Sunday, May 26, 2013

Freddy's Frozen Custard and Steakburgers

FM 529 @ Highway 6, Copperfield

I was urged by a friend way up north to try this place.  It’s a chain out of Wichita and I found some very favorable comments online alleging  it’s the best fast food burger ever and better than In-n-Out.  I don’t know about that last comparison since I’ve never been to In-n-Out but the website does make it appealing suggesting Freddy’s may be Wichita’s counterpart to our own James Coney Island or Prince's as an iconic local eatery.

They smash the meat down on the grill as it fries like Smashburger, they butter their buns and serve frozen custard like Culver’s, and they call their burgers steak burgers like Steak and Shake - that’s the competition.  It didn’t take much arm twisting by my friend to get me to check this out.  I know Houston is a hamburger mecca and I have my own favorites form Bernie’s and the Burger Guys and old time standbys  like Christian’s, Sparkle’s, Someburger and Cream Burger, but I like the thin, old fashioned patties and in the heat of last summer I was willing to check out some new custard.  I don’t ever go to long established chains anymore, even Whataburger.  That’s not a matter of self-denial or self-righteousness, it’s simply that my life is very relaxed these days and the only reason I ever have to hit a place like that is the need for speed.  But I’ve checked out every other new burger franchise to come to town in recent years (except Carl Jr.’s), just to see if any of them actually have managed to re-invent the wheel and I was willing to give Freddy’s a shot.

The first location of Freddy’s opened in Copperfield almost a year ago and I was there to check it out within the first 2 or 3 days of operation; that proved to be a mistake.  They learn on the job at Freddy’s, apparently; my cashier was learning how to work the register on the job with her manager actually doing most of the tapping of the touch screen.  I also came to the conclusion whoever grilled my burger was learning on the job - the patties were pressed down as thin as tortillas and spread out much larger than the bun, not only crispy but charred around the edges.  I also misunderstood the ordering system and got a dry burger without enough condiments to make up for the well done meat.  I also noted both the meat and the fries were under-salted.

I was sure that’s not what I was supposed to get so I went back a couple of months later and had a much more satisfactory experience.  I also got to try the custard and the chili.  The chili was the most impressive item I’d had.  I got it to go and got hung up on the way home by a plant fire along 529 that had the highway completely shut down so it was just a sludge by the time I got home (all the cheese had melted) but I thought it promising; even at that stage it was better than Wendy’s or Steak and Shake’s chili.

I returned recently for another round but the ordering system continued to confound me.  I’m so used to just being able to say ‘all the way’ if the toppings aren’t specified that I'm afraid I'll forget to include everything I want: on an Original Double - cheese, lettuce, tomato, and grilled onion, plus the pickle and mustard that come as standard.  The grilled onions are necessary to add a little grease to make up for the patties which have little and the others are necessary to add more moisture. They aren't apparent in the picture but they use those elongated, slightly thicker pickle slices so you should get pickle in every bite.   There wasn't enough mustard for my taste but this was a pretty good burger.  Once again both the meat and fries were under-salted.  There are salt shakers on the table and I discovered too late they have shakers of Freddy’s special seasoning on the condiments table.  I had seen the shakers for sale but there are none on the tables and only a few on the condiments table to use - that would probably help the patties and the fries.  There is also a dispenser of Freddy’s special french fry sauce, which seems to be a blend of just mayo and ketchup, to be added to the burgers or the fries for a little more oomph.  There are also bottles of Cholula.   I like the loose texture of the cooked patties and I do like these old fashioned style burgers.  I like the shoestring fries, too.  When they’re hot and fresh they are just a little gummy but as they cool off, which happens very quickly since they’re so thin, they do get gummier.

The chili, however, was a disappointment this time around.  There’s just way too much cheese added as a condiment - onions too, for that matter  - and even though not all the cheese has melted this has become a chili flavored melted cheese dish.   Somewhere in rather recent history it has become all the rage to garnish a bowl of chili with a ludricous amount of cheese and what is supposed to be a meat and spices dish has become a meat and cheese dish.  Nothing kills the spices in a bowl of chili, the cumin and the chile peppers and other spices, as quickly as cheese.  Sorry Freddy, but I’m very picky about my chili.  I still think there’s a basic chili here that’s better than Wendy’s or Steak and Shake; next time, I’ll try it without the cheese or with the cheese on the side.

