Thursday, July 28, 2011

Taco Keto

1401 Cullen

I first heard of this taco truck a couple of years ago but never caught it open until recently. The owner is from Guerrero and there's a unique thing about their tacos. What they're known for is the enchiladaded tortillas used. Actually what I observed was dabbing some of the salsa roja on the tortillas on the griddle rather than dipping them, but the effect is pretty much the same and the tortillas fluff up some as they are grilled besides absorbing the flavors of the salsa. You get only one tortilla per taco here, at least with the corn (didn't try the flour if they even offer it), and fillings are perhaps a mite skimpy, but the extra step with the tortillas makes a big difference flavor-wise. I found myself craving more of these before I even got back home. As you can see, they also use grilled onions, and a generous amount, and the other unique ingredient is potatoes. I wasn't too sure about that last ingredient so asked for no potatoes on the al pastor (top) and potatoes on the fajita (bottom), but I wound up with no potatoes at all and all the onions on the al pastor. There was a breakdown in communications between the two workers on the truck, apparently.

Oh yes, another thing - parking is virtually non-existent: they're in the parking lot of a tire shop. I drove a block away to the parking lot of a rather infamous Kroger in a torrential downpour that lasted about 3 minutes to dig in.

I'll be going back to this truck again.

Open only Tuesday thru Saturday, 11a to 11p.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cedars Bakery

8619 Richmond, previously reported on in my Vegetarian for a Week, Part 1

Ever since I first read Ellie Nassar's post in 2007 about Labib's in Beirut my mouth has been watering for mana'ish, so when I first came across Cedars a month or so ago and saw they called some of their offerings manakeesh (there are many spellings) instead of just Lebanese pizza, I had to rush over to try it.

I had the kafta manakeesh, apparently the same meat that would be formed onto skewers and served as kafta kabobs. There are only a couple of manakeesh on the menu with other offerings labeled pizza and bread and whether they cook them on a saj or not I don't know, but I was wowed by this. Talk about aromatic - I was almost knocked back from the table by the aroma of the sizzling, flavorful and juicy topping. The crust, just their thin pita I think, is thin enough to be flexible a la a New York pizza. They also serve a couple of wraps, including a sojok and manakik, both being sausages, and schawarma on the weekends.

Edit to Add: I have since learned there are two types of manakeesh - those baked in an oven, as here, which are more like pizza, and those baked on a saj which are more like a crepe.

Cedars Bakery

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Kolache Shop

120 S. Hwy 288 B @ Main Street, Clute

Behold the celebrated and award-winning Jalapeno Pig. It was named Grand Champion of the state of Texas in 2007 in a statewide kolache competition. This place does call their offerings pigs-in-a-blanket rather than sausage kolaches or klobasneks. It’s about twice the size of any I’ve had before, weighing in at about 6 or 6 and a half ounces, with a good chunk of sausage with natural casing, not just a lil’ smokey or breakfast link much less a wiener, with a modest amount of cheese but a generous amount of jalapeno. An extra attraction is the bread, said to be from a family recipe. It’s more of a country style white bread with a coarser grain than most kolaches with a nice crust and crumb. The bread is also available as rolls. The pigs come with or without cheese and jalapeno, of course, and also as ham and cheese. Another option is the Fajita Pig - fajita meat and Monterey Jack in the same bread. Apparently it’s their fastest seller but I didn’t like it nearly as much. I'm a sausage-aholic though, and not much of a fajita fancier.

Their kolaches, in only about a half-dozen varieties, are quite substantial, too, but not as good as some of the best I’ve had from the Original Kolache Shop on Telephone Road or Kountry Bakery in Hallettsville and Schulenberg or Weikel’s outside La Grange.

They’re open only limited hours, 5 to 11 am, Monday thru Friday. The shop is neat on the inside, with booths and a few tables and a very friendly staff as you would expect in a small Texas town. These may not be worth a special trip from Houston to try but if you’re in the area it’s a real good bet for a breakfast nosh.

