Wednesday, April 28, 2010

J & R Louisiana Cajun Boudin

At a gas station, convenience or grocery store near you.

I was toodling around in Southwest Houston the other day, hadn't been able to decide what I wanted to eat but was getting very hungry and spotted this truck making a delivery at a Texaco station. Obviously it was my destiny to have some boudin for lunch.

The display was just being set up, the crockpot steamer to keep the links warm wasn't even plugged in yet but the guy from the distributor who was installing the set-up told me just to nuke it for one minute.

The link, a very tight fit in a lidded hot dog boat (I estimated 6 oz but the website says 8 but this may be a different product for ready-to-eat), came in either mild (green markings) or spicy (red markings), individually wrapped in foil, which has to be removed before zapping, of course. The display sign described this as the New Double Meat variety. Unfortunately there is no smoked variety available. Help yourself to some packets of saltines, napkins, a spork and some extra Cajun Chef if you like (the spicy needed a little more heat for my taste) and you're good to go for $2.15.

The link was very firm, might have been pick-up-able even with the casing removed. There was a slight snap to the casing. There were clearly distinct grains of rice and a few identifiable shreds of meat but the rest was a paste about the consistency of chicken liver at a deli. For some reason, the picture I snapped didn't take.

This wasn't bad, not as good as my favorite boudin nor even the best gas station boudin I've had (DJ's West, on I-10 out toward Winnie) but it was a heck of a lot better than any gas station hot dog or fried chicken I've had.

When I got home and looked them up I was surprised to see they've been around for years. I don't think I've ever seen them, even at grocery stores where I've shopped for boudin in the past.

Obviously it was my lucky day. So I bought some numbers for Mega Millions on Friday. If I win, I'll probably be writing less on gas station and taco truck fare.

J & R Louisiana Cajun Boudin and Sausage

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Food Trucks Meet the Amazing Race

I found this on

I think this means the food truck trend is about to jump the shark but I'd still like to see Houston as one of the stops. What do you think the odds are?

There's a link in the story to the full announcement of the new Cooking Channel or just go here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Taqueria y Pupuseria El Invasor

11916 Bissonnet @ Kirkwood - Disappeared from this location present whereabouts unknown.

The Invader has arrived.

I was searching for some comfort food after discovering one of my favorite food trucks on the southwest side has disappeared and decided to try this new wagon. I've only been eating pupusas a few years but they're a nice simple, comforting food.

This very new wago sits up very high - the sill outside the window is at least 5 feet off the ground. There's not much adornment other than a couple of pot plants on the sill (a rosemary plant and a bamboo plant). The menu is very simple; only three meats are listed for tacos, tortas, quesadillas, etc., pastor, fajita and lengua. There's a very short breakfast menu and only the words ricas pupusas.

I ordered a pupusa revuelta then got distracted by a cell phone call and didn't see if the pupusera made it from scratch (it's a point of pride with Salvadorans). There was a lady who spoke broken English on board but she left soon after I ordered and ever since, I've only had Spanish speaking servers. The pupusa was a beauty to behold, except for the lack of an appropriate to-go container. Nicely browned to a golden brown over most of the surface, a bit thicker and larger than most, a little crusty from the griddle. The interior, however, was puzzling - paste-like with no detectable pieces of meat and barely detectable cheese. I'd experienced this once before that I could remember at another place and did some digging. I looked pupusas up online and came upon an article in Wiki I'd never seen before saying that this is typical in El Salvador - cooked pork is ground to a paste-like consistency (this is what is called chicharron in El Salvador) for a pupusa revuelta.

The curtido was at room temperature but crisp, vinegary - not the best I've had but good. I also got two 1/4 c portions of salsas - a deep, reddish brown smokey one that had some good heat and a somewhat watery, creamy green one that was milder. This is unusual; the sauce usually served with pupusas is hardly more complex than canned tomato sauce. I concluded I had gotten the salsas meant to accompany the Mexican offerings by mistake.

When I get a craving for comfort food it usually takes 2 or 3 fixes to satisfy it and a couple of days later I decided to give this place another try.

