Sunday, December 19, 2010

Trudis Birria de Chivo

Beechnut @ Bissonnet

UPDATE APRIL 2015:  CLOSED.  ALL BUT THE BASKIN ROBBINS ON THIS CORNER IS BEING DEMOLISHED. AN ALDI WILL BE PART OF THE REPLACEMENTS.

It's been about a year and a half since I've been to this place. Out of sight, out of mind and I don't drive by this intersection as often as I used to, plus they've always been open very limited hours. In fact, for a long time after they started serving, I thought they had come and gone and I had missed them. Recently I made it a point to check them out again.

They serve only one thing - birria de chivo. Birria means mess or stew, I think, and it can involve any meat but around here it usually means goat and this place makes that clear. They're located in what was originally a Bambolino's Drive-thru Pizza by the Slice kiosk (wasn't that one of Ninfa's restaurant group ventures?) and were only open Friday-Saturday-Sunday from around daybreak until they ran out, usually by early afternoon. For such a limited menu, limited hours operation, they did very well.

There was only a handwritten menu, scrawled on a piece of cardboard and taped in a window and practically unreadable. Fortunately, the owner speaks some English.

There have been some changes. The piece of cardboard is gone, replaced by a bright yellow piece of poster board in one of the windows. If you stare at it intently, in just the right light, you can see that at one time it had writing on it, perhaps a menu, perhaps an advertisement for an eye doctor or something. The deck has been expanded and the hours and days of operation also.

They didn't recognize me from long ago; I was told they only serve goat and only tacos, plates or kilos. I got a couple of tacos to go, took just one bite, and started kicking myself for not having been back for so long. These are good tacos, among the very best I've had all year, tender stewed goat seasoned with the chile broth, with cebolla y cilantro, a small side of pico and a fiery, smokey salsa plus of course some lime. There are probably at least 2 or 3 chillies used (guajillo, cascabel, maybe something else?) Some day I will have to do a taste test between these tacos, the borrego from Gerardo's on Patton and the lamb barbacoa from Huarache Azteca Express in Stafford. It'll be close, I bet.

I went back again soon to get a plate. The weather was a bit nippy for me so I got it to go - a 32 oz cup about half full of meats and other pieces of the animal, about half broth. This came with the onions and cilantro added plus the pico and salsa. Tortillas are extra. The 'plate' comes two ways, 'dry' (also known as barbacoa) and 'wet,' also known as consomme. I've always gotten the latter but I presume if you get the former you do get some of the broth - you wouldn't want to miss that. This is snout to tail cookery; depending on what the ladle scoops up from the pot, you'll get interesting little bits and pieces of some of the rest of the animal; sometimes you get very little of the offal.

I always seem to have leftover tortillas from take-out from some taqueria or carniceria so I've never gotten their tortillas but as I recall, the price was $1. My tacos were $2 each, the plate was $8; it was enough for 3 meals for me with tortillas and another side.

I looked back at my notes and saw that back when, the menu offered platos chicas and platos grandes; I don't know which I got this time or maybe they only offer one size now.

They're open 6 days a week now, though still for very limited (and varying) hours. Closed Mondays, they open Tuesday and Wednesday at 4pm and are open into the evening. Other days they open around daybreak and are open until 2pm except Friday and Saturday when they stay open until 10 pm. During the week, or at least when school is in session, you go up to the window to order; other times, the family's children act as servers - you give your order to them and they pass it to the person in the window.

There are frequently other vendors on the deck, selling beverages or cds, etc. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, especially, the tables will be crowded with whole families chowing down on plates of tacos.

Be sure to dress appropriately for the weather.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

H-TownstrEATS - Mobile

Get Thee some of These:


Pork Belly Taco with lightly pickled cucumber and Butternut Squash Taco with cilantro yogurt dressing. Incredible. Best street food I've had in Houston and I've had some very good stuff from the competition.

This is a very promising new truck, chef-driven as they say, with a varying menu (I've only seen these two items a couple of times). They're doing it right in my book: moving around instead of picking one spot (Montrose, Village, Greenway, for instance) and making good use of Twitter and Facebook to keep fans apprised of where they're going to be and what they're going to be offering. Not to mention serving up some great food.


I was a little less thrilled with a couple of other offerings I tried, the Korean style sirloin beef taco with onions, cilantro and queso - this was not bad but a little unimaginative, perhaps in the toppings. I was hoping for another something mind-blowing but this was not that much different from other beef tacos. And the grilled chicken burrito/wrap (forget just what they called it) - this was very promising to behold but wraps always seem to me to be less than the sum of their parts and that was the case with this.

Both of these might have benefited from the application of some of the condiments available on the truck but I had already driven away. There are several bottled condiments and a couple in squeeze bottles, plus some chopped peppers and possibly some relish?

I've seen a great looking Ancho Chili Frito Pie, a pretty regular offering I think (glad to see somebody offering chili on one of these trucks). The bacon-wrapped hot dog looked over-dressed for my taste but I plan to give it a try. When I tried to move in on someone who'd chosen those two items to get a better look, he got very protective.

If you've been holding back from trying street food for some reason, one visit to this one will likely change your mind and it's a good place to start, but there are already several others of the same caliber and there have been several new ones hit the streets in just the last few weeks.

Facebook, Twitter

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

El Punto Criollo revisited

I stopped by Saturday at this cart's new location on Beechnut just outside Highway 6. I guess it's the same cart as I encountered a couple of months ago up near I-10 - this one does have a menu board on the side and a completely different crew but it's the same phone number.

I knew the empanadas were good so I tried the Patacones, the Venezuelan sandwich that substitutes mashed, fried plantain for bread. This was the juiciest, most flavorful carne mechada I've had with a little bit of queso that I failed to ask the name of, maybe some refritos, I wasn't sure, and that's about it. There are bottled hot sauces on the shelf on the side of the cart but you have to ask for the guasaca, the Venezuelan guacamole sauce, and I forgot to and it wasn't offered. It would have made this a bit better. It was a pretty hefty sandwich for $1, much more filling than a typical $1 taco, but it was pretty heavy in the stomach because of all the grease soaked up by the plantain.

This place offers a plate lunch of Pabellon Criollo, the national dish of carne mechada, black beans and rice; I've got to go back and try that.

A sign in the window advertised Hallacas (ayacas), the Venezuelan holiday tamale. I've wanted to get my hands on one of these for a couple of years but missed out so I grabbed one to take home and heat up later. It was a lot smaller than I expected, about the size of 2 or 3 Tex-Mex tamales - I was expecting something like the just-one-makes-a-meal nacatamales of Colombia or Guatemala - but it was awfully good. There was beef, chicken and pork plus green olives, capers and raisins and a pimento or sweet red pepper for decoration. Also unlike those others which are about 50% masa, this was only about 20% masa - it was mostly about the fillings.

These are said to be so labor intensive they're only prepared around the holidays and people stock up on them in the freezer; I did likewise, going back a couple of days later to pick up several more.

The Hallacas will probably only be available through the end of the year and are $5 each.

Since they are outside the city limits, they have a table and a couple of chairs under an awning for your heightened dining enjoyment.

My earlier review.

Sign up to be a SOFTie

Jay Rascoe of Guns and Tacos, J.R. Cohen and Dan Joyce have launched Save Our Food Trucks, an organization that's going to work with mobile vendors and the City to hopefully make some changes in the city regulations regarding these business which are believed to be some of the most restrictive. It's a worthy effort; the food truck movement in Houston has been crawling along like traffic in the Galleria area at Christmas.

