Monday, November 9, 2015

food for thought: where I've been from August through October, 2015

Slacker over here, haven't posted in far too long though I've done plenty of eating since I last wrote. As any single-month recaps are long overdue, here are a few highlights of where I've been eating from August through October.

I promise there is a very good hot dog underneath all of that.

The best thing I ate in August: This month's favorite dish was Good Dog Houston's ridiculously good Southern Comfort dog. A huge amount of house-made chow chow, collard greens, mustard, and bacon tucked into a great bun don't distract from the quality frank. It sounds like a lot going on - and it is - but the ingredients work in concert to make for a great bite.

Beautiful potato and sauerkraut dumplings from The Progress.

The best thing I ate in September: I have to go away from my beloved Lone Star State this month due to a great vacation my wife and I went on to Northern California. There were plenty of great bites (and wine) on this trip (which will probably make for a separate post eventually), but my favorite dish this month came from The Progress. It was the best meal I've had all year. The Progress, a new restaurant from the State Bird Provisions owners, opened late last year to much fanfare both in San Francisco and nationally. While I could easily pick a few things from this one meal to debate as my favorite September food, I'm going to go with a dish that we did not originally intend to order.

The Progress has a menu which changes based on local seasonality and availability, and the entire table decides together on six plates that are served family style. One of the benefits of The Progress' menu structure is that if a server recommends a particular dish to you, it's truly not upselling. The diners' food tab is set the minute they sit down. That said, as my wife and I made our menu decisions, we were torn over a couple of different dishes. Based on the server's strong opinion of the potato and sauerkraut dumplings, we made those our final selection.

To put it mildly, they were stunning. The dumplings themselves, which are so often served as merely a gummy vessel for whatever filling is inside, were a vital component of the dish. Toasted outside to give some textural difference to the softer potato and kraut filling, these dumplings were a revelation. The filling had a comfort food appeal due to the potatoes, but the sauerkraut woke you up before this started to feel like a "safe" dish. A smattering of plum preserves on the plate gave a bit of tartness that rounded out the dish. This was the best server recommendation I've ever encountered and I have a feeling I will be comparing far too many dumplings in the future to those.

Shrimp a la plant from State of Grace - admittedly not the best photo.

The best thing I ate in October: It took me until the last day of October to eat my best bite of the month, but it was worth the wait. My wife is a Halloween baby and was interested in trying somewhere new for her birthday dinner this year; it was not hard settling on new River Oaks restaurant State of Grace. Opened by well-known Atlanta chef Ford Fry (a Houston native) with a kitchen lead by Ciao Bello veteran Bobby Matos, State of Grace opened in October with plenty of buzz. Based off of our first meal, the talk was justified.

State of Grace's menu is a mish-mash of cuisines and culture that may seem odd to some but I found delightfully fun. My favorite dish on this night and of the month of October was the shrimp a la plancha. Large, head on gulf shrimp were served in a flavorful Thai style lime broth with a slice of toast to soak up the juice. The shrimp were wonderfully cooked and well-portioned, and kudos to Fry, Matos, and company for having the confidence to serve hands-on food to a River Oaks crowd.

Beef belly burnt end with grits, collard greens, and cane syrup.

August newcomers: As you know if you live in Houston, new and exciting restaurants are popping up seemingly by the day. I visited a couple in August with somewhat mixed results. I very much enjoyed Southern Goods; those pig wings and beef belly dishes you keep seeing on Instagram are stellar and I'm very excited to see how the menu evolves. Houston needed a place like Southern Goods.

Another much anticipated and well received opening was Helen Greek Food and Wine. While I went in with high hopes and perhaps overly lofty expectations, I left underwhelmed. Portion sizes and price seemed a bit off, and service was slightly uneven. There is such a lack of Greek food in Houston that I want Helen to be great, but the dishes I ate on my first visit did not blow me away. The restaurant was in its infancy at the time and I keep reading glowing reviews of everything, so I'll likely be back at some point. My first visit quite easily could have been early opening growing pains that all restaurants endure.

Texas Trinity courtesy of Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew.
August BBQ Tour: My barbecue friends and I set off on another adventure in and around Austin, visiting some old classics as well as some newer joints. Misty Roegels from Roegels Barbecue Co. joined us for this tour, as did Bryan's son Wyatt. A larger group helps spread out the cost and keeps the three of us from eating too much at the first few stops. I think most of us agreed that Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew had our favorite brisket of the day. Some may remember our first visit to Stiles Switch was not a home run, but it just goes to show how difficult it is to serve every single customer great barbecue every single day. The slices we ate on this most recent trip were stunningly good with a great rub and perfectly rendered fat.

One trip through the line at Hugo's brunch buffet. As you can see I choose quantity over plating.
A farewell to brunch: As has become a tradition with my wife and me, we indulged in the great Hugo's brunch Labor Day weekend. Football season marks the end of brunch season in my household, so we like to go out with a bang. Hugo's did not disappoint.

A rare find: Indian food in Humble.
Suburban ethnic food: Living in a suburb can be tough on someone who enjoys food as much as me. The Humble, Kingwood, Atascocita (HKA) area I live in is rife with chain eateries and I've seen too many family owned places struggle to get open and/or stay open. Tipico Café, one of the few non-chain places in my area that I enjoyed, recently had to close up as the cost of business was too great for them to stay afloat. I was given a bit of hope in September with The Curry House opening just off of Highway 59 and FM 1960. A well priced Indian buffet, Curry House also serves only Halal meat which must be welcome news to Muslims in the HKA area. The standard buffet items such as butter chicken and vindaloo were served, but I was impressed by the spicy goat curry as well as the beetroot masala. My first visit was a success and I hope the owners get the support they need to thrive in the area.

The Halloween special from Pizaro's Pizza.
Scary good pizza: It had been a long time since I'd been able to get to the original Pizaro's Pizza location on the west side, and it did not disappoint. On Halloween weekend they featured a great spicy pizza with sausage, black olives, ghost peppers, and basil. It was unique with an unforgiving heat level. It may not be for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.

Chocolate kouign amann, plain kouign amann, and chocolate bana croissant from B. Patisserie in San Francisco.
A bounty of pastries: While I'm not there as frequently as I once was, Common Bond still makes the best croissants in the city, and I did get to enjoy one in September. It held its own with the one I enjoyed at the famous Tartine Bakery in San Francisco a few weeks later. Blasphemous as it may be to say, the pastries I had at Beard nominee B. Patisserie in San Francisco the following morning may have topped them both. The kouign amann were perfect and the chocolate, banana and almond croissant was such a unique and tremendously good bite that I have difficulty accurately describing it. If ever in San Francisco, this is the bakery I'd recommend to start with.

Full disclosure: August had 33 dining stops, September topped out at 40 (not counting wineries), and October finished with 29. As you can see I'm still dining out plenty; I just need to get better about documenting it!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

food for thought: July 2015

Not only did I eat plenty this month, I actually cooked a fair amount. This month's recap has a bit of both, so let's get to it.

Roasted and smoked carrots from Oxheart. This picture could never do it justice.
The best thing I ate this month: There were many worthy candidates - the grits at Bramble come immediately to mind - but when it came time to picking my favorite plate of the month, I had to go with my favorite dish from my most recent Oxheart visit. As most who read my posts know, I eat more barbecue than most normal people. Suffice it to say, it is rare that I'm wowed by a smoked offering anymore. But that is one of the many reasons why I love the Oxheart experience. Chef Justin Yu has a way of creating extraordinary flavors out of seemingly ordinary ingredients and is always devising new ways to play with texture. All of that creativity shone through in a dish of roasted and smoked carrots that sat atop a black pepper and white onion emulsion. Such a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures were brought out by the different cooking methods that each bite provided something different. Chef Yu said the dish was originally composed with an Alabama white barbecue sauce in mind, but the onions provided so much more than a mayonnaise based sauce could have.

