this feast or face the wrath of an angry spouse later.

I normally prefer a more full bodied beer such as Saint Arnold Santo, but any Texas beer will do.
  • The Austin Bluebonnet trip: One of our new favorite rituals is to take a weekend trip to Austin in early to mid-April to enjoy the best weather Texas has to offer and the wonderful view of the bluebonnets. This has also become my pilgrimage to Franklin Barbecue time of year as 70 degree weather is the only time I can stomach the increasingly long line.
  • Pre-winter break custard at Ritter's: One of my Katy favorites is Ritter's Frozen Custard on Fry Road. Often my family's go to treat, we make a point to get in one last visit before they close for their annual winter break in early December. Weather be damned, you'll find us there on their final day of business before the holidays, gleefully savoring our last frozen fix.

Ritter's spicy chocolate custard in waffle cones.
  • Christmas marshmallows: Yes, you read that correctly. A tradition we've started with my wife's family is roasting s'mores outside during the Christmas season. My wife and I make an obscene amount of marshmallows, do our best not to hoard them for ourselves, and bring them to her parents' house for the annual roast.
  • Work Buddy Appreciation lunch: My good friend in the office and I go out to lunch constantly, usually to one of the more affordable, quality places close to work. However, every six months we treat ourselves to what he deems an appreciation lunch as a thank you for helping one another out with some of the craziness around the office. These lunches are usually a little pricier and a little more out of the way than our usual spots. One appreciation lunch was Dolce Vita, one at Haven, another at Underbelly. It's a welcome treat to have a couple times a year.

The beautifully charred pies at Dolce Vita.

While not your normal traditions, these are the ones that work for me. When food is such a big part of your life all year, it's the special moments with those you care for that turn the ordinary into an occasion. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Why can't we be friends?

Another week in the books, yet another fun tour of Houston food for yours truly. There were some old reliable meals (Paulie's, Pollo Bravo), a return trip to a buzzed about newcomer (Siphon Coffee), a local second chance that mostly paid off (Kurry Walah in Katy), and a pop-up featuring two budding gems in the barbecue world (Pappa Charlie's BBQ  and Feges BBQ). Sitting on the patio at Jackson's Watering Hole, sampling the great smoked meats with friends, I experienced an all too familiar conundrum. Should I converse with Patrick Feges and Wesley Jurena about their craft? Both seem the friendly, jovial type. Certainly Patrick and I have gone back and forth on social media. But alas, I kept my mouth shut. Why? Because of an antiquated idea behind the critiquing of food.

Most people involved in the Houston food community, whether that be in the kitchen, front of house, media or frequent patron will tell you the following: in a city of millions, you often recognize the same people. Being good with faces myself, I'm constantly nudging my wife in restaurants and coffee shops when I recognize a chef or food writer. This past weekend was no different as I saw several familiar faces of the culinary world. To this point I've mostly kept to myself to all of you fine food friends. It's not because I'm unfriendly or overly shy - truth be told I'd probably talk your ear off - it's simply because I want to be able to objectively sample the food and give a completely objective opinion, somehow worried that my judgement would be clouded should I become friendly with the people involved in it. I fear it would be harder to tell you that my dish was overly salted or the brisket a bit underdone should we have a personal relationship.

It has been widely stated (and correctly so) that the restaurants that matter already know who you are and the ones that don't won't care. Some Houston food critics have attempted to remain faceless, others chose to make themselves known. I don't mean for this to sound like I am of any importance in the food world; I operate solely from this small site. But should I ever be a voice that anyone cares about, a part of me wants to hold on to the silly idea of anonymity so that the meal I receive is no different than the person at the next table. I'm sure there are some that already have a good idea of who I am as it's not hard to find these things out in this information age. But for the time being I'll try to keep a low profile. Hopefully the great chefs and people in the industry know how much I enjoy their food and that I have the utmost admiration for their skill, even if they can't quite put a face to the praise.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When the smoke clears: the ever-changing landscape of Texas barbecue

It's easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of attention being focused on Texas barbecue these days. Something that's been going on for generations in The Lone Star State is buzzed about as the latest food trend in New York. It feels as if overnight the battle over who could most creatively make use of an immersion circulator has shifted to who can smoke a brisket for longer and render fat best. I won't say this change is a bad thing, but it can be perplexing coming to terms with a new battle within the barbecue world.

The biggest personal conflict I've faced as someone who has come to love Texas barbecue and the sense of pride and ritual that comes with the craft is this: should it matter if some of the up-and-coming joints' biggest motivations aren't simply continuing tradition? Is it such a sin against our state's culinary calling card that grabbing a slice of the media attention is part of why some of these places do what they do? It surely doesn't decrease the quality of the smoked meat they produce, but there is something soul satisfyingly genuine about sitting inside a place like Snow's in the tiny town of Lexington on a Saturday morning, knowing the barbecue you're enjoying was made by a small group of dedicated individuals who started honing their skills long before the days of Twitter handles dedicated to posting aerial photos of long barbecue lines. Does it mean their brisket is better prepared than the latest hotshot in Austin? Of course not. But there is a respect of food history that is palpable when you walk through the hallowed smokehouse of Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor that just can't be duplicated, no matter how weathered the newest place's carefully sourced tables and chairs may be fabricated to appear.

Part of me wants to scream "Hypocrite!" at myself for even thinking these things. I am admittedly not a seasoned veteran of the Texas barbecue ways. But that history is what spurred on this passion for me. Do I frequent and enjoy the food from the newer places just as much as the so called "old school" joints? I do. I do this in search of great barbecue. What I don't need, though, is for the places themselves to proclaim their own greatness. To me, the best barbecue places never had to tell the world they were the best - or maybe they just didn't have the platform in the days before social media. But something tells me Bobby Mueller would not have had much use for a smart phone, and I definitely won't be holding my breath waiting for Vencil Mares to Instagram his latest fatty end cut. I suppose that's the age we're in now. So many of the newest pitmasters (a word the older generation of cookers would scoff at) embrace the traditional techniques, but certainly don't shy away from and often seek out the limelight that has been bestowed upon the barbecue world these days.

Many will say this is the Franklin-ization of Texas barbecue. They're not wrong. While I don't think this was Aaron Franklin's goal when he began selling his fare on the side of a highway in Austin some five years ago, he's certainly been no stranger to the camera. When Killen's BBQ began, Ronnie Killen made it no secret his goal was to overtake Franklin. It appears this is a goal of many new joints that have opened in Texas and across the country the last couple of years. In a way, it saddens me. Texas barbecue to me began as preservation and evolved into tradition and a sense of community. I hope that has not been lost in the celebrity status attainable these days when smoke is properly applied to meat. The popular Fed Man Walking blog posted his personal Top 10 BBQ places in Austin list yesterday. Is it a good thing that none of the top ten places are even five years old?

That's not to say there aren't plenty of bbq aficionados both young and old still in it for the love of the process. Adrian Handsborough certainly had no Chase commercial aspirations when he opened Virgie's Bar-B-Que. From all accounts his was a labor of love and way to honor his mother who taught him how to cook. There are countless others that may never get a visit from a "BBQ Posse" or earn a four star review from a well-respected food critic. So many keepers of this great tradition simply get up every night, stoke the fire, apply the rubs and tend their pits through dawn while they wait to serve their customers. Those customers may not line up hours before the doors open, and they may not sell out of meat in a couple hours. But they will get up the next night, and the process will repeat.