Best fast food burger ever?  Naw.  I'll stick with my old favorite, Someburger in the Heights.  I can't compare this very well to the old standby chains as I haven't been to any of them, including Whataburger, in about 5 years or so.  Of the recent crop of burger franchises to come to town, however, both Smashburger and Five Guys have better meat, I think, but since I don't care for the buns at Smashburger, that leaves only Five Guys. Maybe with a light sprinkle of the special seasoning, Freddy's would edge ahead.

Another location has now opened in Katy and there's one in Bryan.  They're moving into the Houston market slower than they moved into other Texas markets.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

East Africa and Middle East Restaurant

 6121 Hillcroft, Suite B





All of the buzz about Houston’s dining out scene in recent months both nationally and locally has been about the emerging chef-driven restaurant scene inside the Loop.  But Houston’s stature as a fantastic place to experience ethnic cuisines as offered by small Mom and Pop restaurants hasn’t gone away, it continues to grow and mature.  Last year I was thrilled to find several restaurants offering regional variations of Indian cuisine; so far this year, it’s been the Middle East and Africa.  In just the last couple of months I’ve come across Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Turkish-Italian (I think that’s what the guy said) and Somali places that are new to me, anyway.

I guess I’m like most Americans in that I know very little about Somalia and most of what I know has come from the headlines over the last 15 years or so and hasn’t been positive.  So I was surprised when I started to read up on Somalia to learn that because of its colonial history and location on a major trade route, Somali cuisine over the centuries has been influenced by several of the world’s most notable cuisines including Italian, Turkish, Ethiopian, Indian and Chinese.  Both rice and pasta dishes are served, sometimes on the same plate which are known as Federation dishes. The cuisine is an un-like the foods of West Africa as Tex Mex and Scandinavian and even bears little resemblance to neighboring Ethiopia.

East Africa restaurant has recently undergone a change of ownership and its menu is in flux.  There are no printed menus and many of the dishes listed on the menu board are no longer offered.  Sharwarma, a couple of Eritrean stews - zegnis - and moofu, a Somali version of cornbread are some of the dishes I wanted to try but couldn’t.  Much of the menu uses English only; there are relatively few Somali terms used and the two young men who run the place both speak good English and are very easy to communicate with and ask questions.

On my first visit I was told goat is a specialty so I went with a goat dish, Goat and Rice.  This was also available with spaghetti but I was told more people order it with rice and it appears to be a common dish at Somali restaurants elsewhere.  The goat is so good, I wound up having something with goat for all my visits except one.  If I hadn’t been told it was goat I would have guessed it was lamb.  When I first looked at the plate I thought I was going to be experiencing some mango/banana rice, which sounded very interesting, but alas it was just slices of potato on top; I thought the potatoes were superfluous but otherwise the rice was excellent.  They do as good a job with the rice here as they do goat.  This came with a small, simply dressed salad and a beverage of choice - I went with the Somali tea., shaah.

Bananas are a regular accompaniment to Somali meals, presented on the side, unpeeled.  I was saving them for the end of the meal, even taking them home, but then I read a Somali blog and learned the banana is usually eaten along with the meal, alternating bites or sometimes even mixed in with the rice or pasta, the sweetness of the fruit serving as a counterpoint to the savoriness of a dish or a hot sauce which here is a house-made concoction with jalapeno, garlic, lemon and cilantro I believe.  The Somali blogger said rice or pasta without a banana just didn’t taste right and the proprietor of East Africa said probably 95% of Somalis eat the banana with the meal but he personally prefers to eat it at the end.  Some of the customers I’ve observed have taken the banana with them when they left and others have gone off and left it on the table.  I suspect this may have something to do with the quality of bananas available here vs. those in Somalia.  More about Somali bananas below.

