Thursday, February 24, 2011

Heritage India Cuisine

3201 South Main (US 90-A eastbound) at Ave. B, Stafford


The Stafford-Missouri City area seems to be the center of the expat community from Kerala in the Houston area. There is Kerala Kitchen, a caterer on FM 1092; both the Indian grocery stores in Stafford feature foods from Kerala with many at Discount Grocers imported by Grace Supply of Missouri City. There is an Indian Christian Church on 5th Street, a denomination that was founded in Kerala in the first century and has it’s headquarters there, and there is this restaurant. Kerala is a state on the SW coast of India and the foods are quite different from those of Northern India which most people are familiar with or my favs, the vegetarian dishes of Southern India.

Wheat breads are not as common as in the rest of India; although chapathi and porota are served there is no naan on the menu. Fermented rice pancakes made with coconut and a little sugar and known as palappam are the staple bread (and are delicious). They look like smallish pieces of Ethiopian injera and are thicker and slightly spongy in the center, thin and lacy and a little crispy on the edges which are typically curled up a little due to the utensil they’re cooked in. Kappa, translated as tapioca and referring to yuca/cassava/manioc, is a staple starch along with rice. There are very wet curries, broths more than gravies, and very dry curries, thought to have inspired the dry curries of Malaysia. Coconut oil is used rather than ghee.

The word Malayali or Malayalee does not appear on the menu, nor does Keralan, but I am advised by an Indian correspondent that that term would be preferred over Keralan as a name for this cuisine. The word comes from the common language spoken by the peoples of the region. So far as I know this is the only restaurant in this area serving some of these dishes and there are very few restaurants offering this specialty anywhere in the US it appears.

I’ve had the Kerala style thali, a bargain at $9 with nine katoris plus papadum and rice. In order from the top sambhar, payasam, fish curry (kingfish), achar, avial and thoran (vegetable dishes, the latter being a dry vegetable dish briefly cooked), steak fry (a choice of steak fry or pork fry is offered on the thali, the former being a dry curry) and chammanthi, a coconut chutney, plus kacheyamoor, a spicy butermilk curry that was presented separately since there wasn’t room for it on the tray. I had just put some new batteries in my camera, something I haven’t had to do in months, and forgot I needed to reset the resolution so I apologize that picture is below par. You’re seeing mostly the reflection of the achar or pickle and the chutney.

I’ve also had the Sunday Home Style Kerala buffet ($11) where there was papadum, palappam, rice, kappa, fish curry, pork fry, duck curry, chicken wings, avial, thoran (a different recipe), payasam, kacheyamoor, chemmendi (a mango chutney, I think), fresh fruit and a couple of other items I didn’t try or get the name of. I don’t know if the chicken wings were tandoori as I didn’t try them because I just didn’t have room but they looked very much like they were. Payasam is the South Indian version of Kheer; invented in Kerala and popular all over South India, it is made with vermicelli instead of rice and includes pistachios, almonds and raisins as served here.

Al la carte I’ve also had the Kappa Fish Curry, a typical Kerala meal with a big bowl of stewed yuca/tapioca served with the Fish curry. The palappam (extra) are great for sopping up the broth of the fish curry and contrasted nicely with the slightly tart, tamarind based broth. As I was having that one of the owners asked if it was too spicy. I assured him as a Native Texan I was having no problems and he said they really tone it down from how it would be served in India so of course I asked if they would serve it that way on request and he indicated they would so if you go, remember that if ordering a dish off the menu.

Continue reading the report here.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Al-Nile Restaurant and Bakery, Grocery and Halal Meat

6502 Bellaire @ Rookin

This is new signage identifying this place as a restaurant. I’ve driven by this place dozens of times, usually heading east on Bellaire on the far side of the street. I’ve noticed it before but never realized it was a restaurant until I was stopped at the light heading west a couple of months ago and could see the signs in the windows advertising Shawarma and Desayunos for $2.99. Hola and selam and welcome to the United Nations of Sharpstown. I could also see that there were tables and chairs in the windows facing the side street.