This was not meant to be a referendum on the new age of Texas barbecue, but I am conflicted on my own feelings of its evolution. I want the quality to continue to rise, but hope what has always been great about this style of cooking is not lost in the wave of attention crashing down on it. After all, it's just smoke, meat and patience, right?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Recent Bites

It's been awhile since I posted here, so I figured I'd give a quick hitter of what I've been eating lately. And by quick hitter, I mean strap yourselves in because I don't summarize well.

Common Bond Bakery: Both the hype and the gripes are justified. Yes the pastries are beautifully constructed. Yes the ever-changing hours that Common Bond has employed has frustrated patrons (or wannabe patrons if you caught them during an unexpected closing time) is a problem. It is difficult to open a new, much buzzed about place these days. We're in the age of social media, so hopefully Common Bond begins using these platforms more frequently to update the masses. It sure appears the frustrated diners use twitter, as any search for @wearecommonbond on Twitter will tell you.

The fantastic - The croissant at Common Bond is everything you could hope for in the French pastry. Crunchy, flaky, layered in texture and beautiful to look at, this is something I didn't know our food landscape was missing until I ate it.

The addictive -The kugelhopf. This talked about pastry heavy on the orange zest and laced with raisins didn't wow me at first. However, the complex texture and lasting flavor have kept me craving it.

To be continued - A big cookie fan, I wanted to love the chocolate chip cookie at Common Bond. Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat. While there was a nice crunch and high quality chocolate, there was a soft interior missing in the cookie. I would love to be able to snag one fresh from the oven one day.

One last thing - I'm still trying to figure out why the staff uniform at Common Bond makes them all look like they belong in The Lumineers.

Almond croissant from Common Bond

Revival Market: Little can be said about this Heights gem that hasn't already been written far more eloquently than this writer could convey. Without simply echoing others, I will say that Revival Market may make the best cup of coffee in Houston right now, and that's saying something. A bit more affordable than Blacksmith, the coffee here is always spot on. And you have to love any place where you can sip a flat white while The Wire theme song "Way Down In The Hole" plays.

Underbelly: They've won a Beard, they helped usher in a new era of food in our city, they're one of the springboards for the much maligned Bobby Heugel's career. All of this is common knowledge in our food community. But did you know the talented kitchen staff at Underbelly can pay homage in one hell of a way? Underbelly paid tribute to the Charleston, South Carolina and Nashville, Tennesee restaurant Husk by putting their burger on the Underbelly lunch menu for one week, and my oh my was it delicious. Truly one of the best burgers I've enjoyed in awhile: a wagyu beef patty ground with bacon, served with pickles, remoulade, and smothered in American cheese on a benne seed bun. This burger came to the table with the most wonderful bacon aroma and was incredibly juicy. The bacon always let you know it was there without ever kicking the beef off the dance floor.
The Husk Burger, which needs to appear on the Underbelly menu more often
Brooks' Place BBQ: Having gone awhile without a true barbecue joint visit, I stopped at Brooks' Place for a quick lunch. A simple two meat plate with solid sides, the ribs arrived nicely smoked but a bit sweeter than I'd prefer. I've come to expect this from Brooks'. This is more a matter of personal preference than complaint. Having ordered all fatty brisket, I was eagerly looking forward to the indulgence. I was surprise to find that the meat had been sliced with the grain. This is usually a bad sign. The meat, though, was incredibly tender and delicious, with perfectly rendered fat. While the slicing error did require more of a pick and pull than true brisket eating experience, it was still very well cooked smoked meat.

Brooks' Place brisket, ribs, coleslaw and potato salad

H-Town Streats: Sometimes you have to go back to the one you love. I had not eaten at the food truck affectionately referred to as "Dingo" by its owners in quite some time, and they did not disappoint. The shorty mac (a short rib/mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich to those unenlightened) was what I remembered, though probably would have tasted a bit more fresh if I'd come closer to the 11 o'clock lunch shift than the 7 pm evening dinner they stayed for at the food park on the west side of town. The cuban sandwich, however, was one of the more solid I've had in this city in a long time. H-Town Streats remains one of  the best food trucks in this city. I expressed my despair over losing the truck to their upcoming Heights donut shop, but the guys set my mind a bit at ease stating that they didn't plan on fully retiring the truck, also hinting they hoped for other brick-and-mortar opportunities in the future.

My Own Barbecue Adventure: I volunteered to contribute barbecue for 50 people on a Memorial Day weekend BBQ and crawfish boil party, despite my wife's pleading that I don't overextend myself. Having a smoker with limited space, I wasn't sure how to get the timing just right to serve everything at proper doneness and temperature. Thanks to helpful tips from up and coming pit master Patrick Feges, I was able budget my time to make sure everything was served at the right time. The end result was two briskets and three racks of ribs that came out well, the brisket being the most tender I've made to date.

Fatty brisket, smoked by yours truly

All in all there has been a lot of good food in my life these days, but it would take too many words to give you all of the details on everything (apologies to Fu Fu Cafe, Alicia's Mexican Grille, Siphon Coffee and all other meals that didn't get their due on this post!) . I'll try to keep those informed that read along.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

There's more to come

I flipped open the book cover revealing the night's menu - I believe it was a Julia Child cover on my first visit for Underbelly's opening weekend - and knew things were changing in my fair city. Grilled steaks and wine based sauces that had long been many people's view of fine dining were replaced with an eclectic and vivacious mix of cuisines all blended together to illustrate Chris Shepherd's vision. It was his way of putting Underbelly's mission statement on full display for the diner: the story of Houston food. The tale was told in the menu: from the family style dishes on the menu's left side that were elevated comfort foods such as pork roasts and whole bycatch fish that arrived steaming at the table to the right side of the menu that was a melting pot of smaller plates that consisted of Indian, Cajun, Thai and Korean influences. These cultural twists elevated simple vegetables and familiar proteins in ways many Houstonians had not experienced. It was cutting edge, but so rustic and unfussy that the diner in me delighted, and the cook in me appreciated.

Long respected in the industry, Chris Shepherd had built quite a reputation as a chef who could extract full flavor out of every ingredient while running the kitchen at Catalan. When he announced plans to open his own restaurant, the industry was abuzz with anticipation of just how far he'd push the boundaries of what most thought of as Houston's culinary limits. There were talks of in-house butchering, meat curing, and vegetable pickling. Were these going to be just rumors or lofty goals upon which Chef Shepherd and staff could not deliver? The answer provided to me on that first visit and in the two years since is a resounding no. Underbelly remains dedicated to their craft, and the results speak for themselves. Have I had underwhelming plates on a visit here or there? I have. But even the misses come from some such a dedicated core of quality that I can still appreciate the effort.

Underbelly is not without its critics, and I do not mean for this to sound as if they invented farm-to-table cuisine or were the first to cure meat. There have been restaurants across the country and in Houston employing these practices long before Shepherd and crew set up shop at Westheimer and Waugh. But where Underbelly has stood out from the crowd is in their dedication to product and the tribute they pay to the diverse ethnic cuisines that make up our city.

