Friday, January 30, 2009

Quick Bites II - South Side

I’ve been spending some time on the south side recently. There are some newer housing developments, including some gated apartment complexes, but much like 5th Ward and 3rd Ward, the area has been mercifully ignored by all but the most ubiquitous fast food chains. This leaves room for a good number of locally owned establishments, most of which are unknown outside of the area and unlisted on Along South Post Oak, for instance, there’s a line-up of Mexican restaurants and taquerias, Cajun places, U-Buy-We-Fry, plus panaderias, taquerias and pupuserias. There are also taco trucks, pupusa and pollo asado wagons and bbq trailers.

Tacos Don Beto DF, S. Post Oak @ Grapevine
, in front of a defunct drive-in restaurant.

This one caught my eye with the word cesina on the side; I wheeled in to try it. It’s a somewhat-the-worse-for-wear small, former school bus parked in front of a tire repair shop (with a spiffy set of tires). The menu looks like it’s been hand-painted and altered several times and there were many items on the menu I didn’t recognize: under tortas, Hilangas and Jamacas. There were also picaditas, dobladas, tacos orientales, quemeves.

I tried a longaniza taco and one with the cesina. These are small, Mexico City style tacos (4" tortillas) and just a dollar each. The longaniza was excellent, a very generous amount with onions and cilantro. The cesina was a surprise - I thought this was a dried beef but the meat was moist, very thinly sliced. It was okay but not as good as the longaniza. Apparently cesina means something else in Mexico than Spain.

I tried to find the meaning of some of the unfamiliar terms online with only limited results. Apparently picaditas are like snack-sized chalupas; dobladas are tortillas folded over a filling, but how they differ from gringas (also on the menu) and piratas, which I’ve had elsewhere, I don’t know.

I inquired about the Hilangas torta on a second visit. The girl at the window speaks only a few words of English but the cook is pretty fluent; trouble is, he stays in the back of the bus and it’s hard to hear what he says. In response to my query I’m sure I heard the word iguana; in fact, I heard it twice, once in the sentence ‘do you want iguana?’ I thought immediately of an Anthony Bourdain episode on FoodTV where he was served an iguana stew in Mexico in which the animal was chopped up and added to the pot, scales and all. He pronounced it one of the worst dishes he’d ever tried to eat. I passed on the iguana.

But does a little truck like this actually have iguana? The cook clearly likes to joke with his customers and finishes off his creations with a flair, a la Emeril. Maybe he was just putting me on. I still have no idea what jamacas is - another word for ham?

I settled for a Cubana torta but it was not very good, with a very soft bun and only pork and a frankfurter for meats, no ham. I also ordered a taco orientale. This is supposed to have vegetables like calabacita on it, I think, but what I got apparently was a fajita taco. This was probably a problem with the non-English speaking girl at the window.

The place does a good business.

Taqueria El Taco Regio, West Airport at Chimney Rock, just north of South Main Street

UPDATE: I spotted a taqueria - brick and mortar variety - right next to Tornado Burger in Stafford by the same name but whether it's related to the wagon I don't know.

Update II: The taqueria in Stafford has a much larger but very similar menu. I had the Hamburguesa Regia which I believe was estilo Monterrey, i.e., not a pure beef patty.

I pulled in to this one when I saw the word pierna on the side which should be leg meat either of lamb or pork, I think, but they didn’t have it. The place was staffed with 4 people - I don’t think I’ve ever seen a taco trailer with that many hands - and was spic and span. There are windows on both sides and I liked the fact that the food is prepared right in front of you, in full view.

I got a barbacoa taco, opting for flour tortilla. I nodded when asked ‘everything on it.’ At this place, this means lettuce, tomato, onion and only a small amount of cilantro. The barbacoa was excellent, among the best I’ve ever had, and a very generous amount for only $1.50 ($1.25 with corn tortillas). The salsas were also excellent but I really wished it had a lot more cilantro on it and I could do without the lettuce and tomato.

