Friday, February 27, 2015

food for thought: February 2015

As February draws to a close, it's time to tally up this month's culinary highlights and memorable moments.

The best thing I ate this month: Not wanting to pay Valentine's Day "special menu" prices, my wife and I decided to go to Coltivare. The restaurant is always full on a Saturday anyway, but reservations aren't accepted and the menu was their standard, splendid fare. As per our normal, we ordered a bit of everything on the menu. The service, which understandably started slow, picked up the pace as the kitchen got its rhythm and food came out in a timely manner. We once again ordered the casserici pasta with oxtail sugo. While I understand the appeal of and thoroughly enjoy Coltivare's famous caccio e pepe, the sugo is the best pasta dish I've had at the Heights eatery. Deep in flavor from the oxtail and pearl onions and featuring perfectly toothsome pasta, it's a star. That being said, it was not the best dish we ate that night, which speaks volumes for my favorite. The standout for me that night was a braised beef dish (featuring meat from the increasingly popular 44 Farms) with local root vegetables, potatoes, mushrooms and jus. I find so many braised dishes these days feel too much like a pot roast, with much attention paid to the protein and so little love devoted to the vegetables. Coltivare never makes the garden ingredients take a backseat. The skin on the potatoes was perfectly crispy and the other vegetables had just a touch of golden brown color to enhance their flavor. My first few bites of the beef didn't fully hit home until I requested a serving spoon to scoop out some of that wonderful jus. After that, each bite was sublime. Rarely have I had a dish there that has missed the mark, making Coltivare one of my favorite restaurants in town.

I know I'm supposed to love you, but... I had such a confounding meal at critical darling Pax Americana. Having heard such great things about the restaurant from many trusted sources, I expected to be blown away and just was not. Much has been said about the noise level of the restaurant, and it is all true. It is extremely loud. I understand the brain trust at Pax is trying to remedy this but it does distract from the meal as a whole. Sound was not the only frustration that night. An acorn squash dish with pepitas just felt so much like fall that eating it in February seemed odd. The dish was also in desperate need of acidity. I happened to be there on the same night as Kim from Adventures in a New(ish) City and we had similar feelings about the experience. We ordered the same gulf snapper dish that Kim's table ordered, and both tables were served the dish with grouper as the fish in place of the snapper. Like Kim, we were given neither forewarning of nor explanation for why the main focus of the dish had been changed. Overall, I was not wowed by any of the dishes we ordered, though I do applaud the ambition of the talented staff. At the price point of the meal it is hard to find the motivation for a return visit anytime soon.
Corkscrew (from the previous, more successful visit) left, BBQ Godfather right

Oh, the meat. The wonderful, beautiful smoked meat: There were five barbecue stops this month, with a failed attempt at a sixth. I had a successful solo venture to Corkscrew, a lunch at the ever-improving Roegel's Barbecue, and survived Dallas' ice storm on Monday to enjoy a meal at Lockhart Smokehouse. Bryan from Texas BBQ Treasure Hunt, Scott from Texas Pit Quest and I went on a north Houston barbecue run. Our first stop was Southern Q, which recently relocated to a permanent space on Kuykendahl near FM1960, followed by BBQ Godfather in Spring with a hopefully grand finale at Corkscrew BBQ. Southern Q had excellent homemade sausage and boudin, and I can't wait to see how they continue to improve now that they've found a permanent home. This place is a great example of good East Texas barbecue. While we had all heard positive things about BBQ Godfather, none of us were blown away by the food on this day. Overcooked pork belly made the pork belly BLT special dry and uninteresting, ribs came out sauced and too sweet for all of our liking, and brisket showed potential but was not quite there yet. Unfortunately, Corkscrew sold out ten minutes before our arrival, cutting our trip short. It was fun eating and chatting with two respected barbecue hounds and we're in the process of planning another adventure for March.

Stay golden, Chinatown: Fu Fu Cafe, so known as a late night Chinatown dining option, is also one of my favorite lunch spots. Tasty and affordable, its expansive lunch menu always satisfies. Hot and spicy chicken is a favorite. Arirang, a Korean and Chinese place along Houston's Bellaire Asian corridor, was another stop this month. The menu is interesting enough, but having one foot in each of two very different dining cultures forced it to miss the mark on both for me. I've had much better Korean food and much better Chinese in the area.