Excellent beef rib from Blood Bros. BBQ
Pop-up BBQ: Houston's barbecue scene has increased both in quantity and quality the last few years, and barbecue pop-ups are becoming a regular occurrence. Veterans of the Houston Barbecue Festival, Blood Bros. BBQ have started popping up at Lincoln Bar on Washington every other Saturday, often offering less traditional smoked fare such as beef belly burnt ends. On a recent barbecue run with friends we headed over to sample the menu. We were rewarded with a well executed hot link and very good boudin, but it was the beef rib that stole the show that day with well rendered fat and great bark. A cold beer and good plate of barbecue on the back patio of Lincoln Bar is not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Left: pork ribs from Banded Brigade cook-off (photo courtesy Bryan Norton) | Right: Chickens smoked by yours truly 
Manning the pits: July was a different sort of month in terms of food for me. In addition to my usual hectic dining out schedule, there were a couple of cooking events that kept me busy. One was a charity cook-off with my friends and frequent barbecue companions Bryan and Scott; you can read more about that here. The other, larger cook was a personal event for a long-time friend that was easily the most barbecue I've ever cooked in one day: sixteen racks of pork ribs and thirty chickens in all were smoked. It was a lot of work but for a worthy cause and increased the respect I have for the pitmasters that cook that amount or more on an almost daily basis.

Red chili oil dumplings from Mala Sichuan Bistro
Second location, same results: I finally made it over to Mala Sichuan Bistro's new Montrose location in July, and am pleased to report that the food is still stellar. While it is odd for me to eat Mala's food in a much more refined setting than the Chinatown outpost, the flavors are still among the most vibrant in the city. My wife is not the peppercorn fanatic that I am, so I'll have to return for some of the green peppercorn offerings I keep reading so much about.

Full disclosure: I had 28 stops in July, not counting the events at which I cooked.

Monday, July 13, 2015

And we've only just met: a first look at Bramble

One of my favorite parts of dining out is seeing the evolution of a chef, their restaurant, and the menu. To me, the best place to start to view that growth is, naturally, the beginning. I enjoy going to newly opened restaurants, sampling the first menus, and seeing what the chef and/or owner's original vision is for the place. I of course would never review a place based off of a single visit just a few days after it opens; that would be as pointless as it would be irresponsible. As it pertains to the restaurant that was the inspiration for this post, this is merely my first impression. I fully expect a differently composed dining experience on my second trip in, third visit, and so on.

Those who have followed the Houston dining scene over the years are familiar with Chef Randy Rucker. An accomplished chef and James Beard award semifinalist, Rucker has a resumé that included established Houston restaurants such as Quattro in the Four Seasons and Rainbow Lodge as well as opening the critically acclaimed but short lived restaurants Laidback Manor and Bootsie's Heritage Cafe. Chef Rucker has long been known for his commitment to quality and locally sourced ingredients and has brought that discipline to Bramble, his new restaurant that opened last week on South Voss.

Located in the former Mancuso's Italian spot, Bramble is a lively, small space with reclaimed wood ceilings and an open kitchen. I was pleasantly surprised by how spacious the dining room feels despite seating less than 50 diners. My wife and I were not rubbing elbows with the tables around us, and the noise level was moderate, easily allowing for normal table conversation. This is a restaurant that loves its wood, from the tabletops to the glassware station to the small bar just off to the right beyond the front door. It works to create the cohesive feel that Bramble is going for of a neighborhood joint that serves foraged food indigenous to Texas.

Teres major with brown butter, fingerling potatoes, and beets.

The menu is relatively small and is based on seasonality and availability. It will change frequently, which will help to make each trip different from the last. Our server came to the table shortly after we were seated, gave a brief explanation of the cocktail menu and was quick to point out that drinks may take a few minutes to come out as each one was thoughtfully hand-crafted. While diners experienced with ordering cocktails at similarly dedicated places such as Anvil are familiar with the time and care that goes into well balanced drinks, Rucker and company have opened up in an area of Houston that is not yet populated with a glut of restaurants of its ilk. In Montrose for example, staff might make an assumption that the majority of their patrons are familiar with the careful process of mixing a proper drink based on a number of established bars and eateries in the neighborhood that specialize in the format. The community in which Bramble resides may not yet be familiar with the longer process of carefully crafting a drink and could mistake the longer than usual wait time as poor service when in fact the opposite is the case.

The theme of introducing their style and educating the customer continued throughout the meal. The full menu was explained in great detail. Our server went so far as to inform us that the Mangrove snapper ceviche-style dish got its name from that particular fish populating the waters off the Gulf of Mexico near where Mangrove tree roots grow into the Gulf. To some this may seem like more information than needed, but for a self-professed food nerd like myself, I enjoy learning where my food comes from. What impressed me most was that only five days into its run, Bramble's front of house staff was able to speak not only intelligently but passionately about the menu. This shows a dedication to the dining experience that extends from the chef all the way through to each part of service; color me impressed.

left: stone ground grits | top right: dinner rolls, beer and cheese bread made with Miller Lite | bottom right: cured  Mangrove snapper

Our food selections for this visit consisted of the bread course, a generous portion of beer and cheese bread and dinner rolls. The bread basket could easily have served a table of four, and was at a very palatable five dollar price point. Next up were squash blossom beignets stuffed with squash and goat cheese and fried with a light, airy batter. The blossoms were crispy with a nice filling and were well portioned. We also ordered the aforementioned Mangrove snapper. Cured in citrus and served with celery, fennel, and a bit of pickled serrano chili, the fish was beautiful. The chili flavor was a nice addition so long as it was eaten in combination with the other elements of the dish.

The star of the night was the teres major, a delicious cut of beef from the shoulder area that is most similar in taste to the tenderloin. It was served medium rare to medium with fingerling potatoes and candy-striped beets. I was a bit surprised that we were not asked for a preferred doneness on the meat. I was quite content with the cookery myself and applaud when a chef serves beef to the level of cooking temperature they feel is best, but some diners may wish to have their own taste preferences taken into account. That being said, it would be a shame to see such a beautiful cut cooked to oblivion.

Wood grilled peach pie in those amusing mugs.

We also ordered a side of the stone ground grits because, well, I'm a sucker for them. They did not disappoint. They were light and fluffy and dangerously good; I could eat a bowl for breakfast every morning. We finished off the meal with a well executed peach pie dessert, served in the same quirky mugs as the grits. Our server surmised  that the almost smirking face on the mugs was a nice reflection of Chef Rucker himself.

Was it a perfect meal on this night? Of course not. No restaurant I've been to in its infancy, be it Underbelly, Killen's Barbecue, Coltivare, Pass and Provisions or Bramble reaches its peak that fast. The beignets could have used a touch of salt, the snapper dish could have had a bit more on the plate, but these are minor hiccups in an otherwise fine meal that I suspect will be corrected as the kitchen staff hits their stride. Bramble left me with as good a first impression as I can recall having at a newly opened restaurant. I sincerely hope their commitment to teaching the consumer pays off and that their neighborhood embraces the type of dining experience they've created. The Houston dining scene is more interesting with Randy Rucker in the mix. Hopefully Bramble keeps him here for the long haul.

Friday, July 3, 2015

food for thought: June 2015

Though this was my first month in quite some time without a massive barbecue road trip, there was plenty of dining activity - barbecue included - during the month of June.

Left: Korean fried chicken from Karbach; Right: Karbach's Big 'Ol Pretzel

My favorite bite of the month: Having heard good things about the new restaurant and tasting room at Karbach Brewery, I stopped in for a quick lunch and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. A particular highlight was the Korean fried chicken. Juicy, crispy bites of sweet and spicy chicken with house-made kimchi, this was one of the better plates of food I've had in awhile. The "big 'ol pretzel" certainly lived up to its name, and the house mustard, made with Karbach's Hellfighter Ale, was fantastic. Karbach's tasting room is spacious and lively and the beirgarten is a great meet up spot with friends when the weather cooperates.