I got another revuelta and a queso. This time I saw the pupusera take the raw dough out of a tub, pat it back and forth between her palms and place it on the griddle. Unfortunately, her back was turned to me the whole time (if you stand on the street side of the cart, you should be able to watch). The finished products weren't as beautiful to behold as the other one had been (partly because I left them in the container until I got home and they got steamed and sweaty and a little soggy), nor quite as thick, but there were some detectable small pieces of meat in the revuelta and a little more noticeable cheese (queso fresco is used). I also found small pieces of dried chile pepper and what looked like minced carrot.

I got both the salsas again (the green one a bit more watery) and another surprise: those dark red pieces in the curtido are pieces of fiery, dried chile peppers, unchewably tough but with seeds. I've had a curtido before that was mildly spicy but I don't think I've ever had pieces of chile included.

A few days later I got the idea it would be interesting to see what this cart does with the Mexican version of a pupusa, a gordita. The dough was taken from the same tub, formed up and griddled while the meat (I chose fajita) was also taken out of a tub and warmed on the grill. The gordita wasn't thick enough and the knife not sharp enough and the gordita as presented was not very attractive and impossible to pick up without falling apart. The dough wasn't quite done enough and the meat mediocre with a somewhat pasty exterior.

I was asked what toppings I wanted and asked for cebolla y cilantro; I also wound up with a few shreds of lechuga and a slice of roma tomato. This time I got only the green salsa and it was thicker and as fiery as the red one had been before.

The price has been more than fair - the pupusas and gordita were only $1.50 each and you also get the salsas and a generous approximately 1 cup portion of curtido, even with just one pupusa.

I've become very fond of street food over the past year. There are lots of taco trucks around these days that offer pupusas but only a handful that I know of that include pupuseria in the name. Health Department records indicate a recent change of ownership for this cart. I'm guessing the new owner is Salvadoran and the old owner was Mexican.

I expect I'll hit El Invasor again from time to time but I'm going to stick with the pupusas. I think it's their forte. And I'll remember to open the take-out container for the trip home so the pupusas don't get steamed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mambo Oasis

6665 Hillcroft

At last, a drive-thru elotes en vasos stand!

I saw the sign driving down the road in a driving rain and the prospect of getting a bite to eat from the comfort of my car, plus the fact it'd been a couple of years since I'd enjoyed this treat, was too much.

It's a brightly painted former Rally's or Checker's burger stand, right next to the Mambo Grill on Hillcroft near Bellaire. The drive-thru is a little obscure, you have to carefully make your way through the parking lot of the sister restaurant to find it.

There are pictures on the menu board but the menu is all in Spanish. I couldn't remember the Spanish for '# 14' but I knew what I wanted.

What is that spoon doing in the middle of the picture??? The result of trying to be an artist while driving. I was rushing to try to get a shot while waiting for a light to change so I could take a bite. What I got was about a cup and a half of piping hot kernel corn topped with a generous glob of crema and about a 3/8" layer of queso. All you could see when you took the lid off the container was the cheese so I need to stir it up.

There wasn't enough chile but otherwise this is about as good as any I've ever had, and a much larger portion than most places serve I think, for $3.50 + tax. It made a whole meal for me - this is not diet food. I needed to keep stirring as I ate, but didn't. By the time I got to the bottom of the cup, it was only corn.

There are some more good looking pictures on the website but less than half the menu is pictured for some reason. I'll have to go back to try some of the fruit cups and other things. There's a walk-up window and outdoor tables but no indoor dining.

Very little English was spoken by the crew on duty when I was there.

Mambo Oasis

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jonathan's Grill - Pampanga's

8388 W. Sam Houston Parkway, # 135, in the Viet Hoa International Food Court


The gang that got together for the BBQ comparison last November got together this week to try Jonathan's. Airon, whose family is from Manila, had promised to introduce us to Filipino food so when he announced another visit to Houston, we started making plans. Howard had seen signs in the Viet Hoa Center on the BW at Beechnut of a new Filipino fast food place and when I went to check it out I discovered there are two Filipino places in this food court. Jonathan's serves 'Authentic Filipino Cuisine, Kapampangan Style,' 'Sizzling Sisig, Barbeque and more.' Airon says the Pampanga province is noted for it's culinary excellence; this is the haute cuisine of the Philippines. Reading up on it, I was so pumped up I couldn't wait.