On another visit I stopped by after running some errands and was anxious to get home with threatening weather making its presence known so I grabbed Angelo and Chicken to go.  Angelo is one of the staple breads of Somalia, usually compared to the Ethiopian injera.  It is also spelled with an ‘r’ instead of an ‘l’ and with a ‘c’ in front as in canjero or even canjeero.  Though it resembles injera there are significant differences - angelo is made from wheat flour not teff, it is smaller in diameter, about 9 inches vs. 13 or so, and it is thinner.  The elastic properties of wheat make this possible and angelo is less likely to disintegrate in contact with a wet dish like a stew and doesn’t tear as easily.  It is also fermented a lot less than injera, typically only a few hours or a day and so is noticeably less sour.  The angelo here has a little sugar in it and contrasts even more with injera.  It is used sometimes as a plate like injera and also as a utensil, it may be eaten alongside a meal or just by itself as an accompaniment to tea, especially for breakfast.  It actually is more comparable to a crepe than injera, I think, and it really made this dish.  There are four pieces in the picture.  A couple of pieces of this would make a very good snack with a cup of sweet and spicy Somali tea.

The other bread served at East Africa is malawah (also spelled malawax).  From the spelling and composition this is obviously related in some way to the Yemeni malawach which I encountered at Saba’s Kosher Café on Fondren.  Brought to Israel by Yemeni Jews malawach  has become very popular but whereas malawach is a layered bread made from multiple layers of phyllo like sheets and fried (and picks up a lot of grease in the process in my experience) and thus is comparable to Indian paratha, Somali malawah is served in single sheets (there are four on the plate).  The batter contains some egg and more sugar than angelo.  This is listed on the menu board with beef and maybe chicken but I asked if I could have it with some more goat.  I used the malawah as a utensil, pinching up the food and bringing it to my mouth. The combination of the savoriness and saltiness of the meat, the still slightly crisp vegetables contrasting with the slight egginess, caramelized sweetness and crispness of the malawah made for some of the tastiest mouthfuls I’ve had so far this year. 

I did not know that bananas were grown in Somalia but I've learned Somali bananas are known for their sweetness and are highly prized in Italy and Saudi Arabia.  Banana production has been decimated in recent years because of the civil unrest, piracy and the lingering effects of an El Nino, but efforts are underway to rejuvenate banana production. Still it’s unlikely we’ll ever be seeing Somali bananas here in Houston.  My one experience with eating the banana along with the meal was not very satisfactory; the banana was a little past prime both in terms of texture and flavors.  But I plan to try again, maybe with a different variety of banana such as a red banana or a burro from Mexico.

The restaurant is back from the street in a u-shaped shopping strip that also includes the Honduran restaurant Coquitos, a 24 hour Central American/Salvadoran restaurant Mondongo, a Desi game room, Sheikh Chilli's and the Pakistani grocery store Gulshan e Iqbal and formerly housed a location of the Pakistani sweets shop Dilpasand Mithai.  The menu board includes some breakfast dishes but I don't know for sure that the restaurant is open for breakfast under the new ownership.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dandanah Cafe & Grill

2707 Fountainview

I first happened upon Dandanah a couple of months ago, wandering around in the Galleria area, a part of town I usually avoid, trying to find my way home after spending several days in a dentist’s chair.  When I discovered they offered Egyptian cuisine it redeemed the whole ordeal. 

Some of the most common dishes served in Middle Eastern cuisine originated in Egypt, among them falafel and ful medammes, but this is the only restaurant in Houston I know of offering more of the special dishes of the country’s cuisine.

 Though falafel originated in Egypt, where it is called ta meyya, the version served everywhere else differs from the original.  The Egyptian version is made from cooked, mashed fava beans instead of ground chickpeas.  The Falafel Platter at Dandanah comes with 5 rather large patties, along with vermicelli rice, hummus and pita bread.  It’s a rather generous spread for the price.  The interior texture was kind of mushy, which I sort of expected, but on another occasion, the patties had more of a fine cake-like texture.  I liked that a lot better.  A house-made hot sauce (shattah) was offered (it hadn’t arrived in time for the picture) but I found it too vinegary for my taste and anyway the creamy tahini sauce was excellent.  The falafel has a very mild, pleasant level of heat itself.  The Wikioracle says Egyptians like their hummus served with lots of olive oil and it seem the Wikiwriter got that right.  The mild Middle Eastern pickle assortment was a hit - pickled cauliflower, cucumbers, turnips, carrots, and olives - and the pita bread, fresh out of the brick oven was too.  It was still puffed up and stayed that way - it had been baked beyond the point of being pliable and the stiffness, almost cracker-like though not brittle, proved ideal for scooping up all that hummus. Unfortunately the vermicelli rice was dry and at room temp; it was a shortcoming of the kitchen I encountered on one other visit, too.