 Last night as Chris Shepherd accepted his James Beard Award for best chef in the southwest region, I along with many other Houstonians with a passion for food couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride. This was a big step in the progression of Houston's dining scene, shining a bright light on the culinary landscape that continues to evolve and impress even the most discerning palate. The last few years has seen an explosion of talent in our city's foodservice industry being recognized nationally. Houston had to wait 22 years between Beard winners, but I think our next win is not far off. Fellow nominees Hugo Ortega and Justin Yu are knocking on the door, with a slew of young up-and-comers nipping at their heels. It's an exciting time to be in this city and be a fan of great food. The future is bright.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bites and brew in Austin

As is the case with all of my wife and I's getaways, this past weekendwe tried to discover some Austin food and drink establishments that we'd not had on previous visits. Save for the pilgrimage to Franklin Barbecue, everywhere else we tried was a new experience. Sufficiently stuffed with brisket and with 7 o'clock comedy show tickets, we decided on light bites at Lenoir to tide us over. I'd heard quite a few promising things about the restaurant, which has a very small dining room (think Oxheart size) and a wine garden behind the restaurant that offers small plates made mostly on their backyard grill.

Upon arrival, we went around back to the quaint bar/grill area to place our order and get drinks, a local but forgettable beer for me and riesling for her. Advertising half off on food during their 5-7 happy hour, the wine garden menu was beyond affordable. If I were to have a slight gripe about Lenoir, it is that the happy hour food is so generously priced (our three dishes cost $12 dollars) that it makes the drink menu - which is not discounted during happy hour - seem out of balance price-wise. Our two drinks cost more than our three food selections. We were not the only ones in the garden to notice this oddity, as the couple seated next to us asked one of the servers if any of the wine was half price, only to be told in an all too typical Austin hipster way "Umm, we think these prices are happy hour prices all day."

We chose a bean chaat salad and smoked snapper crostini to share, and a chocolate pot de creme with shortbread, pistachios and grapefruit for dessert. While waiting for our food, we both remarked on how serene the backyard area of Lenoir was. You have the option of high backless box-like stools upon which to sit, or you can park your kiester straight on oak logs covered with blankets. Lenoir provides a tucked away vibe despite the fact that you're only steps away from busy First Street. The food was well executed but not revelatory. I would love to try a full meal at Lenoir sometime to see how they pull off larger, more composed plates, but the wine garden options were a perfect quick nosh.

Clockwise from top left: bean chaat salad with spicy yogurt, smoked snapper crostini, chocolate pot de creme, decor and seating in the wine garden

On the way to our show we needed a coffee fix. Having read good things about Houndstooth Coffee, we stopped in for a caffeine jolt. I ordered a flat white, which was not listed on the menu but I'd read they would make if you asked. While they definitely used a quality bean, there was far too much milk in the drink.

The next morning we debated on a few different breakfast choices until we settled on the downtown farmer's market on Guadalupe, which was walking distance from our hotel. We made the rounds to visit all of the different vendors before deciding on a few items. First up was a couple kolaches from the Zubikhouse truck: goat cheese and fig preserves with sage and brown butter, and a simple beef sausage. The bread on the beef sausage was sweet but balanced well with the savoriness of the sausage, and the goat cheese and fig was delicate and flavorful. Goat cheese can be an overpowering ingredient, but was tamed down to make a great combination with the other components. Houston, we need a kolache truck! The second place we sampled was Dai Due, which seemed to be one of the most popular vendors at the market. We both had Mexican coffee which was solid, and I chose chicharrones and yucca blossom tacos with green tomato and lamb quarter salsa served on corn tortillas. Unfortunately, this dish was unsuccessful. The beauty of chicharrones is the salty crunch, and the heavy handed inclusion of the salsa turned the chicharrones into a soggy mess. The yucca blossoms provided an interesting flavor combination, but were a bit hard to eat inside such a small taco.

My wife, ever the good sport, acquiesced to my request for one last barbecue venture. For those that don't follow along on Twitter, the last four weekends have been smoky in my world. One large cookoff, the Houston BBQ Festival, a barbecue get-together at home and the previous day's Franklin voyage should have been more than enough for any normal person, but I'd been wanting to try Micklethwait Craft Meats for quite some time. After informing her of their homemade moon pies, she gave me the thumbs up to stop by. We arrived right at the 11 am opening time and received our food within an hour, a breakneck pace compared to the day before! Micklethewait's brisket was impressive and pork ribs were well smoked, but their homemade sausages have become their trademark and they did not disappoint on this day. The day's sausage was pork belly boudin blanc. It had a good bit of smoke and was packed with flavor. Another highlight from the Micklethwait visit were the exquisite jalapeño cheese grits. I think I have a new favorite barbecue side. The moon pie was delicious as well, though that was saved for the next day's breakfast.

Left to right: the Micklethwait trailer, Texas BBQ trinity of brisket, ribs and sausage, moon pie.

Once again full, we headed west to check out Jester King Brewery, located on the western edge of Austin close to Dripping Springs. Located off of 290 on top of a hill, Jester King is a secluded gem I wish I had in my city. Tours and admission are free, and Jester King offers drink options from different breweries and wineries as well as their own beers. It is a fantastic way to spend a beautiful afternoon, with or without children as the brewery is extremely kid friendly. There is even an onsite wood fired pizza place should you feel so inclined. If you're a fan of darker beer, I highly recommend their Black Metal Imperial Stout if you can get your hands on some.

The sprawling grounds of Jester King Brewery

Our next two stops were at Texas wineries, which I recommend much more for the scenery than the wines. I do wish our state's climate was more conducive to grape growing, but I guess we can't have it all! Our last meal was at Pieous Pizza, a new up-and-comer on the Austin pizza scene. We opted for  a simple white pie with arugula and prosciutto which was well made but had a bit more greenery than needed. Out of sheer gluttony we opted for a slice of banana cream pie which ended up being one of our best ordering decisions of the weekend. The crust was amazing and I'm quite certain we'll be thinking about it for some time to come.

Great chalk art lining the walls of Pieous Pizza | White pizza with arugula and prosciutto

Austin's food scene has some similarities to Houston, but I feel our city's cultural diversity makes for more wide ranging options. This is not meant to compare the two in some silly Austin vs. Houston rivalry. I love visiting this city, and experiencing all it has to offer. But Houston is home, and nothing beats homemade.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The winner, and still champion...

The sun not yet risen, my wife and I headed west on I-10, bound for Austin. With a two hour car ride separating my house from the hallowed grounds of Franklin Barbecue, there was no time to waste. As my wife dozed in the passenger seat, I had time to admire the bluebonnets still lining the path through La Grange and reflect on how different this journey had become for me. My first trip to Franklin had been in 2011, and a 9:30 arrival had put me among the first five folks in line. Now, the line itself has a dedicated Twitter account where an apartment resident across the street from the restaurant snaps a photo daily to let you know just how absurd the wait is for Aaron Franklin's smoked meats. Heck, on my first visit, the apartments themselves did not exist. But now thanks to social media, word of mouth, Daniel Vaughn, Bon Appetit Magazine, Texas Monthly and numerous other sources of praise, Franklin Barbecue has become a tourist attraction unlike any other. Despite an 8 o'clock arrival on this Good Friday, there were approximately 60 people ahead of us.

Arrow points to our spot in line. Photo courtesy of @franklinbbqline on Twitter

The crew at Franklin do what they can to make your time in line less miserable; offering drinks, building on additional shade, letting you know approximately when you will be at the ordering counter, but there is only so much that can be done to accommodate the throngs of people that descend on the place daily. Even I, who consider myself in the upper percentile of food waiting patience, could not withstand the wait times in the heat of a Texas summer. I learned that lesson the hard way on a Friday morning late last August, my most recent Franklin excursion until last weekend. Hearing that the line had gotten worse, I arrived with a friend at 9 am, a half an hour earlier than I had in the past. The line was almost 75 deep that day, and the temperature climbed north of 90 degrees by the time they opened for business. Thus, my Franklin trips will now only take place in late March to mid-April or late October to mid-November.