The worst meal of the month: I know there is a lot of history and great affinity for Goode Co. Seafood, but a recent lunch there was underwhelming in so many ways that I can't let it slide. Our group was treated to overcooked fish devoid of flavor, soggy shrimp empanadas and even soggier fries, and all for a hefty lunch price. I'm all for nostalgia dining, but not at the cost of missing every mark.

Pancakes with peaches, white chocolate crumble, raspberry sauce, creme fraiche and syrup from Foreign and Domestic

Crossing one off the to-do list: I have a running list of restaurants I want to try, but there are always a few outliers that I just never seem to make it to. The restaurant that had been on my Austin to-do list for the longest time was Foreign and Domestic. I had heard such glowing things about it from so many trusted sources, but just never made it in on any of my many Austin trips. I was finally able to remedy that this month. While I still have not enjoyed a dinner service there, the brunch I had was great. A perfectly executed French omelette and one of the most memorable pancake dishes I've had confirmed what I'd been hearing about F&D for so long. There have long been rumors of a Houston outpost of Foreign and Domestic. I would be all for that.

From left to right: trinity plate at Freedmen's | the spread at Franklin Barbecue | A sampling of La Barbecue 

Smoked meat heavy hitters: For various reasons I ended up with a stellar roster of barbecue joints visited this month. On separate Austin trips I was able to go to La Barbecue, Freedmen's, and Franklin Barbecue. In Houston I made it to Roegels, Jackson Street, and Killen's. There were too many highlights in this group to mention, but what a great barbecue renaissance our state is undergoing.

The chicharrone plate at Revival Market

Revival Market's Makeover: Heights gem Revival Market has transitioned from a meat, produce, and specialty goods market to more of a full service restaurant, though they still offer a great selection of goods for take home purchase. While they've always had a sandwich menu for lunch service, Revival now has a more composed sit-down menu. On a recent visit I was rewarded with a fantastic chicharrone. The fabulously fried pork skins came piping hot to the table, dusted with fragrant zataar spice. It was served with sour cream that was garnished with curtido and chives, though eating them sans dip was just as pleasing. I can't think of a better five dollar dish in Houston right now. and can't wait to get back for the newly launched Revival Market dinner service.

Full Disclosure: This month had 32 stops.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

food for thought: May 2015

No better time than halfway through June to post my May dining highlights! I know this is long overdue, so I'll get right to it.

Spicy chicken (left) and preserved pork  (right) from Hunan Bistro

The best thing I ate: My favorite meal this month came from Hunan Bistro in Chinatown. I went there based off of a recommendation from a trusted Twitter source, and it did not disappoint. A wide ranging menu, this is a great place to go with a group and order a wide array of dishes to share. For my first visit I went with a preserved pork dish, which was wonderfully funky, and a crispy chicken dish that had a nice spice which built as you ate it. This place does not seem to be on a lot of people's radars yet, but that may just be a matter of time.

Crawfish curry (left) and Thai donuts with condensed milk dipping sauce (right) from Star of Bangkok

A break in the chain: One of the issues I've found living on the outskirts of Houston for most of my life is that authentic ethnic restaurants and family owned places have a difficult time surviving in suburbia; they're not exactly thriving in many parts of Houston either, but that's a different discussion. A lot of families in the smaller cities seem to prefer the large chain restaurants that are familiar to them. No better example of this was the line out the door at Lupe's in Katy every Saturday night, while I could drive four miles down the street to Marini's Empanadas for better food at a much cheaper price with no wait time.

Nine months into my life in the Humble/Kingwood/Atascocita area, I've been fortunate to find a few family owned establishments that offer a bit more of an authentic experience. My most recent discovery is Star of Bangkok, housed in the old Baytown Seafood building on FM 1960 just west of Timber Forest Drive. While it is not Asia Market, Star of Bangkok offers well-executed Thai curries, has some unique offerings such as the seasonal crawfish curry, and is priced right. A new addiction for my sweet tooth are their Thai donuts (pa thong ko) - small fried pieces of dough served with a sweetened condensed milk dipping sauce. An order of about fifteen of them is a mere $3.25. It's an addictive little treat.

Oh, hello again old friend: I am still in search of a reliable breakfast place in my new area, but was able to revisit Pecan Creek Grille, an old favorite from my west side days. Pecan Creek provides all of the reliable breakfast staples such as pancakes, waffles and omelets, but also offers items such as pulled pork hash and delicious jalapeno cheese grits. This place was a once a month staple for my wife and I; we miss it dearly on lazy Sunday mornings. If you live near Eldridge and Briar Forest I highly suggest you take advantage of having a good breakfast option in close proximity.

A little bit of everything from Corkscrew BBQ

No post is complete, without a recap of meat: Of course there was barbecue this month, locally and statewide. Scott and Bryan have the road trip recaps handled for our two day odyssey of barbecue. Some personal highlights of our most recent tour were lamb ribs at Gonzales Food Market and the many offerings of all beef sausage we were able to try. I wish more places in Houston would use less pork in their sausages. In town there were trips to Roegels, one of my go-to work lunch spots, and a Saturday morning at Corkscrew with the usual superb spread.

Full disclosure: This month had 38 stops which ranged from Persian to Thai to barbecue to Vietnamese, among others.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hometown Tourism

At the risk of losing potential readers, I am beginning this post with a disclaimer:

If you live in downtown Houston or in close proximity thereof, this is not meant for you. Don't get me wrong: there will be things in the forthcoming text that will (hopefully) be informative and entertaining regardless of your residence, but this post is geared toward suburbanites like me for whom a night on the town is a bit more of a commitment than it is for inner-loopers. My wife and I have had a lot of enjoyable excursions through downtown despite living on the outskirts of the city. Here are some helpful ideas from personal experience.

Plan ahead:

For responsible adults, a night of dining and bar hopping in town means that getting behind the wheel at the end of the night to drive home is not an option. Cab fares to get from a Houston suburb into town and back again are not cost effective, and for all of our city's many selling points, its mass transit system is not one of them. Often the safest and most affordable choice for us out-of-"town"ers to enjoy the city's dining and bar scene is simply to stay at a hotel for the night. To feel like I'm getting the most out of the hotel splurge, I try to plan these excursions around events going on in the city such as concerts, festivals, comedy shows, or sporting events. My most recent stay downtown was for a Rockets playoff game. My wife and I were able to stay in a downtown hotel, walk a few blocks for a pre-game bite, walk to the game, and then walk a few blocks to the Market Square area to drown our sorrows.

Roasted beets and carrots from Prohibition Supperclub and Bar

Where to eat:

The last few years have brought about a lot of growth in the downtown dining scene. Well respected chefs such as Erin Smith who is steering the ship at the new J.W. Marriott Hotel's restaurant, Main Kitchen, and Ben McPherson who left fellow downtown restaurant Batanga to lead the kitchen at Prohibition Supperclub and Bar have helped raise the profile on the area's dining. A recent stop at Prohibition rewarded me with a successful interpretation of Oysters Rockefeller as well as a nicely priced and well roasted plate of carrots and beets. MKT Bar inside of the downtown Phoenicia is another good spot to  split a pizza or grab a few Mediterranean-inspired snacks.

