Friday, September 26, 2008

Junior's Texas Best Smokehouse

Mackay, TX, on US 59 between Wharton and El Campo

Junior’s is the retail outlet for H & B sausage company of El Campo. It’s a bit smaller than Prasek’s Hillje Smokehouse on the other side of El Campo, less touristy and with a smaller selection and menu.

The first time I stopped in I mostly window-shopped. I tried a sliced beef bbq sandwich and picked up some kolaches and a venison, jalapeno and cheese summer sausage. The sandwich was hefty, about 9 or 10 ounces of meat, but the meat was a little tough and underdone. A link sandwich or plate might be the better way to go here but if you’re hungry for bbq in this area I’d suggest you stop at Hinze’s up the road a piece in Wharton for some good pecan smoked Q.

They use a variety of meats in their summer sausages including beef, turkey, bison and venison. The sample I got was pretty good although I thought they used a mediocre cheese and the heat seemed more due to black pepper than jalapeno. Unlike a true summer sausage, refrigeration is required and I wound up tossing most of this after the power outage caused by Hurricane Ike.

On my second visit I also tried the elk jerky and some cheese and jalapeno survival sticks and venison survival sticks and more of the kolaches including a couple of Little Pigs, small sausage kolaches.

The best things I’ve had are the elk jerky ($31.99/lb) which was very light, not tough and chewy at all, the jalapeno and cheese survival sticks and the iced poppy seed roll which I’ve gotten both times (like a cinnamon roll but with poppy seeds). The kolaches have been good though nothing special.

The have a large variety of their own products - jams, jellies, pickled vegetables, seasonings, etc., plus products from Fischer-Wieser Farms and Fredericksburg Farms, both in Fredericksburg, and New Canaan products from Dripping Springs. I haven’t tried any of the Fredericksburg products but I’ve had products from New Canaan before and they are very good. The Jr.’s Texas Best Red Flame preserves I picked up (strawberry plus jalapeno) were more like jam than preserves and only so-so; the pickled sweet baby corn was very good though a tad too sweet for my taste (baby corn with pimentos done like bread and butter pickles).

On my second visit many of the meat display cases were empty for some reason. Jerky and survival sticks seem to be bigger here than sausages but I thought I remembered from my first visit more sausages to choose from. The had numerous frozen products including farm raised rabbits in cry-o-vac packs which looked like they had been marinated or seasoned; I wish I had picked one up. I did pick up some of their fresh smoked green onion sausage which was also available unsmoked and frozen. Compared to the similar product from Poffenberger’s Bellville Meat Market I picked up some months ago I wasn’t too impressed with this which seemed to have some filler material making it kind of mealy. It also had less of a green onion presence, though it looked very good.

Junior's Texas Best Smokehouse

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Al-Nile Restaurant and Bakery, continued

See the first part of the report here.

On two separate visits I had decided to try the Asida (the dish I had seen on my first visit; this is the spelling here) but it wasn’t available. This is the Sudanese version of fufu, made with corn or wheat or millet instead of manioc or yam (they make it with wheat here) so I finally settled on the Tagalia, the stew that is served with Asida. This was a much more likeable dish than the Mo Khia; it’s made with tomato and onion and oil, with minced, dried meat, thickened with okra powder. I had ordered pita bread to accompany this but was told it was best with the injera and when I objected the injera would fall to pieces was told that’s the point - you can eat it with you fingers, messy as that is, or tear up pieces of the injera and add them to the stew to dissolve and add body and flavor, then eat with the utensils provided. I remembered some Ethiopian dishes also involve dissolving injera in the wot so I followed the suggestion and had an enjoyable meal - could’ve eaten more of this one. I also remembered to add the Shata to liven it up.

On another visit they did agree to make the falafel; it took about 40 minutes. I got a sandwich, a large wrap with broken falafel patties and the basic salad with Shata on the side. I unwrapped it to add the Shata (it could have used some tahini or something, too) and on the second bite, it fell all apart - the pita had been scored for halving, apparently, and I should have wrapped it back up in the foil before picking it up. I wound up eating a falafel salad. I’ve also sampled the Sheya, pieces of lamb ribs in a spicy paste. I don’t know if this is served as a stew or what - the meat wasn’t fully cooked yet and was tough and chewy so I had gone for the falafel sandwich on that visit but that dish had promise.

