Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Couple of Venezuelan Places

Deli’s Café, 2950 S. Mason Rd @ Cinco Ranch Blvd, Katy

I’ve been interested in sampling Venezuelan cuisine lately and heard about this little place in Katy-zuela but it took me some time to identify and locate. It’s a funny name for a place; I presume the name of the owner is Deli. It's at a Shell station right up the street on Mason Rd. from Marini's Original Empanada House. The latter is Argentinian but Deli's is Venezuelan - apparently Katy is home to quite a few South Americans. You'd never know it until you see the menu but except for hamburgers (beef and chicken) and a Desayuno Americano, everything on the menu is Venezuelan.

I tried an Empanada de Cazon (shark) and a Pastelito con Queso Blanco. Unfortunately like most of the other Venezuelan places I've tried they were cooked in advance and kept warm. They were both good and warm but the empanada was really tough, having dried out too much, I guess, and tasting too much of the grease it was fried in. The shark was minced and the filling like the stuffing for deviled crab and I would have been hard pressed to identify it as shark if the menu hadn't said that's what it was. I was hoping for chunks. This is my first experience of the cazon and I've since found out it's prepared that way at Tuttopane. The pastelito was better, not as greasy tasting, a lighter dough than Marini's Argentinian empanadas.

They have a pretty full menu of typical Venezuelan food including some platos. Starting late in October and through the holiday season they will be offering hallacas, Venezuelan meat and vegetable stuffed tamales, plus Plato Navidad, which is described as tamale, pork, chicken salad and ham bread?

The place is very plainly decorated but clean; the staff was friendly and helpful and they were doing a good business when I was there in early afternoon.

Update: they now have a website.

Tuttopane, Artisan Bakery and Café, 13525 Westheimer, between Eldridge and 6.

This is one of three places listed as Venezuelan on b4 but it's a bakery with strong Continental, especially Italian, influences and a small lunch room with mostly Venezuelan items. I’ve stopped by three times.

On my first I had a cheese arepa, like a pupusa made with an arepa. About the size of the bottom half of a large hamburger bun with queso de mano, a fresh mozzarella like cheese. I wanted to try one with just the cheese but next time I'd get one of the meats as it was kind of boring; the cheese was not melted. What I did like was the arepa; all the ones I’ve had here have been nicely grilled to crisp them up which adds considerably to their appeal. I added a little Montauk's West Indian Salsa Flambeau before reading the label and seeing that it was made with scotch bonnet peppers. That livened things up considerably.

The pastries look interesting as did a boule of whole wheat bread; they had ready-made empanadas and pastelitos (the former made with corn flour, the latter with wheat - both can have savory fillings), plus a 'kolache' in a huge croissant and a Chilean empanada (baked, with ground meat). The cachapa is described as a corn pancake and can have various toppings for $6.50. The arepa was $3.95. They have sodas, including several South American sodas, and coffees. The sell several Venezuelan cheeses and other items. A very pleasant fellow welcomed all of my questions.

I stopped off a second time when I was out that way and tried a pastelito and an empanada.. The pastelito dough that is very much like a light, fried pie, round, about the size of the lid of a quart mayo jar but not quite as thick, a thin disk in appearance. The chicken breast was minced. I liked the dough actually a little better than the filling which didn't wow me but the whole thing tasted a little of stale cooking oil, leaving a little bitter taste in my mouth.

The empanada was much better, a corn meal dough, much like what is used on corn dogs, and larger than those from Sabor Venezolano (and less greasy). It was not fresh out of the fryer but was still very good and warm. He had only 2 varieties, one with beef, one with cheese. The beef was their version of Carne Mechada and I liked it better than Sabor Venezolano, also. The aroma which burst forth when I first bit into it was part of the reason. I remember being surprised after trying one of these at the truck to read that they were made with stewed, shredded skirt steak as I thought what I had was probably brisket flat. This was more likely skirt steak and had a beefier flavor and I liked the tougher, even slightly stringy texture better.

I also tried the Almond Tejas, which means shingle or tile. Very good.

On a third visit I tried the Pabellon Criollo, one of only two platos on their menu. This is supposed to be the Venezuelan national dish - Carne Mechado (shredded beef), caroatas negras (black beans), arroz, plantanos maduros, This is the first time I’ve tried this dish and I was a little disappointed; I didn’t think the carne mechada was as good this time as the time I had it in the empanada and the guasacaca - Venezuelan guacamole sauce - was not as rich and creamy as at the Sabor Venelozano truck.