Left: sherry sampling at Public Services Wine and Whisky | Right: recent Eating Our Words Top 100 selection, balogney at Public Services

Where to drink:

All dining experiences come down to personal preference of course, but I've found that bar preferences are especially specific to the individual. Some go out in large groups and want the party atmosphere that can be found at places such as The Nightingale Room, while others prefer the old dive scene like downtown mainstay Warren's. When looking for a well-mixed cocktail in a no frills bar, Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar and Spirit Lounge fills that niche. In search of straight forward drinks and a laid back atmosphere? Stop into Okra Charity Saloon. The drinking options in downtown are as varied as one could hope. As far as my personal favorite goes, I say look no further than Public Services Wine and Whisky.

Public Services, co-owned by Oxheart's Justin Yu and Karen Man along with respected Houston sommelier and Oxheart alum Justin Vann, opened last fall in the old Cottonwood Exchange building. The architecture and history of the building alone makes it worth a visit, but the small bites provided by Chef Yu and his staff combined with the eclectic but approachable list of wines and whiskies make every visit to Public Services an uncommon adventure.

If you're fortunate enough to have Vann himself serve you  - which shouldn't be hard as he's seemingly always there - I highly recommend putting your trust in his hands to guide you through some of his favorites. My last visit was a tour through the sherry section of the menu, a well-known Vann favorite. The vibe of the bar is my speed as well: a comfortable noise level but not so much so that a conversation with a companion is impossible. They'll mix up a few cocktails for those so inclined, but the wine and whisky selection is so interesting that I recommend passing on a gin and tonic that can be had at any bar in Market Square.

Left: waffle at Tout Suite | Center: biscuits and gravy from Kitchen 713 | Right: fried chicken from Kitchen 713

Where to recover the next day:

Another benefit of an overnight stay in the city is that it allows for a next day brunch stop. Places downtown such as Hearsay, The Honeymoon, and El Big Bad offer great brunch options and a bit of the hair of the dog, or one could venture just outside of downtown before heading back to the 'burbs to East End locales like Tout Suite or Kitchen 713.

Tout Suite has a small selection of hot dishes or a wide array of pastries to eat with your coffee while Kitchen 713 provides great southern style comfort food. The biscuits and gravy I tried there recently is a dish I could eat every Sunday morning, and the fried chicken for two that came with biscuits, sides of red beans and rice, green beans and macaroni and cheese ended up providing a nice leftover dinner later that night.

I envy those that live in either walking or short cab ride distance to these great parts of our city. If you're reading this and fall into that category, I sincerely hope you're taking full advantage of your proximity to town. If you're from the hinterlands like myself, take a tour through some of Houston's nightlife sometime. Our city is worth a visit.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

food for thought: April 2015

Another month of dining in the books, here are some thoughts on an eventful April.

Simple, perfect Italian from Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

The best thing I ate: For this month, I could also title this section "What a difference a server makes." My wife and I dined at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino a few years back and left underwhelmed. The food was solid but did not stand out, and the service was very poor. Our server was loud and abrasive, offered no input whatsoever on the menu, and committed one of my cardinal sins of service: As our entrée plates were cleared, the server casually dropped the check at the table and was done with us for the evening. First, this is bad for her own pocket by not asking her table if they would like another glass of wine, coffee, or dessert. Second, a killer dessert can often pull a mediocre experience up a notch. After that first impression, we were not in a hurry to get back to Giacomo's. There are so many great places to eat in Houston that one bad experience can get you crossed off a person's list pretty fast.

Fast forward to April, 2015. My wife and I were running errands around the Kirby and Westheimer area and decided to have a quick lunch out. I suggested Giacomo's mostly based off of other people's positive experiences of the place. We were quickly seated upon arrival by a friendly server who immediately made us feel welcome. She conversed for a moment, offered suggestions on the menu, and was quick to tell us when she thought we'd ordered a substantial enough amount for a hearty lunch.

Dishes came out at a nice pace, our server was attentive without being overbearing, and the food was spot on. Beautifully hearty Bolognese rested on top of pleasantly toothsome pasta. That dish worked in harmony alongside the misto of perfectly cooked garlicky sautéed vegetables that we ordered. Our two experiences at Giacomo's could not be more different from one another, and the lunch that day was my favorite meal for the month.

A piece of Texas history.

More meat travels: April brought about another whirlwind of barbecue touring throughout the state. After Franklin Barbecue plans fell through with some friends, we were able to meet up with Scott and Bryan's families for a great Saturday duet of Snow's BBQ in Lexington and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. These two places, located outside of Austin, are widely considered some of the best in the state. They did not disappoint. I was also able to leave with what I thought was a fun piece of barbecue history: a brick from the original Louie Mueller pit that caught fire a few years ago. My wife, of course, thinks I'm ridiculous.

Another road trip amongst our newly formed triumvirate saw us hit ten barbecue places in one day. Yes, ten. We stuck to small samples and did a good job of pacing ourselves. Opie's Barbecue in Spicewood was a favorite of the day. Their baby back ribs are spectacular, and the free butter beans on weekends are comfort food at its finest. It was a great trip and we've already got another one planned for May.

Last but certainly not least in my meat excursions was the third annual Houston Barbecue Festival. Put on by barbecue enthusiasts Chris Reid, Michael Fulmer, and an army of extremely dedicated volunteers, this event brings together a great line-up of barbecue places around the city in one venue for everyone to sample. It's a great place to meet up with old friends, make some new ones, and try some good barbecue.

Left, soft scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and fennel from Tout Suite; Right, morning thali at Pondicheri.

The most important meal of the day: My wife and I try to have one breakfast or brunch out every month, even if that's simple diner pancakes and eggs. This month delivered a few breakfasts of note. We decided to try Pondicheri one Sunday morning for breakfast (sidenote: I usually don't spend this much time around Kirby!). Never having been there for breakfast, we weren't sure what to expect. To say we over-ordered would be an understatement. I should have stuck with the breakfast thali, a wonderful assortment that would have easily filled me up. Pondicheri, which offers breakfast daily, is often praised for its morning offerings; I can now see why.

Tout Suite also provided a great spot for a weekend breakfast. A nice strong cup of Greenway coffee and a well executed soft scramble with house-smoked salmon in a relaxed atmosphere was a pleasant way to start a day. While Tout Suite can be noisy during peak times, it's a fun place to people watch.

Hugs and Donuts, the hot new breakfast spot in the Heights, had been on my to-try list since before it opened. A longtime fan of the H-Town Streats food truck, I was excited to try its proprietors' new donut shop. Unfortunately, due to a small storefront and its popularity, it was a 45-minute wait. While I'm definitely not one to shy away from a food line, I have a hard time forcing myself to wait any length of time for a donut. That being said, the donuts were good and if I could get in and out in a short time frame I'd gladly go back.

More char, please. 

Let there be pizza: Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana opened in Montrose, the second location for Bill Hutchinson and family. The original Pizaro's location on the west side of Houston was a favorite of mine when I lived in Katy, so I was glad to have the new location open up in an area where I dine often. The new spot is definitely more open and a lot more thought went into the design than the first outpost. To be fair, the original Pizaro's at Kirkwood and Memorial was opened in a strip center when the Hutchinsons had no idea how successful their venture would be. I am pleased to report that Pizaro's Montrose is off to a great start. The pizza on my visit was fragrant and flavorful, though I could have used a bit more char on the pie. That's more of personal preference than actual critique, though.

My morning savior.

A local pour: While I wouldn't call myself a connoisseur of coffee by any stretch, I do enjoy a good cup in the morning. The biggest problem for me: I'm at work by 7 AM and most of the really good coffee shops in Houston don't open until that time. Some days I grind Greenway or Amaya beans at home, but plenty of mornings I don't have the energy.

Fortunately for me I found a really nice, local shop in Humble that opens at the ungodly time of 5:30 AM weekdays. Javaman Coffee in Atascocita roasts beans onsite and serves great, affordable coffee. Owner Mark Norelli is there nearly every morning, full of energy and friendly conversation. He learns his customers' first names as well as their standard order; it's obvious Javaman is a passion for him. If you're a local in the Humble/Atascocita area or just passing through, I highly recommend checking this place out. Don't miss the beignets on the weekends!

