Wednesday, December 31, 2008

La Roca

Tamaleria, Pupuseria, Panaderia and Taqueria
6407 Bissonnet, right across from Bayland Park

There are more than 2 dozen Salvadoran restaurants listed on b4-u-eat and I’ve been to a third of them and this is my favorite. You can choose table service or some items are readily served from a steam table next to the cashier for quick in-and-out. I’ve done both.

The menu is pretty extensive. I’ve had the riquas which has been basically a thin, elongated corn fritter most times I’ve had it but on the most recent visit was drier, more like a corn pancake. I think this is produced by wrapping the dough or batter in a banana leaf and grilling it rather than steaming it. It’s served with a generous slab of a firm, slightly salty feta-like cheese, like the Mexican cotija but probably Queso Duro, or a dollop of crema Salvadorena. The first time I inquired about it the waitress brought over a plate to examine that had both the cheese and the crema and when she tried to take it away I insisted she leave it so I got both. You can get both for $1 extra but be advised it's a pretty good sized chunk of queso. It’s on the appetizer menu but I saved it for desert as it was quite sweet and so good.

Pupusas come with a variety of fillings, arroz (estilo olocuilta), queso, chicharron, loroco, frijoles, fajita, and, of course, revueltas (mixed) and are the best I’ve had. They’re served so hot you can’t pick them up like you’re supposed to. When they split and the oils from the cheese and meats spill out, it is like they were sauteed in butter.

The curtido is made of more coarsely shredded cabbage than others I’ve had and has sliced carrots instead of shredded and is very vinegary and a bright yellow color. You get an individual fresh serving of it rather than dipping out of a communal crock like at some pupuserias, which I appreciate, and it is the best I’ve had. Every time I’ve had it the vegetables have still been good and crisp.

Tamales are a specialty and are available in either pollo or puerco, both with potato. Some Salvadoran tamales have a gelatinous texture but La Roca’s are positively creamy and delicious - and very, very moist. They are among the best tamales I’ve ever had anywhere and quite addictive. These are served on the plantain leaf they’re steamed in with curtido and are also available piping hot on the steam table, individually wrapped in plantain leaf and foil and usually double-bagged by the cashier because they’re so moist. I stop by to pick one or two up sometimes for a snack and head for a table in the park across the street. You’ll need napkins for your hands just getting them open and a utensil to eat with - they can’t be picked up.

Another option is the tamal de elote. This is pure masa, served with a dollop of Crema Salvadorena. This didn’t seem all that interesting to me until on one visit I saw a tableful of young Salvadoran men having nothing else, 2 or 3 each, and wolfing them down with gusto, and I had to try them. These are served in the corn husk they’re steamed in; they’re very good but I find them a little less interesting and would like them better if steamed in the banana/plantain leaf, but I suppose that would be culinarily incorrect.

The aroma of fresh baked pastries coming from the Panaderia in back is a real plus and I seldom leave without picking up some baked goods. You can serve yourself from a large display of Salvadoran pastries and breads, unfortunately not labeled. You take a tray and a pair of tongs and take your selections to the cashier.

There’s also a small grocery section with a selection of Salvadoran products including coffees. They do not serve tea at La Roca, only coffee (one of El Salvador’s main exports) but I was surprised there are no coffee beans and mostly instant coffees for sale. In the cooler section you can find gallon jars and pillow packs of Crema Salvadorena or Hondurena, several Salvadoran and Honduran cheeses, tropical sodas and other products.

My waitresses have all been friendly and helpful though none of them were really fluent in English. The cashier usually speaks English.

The biggest drawback I’ve encountered is the limited parking. The place can be very busy and double-parking is common in the tiny lot. Signs indicate you might get towed if you park in the strip center next door, even though there are several vacancies among the shops, so be forewarned (La Roca used to be located a few doors west).

La Roca apparently supplies other eateries in town with both baked goods and tamales. I’ve seen their labeled baked goods at several places, taquerias and even other panaderias, and their tamales at carnicerias including Nortenito, on Bissonnet at Wilcrest and Carniceria La Michoacana # 27 further out Bissonnet and I presume you may find them at other locations of this extensive chain. These have been Mexican tamales, much spicier than those served at La Roca itself.

Ever since discovering the tamales here about a year and a half ago, they’ve been my favorite tamales in town, despite the blandness of Salvadoran foods. The creamy texture is like eating corn flavored whipped cream. However, having tasted the Colombian tamale at Las Delicias that has supplanted La Roca’s tamales as my favorite.

A blurb on the menu at El Pupusodromo down the street explains the importance of corn in Salvadoran cuisine: Pre-Colombian cultures believed that corn was a gift from their gods. Therefore, it was accepted as a holy meal. The preparation of the ground, the planting of the seed and harvesting the grain were considered a religious act.

La Roca does well by those ancient beliefs with it’s offerings.

Photo added 8/16/11 - Rigua, Empanada de Platano, Tamal Frita, Tamal de Pollo.

See comments on other tamales.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Froberg Farm


I took a little trip down to Froberg Farm near Alvin before Christmas. Actually, I stopped off on the way home from a day trip to Galveston. I’ve heard about Froberg’s for years and have received gifts from there, but never been before. Partly this is because I’ve been warned it was hard to find; more on that below.

I’ve got an aunt who’s been going since the Frobergs were selling produce off of tables under the trees and pies out of their kitchen. The place has grown quite a bit, with a small warehouse-like store, shopping carts, and more. There’s a plaque on the wall dedicating the building to several Frobergs who’ve gone before.

There was a big display of gift baskets, shelves of home-baked pies, and tables of nuts, mostly probably not grown around here. The Snack Bar, fried pie central, offered an enticing array of home-made fried pies in paper pockets with hand-written labels, kept warm under heat lamps. There are also shelves of home-made pickles and jams and jellies and some other products produced elsewhere including salsas.

The produce bins are clearly marked with those items grown on the farm and I mostly stuck to those. I got a 5# bag of satsumas for $3.50. I have a satsuma tree but had not a single bud this past year so I was glad to get these. There were also ‘home-grown’ lemons which I suspected, and the cashier confirmed, were Meyer lemons. My Meyer tree likewise had no fruit this year, although it has numerous buds now. I also picked up some kumquats (my shrub produced only a handful) and some Honey Crisp apples (not from around here) for $1.39 a lb., a lot less that you usually see them in the grocery stores. I also got a few of their home-grown tangelos but passed on the grapefruit (all from the Valley I think); all they had were Rio Star and I prefer Ruby Red. I also passed on some beautiful, large bananas at $.60/lb.

Before leaving I picked up a couple of the fried pies. They had about a dozen varieties including some sugar-free and at least one breakfast fried pie (eggs, potatoes, bacon as I recall), but who wants breakfast when you can have dessert? I got a Sweet Potato and an Apricot Cream fried pie.

The sweet potato fried pie did not survive the trip home and could not make it to the photo session! It was great. I’ve never been a big fan of sweet potatoes and haven’t figured out why some people think it’s better than pumpkin in a pie, but this was excellent. The Frobergs make a very excellent, flaky pie crust. The apricot cream fried pie (not sure what the ‘cream’ denotes) was also good even at room temperature with large chunks of fruit preserves inside. The fried pies are $1.75 apiece and worth it.

The Honey Crisps were not as good as I’ve had before but the satsumas were so good I decided to get some more to share with family, friends and neighbors so I made another trip. I also picked up a Buttermilk Pecan pie and a jar of their dill pickles and a jar of their homemade fig preserves. The dill pickles are excellent; the label only lists ‘vinegar’ as one of the ingredients but I’d sure like to know what they're using; I don’t think it’s regular store bought white vinegar or rice wine vinegar, which is mostly what I’ve used in making pickles. The pie was good but not exceptional. I had to resist the temptation to buy some more fried pies, too.

I’ll be a regular at this place for the fried pies and pickles if nothing else but I’m sure on any visit it’ll be possible to find some locally grown, excellent produce. In fact, it wasn’t until after my second trip that I remembered the tangelos I had bought the first time and tried one and discovered they’re even better than the satsumas.

On leaving after the second visit I stopped in at the Greak’s Smoke House, a little shack on the end of the warehouse, and got a sliced beef sandwich and a regular sausage link.