They're going to be talking to the operators themselves to determine what they think the issues are. Hopefully we'll also see some explanation from the City about why some of these restrictions exist and then of course, the dining elite, ahem, should be allowed to sound off.

You can keep up with developments on the website.

Way to go guys!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tandoori Nite

7821 Hwy 6 South

I've been wanting to try this one for a long time wondering if we might have two great Indian mobile purveyors. Why not? We certainly have quite a few very good Indian restaurants, as I have been discovering in recent months.

I've been doing a bit more cooking and eating at home of late, experimenting with Indian and Pakistani dishes in hopes of familiarizing myself with the ingredients and methods so I can better appreciate what I have when I eat out. Recently when I needed some supplies I made an evening jaunt out to the big World Foods market on Beechnut just past Hwy 6 to stock up and stopped by Tandoori Nite to pick up some food to go.

There is no menu on the sides of the truck; as you approach, you are given a menu card (below) or a sheet which lists the dishes and prices. I decided on my first visit to get the Seekh Kabab Masala. They tried briefly to talk me out of it, urging me to go for the Chicken Curry or Chicken Tikka Masala. This of course made me want the Seekh Kababs even more.


I went with the chicken as opposed to the beef but I really had no idea what Seekh Kababs were, never having had them before. Think chicken meatballs - Seekh Kababs are made with minced meats, mixed with herbs and spices, most notably in this case red pepper flakes and coriander leaf. Had I known what they were I might have passed and that would have been a mistake. Many times, it's better not to know what you're eating until after you decided if you like it.

I saw the kababs being skewered and inserted into a tandoor-like cooker in one corner of the truck, then pulled out and removed from the skewer and put in a sauce pan with some prepared curry spooned in and other ingredients added while the dish was finished off. This was excellent and quite spicy. It's a Pakistani dish and it seemed to me that in terms of intensity of flavors and complexity of flavors, this equaled some of the great dishes I've had at Himalaya. Wow, that's pretty strong. I particularly liked the minced onion and slivers of ginger, still crisp/tender, and lots of them.

I really wish I could have seen more of what was going on. If I have one gripe about this truck it's that it sits up so high that despite windows on both sides, it's impossible to see much of what these guys are doing, and they clearly know what they are doing. I'd like to see more of it. I did see one fellow in the corner, busy inserting and removing skewers from the cooker and pulling out naan, parathas and roti with a hook but I never managed to see him using a naandle nor got a look at the oven itself.

I had anticipated this would be a one time thing just so I could say I covered the base but the food was so impressive I had to go back and see if my first impressions were justified. On a second trip I tried the Chicken Saag Wala, another dish I've never had before. Bone-in, skin on pieces of chicken (a drumstick across the top, a portion of thigh in the left corner) in a rich gravy with spinach and coriander, onions, some tomato, ghee, a little bit of cream, I think, and more. This was much more savory than I expected. I had intended to eat at one of the tables under the awning (they're outside the city limits and are allowed to provide seating) but it proved to be much colder out on the prairie than in my driveway closer in and I wasn't dressed warmly enough and had to get it to go again. Dealing with the bone-in pieces of chicken was a bit of a tactical problem (I got no utensils or napkins) but not a deal breaker. While this was not quite as impressive as the Seekh Kababs it was still a very satisfying dish.

In both cases I got about 2 cups worth; what's pictured is only about 1/4 to 1/3. I tried the naan on one visit and the tandoori roti on the other and paused to remove them from the foil soon after leaving but they were already a bit soggy from the steam of being wrapped up.

I highly recommend Tandoori Nite. I'm thinking if they do this well on the less well-known dishes, they probably do very good versions of the popular dishes like Tikka Masala and Chicken Curry, too.

I understand we have another Indian or Indo/Pak truck out on the north side, listed on my Roll Call of International Mobile Vendors and one of these days, when I head out to visit an old college chum up that way (Oklahoma City), I'm going to stop by and try it. Meanwhile, Tandoori Nite and Bansuri are much more convenient to me.

Most entrees are $7.99 with the vegetable curries at $6.99. The most expensive item is the Tandoori Chicken Charga at $12.99.

No Borders

A truck from Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

This is a recent addition to our growing list of gourmet food trucks in Houston offering some of the specialties of Sylvia's famous Enchilada Kitchens with a little twist, mesquite smoked or grilled meats. I've caught up with it twice for lunch along Washington near Durham.

I had been hankering for some enchiladas for some time and failed, after several visits to taquerias both famous and obscure, to satisfy my needs so on my first visit to No Borders I went for some of the enchiladas, specifically the Puebla, chicken with Sylvia's mole poblano. Thanks to Houston's regulations prohibiting seating at a mobile vendor, I grabbed my stash and made a beeline for Memorial Park a few minutes away where I noshed contentedly. There are no sides accompanying the enchiladas, just two enchiladas smothered in a rich, velvety, chocolaty mole. I immediately loved the smokiness factor. These were some of the best chicken enchiladas I've ever had, bar none, brick-and-mortar or mobile or whatever.


A couple of weeks later I tried a couple of the tacos, a beef fajita on Sylvia's thin, home-made flour tortilla with onions and cilantro and a very modest portion of ranchera sauce, and the turkey with mole poblano on corn. The flour tortillas are excellent, of course; the corn, though apparently store bought, are very good, too. I went with the turkey, the traditional meat for mole poblano, I think, and eschewed the onions and cilantro; the result was not as satisfactory and I'd get those condiments next time, I think. It was a little awkward handling that taco with those thick slices of turkey, also.

I was satisfied after the enchiladas, owing to the rich mole and a very generous amount of chicken, but was still hungry after the two tacos. Both meals were $6. The only side is roasted corn on the cob and I wish they would add some other possibilities, rice and beans, pico de gallo?

Still, this is a welcome addition to the food truck scene in Houston.

They're operating very short hours; be sure to check No Borders on Twitter before heading out to try them.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Krishna Chaat House

5959c Hillcroft, 2 doors down from Udipi Cafe (co-owned)


I tried Krishna Chaat House in my quest for vadas and was happy to find several on the menu. I went for one that sounded interesting, Sambar Vada, and was rather surprised by what I got. This was my beloved Mehdu Vada ('lentil donut') served in sambar, with a cup of rasam and two chutneys on the side. Actually, I've learned there are numerous variations of the donut shaped vadas, not all containing lentil, but I believe this one did. The sambar was thick with vegetables cooked to a very soft state - a big chunk of potato, some sort of squash, onion, etc. The vada, plumped up somewhat by the liquid, was like a dumpling and I couldn't help thinking I was eating something like a vegetarian version of chicken and dumplings. This is a snack? More like a light meal for me and it was real comfort food. Well, soporific, actually, I went right home and had a great nap. There is also a rasam vada on the menu.

Across the top of the vada was an ingredient that baffled me. Tough as a matchstick it seemed to have no purpose other than decoration and wound up on the edge of my plate. I encountered the same thing in a cup of rasam at Shiv Sagar across the street, a couple of doors down from Himalaya, the next day. I have since learned this was Moringa. No, that's not a dance number by Xavier Cugat, it's a vegetable also popularly known as drumstick, sort of an okra lookalike. The tough exterior encloses a softer interior that is consumed like you would eat an artichoke leaf, by scraping it with your teeth. The taste is said to resemble artichoke, too, although I couldn't vouch for that since both times it wound up on the edge of the plate. Next time, I'll know better.

On a second visit I went for the Khasta Kachori, already reported on here. I also tried one of the two beverages on the menu that I've never had before, Masala Lemon Sharbahat. This comes in the masala, salt and sweet varieties and is apparently Krishna's spelling of what Wiki shows as Sharbat, a fruit drink made from the leaves and flowers of a fruit tree instead of the fruit itself. You can see a tiny portion of the glass in the picture on the other post.