Cold weather + hot tea wins the day: One of the things I love about where I work is how easily I can access both the Ghandi District and the aforementioned Chinatown. Bijan Persian Grill is a stone's throw away, and you'll find me there often. Kebabs and hot tea have been such a welcome combination on these cold days we've been having lately.
spicy chocolate and horchata swirl with the much ballyhooed brown butter waffle cone

You scream, I scream: Valentine's dinner got a final exclamation point when we decided to skip dessert at Coltivare in favor of Fat Cat Creamery. This place provides the comfort food version of dessert for me while managing to stay supremely interesting. There's nothing more nostalgic than soft serve, but no childhood memory I have includes the spicy chocolate and horchata swirl I enjoyed that night.

Full disclosure: This month I had 29 meals out and 2 substantial snacks, not counting tomorrow's trip to the rodeo cook off.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tipico Cafe: reconnecting with my Latin roots in a strip mall

As we pull into the parking lot, passing the Amish furniture store and pet groomer of which our dining destination is a neighbor, my wife and I wonder what we've gotten ourselves into. Having just moved to the north side of town, one of our first orders of business was to find local food. Tipico Cafe on FM1960 in Humble, which bills itself as Latin fusion (this F word makes me cringe), had been celebrated on local social media platforms so we thought we'd give it a try. The menu is small and eclectic and "fusion" is used as an excuse to throw some random things on the menu, but it was clear after the first visit that this place has a sense of tradition.

Looking at the menu as our server uncorked the wine we brought to this off-the-beaten-path BYOB family run restaurant, I was instantly attracted to the arroz con gandules, rice with roast pork. While I am half Puerto Rican, I did not grow up in a very ethnic food culture. My mother did all of the cooking, and she was not the Puerto Rican half. I did have an aunt that introduced me to the culinary traditions of Puerto Rico, and eating this dish immediately recalled those memories for me. Arroz con gandules is in fact the national dish of Puerto Rico. Flavorful rice accented with the earthy pigeon peas, and oh that pork. Beautifully roasted with melting fat and balancing just on the edge of too salty, this was not the work of an amateur. A couple of plaintains also adorned the plate, but try as I might I cannot make myself enjoy them. That being said, they were served properly crispy.

A Cuban sandwich, something that is far too hard to find around town these days, was well executed with chunks of that wonderful pork making another appearance in the sandwich. This was served with a great helping of rice and black beans that had been given just enough time in the pot to absorb flavor but retain their texture. Other visits have provided more pleasant surprises. A recent black bean, beef and poblano chili special was vibrant, arriving at the table with a touch of sour cream and an unapologetic sheen of grease floating at the surface. Similarly impressive were the chuletas empanizadas, breaded and pan fried thin pork chops. The breading was nicely seasoned and had a great crunch, and the pork itself remained juicy despite the unforgiving paillard style preparation. There are some major players in the Houston dining scene that could learn valuable lessons about cooking with soul from labor of love places like Tipico Cafe.

This is not to say that the small menu at Tipico is without its missteps. Appetizers have underwhelmed, and the recently revealed Tipico Valentine's Day menu that includes palak paneer and chicken kashmiri is confounding for a restaurant billed as Latin inspired, though chef/owner Manish Vadhar's part Indian heritage explains these menu choices. The desserts have yet to hit the mark for me as well, though I have not yet tried the rotating flavors of bread pudding Tipico diners have raved about. I was delighted to see that they serve a strong shot of Cuban coffee. There needs to be more of that on Houston menus.
poblano and black bean chili | strong, robust Cuban coffee
What makes Tipico such a fun experience is this whole disjointed package. I'm willing to overlook the occasional menu oddities because they're just that: quirks. It's not a case of a restaurant trying to be too many things or show off; it is simply a family making the food they love and want you to eat. With entree prices topping out at twelve dollars, these are risks I'm willing to take as a diner. Weekend evenings can get busy, so be sure to call in a reservation as the place only seats about forty.

