Saturday, December 24, 2011

Local Foods

2424 Dunstan

This new sandwich shop in the Village, next door to and owned by benjy's, has been getting lots of positive reviews in the short time it's been open, in the press and on user review sites. And unlike the flurry of rave reviews that frequently accompany new places on user review sites, these accolades actually seem to be written by someone other than the owner, sitting at the keyboard, menu propped up alongside. (Disclaimer: I have the menu propped up next to the keyboard, but I am not the owner). Local Foods serves a small menu of sandwiches, soups and salads made from locally sourced ingredients. It occupies the space formerly occupied by the Original Antone's Po Boy shop, which has moved out on Bellaire at Wesleyan.

I had noted the raves about the seafood sandwich with Gulf shrimp and Texas Blue Crab. Well, I have had this thing about seafood of late so I was off to try it.

Very impressive, and a very generous sandwich and sides for the price - tender shrimp and crab with house-made green goddess dressing. Best sandwich ever? as some have raved. Well, I don't know about that but it's certainly in the running as best seafood sandwich I've ever had. I felt I was going to be hard-pressed to bring myself to try anything else on the menu.

For my sides I chose the Tuscan kale with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts and the white bean, bacon, grape tomato and dill and was equally pleased.

My dining companion went for the house-made pastrami with caraway sauerkraut and provolone on rye. He pronounced himself very satisfied. I got to sample only a small bit of this but definitely plan to try one for myself one of these days. He was not that pleased with his sides, red skinned potato, oregano, sherry vinegar and dijon aioli and the quinoa, olive, carrot and oregano. He said they both needed salt; I didn't try either of them.

On another visit, I tried the Avocado, Potato, Leek and Chive soup, topped with house-made potato crisps with a side of the butternut squash, cilantro, red chili and Thai basil. Though I didn't taste much avocado the soup really hit the spot and once again I was very pleased with the side, but at $4 for a 1/3 to 1/2 cup portion, sides ordered a la carte are kind of pricey.

I had seen bags of benjy's blend from Katz's on display on my first visit but didn't spot any coffee being served; on my second visit, there were airpots of coffee, leaded and decaff, in another corner, a welcome addition.

On my first visit on a blustery, balmy autumn day, the doors had been propped open, the winds occasionally gusting into the interior, the trees in the parking lot swaying constantly, I felt far removed from the hustle of the big city, almost like I was at some seaside cafe overlooking a coastline (not the Texas coast, either). I loved the eclectic seating and minimalist decor. My second visit came on a shiveringly cold day, however, and with the doors closed, the hard surfaces of the walls and floor and glass reflecting sounds made the space seem very impersonal and harsh. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the small list of places in the Village I'm willing to hazard the traffic and parking situation to take advantage of.

Local Foods

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Total Catch Market

4410 W. 12th Street

I first heard about Total Catch Market last spring when it opened but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I stopped by to check it out. Since then it’s become a regular Saturday morning trek for me and seafood has been a lot bigger part of my diet that ever before.

Though I grew up within 15 miles of the coast, seafood was never a big part of my family’s diet. The fish we ate came out of the deep freeze or cans, just the way General Electric, Gorton’s, God and Starkist intended. Only occasionally did we go fishing (and even less often came home with anything). I don’t even remember that there were seafood counters in grocery stores back then. Yes, Texas is beef country, right down to the coast.

It’s not as though I don’t like fish; there have been only a handful of fish dishes I’ve had in my life I haven’t liked and I love virtually all shellfish. It’s just that the habit of eating seafood was never formed and has never taken root.

That has changed rather dramatically since I’ve been going to Total Catch. I’ve eaten more seafood in the last couple of months than I usually eat in a whole year. And it hasn’t been farmed catfish, farmed tilapia and farmed salmon but far more interesting and tasty fish, straight out of the Gulf. And I've been eating out a lot less.

Total Catch sells the bycatch of Gulf fishermen, little known but tasty fish that you’re likely to find only at ethnic seafood markets (I’ve seen some of these fish at Fiesta stores, for instance) or not at all unless you catch them yourself. Each Friday they post on their blog what fish they’re going to have the next day, together with some brief descriptions and maybe suggestions for preparation. The market is open starting at 9am on Saturday in the small retail storefront at the Lousiana Foods warehouse on West 12th Street, off of North Post Oak. Get there early or you may miss out completely or have very slim pickings but it does depend on how much catch they have and how big the crowds are, so it varies.