The meats are pecan smoked and I found the brisket, a very generous amount of thick slices of beef with a deep pink smoke ring, was too acrid, I guess from the pecan smoke. I literally couldn’t eat it; it became more palatable when cooled off but ultimately I had to trim some of the exterior bark. The sausage, however, was excellent and they have several varieties. The price was kind of steep, $13 for a sandwich and less than a pound of link. There is no price list or menu posted anywhere so I was quite surprised. I doubt if I’ll get anything there again.

There are several picnic tables on the premises so you can chow down on your haul right away.

UPDATE - AS NOTED ABOVE, THERE IS NOW AN ENTRANCE DIRECTLY OFF OF HIGHWAY 6, WELL MARKED TOO, SO THE FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS ARE UNNECESSARY.  Now - about finding the place. It’s really quite simple contrary to what I’ve been warned. If you know where Alvin and Manvel are on Highway 6 you won’t even need a map. County Road 190 runs parallel to Highway 6 only about a city block south, on the other side of a rail line. About half way between Alvin and Manvel on 6 you should see the sign for County Road 146 and a temporary sign (plastic sheeting on a frame) for Froberg’s. There is a traffic signal at this intersection. Go south off Highway 6 for one block and just over the railroad, turn left for about 1 mile. Another way to get there is on the western outskirts of Alvin, look for County Road 149; go south over the tracks and turn right and go about 3 miles. They’re open 7 days a week except for holidays (Closed December 26th, too).

Froberg Farm

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Las Delicias Panaderia Colombiana

7643 Dashwood @ Fondren

ANOTHER update below!

Mas ricos tamale. Looks messy, tastes great (not less filling). Update on the Las Delicias tamale below.

This place caught my eye as I was pulling away from a fried chicken emporium on the corner. I drove into the parking lot and made a note of the address and some of the specialties listed on the sign: Lechona, Tamales, Buneulos, Natilla, Empanadas, Pavo Relleno, Pollo Relleno and so on.

Some of these were easy to figure out and when I looked the others up I knew I had to give this place a try. I've never seen some of these offerings on the menus of the other Colombian restaurants I've visited.

Lechona is a Colombian version of roasted, stuffed pig, with yellow peas, green onion, yellow rice and spices, traditionally cooked in a brick oven. Natilla is a custard like pudding made with corn starch instead of eggs.

On my first visit I was sorry to learn that the lechona is available only sporadically; they do expect to do it for Christmas so I'm making plans to visit on the 24th of this month. I do understand it will be available by the platillo or as a whole platter. Yum-yum.

The place has a small pastry display case but mostly it's a lunch counter type set up (and more attractive inside than what you might expect from that trashy center); a counter with stools lines the wall around two sides of the space and there are stools at a main counter, too, but no tables.

I dealt with three different servers; one, the manager I presume, spoke good English apparently, but she was on the phone the whole time I was there. With my limited Spanish and the even more limited English of the others, I managed to find out a lot more about the offerings while watching the plate lunch specials of the day, listed on a blackboard, come out of the kitchen. The place was very busy at 2 in the afternoon. One of the offerings was the traditional dish Bandeja Paisa but the most popular offering of the day was a pork dish, I think, cubed pork in a green sauce; I saw a chuleta plate on the blackboard but can't remember the whole name; there is no other printed menu.

I picked up two empanadas and two pieces of Pandebono, plus a half dozen Colombian tamales. The empanadas, made with arepa dough, were the best Colombian empanadas I've had, fresh and hot out of the fryer. The filling of shredded beef and mashed potatoes was very good, although the first one I bit into had so little actual beef in it it reminded me of deviled ham. The accompanying green sauce, salsa or chimichurri?, was hotter than anything I've ever had at a Colombian restaurant, a surprise since Colombian cuisine is not spicy. Other Colombian empanadas I've had have used ground beef.

Pandebono is a much more interesting Colombian bread than arepas. Made with corn flour, cassava starch, cheese and eggs, the rolls have a hole on the bottom and are hollowed out; they somewhat resemble a cheese flavored bagel, although not as chewy. It is traditionally consumed hot out of the oven with hot chocolate but these were out of the display case and probably several hours old. Nevertheless they were good. I haven't gotten around to heating up the tamales yet (they were refrigerated and require veinte minutos en agua caliente to be ready to eat).

I'm looking forward not only to the tamales but a return to Las Delicias to try other items. I'm particularly intrigued by the Pavo Relleno but I'll be happy to have more of the empanadas and Pandebono.

Despite the language difficulties the servers were all friendly.

Update on the tamale: Okay, so I misunderstood; I bought one tamale, not a half dozen! I fixed it for breakfast this morning. Unwrapping it from the foil packet and banana leaf revealed a beautiful sight, though a bit messy. A common sign in the window of Latin restaurants will describe mas ricos tamales or mas ricos pupusas or mas ricos caldos - this was mas, mas ricos - very, very rich. Besides a drumstick and part of a rib (both bone-in), I detected peas, carrots, onions, and, I think, red and green peppers in the tamale and was on a possibly lard-induced high after just half of it. I have to try one of these in the restaurant. I'm wondering if any salsa is served with it? Not that it needed any - it was awesome as is. I have a better idea now of what the nacatamale of Nicaragua must be like and this just may be the best tamale I've had anywhere.

I've been reading up on Colombian tamales and discovering there are many interesting variations. I'll be looking for them on menus from now on. Here's a fascinating article on a particular type of Colombian tamale (I don't think mine had any egg). Apparently the green sauce is called pique.

NOTE: I believe the tamale I had here is called a tolimenses.

Another update: I went in on the 24th but was unable to get any Lechona; the waitress indicated I needed to call ahead. I wasn't surprised. After reading up on this more it's a very special dish. I went ahead an got an order of Bandeja Paisa to go (the place was packed at 11:15am with people waiting for a stool).

This came with a very good section of skirt steak, lots of rice, a very savory chorizo with lots of green onion in it I think. The portion of plantano maduro was very small, the chicharron was mostly fat and the beans could have been served in a Cajun restaurant over rice and nobody would have noticed. It was a pretty good version of this dish.

I also got a potato ball - a rice and ground beef mixture rolled in cooked potatoes and deep fried. In Puerto Rico this is called Papas Rellenas but the girl, who spoke good English, just called it a potato stuffed with either beef or chicken here so I'm not sure what the Colombian term would be. It was from under a heat lamp so not really hot nor crispy but still pretty good.

The lunch menu hadn't changed that I could tell so I guess it's the same dishes each day. The pork dish on the menu was Chuleta Empanizada; from the explanations online that does not sound like the dish I saw on the first visit so maybe what I saw was not pork after all.

They did not have any tamales. I was planning on buying a couple and trying freezing one.

This is a neat little place and with so many dishes that I have not seen on other Colombian restaurant menus I'm tempted to believe it's the most authentic of the ones I've been to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Antonini's Subs and Steaks

17314 Highway 3 @ Medical Center Blvd., Webster

I've had to make some trips to the Clear Lake area lately and had heard of this fabulous sub shop and finally had a chance to check it out. It's hidden behind a Valero but easy to find despite the poor signage since it's right at the intersection.

The owners are from Delaware judging by the posters and license plates on the wall. I've read before in a national forum that the Delmarva Peninsula is a mecca for sub lovers and this is my first chance to find out for myself.

The place is small and very plain; the menu is quite small. On my first visit I got a Special to go. The sandwich was huge with 2 meats, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and a very good hot pepper relish. I had noticed a big gallon jar of the relish sitting next to the cash register and now I knew why - they undoubtedly get lots of requests for it and they sell it ($21 a gallon). The bread is chewy rather than crusty and quite sturdy, which it needs to be to hold up to the sandwich's fixings since a lot of their business is take-away. It was a very good deal for just under $5.

On a second visit I tried their Cheesesteak which is a little more expensive, but only by a few cents. I thought it was a little odd it wasn't labeled a Philly Cheesesteak but once sampling it I can see it's a little different than what I think of as a classic Philly. There was a lot of thinly sliced beef, probably sirloin, plus provolone and grilled onions and more of the relish, plus mayo and ketchup. I had read about that ketchup online and so knew to ask that it be left off and only a smear of mayo be added. I think I did the right thing. The relish adds a nice twist to the sandwich which I think would only be muted by the ketchup (I'm not a big fan of ketchup for anything, anyway).

I definitely preferred the Special of the two sandwiches but when I ordered one of those again the owner steered me toward the Italian (pictured above) which he said is his best sandwich. It too was just a few cents more than the Special and has 4 meats instead of 2 (ham, peppered ham, salami, Lebanon bologna?) and was one of the best subs I've ever had. Right away, the Italian becomes one of my favorite sandwiches alongside the Chicago Italian Beef (seems to be a trend developing here) and much better than any Philly I've ever had. Too bad this place is an 80 mile round trip from where I live.