I have yet to try any of their other pastries or large selection of cookies (Italian inspired) but they look very good. You can check them out for yourself in the gallery section of the website. They have Italian bread and baguettes ready to go every day as I understand it, other breads are special order, although they do have some out for display.

Every time I’ve been there they’ve had a steady stream of customers but all for take-out, I’ve been the only one to dine-in.


In addition to these two, I’ve had Venezuelan fare at Sabor Venezolano, the mobile vendor at Westheimer at Crossview, and at Arepas y Empanadas Dona Maria, a trailer in downtown Humble (both of these reported on in the International Roll Call of our mobile food vendors) and at the short-lived Pana’s Café on Scarsdale. I have yet to go to Miguelito’s. The best empanadas I’ve had were at Pana’s and Dona Maria’s, although the filling at the latter was not very impressive. They were the only ones who made the empanadas fresh to order instead of having them ready in advance.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Boogie's BBQ Now Open in New Location

UPDATE AS OF APRIL 15, 2010. The move has taken place and they are now open at the new location, 8035 W. Airport, # 115, but for the time being they are still cooking on the trailer. That means there's been no change in the quality of the Q, but hours have greatly expanded. The sign on the door says they're open from 10 - 8p Tuesday thru Thursday, until 10pm on Friday and Saturday, and from 12 to 5pm on Sunday. However, on their profile on they says they're closed Sunday and Monday. Call before driving over. There's also an expanded menu including hamburgers and more. There is no dining on premises but I did get a great burger with hand-formed patty there.

A few weeks back I had noticed a sign in a strip center on W. Airport that Boogie's BBQ would be coming soon. I stopped off today at the trailer on W. Bellfort and got the scoop. I was told the move will be 'as soon as the City okays the permits.'

The new Boogie's will be a sit-down restaurant and will be open more days per week - that's good news. It'll be in the 8500 block of W. Airport which is about midway between S. Gessner and S. Fondren; that's only about a half mile off the South Belt at the Gessner exit. It's a little bit farther away from me but still very convenient. I'll look forward to the opening and I hope none of the good things about their Q gets lost as they transition from that little wagon to a fixed pit location. There are folks who think their ribs are the best in the city and I think their home made pork and beef sausage is among the best 2 or 3 in the city; they're the best Q I know of on the SW side.

The man at the pit today told me he is from the North side of Houston and has been cooking for 38 years; the owner is from Chicago and has been cooking for 20 years. The guy hopes to be able to convince the owner to add a few more sides and desserts when they get settled in the new location.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Chapinlandia Bakery (Variedades)

6711 Rampart, just north of Bellaire

This is a new place - a small convenience store and bakery with a steam table breakfast and lunch in a mostly unoccupied, very new strip center. Chapina is a nickname for the people of Guatemala. The business card says Pan Calientito y Pasteles Frescos todos los dias.

On my first visit everything on the steam table except the refritos negros looked pretty good - Pepian de Pollo, Guisado de Puerco and fajitas. I went for the first, a large, split chicken breast in the Mayan/Mexican mole Pepian, made with pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.

This was a take-out meal I wish I'd gone to the trouble to plate for a more appealing presentation, to do it more justice. It was a very enjoyable meal; the mole was a bit thin and the chicken not as tender as I would have liked, but the vegetables in the mole, carrots, potatoes and green beans, were very good. I could have eaten a vegetarian version of this with just the vegetables, I think. The vegetables in the rice repeated those in the mole, diced carrots and green beans, and, again, the second side, which was a real surprise when I got home and opened the container - more carrots and green beans, stewed but not overcooked, served chilled in crema. This was not on the steam table and actually the hit of the plate, partially because I was relieved not to have gotten any of the refritos.

I also got their version of a chuchita, a snack tamale. In 4 of the 6 Guatemalan restaurants I've eaten at in Houston, it's usually larger than a Tex-Mex tamale, as large as the Mexico City type tamales at Dona Tere, but this was the size of a roma tomato. It seemed baked rather than steamed and was dry enough to pick up barehanded and eat, more like an empanada than a tamale. The tamale as finger food - a new one on me. The filling was tender stewed chicken breast and potato in a mild red salsa.