As the clock reached 12:30, we made our way inside the building. Aaron Franklin was not slicing on this day, but instead was beside the register, politely chatting with guests as they paid for their food. With few exceptions, most every guest requested a photo with the pit master, and many asked for an autograph. I couldn't help but be bewildered by this. Before the magazine covers and credit card commercials, he was just a young guy who liked smoking brisket and thought he might be able to make a living doing it. And this wasn't all that long ago. I must say that through all the craziness, he interacts with everyone with a smile and genuine sense of appreciation. I don't know Aaron Franklin personally, of course he could be a colossal narcissist, but the impression I've gotten from every interaction I've had with him is that he is keenly aware of the sacrifice people make just to eat his food. When my wife was getting up from her seat to get some more napkins, he stopped her and insisted on getting them for her. He then came over, noticed my Houston Barbecue Festival t-shirt and spoke with me for a few minutes about my experience at the festival, how he hopes to try Corkscrew BBQ soon, and general chit-chat in which he does not have to partake. Many people have had much less success and portrayed a much greater sense of entitlement than Mr. Franklin.

Moist, fatty brisket.

All of that said, there's one overwhelming reason why I and so many others put ourselves through the ever growing torture that is the Franklin Barbecue line: the food. I concede that when I first tasted Franklin brisket three years ago, my barbecue palette was much less discerning. Since that time I've eaten at dozens of barbecue places, made plenty of my own, and expanded my knowledge on the subject immensely. But I've yet to taste a brisket anywhere else that matches Franklin's. This was approximately my tenth trip, and on only one occasion did the brisket show even the slightest decline in quality. As the popularity of the restaurant continues to increase, I keep waiting for what should be its inevitable fate of becoming "good but not great." Based on this most recent trip, I am happy to report it still has not happened. The brisket I ate this weekend was in the same class of its own that it has been in since my first sampling. Incredibly well-rendered fat, the right amount of smoke, and so full of flavor that your taste buds almost can't handle it, Franklin brisket remains the best piece of beef I've ever tasted. That's not to short change the other menu offerings. Franklin Barbecue's pork ribs are also tops in their category if you ask me. A little more sauced than I remembered on this visit, but the same black pepper beauty that is central Texas' calling card. Their sausage is full of fat and a quality offering, though there are other barbecue sausages that I prefer to Franklin's.

Top left: had to leave a little of my New York roots at this Texas landmark | Top right: the well-known signs for Franklin Barbecue | Bottom: the spread of potato salad, pork ribs, fatty brisket, turkey and sausage

Aside: I originally intended to write a one post recap of my weekend food adventures in Austin, but felt it was time to put my Franklin Barbecue opinion on record. I touched on it when I wrote about My Texas Barbecue Education, but had not been recently enough to give a fresh opinion on the food. There will be a separate post this week chronicling my other excursions in Texas' capitol.

Culture Map's Eric Sandler commented to me on Twitter that it is hard to justify standing in the line when there are so many great barbecue options in Austin. This is a completely valid point of view and I can't fault anyone for not having the patience or desire to devote five hours of their life to eating at one place. It has become a commitment that's harder for even myself to make. But I keep coming back because I've yet to find anything that can top it. La Barbecue on East Sixth Street in Austin is consistently delivering outstanding barbecue. Micklethwait Craft Meats, just down the street from Franklin, has very good brisket and wonderful homemade sausage. Louie Mueller BBQ isn't too far away from Austin, and Wayne Mueller is churning out mind-blowing beef ribs and brisket to carry on the tradition from his father. There is certainly no shortage of great 'cue options these days. But for a barbecue hound such as myself, I strongly believe Franklin Barbecue is the peak of Texas' greatest food tradition right now. I don't know what the future holds for the man or his business. Will he go Euro-Disney on us and have Franklin outposts popping up all over the map until all quality is lost? I sincerely hope not. I would rather wait in his one line for hours on end for a plate of delicious smoked meat than go to my nearest Franklin drive-thru.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The discomfort of comfort foods

I'm not sure at which age it happened, but I came to a point in my life where food became more than simple sustenance, and evolved into an experience. Don't get me wrong, I'm not above the occasional fast food pit stop at the end of a long day, but a drive thru is no longer routine for me. There is a "let's just get this over with" feeling that comes over me as I shout my order into the speaker. To much of my family I am a source of amusement when it comes to food. I attempt to plan every meal each time one of us visits our respective cities, seeking out the best local fare.

I certainly did not inherit my culinary passion from my father, a man who abides by strict routine. The man could eat the same meal every day for a week and not think twice, and is the most predictable dining companion I've ever known. I can look at any menu and predict one of two entrees he might select. He has ordered the same drink, regardless of the type of meal, for as long as I can remember: a gin martini (Tanqueray was his brand of choice until switching to Bombay Sapphire last decade), extra dry, up with an olive. Upon receiving his drink, some version of this remark is sure to follow: "Too much vermouth. You know, the best bartenders will just spritz the vermouth with an atomizer." It's quite likely he saw this at a bar in 1974 and has sworn by it since. Having tasted the martinis he makes himself, I'm convinced he just likes cold gin but calling it a martini seems more refined. Unfortunately, the man's restaurant recommendations are based on nostalgia as well. Most places I've tried based on his advice have ranged from dated to terrible. This past Christmas dinner was spent at the same hotel restaurant at which my family had eaten holiday meals back in the 1980's. Sadly, the entire restaurant was stuck in that era or earlier. Don't believe me? My sister ordered steak Diane that night.

Make no mistake, my father is a wonderful man and I am proud to be his son, but his dining mindset is the polar opposite of mine. I have tried broadening his horizons with minimal success. He quite enjoyed Hugo's brunch (who wouldn't?), but I would never dream of taking him to a place like The Pass. My dad is all about the comfort foods he has been eating for 50 years: tuna sanwiches, pot roast, burgers with ketchup. Seriously, I've taken the man to places like Bernie's Burger Bus and the late, great The Burger Guys and watched him order specialty burgers and drown them in ketchup. And if you serve osso buco, don't even bother bringing the man a menu - though until I told him a few years ago, he didn't know what part of which animal he was eating.

Thinking about my father's food fallbacks has made me realize that I have so few. Sure, there are a number of restaurants I love and dine at frequently, but even then I rarely have a standard order. In truth, I try to avoid repeat orders at places I like so that I can experience more of the menu and fall in love with other dishes. That is one of the reasons I enjoy Underbelly's contsant menu tinkering and why Oxheart has become a thrice yearly outing for me. I know I can have a different meal there each time. Barbecue aside, I'm not much of a "bring on the red meat" type of diner. Fine dining to my father and so many from his generation means a thick steak with some form of potatoes on the side. I will gladly accept a meal with minimal meat and expertly prepared vegetables. I don't need a standard order and would feel personally stale if I walked into a restaurant and was greeted by a server who assumed my order before I even opened the menu. Chicken soup? No thanks, give me phở gà. Chicken and dumplings? Nah, Chris Shepherd's got something better. There's too much to explore on too many menus to be tied down to the familiar.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Westside (Sad) Story

"What do you feel like having for dinner?" my wife asks.

"I don't know, I don't feel like driving in to town." I reply.