On a second visit they also couldn’t serve pierna so I’m concluding they don’t have it anymore. I tried a lengua taco, again with flour, and just onions and cilantro. The pieces of lengua were large, much larger than I’ve seen before on a taco, and as good as any I’ve ever had at Tacambero behind Canino’s, very moist, some pieces with a little pink in the center, and very flavorful. Most places I’ve had lengua, it’s chopped up in 1/2" dice or smaller.

This is really a good taco wagon albeit with a rather limited menu. It has the neighborhood all to itself; not only are there no other taco trucks anywhere around, the neighborhood is pretty much devoid of any brick and mortar restaurants.

Two Brothers Smokin’ Oak Kitchen - Hiram Clarke, ½ mile south of S. Main, by a 66 station

This trailer has relocated to Willowbend @ Craighead, just west of Stella Link.
I first came across Cyd and Charles Wilson’s bbq wagon some years ago when they had a spot on Ennis at Cleburne, just off the TSU campus. I was headed to Henderson’s but it was closed that day and I wheeled in when I smelled the smoke. I had a very good sliced brisket sandwich, very tender, smoky meat and a thin, slightly peppery sauce. On another visit, I wanted to try the ribs but they had neither that nor brisket ready so I settled for a chili pie. While I was eating that on the hood of the car, one of the brothers brought out a sample of their home-made sausage, an East Texas style made with finely ground beef, red pepper, salt and just the smoke - that style of sausage usually doesn’t impress me compared to the great sausages of Texas but it was unquestionably the best of that style I had ever had and I liked it.

Then the trailer disappeared. I kept hoping I would find them somewhere else in 3rd Ward or maybe down in Sunnyside, but never came across them. But on one of my treks through the neighborhoods off South Main, I spotted them. Serendipity. I had one of their links, about 10 oz. by weight, and very good. It was all they had ready.

On a second visit I was able to get a brisket and rib plate, my first chance to sample their ribs, and this was very good; oak is my favorite wood for smoking and this had lots of good smoke flavor, was tender, had a good smoke ring, etc. It was served sauce-on but I don’t think they’d have any problem withholding the sauce if you prefer. The ribs tips were split off but included in the plate and awesome eating. They do sell a tip plate; my plate was $12.99 including a coke (package price).

The potato salad was probably institutional but not bad. The red beans and rice were probably home made and kind of bland, but a nice alternative to plain old pintos and just needed a little added hot sauce.

This is some awfully good Q for a wagon.

They’re open Tuesday thru Saturday from about 11am to about 7pm, sometimes later if they have Q left to sell. There does seem to be a problem of not having things ready until early afternoon. Besides the chili pie they have boudin, home-made cake and a few other items

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bansuri Indian Food Corner UPDATED 9/5/13



I’d seen this truck several times when driving down Wilcrest but it never was open for business so I made a note of the phone number and called and found out it’s only open in the evening. I’d looked up most of the offerings online and determined they’re basically the street foods of Mumbai and that was confirmed by the owner who also confirmed this is Houston’s first, and so far only, vegetarian Indian taco truck. They’ve been in business about 4 months. The truck is decorated with depictions of the namesake wooden Indian flute.

I tried the Vada Pav on my first visit, basically a potato slider on a very substantial roll with a coriander/mint chutney on one side of the bun and a garlic chutney on the other. It was surprisingly spicy and very good and I was eager to go back to try something else.

On my second visit I asked what the best dish they offered was and was steered toward the Ragda, a dish the owner said he has been eating since he was eight and loves. This is a stew of ‘white Canadian peas’ served over the potato patties (wada), with onion chutney, rice, the mint/coriander chutney and a date/tamarind chutney mixed in; you also get additional portions of the two latter chutneys to add to taste. This was awesome, almost at the limit of my tolerance for spicy food, and it put me in mind of my first visits to our excellent Pakistani restaurant, Himalaya.

I couldn’t wait to go back again and this time, Dabeli was recommended. I couldn't remember what I had read on this and thought it was going to be another stew-like dish but it was another version of the potato sliders; had I known that I might have passed and that would have been a big mistake. These were even better than the Wada Pav; the bread (pav, made from a family recipe which they have produced locally) is toasted, there’s a little cinnamon in there for sweetness and peanuts.

I also got the Sev Puri, an Indian verison of nachos or garnaches you might say.