Barrelfish and Triggerfish have been my favorites so far. The triggerfish looks like a fish only it’s mother could love, perhaps, but it’s a very tasty, very firm-fleshed fish. That’s almost a 3 pound fish (it’s about half skull); I did it whole, on the grill, and had fish tacos from the leftovers for a couple of days. The barrelfish (about a 14 oz filet) was even better, with a texture reminding me of pork loin. I’ve had that as filets, steaks and in fish tacos. I was told it is sometimes sold as Bel Grouper (not sure of the spelling as there is no such fish), because it’s similar to grouper. I’ve seen it at one of the Fiestas near me labeled ‘gruper’ with barrelfish in parentheses on the sign.

I”ve also enjoyed the Porgy (I believe that was Silver Porgy) and Blue Runner and the Beeliner or Vermillion Snapper. The first fish I tried was a Blackbelly Scorpionfish but I forgot to take a before picture and the after picture was not a pretty sight as I really overcooked it on the grill - it had been a long time since I grilled a fish. I've also had hake and drum.

One of the things I like about Total Catch is how fresh the fish are. You’re not going to get fresher fish unless you catch it yourself, go down to the coast to get some right off the docks, or shop at one of the few places with fish tanks with a few live species to choose from. There’s much more variety from Total Catch and there's never any fishy smell.

I have also really gotten into this because it appeals to my interest in exploring new and different tastes. Beats me why some of these fish aren’t more popular. Yes, yes, yes, so far I've stuck to fish that actually look like fish! - they get some pretty exotic species in from time to time but mostly they've been gone by the time I get there.

Here’s more on Total Catch from Robb Walsh, the Chronicle, and even a report from Dallas. And don't miss the Professor Fish Heads blog, linked to on the Total Catch blog, for more in depth information about some of the species including a recent article on fish offal.

Now I’m planning on having fish for Christmas, but it’ll be Gravad Lax and Heering from IKEA and possibly a poached salmon not from Total Catch - I’m having my own Julbord celebration. But looking beyond Christmas I know what one of my New Year’s Resolutions will be, and it’s going to be easy to keep - Eat More (Locally Caught) Fish.

See an update on Total Catch Market here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Year's Hallacas Haul

Venezuelan holiday tamales

I got my first taste of hallacas last year with a sample from the El Punto Criollo cart on Beechnut at Highway 6. Of the various nacatamales I've had (Colombian, Guatemalan) I liked it best and went back to get a few more to tide me through the year. I've been hoarding my stash up until a couple of months ago when I finished off the last one, buoyed by the expectation that this year I'd be collecting specimens from the other Venezuelan places around the area.

This year I found three (in order below) - from El Punto Criollo, Tuttopane on Westheimer, and Deli's Cafe in Katy. I called Budare, also in Katy, and the Sabor Venolozano truck on Westheimer and learned they don't have them (or maybe just didn't have them the day I called? - we didn't speak each other's language so I wasn't entirely sure).

None of the samples so far this year were as impressive looking as what I had last year and I'd have to say they weren't quite as tasty, but they still were good. I like my tamales very moist and was a little disappointed in the texture of the masa in the Tuttopane and El Punto Criollo samples and decided to simmer the one from Deli's instead of steaming it. That gave it a little edge over the others, at least for me. All had diced meats (beef, pork, chicken) as opposed to the larger chunks of last year's sample. Besides the meats there are potatoes, onions, pimento, raisins and olives. The potatoes in Deli's were mashed instead of in chunks; I initially didn't think I'd like the mush-like filling but that one did end up my pick of these three while the meat-intensive sample from Tuttopane was my least favorite.

The were all about the same size; prices ranged from $7 to $7.75 with the one from Tuttopane the priciest one. They should be available until year's end or so. I'll probably be going back to get more of each.

(The h is silent in hallacas - ayacas).

Deli's and Tuttopane review on this blog.

The Deli's website is down but here is Tuttopane.

El Punto Criollo review