I wasn’t able to find out much about it online other than it had changed hands recently and was allowed to serve food on reusable plates and with reusable utensils. I hypothesized that a restaurant serving schawarma with Nile in the name might be Egyptian so I read up on Egyptian cuisine before stopping in only to be confounded when I first confronted the menu board. Though I recognized a couple of listings - I guessed Beans and Egg was a reference to Ful Medammes (confirmed a few minutes later) and Falafel - both of which are Egyptian in origin - none of the other dishes looked like the Egyptian dishes I’d read about online, nor did they look like Ethiopian dishes.

There was no schawarma or desayunos but there was a line at the bottom of the board that said Gracias Por Su Visitar. I think the change of ownership is probably a factor here.

It took about 10 minutes before anyone came out from the back. In the meantime I browsed the shelves of the small grocery store where I saw products from Syria, Spain and California, rows of Goya products, mulberry syrup, pickled turnips, and bagala, cumin chickpeas, from Lebanon, bags of masaseca and loaves of both the white and brown injera from nearby Maru Ethiopian Grocery. In the freezer were packages of okra and jute leaves and frozen pita and in the cooler, lassis, Karoun’s yogurt drinks, Bulgarian Feta Cheese and tubs of Abali yogurt, plus non-alcoholic malt drinks from Lebanon and Holland and Arizona Tea.

Two young men sat at a table drinking from glass mugs what I assumed to be coffee; the dishes on their table were devoid of food and piled on the side. At another table 3 people, soon joined by a fourth, talked but they had no food. I’ve since learned they don’t serve coffee here; the beverage was hot tea.

Finally a young man came out from the back and apologized he had not known there was a customer. I immediately began asking about the dishes but his explanations didn’t help much so I just decided to order the falafel and head for home to hit the internet to try to identify some of these dishes. But he said he couldn’t serve the falafel because he was all alone in the kitchen and didn’t have time to make it so I went for the Beans and Egg instead. He said he could have that ready in a few minutes and he would give me a salad, some pita and a hot sauce on the side. At this point I was going to consider my visit a success just to get out with something identifiable and edible but this was sounding pretty good.

He came back out in just a few minutes carrying a tray of food for the table of four. I saw something that looked very much like fufu in a bowl of a red sauce, a small salad and some pita bread - that was all I could get a glimpse of. The food all seemed to be for one man and he immediately started pinching some of the substance in the middle of the bowl off and popping it in his mouth. I thought fufu was a West African thing; does the Nile extend all the way to West Africa? Which of the dishes on the menu board was fufu?

As the man went back into the kitchen I spotted a display case in the corner I had not noticed before with some t-shirts for sale so I went over to take a look and at last got a clue - I saw t-shirts promoting a free and independent state of South Sudan and proclaiming ‘I am a Free Citizen of South Sudan.’ In the clutter on a counter nearby there were several business card holders including one with cards for Dar4 Auto Sales, a car lot in San Antonio, and one for this business itself: Al-Nile Grocery & Halal Meat was the name at that time, with a sub-heading for the restaurant - House of Delicious - Sudanese, African and Middle East.

Okay, so my knowledge of the geography of Africa is a little rusty. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and more of the Nile flows through Sudan that either Egypt or Ethiopia with the White and Blue Niles meeting at Khartoum, the capital. This was before the recent referendum on separating the south from the north had even gotten underway and I’ve never seen any of the t-shirts since.

It was about 10 minutes before my food came out. In the meantime I had selected a powdered sugar cookie from a table of baked goods on display (I’ve since learned the baked goods are produced elsewhere). The food smelled great on the way home. I only recently discovered the dish Ful Medammes but it has quickly become a favorite and I’ve taken to keeping canned fava beans at home because the dish is so easy to prepare and so satisfying; it’s no wonder it’s been around since the days of the Pharaohs. I’ve been experimenting with seasonings and condiments to add when I make it at home and I’ve only had it one time at a restaurant up until this place but now that I look for it I have encountered it on many menus of Middle Eastern and African Restaurants.