They have a selection of Zapp's and Lay's chips and some sodas and Tastykakes, the packaged snack cakes from Philadelphia that are very good, although the ones I've tried had been on the shelf a little too long.

Besides the gallon jugs, they sell the Bay Valley Foods Chopped Hot Pepper Relish in quart jars for $9. I'm going to have to pick some up. It'll go nicely on the condiments shelf alongside the harissa and sriracha, etc.

There's supposed to be a menu online but I haven't been able to get the website to come up. They do have a meatball sub that I haven't tried but I can't remember all the other sandwiches on the menu.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coquitos - Comida Hondurena

6121 - V Hillcroft, between Gulfton and Westward

I went to Coquitos the first time almost a year ago to try the Sopa de Caracol, the conch soup that is a Honduran specialty and is advertised in the window. The waitress said they didn’t have it the day I was there and when I asked for a recommendation suggested Sopa de Gallina, the hen soup, and that proved to be a satisfying and fortuitous choice. Steaming hot with large, bone-in pieces of white and dark meat with large chunks of carrot, yuca, plantain, potato and cabbage in a rich broth with a side of white rice and 2 thick, hand-made corn tortillas, it was very good. The vegetable pieces were so large it was almost necessary to use a knife and fork to eat the soup. I was feeling a little under the weather that day and though I hadn’t expected it the Sopa de Gallina proved to be just what the Doctor ordered. Plus with all the starch, it was very filling and a good bargain.

On a subsequent visit I tried the pastelitos for an appetizer - Honduran style empanadas made with corn meal (arepas) like those of Venezuela and Columbia. They were stuffed with a ground meat and rice mixture and almost full size but were lacking in seasoning. They were accompanied by a generous portion of a shredded cabbage salad with marinated red bell pepper, a warm tomato dressing and shredded queso. It was very good and at only $3.75, was very filling, almost enough for a whole meal. I had also ordered Casiamento con Coco, a rice and beans dish cooked in coconut milk, the Honduran version of Jamaican rice ‘n peas with the addition of onion and bell pepper and a more generous use of coconut milk. It was accompanied by some avocado and queso and corn tortillas. I was so full from the appetizer I wound up taking most of this home and discovered it’s much better reheated the next day.

Meanwhile I had seen the Pollo Frito being served and it looked very good and I planned to return to try that. I also noticed Mondongo on the menu, the Central American term for Menudo, and some other dishes that looked interesting.

I only got around to going back for the Pollo Frito recently. The restaurant has been spiffed up a bit with table cloths on some of the tables and additional seating. I was there around 2pm and the place was very busy, in part because there was only one server and one cook and they were running way behind.

The menu has also changed, or at least been reprinted and organized a little better. There are now Baleadas on the menu which I don’t recall from before. There are three to choose from with the basic one called Baleadas Regulares. I ordered just the basic Baleada as an appetizer but wished I had tried one of the ones with some add-ins; the ones I saw being served looked spectacular. I think the daily lunch specials portion of the menu is gone, too, and there are more Mariscos.

The Pollo Frito consisted of 2 small pieces, a leg and thigh. Like this dish at the other Honduran restaurants I have tried, it was overcooked, though not as badly. It was a very dark brown color; the skin and flesh of the thigh had been scored but whether that was to facilitate even cooking or easier eating I don’t know. It wasn’t quite as dried out as what I’ve had elsewhere but so well done on the exterior that it was kind of like eating a cross between chicharron and chicken. This too comes with a big pile of the cabbage salad with a simple warm tomato dressing; some online sources say is it is common in Honduran cooking that this is nothing more than canned tomato sauce. This is all served over a bed of banana chips that have been lightly sauteed to crisp them up only slightly. I’ll have to give this Pollo Frito another try before deciding where it belongs in my Chicken Fried Odyssey rankings.

Honduran food is not spicy but my main complaint here is blandness. Everything is underseasoned. As I’ve been trying to lose weight for a year and half now I’ve weaned myself off an over-dependence on salt. One of the benefits of eating lots of ethic foods is the seasonings and spices make it interesting and flavorful without the use of salt and pepper and there are many small ethnic eateries where S&P are not on the tables at all. But at Coquitos, I need to reach for the salt; just a little helps a lot. I guess if you’re actually on a salt-restricted diet, that’s good. There is Tabasco on the tables but I’ve never used it and also soy sauce - the menu for instance lists Shap Suey con Pollo o con Cameron. The food I’ve had here so far is not quite as good as at another local group of Honduran restaurants but on the other hand, you don’t have to deal with a deafening juke box at Coquitos.

One nice touch is the coffee. It’s always been prepared fresh when I’ve ordered it and may be a special Honduran variety; it’s presented with a small pitcher of warm milk.

The restaurant is clean but not fancy; not every waitress speaks English but the menu has full English translations. Parking in front is very tight. The menu and business cards and sign on the exterior read Coquitos but one sign in the window and the b4 listing is for El Coquito.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fritanga Nica

8611 Synott, just north of Bissonnet

Ever since reading about the nacatamale, a tamale with meat and vegetables and olives described as throw pillow-sized, I have wanted to try Nicaraguan cuisine, La Comida Nica; so far as I know this is our first and only Nicaraguan restaurant. It occupies the space once occupied by the small Brazilian home-style buffet, Cariocas.

The owner is very friendly and speaks very good English. So does one of his sons who helps out with just about everything on the weekend, anyway. The menu is quite small, only a page and a half, and there are no translations. They have been open a month and unfortunately they do not do the nacatamale.

On my first visit the owner steered me toward the Vaho, pronounced baho, a weekend special consisting of beef, plantain and yuca steamed in a banana leaf and served with rice. It was good; it is basically a stew sans broth. Fritanga comes from the word for to fry but there is at least one other steamed dish on the menu, the appetizer Vigoron, which includes yuca and chicharron, steamed in a banana leaf I think (I haven't had this).

I also had an Enchilada Nicaraguense, a corn tortilla topped with shredded beef and rice, folded over and fried to make essentially an empanada. Both dishes were topped with the typical Nicaraguan salad of cabbage and carrot with tomato and purple onion; it isn’t on the menu separately but I think they call this Ensalada de Repollo.

For a beverage I had Cacao, the Nicaraguan version of chocolate milk which includes grated, roasted cacao beans and was very good.

The owner offered to do a half order of the Vaho when I inquired about portion sizes; it proved to be enough food to leave me very full.

Other appetizers include Vigoron, Chancho Adobado, and Tacos Nicas, which are like Mexican flautas, with chicken or beef. Platillos Tipicos include Salpicon, Carne Desmenusada (deshebrada), Pechuga or Bistec Encebollado, Carne Tapade, Arroz a la Valenciana (the Nicaraguan version of paella) and Carne Asada, which the owner said was basically fajitas.

Sides include Tajadas verdes (plantain), Queso frito, Maduro Frito, Gallo Pinto, and Guacamole. All plates come with the salad and some have frijoles fritos or tajadas verdes or frito or rice.

On my second visit I tried the Chilla (cheeya I think) which is like a tamarind agua fresca and was the best I’ve ever had, rich with bits of fruit. Other refrescos include Chicha and Cebada which I got a free sample of; I understand it includes guava and barley; it was good but not as good as the Cacao or Chilla. They also have typical American sodas.

For a main on my second visit I had the Sopa de Cola, a weekend special, a rich, satisfying oxtail stew pictured above with corn, plantain and yuca, tomatoes and carrot, parsley and cilantro, plus cabbage, rice and fideo, with a side of more rice. It was awesome on a chilly Sunday and I enjoyed it very much. A Nicaraguan family arriving for a meal oohed and aahed over my bowl.

Other weekend specials include Indio Viejo and Sopa de Albondiga on Sunday. Postres include Arros con leche, Atolillo and Bunuelos.

The menu is undergoing changes. I got an old menu to take home and a couple of dishes had been changed. Even more had been crossed off the new menu on my second visit. The most expensive thing on the menu is $9.

The restaurant is closed on Tuesday, open other days 11a to 7p. I’m sure Cariocas succumbed to too little business; they were not helped by their very limited hours and the food went downhill after a couple of months. I hope these people make it; I had the place to myself for a while on my first visit but the second time the place was bustling.