Jonathan's menu offers recreations of several favorite dishes of some popular Filipino restaurants - Spaghetti, Jollibee's style (yes, with hot dogs and banana ketchup), Everybody's Cafe style Pancit Palabok, Fried Chicken a la Max's, and Sizzling Sisig, Aling Lucing style, plus many of his own dishes.

On my first visit I tried the Pancit Palabok. To eat this, you add some lemon juice (jars on the condiments bar) and stir it all together. As is sometimes the case when trying a new cuisine, I wasn't really wowed with this dish. I liked the noodles, the crunchiness of the pork skins on top and the ground pork underneath plus the green onions but the sauce was nothing special to my palate. Airon says the dish is all about texture and how well the shrimp sauce is made, from pulverized dried shrimp I think.

It was obvious, though, Jonathan's is not your typical food court eatery and I went again a few days later.

Second time out I went for the Sizzling Chicken with Rice, served in a butter-rich gravy. Fried chicken in the Philippines means a very small bird, Cornish game hen size, un-battered or coated, deep fried whole or halved, then served with a sauce. This was much more impressive. On this occasion the rice was pretty fluffy but Filipino rice typically is sticky. In the background is the small side of atchara, pickled papaya, which I really liked. As should be apparent from these pictures, portions are kind of modest but I concluded from this visit that I was going to go in the direction of sampling more of Jonathan's own creations rather than his re-creations of other restaurant's dishes.

Finally it was time for Airon, Howard and myself to meet again. I had seen the combo with the pork bbq (skewer) and sisig and knew I wanted to try that plus the lumpia (Filipino egg rolls). The restaurant didn't have enough of the sisig for all three of us so we got what they had left, opted for 2 bbq pork skewers apiece, and an order of Fried Lumpia Shanghai. We each got a side of rice.

I could nosh and nibble on these first two dishes all day long. The skewers are popular street food in the Philippines, made with pork sirloin, I'm guessing, sliced in strips and folded on the skewers. The snack sized lumpia are a real treat. According to Jonathan, the Shanghai sauce is just ketchup, vinegar and sugar, plus a little love. Hmmm. Wonder what those specks are? The skewers were bigger than I remember them from the combo platters I saw being served before and I would have been plenty satisfied with just one, given everything else we had.

Aling Lucing's is a restaurant in Angeles City with a famous version of Sizzling Sisig; the dish is supposed to include such things as pigs head and liver. We detected some offal in the dish but not much; like the Pancit Palabok, it needs the addition of a few drops of lemon juice. I thought it was an interesting dish and shouldn't be off-putting even to those who think they don't like offal. Airon said there should have been more crispy pieces.

Note that a section of Jonathan's menu is Pulatan, meaning it is meant to be consumed with beer. Howard had brought along a selection of beers he brought back from a recent trip to Colorado. We tasted a Port Brewing Wipeout IPA first, then a Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale, and then the final one was the Odell IPA. I am not much of a beer drinker. Howard and Airon both loved the Odell best but I found the Lost Abbey selection most appealing; it reminded me very much of the excellent beers of the Celis brewery in Austin. By the time we got around to the last one, though, I was pretty sated.

Finally, Airon insisted on getting some Flan. The portion we got was intended for take home and supposedly was enough to serve 3 people. More like 6, maybe; it was so rich and creamy, we had to pause after each spoonful. It was an over-the-top finish to the meal and again I forgot to get the camera out.

We saw (and smelled) several other dishes being served including the two other fried chicken dishes, the Salpicao and Halo-Halo, a heaping ice cream, fruit and shaved ice desert.

I wasn't really sure I wanted to taste the spaghetti but I had really wanted to get a picture of it. I couldn't convince either of the others to order it but after seeing several other customers dig into their bowls with relish, I'm going to have to try it.

Word is getting out about Jonathan's in the Filipino community already. I almost had the place to myself on my first visit but on the last two, several tables were occupied with large groups ordering tons of food and obviously enjoying themselves.