Vegetarian for a Week, Part 3

See the first part of this report here and the second part here.

On day seven I finally made it to Shiv Sagar for the Dabeli. I’d had this just once before here and thought it was the best I’d had with a wonderfully fluffy, toasted bun but he bun was different this time, seemingly nothing but a store bought hamburger bun, so this was a little bit of a let down. It was still good, though. If you like peanuts, there's a ton of 'em underneath all that sev making for a crunchy good sandwich with plenty of the chutneys to doctor it up.

Walking out I noticed Neeta’s in the same center. I’m sure I’ve noticed it before but it’s never registered and there’s not much about it on line. I guess in a shopping center with Himalaya, Shiv Sagar, London Sizzler, India Grocers and Chandrika Massala, something has to be overlooked?, but I saw the sign in the window about the lunch special Gujarati thali and decided to continue my little experiment for one more day.

This was definitely one of the best meals of the week, putting me in mind of the Gujarati thali at Sweet n Namkin I had been reminiscing about. The tray was not loaded down with as many elements as the thalis at Shiv Sagar and Shri Balaji and made for a perfect light lunch. The katoris are, I think, the smallest they make, about 1/2 cup or so. They also have a ‘combination plate’ lunch special which I think includes a sampling of their meat dishes; those plates were coming out a lot faster than my vegetarian thali but I was very pleased with what I got. The Navratam Korma, which I think is what the katori at 9 o’clock contained, was slightly sweet, something I’ve never encountered before, as were the shredded potatoes at 2, but I saved the light, cake-like steamed dhokla speckled with black mustard seeds for my ‘dessert.’ It looked like cake anyway, even though it wasn’t the slightest bit sweet and who says dessert has to be sweet?


So what have I learned from this experiment? Not much really. There were a couple of misses during the week, a couple of pleasant surprises, but it proved to be not much of a stretch for me, as I expected. I got meat cravings only once, on day 6. On the way to the courthouse, I passed the exit on the freeway I would normally take to go over to Frenchy’s on Scott and I couldn’t help but think some fried chicken would sure taste good for supper. The thought passed quickly but just to be sure I took another route home.

I could have gone on, I think, but decided 8 days was enough; I have no intention of actually becoming a vegetarian - I will continue to enjoy both vegetarian and carnivorous meals as the urge strikes me. I did wind up going back to Pine Forest Garden on what would have been day 10.

One self-realization was how much I missed exploring and trying new things. I played it very safe for a whole week; other than Cedars, which I’d been to only once before, Neeta’s was the only place I went where I didn’t know in advance what I was going to have or had a good friend to guide me. I missed the anticipation of something or someplace completely new and unknown, even though part of the time they wind up disappointing.

I made the same mistake in the meals I made at home during the week. I laid in an enormous amount of produce for gazpacho, vegetarian greens, squash soup and more, plus apples, oranges, bananas, plums, nectarines, peaches, kiwis and grapes for snacks. But I relied totally on tried-and-true, standby recipes I’ve been making for years instead of trying something new.

If I were to do it all again, I’d include exploration of new recipes as well as new restaurants.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vegetarian for a Week, Part 2

See the first part of this report here.

By Day 4 I was thinking wistfully of the Gujarati Thali at Sweet n Namkin but since that's no longer possible, I pulled a wild card out of the deck and went to Pupusa Buffet, previously mentioned here.

Salvadoran is not a cuisine that springs readily to mind when thinking of vegetarian options but I remembered the one time I went, to the original location on Bellaire just after it opened, I had liked the pupusa con queso y ayote best and I couldn't think of any other pupuseria that even offers one.

I arrived at the Hillcroft location just as lunch service was beginning. My pupusas were just being brought out of the kitchen as I ordered them - two squash and one loroco. Too hot to handle at first, and too soggy, I couldn't wait and dug into the first one using a fork. By the time I'd finished that one, the others were cool enough and dried out enough to pick up and eat. I discovered that the sogginess I had noted on my first visit is not just due to their being on a steam table - they come out of the kitchen that way.