I will definitely be going back to try the Arroz a la Valenciana.

Vaho or Baho. In the glass is Cacao, a very satisfying version of chocolate milk. This is a half-order of the Vaho.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Taqueria D.F., 100% Chilanga - CLOSED

6905 Bissonnet, just west of Beechnut


I've noticed this taqueria for a long time and I wondered if they had Mexico City style tamales like those at Tamales Dona Tere. I finally decided to give it a try and when I pulled up to the door I saw a hand lettered sign that they now serve tamales. I guess I put my visit off just long enough.

The place is small; there was only one waitress and she was also watching over her small daughter but she was very friendly and helpful, apologizing that the menu is only in Spanish. I assured her I thought we would be able to manage; she spoke pretty good English and I speak a little Spanish.

I ordered a pork tamale and asked about the suadero taco - I was not familiar with that term. She said it was a pork meat taco; they also have pastor, chorizo, campechano, bisteck, cabeza and chuleta tacos. Besides tacos and tamales they have Quesadillas, Gringas, Sincronizadas, Tortas, Desayunos and some guisados.

The taco proved to be very small. It's been a long time since I had a Mexico City style taco and had forgotten that sometimes that means the tortillas are only about 4" in diameter. It wasn't very tasty; I thought if it was pork it was perhaps roasted sirloin and dry. I looked this up online and according to what I found, suadero is supposed to indicate a section of beef brisket.

The tamale proved to be much better. It was no where near as big as those at Dona Tere, a little dry for my taste (I like very moist tamales) and very spicy. Usually when you think of the term 'hot tamales' you're referring to the fact they're served steaming hot but these had a lot of spice heat, too. It was so good I ordered one of the chicken tamales which was not quite as spicy and not quite as good but still very enjoyable. Surprisingly the green salsa that was offered was quite bland and quite limey.

While waiting for my food I had picked up a copy of the menu to go and was perusing it and a torta that wasn't on the printed menu caught my eye, Torta Huerfana, which apparently translates as Orphan Torta. I asked the waitress about it and she explained it was a huge torta and reeled off a list of ingredients that I couldn't possibly remember (there were not only no translations but also no descriptions of the dishes on the menus). She said only one person had ever finished it, most wind up taking half home. It was $9, kind of pricy for a torta, but it sounded very interesting so I decided I had to come back to try it and a couple of days later I did.

It was a different waitress on my second visit and she spoke little English but she was also looking after a small child, a nino of about 6 whom she called over several times to help translate as I plowed ahead asking questions.

The Torta Huerfano proved an awesome sandwich. As best I can figure it out it includes ham, refritos, milanesa, avocado, tomato, yellow and white cheese (per the first waitress; I think they were American and Jack), chorizo, huevos and salchicha which I thought was a generic term for sausage but has always meant a wiener when I found it on a menu in Houston, all served on a nicely toasted and crusty telera. Both the red and green salsas that were served with the sandwich were very good.

There's no way I would have tried to finish that so I took about half home.

I haven't been able to find out much about the sandwich online and an effort to find out if they created it in-house didn't communicate well. A sign on the wall invites customers to try their 'nuevo creacion torta huerfana en Taqueria DF' but I don't know if it's a local creation of has Mexico City roots.

Whether it's a Houston original or not it's very tasty and I'll be back though obviously not often for that sandwich.

There's another location of the Taqueria at 8685 Hammerly and I've also seen taco trucks labeled Taqueria DF on Long Point and Telephone but I don't know if they're connected to the restaurants or serve the Huerfana.

ADDED: Dissecting the leftovers (and tossing the soggy bread) I discovered there's chicken breast in there too. I'm sure the waitress on my first visit listed chorizo but it was hard to identify any by taste or inspection.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Texas Oyster Industry devasted by Ike

I've been looking for some report and today this appeared in the Chronicle.

Briefly, 60% of the crop is lost, oyster beds are covered with silt and debris and probably won't recover without very costly intervention.

Not good news for oyster lovers or for the ecology of the bay in general.

The eye of the storm passed right over Galveston Bay but it was storm surge, not wind, that caused the damage.

Robb Walsh of the Press had written a great article on the Galveston Bay oyster industry 4 years back saying it was the most prolific oyster fishery in the nation with just one company there out-harvesting all of Chesapeake Bay.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Turkey Day Torta de la Barda

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for a couple of reasons. For one thing it is our least commercialized holiday so it’s easy to celebrate without spending a lot of money or tying oneself in a knot with gift buying and decorating, etc. I also like it because I always find I have a lot to be thankful for and usually haven’t paused long enough during the year to express or acknowledge it. I used to take a lot of pleasure in the preparation of the meal but in recent years I’ve come to dread it. Last year I made no plans and wound up going out. This year, I went to the grocery store the day before and bought on impulse; I wound up with a pork tenderloin, acorn squash and some other goodies that I thought would make an interesting meal and half-heartedly searched for some recipes, trying to convince myself that once I got into it, putting it all together would be fun.

But a neighbor came home late last night and, presumably drunk, fell asleep in his truck with the radio on. It wasn’t blaring, just barely loud enough to stir me from my sleep around 3am and make me get up to investigate. I didn’t get back to sleep until after 6 and by the time I awoke again, it was almost eleven; I was hungry and it was too late to get started on a big meal. Whew!, that was close.

I had no reservations anywhere but no problem. I’d found last year that, at least for Thanksgiving, there are lots of ethic eateries on my side of town, run probably by immigrants who are not acclimated to American culture very much, open for business as usual. This proved to be the case. Some of the places I like were not only open but doing a booming business. Autentico Comida Michoacana, a restaurant and rosticeria on Bissonnet across from Bayland Park had a big orange banner proclaiming that on Thanksgiving they would be serving Pavo Relleno and Pollo Relleno. Stuffed turkey in the style of Michoacan? I wondered what that might be like. I’ve wanted to try this restaurant for some time but never gotten around to it (it seems to close very early, like 6pm); the parking lot was full, however, and I really wasn’t in the mood for a big meal.

A few blocks later I spotted a taco truck I didn’t recall ever seeing before doing a good business, Taqueria Tampico Hermosa at Bissonnet and Hillcroft, and I decided to give it a try. On the side of the truck a sign proclaimed Especialidad en Tortas de la Barda. What is a torta de la Barda I enquired when I got to the window. The senora understood just enough English to answer by placing one finger in the air and asking ‘One to-go?’ I said ‘Si.’ What the heck, Thanksgiving is as good as any day to explore new foods.

I watched as a bolillo was placed on a griddle to be warmed, squished down repeatedly with the palm of the hand and turned. Slices of deli ham and American cheese came out of the fridge, some things were heated on the griddle - I couldn’t tell what they were - some things out of other containers, probably lettuce, maybe onions, tomatoes. I couldn’t see much of the assembly but when it was presented at the window in a sack, it was obvious it was a quite hefty sandwich. I also got some pickled vegetables, a fiery salsa verde and a section of lime. I also ordered some frijoles charros and paid my $5.50 and was happily on my way.

The Torta de la Barda dates to 1950 so I’ve learned online and has become an iconic version of the torta in Tampico and Ciudad Madera, in southern Tamaulipas state. The English Wikipedia has no mention of it but the Spanish version does and that article and others I found on Google translate the name as Cake of the Wall, a silly translation of torta, and explain the origin and contents of this specialty. I had looked under the hood of mine and saw there was chicharron and something that looked like a kind of head cheese, what I took to be chorizo or some other loose sausage and possibly some chopped bistec, along with slices of tomato and crumbled queso. I thought I smelled grilled onion but couldn’t find it in there. The sandwich was a tasty, wonderful mess. I didn’t use any of the salsa or lime juice - it was messy enough as it was.

Though the roll had been warmed it was not toasted but remained soft and squishy to some extent, probably a good thing since the sandwich was quite bulky and had to be squished down to eat.

This site has a much better picture than mine while this one has perhaps the most intriguing if somewhat culturally insensitive discussion on the ingredients, including the cheese pork (both mechanically translated from Spanish).

The frijoles charros proved to be a slight misnomer; they should have been called frijoles charros con weenies, or however ‘beanie weenies’ should translate into Spanish. They were actually quite good but surprisingly, along with the ham, there was chopped up frankfurter in the pot.

All in all, quite satisfactory. And there was no pile of dirty pots and pans to clean up, no glut of leftovers to deal with.

I hope everyone else had a joyous and satisfying Turkey Day too.