Pinoy Fast Food is the only other restaurant open in the food court, a steam table operation. It's obvious several other restaurants have come and gone in this court which is at the far southern end of the Viet Hoa Center. I'd wager many people come and go to the Center and never realize where it is. The hours are in flux; signs variously indicate 8a to 7p or 8a to 10p but right now Jonathan's is only open 8a-7p Wednesday through Friday, 8a to 3p on Saturday and Sunday so call to confirm hours before driving a long distance (281-530-8887). On Friday evening we were there until almost 9pm and some customers came in just before we left.

The fast food buffet is also closed on Monday.

Note that several of the dishes on the weekend only menu, Tocilog, Longsilog and Dangsilog, are breakfast dishes. I think they would have served me the Longsilog on a Sunday about 1p if they'd had any left, however. Airon says the fact they're weekend only specials may mean Jonathan cures his own meats for those dishes.

Prices and dishes may vary at the restaurant from the menu posted above, of course. There's an extensive catering menu and the phrase 'Itawag ninyo, iluluto ko' which basically means call me, I'll fix anything you want, but we found out that applies only to the catering menu.

It is a bit presumptuous to start talking about my best finds of 2010, I guess, but I have a hunch Jonathan's will be on my list.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

JW's Original Cajun Boudin Hut

7719 Homestead Rd.

A couple of months ago I was contacted by The Linkster at The Boudin Link asking for some recommendations of locally produced boudin for him to review for his site. I'm not an expert on boudin; having found several that I like (Burt's, Boogie's, Crawfish City - all reviewed on this site), I seldom order it elsewhere. I've also tried most of the supermarket brands and a couple from Spec's deli and Hebert's. I sent him a list of all the reviews on that come up when you search the site for boudin and also suggested he get in touch with Jim Gossen at his Great Southern Foods blog who probably would know more about where to find good boudin in Houston than me.

Since then, though, I've given some more thought to the subject and been more aware of it on menus. I tried the crawfish boudin from Poche's that I found at Spec's (didn't care for the pureed texture) and on a day trip to Galveston stopped off at Leo's Cajun Corner on Broadway at 32nd and tried both the crawfish and smoked boudins (didn't care for them much, either, again because of the texture and they were too mild).

I like a very firm textured link, firm enough to pick up and eat out of hand, with distinct grains of rice and bits of meat and whatever else is used, good and spicy and smoky. Burt's spicy/smoked is my # 1 choice.

One of the places listed on b4 that intrigued me was JW's Original Cajun Boudin Hut on Homestead, for which there were no reviews (but I found some elsewhere, on CitySearch I think).

I don't think I've ever been on Homestead Rd. in my whole life, indeed wasn't even sure what part of town it's in. It's on the far northeast side, of course, a part of town I seldom get to, but as fate would have it, recently I found myself having to make a trip up the EastTex Freeway and I decided to take a little detour and check it out. Serendipity, as they say.

JW's is located in a non-descript drive thru that has seen better days, perhaps several decades ago. There's a sign on the street but nothing on the building but an open sign and a note that Cajun deep fried turkeys are available, just below the drive-thru window. It is drive-thru service only; the only windows in the building are the drive-thru openings.

Despite that rather uninviting aspect, any misgivings were eased when I pulled up to the window and was greeted by one of the most pleasant ladies I've ever encountered in a drive-thru. I ordered some boudin; she asked if I wanted spicy or mild and I said spicy, of course. As she called out the order to someone behind her I inquired what else they offered, since there was no menu board. She cheerfully started to reel off a long list of dishes while handing me a take-out menu.

JW's serves a good variety of soul food and Cajun specialties including mild or spicy pork boudin as links or in cups, beef boudin, seafood boudin, and smoked boudin, mild or spicy. Unfortunately they were out of the smoked. Besides that there's a home made beef sausage, sausage on a stick, turkey legs, pork chop sandwiches and dinners, fish, gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee, chili, red beans and rice and so on and so forth. She said there was just one item on the menu they don't make themselves; I think it was either the sausage on a stick or turkey legs but I'm not sure as I was having trouble taking it all in. She said the chili is not only homemade, it's made with 'real chili meat' and is good and spicy. It's a seasonal offering.

The link that I got for $2.65 was very impressively large; I calculated it to be about 11 or 12 ounces. There's not only no dining room, there's scarcely enough room for the drive-around and none to speak of for parking. Fortunately, all up and down Homestead are shuttered businesses and strip centers so I pulled in to a parking lot a couple of blocks away, put the car in Park and dug in.