The owners are very friendly and have been very welcoming and happy to explain the dishes. It’s just snack food, not meant to be a full meal, so you’d have to order several items if you wanted an evening meal.

They’re open Monday thru Saturday from around 5:30 or 6pm until around 9pm, weather permitting. If you’re coming from a distance (they’ve had people drive down from Bryan-College Station) you might want to make a note of the phone number and call to make sure they’re open.

It’s only about 15 minutes from my home and I've been 3 times in one week; I’ve had no problem with taking things home - there’s no place to eat, of course - but the puris need to be consumed soon before they get soggy.

Bansuri Indian Food Corner

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gimme them old-time burger stands - Cream Burger

3841 Elgin @ Scott

I’ve seen this place off and on for years but it usually looked closed. Recently I’ve been in the neighborhood frequently and stopped to check it out. When I pulled in I thought I saw why - a sign in a window says Cream Burger is only open Mondays and Wednesdays. Nice work if you can get it!

However, I’ve been by several times and seen lines waiting to be served on other days and so I stopped in. Another sign by the window where you order says they’re open every day but Sunday and on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday until Midnight so I’m not sure when to expect them to be open.

The menu is typical, burgers, fries, hot dogs, chili pie. According to reviews on b4 their shakes and malts are special.

Prices are very reasonable and I expected rather smallish burgers so I went for a a double cheese burger which proved to be no small sandwich. The lady at the window was very hospitable, reminding me of the young lady I saw at Sparkle’s Hamburger Spot the first time I visited over a year ago.

The burger was hot and fresh off the grill and very satisfying to my taste buds, bringing to mind the burgers of my youth at Harden’s Dairy Bar in Lake Jackson. This was the closest to what I remember of those burgers I’ve ever experienced, thin meat patties well caramelized, toasted bun (actually, a little blackened around the edges!), crispy lettuce, mustard on top and bottom but not slathered on. Unfortunately the fries were pretty lame, looking nicely seasoned they were bland and limp. The pineapple shake was a delight, however; though not made with a premium ice cream it had a generous amount of crushed pineapple and was drinkable without a straw or spoon. I wonder if the strawberry shake has bits of berry in it?

One sign in the window proclaims Cream Burger is operated by the Greenwoods. Another sign, a plaque from Texas Southern University, recognizes the proprietors for enduring decades of economic stagnation and urban blight in 3rd ward. But the sign you should probably pay most attention to is next to the order window. It asks patrons to kindly not use a cell phone while ordering. Then there is a graphic of a cell phone with a dagger plunged through it and under that in bold letters NO CELL PHONES!..

It was a chilly day and I repaired to Chez Toyota to enjoy my burger. A couple of young men approached the window and one of them was talking on a cell phone, holding it some distance from his face and talking into it. I got busy with arranging the burger for a picture and didn’t see just what happened but the two young men left very quickly and they did not appear to be carrying any take-away food.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bhojan - Vegetarian Indian Cuisine

6855 Southwest Freeway @ Southwestern Inn



I must have driven by this place hundreds, maybe thousands, of times when I worked at Greenway Plaza, but the thought of an Indian buffet at a motel didn’t sound very promising to me. Recently however I saw a good review somewhere and when I checked it out on b4, there were many favorable reviews plus even more under the restaurant’s previous name, Thali. So I was off to give it a try and am very glad I did.

The cuisine is primarily that of the western Indian state of Gujarat and this is apparently our only restaurant presenting this cuisine. Madhur Jaffrey has called Gujarati cuisine the haute cuisine of vegetarianism. There is a weekday lunch buffet from 11 to 3 on weekdays for $9.95; all other times (6-9:30pm weekdays, 11a-9:30 Saturday and Sunday) the buffet is $12.95.

The presentation is thali-style. Upon entering, you take a large stainless steel platter and load it up with stainless cups called katori; as you go through the buffet, you put each item in it’s own bowl. Actually, that’s the way I did it the first time but observed that some Indian customers put some of the foods directly on the platter or on pieces of naan.