This was the best version I’ve had, pungent with cumin, with a nice kick from chile pepper plus lemon juice, piping hot, topped with chopped, ,hard boiled egg and a small amount of cheese that I couldn’t identify but might have been feta. My salad had suffered a bit from being closed up with the steaming hot beans and the greens had darked a bit, the pita bread, beautifully golden on both sides, was thinner than any I’ve ever had before and the hot sauce was a real plus - the color of wasabi paste but spreadable, grainy like a mustard, packing a wallop of garlic, chile pepper and lemon juice. The large powdered sugar cookie had a date filling. This turned out to be a very satisfying first visit after all.

I hit the internet and immediately began finidng the dishes I remembered from the menu - Molokhiya, Aseeda, Tagalia, Tamia (these are the internet spellings).

On another visit a couple of weeks later I hoped to find Tamaaya and Shorba on the menu, two dishes I had read about online that intrigued me the most, but neither were available (the former is ‘Sudanese Green Hamburger,’ the latter a lamb stew from Khartoum with vegetables and spices, seasoned with peanut butter and lime). The falafel was not available again nor was my second choice so I settled for the Mo Khia (the spelling on the menu board). This is actually another dish of Egyptian origin, some say created by the Jews during their stay in Egypt. Molokhiya or jute leaves or Jew’s Mallow is a plant in the same family with okra and it has the same properties as okra, adding a thick mucilaginous texture to dishes. The stew included chunks of lamb. The sliminess didn’t bother me at all but jute doesn’t have much taste, less than spinach, no where near as much as collards or mustard greens.

I was given a choice of accompaniments, injera, pita or rice and went with the injera. Kissra is the staple bread of Sudan, made of corn or wheat, typically, but I was told it’s the same thing as injera and they don’t make their own here, they just serve the injera from Maru. I got three pieces of the white injera and proved to be a bad choice - it didn’t hold up to the thick stew at all, dissolving almost immediately when I tried to use it to pick up the pieces of lamb. It is common in Sudan to eat with the bare fingers of the right hand and it was quite messy; fortunately plastic utensils are provided. The very fresh injera didn’t even hold up to the simple salad of lettuce, chopped tomato and cucumber, sans dressing of any sort, nor the hot sauce (Shata it’s called) which accompanies everything here.

The stew got a little boring. I’ve read one reason people don’t find African food very interesting is they use a lot less salt than we are used to in the West so I looked around for a salt shaker but saw none, nor was there a pepper shaker. Then I realized I probably was supposed to add the Shata to the stew but by that time the Shata was all gone - I had polished it off like it was a side dish (I’ve got to do something about my garlic addiction, I guess). I was subsequently to learn I was using the injera wrong, too.

Continue reading the report here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The News that Fits plus Pfft!s

Good News about Sweet n Namkin - they're now open starting at 11am Tuesday through Saturday. Tuesday thru Friday they close at 10pm, 11pm on Saturday. Sunday hours are 10am to 9pm.

They've also been expanding the menu and there is a small lunch buffet plus specials every day. There are also more choices on the Gujarati Thali, available everyday and the daily special on Saturday.

And Pfft! - they were gone:

Bad news, though, about Huarache Azteca Express in Stafford, one of my two favorite taquerias. Apparently it changed hands some time back and the name was changed to Huarache Antojitos Mexicanos, then it closed. There has been a for lease sign in the window but it has been taken down so maybe there'll be a new tenant soon.

Also gone is El Caracol, a Honduran restaurant on Bissonnet in the same center with Caribbean Cuisine. Not many people ever heard of it and that's a shame because it was the best Honduran food I've encountered in Houston and had a friendly staff, a rarity at Honduran places. Must've been just a bad location - out of the way and a cuisine that not many people go out of their way to try.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sheger Restaurant

5506 Bellaire, Suite C

Unlike the Sudanese restaurant I happened upon recently where it took me a quarter hour to get a clue about what cuisine I was about to experience, this one's sign gives it away: those are the colors of the Ethiopian flag. I've also learned Sheger was an old name for Addis Ababa in one of the regional dialects.

They've been open since September. I've passed by numerous times without ever noticing them because they're easy to miss, back from the street, not facing the street, and with no street side sign.

The room is large, sparingly appointed. The young hostess was very pleasant and personable.