The look of dejection on our faces says it all. My response has seriously limited our options for a good meal. Living in the Katy area has a number of perks; good schools, a plethora of grocery store options, retail places galore. The one thing Katy has a dearth of is great restaurants. It seems the Houston dining culture's evolution from a steakhouse heavy, franchise dominating landscape has yet to reach this little pocket on the westside of town. While a number of privately owned places have struggled to stay afloat, the franchises keep moving in. There are throngs of families waiting outside of Olive Garden and Chuy's on weekends, but an 8 PM reservation at Katy's sole highly acclaimed establishment, La Balance, is not hard to come by. Some use the excuse of Katy being a family oriented community, but that doesn't answer the entire question.

Do I expect a family of four to sit down and order a frilly French meal? Of course not. But how has the barbecue revolution not reached the westside of town (Brooks' Place is the closest and even that is on the fringe of the Katy/Cypress border)? Katy has a Rudy's BBQ and Spring Creek outpost across the freeway from each other, yet the only buzz generated from a privately owned joint came from a controversial picture hanging up in the lackluster place's restaurant. Why are there no good Italian places that one could bring the kiddos along for? And if you're looking for any cuisine that derives from Asia, forget it. Again, it's chain places or nothing. I tried one Indian place in Katy upon the recommendation of a Houston food writer. Let's just say I'd rather drive the 35 minutes to Hillcroft and Highway 59.

There are a few solid food options in Katy, the aforementioned La Balance being one. Marini's Empanada House on Mason Road makes delicious empanadas and has a wonderful craft beer selection, all for an affordable price. Alicia's Mexican Grille is a more budget-friendly, less hectic Tex-Mex option to Lupe Tortilla's, and the food is consistently solid despite them having several locations in and around Houston. I've also previously sung the praises of the Peruvian inspired Pollo Bravo, which has a location in Katy. Then of course there is Mission Burrito, my favorite among the burrito chains in the Houston area. But, if not in the mood for a Hispanic influenced meal, you're mostly out of luck if you're west of Highway Six.

Hopefully the culinary growth of Houston keeps migrating to the suburbs. There is hope for the future, as there are reported plans for a permanent Bernie's Burger Bus depot in Katy in the coming years, which would be a welcome addition to a seriously lacking burger scene - Smashburger or Mooyah, anyone? The westside of town also got its own food truck park just south of I-10 on Highway Six and, while not quite in Katy, is a reasonable drive.

While I love exploring The Heights and Montrose areas and enjoying the amazing food they have to offer, it would be nice to be able to get excited about a meal that didn't require a half hour's drive each way. Hurry up suburbanites, come out of your shells and support the new places that open in your area. I promise, the endless breadsticks will still be there next weekend.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dinner from the garden, in the garden

The crack of a snow pea pod, cool and refreshing, started the evening at Coltivare. There was a vibrant, acidic pesto made from the tops of the carrots that were the snow pea's companions in this simple but excellent snack, but this particular bite was pesto-free. Like well made barbecue (an odd analogy, but one you'll come to expect from me), vegetables this fresh and well cared for need not be smothered in things to provide flavor; they stand on their own. There was the occasional brush of a carrot through the pesto, much like the dance radishes made through cultured butter and salt on my last visit, but it only enhanced these treasures from the Coltivare garden.

As I sat on the patio watching a member of the kitchen staff walk to the garden to pick some herbs that may have ended up on my plate, I couldn't help but think of how much our city's culinary landscape had progressed. Five years ago, I'm not certain a place like Coltivare could survive in Houston, much less garner the attention that would cause the infamous wait times for a table that seem to be the biggest criticism of the restaurant. For those wondering, I arrived on a weekend evening at the five o'clock opening time and the restaurant reached full capacity around 5:45, though tables seemed to turn over at a good pace.

The growing Coltivare garden. Snow peas and carrots with carrot top pesto. Grilled broccoli salad.(all photos courtesy of my wife, who is a much better photographer than I)

This was my second visit to the small, Italian-inspired place in the Heights, the first since they got their liquor license. I imagine customers not being able to bring in multiple bottles of their own wine lessened the average meal time, and the quaint patio added space for ten additional tables. Coltivare's wine list is growing and the cocktail list is well thought out, employing the same Italian inspiration reflected in the food. My wife ordered a Park Slope, which consisted of brandy, an Italian vermouth, and lavender bitters. I chose the Ava Crowder and would be lying if I told you that decision wasn't made in part due to my affinity for the television show Justified that inspired the drink's name. It consisted of bourbon, amaro, sorghum vinegar, lemon and bitters. After taking our first sips, we decided a swap was in order. Ava Crowder was a bit too sweet for my taste, and the Park Slope a bit too bitter for hers. Both drinks were well executed, though my personal preference would have been for a bit less lemon in my original drink.

The menu at Coltivare changes frequently with season and product availability. We decided on a dish of mussels cooked in garum, garlic and capers and a grilled broccoli salad that our server informed us had just been added to the menu. It consisted of pickled kohlrabi, pecans, croutons and Brussels sprout leaves. The mussels were fragrant and flavorful, and the garum added an unexpected depth to the dish. I did, however, regret that we had not ordered any focaccia to dip into the broth (this problem was later rectified by pizza crust). The broccoli salad was tremendous, with the brined kohlrabi offering a great contrast to the grilled texture of the broccoli. This salad was equally as impressive as the fennel salad I loved on the first visit. Coltivare shines with both its use of vegetables and straight-forward approach to maximizing their flavors. The flash fried cauliflower dish that has received a great deal of praise certainly delivered on this night.

Mussels garnished with parsley

We chose to skip a pasta course this time in favor of pizza. Many claim that Coltivare serves the best pizza in the city right now, and for good reason. Their crust is unique, thick and hefty, flying in the face of the Neapolitan craze that is sweeping the country. The first pizza I tried at Coltivare had lemons, olives and goat cheese, and while interesting, didn't quite deliver the wow factor for which I'd hoped. I felt the crust was a bit too thick, which robbed it of a chance to crisp up in the oven and withstand the weight of its toppings. There was no such problem on this trip. The crust was a perfect thickness, with a slight char. The toppings this time were slow roasted duck, squash puree, pickled red onions, sorrel and pesto. I am not sure if the chef was a bit heavy handed with our pie in particular, or if it was by design, but the pesto was the dominant ingredient of the pizza, relegating the duck to supporting actor status and the squash but a nice piece of set decoration.

Cauliflower with pine nuts, raisins and tarragon

While still not ready to profess my love for their pizza, what separates the Coltivare menu from so many in the city is its delicate balance of creativity and restraint. Chef Ryan Pera seems to know which risks to take and when to take them, tinkering with spice, sweetness and acidity until a dish has reached its full potential without becoming muddled. A small bowl of well pickled, spicy gairdiniera pickles may not seem like a revelation, but how many restaurants have such confidence in their product to present it in such pure form? The Revival Market team was part of a wave of culinary talent that began showing this city what could be achieved with commitment to ingredients and respect of their origins, and they have continued that vision with this restaurant. The future is bright for Coltivare, and the city's dining culture is better for it. It was and is worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Thali, Curries, Kebabs & Naan! Spending Time in the Mahatma Gandhi District

As I read on Twitter recently that Himalaya, one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, was turning ten years old, I thought it only fitting that I pay homage to the area of town where I spend most of my lunch hours. I work smack in the middle of Houston's Mahatma Gandhi District, which affords me the opportunity to explore the diverse options this little pocket of Houston has to offer. If you're reading this and have not given much of a chance to the various ethnic cuisines of the Middle East, I highly recommend spending some time in this part of town and seeing what it has to offer. Here are a few places I recommend:

