Saturday, April 30, 2011

Asturias Bakery and Cafe

3852 S. Dairy Ashford, just north of the Westpark Tollway

I have to thank alief foodie for alerting me to this place. I've driven by many times on the way up to Phoenicia or Cafe Caspian, etc., and just assumed it was another Mexican Panaderia. I guess I hadn't looked very closely in some time or I would have noticed the Bistrot 1919 umbrellas and looked into it further.

Asturias is an Argentine bakery and cafe (the menu card calls it a Confiture). It's a little larger than Manena's but about as cramped. There are serve-yourself display cases of breads (Pan Francis, Criollos, Cremonas, Libritos) and facturas (mini Danish), plus cakes, etc. There are packaged cookies on the shelves, baked in-store. I was tempted by a tray of alfajores but I'd better not have a whole dozen of those around. There are Argentine groceries including flours and mixes, ready-baked Boboli type things that I assume are meant to be used for pizza (made in house), Yerba Mate products, La Saltena products, spices, and Argentine cheeses. Frozen products include sausages and some frozen dough, half pints and pints of Trentino gelato from the company started by an Argentine ex-pat here in Houston a few years ago, and more. There are ready-made Sandwiches de Migas, the thin, crustless Argentine sandwiches that I love, in about nine different varieties including palmitos, ham, turkey, and prosciutto, and also some ready made po-boy type sandwiches. I assume you can get those made fresh.

I got a beef empanada plus three facturas and a criollo. The baked rather than fried empanada was heated up in a sandwich press. It had a juicy beef picadillo filling, savory rather than spicy, with a slice of hard boiled egg; this would be similar to the Gaucho at Marini's but not as spicy and with a much thinner, flexible crust. They also have a chicken empanada. The facturas had the typical fillings of crema pastelera, dulce de leche and dulce de membrillo . The Criollo, like the Libritos and Cremonas, is a flaky bun, similar to puff pastry.

The serve espresso and cappuccino and the like, hence the Bistrot 1919 umbrellas on the sidewalk.

The website is in a holding pattern. I've uploaded menu card scans to Urbanspoon.

Aroma Pizza Cafe

6285 Bissonnet @ Hillcroft


This is the newest addition to the small list of Kosher (Dairy) restaurants on the SW side. Located in the same strip center with Sheba Ethiopian Cafe, Hoagie's and More Pupusa, Pho and Banh Mi shop, and El Reyna Tortilleria and Birreria, it's a small, sleekly decorated little cafe. They have a little bigger menu of pizzas than nearby Saba's plus salads, sandwiches, paninis, focaccia, burekas and pastas plus a couple of breakfast dishes. They also serve coffees made with Katz Velvet Espresso.

The Kosher restaurant scene has been active lately with the addition of this one, relocation of Suzie's and remodeling of Saba's that I haven't checked out yet.

There are a number of interesting pizzas. I tried the Sweet Potato Pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, thin slices of sweet potato mimicking pepperoni or Canadian bacon in appearance and thin, wispy strips of red onion on a sesame seed crust. This was driving me crazy with the smell on the way home. The menu hadn't emphasized the sesame seed crust and I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box; I've been on a sesame seed kick lately - sesame laddu, sesame crackers, sesame bread sticks - so this was a plus.

There was a time, decades ago, thankfully, when I was of the persuasion that extra cheese made everything better and always got a pizza loaded with toppings and extra cheese. I'm sure if I was still in that mode I would think that stuffed crust or 4 cheese pizzas were the greatest thing since, well, pizza, but my tastes have simplified over the years and I now prefer pizzas with minimal toppings, sometimes just cheese, sauce and fresh tomatoes. This one was very much in line with my tastes with a nice balance of ingredients. The slight sweetness of the sweet potatoes and caramelized onion strips contrasted with the nuttiness and crunchiness of the seeds and the saltiness of the cheese and tomato. I would have liked the crust a little crispier but I liked this one.

Another one that sounded good was the Balkan pizza - sauce, mozzarella, feta, eggplant, zataar and sesame seeds. This one had very strong, competing flavors that didn't work well for me. The zataar overwhelmed pretty much everything else and the combination of mozzarella and feta also was too much. I was mostly interested in the eggplant as Middle Eastern cuisines do interesting things with eggplant but there was a skimpy amount and I could hardly taste it. I'm sure this works for some people but I didn't like it nearly as much as the sweet potato.

They also have a Red Hot Chilli Pepper pizza with jalapenos and black pepper that I haven't tried and several other combinations plus a pretty standard array of toppings to choose from as add-ons but no meats, of course.

The salads I've seen being served in-house have been large and the paninis have looked good.

Being Kosher it's a little pricier. Ten inch pizzas start at $8.50 and go up to $20 for an 18 inch. The only meat available is tuna, as a salad and a sandwich. And of course they're closed for Jewish Holy Days although they do open an hour after Shabbat and stay open until midnight on Saturday.

Aroma Pizza Cafe

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Haute Wheels

I haven't been following the Food Truck scene in Houston since the first of the year. It's just not swelteringly hot enough to be standing around in a parking lot, breathing the fumes, waiting for a taco or a pocket pie right now. But there's an event coming up that I'm looking forward to, Haute Wheels.