The link was too hot to pick up in my bare hands but judging by the critical resistance-to-the-spork test, the casing had a moderate amount of snap, though it still was a little tough and chewy. The link was mostly rice but had full grains of rice through out plus identifiable bits of meat and red pepper. The heat level started out slow but built to a nice level and my mouth was happy for several miles down the road after I'd finished. I missed the smokiness very much and also the little bits of green onion in Burt's boudin, but I judged this one of the best I've had other than my aforementioned favorites. There seemed to be something else missing but I never could put my finger on it; maybe it was just the smokiness. It was a little on the dry side.

I think JW's is a neighborhood jewel and I wish it was in my neighborhood. As it is, I may never get another chance to try the food here but if I do, there are quite a number of dishes I'd like to sample. They're open Tuesday thru Saturday, 10a - 8p.

One important conclusion I've drawn from this little exercise is: Houston needs more drive-thru boudin huts.

The Linkster has not yet posted any recent reviews of Texas boudin but there are some older reviews of a few supermarket products and other Texas made links which you can check out just by scrolling down the list on the left side-bar on the site. He gave an A to DJ's, a Beaumont produced brand widely available in supermarkets here (it's the best supermarket boudin I've tried). He gave an F to a link he got at Central Market. It sounds like a case of mislabeled product to me but I've never bought boudin at CM.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Savoy Restaurant and Grocery

11248 S. Wilcrest

We have a lot of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in Houston including some very excellent ones. I'm a little more familiar with the Pakistani places, of which there are probably fewer, owing in part to Chef Kaiser Lashkari's excellent Himalaya. My experiences there have spurred me to explore that cuisine further to the neglect of Indian places.

Besides the well known Little India area around Hillcroft and the Southwest Freeway, Indian and Pakistani restaurants are scattered all over the city with another concentration in the area around West Bellfort, Wilcrest and the Southwest Freeway, very close to my home.

Along a one block stretch of West Bellfort between 59 and Wilcrest are two Desi game rooms/snack bars, Salaam Namaste and Alfa Capri, plus a new sweets and chaat shop, Sweet n' Namkin. Around the corner on Wilcrest, in a shopping center next to the Bansuri Indian Food truck that I reported on 14 months ago, is Savoy, a Pakistani restaurant and grocery, and just south of 59 on Wilcrest/Murphy Rd. is Aga's, another Pakistani place. Just off 59 and Bissonnet is La Sani, a Pakistani buffet, and further out, just outside the Beltway on Bissonnet is Mehfil Grill, another Desi game room/snack bar.

I have now eaten at all of these at least once and this is the first of several reports.

Savoy is a counter-service restaurant and is larger and a little nicer than the average hole-in-the-wall Houston ethnic restaurant. There are large tables and over-sized booths in addition to four-seaters; food is served on disposable plates with disposable tableware. So far, I have always gotten my food to go. This works well for everything except the naan which doesn't fare well wrapped up in foil for even just the few minutes to get home, so I've only had the naan once here. Rice and naan are extra and they do prompt you to order some.

On my first visit I tried Chicken Chilli, some naan and a samosa. Chicken Chilli is one of my favorite dishes (much better than 'white' chili as served in US restaurants!) and this was very good with both white and dark meat though not as hot as some versions I've had, and quite oily. The naan was not bad, considering being wrapped up in foil but the real winner on this outing was the samosa, larger than most at about 6 oz versus 4 to 4.5 at most places, and stuffed with the most interestingly seasoned filling of potatoes, maybe a few peas and garlic, I think, plus green and red chilli powders and cilantro as best I could determine. This has become one of my go-to orders at Savoy and I get one every time I go in. Though I have yet to get one absolutely freshly made when ordered, they've always been good and warm, unlike some places where they've been sitting out for hours.

I was very enthused about the quality and taste of the food here and went back a few days later for another order, this time I went for the Qorma Goat, another favorite dish (I have several). Once again it was apparent the food here is quite oily and though it wasn't that noticeable in my first order, I realized the condiments - onions, julienned ginger and cilantro - are sometimes less than primo.