I went with the Yesiga Wat. I'd never had this before at an Ethiopian restaurant but had seen it mentioned in a thread about beef stews on a discussion board and wanted to try it. Beef stew my foot! I know a bowl of chili when it's served to me and that's what this is - the Ethiopian version of chili. And damn good, too. I wonder if any competitors in chili cookoffs have considered using niter kibbeh and mitmita in their recipes? It came with just a generous side of aib, the Ethiopian cottage cheese made from buttermilk, and 3 pieces of injera.

The menu does not list any beverages but there were perhaps 2 dozen beers and a few wines displayed behind a counter/bar. There is a section set aside for the Ethiopian coffee ceremony but after finishing off the wat I didn't think I had room for even one cup of coffee without exploding.

I'm kind of swamped with places I'm investigating right now so it will probably be some time before I get back by but I am very happy we have another Ethiopian restaurant in town. Although they have escaped notice so far the word is out in the Ethiopian community, apparently; I was alone at first just after noon, by the time I left 5 tables were occupied.

Sheger Restaurant

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gimme them old-time burger stands - Mr. CharBurger

10029 Telephone Road at Swiftwater

History is one of my hobbies and I was reading an article online about Telephone Road recently and saw a mention of this place. I remembered the last time I picked up someone at Hobby in the evening I had seen a little hamburger stand as we headed down Telephone to the Beltway and meant to go back and try it so I thought I knew exactly where it was and I headed out one day, hungry for an old time burger, without bothering to look up an address. I almost came home hungry. I drove up and down Telephone several times without spotting it (or the burger stand I thought I remembered seeing). Then I spotted. It was on the other side of the street from where I had been looking and there is no street-side sign. I never did find the one I thought I remembered seeing.

I went planning to try the charburger, perhaps a chili cheese charburger to compare to Bellaire Broiler Burger if they had one, but as soon as I saw the Smoko Burger on the menu I had to have it.

One of my fond memories of food as a kid is of a hickory sauce burger from a place in Wharton called Mayer’s as I recall. My mother insisted on making all our meals from scratch at home, even after working an 8 hour day as a secretary, and we ate out only when we were traveling. We planned our trips to arrive at some place we had heard about in time to eat - Cottonwood Inn in La Grange, the nearest Leslie’s Fried Chicken, and Mayer’s, among them.

From the first time we all tried the burger at Mayer’s, we were hooked, everybody in the family. A 4" bun (there was only one size bun back then, I think), a thin patty, chargrilled, hickory smoked sauce, onions and pickles. That’s all there was. It was great and we didn’t know anywhere else to get one. We didn’t have much reason to go through Wharton on our trips, but we made the detour to get one of these things many times.

I knew the Smoko Burger had to be the same thing and I went right for it without asking any questions. Mr. Charburger probably dates to the 1950s. The enclosed area in front has probably been added since then and there is only a single concrete table with benches on the side of the building at which to eat. Everybody else was getting their burgers to go. A nice Vietnamese lady runs Mr. Charburger these days.

Portions have gotten a lot bigger than they were when I was a kid, and somehow, as if by magic, appetites, have grown to accommodate the larger portions. The bun was much bigger and thicker, the patty, too. They hadn’t made very good use of their charbroiler, there were barely any charring marks on the patty nor charred taste. I couldn’t believe how many onions there were on this - at least 1/4 cup, maybe a third; likewise the pickles. I never would have eaten a burger with that many raw onions as a kid. The sauce was too thick and it should have gone on top of the meat, not directly on the bun, and, and, and....

Wait a minute, am I complaining too much? Yes, I am. If I had been that picky about my food as a kid, my parents would have dropped me off beside the road somewhere west of Ozona and never looked back.

The truth is, I loved this. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for but I've had several nostalgic, retro-food experiences lately and none have been as enjoyable as this, although I did get a good laugh at a certain Tex-Mex place I hit where I had to restrain myself to keep from cackling out loud about how bad the food was. But here, for just a few minutes as I savored my Smoko Burger, I was a kid again, sitting in the backseat of my Dad’s Rocket 88 as we headed out on one of our family treks, eager to get on the road and play the only game my family ever played that I ever had a chance of winning, being the first to identify the make of the oncoming cars (I had better eyesight that the rest of the family).

Thanks, Mr. Smoko Charburger. You made my whole week and I loved every bite, every minute of it.