I had picked up a copy of a take-out menu to study and went back again to try one of their combo plates. These are no longer listed on the menu board or the menu card at the counter but I inquired about them and they sent one out, the # 1. This is offered as a Dal, 2 Sabjis, Raita, Rice, 2 Rotis, Papad, and Chaas or Tea, for $6.95. I also got a sweet (at the top of the platter) and pickle (at 2 o'clock).

The Mixed Vegetable Curry at the bottom of the platter included peas, green beans, carrot and baby limas, among other items, and was very rich. Like most dishes here and at Udipi, it was mildly seasoned. The Eggplant Masala included two whole eggplant that were very minimally cooked, requiring a knife and fork to eat. They had a texture more like a raw apple or under-ripe pear, quite unusual for eggplant. This was the spiciest dish I've encountered here.

The sweet was Payasam, the South Indian term for what in the North and Pakistan is called Kheer. This is usually translated as rice pudding but is typically not much like what is called rice pudding in the US and can be made with something other than rice. In this case, it was made with vermicelli (seviyan) and was drinkable. I'm really getting to like this Indian practice of including a sweet as part of the meal, to be consumed along with the meal if you like, instead of waiting until after the meal.

But I don't get Indian pickles; they are very, very sour. I sampled the ingredients but still don't comprehend how these are supposed to complement the rest of the meal and mostly it went uneaten.

The other beverage I wanted to sample was Chaas. This is usually described as Indian buttermilk. I've been privileged to have a couple of correspondents helping me to learn about Indian foods; one of them, Jenni, from the UK, points out it is not much like the cultured buttermilk we're familiar with in the US. This was readily apparent visually and on first sip. It was about the consistency of low fat milk. It is supposed to be the liquid left over when yogurt is turned into butter. Jenni informs me butter is made from yogurt in Indian, not sweet cream, and also says that many places cut corners in making chaas and just thin out yogurt with water, as lassi is made. After also sampling this also at Bhojan, I am inclined to think Krishna does a more authentic version.

I have been enjoying yogurt drinks for many years and like buttermilk, too, and this is a real keeper. I've had yogurt drinks with mint or other herbs but never coriander leaf before so I've learned a new trick, though I'll have to make do with thinned down yogurt at home for the base. As you can see, you not only get some of your daily requirement of dairy fulfilled with this drink but also some of your daily requirement of veggies - it was thick with chopped coriander leaf.

The metal tumblers are a real plus, too, noted for keeping beverages cool and making them taste cool, they sure beat drinking out of a styrofoam or wax-coated paper cup.

I believe Krishna is closed on Tuesdays. A copy of the Udipi Cafe menu is on the counter so perhaps it's possible to order anything off the Udipi menu here? At 5:00 pm, as Udipi is switching over to menu service, Krishna offers a small vegetarian evening buffet.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Comida Tipica Hondurena - El Caracol - Mobile

Currently located at Bissonnet and Hillcroft

For some reason, Honduran operators prefer buses over trucks but this is a smaller one than the other units I've seen, although it does have a bigger menu.

The man on board was very friendly and spoke good English. He wanted to make sure I understood this was not Mexican food. I went for the pastelitos, Honduran empanadas, and a Balleada Sensilla or simple balleada. Sopa de Caracol, conch soup, is supposed to be Honduras's national dish but the Balleada surely must be the national snack food. I fell in love with them on first bite - a simple, always fresh-made, four tortilla, folded over a simple filling of refritos rojos, crema and queso. I've never bothered with the more elaborate creations because this is so satisfying.

A glob of fresh masa dough was pressed out right in front of me on the same sort of tortilla press I have at home, then teased out to about 10" in diameter. Just as I thought he was going to start tossing it in the air like pizza dough, he lightly greased a hot griddle and slapped it down. It began to puff up almost immediately. It was turned over after a couple of minutes and quickly browned on the other side, picking up a little charring. Then a half cup of refritos rojos was smeared on one half, crema was drizzled over it all and, unfortunately, powdered cheese was sprinkled on. Honduras is not noted for it's cheeses; it's probably a good thing they typically use Mexican cotija or even powdered parmesan. The balleada was folded over, wrapped in tin foil and set aside while the pastelitos were deep fried.

They came out of little paper pockets, i.e., were not freshly made on-board, but whether they were store bought or not, I don't know. These were deep fried (4 of them), then placed in the plate, freshly grated cabbage, grated on a mandoline right in front of me and a generous amount of close to 2 cups, was layered on top, some warm tomato sauce was ladled over, a little crema was drizzled, I think, then the ubiquitous Honduran condiment which another Honduran restauranteur has confirmed is nothing but mayo and ketchup was also drizzled on, fortunately with restraint, and the ubiquitous beet-red pickled onions are added and I was good to go.

Some Honduran places slather on the mayo/ketchup sauce with abandon, the way mediocre barbecue joints pour on the sauce to make up for mediocre meat, so I'm always glad to find a place that applies it with restraint - a little goes a long way.

As with anything involving beans, the quality of the beans matters a lot; I've had some outstanding frijoles rojos at Salvadoran places, where they use a special variety, I think, called silk beans. This balleada was not the best I've had, nor the worst; it certainly was large, but the beans were a little bland. These things can vary also when American style sour cream is substituted for crema, overwhelming the rest of the ingredients, and cotija is used instead of powdered cheese.

Generally, Honduran food, which very closely resembles Tex-Mex in some ways, is very bland, one of my biggest complaints. The best pastelitos I've encountered had a nicely spicy mix of ground beef and rice, but these, with a filling of rice, ground beef and potato, were quite bland.

The bus disappeared right after I had visited it the first time but I happened across it a couple of weeks later at a new location on Bissonnet at Hillcroft. There was a woman on board who spoke no English. I tried the Honduran tacos, another of my favorite Honduran foods, similar to a Mexican flauta with a rolled flour tortilla filled with either shredded chicken or ground beef. These are great when the tortilla is not too thick, I think, and there's a better balance of meat to tortilla. The tortillas in these, which were pre-made but made on the bus, were as thick as huaraches. I didn't care for them much at all. The woman also was of the slather-on-the-ketchup and mayo- persuasion and I couldn't think of the word for Enough! in Spanish quick enough.

One thing I did notice right away about this bus's menu is the Pollo Frito con Tajadas, i.e., banana chips. I've tried this at every Honduran restaurant I've visited and always been pleased with the sides but very disappointed in the chicken itself; it has always come out very tough, almost unchewable in one instance, so I don't know if I'll ever try it here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not all Kachoris are created equal

I have been eating a lot at Shri Balaji Bhavan on Hillcroft lately after hearing about it for some time, trying out some of the lesser heralded offerings as well as the very popular ones. I've been interested in Indian snack foods like pakoras and vadas and read about kachoris but hadn't yet had one. When I found one on the menu, the Pyarelal Kachori, I had to try it. I thought I understood kachoris to be small, fried, filled dough snacks, a sort of Indian snack-sized empanada, so I was quite surprised by what I got.

I haven't been able to find out anything about this, such as whence the name. It is sometimes referred to online in the possessive, Pyarelal's Kachori. This was a flaky puri like shell, about 4.5 inches in diameter, stuffed with channa (chickpeas) and potato, with a peanut or two and moong gram I think, garnished with chopped tomato and onion, drizzled with a date/tamarind chutney and further garnished with puffed rice and coriander leaf. Far from being a snack, it was quite filling, practically a meal in itself. I tried picking it up to eat out of hand, thinking that was the way you were supposed to eat kachoris, but didn't get very far with that. I had to try.