Full disclosure: This month included 41 stops (and countless trips to Javaman).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Adios, mi amigo

All sizzle, no steak.
The sizzle arrived at the table, steam rising off the hot plate. This was a familiar ritual that should have triggered the food nostalgia receptors in my brain. Instead, it was unease I felt as the plate was set down. That feeling quickly turned to resignation as I took my first bite. Truth be told, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for before walking through the door at Lupe Tortilla. I knew I would be paying an exorbitant price for fajitas, was well aware the food wasn't what it was in my youth.

As a newly transplanted New Yorker, I had little experience with Tex-Mex food when my parents moved my sisters and me to the west side of Houston. My father had heard from some colleagues that there was this little hole in the wall place near Highway 6 and I10 that had great beef fajitas, strong (and cheap) margaritas, and a playground for kids. This was music to my parents' ears, and Lupe Tortilla quickly became a staple in our family's dining out rotation.

The years flew by as they are known to do, and the little tin roofed building full of kitsch and charm became more than just a place for a good meal to our family. Servers were given nicknames, as were the faces of the sombrero wearing patrons whose polaroid pictures adorned the walls. For those uninitiated in the Lupe ways, if someone in your party let the server know it was your birthday, a sombrero was put on your head and the staff would then take your picture with a polaroid camera while singing to you in Spanish. To this day I don't know what all of the words mean, but it was not your traditional birthday song. My Spanish speaking father never gave us the full translation, but told us one of the lines roughly translated to "how beautiful you look when I wake up drunk in the morning."

My Lupe Tortilla memories are as plentiful as they are vivid. There was the infamous night where my oldest sister, tipsy from one too many of those powerful margaritas, left the restaurant with a mini sombrero that had been hanging on the wall. In time I was old enough to enjoy some of those frozen beverages myself, and the restaurant evolved into an initiation of sorts for family friends and prospective boyfriends and girlfriends. The first time my now wife met my sisters was at Lupe Tortilla; I still have her polaroid to prove it.

Back to present day, I examined my fajitas. Gone was the blush pink of a healthy medium skirt steak, in its place a solid brown. While not devoid of flavor, the bright lime marinade was no longer prevalent in the dish. At $19.95 for a half pound of fajitas they were certainly no bargain. Also gone was the possibly vulgar song, replaced with something much more innocent sounding.

To be fair, my most recent meal was not at the original outpost. With over 17 locations, Lupe Tortilla is far from the mom and pop outfit I remember. The aforementioned charm of the Highway 6 location and its menu is now a business model. It had been years since my last visit to the Tex-Mex place of my youth; higher prices and decline in quality that so often accompanies large restaurant expansion had made my interest wane. But it was this visit that made me finally throw in the towel. Two so-so margaritas and two unremarkable entrees came out to sixty-three dollars after tax and tip. With a price tag that high for what is normally an inexpensive type of cuisine, there are so many better ways in which I can spend my dining dollars.

So, after one last lackluster meal at what was once a personal dining institution, it's time for me to say goodbye. I'll keep those memories forever - the polaroids will help with that. So long Lupe Tortilla. You were once preetty good.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tips for Texas barbecue road-tripping

This weekend marked another barbecue road trip for Scott, Bryan, and me. We went to Schulenburg City Market, Prause Meat Market, Zimmerhanzel's, Pieous, Schmidt Family Barbecue, It's All Good BBQ, Opie's Barbecue, Highway 29 BBQ, Brown's Bar-B-Que, and Terry Black's Barbecue on a whirlwind ten stop tour. A big thank you to all of these places for their food and hospitality on this crazy trip. I recommend going to Scott and Bryan's sites for more thorough details on all of our stops. I thought for this post I would focus on some suggestions for planning your own road trip. This was our group's third tour together (read about others here and here) so we've started to get a good feel for how to plan trips we all enjoy.

Our final stop, Terry Black's in Austin, provided good barbecue.

1. Know the group

An easy mistake to make when planning a barbecue outing is not knowing one's road trip companions. Are you venturing out with a bunch of like-minded barbecue hounds, a group of novices eager to learn more, or casual eaters just looking for a fun Saturday on Texas roadways? This is key to planning the right day for the group. I once made the mistake of taking my wife, a casual at best barbecue eater, to four joints in 24 hours. To some that is overkill, while for others a good weekend. Taking the appetites of your group into account while planning helps ensure everyone has an enjoyable time.

Schulenburg City Market (left); Prause Meat Market (center); Courthouse in La Grange (right)

2. What type of trip do you want?

Decide what the objective is for the day. If the goal is simply to try the best barbecue in a particular region of Texas, you should plan accordingly. Many of the upper-tier joints in the state come with their own set of challenges. The infamous line at Franklin Barbecue for example, while a unique experience, severely limits a group's ability to sample multiple places.

Does the group want to tour old Texas towns and their barbecue histories? Cities like Lockhart and Luling as well as some of the meat markets in Central Texas provide great opportunities to see some picturesque small towns and meet some of the long-time pitmasters, owners, and employees. These people are walking, talking history lessons on Texas barbecue. On our most recent trip we met a gentleman working at a city meat market who had worked at the legendary Smitty's in Lockhart during the years of the family dispute that created the Smitty's/Kreuz Market split. That is a man with some stories to tell, to be sure.

3. Plan your route

Now that the group has decided what type of trip it will be, the route should be researched and mapped out. Don't limit stops to just the cities you've heard of. There are so many small towns that might be passed along the way, many of which may provide less heralded barbecue options that can fit into the itinerary. Keep an eye on the timing of things as many places sell out by mid-afternoon, and barbecue in general is best sampled within the first few hours of a joint's opening time. Texas Monthly's barbecue website is always a great resource to find good stops all over the state, but simple google searches of the towns along the route can also yield some good results.

From Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave, our standard order plus the tip 4A mistake.

4. Decide on a menu and stick to it!

A mistake our road trip trio made on a previous trip was over-indulgence. It's easy to do when traveling to great barbecue places. The problem with that is halfway through the tour, we all needed a rest. On our most recent ten stop tour, we stuck to a pretty rigid order of a couple of brisket slices, one pork rib which we'd cut three ways, and one sausage link. If a particular joint did not smoke a quality sausage (preferably house-made), we'd skip that to save stomach space. Some exceptions are made if a place is particularly known for a certain protein, side or dessert, but for the most part keeping to a standard order helps prevent over-eating. It's also easier on the wallet to stick to a sampling menu of course, and it's surprising how affordable a venture like this can be. On the majority of our stops, orders averaged less than five dollars per person. Eating small-town barbecue also helps with cost, since their prices tend to be much lower than major cities due to a number of factors.

Bonus Tip 4A: Be careful when ordering. If a place allows customers to order by the slice, find out how large their slices are before placing an order. We recently placed a three slice order that came out to over a pound in total weight! This is where having sandwich bags and a cooler in the car come in handy.

Unique stone pit at Highway 29 BBQ in Bertram.

5. Get to know the pitmasters

Because of the explosion of Texas barbecue the last few years, some people think of pitmasters as celebrities. With the exception of the very rare cases, most of them are just hard working people who care deeply about their craft and do not live any sort of lap of luxury lifestyle. Barbecue is a daily grind for most of the people involved in making it. In my experience, most pitmasters are extremely gracious folks who appreciate when customers take an interest in their work. This is not to say that everyone wants to be giving pit tours to every customer who walks in, but I've found that most are receptive to minor inquiries about their product and smokers. Some will chat your ear off if they have time, while others will give a quick hello. As an avid consumer of barbecue, it helps give a full picture of the meal when I learn some of the story of how it got to the plate. On a recent trip, our group heard stories of how and where some places source their products and learned that one place had to stop using one of their smokers due to north winds creating too much smoke in the dining area. Another place had to dam up an area during heavy rains due to the slope of the floor in their smokehouse causing water to enter the firebox. Glamorous work this is not!