There is another Tampican place I’ve noted recently, Tacos el Jaibo I think is the name, a taco truck on Bellaire across and down from Pollo Campero. Like Jarro Café on N. Gessner, this one sits in front of a restaurant of the same name. Both the truck and the restaurant advertise ‘Ricos Tortas de la Barda.’ I intend to check this out, too, since Jaibo can mean crab or crayfish. I've learned it is also a nickname for the people of Tampico.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Las Hamacas

8541 Gulf Freeway @ Monroe and other locations

I first went to Las Hamacas for the fried chicken. Well, why not? I had visited another Honduran restaurant, Coquitos, and been impressed enough with the food to want to try more Honduran cuisine and read on that the fried chicken at Las Hamacas was very good. I first went to the location on Gessner at Harwin, the one closest to me. Right away it became apparent the complaints on b4 about the loud jukebox were not just the ravings of some cranky, picky diners. The jukebox was not only loud, it got louder with each selection until it reached a point of being almost intolerable, then muted considerably on the next number. Obviously, it’s programmed to do that. The food would have to be incredible for me to return to that location.

Fortunately I’ve found the Gulf Freeway location, while it can be loud, is no were near as unpleasant and I’ve made all my subsequent visits to that location.

Back to the negatives, though. I’ve had the Pollo Frito twice now, once at the Gessner location, and both times it’s been disappointing. It is offered two ways, I recommend getting it on the bed of banana chips (tajadas). It comes covered in shredded cabbage (the Central American curtido) and a plain tomato sauce. While the tajadas were excellent the chicken was dry, having been cooked in advance, I think, and held under a heat lamp too long. On a visit to the Gulf Freeway location I got the additional arroz, frijoles and aguacate (pictured on this post) and didn’t get the tajadas. This time the breast/wing piece came out looking absolutely gorgeous, glistening with just a little bit of the oil, but the meat was terribly dry and tough, practically needing a steak knife to cut. I’ve given up on the Pollo Frito at Las Hamacas.

But everything else I’ve had there has been very good. I’ve always gotten the Baleadas Sencilla, a thick warm flour tortilla smeared with frijoles rojos and sprinkled with some grated queso duro, a hard, salty cheese very much like parmesan, then folded over. It’s a popular street food in Honduras and very satisfying - warm flour tortillas and refritos are comfort food and I can’t pass it up. You can also get a Baleadas Especiales with with meat, eggs, crema and avocado.

I’ve also tried the Bandeja Catracha, described on the menu as a Honduran casserole. Catracha is a nickname for the Honduran people and like the Bandeja Montanero of Colombian restaurants, this is a combo plate which includes scrambled eggs, refritos rojos, carne frita, arroz, aguacate, queso and tajadas de plantanos instead of bananas. This was all good except that the skirt steak the time I got it had some gristle. I prefer the banana chips over the plantanos here.

On my most recent visit I ordered entirely off the appetizer menu, getting the Mix Hondureno in addition to the Baleadas (all pictured above). This included a pastelito (Honduran meat pie, snack sized), Honduran style enchilada (very similar to a Tex-Mex tostada) and Honduran taco, basically an oversized taquito. All of this was served on a plate covered with the encurtido and sprinkled with some cheese. The flavors bear a strong resemblance to Tex-Mex. Honduran food is not spicy but there are bottles of Tabasco on every table, perhaps a sop to Texans. I haven't used any of it.

The best thing on this plate was the pastelito, made with corn dough and stuffed with a ground meat and potato mixture, probably the same one which topped the enchilada. The taco meat was chicken which I understand is first stewed then crisped up a little on a grill. The corn tortillas used for both the taco and enchilada were very thick and soaked up a lot of oil in the cooking process.

There are many more items on the menu to try, including the Sopa de Caracol (conch soup) which is supposed to be a speciality of Honduras and Sopa de Jaibas, a crab soup. As at many taquerias and Central American restaurants, the Sopas seem to be the most popular items here.

If you’re looking for a quiet dining experience, Las Hamacas is not the place to go, but if you can stand a little noise with 2 TVs on pretty constantly and occasionally a song on the jukebox, the Gulf Freeway location hasn’t been unbearable for me.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Mono's Grill

7330 E Southwest Freeway at Fondren

I’ve needed to take a break from the Fried Chicken Wars of late; unfortunately I haven’t been able to shake my recent penchant for picking mediocre new places to try and I’ve had nothing positive to blog about. Today, however, I continued my recent theme of comfort foods and caught a bit of a break with a visit to Mono’s Grill, a hole-in-the-wall Colombian place with a SW Freeway address but facing Fondren. It’s very new, spic and span, very small. The place was packed but more than half of the customers were waiting for takeout. Although it is set up to look like counter service if you’re dining in just take a seat and a server will bring you a menu. Food is served on real plates with real tableware.

There are 2 lunch special plates available M-F, 11a-2p for $7. One choice is always the Bandeja Paisa, the typical Colombian combination plate, which is what I opted for. This is Colombian comfort food, like a Tex-Mex combination plate. Unfortunately the lunch special version of this dish does not include any chorizo, avocado or an arepa, typical ingredients of a Bandeja Paisa. I’ve had some Colombian chorizo that was overcooked and dried out but I haven’t had a bad one other than that and I was looking forward to a few bites of an excellent sausage. Had I known there was none on the special I would have opted for the full menu version.

The frijoles rojos were excellent, with a very generous amount of pork fat and meat. Likewise there was a very generous portion of plantano maduro, along with the requisite rice and fried egg. The chicharron included a lot of fat but also a lot of meat, about the equivalent of half a small pork chop, but it was a little overcooked and dry. The skirt steak (churrasco) was another generous component and was tasty if not especially remarkable.

But for $7 I thought it was a fair meal and I wouldn't mind going back. I only got a look at one other dish being served, a fried fish that looked pretty good.

I always go to these restaurants representing countries which grow coffee as a major export expecting some better than average if not exceptional coffee but I have yet to experience any at any of the Colombian restaurants I’ve visited. The coffee Colombiano here had been on the warmer too long.

There’s free Wi-Fi; they’re only open till early evening but there is a bar section next door.

They have a website but its just a placeholder; they’ve put their menu and some pictures up on MySpace.

: A review of Mono's on b4 mentioned the availability of Tamales Tolimenses and Lechona Tolimenses and I went in to try them. What's on the menu everyday is Lechon Enciendido and I did not see any tamales at all - maybe they're occasional specialties. From what I can find online, Lechon Enciendido is a Cuban dish.

I think this is pork leg or butt, simmered with peppers and onions and I'm not sure what else. It was a bit of a disappointment since I was hoping for the Lechona which sounds like an awesome dish. The red beans were excellent, however, and red beans and rice constitute a satisfactory meal for me anytime and I wound up taking about half the pork home. The rice was swimming in the juices from the meat. Once again the Plantanos Maduros here were excellent, nicely caramelized to the point of a little charring and crispness.

The restaurant has been remodeled with the wall separating the restaurant and bar sections removed, making for a more comfortable space. The young staff here has always been very nice.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pollo Bravo

6015 Hillcroft #2800, 1/2 block south of US 59

I first visited Pollo Bravo back in May when I was sampling pollo asado at various places on the Southwest side, hoping to find some purveyor close by so I didn't have to make the trip all the way up to Longpoint and one of the El Norteno buses/trailers up there. I had the Pollo Rostizado with Maduros and both were excellent with generous sized pieces. The staff was very friendly, the decor very appealing (brushed stainless steel, varnished pine, bright yellow and rich apricot colors). The other dishes I saw being served looked very good also and I resolved to return but never got around to it until recently.

I was in the mood for some ceviche recently and this place came up in a search for Peruvian restaurants on our local review site, I have a copy of the menu I picked up in May and nowhere on it do the words Peru or Peruvian appear but now the menu identifies some dishes as Peruvian, some as Mexican.

Once again I found the staff very friendly and helpful; there had been a minor language problem before but none this time.

I tried the Ceviche Mixto, one of two ceviches on the menu. It included fish, calamari and octopus that I could identify plus corn, Bermuda onion, cilantro, lime juice, camote (sweet potato) and iceberg lettuce and was appropriately spicy. It came with a small bowl of a very creamy, rich salsa verde which might have actually been intended to accompany the other appetizer I ordered, the Aguadito, the house soup.

The soup included chicken, corn, onion, tomatoes and peas and was rather bland until I observed another patron adding some of the salsa to it which improved it considerably.