Friendly, personal service combined with the kitchen's flair for Spanish cultures that are far too seldom seen on menus in this area makes this restaurant one of my favorite finds in the Humble area. Might they run out of a menu item early in the night? Yes. Might your plate have a small chip in it? It's possible. I wouldn't want it any other way at a place like this. The charm of Tipico Cafe may not be for everyone, but it is certainly for me.

Monday, February 2, 2015

food for thought: January 2015

I've decided to try something new for the site this year. I'm keeping notes on every meal or noteworthy snack I eat each month. First realization: my God, I dine out a ton. At the end of each month I'll put together a list of the good, the bad and the interesting. Here's what stood out for January:

prime beef rib burnt ends from Killen's Barbecue

The best thing I ate this month: Hands down, with no close second, the prime beef rib burnt ends from Killen's Barbecue. Patrick Feges of Killen's extolled that they "might be the single best bbq bite I've ever had." You can certainly make that argument for them. Great bark, immense flavor and a touch of sauce, this recent menu special is a perfect example of what makes Killen's such a unique and treasured part of not only the Houston dining scene, but Texas' barbecue landscape.

The worst thing I ate this month: As some of you may know, I recently relocated to the north side of town. I have done my best to sample plenty of the dining establishments in my new area, hoping to find some hidden gems and convenient places to add to my regular rotation. What I've yet to find in my new stomping grounds? Acceptable Tex-Mex. You would think this wouldn't be that hard to locate, but I have eaten some truly terrible meals in search of a decent fajita. This month I was subjected to the absolute worst version of refried beans I could ever imagine. Pureed to almost a bisque texture, these beans had no flavor and the mouthfeel of curdled milk. Sadly, they were just an accompaniment to a spectularly bland plate of beef and (rubber) chicken fajitas. Not to be outdone by the plate, the margaritas were straight-up grocery store bucket quality.

banana and Nutella crepe with strawberries from Melange Creperie

Confession: I hate to admit that it took this long, but I had my first Melange Creperie experience this month. I know, I know, where have I been? My wife has long been a fan and had been nudging me to see Buffalo Sean in action for quite some time. Somehow Melange became like that hit movie you didn't see the first couple weekends in the theater. Everyone tells you it's great, you just never buy your ticket. Finally, on a cold Saturday morning I made it down to the stand and was wowed by the food that many have raved about for so long. Delicious, affordable food cooked and served by the most pleasant fellow you're likely to meet. I've already had my second Melange experience. Sorry it took me so long, Sean!

glazed donut from Slough Dough Bake Shop

Opening Day: I made it down to Weights + Measures and sampled the Slow Dough Bake Shop on its opening weekend. It is of course unfair to pass judgement on a place as it opens, but I'm anxious to see how they work out the kinks. The glazed donut was fairly dense, but an unexpected addition of zest was a pleasant change from the usual donut. The bismarck donut had a very nice bavarian cream, but far too much of it that overshadowed any flavor one might hope to get from the pastry itself. The setup of the place is a bit confusing to a first time customer, but that's an issue I think can and will be swiftly resolved. Slough Dough has produced quality product for a long time and I look forward to seeing how this three-in-one business concept works out.

Local Flavor: By local, I mean my new area. After unsuccessfully searching for a bbq food truck, I ended up at a neighborhood greasy spoon, Bill's Cafe in Kingwood. Solid burgers and fries, not a frill to be seen. I'll be back.

Yelpers Love You, and So Do I: Recently named one of Yelp's "100 Favorite Restaurants" based on reviews, Tita's Taco House in Humble is a great cheap eat. While the absurdity of Yelp is well-documented, I'm happy to see this small, family owned place get some recognition.

Old Reliable: One of my lunch staples this month (and every month) has been Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe. The falafel and gyros are consistently good, and this small restaurant on Westheimer near Fountain View is run by one of the friendliest families I've encountered. Don't miss the complimentary chickpeas and pickled veggies.

Full Disclosure: All told, I had 25 meals out this month and 7 substantial snacks. There was a good mix of tried and true staples and new places, and surprisingly only four barbecue outings. We'll see what February has in store.