This is my first experience of Gujarati cuisine and I have been very impressed. I am not an expert on either Indian or Pakistani cuisine but I have a little more familiarity with the latter; this is definitely the best Indian restaurant I have sampled in Houston. As at Himalaya, the outstanding Pakistani restaurant just a block or so away, cilantro figures prominently in some of the dishes. Another ingredient that is used a lot is sugar cane, processed and presented in several ways and sometimes referred to as gur, sometimes as jaggery. Lentils are also a very common ingredient.

The hostess has been very gracious and helpful; I have a lot to learn about Indian cuisine and table etiquette and I do wish they had the names of the dishes posted. I do know that I have had bajara roti, made with millet, puri, parathas, pooran poli, garlic chutney, and batata wada, plus mango burfi, chai and mango lassi. There is nan and papadum on the buffet but in loading up your platter you will want to allow for the puris and rotis and chapatis and pooran poli that are brought to the table fresh out of the kitchen. They’ll keep bringing them out until you wave them off. The shaak/vegetable curries have included corn and paneer, peas and paneer, potatoes (Batata nu Shaak?), eggplant (Ringan nu Shaak?), black-eyed peas and cabbage that I can remember. The garlic chutney is excellent and quite addictive. My favorite of the rotis is the Pooran Poli, a ‘tortilla’ with a sweet filling which they make with yellow lentils and gur. I’ve read online that this filling can be different vegetables and the first time I tried it I thought it was sweet potato.

Burfi has been called Indian cheesecake; it is actually condensed milk cooked down with additional sugar (jaggery), topped with a thin layer of edible silver called varak.

The thali pictured may not look like much food but I left thoroughly stuffed from that meal; this is due in part to the rotis, of course. The picture does not show the garlic chutney or mango lassi which had not been brought out yet. The lassi was presented in a soda fountain glass and was very filling, practically a meal in itself. The sauces in the cup at the top of the plate, beyond the potato balls which I think are called batata wada, included one made of cilantro and a sweet one; there is a balance of sweet, salty and spicy in the flavors presented.

After more than a year I recently revisited this place. I had heard there had been a change of ownership and the food had slipped a bit. I'm not sure of the former report but the decor has changed a bit, I don't believe I recognized anyone from the staff and the buffet may have been a bit less sumptious, I'm not sure. The hours and prices had also changed; this is reflected in the information above.

I took a lot less from the buffet this time. From 1 o'clock I took some pappadums and a puri, a pickled dish consisting of carrots and peppers and garlic, rice, and a yogurt soup called kadhi, thickened with chickpea flour. At 9 o'clock is the same thing I had on a previous visit while in the center is Navratnan Kurma. Navratnan means nine gems and there are supposed to be nine vegetables and nuts in this; had I known that I would have been counting but I did get potato, French beans, peas and paneer that I remember. At the top of the platter is Oondiyu which involved some interesting dumplings and a dal I didn't recognize. I found out later online that the dumplings were made of fenugreek leaves.

This picture was taken before the hot, fresh rotis arrived. There is one change, for sure, in that regard. Whereas previously there were maybe a half dozen rotis, there seemed to be only three being served now, chapati plus my two favorites, bajara roti (millet based) and poolan pori, the one with the sugarcane paste filling. These were only half-portions, not full sized.

I didn't care for the thick yogurt very much and allowing that the papps and puri on the buffet weren't hot and fresh like the ones brought around to the table, everything was very good. If the food has slipped any it hasn't been by much.

Besides the hours having changed to now include Tuesdays and the price having gone up by $1, they now offer Tiffin to go, i.e., to go meals, for $6.99, as detailed on the website. Sounds like a good deal.

Updated September, 2010


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Do You Want One of These


The Press and Chronicle seem to try to outdo each other with pictures of over-stuffed stacked burgers that an ordinary person can hardly be expected to get their hands around to pick up much less get their mouth open wide enough to take a bite. I thought I'd join the fad.

The humble burger is the subject of quite a food fad these days; there was a special segment devoted to it on Nightline on ABC this past week and celebrity chefs have been coming to market with their versions, even before the tanking of the economy made the comfort food appeal of a burger so relevant.