I also got a big portion of the very vinegary curtido, surprisingly spicy for Salvadoran food with two kinds of chile peppers, both in escabeche, and the salsa picante.

Being vegetarian in Houston has got to include some vegetarian Indian and Pakistani fare and I had planned on going to Shiv Sagar for dabeli on Day 5 but got a late start on the day and didn't want to deal with the crowds in Little India on the weekends, so I headed over to Savoy Tika Kabob Restaurant and Grocery on Wilcrest for a couple of their great samosas - chunks of potato, peas, crushed spices, two kinds of chillis, I think - this is still my favorite of the samosas I've found, slightly larger and much spicier. I was going to get an assortment of pakoras, too, but they didn't have any on the menu. The samosas proved to be enough by themselves. The garlic chutney was very garlicky; I hardly bothered with the date/tamarind chutney.

On Day Six I had a jury summons for the afternoon sessions at the county courthouse. With not enough time to go to a restaurant for lunch I made a wrap at home with some of the markouk from Cedars Bakery using some vegetarian shrimp I had picked up recently at San San Tofu (made from milk whey protein), lettuce, daikon, cucumber, and, for lack of anything better, salsa. It was quite good. In fact, I made another one for dinner. I forgot to take pictures both times as I usually don't take pictures of my home meals, so that's just a picture of the markouk, right out of the bag, all folded up. The sheets unfold to 21" in diameter.

Go to the 3rd part of this report here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Vegetarian for a Week, Part 1

After reporting on the vegetarian restaurant Quan Yin recently I made the observation that I sometimes think about becoming a vegetarian, not for ethical, health or religious reasons but just because the food at Houston vegetarian restaurants is so good. But I never thought about doing it on a dare.

A couple of weeks later one of the moderators on eGullet announced he was going to try to go vegetarian for a week and challenged other eGulleteers to join him. The response was a little underwhelming at first but I was interested. His thread is really about cooking vegetarian rather than dining out so I'm posting about my dining out adventures here.

Of course I know people, including many of my relatives, who are of the firm belief that they will keel over and die, possibly within mere minutes, if they don't have meat at every meal, but I have long liked my veggies at least as much as meat. I was a vegetarian for about 6 or 8 months back in the 70s and most of my meals at home these days are meatless unless they include take-out or leftovers. Though I keep fish on hand in the freezer and there's probably some pork and chicken somewhere in there too, I bought beef to prepare at home only twice all of last year. I don't think I've gone as long as just 48 hours without meat in a long, long time but I didn't think this would be much of a stretch for me.

After a false start one morning when I absent-mindedly munched on some leftover cha lua from Banh Cuon Tay Ho as part of breakfast, I started in earnest with lunch at Cedars Bakery, 8619 Richmond. I'd been to this Middle Eastern bakery/cafe only once before and enjoyed a kafta manakish and remembered they had a veggie pizza on the menu, specifically the Harhoura Veggie Pizza.

Just what the difference between a manakish and pizza is here I'm not sure; they both appear to be cooked in the same brick-lined, gas-fired oven on the same thin pita bread crust. At least I never saw a saj, the domed cooking surface that a manakish is typically cooked on. But while the manakish was cut in quarters and was thin and flexible enough to be foldable like a New York style pizza, this was cut in thin wedges and wouldn't hold up when picked up. With no cheese on the pizza, the toppings just toppled off. It was just chopped tomato, onion and bell pepper but did have a very nice heat level, which is kind of unusual for Middle Eastern food in my experience. A couple of their other pizzas may be meatless, too. I should have asked first.

I did pick up a package of their beautiful, aromatic, tissue paper thin markouk, the thinnest flat bread I've ever encountered, and it was very useful in the ensuing week in meals I prepared at home.