I also tried the Chicha Morada, a popular Peruvian beverage similar to an agua fresca although it's not listed on the menu with the other aguas frescas. It's made from purple maize, pinapple and cinnammon in the classic formulation but I thought Pollo Bravo's version included pear. It's described sometimes as resembling Kool-Aid but it was not sweet at all. I was a little disappointed in it although it is said to be beneficial for blood pressure.

The two appetizers and drink left me so full I could not comtemplate a dessert as I had hoped. Besides the Helado de Lucuma listed on the menu a sign indicates Pollo Bravo now serves Helado de Chirimoya.

I'm looking forward to more visits. The only complaint I have about this place is the cramped parking lot.

UPDATE: I've enjoyed several more visits to this restaurant over the months. On one occasion I had the meal pictured above, a quarter chicken with Chilaquiles in Salsa Verde. The chicken remains amazingly moist and tender for roasted chicken and the restaurant (original location) remains an excellent alternative in the area if you don't want to hit up one of the ubiquitous Indian or Pakistani places.

Re: the top picture above. At least three years I've had this camera and I still couldn't take a decent close-up. The shot of the ceviche was blurred and out of focus so I have only the shot of the soup across the table with a little of the ceviche in the foreground. There are more pictures of the food on the website.

Pollo Bravo

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Local - Kitchen, Market, Bakery

120 Circle Way, Lake Jackson

I had to make a trip to my old stomping grounds, Brazosport, and was looking for some good eats and happened on this place in my hometown. I suspected from the menu and the food that it was in some way connected to Cafe Annice just down the street and a review on confirms that.

It's a sandwich shop (breakfasts, sandwiches, wraps, burgers, soups, salads) which also does rotisserie chickens and 'Premium' casseroles, which looked pretty good. Then there's the Starbucks coffee bar and Tazo tea, the pastry shop, and an eclectic market with imported African tableware, totes, coffee mugs, candles --- a hodge-podge one might expect to find in a sandwich shop in a touristy town, which Lake Jackson is not.

I tried the 'Upper West Side' sandwich (sandwich names are a little strained) - thinly sliced pastrami with melted Swiss cheese, fresh coleslaw and Creole mayo grilled on light rye. Mayo and pastrami? Yes, it worked for me. The sandwich was very satisfying, especially after an earlier visit to a local tamale shop where I left most of the food on the plate. I was not very happy with the potato salad side, however. Was that Thousand Island dressing instead of mayo? Next time I'll try the fruit salad side.

I've never been to Cafe Annice but heard nothing but good things about it and have been to a reception in town once catered by the restaurant at which the food was very good. I'll have no hesitation about visiting The Local again.

There's some interior shots and full menu on the website.

The Local

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Boogie's BBQ, Chicago style - UPDATED AUGUST 20, 2010



I have really been into home-cooking and comfort foods since Ike and have been eating out only about once a week and sticking close to my neighborhood, trying a couple of new places without much luck until I found this place.

On my first visit I tried the sliced beef sandwich. This was served open faced on white bread. There was about 10 oz. of beef and it was very, very tender. They use oak and pecan wood and although you can smell the smoke wafting out of a window on the trailer the brisket was not very smoky tasting. The sauce was like a glaze and very, very, very sweet; somewhat to my surprise I found myself liking it. It tastes a little to me like it has pineapple in it and is reminiscent of a ham glaze. No onions or pickles were offered or served which seems at the very least un-Texan if not un-American.

On a second visit I tried the rib and sausage plate, a very generous amount of food for $10. The sausage, which they make themselves, is pork and beef and I thought it was very good and needed no more sauce or seasoning. The ribs on this occasion were very, very fatty and a little underdone and in need of perhaps just a skosh more seasoning but they have a lot of promise. The smokiness of both meats on this occasion was just fine.

The potato salad is an institutional product and too creamy for my taste; the baked beans were very sweet. The sauce, which they make themselves, seemed darker and heavier than before and still very sweet; I used very little of it on the meats. I sure could have used some dill pickles and raw onion to cut some of the sweetness.

Besides baked beans and potato salad, green beans are offered as a side and extras include french fries, baked potatoes, turkey legs, boudin and cake. Beverages include Sweet Tea and pop. I understand rib tips are a delicacy in Chicago and their Chi Town Special is tips, chips and a pop for $6.00.

Besides the meats I’ve tried they also have chicken, ribs by the slab, rib tips and a pork chop sandwich.

They’re open only Thursday thru Saturday, 11 a to 8 p, and advised me to call ahead on Saturday as they stay pretty busy with call-in orders and the wait can be lengthy.

I’m really glad to have discovered this place as my barbecue options in this end of town are limited. There’s another new place nearby called 3P’s Barbecue which hasn’t gotten its act together but isn’t very promising so far so this is probably my best option for que in the neighborhood and I’ll have to cope with the sweetness or just order a la carte; hopefully the green beans aren’t sweet.

UPDATE 5/09: In addition to all the comments below there have been very positive comments made about Boogie's on eGullet and Roguefood. I don't eat a lot of barbecue these days so I've just gotten around to going back to try this place again.

I think this was better than what I had before. I got the sauce on the side this time, the better to appreciate the meats by themselves. It's been pointed out they apparently finish off the ribs on the grill to give them a little finishing crispness which is outstanding. The potato salad and beans were both much better this time than what I had before.

Be sure to check out hrushing's pictures in his comments below. I've got to get back over here and check out the boudin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Suya Hut

11611 W. Airport, about ½ mile west of 59S

The Houston International Festival this year focused on Africa and listed some of our city’s African restaurants. I learned that most of them as well as most of the African food stores in Houston are in my corner of town (southwest) and decided to try them out. I had never heard of Suya Hut but picked that one first.

This is like your typical Houston hole-in-the-wall ethnic eatery but it is located in a rather new strip center and is spic-and-span. The lady was very friendly and helpful. I tried the chicken suya (kebab) and found it was very good, very juicy and flavorful with all the spices. I also had the masa, a fermented rice cake that puffs up when fried and has a mild sour taste - very good. And I tried the lansir, the green salad which is nothing but chopped cilantro, kuli-kuli (defatted groundnut flour) and some diced tomatoes and onions. The picture on the menu looked like a moist green salad but it was quite dry owing to the groundnut flour and could have used some dressing. I thought this would be fine as a small side accompaniment to some of the plates but was a bit much as a full salad.

The words peanut and groundnut seem to be used interchangeably and groundnut flour is used a lot in the foods here (and other West African eateries) so I think if you had a peanut allergy you might need to avoid this place.

There are shakers of cayenne on the tables and toothpicks, which are used for eating some of the foods, apparently. Among the beverages offered (not listed on the menu or on the website) are Bud Lite, Heineken and Guiness plus Star Lager, a Ghanaian brew that is produced by Guiness. There were what I assumed to be bottled waters also but as I was leaving another customer was asking about the alcohol content and I learned they include Emu, a Top Palm Juice according to the label but palm wine according to the sign on the cooler door.

On a second visit I tried the jollof rice with lansir and beef suya with the masa asa side. This is only a 4 table place and I decided to get this to go. The beef was cube steak I believe and there was still a little pink in some of the pieces but the exterior was somewhat pasty from the powdered groundnut that is part of the coating. I think the chicken suya is better.

The jollof rice is made with tomatoes, tomato paste and red pepper and there was a very generous portion. I have read that West African foods can be quite spicy but I could barely detect any pepper in this dish.

On this occasion the lansir was not as dry, probably because of being moistened by a little steam closed up in the box on the way home. Lime and EVOO helped a little, especially with the passage of a little time. Maybe some more chopped tomato would be good, too, but as I expected this worked better as a side salad.

On another visit I tried the Pepper Fish Soup. Pepper soup is a staple of the region consisting of a thin, peppery broth in which various other ingredients including vegetables and meats are served. The fish choices are catfish and tilapia and they are served as steaks, not filets. I really liked the peppery broth but tilapia is a very bony fish and it was tedious dealing with all the small bones. I have since found a spice mix for this soup at Makola Imports, a Ghanaian food store on South Gessner, and have made it at home with filets.

I have also tried the shrimp suya; it proved to be very tiny shrimp, coated with the groundnut flour and with that pasty exterior but very spicy, the spiciest thing I’ve had at Suya Hut.

I’ve since discovered several African food stores sell suya also; I’ve observed many customers at Suya Hut buying them in quantity to go.