6. Break up the day

One thing that will help from barbecue overload is to find a stop or excursion to break up the trip along the way. We had one non-barbecue stop on our last trip, sampling some great pastrami at Pieous in between barbecue places. We've also talked about a brewery tour during our next trip. Things like this help the group reenergize before taking on more smoked meat.

7. Explore your own area!

While road trips are fun for a multitude of reasons, don't forget to explore your home city too. I've had many great days around Houston just exploring my own food scene, barbecue and otherwise. In most cities the restaurants depend on local traffic for much of their revenue, so supporting them is crucial. If you're a Houstonian like me, you'll know that as spread out as our city and the surrounding areas are, you can make a road trip out of just going around town. Another great option for barbecue lovers in Houston is the upcoming Houston Barbecue Festival on Sunday, April 26th. With over 20 barbecue joints in one place, it's a great way to sample some of the best of what Houston has to offer.

Don't let the sold out sign get you down- add it to the next tour.

8. Have fun

This sounds obvious, but if this starts feeling like a chore, it eliminates the purpose of doing it in the first place. Everyone got in the car for an entertaining day of friendship, food, and leisure. While it is important to have a plan, don't feel like it must be stuck to rigidly. Our group has lingered at places for longer than we planned, so we just tried to adjust accordingly at the next stop. Or, if you reach one of your destinations too late in the day and run into the dreaded "sold out" sign - which has happened to us more than once - it's not the end of the world. There are plenty of plan B stops you can make or just plan to visit that stop on your next trip.

Much like the cooking of barbecue, there's no exact science to a successful road trip. Find out what works for you and what doesn't. As long as you're having fun driving down those beautiful Texas country roads with a group of friends, the aroma of barbecue smoke permeating the vehicle, it's a good day.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

I am Houston Fed

On this date twenty-five years ago, the wheels touched down on the plane that took me from New York to Houston. Saddened to be leaving my childhood friends and still thinking of the Big Apple as home, I vowed never to say "y'all" or do anything that could be considered Texan. I pledged full allegiance to New York sports teams and thought this new city was just the pits. Before you start wanting to reenact the old Pace Picante "get the rope" commercials, I was only eight years old at the time- far too young to know what Houston would come to mean to me.

As years went by and New York became more of a memory, my affinity for Houston grew. While I still don't say y'all, one can't really detect a New York accent in me unless I'm around other New Yorkers for an extended amount of time. The boy who proudly wore his John Starks New York Knicks jersey during the NBA finals against the Rockets now cheers on James Harden and crew, though football is another story. I don't root against the Texans, but my football allegiance will always remain in New York.

It's with a bit of irony that out of our family of four that moved to Houston on that April day in 1990, I am the only one that is still here. I thought about leaving in the past, but one thing or another has kept me here and I don't plan on leaving anytime soon. It truly is a great city to call home for many different reasons, not the least of which being the dining. 

My love affair with Houston food evolved as I became an adult, of course. Exploring the city, its cultural diversity and wealth of different styles of cuisine grew from curiosity into obsession. My mother was an adventurous eater and always encouraged me to try new things. Though I gave her much resistance as a kid, I follow that advice stringently now. 

I suppose I've gone on long enough without getting to the meat of this post. I started this site to write out my thoughts on the wide variety of food I ate, searched out, stood in line for, researched, and enjoyed. I truly never thought of myself as a "food blogger." To this day the term is awkward to hear. Some of the food folks I've met along the way have referred to me as such, but the term blogger just seems to have such a negative connotation to it that I almost cringe at the thought.

 I've never considered myself any sort of authority on food, though I do like to think my views on the subject come from an honest and informed place. I spend more time and money on dining than most people I know, and it doesn't stop there. I often come home after a meal and research aspects of the dish to see if possibly I overlooked something or didn't have a proper understanding of what a dish was supposed to be. The last thing I want to do is post something on here that unfairly portrays a restaurant or chef. I have such great respect for the people that work in the food service industry and the sacrifices they make both personally and financially to do what they do; I'd never want some flippant, uninformed remark I make to have any impact on their jobs. I feel this way not because I think many people read my posts but because I think it's a writer's responsibility to form opinions based on a foundation of fact. That being said, if I feel I've properly vetted out a meal and have come to an opinion I feel confident in posting, I'm more than happy to explain my conclusions should someone ask.

I started off wanting to do this with some form of anonymity, mainly so that my opinions about a place would not be swayed by any personal relationships I had or would have with people in the industry. I quickly learned that anonymity is silly, and as long as there are humans cooking food and humans writing about food, bias would always come in to play. Enough has been written about the subject of a food writer's anonymity by people far more eloquent than I; feel free to research it for yourself. I have always wanted this site to be about the food and not the person writing about the food. This post aside, that is still the goal. While I don't begrudge anyone's personal rules for their food writing, I will continue to write about the good and the bad meals I have. 

If you see me out and about and want to say hi, please do. I'm a bit shy at first, but get me talking about food and the conversation will pick up quickly. If I've said something positive or negative about your food, by all means let's discuss. Some of you already know me and some may recognize me as "that guy they've seen in all of the barbecue lines." After having said all of that and losing any form of brevity I hoped to achieve when this post started, I'll just say hello. My name's Andrew, and I am Houston Fed. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

food for thought: March 2015

In what was one of my busiest months of dining out in recent memory, there were plenty of memorable food experiences. My barbecue intake alone this month provided for some great fodder, but for anyone curious if this is going to turn into strictly a barbecue site, don't fret. In between all of those smoked meat stops there were Indian, Pakistani, Persian, Chinese, Greek, Cuban, Mexican, Korean and southern food meals. Suffice to say I love many types of cuisine- Texas barbecue is just one of them.

shrimp and grits at Kitchen 713.
The best thing I ate: This was harder to pick this month as there were so many standouts. The most exciting meal I had in March was dinner at the most bare bones of restaurants. There are no table cloths, patrons order at the counter, water and sodas are self serve, and college basketball played on a television in the small dining room. While this may sound like a night at Cafe Express, the restaurant I'm referring to is Kitchen 713 in the East End. The staff is so minimal that the chefs bring the plates to your table, but you're left wanting for nothing. What they serve is an eclectic mix of southern food with upscale touches and nods to ethnic cuisines that have influenced both our city's dining landscape as well as the chefs' own careers. While everything I ate was impressive, my favorite dish was the stone ground grits with shrimp and house-made shrimp chorizo. The chorizo was stunning in its ability to provide the spice and feel of a traditional chorizo all while maintaining a great seafood flavor. A hint of white wine and cheddar balanced the dish. I've had some truly subpar interpretations of shrimp and grits and some solid straight forward versions of the dish, but none was more unexpectedly great and finely executed than this one. I cannot recommend this place enough. In a city that is becoming increasingly filled with hotly buzzed about restaurants that have PR firms behind them orchestrating some of that chatter, Kitchen 713 is garnering attention the old fashioned way: by producing food as interesting and flavorful as any place in Houston.

A baker's dozen: Or, the number of barbecue stops I made this month. There were some of the old staples like Corkscrew BBQ in Spring, a Houston newcomer with Pinkerton's Barbecue that had its first pop-up in anticipation of a late summer opening, and multiple visits to the ever-improving Roegels Barbecue Co. I don't know if there is a pitmaster around more dedicated to improving their product than Russell Roegels. Each meal I've had at the South Voss eatery since the Roegels family broke away from the Baker's Ribs chain has been better than the last. The crunchy bark on their brisket is hard to beat, and I'm excited to see the product continue to evolve. Houston's barbecue scene is growing by leaps and bounds. There was also another barbecue road trip out of town that provided some nice surprises. The winner that day was the brisket at Freedmen's.

