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.