It's Houston's first ever Food Truck festival and it will bring together many of the most interesting mobile vendors for a two day event. Not only that, it's going to be on the Southwest side, on the HCC campus on the West Loop. This will be the closest most of these trucks have ever been to where I live and thus will be the best opportunity to sample many trucks, some of which would otherwise require a lengthy round trip to access.

Note it will cost $16 to get in and that doesn't get you any food. Still, I plan to be there at least one day and if I can't taste everything I want to then, the second day also.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


16338 Kensington Dr., Sugar Land

Pure Indian Vegetarian, The Taste of the Country and The Taste of South are some of the descriptive phrases in the window and on the menu and website for this restaurant. I went down to check out the Chaat House that used to be at this location and was surprised to see it replaced by this. I was even more surprised when the silverware holder on the table and the menu informed me it's part of a chain of more than 50 restaurants across the country. The country referred to is India; there are only a handful of locations in the US, 5 or 6 currently, but more are being added. I don't eat at a lot of chains but I was interested to see how the food might compare to some of my favorite places in Little India. I wondered, do Indians have higher expectations of chain restaurants, higher standards?

The restaurant is based in Gujurat and serves the foods of South India including the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The menu is thick both because of the binding and rather thick stock and also larger type but it is not overly long. In the Idli Stall section are almost a dozen offerings; in the Dashing Dosaz section, well over a dozen. There are Amazing Uthappams, Ravishing Ravas and so on.

I had been anticipating a vegetarian meal but wanted something substantial; there were two vegetable kurmas and I settled on the Chettinad Kurma with a Malabari Porotta. I had no idea what Chettinad referred to but the Wikioracle has revealed to me that Chettinad is a region in Tamil Nadu State that is known for it's spicy and aromatic dishes. I noticed when the dish was placed before me that it was very aromatic and it also proved to be wonderfully spicy. I had wondered if the spices would be tamed down for a chain restaurant's clientele which I generally think of being less adventurous eaters but if this had been tamed down at all, the unadulterated version might be outside my comfort zone for heat. There were peas, still with a bit of crunch, carrots, small florets of broccoli and cauliflower, green beans or long beans, a little corn, I think. I was very pleased by the dish; it was one of the two best vegetable kurmas I've ever had and certainly the spiciest. The portion was a little small but kurma is very filling and I left satisfied.

I was given a choice of steamed rice or Malabari Porota to accompany this. I've been eating almost exclusively Indian and Thai food for several weeks and was getting tired of rice so I went with the Porota. The Malabari Porota is produced by rolling out the dough in a long thin strip, coiling it up into a multi-layered circle about the size of a corn tortilla and then frying it. It proved to be very good, easily torn into pieces and excellent for sopping up the kurma. It was smaller than other porotas/parathas I've had.

This is outside my usual grazing range and I don't turn to chain restaurants very often but a few days later, hungry for some Indian food, I thought I'd give it another try to see if my first impressions held up. There was a problem, though. The restaurant was in it's first 2 weeks of operation and there were recurring equipment problems; 2 of the first 4 times I tried to eat there they weren't open when the sign said they should be, some dishes could not be prepared and the kitchen was slow overall. They were also very short staffed. I think all these problems have been taken care of by now. I tried again a couple of days later and caught them open.

According to the corporate website the company operates a chain of pizza parlors called Uncle Sam's and a chain of Northern Indian barbecue grill places called Saffron offering both meat and vegetable grilled items; all locations of both chains are in India. I wondered if any of the items from those menus also made it onto the Sankalp menu and I did find one pizza, a Chennai Pizza Uthapam. I wasn't in the mood for pizza, however, so I went for a quesadilla.

This is the Madurai Sandwich Uthappam. The way it was described by the waitress and the way it looks I thought: This is an Indian vegetarian quesadilla (there is a cheese version with paneer). This was two thin, light uthappams, more pancake-like than any Uthappams I've had, layered with peas and carrots and curry paste and maybe a few other vegetables, garnished as you see. It brought a smile to my face plus it was tasty. Madurai is a city in Tamil Nadu; I don't know if this is a typical dish there or a creation of the restaurant's menu development department but I don't care how authentic it is - it was tasty and fun and I was encouraged to try more of their Uthappams. The waitress said you could pick it up and eat it like a sandwich if you liked but I think it would have been pretty messy.

The Uthappam came with a dipping bowl of the house coconut chutney and was preceded by a small cup of a spicy and sour Rasam and a cup of Sambar, plus four house chutneys. I had seen these being served at other tables but didn't get any with my Kurma. The portions of Rasam and Sambar were small but a server came around offering to refill both, even offering to leave the saucier on the table. The chutneys included, from the left, Coconut, Gunpowder, Mint/Coriander/Chile Pepper and Garlic. I went straight for the garlic chutney and was sure it was going to be my favorite until I tried the coconut and mint/coriander concoctions. Those were all good but I didn't get much spice or flavor or anything out of the gunpowder chutney. I learned on a subsequent visit that gunpowder chutney is produced from ground spices, ground lentils and oil and the ingredients tend to settle. You have to dig down in the cup and stir it up to get the spices and flavor, at the top is mostly oil.