I usually take a Bah, humbug! approach to food fads and I much prefer a stick-to-the-basics burger, but I must admit that looks pretty awesome. The pictured burger is from a very small chain called The Counter which bills itself as offering Custom Built Burgers. Here's a comment on a New England blog; I love how the blogger describes the ordering experience as a science experiment.

But is it a burger? I have a little thing about maintaining the integrity of culinary terminology and I don't think that should be called a hamburger. Maybe Open-faced Hamburger steak sandwich???? Or maybe it's nothing but a photo-op burger, put together more with an eye to how it will photograph than how it functions as a sandwich.

But I think I want one.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Heritage India Cuisine, continued

See the first part of the report here.  NOTE:  THIS RESTAURANT HAS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.

Unfortunately I didn’t remember this when I went in and had the Karimeen Fry, a whole fish the size of an adult hand that is prized in Kerala. The Karimeen is scored then seasoned with a paste of ginger, tumeric, chilli pepper and garlic which is allowed to penetrate the flesh for a bit and then it is fried. The fish was over-cooked for my taste but very good. It is not as bland as tilapia, however, so if you like your fish bland, you probably won’t like this. I had to use my fingers to get at all the little bits of meat. I liked this so much I looked up some recipes online and tried it at home with Tilapia a few days later and I’ll definitely be doing it again.

This came quite surprisingly with a bowl of the Duck Curry in a very thick gravy and lots of it which is not the way it was presented on the buffet and it was much better this way. On the buffet, most of the pieces I got were small and bony; there was more bone than meat. This was not the case with this bowl plus there were globules of the duck fat, too. This was a much more satisfying dish; I wouldn’t have ordered the Duck Curry based on what I had on the buffet so this was a pleasant surprise.

On another visit having studied the to-go menu I was intending to order either the Fish Moilly or Meen Peera. According to what I’ve read online the latter might have been made with either sardines or smelts if it had been available but it was not listed on the in-house menu. I was hoping the Fish Moily would be made with the Karimeen as I wanted to try it again but it is made with kingfish instead so I decided to venture off the section of the menu with the dishes of Kerala and try something from the Vegetable listings, opting for the Navrattom Korma with a Porotta.

The Porotta was great, wonderfully flaky and not overly oily; it could almost be described as light. I’ve had the Korma before at Bhojan, a version which included paneer. The name means ‘nine gems’ and the dish is supposed to contain nine vegetables. I enumerated green beans (perhaps green beans and long beans), potato, carrot, cauliflower, broccoli and peas, plus bits of pineapple as a garnish and a few cashews and a couple of whole cardamom pods. I don’t think of myself as a fussy eater but I am picky about some things. I am very, very picky about how vegetables are cooked and these were over-cooked for my taste so I didn’t enjoy this as much as I had hoped.

My favorites so far have been the Thali, Duck Curry, Steak Fry, Kacheyamoor, Payasam and Palappam, plus the version of Thoran served on the buffet which was made with cabbage and carrots rather than long beans and amaranth in the version on the thali.

They’re open Tues-Sat 11:30 to 8pm and 11:30 to 6 on Sunday. They have taken on a new partner who is adding Northern Indian and Indian Chinese dishes to the menu and Saturday they have a buffet from 11:30-3 of those specialties while the Sunday buffet is the Kerala dishes. During the week for lunch, anyway, you’ll likely be served directly by one of the owners, So far I have not tried any of the Northern Indian or Indian Chinese items.

Like I said, it’s not the same as Indian cuisine served elsewhere, although there are a few of the standby dishes available; but if you like exploring and experiencing different cuisines, this is definitely one to try. All the dishes I’ve had had a moderate level of heat but if you’re a heat-seeker don’t forget to ask about the spice levels.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Quick Bites

Hoang Banh Mi, 3509 Elgin @ Scott

I was tooling down Elgin and spotted the sign and thought to myself ‘Wasn’t that the name of the great banh mi shop inside the decrepit Hoa Binh mall on Milam?’ (also known as the Original Givrals). I pulled in for a quick banh mi thinking I might have made a big discovery. The Thit Nuong ($2.35) was smaller than I remembered but with more of the tasty grilled pork, or maybe it was just a relative thing. The baguette was very well toasted, a little over-done, but very good. I was in a hurry and got it to go but wish I’d gotten a little sriracha. The sign says Hoang Banh Mi, the business card says University Café with ‘Hoang Sandwich’ stamped on the back. On b4-u-eat it’s listed as Givral’s Vietnamese Bistro. Aha! So it is the same place and it turns out they’ve been open there for a couple of years - I just never knew it. I’ve had some great banh mi and beef noodle soup at the old place in the past and I’m glad to know where they are.