Wishing to avoid the long lines (and wait for the kitchen) on weekends at Shri Balaji, I trundled down the street to Krishna Chaat House, next door to and operated by Udipi Cafe. I've never been in here before, thinking that 'chaat' indicated they just offered those snack mixes with sev, nuts, papri, etc., which I prefer not to keep around the house, so I was surprised to find a small diner-like place with booths along the wall. There is a big menu board on one wall and the complete Udipi Cafe menu is available on the counter at the front so apparently it is possible to order anything from the sister restaurant here. Here I discovered another kachori, the Khasta Kachori. Now I was pretty certain from what I had read online that this would be the snack-sized, pop-em-in-your mouth type.

But nooooo. This one was even more of a festival for the mouth as well as the eyes with a layer of potato topped by a mound of channa in a curry paste, garnished with onion and tomato, two chutneys and yogurt, coriander leaf and sev, sort of a dahi puri writ very large. I gobbled it up forthwith, grinning all the way.

I have now learned from a couple of very knowledgeable sources that there are indeed two types of kachori. Originally, it was a small snack involving a bread-like dough, filled with various fillings and fried, said to be a substantial bite and capable of being held for weeks without refrigeration (I haven't tried this). More recently a new type of kachori appeared, first in Delhi but spreading from there, very popular except perhaps among purists. This involves the leavened, flaky, puri like shell, cooked in hot oil so it puffs up, then stuffed (or overstuffed) with fillings, dressed and garnished. These are known generically as Raj Kachoris or Khasta Kachoris, khasta indicating the use of a shortened dough or just meaning flaky.

And I still haven't found any examples of the original type of kachori. There do appear to be some listed on the menu for Bhojan with fillings associated with the original style instead of the raj kachori so I will have to try them out.

And in the meantime, I still have this thing about Vadas.

Edit: for more on vadas and kachoris, see Quick Bites VI

Beep-beep - it's a Bustaurant

The latest development on the scene in the mobile food genre is the Bustaurant, a restaurant on wheels, already roving the streets of LA and SF. The first one was said to be in London utilizing a double-decker bus.

I wonder if these would be legal in Houston? As I understand it, no seating for diners can be provided (for a mobile unit or brick and mortar restaurant) unless a restroom is also available. So, if one of these buses has a potty/lavatory on board, would it meet regulations?

I have seen a handful of units in Houston, trailers and buses, that have dining compartments but have never seen one in use. I was struck when I visited Austin last winter to see not only the hugely popular gourmet trucks on South Congress and South First had eating areas but even isolated, road-side taco trucks would have a table and chairs. Operators here can't provide that amenity nor even be parked close to seating such as a picnic table in a park.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

La Vina Cuban Restaurant

9419 Richmond

LA VINA HAS MOVED BUT IT'S STILL IN THE SAME SHOPPING CENTER, JUST ACROSS THE PARKING LOT FROM ITS PREVIOUS LOCATION.  IT LOOKS LIKE A LARGER SPACE.

I've stuck my fork in some pretty awesome pork this summer. In fact pork dishes have been among the most impressive meals I've had all year - the Pernil at El Mofongo Boricua, the Masitas at this place and now the Pernil Asado.

I have to give credit where it's due. Although I'd been to this place for the Cubano sandwich, it was a review on 29-95 that prompted me to return.

Apparently, the restaurant has changed names and is now La Vina again - it's on the window, the menu, the receipts and the to-go menu. The names of the dishes have also changed. Earlier this summer I had the Masitas Fritas which is like the Cuban version of carnitas and it was far better than the overwhelming majority of carnitas I've had in Houston.

Recently I returned to try the Pernil Asado with Moros and Yuca Mojo. I didn't like this as much as the Masitas; it wasn' as juicy as the Masitas and there was some bitterness from too much charring of the meat but it was still quite good and the mnced garlic garnish was a treat. The black beans are excellent here but I did not like the mixed beans and rice as much as having the two served to savor separately. The yuca was something of a revelation: I'm not sure I've ever had them simply boiled (with garlic) like this and I definitely like this preparation better than fried.

I've also enjoyed the Batidas de Trigo and Mamey here and IronBeer. I had the Cubano sandwich once and remember thinking it was just about as good as any I've ever had and then thinking 'So What?' Sorry, but I just haven't been able to get excited about this sandwich and I've had it at about 7 or 8 places around Houston over the years.

I didn't get a picture of the Masitas for some reason but there's a good one in the 29-95 review by John Hook.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sweet n Namkin - Revisited

10736 W. Bellfort - CLOSED

I first reported on this place several months ago, shortly after it opened as primarily a sweets and snacks shop. It's undergone some big changes recently and now offers a menu of vegetarian dishes everyday plus some specials and I thought it was worthy of an updated report.

The restaurant is co-owned with Salaam Namaste next door; a door connects the two but they maintain totally separate kitchens, both 100% Halal with Sweet n Namkin also being 100% vegetarian. The two kitchens are to assure that there is no 'hocus-pocus' about vegetarian dishes being prepared in a kitchen that also prepares meat dishes, I was told. It is okay for customers to take food from one side to the other, however, to eat with friends.


There is a menu of about a dozen vegetarian offerings every day now plus specials four days a week. On Wednesday, the special is Biryani, on Saturday, a Gujarati thali, pictured above, and on Sunday Halwa Puri. I think the other special is either Thursday or Friday but I can't remember what it is.

I know of only one other restaurant in Houston offering Gujarati dishes, Bhojan on the SW Freeway; I haven't been there in over a year now but I have had excellent food there. They ply you with a very good buffet and an endless supply of fresh, hot roti. Here, the special is a fixed thali consisting of a yogurt curry, warm and spicy with green onion and cilantro, an eggplant curry (brinjal) on the left, even spicier, and a third curry in the background with squash (zucchini) and split yellow peas that I could identify; this one was not as spicy as the eggplant (these components may vary). Besides the rice and onions, there is a warm, fresh, melt in your mouth pappadum and two fresh warm chapatis in the background (both this place and the one next door just refer to chapatis as tortillas in explaining them but they do make their own on premises). There is a wedge of lime and a piece of Laddu, a sweet. Lurking behind the onions is a pickle that I didn't get the name of and could only identify one ingredient, a 1" long, 1/2" wide piece of ginger root. I understand this is to be added to the other dishes as the diner sees fit but I sampled it but didn't use it.

This was excellent and much spicier than anything I've had at Bhojan. I've been asked regularly whether I wanted something spicy or medium but I can't remember if I was given that option on this dish.

This was more than enough to fill me up but I also had a watermelon lassi. The lassi here are thin, closer in thickness to an aguafresca than a milk shake. I can appreciate both this and the very thick ones like the ones I had at Bhojan which practically require a spoon; this one was tasty and thirst quenching without being so filling.


The vegetable biryani was a beautifully colorful and aromatic dish with long grain rice, peas, green beans, tomato, corn, potato, shredded carrot, and cauliflower plus whole clove and cardamom, pieces of cinnamon and some apricot to add a little sweetness, plus other spices including chile powder. As with the thali, this came with a cup of slivered onions on the side.