The small menu also includes Comunia - stomach - they didn’t have that the time I asked about it, and Adas, a lentil stew that I think also has lamb in it. Both Taamia (their spelling) and Falafel are listed - Tamia is the Sudanese word for Falafel and these are the same thing though they’re listed separately - and there is Soup - a stock made from bones. After numerous visits and trying to learn the menu, I was told it’s an old menu and there are going to be changes but I don’t know what’s going and what’s staying. It’s been apparent on each visit that the place is evolving under the new ownership. A previous name of the business was Sudany Grocery.

I’ve sampled the Baklawa, simply made with phyllo and honey (there were no nuts in my large piece), simple strips of glazed pastry dough just called ‘cake,’ as was the cookie, and a Sambusa or Sanbus, a flat, triangular meat pie with a spicy ground meat and onion filling, more like a Paratha than a Samosa.

The best things I’ve had here are the Ful Medammes, Sambusa, Tagalia and Shata and the date filled cookie but I’ve only seen the meat pie once and some times the pickings on the table of pastries is pretty slim and, as is apparent, sometimes they can’t serve some of the dishes on the menu. It is also fair to say this is not a cuisine that carnivores will love.

The young man I’ve dealt with has been very helpful and pleasant, putting up with my barrage of questions (there isn’t much about Sudanese cuisine online); he speaks good English, having to pause only a few times to think of the word he needs to explain something to me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Tamale, a Kingdom for a Tamale

Lord have mercy on anyone who has to eat tamales out of a can. Or for that matter, the machine-made extruded variety so common at Tex-Mex restaurants.

Only if you’ve had a hand-made tamale can you understand how this simple peasant food came to be a staple in so many cuisines.

You can find some very good tamales in Houston even if you don’t have a tamale lady that comes by your place of work or the time or skill to make your own. Some of my favorites are from Alamo Tamale Co., the same company whose packages of machine made tamales are commonly available in coolers and freezers in grocery stores all over the area. Their store on Navigation, just east of downtown, offers a variety of the machine made tamales but they also offer hand-made tamales in either chicken or pork, fresh and hot out of the steamer. I prefer a very moist tamale and these are excellent but it’s best to get there earlier in the day. I do think sometimes they may slip some machine made ones in on you toward the end of the day, or at least some that aren’t that fresh. Get yourself some of the salsas they offer and a pile of the totally inadequate, flimsy napkins and chow down. There’s very limited accommodations for dining in the store - a stainless steel counter around the perimeter - so I usually make a dash for home (or a picnic table at a park) for my feast. Even with a 25-30 minute drive in traffic, I’ve gotten home and found my tamales still steaming hot.

They also have a few other hot items served from a buffet but despite the enticing aroma I’ve never tried any of them.

Gourmands rave about the tamales at Tamales Dona Tere and I can say I’ve made my peace with them but don’t really like them in a big way. These are Mexico City style, much larger than typical Tex-Mex tamales and I’ve usually found there’s an awful lot of masa compared to the other ingredients and they’ve also tended to be very dry, verging on caked texture. But some of them can be very good. Again, I suspect it’s best to go earlier in the day. Dona Tere seems to be establishing some outposts around the area; there are 3 locations listed on their website.

One online source says that there are over 100 different kinds of tamales common in Guatemala and I’ve tried the tamales at several Guatemalan restaurants and panaderias in Houston, ranging from the chuchita, a snack sized tamale that can be about as large as a tennis ball, to tamales that are a meal in themselves.

My favorite tamales in Houston right now are Salvadoran, specifically from La Roca, a tamaleria, taqueria, pupuseria and panaderia on Bissonnet across from Bayland Park. Salvadoran tamales differ a lot too, ranging from so dry a knife is required to the ones from La Roca which are very moist; some others I’ve encountered are gelatinous rather than creamy. They’re much milder in flavor than Tex-Mex tamales, so don’t expect any heat. They’re also larger, about the equivalent of 3 or 4 Tex-Mex tamales, and with larger pieces of either chicken or pork plus cubed potatoes as filling. The chicken and pork ones are steamed in banana leaves but the plain tamal de elote is nothing but masa and is steamed in a corn husk. It is usually served with a dollop of rich Crema Salvadorena, similar to French creme fraiche.