With this meal I also ordered the restaurant's version of Chhas, the Indian buttermilk, which is also referred to as Neermore on the menu. As served here is was thicker than any I've had before, the same texture as American cultured buttermilk but not as sour; it was not as spicy with cumin and cilantro as others I've had but I liked it.

I had decided Sankalp was worthy of a blog post, perhaps blowing any credibility I might have as an explorer of off-beat eateries, but I wanted to visit one more time to try something on the Dosa menu. Dosas are a fascinating food, thin, light crepes with a spicy filling. Well, the Masala Dosa is fascinating and can be excellent. My favorite is at Shri Balaji Bhavan. But every time I've tried other varieties of dosas I've been disappointed. The menu here offers 2 dosa combination plates, the Three Barrel Dosa, one of them being Nilgiri that I can remember, and the Dosa Combination Platter and I wanted to try one of those to sample three dosas at the same time. I ordered the Dosa Platter which included an achar dosa and a Chennai dosa with seasoned paneer, plus one other I've forgotten. These were described as small but each was about 10 or 11 inches in length. They looked like three large breakfast burritos on the plate. This came with the Rasam and Sambar plus the four chutneys. To my surprise my favorite was the sour and salty achar dosa but overall this was the least satisfying meal of the three I've had; I still don't get dosas, other than the Masala Dosa.

The website of the Sugar Land store is under construction. On the corporate website you can find out more about the company including their Guinness World Record Dosa. Click on the Sankalp page on the home page and then on Menus at the top to see a pdf file of a menu that is close to the menu of the Sugar Land location. On the home page is a link to USA menus but the menus which come up there are very different. Apparently the Sugar Land store has a menu that is closer to what is offered in the restaurants in India than other US locations. I've identified a few items on the menu locally that are not on that corporate menu file and the menu you'll see at the restaurant has more elaborate explanations of the items.

Sugar Land seems to have a substantial Indian community; there are two other Indian restaurants on this short street and I've also eaten at Udipi and the new Indian Spices and Snacks on US-90A in old downtown Sugar Land. It will be interesting to see how this one fares.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mo's Knockout Grill and Mediterranean Food

7918 Kirby  CLOSED

I've been having to spend some time in the Medical Center lately and have checked this place out and wound up returning several times. It's in the space formerly occupied by DJs Old-Timey Hamburgers which was originally a Toddle House, I think.

I have been trying for years to like falafel. Conceptually I should like it but the execution is frequently poor; there must be something about frying little round thingies - hush puppies, oysters, popcorn shrimp, falafel - that stymies the skill set of the average fry cook. Such items too often come out over-cooked. In the case of falafel, this means too hard and thick a crust, dried out interior, or, sometimes, they're grease-soaked. My first bite of a falafel gyro at Mo's was a pleasant surprise and so far they have not let me down. The fry cook, by some accounts, Mo's Dad, has a light touch and the falafel comes out about as perfect as any I've ever had. The picture is of a falafel appetizer plate I had on a subsequent visit and I'm surprised the camera didn't catch the steam rising from the piece I just broke open. Actually, the interior was a little mushy but after resting and cooling off a few minutes, it was wonderfully light, spongy and cake-like, almost. The falafel is not as spicy here as at Zabak's I'll have to admit but since the spices aren't incinerated or charcoalized by over-cooking, it is possible to appreciate the savory bites every bit as much as the ones I've had at Zabak's, which has disappointed me on occasion by serving overcooked falafel with hardened crust.

Another revelation was the pita at Mo's which is steamed, guaranteeing you don't get dried out, leathery bread requiring tearing rather than biting. The piece in the picture was a toasted a bit better than other samples I've had; it was so beautifully toasted on both sides, I was tempted to ask for some butter and syrup and improvise a Middle Eastern pancake.

The kibbeh is also excellent. It's juicy and flavorful lamb with pine nuts and onions. What I particularly liked was the bulgur wheat shell was thinner than what you often get, making for a very favorable meat per kibbeh ratio. These may well be the best kibbeh I've ever had.

The gyro was huge, too big for me at one sitting. I took home about half of that one and calculated the original had about 8 ounces of the beef-lamb mixture.

I've eaten at off-hours and haven't had a chance to look over the shoulder of any other diners so haven't seen any other foods than the ones I've had. I have seen the sharwarma rotisserie in the kitchen and it looks promising.

The fries, which accompany every sandwich, have been disappointing; it's a small serving, which is okay by me, but I wish there was an alternative choice. The biggest disappointment however has been the tzatziki which is thick and creamy, almost a study in congealment, and lacking in garlicky punch and lemony zest.

Mo Abdin was a professional boxer, hence the name of the place. Virtually every available space on the wall is occupied by his boxing memorabilia including his trunks and gloves, WBC Title Belt, and dozens of pictures. The food comes out fast but it's fun taking a few minutes to check some of it out.

I'm glad to know about this place. It joins a very short list of good eateries convenient to the Medical Center.