So far the real winners have been the chicken suya, masa (also called waina on the menu) and the pepper soup.

The website has a menu and some helpful pictures.

Suya Hut

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Friend's Kitchen menus

Prices and dishes may differ at the restaurant.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Junior's Texas Best Smokehouse

Mackay, TX, on US 59 between Wharton and El Campo

Junior’s is the retail outlet for H & B sausage company of El Campo. It’s a bit smaller than Prasek’s Hillje Smokehouse on the other side of El Campo, less touristy and with a smaller selection and menu.

The first time I stopped in I mostly window-shopped. I tried a sliced beef bbq sandwich and picked up some kolaches and a venison, jalapeno and cheese summer sausage. The sandwich was hefty, about 9 or 10 ounces of meat, but the meat was a little tough and underdone. A link sandwich or plate might be the better way to go here but if you’re hungry for bbq in this area I’d suggest you stop at Hinze’s up the road a piece in Wharton for some good pecan smoked Q.

They use a variety of meats in their summer sausages including beef, turkey, bison and venison. The sample I got was pretty good although I thought they used a mediocre cheese and the heat seemed more due to black pepper than jalapeno. Unlike a true summer sausage, refrigeration is required and I wound up tossing most of this after the power outage caused by Hurricane Ike.

On my second visit I also tried the elk jerky and some cheese and jalapeno survival sticks and venison survival sticks and more of the kolaches including a couple of Little Pigs, small sausage kolaches.

The best things I’ve had are the elk jerky ($31.99/lb) which was very light, not tough and chewy at all, the jalapeno and cheese survival sticks and the iced poppy seed roll which I’ve gotten both times (like a cinnamon roll but with poppy seeds). The kolaches have been good though nothing special.

The have a large variety of their own products - jams, jellies, pickled vegetables, seasonings, etc., plus products from Fischer-Wieser Farms and Fredericksburg Farms, both in Fredericksburg, and New Canaan products from Dripping Springs. I haven’t tried any of the Fredericksburg products but I’ve had products from New Canaan before and they are very good. The Jr.’s Texas Best Red Flame preserves I picked up (strawberry plus jalapeno) were more like jam than preserves and only so-so; the pickled sweet baby corn was very good though a tad too sweet for my taste (baby corn with pimentos done like bread and butter pickles).

On my second visit many of the meat display cases were empty for some reason. Jerky and survival sticks seem to be bigger here than sausages but I thought I remembered from my first visit more sausages to choose from. The had numerous frozen products including farm raised rabbits in cry-o-vac packs which looked like they had been marinated or seasoned; I wish I had picked one up. I did pick up some of their fresh smoked green onion sausage which was also available unsmoked and frozen. Compared to the similar product from Poffenberger’s Bellville Meat Market I picked up some months ago I wasn’t too impressed with this which seemed to have some filler material making it kind of mealy. It also had less of a green onion presence, though it looked very good.

Junior's Texas Best Smokehouse

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Al-Nile Restaurant and Bakery, continued

See the first part of the report here.

On two separate visits I had decided to try the Asida (the dish I had seen on my first visit; this is the spelling here) but it wasn’t available. This is the Sudanese version of fufu, made with corn or wheat or millet instead of manioc or yam (they make it with wheat here) so I finally settled on the Tagalia, the stew that is served with Asida. This was a much more likeable dish than the Mo Khia; it’s made with tomato and onion and oil, with minced, dried meat, thickened with okra powder. I had ordered pita bread to accompany this but was told it was best with the injera and when I objected the injera would fall to pieces was told that’s the point - you can eat it with you fingers, messy as that is, or tear up pieces of the injera and add them to the stew to dissolve and add body and flavor, then eat with the utensils provided. I remembered some Ethiopian dishes also involve dissolving injera in the wot so I followed the suggestion and had an enjoyable meal - could’ve eaten more of this one. I also remembered to add the Shata to liven it up.

On another visit they did agree to make the falafel; it took about 40 minutes. I got a sandwich, a large wrap with broken falafel patties and the basic salad with Shata on the side. I unwrapped it to add the Shata (it could have used some tahini or something, too) and on the second bite, it fell all apart - the pita had been scored for halving, apparently, and I should have wrapped it back up in the foil before picking it up. I wound up eating a falafel salad. I’ve also sampled the Sheya, pieces of lamb ribs in a spicy paste. I don’t know if this is served as a stew or what - the meat wasn’t fully cooked yet and was tough and chewy so I had gone for the falafel sandwich on that visit but that dish had promise.

The small menu also includes Comunia - stomach - they didn’t have that the time I asked about it, and Adas, a lentil stew that I think also has lamb in it. Both Taamia (their spelling) and Falafel are listed - Tamia is the Sudanese word for Falafel and these are the same thing though they’re listed separately - and there is Soup - a stock made from bones. After numerous visits and trying to learn the menu, I was told it’s an old menu and there are going to be changes but I don’t know what’s going and what’s staying. It’s been apparent on each visit that the place is evolving under the new ownership. A previous name of the business was Sudany Grocery.

I’ve sampled the Baklawa, simply made with phyllo and honey (there were no nuts in my large piece), simple strips of glazed pastry dough just called ‘cake,’ as was the cookie, and a Sambusa or Sanbus, a flat, triangular meat pie with a spicy ground meat and onion filling, more like a Paratha than a Samosa.

The best things I’ve had here are the Ful Medammes, Sambusa, Tagalia and Shata and the date filled cookie but I’ve only seen the meat pie once and some times the pickings on the table of pastries is pretty slim and, as is apparent, sometimes they can’t serve some of the dishes on the menu. It is also fair to say this is not a cuisine that carnivores will love.

The young man I’ve dealt with has been very helpful and pleasant, putting up with my barrage of questions (there isn’t much about Sudanese cuisine online); he speaks good English, having to pause only a few times to think of the word he needs to explain something to me.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Tamale, a Kingdom for a Tamale

Lord have mercy on anyone who has to eat tamales out of a can. Or for that matter, the machine-made extruded variety so common at Tex-Mex restaurants.

Only if you’ve had a hand-made tamale can you understand how this simple peasant food came to be a staple in so many cuisines.

You can find some very good tamales in Houston even if you don’t have a tamale lady that comes by your place of work or the time or skill to make your own. Some of my favorites are from Alamo Tamale Co., the same company whose packages of machine made tamales are commonly available in coolers and freezers in grocery stores all over the area. Their store on Navigation, just east of downtown, offers a variety of the machine made tamales but they also offer hand-made tamales in either chicken or pork, fresh and hot out of the steamer. I prefer a very moist tamale and these are excellent but it’s best to get there earlier in the day. I do think sometimes they may slip some machine made ones in on you toward the end of the day, or at least some that aren’t that fresh. Get yourself some of the salsas they offer and a pile of the totally inadequate, flimsy napkins and chow down. There’s very limited accommodations for dining in the store - a stainless steel counter around the perimeter - so I usually make a dash for home (or a picnic table at a park) for my feast. Even with a 25-30 minute drive in traffic, I’ve gotten home and found my tamales still steaming hot.

They also have a few other hot items served from a buffet but despite the enticing aroma I’ve never tried any of them.

Gourmands rave about the tamales at Tamales Dona Tere and I can say I’ve made my peace with them but don’t really like them in a big way. These are Mexico City style, much larger than typical Tex-Mex tamales and I’ve usually found there’s an awful lot of masa compared to the other ingredients and they’ve also tended to be very dry, verging on caked texture. But some of them can be very good. Again, I suspect it’s best to go earlier in the day. Dona Tere seems to be establishing some outposts around the area; there are 3 locations listed on their website.

One online source says that there are over 100 different kinds of tamales common in Guatemala and I’ve tried the tamales at several Guatemalan restaurants and panaderias in Houston, ranging from the chuchita, a snack sized tamale that can be about as large as a tennis ball, to tamales that are a meal in themselves.

My favorite tamales in Houston right now are Salvadoran, specifically from La Roca, a tamaleria, taqueria, pupuseria and panaderia on Bissonnet across from Bayland Park. Salvadoran tamales differ a lot too, ranging from so dry a knife is required to the ones from La Roca which are very moist; some others I’ve encountered are gelatinous rather than creamy. They’re much milder in flavor than Tex-Mex tamales, so don’t expect any heat. They’re also larger, about the equivalent of 3 or 4 Tex-Mex tamales, and with larger pieces of either chicken or pork plus cubed potatoes as filling. The chicken and pork ones are steamed in banana leaves but the plain tamal de elote is nothing but masa and is steamed in a corn husk. It is usually served with a dollop of rich Crema Salvadorena, similar to French creme fraiche.

