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


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.