Several items are offered here that are also offered at Bansuri, the famous Indian food truck around the corner. I had never had the Dahi Puri at Bansuri or anywhere so this is the first time I tried this dish and I loved it. The thin mini-puri shells are filled with chickpeas, a creamy, whipped yogurt, sweet and spicy chutneys, and topped with a generous heap of sev, the little fried noodles. I got it spicy and my mouth was happy for minutes after finishing it off. These things are as much fun as a loaded ice cream sundae with its contrasting flavors and textures of the ice creams, fruits and nuts and syrups. In this case, it's the creamy yogurt, the slightly firm, slightly chewy, slightly salty chickpeas, the sweet date/tamarind chutney and spicier cilantro/jalapeno (you can see them through the thin puri shells) and the crunchy sev. You're supposed to put a whole one in your mouth but I found them a little large for that and, anyway, I liked the process of biting into one, letting it begin to drip and ooze, and then putting the rest in my mouth. I used the spoon to finish off the Yogurt Chutney Noodle soup that covered the bottom of the plate when I was finished and I did go through a heap of the flimsy napkins.

I had a salt lassi with cumin with this, only a little salty but with about two tablespoons of cumin seeds; again, very refreshing and thirst quenching without being that filling.


This place subscribes to the Little Bigs philosophy of sliders - sliders are mini-sandwiches in theory only. These Dabeli were much heftier than the ones at Bansuri and were very good. The patty, mostly potato with some onion, achieved that color by the incorporation of all the spices including red and green chile powders, cilantro, cumin, and others and perhaps also the chutneys - it wasn't clear that there had been any chutneys applied to the buns. The nuts looked like almonds but didn't taste like almonds to me; I was told they were hazelnuts. There was a generous number of nuts in each sandwich and there were also like-sized pieces of potato and onion in the patties.

These were very tasty (and spicy, per request) but unfortunately they use store-bought large dinner rolls and they were a little dry and very bready; I also would have liked a little more crunchy sev under the hood.

There is a variety of ready to eat pakora every day including potato, spinach, onion, jalapeno strips and whole jalapeno, plus samosas and a puri that I think is a Choley Puri. The whole jalapeno pakora is only partially seeded and deveined and has chat masala added for heat, the jalapeno strips, I believe, are seeded and deveined. I've liked them all but they are not crispy. These come with the tamarind chutney with date and a cilantro/jalapeno chutney.

As detailed before, there are also shakes, lassi, fruit juices and fruit cups, plus kulfi and falooda. (My earlier report on Sweet n Namkin is here).

I think this place is a real neighborhood gem. The young woman who runs the front of the house is always so cheerful and pleasant and helpful and a pleasure to deal with. She keeps insisting I have to try the Halwa Puri, a traditional Pakistani Sunday breakfast, served all day, so I'll have to go in to try that sometime.

They are currently open from 3pm to 11pm, Tuesday thru Friday, until Midnight on Saturday , and 10am to 10pm on Sunday. I'm hoping they will expand the hours to include weekday lunches. Salaam Namaste, next door, is open much longer hours.

Friday, September 3, 2010

All Bengal Sweets and Restaurant

13438 Bellaire Blvd.

UPDATE:  THE OWNER HAS OPENED ALL BENGAL SWEETS COFFEE SHOP, 5901 HILLCROFT IN THE HILLCROFT SHOPPING PLAZA, THAT IS GETTING VERY GOOD REVIEWS.

This restaurant has been in operation previously on Cook at High Star and only recently moved to this location. I had never heard of it before and had just gotten a glimpse of the sign passing by one time and went back to try it, not realizing I was going to be able to get anything more than sweets and snacks. The menu, however, includes a few curries, some tandoori and grill items, and three biryanis.

Space is shared with a small (2 aisle) Indo-Pak and Bangladeshi grocery store and Halal meat and fish market but the menu here says it's the 'one and only authentic Bangladeshi cuisine.'



I started with a few snacks, which were all ready-to-eat, a couple of onion pakora, a fish chop, a samosa and a dal puri. The pakora were maybe the best I've had, aromatically and taste-wise very oniony, both crunchy and chewy; it's been my experience that pakora look great but too often are more comparable to limp french fries than good, crisp ones. That's not the case here. The fish chop was interesting, sort of reminiscent of a fish croquette in a high school lunch room. The samosa was almost the equal of my favorite in town, the excellent, huge ones at Savoy on Wilcrest. This was much smaller and not quite as complexly seasoned or piquant but benefiting from some bits of potato and whole peas instead of just a puree inside. The dal puri was like others I have had, no where near as spectacular tasting as it was looking, unfortunately. With these I got a simple jalapeno 'sauce' that didn't appear to be anything more than pureed jalapeno,without much heat.

I got a Pakola with this, a Pakistani Cream soda, at least in name. It tasted nothing like any cream soda I've ever had before, completely lacking in vanilla as far as I could detect. One article online calls it an ice cream soda but the label on the can itself only calls it a cream soda with citric acid and 'cream soda flavours.' It wasn't bad but perhaps something of an acquired taste, kind of like Dr. Brown's Cel Ray Tonic is for some people. It was made with real sugar and is the color of lime jello. They also have a Pakola Lychee soda.

I took a little stroll thru the tiny grocery where every available space was filled with merchandise, there were freezers, a small produce rack with an interesting, baseball bat-sized gourd/squash, bulbous on one end, what I guessed were bitter melon and a few other items. I marveled at the list of fishes I'd never heard of on the list of available fishes on the wall of the small meat and fish department. I picked up a package of spicy Chanachur, the Bangladeshi name for Bombay Mix, and some Black Onion Seeds from the spice selection.


I asked one of the proprietors, who had shadowed me closely, answering my questions, what his best sweet was and he suggested the Chom Chom. I got one of those (on top in the photo) and another one that I thought looked awfully good which is known as Kala Jamun. That's a saucer sized plate, by the way.

These were simply incredible. I'd had Cham Cham before at another sweet shop but it was no where near as good as this one; it had held a hidden pocket of syrup that burst when I bit into it and drizzled down my chin and on to my shirt. Bangladeshi sweets are said to be characteristically 'wet' and these were but not drippingly so like that one. Biting into these or applying pressure caused the syrup to swell to the surface but it was reabsorbed when pressure was released in a nifty and intriguing display of culinary engineering. They were almost overwhelmingly sweet, as sweet as any honey-laced baklava I've ever had. The second example had an exterior layer, a thin crust if you will, providing a little more textural complexity, and a beautiful, rosy red interior which I wish I had taken a picture of. If I understand correctly, the Kala Jamun is produced by deep frying the Chom Chom. Besides these two, the only ones I've tried, the Laddu looks awfully good.

These have become my new favorite sweets from the Subcontinent and I have to practice self-restraint and moderation around them.

There is a variety of syrups and herbs and spices used to flavor these, principally rose water and saffron, I think, but more intriguing to me is what they're made of. I couldn't believe it when I came across a recipe and explanation that they're actually made of cheese! I let a portion of one dry out in the refrigerator for a couple of days and managed to convince myself that I could detect the tiny curds and a cheesy taste (yeah right) but I would never have deduced that without having read it online. I had yet another revelation on another visit when I spied a bowl of the Chom Chom behind the sweets counter, the unfinished product, and they looked just like stubby cheese sticks.

I also went in once to try one of the curries. I had read that Hilsha is the national fish of Bangladesh and also that it's very, very bony. I was also warned of that my the guy taking my order so I decided to try the Rohu Fish Curry which he said had 'some bones.' Actually, this was very bony by my standards. I wasn't very impressed by the dish, the curry wasn't bad but not very interesting; it had more tomato than any curry I've ever had I think, and a nice level of spiciness but the fish itself was the disappointment. Rohu is supposedly a variety of carp and carp is supposed to be an oily fish but the flesh was very dry, not moist and flaky. The curry came with a generous portion of plain white rice which was also presented very dry, not sticky but a little clumpy. I understand Bangladeshis eat with their bare hands so that may be the preferred way to serve it.