Himalaya Restaurant - Only fitting to start with the inspiration for this post. Himalaya, despite its no-frills decor in a nondescript strip center, serves dishes that burst with flavor and is adored by industry insiders who sing the praises of animated chef/owner Kaiser Lashkari. One complaint I've heard from diners is the a la carte nature of the menu. Unlike many Middle Eastern restaurants, Himalaya does not include rice or naan with most of its entrees. Adding a small rice and naan to make what many consider a complete meal can push entrees into the $15+ range, which can certainly be considered a bit high for a "strip center" restaurant. I could wax rahpsodically about how the care, effort and from-scratch preparation put into Himalaya's food justifies the price, but I won't. If you're just looking for a good portion of delicious Indian/Pakistani cuisine, you don't need me to try to give you a hard sell on something out of your budget. Besides, I'm wordy enough! The best value on Himalaya's menu is at lunch. Their daily lunch special is $12.50 and consists of three curries (typically two meats and a vegetable), one appetizer that changes frequently, rice and naan. It is presented with each component neatly compartmentalized on a school cafeteria-style tray. It's a great way to get a true sampling of what Himalaya has to offer.

Chicken Tikka Masala at Himalaya

Bijan Persian Grill - Specializing in flavorful chicken, beef and lamb kebabs, Bijan has a great patio upon which to sit, snack on the complimentary naan-like flatbread (known as taftoon) with herbs, radish and feta, and wait for whichever menu option you've chosen from their vast menu. Most plates land in the $10-12 range and come complete with rice, charred tomatoes and onions. If you or one of your parties requires a Halal diet, Bijan is an excellent option as they serve exclusively Halal meat. They have also recently opened a location in Sugar Land, though I've yet to make it there.

Maharaja Bhog - A meal at Maharaja Bhog is truly an experience. A vegetarian Indian thali style restaurant, the dishes here are flavorful and vibrant. For those unfamiliar with thali, it is usually a meal of several small dishes that are replenished by attentive servers at the diner's request; a sort of sophisticated hybrid of dim sum/buffet if you will. The menu changes frequently, but you will usually find a dal dish, tremendously flavorful paneer, and some of the most interesting Indian desserts in town. Though not located in the center of the Mahatma Gandhi district, they are one farther exit down on Highway 59 on Gessner. One criticism I've seen of the restaurant is a varying price depending on weekdays or weekends. If you're looking for a special lunch, their $12.99 lunch thali is worth stretching your budget for every now and then.

I've encountered so many people who have so many misconceptions about the food from this part of the world. I must admit being skeptical myself at first, but there are many wonderful flavors and preparations in this type of cuisine and a unique mixture of textures and flavors. Don't take my word for it; experience it yourself.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Gift of Taste

Which would be worse: being blind or deaf? Most of us have thought this or even had the question posed to us by friends, often leading to spirited debates as to which would be the bigger loss. While a loss of either of those senses would come with enormous every day obstacles, something I did not personally consider until recently - and I'm embarrassed to admit that this never occured to me given its importance in my life - is what it would be like to live without a sense of taste. Although not nearly as challenging as losing one's sight or hearing, something that is a huge part of my world would be taken from me.

So many of the happy, small moments in my day-to-day life revolve around my use of this sense. I recently received one of life's cruel reminders to appreciate what you have: a close family friend is fighting a difficult battle with cancer that robbed him of his ability to taste. A man who loves a great meal, the last time I saw him he told me that he has dreams of certain foods and how they taste. I have a strong suspicion similar dreams would come to me if I lost the ability to taste, like the phantom twitching of an amputated limb. I'm not normally a fan of list posts, but this got me thinking about some flavors I would miss the most should the sense of taste be taken from me. In no particular order:

The smoke and pepper on a well rendered fatty slice of brisket: That unforgettable flavor of bark mixed with buttery fat, it would be heartbreaking to be able to smell this Texas barbecue staple and not taste it.

The spicy, fish sauce-y goodness of som tam: While I love the fragance and complexity of Thai curries, the green papaya salad popular in several countries across Southeast Asia is a must order at the better Thai restaurants in Houston. Thinly sliced green papaya is tossed with a mixture of sugar, lime, fish sauce and chilis. The combination of sweetness, acidity, spice and the terrific funk of fish sauce, each bite of som tam is a different experience. Vieng Thai's version is excellent, as discussed in this Kaitlin Steinberg article.

The Bravo sauce at Pollo Bravo: If you've yet to make it to Pollo Bravo, the small Houston chain known for their rotisserie chicken, you're missing out on a great experience. The chicken, with its beautifully seasoned skin and juicy white and dark meats are exactly what a rotisserie chicken should be but so often isn't at your local grocery store. Their sides and desserts are tasty as well, but what keeps me coming back to Pollo Bravo is the delectable green sauce served as an accompaniment to the chicken. One small cup is never enough, as I will mix it into the Mexican rice and dip almost anything else I'm eating into it.When picking up a to go order, one of my favorite things to do is order an extra bravo sauce and mix it into omelettes later in the week. The mayonnaise based sauce has a touch of lime and healthy dose of chili peppers thrown into the mix that make it a creamy, spice tingling addition of which I cannot get enough. To lose the ability to taste this would truly hurt.

Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout: Much has been said about this Colorado brewer's popular beer. I contemplated putting one of the specialty release or seasonal beers I enjoy on this list, but decided to stick with Nitro Milk Stout, my favorite year-round drinkable beer. I know some may say this should be a cold weather beer due to its dark, full-bodied flavor, but it has such a smooth finish that I enjoy it no matter the season. Would I drink it poolside? Perhaps not, but my house has air conditioning.

Perfect chocolate chip cookies: Few foods on the planet are more satisfying than a warm, soft, chocolate chip cookie. A personal favorite spot is Ooh La La Dessert Boutique. They make a splendid chocolate chip cookie, though cupcakes are this popular westside bakery's calling card.The cookies are perfectly textured with the butter and brown sugar flavor always present but never overpowering, and the quality chocolate they use for the chips takes them to another level. Not in the mood to drive out to Katy? Their location in Town and Country Village is a bit more convenient for the inner loopers.

There are so many flavors whose loss I would mourn if my sense of taste were to leave. In a number of ways, it would alter my life almost as drastically as would the loss of sight or sound. The next time you sit down to a meal, whether at a Beard nominated restaurant, fast food parking lot, or from your own kitchen,  I hope you can take it in with every sense you've been gifted. I'll try to do the same.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Standing the test of time: the food of my youth

Yesterday's post put me in the mood to reminisce and got me to thinking of the food I grew up with and if it holds up to my memories. Luckily for me, I have family still on the east coast and get to visit the areas of my childhood where my earliest food memories were created. One of these early treasures was the magic of Thrasher's French Fries. If you've never partaken in the Thrasher's experience, let me enlighten you. Thrasher's French Fries are the simplest but most perfect snack: buckets of french fries sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar. They don't carry ketchup and offer no items other than soft drinks. There are Thrasher's French Fries stands on the boardwalks along the east coast in cities like Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. In peak tourism times, lines can stretch down the boardwalk for these golden brown pieces of heaven. As a young boy, I stood in these lines on many a summer afternoon. I didn't know it at the time, but I suppose it was training for my barbecue days. After a twenty year absence from my life, I was able to rediscover Thrasher's a couple of years ago on a trip back to the east coast. They were just as magnificent as I remembered. And in case you were worried that this was simply my nostalgia talking, my Houston born and raised wife had her first Thrasher's experience on that trip as well and still dreams of them. If you ever find yourself within reasonable distance of a Thrasher's, be sure to stop by and get a bucket. Piping hot from the fryer, perfectly crisp with a wonderful vinegar tang, they are not to be missed.