Neither these nor the Alamo tamales the way I like them are finger food or things you should try to nosh on while driving.

I’ve recently discovered that La Roca supplies tamales to some carnicerias, such as the Carniceria La Michoacan (at least location # 27, on Bissonnet near Dairy Ashford) and Nortenito, a carniceria on Bissonnet at Wilcrest. These are very good too, more like Tex-Mex tamales than Salvadoran and spicier, too, but they're only available at Nortenita on weekend mornings in limited supply.

Alamo Tamale

Tamales Dona Tere

My review
of a Colombian tamale at Las Delicias Panaderia.

My review
of Salvadoran tamales at La Roca.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


1900 Blalock at Campbell      MOVED TO 1780 BLALOCK (next to the new location of the Polish Grocery Store).

I had been to the Polish grocery store next door a couple of years ago when I first learned of it and enjoyed some excellent kielbasa and other items I picked up then and have been meaning to check out the restaurant ever since but it had completely slipped my mind until I came across the beer mustard I had bought while looking for something to put on a hot dog.

The restaurant is in a strip center, like many of Houston’s ethnic restaurants, but the interior is very distinctive, resembling perhaps a clubby bar. With the temperature outside in the upper 90s, the place seemed secluded and cool, a world away from the sweltering parking lot. I had the place almost to myself at 1 in the afternoon.

The meal started very well with a draft Pilsner Urquell, a very smooth beer, drawn with great care by the young waitress. While I studied the menu (I’d looked it over on-line but still hadn’t decided what I wanted), the complimentary rye bread with two spreads, a cream cheese and smalec, the poor man’s butter, made from bacon fat, lard, cracklings and onions arrived, then a cup of a complimentary potato soup. The spreads were good on the rye bread, the potato soup looked very good and it was, slightly sour with carrots, minced parsley, and, I presume, some sauerkraut.

I ordered the Polish vegetable salad, Salatka Jarzynowa, to start and Bigos, the traditional Polish hunter’s stew, for the main course. The salad is a Polish version of a Salade Olivier with potatoes, peas, carrots and other vegetables along with hard-boiled egg white and mayonnaise. I have grown so fond of the Olivier salad in the Russian style at Golden Grains, The Russian General Store and Phoenicia, all of which contain some meat along with the vegetables, that I was a little disappointed in this meatless version which also seemed quite bland. But when the Bigos arrived the salad proved a very apt complement to the sourness of the stew.

I was also a little disappointed in the Bigos at first, more like a hash than a stew made with both sauerkraut and fresh cabbage and various sausages and other meats. The sourness of it didn’t bother me, it was nicely seasoned, with bay leaf and, I think, juniper berries, but the meats had been cut in small dice and I would have preferred larger chunks of the excellent kielbasa.

The disappointments were minor and there are plenty of interesting items on the menu to choose from and overall I had enjoyed my first visit very much.

Because of the unexpected complimentary soup I was full long before finishing all the food and wound up taking some of the Salatka and Bigos home and was delighted to find they improved with refrigeration and with the flavors coming together. In particular the Bigos was much better whether cold or reheated. When I order this again I think I would get it take-out and save it for the next day.

As I left after my first visit, clutching my leftovers and a printout of the menu, the waitress came running into the parking lot after me to bring me my camera. I had gotten so entranced in the secluded lair of the restaurant and the meal I had totally forgotten I had it with me, sitting on one of the other chairs at the table. I really wish I had gotten a picture of that soup.

On my second visit my memory worked a little better and I got a picture. In the meantime I had studied the menu on line again and read up on Polish cuisine and went with very high expectations. The Sour Rye Soup (Zurek z Kielbasa i Jajkiem? - with sausage and hard boiled egg) in particular sounded awesome and I fully expected to be knocked off my chair by the dish but it proved to be no more sour than a soup with an added dollop of sour cream and I suffered a little let-down. It did however include a generous amount of the excellent kielbasa. The spreads accompanying the bread on this occasion included a whipped butter with a generous amount of minced garlic in addition to the smalec. I do wish the bread was served warm.