On another visit I had some more onion pakora and also the eggplant pakora and tried the Goat Rezala and liked it a lot more than the fish. It was a very pungent curry, actually looking much like the Rohu Fish curry but without anywhere near the amount of tomato and more piquancy. The goat was bone-in, of course, and goat is a pretty bony meat, too, and there wasn't all that much meat, actually. There was also at least one piece of organ meat, which I couldn't identify but certainly was not muscle, and possibly another, a small section of liver, so those who are off-put by offal should avoid this one. The rice on this occasion was also dry, although not as dry as before. I haven't tried any of the roti.

The chai is not bad here. They use disposable plates, cups and utensils for some items, plates, flatware and glasses for others. Unfortunately the chai is served in a disposable foam cup.





Prices and dishes may vary at the restaurant, of course.

POSTSCRIPT:  MY RUDIMENTARY UNDERSTANDING OF THIS CUISINE WAS CONSIDERABLY ENHANCED BY A POST I DISCOVERED ON ISHITA UNBLOGGED.  I POSTED IT UNDER NEWS AND ARTICLES OF INTEREST AND IT IS REFERENCED IN A COMMENT BY THE BLOGGER BELOW BUT THE LINK HAS BEEN INADVERTENTLY DELETED.  SO, HERE IT IS.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Search of Houston's Best Bun Kabab

Say what?


I first encountered the bun kabab at the snack bar at Dilpasand Mithai on Hillcroft a year and a half ago. On one of my visits there to try the barfees I ordered one, not having any idea what I was going to be getting. After eating one the concept was not much clearer. It was a vegetable patty, seemed to be mostly mashed potato, on a hamburger bun, with onion and shredded lettuce, black pepper, maybe some garlic powder, and lots of ketchup. I had asked for one 'spicy' but the predominant flavor I got was ketchup.

Since then I've learned the bun kabab is a very popular snack in Pakistan and it occurred to me maybe I had just gotten a less than primo example of one. Since then I had ordered one at another Indo-Pak snack bar on Highway 6 but though it was on the menu board, they no longer served it. Then when I discovered the second location of Dilpasand Mithai recently and saw it on the menu, I went for it.

It proved to be a good choice. Delivered piping hot from the kitchen and with lots of heat, it was a perfect light snack for a hot summer afternoon, tasty and filling without being too heavy; there was only a very modest amount of ketchup.

I had been strolling through the Desi Food Warehouse in the same shopping center and didn't have my camera with me so was unable to take a shot but a couple of weeks later, back out on that side of town and craving something light to eat, - okay, I wanted another bun kabab - I stopped in again. Ramadan was underway and the restaurant was not serving any food to eat on premises but fixed one to go (the kitchen staff is Mexican, I believe), so I retreated to my car in the parking lot and took the picture above.

The ones I had previously were on the smaller 4" buns but this one used the larger sized bun and was a lot more filling and not quite as spicy but very good. The resemblance to a Whataburger is obvious; change out that checked wrapping paper for mustard colored and you could probably fool a lot of people - until they bit into it. This is not a mashed potato fritter, just mashed potatoes (maybe some mashed lentils, maybe onions, I think).

This has become something of a minor obsession for me, just what I need to help me get through the (hopefully) last few weeks of sweltering summer when I'm not eating much more than sandwiches and snacks. I happened to remember that Salaam Namaste, a Desi game room and Indo-Pak fast food place on W. Bellfort, just off 59, had bun kabab on the menu and I stopped in to try it, only to discover they have three - a meat bun kabab, a 'special,' which includes egg, and a vegi kabab. What is this I wondered? I was directed through a door to the sister restaurant, Sweet 'n Namkin, for the vegi bun kabob. These two restaurants have totally separate kitchens, both 100% Halal, with Sweet 'n Namkin also 100% vegetarian.


This was another good one; the patty had been sauteed just a little I think and browned up a bit and included small chunks of onion and lentil and perhaps some other vegetables. There were some thick slices of roma tomato and only a dollop of ketchup (more was offered on the side), and a generous amount of raw onion and cilantro. It wasn't quite a spicy as the one at Dilpasand but was very satisfying.

I went back online to do some more research and discovered something I had totally missed before, the meat and egg combination is the most popular variety in Pakistan; I thought this was just supposed to be a veggie snack.

So of course I had to go back to try the 'Special' at Salaam Namaste.' What I got was the least photogenic of any I've had so I didn't take a picture but it turned out to be the best. A thinner patty of veggies, topped with a thin 'omelet' folded over multiple times, with onion, roma tomato and cucumber slices and lots of cilantro, the spiciest one yet, too, and on top of that, a shaker of spice on the table (including at the least cumin and tumeric) that kicked it up even more.

So I've still got to try the beef bun kabab at Salaam Namaste. A Beef Kabab Roll or Chicken Kabab Roll is common as a snack food offering on Pakistani menus here, but not the Bun Kabab. I've checked at Alfa Capri, another Desi game room/snack bar just a few doors down on West Bellfort, and they don't serve a bun kabab and I've checked the menus of several other Pakistani restaurants and haven't found another one to try so the quest goes on but may be over already, too.

In the meantime I had come across this Pakistani blog comparing the bun kabab to McDonald's and coming down squarely in favor of the bun kabab. I don't know how authentic the McDonald's burgers are they're getting from those kiosks pictured in Karachi but I'll have to join the chorus of comments: I'd rather have one of these, too.

My earlier report on Dilpasand Mithai.

Salaam Namaste. I have been going to this restaurant off and on for several years but not much in a couple of years; it's undergone a renovation of sorts and there's more emphasis on the food and less on the game room aspect now.

My earlier report on Sweet n' Namkin which is undergoing a maker-over of it's own, becoming more of a vegetarian restaurant and less of just a chaat and sweets bar.

Oh yeah, and another good thing about these? So far, no one has asked me if I wanted fries with one or wanted to SuperSize it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

El Punto Criollo

506 Hwy 6 West (??), less than 1/2 mile south of I-10 SEE AMENDED LOCATION BELOW and a report on a revisit here.


I was on my way to check out another restaurant on the far west side when I happened to spot this one. I knew from the word criollo that this was not another taco trailer so I swung around to check it out. Cuban?, Puerto Rican?, I wondered; it wasn't until I got close enough to read the menu in the window that I discovered it serves Las Delicias de Venezuela. I had forgotten that Pabellon Criollo is the national dish of Venezuela. It's on the menu here along with arepas, empanadas, pastelitos, cachapas, tequenos, and chicha Venezolana, a rice based drink served sweetened and chilled. There are also hallacas listed on the menu and I thought I'd really lucked out. Hallacas are the Venezuelan version of a nacatamale, typically including more than one meat, capers, raisins and olives as filling and I've never been able to sample one yet but she said it should be covered up on the menu as it is only served during the holiday season, as is typical.

The lady is very friendly and cheerfully answered a lot of questions I peppered her with; she speaks pretty good English. I had more trouble communicating because of the roar of traffic on the highway than because of a language barrier.


Though I had my heart set on something at the other restaurant I decided to pick up a couple of empanadas to sample since I've been out on this stretch of Highway 6 only a handful of times and wouldn't likely be back soon. I got a beef and a chicken ($2 each) and was impressed with how hefty they were. I was offered a variety of salsas, red and green, one described as hot, but I asked about the guasaca, the Venezuelan creamy avocado dressing. She seemed pleased I knew of that and procured some from the refrigerator.