Another memory of my youth, as an outside observer only of course, was the local bar. I grew up in an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. As most who grew up in one of the New York City boroughs will tell you, every neighborhood has a distinct personality. My neighborhood was blue collar average joe types. Policemen, firemen, brown bag lunch sort of guys who went down to the watering hole at the end of a hard day for a beer. Of course as a child, I'd never been inside our local haunt, but the allure of it had me enchanted. To me, it was a mystical place that the adults go to do grown up stuff. I recently went back as an adult with my dad, and boy was it an awakening. Upon arrival, we ordered drinks next to a man who chose to tell my father how he was once stabbed near his nipple by a Puerto Rican. In case we didn't believe his tale of misfortune, he took the liberty of lifting up his shirt and showing us the battle scar. The rest of our time there was filled with unease and, for myself, the sad realization that the fantasy was gone. This wasn't Grown Up Disney World; it was a smoke caked tomb of sad stories and stereotypes. Not all of our childhood fantasies are what they're cracked up to be.

The final stop on the nostalgia tour takes us to my home in Houston. One of the first places my family found when we moved to Texas was Brother's Pizza. Back then, Brother's was located in the food court of West Oaks Mall. This was before the days of First Colony Mall, Katy Mills, or anything near the west side of town. If you were an outer looper on the west side, West Oaks Mall was where you went. With its large, greasy slices, Brother's was the best food replica of the world we'd left in New York. A few years later, they escaped the mall for their own storefront on Highway Six just north of I-10. In sad "out of sight, out of mind" fashion, I forgot about Brother's. This all changed when I became an adult and realized they were still around. I rediscovered my love for their classic New York style pies and they are once again a part of my dining rotation. They've since added locations in the Cypress and Garden Oaks areas. While I can't vouch for the quality at those locations, old faithful on the west side of town still delivers fantastic fold-in-half slices of caloric bliss. While places like Pizaro's and Dolce Vita have become critical darlings (and for good reason - they're phenomenal), Brother's has in large part flown under the radar. They don't import extravagant ovens or have a well known chef creating buzz. They simply do what they've been doing here for nearly 35 years: churning out floppy, thin crust pizza that remind this New York kid of his past. And that's just fine with me.

Nothing is set in stone as it pertains to growing up. Tastes change, thought processes evolve. But I've found nothing that makes me feel like a kid again quite like the sensation of rediscovering an old food memory.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

When a meal becomes a memory

Yesterday I read something by Christina Uticone on Houston Press' food blog, Eating Our Words, that made me revisit one of my favorite food topics. I can talk your ear off for hours about the technique, execution and history of food. I love these topics. I could tell you about why something is prepared a certain way, where this type of dish originated from, and entertain or bore you to death with the details. But my favorite thing by far when it comes to a meal is the story behind it and the memories it creates. These memories don't have to be created by rock star chefs for me personally; my wife and I's first date was at a now defunct Champps on Westheimer (don't judge, we were young!). I can still remember the face she made while trying to eat "properly." Conversely, the dinner directly following our engagement was at a restaurant by legendary French chef Alain Ducasse. A Michelin decorated establishment, I can scarcely tell you what we ate or how it tasted. My point is, sometimes the simplest restaurants can provide vivid memories. Don't get me wrong, I love many of the "it" establishments, but they are not a necessary backdrop for the dining experiences that mark the milestones of my life.

I've had the good fortune to have had many memorable meals in so many different settings. One of my favorite memories was a fantastic dinner served by "celebrity chef" (that term bothers me, but that's for a later date) Kevin Gillespie while he was still at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. An impeccable meal from start to finish, my wife, sister and father sampled almost the entire menu that night, expertly described by a fantastic server and executed brilliantly by the talented kitchen. I visited one of Jose Andres' world of pure imagination restaurants with é in Las Vegas that I'll never forget, but it doesn't take avant-garde technique to make a meal memorable.

Similarly to Mrs. Uticone, my family's restaurant is also a small Italian eatery that does not have any critical recognition. It is in a suburb of Houston and has been serving its diners for 15+ years. While it will never be confused with Da Marco, it is the place that marked so many different ocassions in my life. My mother's memorial service was there, and they served the last meal of my single life at the rehearsal dinner the night before my wedding. Along the way there were family celebrations, reunions, and just because meals served. These places are important. Food critics talk ad nauseam about the latest big name chef's food venture, and rightfully so. But the neighborhood haunt is an essential part of our dining culture. While the only time I go back to my old neighborhood stalwart is when family comes to town, it never ceases to satisfy my craving for culinary nostalgia. When they finally close the doors, I suspect I'll feel the same odd sort of loss discussed in the Eating Our Words article. I grew up in this place and, while my personal palate may have evolved to the point where the food there doesn't knock my socks off, a part of me will always be the kid staring at that menu, wondering which of three dishes I may choose. The decision is never the important part; the people who mean so much to me that fill the seats at the table are the memories I'll hold on to for as long as I can.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Texas Barbecue Education

A confession:

I was a reluctant Texan. A Brooklyn-raised boy, I wanted no part in my family's move to Texas. My third grade self defiantly told anyone who'd listen that I would never say y'all, and twenty-four years later I still don't. As my thawing to Texas culture was a gradual process, my foray into Texas barbecue took a long and winding path that began with complete indifference and transformed into borderline obsession.

Being raised in an east coast household, barbecue just wasn't a priority. The majority of my childhood barbecue exposure came in two forms: at a friend's backyard cookout or as an afterthought when my mom wasn't in the mood to cook and we'd pick up some completely forgettable barbecue at a local joint. These were my primary experiences until 2011. This was when I made a decision that would lead to a passion I never expected.

In the summer of 2011 my wife and I planned a weekend driving around Austin and the Texas Hill Country to celebrate our first anniversary. I subscribe to Bon Appetit Magazine, and the June 2011 issue proclaimed Franklin Barbecue in Austin as the best in America. Knowing little about the place, it seemed like a fun little food adventure. We spent the first morning of our vacation in the now infamous line (which was nowhere near as absurd as it is these days). The meal I had that morning completely transformed my opinion of what barbecue was and could be. Brisket as moist, tender and flavorful as any piece of beef I'd ever had, ribs with a beautiful bark and perfect bite of black pepper - this was not the barbecue of my youth. Plain and simple, I was hooked. We'd brought leftovers back to our bed and breakfast (where our room thankfully had a refrigerator). I continued to snack on brisket for the rest of the weekend. It made such an impression that I convinced my wife to let me drive the 40 minutes back to Austin on the final day of our vacation for a second round. We ended up being one of the first five people in line this trip, and spent that morning conversing with a group of Australian guys sightseeing around America. This is one of my favorite things about Franklin Barbecue: the people you meet in line. Say what you will about the tourist trap the line is becoming or the commercialization of Franklin Barbecue these days, but the meals I had there in the summer of 2011 were a revelation.