Clockwise from top left: interior of Levure Bakery, clever light fixture, French toast with preserves and fruit, plain croissant.
A new bakery in the 'burbs: Levure Bakery and Patisserie opened this month in The Woodlands, providing the burgeoning suburb with a legitimate pastry destination. While my first visit there had some of the first week service issues common to any new opening, a recent return trip was more steady and the food was good on both occasions. Levure has a modestly-sized dining area with clever decorative touches like a light fixture adorned with Einstein equations. The croissants have the classic flaky, buttery texture, and the almond croissant is a less conventional offering that is crusted with slivered almonds and has a subtle hint of orange in the filling. The prices at Levure are great, and they will start offering their full savory menu of hot options in April.

Old faithfuls: One of my favorite places in Houston is Mala Sichuan Bistro in Chinatown, and one of my favorite things to order there are the red oil dumplings. Perfectly chewy dumplings filled with garlic and soy paste and topped with chili oil, they're a must order. Another lunch staple for me is the lunch special at Himalaya. Always featuring chicken curry, lamb curry and a vegetable portion of some sort served on a cafeteria tray with basmati rice and naan,  it's a vibrant array of flavors for under fifteen dollars.

empanadas, croquetas and tamal at Cafe Piquet with killer spicy salsa
A revival: We've all seen this before. A restaurant you frequent and enjoy for awhile starts showing signs of decline. The service gets slower, the food is increasingly hit or miss, and you eventually lose interest in returning. This was Cafe Piquet for me. The Bellaire area restaurant had long been lauded as some of the best Cuban food available in a city that was (and sadly still is) lacking in Cuban options. I had gone there with my family for years, but the last few years I'd noticed a real decline in the restaurant. Roast pork would come out dry, beef would be lacking in flavor. It was disappointing to see a restaurant I had an affinity for lose its way. Due to its proximity to my office, I would pop in every once in a while in hopes of recapturing some of those great Cuban flavors. My last few visits to Piquet have given me hope. Back are many of the flavors that made their food a destination for me. My most recent outing affirmed my belief in Cafe Piquet's continued ascent back to quality. Lunch there this month included some perfect picadillo filled empanadas and beautifully seasoned croquetas de jamon. While I do wish they had a true lunch menu more financially palatable to diners, one can still find some affordable options, or just go for dinner.

Full disclosure: This month included 40 stops covering midtown, downtown, the Heights, Montrose, Cypress, Spring, The Woodlands, Humble, Bellaire, Chinatown, River Oaks, Bryan, Austin, and many points in between.

Monday, March 16, 2015

First Things, First

A quick recap on another food-filled weekend around town.

Levure Bakery:  As the population of The Woodlands has increased, so have the dining options. Levure Bakery, which opened last week in the Woodlands Creekside Park Village (26400 Kuykendahl) with positive buzz, is one of the latest eateries to open up in this fast-growing Houston suburb. Levure serves hot breakfast options such as omelettes, French toast and pain perdu, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and also offers traditional French pastries and treats. They had quite a crowd when I arrived on Saturday morning, and there was definitely some confusion amongst the staff on how to handle the influx of customers. Levure is wisely closing until this Wednesday to re-group and train the staff to better handle its inevitable popularity, but the food was affordable and well executed. The twice baked brioche and chocolate chip cookie were very good and clearly made with quality ingredients. As one accustomed to paying premium prices for baked goods (thanks for that, Common Bond!), purchasing two pastries and two cups of coffee for less than ten dollars was a pleasant surprise.

from left to right: Bryan Horton, Michael Fulmer, Scott Sandlin, Yours Truly, Chris Reid, JR Cohen. Photo courtesy of Scott Sandlin

Pinkerton's Barbecue: Houston, which until recently was thought to be bereft of good barbecue options, keeps growing its roster as new barbecue restaurants, food trucks, and pop-ups are showing up all over the city. The latest, Pinkerton's Barbecue, is run by 26-year old Grant Pinkerton who is opening up in - of all places - River Oaks. Saturday afternoon marked their first time serving to the general public, offering up free plates of brisket, pork ribs, sausage, sides and desserts. This was a great way to introduce themselves to the community and plenty of the well-known barbecue aficionados of Houston were on hand to show their support. It was a good first impression with well smoked ribs and moist brisket. Pinkerton's is aiming for an August opening at the restaurant but will likely continue to do pop-ups in the interim. It will be nice to have another smoked meat option inside the loop.

Pappa Charlie's: A much overdue return visit to Pappa Charlie's served as a reminder that I need to get there more often. Wesley Jurena's food trailer is regularly at Jackson's Watering Hole (1205 Richmond Ave.) serving up extremely flavorful meats and sides. The stars on this day were the brisket and prime rib. Pappa Charlie's does not abide by the conventional "low and slow" method of smoking meat, instead preferring a hot fire and short cook time. The end results, though, prove that there is not one true way to cook great barbecue. The brisket I was served last weekend was as moist and well rendered as any low and slow joint you're likely to find. With a new schedule alteration that has the trailer parked at Jackson's for Friday lunch, I'm sure my next visit will be in the near future. If you haven't sought out Pappa Charlie's yet, I highly recommend it. It's difficult to find barbecue of this quality without a long line and a trip to the suburbs.

Lamb pastrami sandwich with a side of potato salad from Revival Market

Other Eats: There was another good meal at Tipico Café, a trip to Melange Creperie before they leave their normal Montrose spot, and the fantastic lamb pastrami sandwich at Revival Market that narrowly missed making it on my favorite bites of 2014 list.

Monday, March 9, 2015

400 Miles of Barbecue: 3 friends, 4 cities, 5 stops

There was a great sense of fulfillment as I pulled into my driveway this past Saturday night. I'd left the house 14 hours earlier to begin a barbecue odyssey with fellow enthusiasts Bryan and Scott. Our journey began in the morning and ended in the late evening at a Target parking lot in Tomball; what took place in between that time is one of the most enjoyable days of barbecue I've had in recent memory.

Trinity plate at Kreuz in Bryan.

Our original plan did not include a breakfast stop, but Bryan had the great idea of kicking things off at the newly opened Kreuz Market in Bryan, Texas. They open at 10:30 which is rare for most joints but great for anyone trying to go on a long barbecue run. This allowed us to have a great first meal and still hit our second destination shortly after the standard 11 o'clock opening.

We were greeted by pitmaster Marco Oglesby and the friendly Kreuz staff. The building is reminiscent of the Lockhart building, but has the right amount of Aggie feel for its location. Our original plan was to only have a small sampling at each stop, but as usual the magical aroma of smoked meats did us in. We had a few slices of both moist and lean brisket, a pork rib, and jalapeño cheese sausage. The brisket had great smoke and was well rendered; even the lean retained a solid amount of moisture. The sausage was the classic, never disappointing standard Kreuz is famous for, but the rib could have used more time on the pit. It's a small and forgivable mistake that we all chalked up to showing up before the doors even opened. Those familiar with the legendary Kreuz in Lockhart can rest assured that the Bryan location is a worthy second outpost.

Left: Brisket and baby back ribs from Blue Moon BBQ; Top Right: Blue Moon storefront; Bottom Right: Bacon brownie.

Sometimes you just have to root for the underdog. This was the thought that came to me as we pulled up to Blue Moon BBQ, and stuck with me the rest of the day. It's a pleasure trying the smaller, less publicized small-town joints that make good, honest barbecue. That is what Blue Moon BBQ is, and even a little more.  As Bryan correctly pointed out, with the popularity of the barbecue scene today and the explosion of social media, the odds of finding "The Next Snow's" are slim-to-none but it's still fun to try. Sandwiched in between I45 and Highway 6 on Old San Antonio Road, Blue Moon is on the way to nowhere. You have to seek out this place. Even with three of us in the car we managed to drive five miles past it before turning around.