I had actually just left a dentist's office and made it all the way to 6 in amazing time; I wasn't supposed to eat anything for another quarter hour, lest my teeth self-destruct, so I hopped in the car and headed on down the road where it turned out the restaurant I had my sights on was closed; sure was a good thing I brought a spare lunch along.

Most Venezuelan empanadas I've had were snack-sized; these were close to being the largest I've ever had, about as big as a burrito, and crammed full of meat. The chicken one was the tastiest, shredded chicken breast with some red pepper and other herbs apparent, tender and juicy. The guasaca was surprisingly tart and complemented the chicken quite well. The beef empanada had tender shredded brisket and was a little more simply seasoned and not quite as interesting. The guasaca didn't go with it as well and I wished I had also taken some of the salsa. These things were big enough that two was a meal.

With the recent closure of Miguelito's I guess we now have more Venezuelan mobile units (3) than brick and mortar places (2) in the area.

Edit: now located next to the parking lot of World Food Market, on Beechnut just west of Highway 6, with an awning and table for comfort.

El Punto Criollo on Facebook

Edited 1/28/12

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

El Caldero Boricua

15115 Bellaire Blvd, outside Highway 6

I loved this restaurant before I ever got to the door. Just the aromas wafting across the parking lot convinced me I was in for something good. It's a small place, seating only twice as many as the legendary Tex-Chick in the Montrose, and kind of cramped at that. The way the menu is set up is a bit confusing, too. Basically it's a la carte ordering but not everything available is listed and perhaps most perplexing, main courses are cheaper than sides sometimes. Don't fret, the counter person will help, making suggestions for things to try if you're new.


On my first visit I tried the pasteles, a Puerto Rican tamale of sorts (there are Puerto Rican tamales) but made with mashed plantain or green banana instead of masa and with a filling of savory pork, steamed in a banana leaf. The melding of fruit and savory was a bit odd to the palate at first but it was very good. I also got a portion of 'yellow rice,' which apparently means arroz con gandules here. This was awesome, one of the most flavorful rice dishes I've ever had, rivaling the best rice dishes at our Persian or Afghani restaurants. There are apparently three sides available to choose from, white or yellow rice and .... plain beans? There isn't a clear listing of what the sides to choose from on the menu.

As I waited a brief time for my food, I observed a couple of women at the next table having a feast, the table loaded down with great looking dishes, only one of which, tostones, I could identify. I really wanted to be nosy and ask what everything was.


That was a half portion of the yellow rice ($3) and I was still a bit hungry so I inquired about desserts. There are only two available, not shown on the menu board or menu; one I have forgotten but the other was 'coconut pudding.' That sounded like just the ticket.

Although the word was not mentioned I believe this is the dessert known as Tembleque, served chilled with a generous dusting of warm cinnamon. I had asked for a small portion; that was said to be a half portion ($4).




On another visit I went for the Pernil ($2) and yellow rice, a double portion ($5). The aroma of the roasted pig filled the small restaurant as the server removed the holding pan cover and I made my way over to the counter to marvel as he peeled back the layer of skin and fat covering the pan and forked out portions of the meat, no knife needed. Some dishes are held on a steam table and there are also readily visible pots of food simmering on a stove behind the counter. This looked like it was going to be awesome. An online source says Puerto Ricans like their meats fatty; that's pretty easy to see. I included pictures from two perspectives because I couldn't really capture just how much food that was nor how good it looked with just one. Unfortunately, somehow, though the pan was covered and the meat simmering in its own juices and covered by the layer of skin, it was tough and stringy, a major disappointment.

It is easier to tell from this photo, by the way, that the 'yellow rice' is arroz con gandules because of the visible bits of meat included.

As I had been paying for my meal on my first visit the cashier had asked where I was from and I had replied 'just a couple of miles from here.' The significance of that question didn't hit me until later.

On my second visit a woman was busing some tables who looked familiar to me and she recognized me from my first visit and asked if I had been there before, pointing to the exact spot I had been sitting. She observed I had appeared to be really hungry and really enjoying the food; I guess I made something of a spectacle of myself. She was one of the women sitting at the table next to mine whose bounteous spread I had envied. She asked me where I was from. I said Houston and asked where she was from; she said New York. Then I told her what she and her friend had been having had looked very good and asked what it was. The only dish she named was, I thought, Catfish Stew. Puerto Rican Catfish Stew sounded awesome but I couldn't find it on the menu; I think probably what she had said was Codfish stew, i.e., the bacalao guisada, and I misunderstood. Whatever it was, it looked good.

One of the offerings not listed on the menu, although there is a picture, is the Jibarito, the Puerto Rican version of a steak sandwich using mashed, fried plantain in place of bread. It's listed on the menu board as $7 but I was told it is now $9.

El Caldero Boricua

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pasha

2325 University Blvd.

It's hard to believe, all the years I've lived in Houston and all the times I've gone to the Village to eat, I'd never been to Pasha until this summer. I'm not sure I even knew it existed until a couple of years ago, it's kind of easy to miss. For years, my go-to places in the Village were Alfred's/Kahn's and Antone's, later joined by Istanbul Grill. There were other places I ate at, uh, what were they now?, but these were overwhelmingly my favorites. And let me pause to make the point that to me, the neighborhood will always be 'The Village,' as it was referred to when I was a kid growing up. I don't know when Rice bought the naming rights but to me, it'll always be The Village, not Rice Village.

But I did learn of Pasha a couple of years ago, with some good recommendations, and set out to correct the error of my ways this summer when I took a break from focusing on street food.


I hadn't visited one of our Turkish restaurants in a couple of years when I first stopped in and I was hungry for doner. This was the lunch special portion preceded by a Shepherd salad, seasoned and marinated thin slices of beef and lamb, cooked on a rotisserie, some pieces still pink in the center, juicy and lusciously flavorful, and a very generous portion for a lunch special. It was better than I remembered ever having elsewhere.

Pasha is quite a different space than Istanbul just around the corner; quiet and peaceful, a respite from the bustle outside, linen table cloths and stemmed glassware, but not at all stuffy, at least not when I was there for lunch several times.

In the dim light of the restaurant, I couldn't decide what the item at the top of the plate was; I didn't remember mention of potato and there was a bed of rice underneath the pile of meat, anyway, but a wedge of potato dusted generously with paprika or something similar is what I guessed. The light from the flash makes it more readily identifiable but it was not until I cut into it that I realized it was a wedge of tomato. It tasted as much like a tomato as it looked like a tomato and was a waste of space on the plate and the complimentary basket of pide had been at room temp and a little stale but otherwise this was an excellent meal and I kicked myself for waiting so long to come here. Then they brought out the complimentary shot of hot Turkish tea and I sat and sipped and savored for another 20 minutes or so, a blissful few moments of repose from the blazing sunlight and busy-ness outside. Do you get the idea I like this place?


Only a few days later, back in that part of town and craving some more doner but also wanting to try something different I went back and decided I could fulfill both desires by ordering a doner sandwich. On this occasion (and every other I've been) the complimentary pide was warm and wonderful but I discovered it doesn't make for a very good sandwich. The pide at Pasha is too rigid and impermeable, the small pieces of meat and other ingredients kept falling out because the bread was so rigid. Worst of all, one of the real joys of the first meal had been that bed of rice underneath the meat that had soaked up all the juices and which I lingered over down to the very last grain; the bread simply doesn't soak it up like that and remains rather dry.