The legendary beef rib at Louie Mueller Barbecue (left), Texas trinity brisket, pork ribs and sausage at La Barbecue (right)

Those who know me best would tell you that when something catches my interest, I immerse myself in the subject until I can quote it chapter and verse. My mind is a vortex of useless information. It came as no surprise to my wife that barbecue became a passion after my Franklin Barbecue experience. I read and learned as much as I could about the history of Texas barbecue, visited/dragged her to countless joints (including a Luling City Market/Smitty's/Kreuz Friday trifecta followed by another Franklin Saturday excursion that she still hasn't forgiven me for), and eventually started trying my own hand at smoking meat.

In the nearly three years since my "barbecue awakening" I have sampled some of the legendary Texas joints like the aforementioned Lockhart and Luling estabishments, Louie Mueller in Taylor and Snow's in Lexington. I've also explored the new breed of barbecue with places like Pecan Lodge in Dallas (where ironically enough I ended up ahead of Aaron Franklin in line) and La Barbecue in Austin, which is run by Franklin's former right hand man, John Lewis. Of course I've run the Houston gauntlet of Gatlin's, Corkscrew, Virgie's, Brook's Place, and the newly opened Killen's Barbecue that's been garnering so much attention. Long considered a wasteland for barbecue, it appears Houston is poised for a breakthrough with these places leading the way and up-and-comers like Patrick Feges, who is going to run the pits at Killen's for a while until he's ready to open his own establishment. Adding to the excitement was the Houston Chronicle report that Wayne Mueller was looking to open an offshoot of Louie Mueller Barbecue near downtown.

Pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket and bacon mac 'n cheese at Pecan Lodge (left), Beef rib, "bacon" rib, brisket, pork rib at Killen's BBQ (right)

I've also recently dipped my toe in the water of competition barbecue. This is an entirely different world from the barbecue I've come to love. Briskets injected with beef broth and ribs caked in a brown sugary sweetness that cakes your tongue are a far cry from the simple salt and coarse black pepper rubs of Central Texas that stole my heart. I've noticed that sadly, if this is the type of barbecue you've grown up with, you may see the style for which I've sung the praises as too rich and fatty. To that I say, buy some roast beef, dunk it in Swanson's, rub it in Lowry's seasoned salt and eat until your heart's content. As for me, I'll stick with well rendered fat, a punch to the tongue of black pepper, and toss in a burnt end for good measure.

In this short amount of time I've gone from someone who barely knew what they were ordering at a barbecue restaurant to someone who can smoke a decent brisket and damn fine ribs (ribs are much easier to get right). There's an allure and culture around barbecue that I find so appealing. Whether you're a born and raised Texan or recent transplant from across the country, I can't recommend exploring the Texas barbecue community enough. If you're in Houston, be sure to check out the 2nd annual Houston BBQ Festival on April 6th. Or simply take a drive early one Saturday morning, make your way up to the small town of Lexington, Texas and try Snow's BBQ for the first time. They open at 8 in the morning, just in time for breakfast. Leave some room though, because Louie Mueller Barbecue, the Saint Patrick's Cathedral of our state's smoked meat tradition, is only a 30 minute drive away. Your lunch there awaits...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The latest food trend to hit Houston

Most people in the food community recognize trends. From rustic tableware to "throw a fried egg on it" options on menus, Houston is not immune to such trends. While some may seem gimmicky and others downright annoying, there is a trend I've seen in the city over the last year that I must admit gives me some mixed feelings. The newest foodservice item that's all the rage these days seems to be important restaurant staff members leaving high profile positions at a faster rate than what many consider normal.

The goal of most restaurants, other than of course serving great food, is consistency. You want every plate to look and taste the same each time it goes out to a diner, every night you're open. As a patron, there is little more deflating than loving a dish on one visit, ordering it again on another visit - or even talking up this dish to a friend who later orders it - and it being less stellar than you remember. I always feel the need to apologize when I recommend a dish or restaurant to someone and they have a poor experience. That may be my own neurosis; I didn't cook the lackluster meal, but I apologize anyway. These days it is becoming increasingly difficult to be able to depend on some of Houston's prominent restaurants to produce consistent results as the turnover rate for both the front and back of house staff has increased. In the last few months alone, some of the Houston area's most prominent and promising restaurants have seen some eye opening departures.

La Balance in Katy, which received rave reviews, lost its co-owner and executive chef Jose Hernandez due to reported differences of opinion with his business partner. I was fortunate to dine there on Chef Hernandez's last weekend running the kitchen, and was blown away by the meal. Having been trained in French cuisine, I had avoided French restaurants for years due to burnout on traditional French fare. My meal at La Balance, however, reminded me of how simple and comforting these dishes could be when executed properly. Sadly, I've hesitated to go back since the chef's departure out of fear that the kitchen cannot replicate my memory of the last visit. Vallone's opened with substantial hype due to the restaurant's legendary namesake as well as much ballyhooed chef Grant Gordon taking the reigns of the restaurant. Shortly after opening, he has left the restaurant along with its beverage director, Evan Turner. These are just a few of a growing list of talented people that includes Ryan Lachaine (formerly of Underbelly), Erin Smith (who left her post at Plonk, spent a year as culinary director for The Clumsy Butcher group and has now taken on the role of executive chef at the Marriott in downtown that's set to open this year),  and Chris Leung (pastry chef at Kata Robata who left to open the magnificent Cloud 10 Creamery).

The exquisite boeuf bourguignon at La Balance

I tend to view our culinary landscape through two sets of eyes, the first being that of a diner, which is ultimately what I am. The diner in me can't help but feel a sense of sadness that some of the talent has left my favorite kitchens. Will the food suffer? But then there's the part of me that was taught by chefs that kicks in and sees another side to the situation.

During some portion of my schooling, one of the instructors took my class to a hotel to see the operations. There we met a chef, a man likely in his fifties, who carried on about the challenges of hotel foodservice. One thing he told us towards the end of the day stuck with me for a long time and ultimately gives me hope for this new food trend. He told us that the worst mistake he made in his career was staying at this same hotel for so many years. He said that the way to become the best chef you can be is to work for many different types of chefs in many different environments, so that you can hone your skills, learn different techniques, and become a more well rounded chef. This gentleman (and I am truly sorry that I do not remember his name) told us that if you stay in one place for more than a year or two during the early part of your cooking career, you're doing it wrong. I think ultimately that I agree with this sentiment. While the selfish diner in me wants every chef in every restaurant I love to stay and prepare the same style of food for my dining pleasure each time I come in, I know that is a disservice both to them and the diners who could be enjoying even better meals from them for years to come as they better themselves as chefs.

The increase of restaurant turnover is also a sign that the Houston dining landscape is undergoing its baby boom. So many talented chefs are popping up all over town and are taking advantage of the opportunities our city is providing thanks to its ever expanding culinary prowess. Despite our personal gripes, this is a good problem to have. Chefs aren't compelled to outstay their welcome due to a lack of options, or worse yet, having to leave the Houston in search of greener pastures.

                                               Who wants to think of a world without this biscuit?

If you are one of those diners like myself who sometimes pines for our restaurants to go back to the way they were, remember this: If Chris Shepherd never left Brennan's, we would never have had Catalan. If he had never left Catalan, we would not have Underbelly and perhaps Brandi Key doesn't get her opportunity to run the kitchen at Coppa. Similarly, if Brennan's had held Randy Evans captive, Houston could be deprived of Haven. The aforementioned Erin Smith could never have given Blacksmith its signature biscuit had she been confined to the Plonk kitchen. Some of tomorrow's signature Houston dishes will likely be created by a departing chef you and I may be fretting about today.