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.