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!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Kickstarters

On a chilly, rainy Saturday in January - a scene not uncommon for this time of year in Houston - a woman rushes up to the Melange Creperie food stand. After a quick perusal of the menu she places her order with Sean Carroll, owner/chef/entertainer/in-the-elements crepe slinger. Not wanting to brave the brisk and unforgiving wind, the customer heads straight back to the sanctuary of her heated sedan. The man affectionately known as "Buffalo Sean" does not have this option. For the past 5+ years he has operated strictly from an open air stand at farmers markets and at his normal spot at the corner of Taft and Westheimer, providing delicious takes on world cuisines using locally sourced ingredients that are folded into exquisitely crispy crepes. This being my first Melange experience (my wife's an old vet who had raved about the food for years), I stay out in the elements, mesmerized by the speed and efficiency with which Carroll works. Cracking an egg here, sprinkling herbs there, all the while engaging his enthusiastic crowd with humor and hospitality, weather be damned. With most of his menu usually hovering in the six to eight dollar range, Melange Creperie provides something for everyone at an extremely affordable price.

My second visit to Melange came shortly after the first, this on a much more pleasant day. The food was as spot on as the first trip, and Sean was as friendly as I remembered, this time with exciting news. He was on the lookout for a permanent, indoor location. Hearing of his story for the last few years via food media and meeting the man myself, I could not help but be happy for him and hope he would be able to fulfill his dream. Sean has scrapped and cooked in the Houston heat and in moderate rain (he will usually cancel if the weather is too bad), surviving the tough life of a mobile eatery much longer than many food trucks have been able to sustain. During our chat this day, he mentioned that he would be starting a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the project, and I immediately knew I would contribute. While I had never given to any sort of online business donation site such as Kickstarter or Go Fund Me previously, Sean's story of culinary perseverance struck a chord in me and I wanted to at least do a small part in helping him reach his goal. Besides, most of these types of campaigns come with some form of payback rewards. Melange Creperie's Kickstarter, for example, was offering a banana and nutella crepe for a $9 donation (this is usually a six dollar menu item anyway). The more you donate, the higher the reward. The Melange campaign ends this Friday morning, and as I write this on 9:00 PM on Tuesday night they have received nearly $30,000, twenty grand short of their funding goal of $50,000. For those unfamiliar with how this works, if the stated goal is not reached, the business does not receive any of the donated money and all of the funds are returned to the donors. Here's where to go if you'd like to help Buffalo Sean reach his goal: The Melange Creperie Kickstarter

This brings us to another Kickstarter. Houstonia Magazine posted an article about Maine-ly Sandwiches starting a Kickstarter campaign of their own. Before we get into that, a bit about the place. What started as a small family-owned sandwich shop in the Greenspoint area expanded to a second location on Shepherd and later a third shop in Kingwood and a food truck. While I have been to Maine-ly Sandwiches on multiple occasions and found the food enjoyable, some of the prices were hard to swallow. A half lobster roll, which is Maine-ly's claim to fame, was nine dollars on my visits. A quick look at their website shows this has now increased in price to a ten dollar menu item. That is a steep price to pay for half a sandwich, lobster or not. That the roll was much more bread than filling on all my visits certainly didn't make me feel any better about the price tag. Sure, Maine-ly offers things like a BLT or roast beef sandwich, but so do countless other sandwich shops. Their target market is people clamoring for northeast coastal favorites like the aforementioned lobster rolls and fried clams. Now let's go back to the Maine-ly Sandwiches Kickstarter. Due to what owner Buddy Charity admits was poor planning, the Charity family expanded to a bad location in Kingwood, a suburb that has yet to show a willingness to support many higher priced, non-chain restaurants. After taking out a loan with an absurdly high interest rate, Maine-ly quickly failed to draw crowds and was forced to close this location. I'm not an uncaring person; I have sympathy for any dreamer whose venture doesn't bear fruit, but I have problems with their crowd funding campaign.

Maine-ly Sandwiches is telling the general public that they're not great at the business side of the restaurant world, but is asking us to give them a hundred-thousand dollars to pay off their debts and help keep their other locations open. What are they offering in return for your generous donation? Well, let's just say the rewards make their regular menu prices feel much more reasonable. That ten dollar half lobster roll can now be yours for the low donation price of....75 dollars. But that is just a small annoyance to me in comparison to what Maine-ly Sandwiches is asking people to do. Many think Kickstarter campaigns themselves are unfair to ask of your fans/patrons. I don't begrudge you this opinion, but I am much more understanding to those trying get their dreams off the ground floor and make them reality than I am to those who have made poor decisions and are essentially asking for their customers to bail them out. If profit margins on twenty dollar sandwiches aren't large enough to keep a restaurant afloat, maybe it's time to rethink one's business model. I don't think I'm alone in this thinking as their Kickstarter currently stands at $110, well short of their lofty goal.

Though it may sound harsh, I just don't think Maine-ly Sandwiches gets the spirit of what a crowd funded venture is. Many of the hopeful business owners or current business owners like Sean Carroll are trying to provide a new or better service to their customers; Maine-ly Sandwiches is asking its customers to service the owners. Plenty of patrons that have already been doing that at some of their locations for years are being asked to give even more, and without much of a thank you in return. If you were to donate to one of these two Kickstarters, which campaign is more likely to get your hard-earned dollars: the one looking for its chance at the dream, or the one who has had their opportunities, made poor decisions, and now wants you to fix their mistakes?