Now about those fries. You have a choice of three sides, Shepherd salad, fries, or cup of soup of the day. Given my disdain for fries - I usually eat them only when they're automatically included with a sandwich or something - I decided to go with them since I'd already had the salad and soup wasn't appealing on another sweltering day, but it was a bad choice. They were mediocre, probably frozen. They were accompanied by an enormous squeeze bottle of ketchup, one of the few food substances on earth I avoid more than fries, that was plopped down on the table with what seemed like a sneer. This wasn't anywhere near as satisfying a meal, and I didn't get the complementary tea, either. I don't advise the sandwiches at Pasha, stick with the plates. I did manage to salvage a little more from this experience - I discovered that drizzling what I had left of the zataar that accompanies the complementary pide classed up those fries enough to make them more palatable, more palatable to me than the ketchup would have (the squeeze bottle remained untouched).


Live and Learn being the order of the day I couldn't wait to come back so a few weeks later I stopped in again. I'd been eating some very big meals at other sit-down venues and wanted something a little light so I went with Menemem, a traditional vegetarian dish. Several cuisines have dishes involving eggs and vegetables and this is the Turkish version and it was great, tomato, onion, bell pepper, eggs and feta, served with Turkish rice. I particularly liked that the vegetables were still crisp-tender instead of being cooked to a soft, mushy state and I was every bit as enthused about this dish as I had been about the doner on my first visit. The rice was great too and I finished off every last grain even though it had not benefited from any meat juices; I grew up in Brazoria County where they grow, or used to anyway, a lot of rice and I love rice in almost any presentation, more than potatoes.

And on this occasion the grilled tomato both looked and tasted a lot more like a tomato should.


This meal was so light I followed with a dessert, something my rather small appetite usually doesn't allow room for. I went with the Sutlac, a baked rice pudding, served chilled topped with minced pistachios. As smooth as flan though not as creamy, I loved this also, plus I got my shot of hot tea to sip.

I haven't hit it for dinner when things might be a bit more formal but Pasha is a great lunch spot and judging by the pictures on the website, there are lots of great dishes yet to try.

Pasha

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Pita Bakery and Deli

9804 Hillcroft

This place used to be Super Pita before a change of ownership in May. I thought they were out of business once when I drove by because the windows were so barren but lately there's almost always a crowd. A young waiter told me they spruced the place up a bit and the food is much better. I only went to Super Pita twice and tried something on the steam table. It wasn't too bad but not memorable either. Now the steam table appears to be gone, at least at lunch, and food is freshly prepared. That's a plus. I got the impression from the take-out menu that the emphasis is on sandwiches although it's still possible to get most of the dishes that were available before off the menu and about half the dine-in customers have been having plates.


Sandwiches come on baguettes, pitas or laffas, all baked in-house, with typical Middle Eastern fillings such as falafel, schawarma, kabobs, etc., plus schnitzel. There are also some 'Gold' sandwiches with typical Western deli fillings like roast beef, smoked turkey, salami, etc. I tried a falafel pita on my first visit. When the falafel had been cooked (5 pieces) I was called up to the counter to pick my toppings. There are about 15 to choose from, none labeled. The edge of the pita is cut and folded back and the fillings stuffed inside. The man said 'Hummus?' and I said yes. 'Anything else - Israeli salad?' I said yes. 'Anything else?' 'Tabouli' I said. 'Anything else?' I saw a green sauce that I guessed might be spicy and pointed at that. Spicy? he said. Yes. 'Anything else?' Then there was the red sauce. 'Spicy?' I said yes. I was beginning to feel a little guilty about loading up so much but he kept saying 'anything else?' I think I stopped at that point, I'm not sure, maybe I got one or two other things. I think the red and green sauces were the Yemeni condiment schug. Those were listed by name on the Super Pita menu and though they're not listed on this one there have been so few changes in the menu I'm guessing that's what they are.

He squirted a couple of other things on the sandwich out of squeeze bottles and wrapped it up with a side order of fries which came with the sandwich ($4.95) and weighed in at about 2 ozs, a perfect size order of fries as far as I'm concerned.

Well the truth is I'm not very fond of pitas or falafel to begin with but I had just been to Zabak's a few days earlier and I thought it would be good to do a comparison. The pitas are thick and hearty and a bit dry for my taste; the falafel was, well, falafel, and no, not as interesting as Zabak's. With all the added condiments, though, it was not bad as a sandwich and I was pretty confident they had offerings I would like better. I had got too many condiments and couldn't sort them all out, taste-wise.

Looking over the menu I became fascinated by the laffa sandwiches. They had been on the Super Pita menu but I'd never noticed them and I resolved to try one on my next visit to see if I like laffa better than pita. Laffa is an Iraqi flatbread that is more like a thin naan or thick chapati rather than a pita; too thin to be used as a pocket bread it's used as a wrap.


I also wanted to try the shawarma so on another visit I got a shawarma laffa; this time I added just the hummus, Israeli salad and some grilled eggplant. Laffa are about 10" in diameter and weigh from 3 to 5 ozs (hand-made and irregular); the filled sandwich weighed in at 15.5 oz on my kitchen scale and I loved it. The laffa is like a soft, pliable naan and is just what I need - another type of bread I like. I could gritch that the shawarma was a little too dried out and the eggplant added a bitterness than was unwelcome but this was a very good sandwich - actually, big enough for two sandwiches ($10.95) - and a new favorite sandwich. The fries this time were a little underdone.

Okay, so the resemblance of a laffa to a large flour tortilla and the sandwich to a burrito can't be overlooked but there's no lard, obviously, and where else in Houston can you get a Kosher falafel or schnitzel burrito?

Like other Israeli restaurants, Super Pita at this location before and Saba's on Fondren, the menu includes dishes brought to Israel from other countries. Besides the laffa there is sabich from Iraq, a Morrocan style fish dish, a Tunisian style tuna sandwich on the breakfast menu, a Bukharian pilaf, a goulash and a couscous. I was fascinated by the Egyptian dish Foul Mudammas which dates back to the Pharaohs. It's served here as mashed fava beans on top of a bed of hummus in a bowl, topped with the green spicy sauce and accompanied by a couple of pitas. Though it's offered as a side ($4.95) it's enough for a meal in itself, though I prefer it a little spicier, with some cumin or chili powder and a hard boiled egg.

The grocery shelves and bakery display cases are less impressively full than when it was Super Pita but sitting in bakery section, waiting for my Foul Mudammas, the aroma of the fresh challah and pastries being brought out was driving me crazy. I picked up some laffa - three loaves are $2.50. Heated up in every home-maker's modern home substitute for a tandoor, a toaster oven (or in my case, a pop-up toaster) it crisps up a bit and makes a great accompaniment to many dishes.

This little neighborhood in Meyerland has a collection of some good eateries - New York Coffee Shop and New York Bagel Shop just a block away, The Russian General Store a couple of blocks away and Fioza, which is highly recommended by Ziggy Smogdust, just across Brays Bayou.

My Pita is kosher and closes for all Jewish holy days.

UPDATE:  MY PITA HAS UNDERGONE SEVERAL CHANGES OF OWNERSHIP I THINK.  

THEIR BAKED GOODS, INCLUDING PITA AND LAFFA, ARE AVAILABLE NEARBY AT THE RUSSIAN GENERAL STORE AND BELDEN'S SUPERMARKET; I'VE SEEN THEM AT CENTRAL MARKET AND AT AL NIMER SUPERMARKET AND ROASTERY AND AT JERUSALEM HALAL MEATS ON HILLCROFT.

My Pita

At last, Red Velvet Fried Chicken....

So there's chicken and waffles (so old hat) and now Red Velvet Fried Chicken. And lest you think it's just fried chicken on top of a piece of Red Velvet cake, nooooooooo. Read about it here.

and some comments here.

But it's not here, it's in San Fran.

I don't foresee wanting to go home with a 10 piece bucket but this makes me curious and I'd like to try it.