The salsa in the separate container was a dark brick red color and rather bitter, with a heat that faded very quickly. I couldn't identify the taste but perhaps it was the chiltepe or chiltepin which is said to be the most commonly used chile pepper in Guatemala. I'm not sure what it was supposed to be used on, perhaps the chuchita, although it was in the bag with the combo plate and I didn't get any the next time I got chuchitas.

The tortillas were handmade, fresh, thicker than Mexican corn tortillas.

On a second visit nothing on the steam table looked very appealing so I went for a tamale. I asked if it was a tamale colorado or tamale negro and I thought the server said 'black,' (very little English is spoken) so imagine my surprise when I got home. I think what she must've said was blanca, meaning a tamale made from white corn meal. This had a filling of stewed chicken breast and was very good. Guatemalan tamales sometimes include vegetables, raisins and nuts in addition to meats; this one had one solitary raisin.

The signs and menu indicate tamales and chuchitas are available every day but there were no chuchitas left by the time I got there on this occasion. I also tried some of their cookies - meringues and a peanut butter cookie, which were good.

On a third visit I just tried more of the chuchitas (there were no full size tamales); they were not as good as the first time and a little messier to try to pick up as finger food.

The business card also says Desayunos y Platillos Differentes Todos los Dias and that's the problem - with the varying steam table menu you don't know what's going to be available any given day. I'd certainly have the Pepian de Pollo again and I'd like to try the Guisado de Puerco but other dishes have not looked that good. There are some small tables for dining in and apparently real dinner ware is used. Desayunos are $3.49, platillos $4.99, chuchitas $1.50, tamales $3. There is apparently a $.50 charge for take-out.

Communication has not really been a problem and the staff has been very friendly.

The Pepian de Pollo inspired me to revisit Restaurante Guatemala which I had been to only once, just before Ike. I liked the mole itself better at that restaurant but the sides were better at Chapinlandia. I've updated the Guatemala review with a picture on the side bar.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pupusa Buffet - ?

5920-G Bellaire, esquina con Renwick

There are now several locations of this restaurant.

'Un Nuevo Concepto en Pupuseria' the business card says. I saw this and had to try it to find out what was up. A smallish place, very cramped inside, in a very new strip center amidst all that development along Bellaire. The sign on the building also says Cocina Latina so perhaps there was another restaurant in that space previously.

I wondered how the concept of pupusas off a buffet would jibe with Salvadoran pride in the fact their national treat is made fresh by hand? You pay up front, get a plate and go through a short line; it's not really a buffet, pupusas are dished out from covered bins by a server, then you help yourself to curtido and salsa (picante and no picante). There may have been refritos available, too, from the server but I didn't notice them. I expected them to be in the self-serve containers. Drinks are extra; tamales and I think tostones are also available for extra too.

You can see the pupuseras in the kitchen, as many as three at a time when I was there, patting out the pupusas which are held until needed, then cooked and passed to the front, so the time from raw dough to finished product to ready-to-eat product on your plate is not long, at least when the place is busy (it's been packed both times I've been there; in fact the first time I just peeked in and left as there were no seats available).

The curtido was crisp, well chilled, very vinegary, a little spicy, very good. I used so little of the salsa picante I didn't get enough of a taste.

I pointed to a pork and cheese bin; the server, who spoke no English (the cashier spoke good English) motioned to the pork/cheese/bean ones instead and I went with that, plus ayote y queso (squash). I don't know if there's a limit on how many you can order or if you can go back for seconds - that was all I wanted.

The pupusas weren't bad - there wasn't much pork in the first one but it was flavorful enough; the cheese and squash one was my favorite, plenty of cheese - I don't think I've ever had a vegetable pupusa before.

Unfortunately both were too soggy, both from the steaming effect of being in the covered bin a few minutes and from the juice of the curtido. It was impossible to pick them up and eat them out of hand as pupusas are supposed to be consumed, but that's a problem at many pupuserias anyway. Plastic ware is available although I had to search for the dispensers.