Neither these nor the Alamo tamales the way I like them are finger food or things you should try to nosh on while driving.

I’ve recently discovered that La Roca supplies tamales to some carnicerias, such as the Carniceria La Michoacan (at least location # 27, on Bissonnet near Dairy Ashford) and Nortenito, a carniceria on Bissonnet at Wilcrest. These are very good too, more like Tex-Mex tamales than Salvadoran and spicier, too, but they're only available at Nortenita on weekend mornings in limited supply.

Alamo Tamale

Tamales Dona Tere

My review
of a Colombian tamale at Las Delicias Panaderia.

My review
of Salvadoran tamales at La Roca.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


1900 Blalock at Campbell      MOVED TO 1780 BLALOCK (next to the new location of the Polish Grocery Store).

I had been to the Polish grocery store next door a couple of years ago when I first learned of it and enjoyed some excellent kielbasa and other items I picked up then and have been meaning to check out the restaurant ever since but it had completely slipped my mind until I came across the beer mustard I had bought while looking for something to put on a hot dog.

The restaurant is in a strip center, like many of Houston’s ethnic restaurants, but the interior is very distinctive, resembling perhaps a clubby bar. With the temperature outside in the upper 90s, the place seemed secluded and cool, a world away from the sweltering parking lot. I had the place almost to myself at 1 in the afternoon.

The meal started very well with a draft Pilsner Urquell, a very smooth beer, drawn with great care by the young waitress. While I studied the menu (I’d looked it over on-line but still hadn’t decided what I wanted), the complimentary rye bread with two spreads, a cream cheese and smalec, the poor man’s butter, made from bacon fat, lard, cracklings and onions arrived, then a cup of a complimentary potato soup. The spreads were good on the rye bread, the potato soup looked very good and it was, slightly sour with carrots, minced parsley, and, I presume, some sauerkraut.

I ordered the Polish vegetable salad, Salatka Jarzynowa, to start and Bigos, the traditional Polish hunter’s stew, for the main course. The salad is a Polish version of a Salade Olivier with potatoes, peas, carrots and other vegetables along with hard-boiled egg white and mayonnaise. I have grown so fond of the Olivier salad in the Russian style at Golden Grains, The Russian General Store and Phoenicia, all of which contain some meat along with the vegetables, that I was a little disappointed in this meatless version which also seemed quite bland. But when the Bigos arrived the salad proved a very apt complement to the sourness of the stew.

I was also a little disappointed in the Bigos at first, more like a hash than a stew made with both sauerkraut and fresh cabbage and various sausages and other meats. The sourness of it didn’t bother me, it was nicely seasoned, with bay leaf and, I think, juniper berries, but the meats had been cut in small dice and I would have preferred larger chunks of the excellent kielbasa.

The disappointments were minor and there are plenty of interesting items on the menu to choose from and overall I had enjoyed my first visit very much.

Because of the unexpected complimentary soup I was full long before finishing all the food and wound up taking some of the Salatka and Bigos home and was delighted to find they improved with refrigeration and with the flavors coming together. In particular the Bigos was much better whether cold or reheated. When I order this again I think I would get it take-out and save it for the next day.

As I left after my first visit, clutching my leftovers and a printout of the menu, the waitress came running into the parking lot after me to bring me my camera. I had gotten so entranced in the secluded lair of the restaurant and the meal I had totally forgotten I had it with me, sitting on one of the other chairs at the table. I really wish I had gotten a picture of that soup.

On my second visit my memory worked a little better and I got a picture. In the meantime I had studied the menu on line again and read up on Polish cuisine and went with very high expectations. The Sour Rye Soup (Zurek z Kielbasa i Jajkiem? - with sausage and hard boiled egg) in particular sounded awesome and I fully expected to be knocked off my chair by the dish but it proved to be no more sour than a soup with an added dollop of sour cream and I suffered a little let-down. It did however include a generous amount of the excellent kielbasa. The spreads accompanying the bread on this occasion included a whipped butter with a generous amount of minced garlic in addition to the smalec. I do wish the bread was served warm.

In keeping with my sandwich motif of recent weeks I went for the Breaded Pork Cutlet sandwich on rye (Kanapka Kottletem Schabowy). This proved to be quite a hefty sandwich with a thin portion of pork sirloin, breaded and fried, and served on rye bread with thick strips of onion, pickles, tomato and lettuce. It was unfortunately on the dry side and would have benefitted from some mustard or mayo; I tried using up the last of the whipped butter spread. I think I would have enjoyed the breaded pork cutlet plate served with sauerkraut and potatoes more than this sandwich.

But I left satisfied once again and determined to return to try more on the menu. Polonia is certainly one of my favorite ‘finds’ of the last couple of years.

Polonia, with a link to the Polish Grocery Store next door.

Restaurante Guatemala

3330 Hillcroft # N, just doors down from Jerusalem Halal Deli

I’ve been sampling the various Central and South American cuisines available in Houston for the past year or so and so far Guatemalan cuisine has proved to be the least interesting and adventuresome. This place may be the most accessible for those not familiar with the cuisine, however, it’s a bit more nicely appointed than your typical Houston hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant, well lit and friendly. The menu is very simple and unthreatening.

One online source says there are more than a hundred different styles of tamales known in Guatemala. One I’ve encountered at every place I’ve tried is the chuchita, a snack sized tamale that can actually be quite large. The first time I had this at Lo Nuestro I loved it, the shape and size of a billiard ball, moist, with a nice chunk of very moist and tender pork embedded in it. Everywhere else I’ve had it, including revisits to Lo Nuestro, it’s been about the size of 2 or 3 Tex-Mex tamales and sometimes so firm as to necessitate a knife and fork. The chuchita at Guatemala was very dry with a very dry chunk of chicken breast inside; the best part of it was the gravy-like salsa which accompanied it. Guatemalan food is not at all spicy, however. Other Guatemalan tamales I've encountered can be as large as 6 or 7 Tex-Mex tamales and constitute a meal in themselves. It is said to be considered rude to order more than one tamale at a time in Guatemala.

The only other tamales on the menu here are rice tamales, also an appetizer, which I didn’t try.

All of the staff I've encountered here speak enough English that I've barely had to call upon my limited Spanish. On my first visit the waitress suggested one of the chicken dishes, Pollo en Amarillo, chicken in a Mole Amarillo, which turned out to include carrots and chayote and was accompanied by plain white rice. i thought it was okay but nothing special and I concluded I had been steered me toward something very safe and Americanized but I have since learned this dish is a staple of the country's cuisine. It came with three individually wrapped tamales, called tamalitas, which the waitress offered to exchange for tortillas but I opted to stick with the tamales to see what they included. It turned out they included nothing - they were just masa dough, very firm, firm enough to be used as bread sticks although a little chunky and slippery for that purpose.

Recently after trying the Pepian de Pollo at Chapinlandia and being impressed by the dish, I decided to return to Guatemala and try their version. Pepian, or Pipian, is another Mayan/Mexican mole; it is based on pumpkin and sesame seeds. I found the mole at Guatemala to be more flavorful that that at Chapinlandia and the chicken - all dark meat here, white meat at Chapinlandia - tenderer and more flavorful but the sides at Chapinlandia were more satisfying. The vegetables in the mole were the same as in the Mole Amarillo - carrots and chayote, tender but not overcooked.

This time I opted for the tortillas as the bread side. They came wrapped in foil and very hot and falling apart from the steam. Even after they had been delivered the waitress asked if I wanted to exchange them for the tamalitas but I slightly preferred the tortillas.

Besides this place and Lo Nuestro I’ve had pastries and tamales from El Quetzal Bakery # 1 on Gessner and # 5 on Hillcroft, and # 1 Xelapan on Longpoint at Bingle, which used to be an El Quetzal location, and now at Chapinlandia Bakery on Rampart. Of those, the tamales at Lo Nuestro and Xelapan were superior while the chuchitas at Lo Nuestro and Chapinlandia were the best.

The desserts at Guatemala include Chocobanana and Chocopina plus Nuevo Tres Leches that are touted on a table card but I have not tried any of them. One dish I do want to return to try is the Kaq-ik de Pavo, a traditional turkey soup of Guatemala.

Note: this article was updated and revised 10/9/09 after a second visit.

Restaurante Guatemala