On yet another visit I went for the Beef Nihari.

Besides the Nihari in the picture is some Masala Naan (spicy) from the adjoining grocery store and a salted jeera biscuit, i.e., cumin cookie. I had Beef Nihari at Sabri Nihari on Hillcroft in my very first visit to a Pakistani restaurant and it blew me away. It's an awesome dish, something I have to try at every Pakistani restaurant sooner or later, although I haven't ever gotten around to ordering it at Himalaya, and I've never found a better version than Sabri's. It is sometimes described as the Pakistani version of pot roast, consisting mainly of beef shoulder or shank with the marrow bone included, cooked for hours with spices to produce a thick, hearty gravy and melt-in-your-mouth meat. I have suggested on message boards before, however, that it's really more like chili in that it is neither cooked nor served with vegetables but is just meat and spices; this is usually met with scorn but I persist. Savoy's version, in which the meat is cut up in cubes instead of served in large chunks, makes the comparison even more obvious, at least to me.

While okay the Savoy version was a little disappointing, not as good as other versions I've had.

One way to get around the oiliness of the food is to order from the grilled section of the menu and on another visit I ordered the Chicken Boti. I'd had this before on the very good Pakistani buffet at La Sani and liked it but Savoy's version kicks it up a couple of notches, to cop a phrase. Chunks of skinless and boneless chicken breast are seasoned with chillis, yogurt, garlic, ginger and other spices and then grilled or cooked in a tandoor. This was by far the spiciest thing I've had at Savoy and I loved it. My sinuses loosened up, my eyes watered just a bit: I have a new favorite dish. On this visit also I tried another snack, aloo vara, what would be called a batata wada in India. It consists of mashed potatoes, peas and onions, I think, mixed with spices, battered and deep fried. It's similar to a samosa except that the potatoes are mashed instead of being a chunk of boiled potato and the coating is a chickpea flour batter which results in a bread-like dough instead of the pie-dough like crust of a samosa. This was very good, with a good heat level itself, but I prefer the flaky crust and interior texture of the samosas. Either way, Savoy does Pakistani fried snacks very well. I still have not been able to try the egg rolls or patties on the menu.

Besides the restaurant Savoy is a Pakistani grocery store and I always take the time to browse the store while waiting for my order in the restaurant. They have a variety of fresh, refrigerated and frozen breads, the fresh selection as often as not depleted, the most well stocked meat cases of Halal meats I've seen, a long wall of freezer cases with scads of frozen entrees, sides and desserts, including ice cream and kulfi, a Pakistani frozen custard treat. There are large bags of basmati rice and atta, spice mixes for home preparation of complicated dishes, jellies, curries and sauces and syrups, even a small fresh produce section with a couple of vegetables I've not seen elsewhere, though I can't recall their names.

Besides the samosa from the restaurant, one item I regularly buy here are the salted jeera biscuits - cumin cookies. Think of a pecan sandie minus the pecans and with crushed cumin seeds for flavoring. I've also tried several of the frozen deserts, a Pista (pistachio) and Malai (clotted cream with a hint of cardamom) kulfis and Tutti Frutti ice cream. Both the kulfis were good, though not as good as the kulfi I got around the corner recently at Sweet n' Namkin on West Bellfort.

I've also enjoyed the Tea Rusks and Masala Khari, 'Crispy Tea Time Treats,' pastry puffs with a slight hint of cumin, also. I confess, I am a cumin junkie.

Savoy does a booming business. Besides the restaurant and grocery store, there is a banquet room seating as many as 700. On two occasions when I've been the restaurant menu has been limited somewhat by the fact the kitchen was overwhelmed with either a large take-out catering order or a banquet. I've known about the restaurant for a couple of years but put off going; on more than one occasion I've intended to go but the prospect of finding a parking space was daunting. One time recently, on a Sunday, cars were parked two deep on the end of rows, making navigating very difficult and making it impossible for cars parked perpendicular to the rows to get out of their spaces; on the day before there was literally no place to park, not one single space.

There is a large menu board over the counter where you order and copies of the menu you can pick up to peruse but neither have prices. Another copy of the menu, in a stand-up plastic frame, off to the right, is the only one that includes prices. A Halal food certificate is displayed behind the counter.