This is an interesting concept, useful perhaps if you're in a hurry and don't want to have to wait for table service at one of the numerous pupuserias in the immediate vicinity (4 that I know of). I was surprised to see it so busy both times given the proximity of other choices but convenience counts I guess. Both pupusas were certainly more flavorful than the frozen ones you can get at the supermarket.

Maybe they need to consider removing the covers from the bins on the steam table so the pupusas don't get steamed while waiting to be served?

The 'buffet' was $4.99, a tamarindo agua fresca was $1 extra.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Slavic Heritage Festival

Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Church, 1731 Blalock

I didn't make it to the first annual Polish Harvest Festival on September 12 but did get to the 46th Annual Slavic Heritage Festival the next day at the same location. Poland was the host country for the Heritage Festival this year and so far as I know the food was the same both days.

It was a rather small festival but a good crowd had gathered as I was leaving, just before noon. The lady next to the car in the foreground is wearing some traditional garb as is the child behind her. The colorful, large handmade flowers adorning the brow of one of the hay bales were also all over the festival grounds attached to poles like those visible here. The building to the right is the brand new, unfinished Pope John Paul II Parish Hall, the cornerstone for which was being dedicated as I was leaving.

The booths on the right included the Polish American Congress plus Croat, Ukraininian, Czech and Polish booths, then there were some handicrafts booths on both sides of the walkway. The food stands - the most important part - were directly ahead.

The line at the Polish food booth was long and there was only one lady working it; when I found out the Golabki had not yet arrived, I decided to go for the Ukrainian plate instead. The Polish booth was serving sausage and meat ball sandwiches on what was probably the lepinja from the Balkan grocery store, plus pierogi, which I never got a look at. They also had some plates of festive cookies, wrapped and tied with a ribbon that looked good but I didn't want to stand in line for just that.

The Ukrainian booth had three ladies putting the plates together plus one taking the money and moved much more quickly. For $8 you got 4 pirohy (mashed potato and cheese filling) with a very mild sour cream topping, onions, a cabbage roll (rice and beef), a portion of sausage and some sauerkraut, underneath the roll (which I'd guess was store bought). The menu said the Polish pierogi would be topped with fried onions but these were not fried; the sausage was very good, mostly fine ground beef and a little pork, I think, natural casing, very juicy. I didn't think it was the kielbasa I've had at Polonia nor bought at the Polish grocery store just down the street so I asked the lady and she said it was Eddy's, from Sam's Club! She said they all like it. Eddy's is based in Yoakum which is near Praha, the first Polish settlement in Texas, and all the famous painted churches, so perhaps there is some Slavic heritage in Eddy's background (the website doesn't mention it). The sauerkraut was very mild, with minced carrots and caramelized onions; I've bought a product called Sauerkraut Salad at the Polish grocery store that was like this although the onions were not at all caramelized in that product. It was a modest amount of food but good. The sauerkraut and sausage were the hits of the plate; the Polish place was supposed to offer 3 different pierogi including a mushroom and sauerkraut and a sausage one so I was a little disappointed but I assume there's something like that on the restaurant menu and I've been meaning to go there again, soon.

The barbecue booth was also doing a good business, though not as long a line as the Polish booth. They were dispensing Pilsner Urquell on draft and had some other bottled beers, I think. You could also get that traditional Slavic accompaniment to go with a good cold one, nacho chips.

I went back to the Ukrainian booth to get some pastries to go, a Poppy Seed Torte and a slice of a log called Karpaty. The lady said everything (except the sausage, obviously) at the Ukraininan booth was homemade. The poppy seed torte was very good, with a lemony icing with a hint of some fruit. The Karpaty - the name for the Carpathian Mountains in Slovak, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian- had cherries and cream cheese as the main ingredients.

There was also another table with lots of pastries and kolaches advertised, though I didn't see any of the latter. I wanted to get some of the Cernik, the Polish version of cheesecake made from a type of fresh cheese but I thought it didn't look like anything special so I passed.

I had wanted to get a plate of Bigos to go but the line at the Polish booth was longer than ever and there appeared to still be only one person trying to do it all (and getting lots of questions).

Admission was $3 which included the program which included some informative articles on Czechs, Poles, Croats and Ukrainians in Texas and Houston.

This was the west end of the church in the festival courtyard with the stage on the right, food tents and booths off to the left. I didn't remember to get a picture of the entrance to the church.

This was one of the crafts booths.