Koshari is sometimes called the national dish of Egypt, a version of the ‘mess of pottage’ from Biblical times.  Having just been wowed by the .mujaddara at Dumar’s and another version at Jersusalem Halal Meat Market, I was eager to try the Egyptian version.  The basics of the dish are brown lentils, a grain and caramelized onions.  The Egyptian version uses rice instead of cracked wheat and adds macaroni with garnishes of a tomato sauce and chickpeas.  This came with more of the tomato sauce and some of the hot sauce on the side.  The drill is to add the sauces to taste, turning it into a dish to your liking.  Apparently some people make this into a rather soupy dish but I never managed to get it adjusted where it tasted right to me.  The caramelized onions were pretty much negated by the blandness of all the rice and macaroni and I found myself wanting some more spice since I found the hot sauce again too vinegary. 

There are only a couple of dishes listed as spicy on the menu but I decided I needed to try them since I prefer spicier food and the Kebda Es Kandarany proved to be just the ticket - fried liver, Alexandria style.  Fried liver is said to be a specialty of Alexandria and there probably isn’t much competition from other cities in that category I would guess.  I’ve never had either a big aversion nor big attraction to liver but it does have that stigma of being ‘good for you.’  This was easily the best fried liver I’d ever had - bite sized pieces of beef liver, speckled with bits of red and green peppers including the seeds, seasoned with lemon juice and cumin.  This came with a portion of the pickles plus tahini that had itself been spiced up a bit, and a fresh, hot, pliable pita.  Though only an appetizer it was a generous sized portion and proved to be a meal for me as liver is pretty filling.

Making use of their brick oven Dandanah offers pizzas with both Italian and typical Middle Eastern toppings plus Hawawshy, the Egyptian version of pizza which is kind of a cross between manakeesh or Lebanese pizza and an empanada.  There are only two version on the menu and I wanted the special one with pastarma but had to ask if I could have it spicy.  I was told I could have it spicy or mild.  Now I’m wondering if I could have had the same options with the other dishes that I found too bland for my taste.  The filling is a typical Middle Eastern minced beef with onions and parsley such as would be used for kofta or kubideh and had some finely minced pastarma, the seasoned, air-dried beef, added, and it was good and spicy, This was the best entree I’ve had yet at Dandanah and I wish they had more varieties of Hawawshy on the menu.

There are some special beverages including Karkade, the Egyptian hibiscus tea, a deep burgundy beverage served just barely sweetened, tasting like a slightly citrusy cranberry drink but without quite the acidity of cranberry.  You can add more sugar or sweetener to taste at the table.  I had this with the liver, a generous 20 oz glass with a free refill and it’s part of the reason the appetizer was enough for a meal. 

Another special beverage is Sahlab, the Middle Eastern hot drink based on ground orchid roots.  I had this with the Koshari and it arrived at the table frothy, preceeded by it’s fragrant bouquet.  The authentic ingredient is a very rare and expensive variety of orchid grown only in Turkey and most versions served are based on substitute ingredients I understand.  I’ve never had it before but it is on the menu at at least one Turkish restaurant here.  It came garnished with crushed pistachios, slivered almonds, raisins and grated coconut and it not only redeemed that meal, it made my day.  You get protein, fiber, micronutrients and some aromatherapy all as part of the package.

Among the deserts I tried the Konafa, the Middle Eastern cheese pastry, a layer of mild, white feta like cheese sandwiched between layers of grated coconut and vermicelli, drizzled with simple syrup, garnished with crushed pistachios and raisins and lightly grilled on each side.  I never had room to try the Um Ally, the Egyptian national desert, variously described as a raisin cake or bread pudding.  I understand it is made with phyllo but I was told it needs to be consumed hot and doesn’t travel well or I would have gotten some to go.  I’ll have to make a special trip sometime just for desert.

The menu includes lots of the more standard dishes of Middle Eastern restaurants including schwarma, kofta, kibbeh and the like but in keeping with the focus of this blog I stuck to the cuisine’s special dishes.  There’s a very pleasant patio overlooking Fountainview, sometimes heavily perfumed from all the hookahs.  The restaurant has a couple of times been short on servers.

Dandanah Cafe and Grill