The menu at Blue Moon has your barbecue staples of brisket, ribs (baby backs), and sausage (not house made). They also offer turkey, pork loin and pulled pork that we did not sample on this visit. In addition to the meats and standard sides, they offer a few unique options such as Cowboy Cornbread: chopped brisket, tomatoes, chilies and onions stirred into cornbread and skillet cooked. This concoction is then smothered in cheese and served hot. There was no way we were not adding this to our order of fatty brisket and ribs.

After placing our order, we were quickly talked into trying a dessert - this would become a common trend for the rest of the day. Toni, one of the owners who handles the orders, suggested we try the bacon brownie. While we were all skeptical (who isn't throwing bacon into things these days?), the menu prices were so affordable that it wasn't going to break the bank. We were pleasantly surprised to see that fatty end brisket was $13.45 a pound, a great price when you consider the cost of beef these days. A twenty dollar bill took care of our entire order with tax and tip.

We were served quickly and once the required food photo session was complete (FYI, three grown men taking pictures of a plate of food at multiple angles is even more obnoxious than it sounds, but we're able to laugh at ourselves), we dug in. The brisket was cooked extremely well, just on that tightrope of well rendered and overdone. The bark did not have that nice crunch which we suspected was a result of a decent amount of time being foil-wrapped on the pit, but it had a great and unique flavor that none of us could pin down. The baby backs were cooked well and had a nice bark, though I would not have minded a bit more black pepper. We passed on the sausage since it was outsourced, but the cornbread was very interesting. What's not to love about a cheesy, beefy cornbread wedge? If ordering it again, though, I'd probably do a sprinkling of hot sauce to kick things up a bit. We finished off with the bacon brownie, and boy did it exceed expectations. A rich, dense brownie with diced chunks of crisp smoked bacon, this dessert was a hit. It was nice to see bacon as a true salty, flavor adding component rather than the usual gimmicky role it plays. We went back in and each bought one to take home.

As we headed to our next destination, our trio left content. This is the classic mom and pop (and son) barbecue place that has been part of the state's history for decades. Blue Moon has successfully made it in such a remote location for eight years, and I hope they're around for many more.

Top left: Miller's storefront; Top right: Dusty Miller manning the pits; Bottom: Brisket and original sausage from Miller's

We arrived in Belton (north of Austin for those not familiar) just after 2 PM, which is usually off-peak dining time for any restaurant, barbecue or otherwise. This did not seem to be the case at Miller's. There was a quick moving line that reached to the front door even at this late-afternoon hour. We chose to go with fatty brisket, original sausage (house-made; Miller's started as a processing facility only and are sausage making pros), and turkey. Pitmaster Dirk Miller wasn't there when we visited, but his son Dusty was kind enough to chat with us about their history and the pits that are housed on the side of the restaurant. There are nine in all, and they are fired up pretty much round the clock as Miller's cooks in shifts in order to be able to serve barbecue for lunch and dinner services. I wish more places would do this. The brisket on this visit was very good, though it may have been resting a bit longer than would have been ideal. The turkey was moist and a solid alternative to the usual Texas trinity. We enjoyed the original sausage, a mostly pork blend with a garlic presence, but a sample of both the hot links and jalapeño sausage convinced us all that we'd ordered wrong. The latter two were both exemplary sausages that I highly recommend ordering.

Lisa Miller, affectionately referred to as Mama Miller by the Miller's staff, insisted that we should try her fresh baked desserts. As usual, we couldn't say no. The show stopper for us was the hurricane cake, a german chocolate with cream cheese and pecans - it was a fantastic, home-y creation. One great thing about Miller's is they've converted their backspace into a bar with a nice beer selection and one dollar margaritas on Saturday nights. Had we known that we may have re-configured our route to end in Belton!

Left: Trinity plate at Freedmen's; Right: Fatty brisket close-up at Freedmen's

I had been hearing great things about the barbecue at Freedmen's for quite some time. Cooked on two pits parked in the back lot of a hipster Austin bar, this is not where you'd expect to find great smoked meat. You would be wrong. While the prices were more in line with big city barbecue than the small town prices we'd paid earlier in the day, it was worth every penny. Also, being able to get great barbecue at 4:30 PM in Austin on a Saturday is not easy to do. Most of the known heavy-hitters are long sold out by this time and preparing for the next day. That last part was the same for Freedmen's pitmaster Evan LeRoy; he was seasoning and getting tomorrow's lunchtime briskets on the pit when we arrived. Fortunately for us, Freedmen's still had fresh food available for us. We decided to split the $19.00 trinity plate which came with brisket, pork ribs and house-made sausage. As Freedmen's Bar is not your traditional place and LeRoy not your typical pitmaster, the plate did not simply come with your normal pickles and onions. Red onions and jalapeños are pickled in-house, and there was a homemade pickle spear thrown in for good measure. Scratch made focaccia and barbecue sauce came with the plate, too.
As soon as our meal arrived at the table, I knew we were in for a treat. Though we had not been served a bad brisket at any of our previous stops, the slices we had at Freedmen's were stunning. Impeccably rendered fatty slices with the aggressive black pepper seasoning I love, this brisket belongs in the big leagues with the heavy hitters of today's barbecue scene. The pork rib also impressed; cooked well, with a slight glaze and heavy black pepper rub that pulled no punches, it was the best pork rib I'd had in awhile. While I appreciated the care and texture of the sausage, it didn't pack as much flavor as I'd hoped and paled in comparison to the other two meats. The red onions were a nice touch and gave us all a break from the meat when we needed it, and the focaccia was great. The meat definitely didn't need the sauce that came with the plate, but it was a very good sauce. 
We decided to split the smoked banana pudding that we saw on the menu because, well, it was smoked banana pudding and we like to punish ourselves. Unfortunately, the dessert missed the mark. None of us tasted much smoke, and it did not wow anyone at the table. It was not a bad dessert, but the meat plate had set such a high standard. All in all, we walked away extremely content with this stop. LeRoy is a very talented pitmaster, and Freedmen's is lucky to have him. I'd love to see what he could do with a more controlled cooking environment.

Left: Stiles Switch storefront; Right: Fatty brisket and turkey (apologies on the lighting)

We had one more stop to make before we headed home, to one of the few reputable places around Austin serving dinner barbecue. We pulled into Stiles Switch already full and still buzzing from our Freedmen's meal. We decided to only order fatty brisket and turkey for this visit. Well, that and a round of beers of course, since it is BBQ and Brew. Unfortunately the brisket slices we ordered were uneven. I think this could have been from too much fat trimming on one side of the brisket. The fattier side of the slice was decently moist while the other side was dry to the point of crumbling. It was also fairly lacking in flavor. While I would like to forgive this as a "late in the day" mistake, I feel if you're going to be open for a dinner service you then have an obligation to your patrons to serve the same quality in your menu at 6 PM as you would at 11 AM. The turkey was a bit better than the brisket, decently moist with a nice rub. Stiles Switch has a good reputation from a number of credible sources, and I hope this was just a bad day. I think we'll all be back eventually to try again.

All-in-all, this was a very successful barbecue trip. Whether you're a barbecue hound like we are, have a genuine interest, or just want a fun food adventure, I highly recommend planning your own tour. Sure, standing in line at a Franklin or Killen's or Corkscrew is great, but hitting some of the less celebrated, less crowded places can lead to some wonderful discoveries. There's not a better way to spend a Saturday in Texas than with great food and conversation with good people . A huge thank you to Bryan and Scott for letting me talk them into such a long and winding trek through the backroads of the Lone Star State. I can't wait to do it again!