In keeping with my sandwich motif of recent weeks I went for the Breaded Pork Cutlet sandwich on rye (Kanapka Kottletem Schabowy). This proved to be quite a hefty sandwich with a thin portion of pork sirloin, breaded and fried, and served on rye bread with thick strips of onion, pickles, tomato and lettuce. It was unfortunately on the dry side and would have benefitted from some mustard or mayo; I tried using up the last of the whipped butter spread. I think I would have enjoyed the breaded pork cutlet plate served with sauerkraut and potatoes more than this sandwich.

But I left satisfied once again and determined to return to try more on the menu. Polonia is certainly one of my favorite ‘finds’ of the last couple of years.

Polonia, with a link to the Polish Grocery Store next door.

Restaurante Guatemala

3330 Hillcroft # N, just doors down from Jerusalem Halal Deli

I’ve been sampling the various Central and South American cuisines available in Houston for the past year or so and so far Guatemalan cuisine has proved to be the least interesting and adventuresome. This place may be the most accessible for those not familiar with the cuisine, however, it’s a bit more nicely appointed than your typical Houston hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant, well lit and friendly. The menu is very simple and unthreatening.

One online source says there are more than a hundred different styles of tamales known in Guatemala. One I’ve encountered at every place I’ve tried is the chuchita, a snack sized tamale that can actually be quite large. The first time I had this at Lo Nuestro I loved it, the shape and size of a billiard ball, moist, with a nice chunk of very moist and tender pork embedded in it. Everywhere else I’ve had it, including revisits to Lo Nuestro, it’s been about the size of 2 or 3 Tex-Mex tamales and sometimes so firm as to necessitate a knife and fork. The chuchita at Guatemala was very dry with a very dry chunk of chicken breast inside; the best part of it was the gravy-like salsa which accompanied it. Guatemalan food is not at all spicy, however. Other Guatemalan tamales I've encountered can be as large as 6 or 7 Tex-Mex tamales and constitute a meal in themselves. It is said to be considered rude to order more than one tamale at a time in Guatemala.

The only other tamales on the menu here are rice tamales, also an appetizer, which I didn’t try.

All of the staff I've encountered here speak enough English that I've barely had to call upon my limited Spanish. On my first visit the waitress suggested one of the chicken dishes, Pollo en Amarillo, chicken in a Mole Amarillo, which turned out to include carrots and chayote and was accompanied by plain white rice. i thought it was okay but nothing special and I concluded I had been steered me toward something very safe and Americanized but I have since learned this dish is a staple of the country's cuisine. It came with three individually wrapped tamales, called tamalitas, which the waitress offered to exchange for tortillas but I opted to stick with the tamales to see what they included. It turned out they included nothing - they were just masa dough, very firm, firm enough to be used as bread sticks although a little chunky and slippery for that purpose.

Recently after trying the Pepian de Pollo at Chapinlandia and being impressed by the dish, I decided to return to Guatemala and try their version. Pepian, or Pipian, is another Mayan/Mexican mole; it is based on pumpkin and sesame seeds. I found the mole at Guatemala to be more flavorful that that at Chapinlandia and the chicken - all dark meat here, white meat at Chapinlandia - tenderer and more flavorful but the sides at Chapinlandia were more satisfying. The vegetables in the mole were the same as in the Mole Amarillo - carrots and chayote, tender but not overcooked.

This time I opted for the tortillas as the bread side. They came wrapped in foil and very hot and falling apart from the steam. Even after they had been delivered the waitress asked if I wanted to exchange them for the tamalitas but I slightly preferred the tortillas.

Besides this place and Lo Nuestro I’ve had pastries and tamales from El Quetzal Bakery # 1 on Gessner and # 5 on Hillcroft, and # 1 Xelapan on Longpoint at Bingle, which used to be an El Quetzal location, and now at Chapinlandia Bakery on Rampart. Of those, the tamales at Lo Nuestro and Xelapan were superior while the chuchitas at Lo Nuestro and Chapinlandia were the best.

The desserts at Guatemala include Chocobanana and Chocopina plus Nuevo Tres Leches that are touted on a table card but I have not tried any of them. One dish I do want to return to try is the Kaq-ik de Pavo, a traditional turkey soup of Guatemala.

Note: this article was updated and revised 10/9/09 after a second visit.

Restaurante Guatemala