My friend Ziggy Smogdust has been telling me about Pine Forest Garden, 9108 Bellaire, for at least a couple of years. The chef adheres to strict Buddhist vegetarian cuisine principles and it's one of Ziggy's favorite restaurants. I'd been just once and asked Ziggy to meet me there and help me pick the good stuff for lunch on Day Two.

The best thing on the first plate was the fried tofu skin wrap at 11 o'clock, wonderfully juicy with a crisp and crunchy, fresh tasting filling that I never took the time to examine, thinking I was going to make a second pass at the buffet and get another one. I'm pretty sure it had some sort of sprouts in it and possibly some nuts. I also enjoyed the turnip cake and the long beans and zucchini; the long beans still had a good bite to them. The greens in the middle of the plate were something of a mystery (the buffet is not labeled); Ziggy had always thought they were Chinese broccoli but Samuel, the chef, recognized Ziggy and came over to chat. He told us what they were - the Chinese name - and I cannot recall it. My guess would be Chinese mustard greens. The mock meat at 1 o'clock was even more of a mystery; neither one of use could figure out what it was supposed to be. It had a texture more like pieces of chicken skin than muscle meat which wouldn't have been bad had I not be expecting a fibrous texture like meat.

New things are constantly being brought out for the buffet and on my second pass through either there was no more fried tofu skin or I missed it because there were so many other things I wanted to try. By the way, vegetarian food is very filling and I was getting very full already. The big hits of my second plate were the deep fried mushrooms, the tree fungus, aka wood ear mushroom, at 1 o'clock, and the 'salmon croquette.' The deep fried mushrooms were just a little sweet and a little crispy; I could have eaten a whole plate of them. I've had the tree fungus only minced in banh cuon before and never encountered it like this; I loved it. I'm not really sure what the little fried ball was supposed to be but the texture reminded me very much of a salmon croquette. The disks at the top are mock fish. I've had these before in plates from San San Tofu and liked them just fine but here, braised, the texture became too soft and mushy.

Ziggy also had a second plate, with a big piece of the fungus and some sweets which he wanted me to try including lightly deep fried sweet potato and a Buddhist 'jello' - actually a cross between jello and custard in texture - and mango flavored. I'd noticed them on the buffet and just assumed they were pieces of mango and had passed them over. They were, however, virtually impossible to pick up with chopsticks.

Pine Forest Garden is going to be one of my favorite restaurants, too. I'm looking forward to going back sometime to try their dim sum service, from 3 to 5 as I recall.

I had made a list of all the vegetarian restaurants I've been to in Houston and had scheduled a visit to Georgia's Farm to Market on I-10 for Day Three, but I was still full from the feast at Pine Forest Garden and didn't want to deal with the temptation to over-eat at their large salad bar so I opted instead for something much closer to home, Saba's Kosher Cafe, 9704 Fondren @ South Braeswood, previously reported on on this blog.

Saba's has remodeled, possibly to counter the new competition in the neighborhood, and is a nicer room for dining-in now. The menu has been in flux and my favorite item, which I had decided on in advance, the Moroccan Cigars, is not currently on the menu, although they said it will be coming back. I opted instead for the Sabitch Baguette.

I'd had the Sabitch plate before, grilled eggplant, hard-boiled egg, Israeli salad (diced cucumber, tomato and bell pepper) and hummus, which comes with a pita on the side. You can get this as a pita sandwich, too, but this was excellent. There was some hot sauce, I think the Yemeni skhug is what they use, similar to harissa. The server might have noticed some consternation on my face, though, as initially I thought this was going to be a very dry sandwich, so he offered some tahini sauce too. Turned out it didn't need it, though I added it for flavoring, but there was probably at least a quarter cup of hummus on the sandwich and by the time I got through, the oil in the hummus together with the moisture from the salad was turning the lower part of the sandwich rather soggy.

See the second part of this series here.