The Nickel Sandwich Shop, 5601 Lyons, just east of Lockwood

I’ve been intrigued by the Nickel, the old nickname for 5th ward where Burt's Cajun Meat Market is located, one of my favorite eateries. The old neighborhood is long past it’s prime and has been passed by (mercifully) by the chains except for a few of the fast food places. I’ve wondered if there are some more gastronic finds to be made amongst all the small, locally owned eateries, so when I saw the signs for fried chicken in the parking lot of this sandwich shop, I pulled in. It turned out they only do wings and breast strips and I’m not interested in them in my ongoing Chicken Fried Odyssey so I opted for a catfish po’boy.

It was on a store-bought multi-grain roll that was unremarkable but the sandwich was pretty good otherwise, so hot out of the fryer it burned the roof of my mouth. The fries were over-cooked and grease-sodden. Another customer told me the Trout Sandwich is good, too, and they also have flounder, plus barbecue (smelled good but I didn’t see any) and the special of the day was a Cajun Smoked Burger which I just may have to go back to try.

El Penjamo, 6110 Lyons, near Kress

I’ve developed an interest in exploring the regional variations in Mexican cuisine and when I found out the name of this restaurant seems to refer to a municipality in Guanajato I thought I’d give it a try. I’ve noticed the crowded parking lot during the lunch hour before when I’ve been to Burt’s just down the street. The restaurant is quite small and I saw no regional specialities of Guanajato on the menu that I recognized so I decided to try the Carnitas al Penjamo (they also have Carnitas Rancheras). The chips were fresh and oily with a fiery salsa verde and a very creamy one. The dish was delivered looking like a pile of fajitas and so sizzling hot the refritos were still bubbling but it was nothing like any carnitas I’ve ever had before and would have been more appropriately named Smothered Pork Chops al Penjamo style. Maybe that’s the way they do carnitas in Guanajato? It was good, just not what I was looking for. The sides - refritos, rice, guacamole, pico - were all good but were very small portions compared to the entree.

I did see Machacado (al la Mexicana, con Huevo and a Burrito) on the breakfast menu and the waitress said breakfast was available all day so I may go back to try that. Machacado (dried beef) is originally from Nuevo Leon, I think. Both waitresses spoke Spanish as a first language but both were very fluent in English.

Taqueria Mi Lindo Huetamo, taco truck on Hillcroft, 2 blocks south of Bellaire

Robb Walsh wrote this up on his taco truck blog last year and I’ve stopped by a couple of times. They were open New Year’s Day and I got an al pastor torta with their unusual marinated radish and onion salad. It was very good; the bolillo was soft and a bit spongy and only minimally toasted, the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender and tasty, and there was close to a cup of creamy avocado in there. I prefer the bread crustier but this place is a real winner.

Taqueria Oaxaca - taco trailer squeezed into an already cramped parking lot in front of Variedades Puebla at 1833 Richmond, near Woodhead

In line with my interest in regional Mexican fared I checked this out. On the first visit I had a taste for a burrito.

It was huge, with rice, pork (tough), refritos, lettuce, tomato, avocado, queso, crema and a very good salsa verde and a lime wedge. A whole meal for $4, but burritos are probably not a regional specialty of Oaxaca. The menu on the side of the trailer lists enchiladas, huaraches, gorditas - I couldn’t wait to go back and try an enchilada and visions of a choice of moles danced in my head but, alas, they don’t do enchiladas, or huaraches, so I settled for a gordita with beef. It was very good, the best gordita I’ve had in a long time, but, again, not a regional specialty. I think the name on the trailer must have been from a previous owner. Almost no English was spoken by the senorita. The food was okay both times (the beef on the gordito was better than the pork in the burrito) but parking is a real drawback.