Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Couple of Pupuserias

La Pupusa Alegre
6209 Bellaire, near Rampart

This has been recommended to me several times on this blog and I finally got around to trying it recently, during the height of our heat wave when I hardly ever was going out. The interior of the low-slung building is very homey and time worn. It shares a rather cramped and uneven parking lot with a machine shop or auto garage or similar business. I sat where I could catch a glimpse of the lady in the kitchen, slapping the pupusa back and forth; I've only been able to witness that before at El Cuscatleco and it's a treat. I had the place to myself at about 1:30 in the afternoon and ordered a Tamal de Elote and Pupusa Revuelta.

I remember the first time I tried a tamal de elote thinking 'What the..., there's nothing in here,' but I've come to love them (corn is one of my favorite vegetables anyway) and this was a very good one with a very generous dollop of Crema Salvadorena.

This pupusa revuelta had perhaps more pork than any I've had and was very good; I particularly liked the charring. Another blogger has bragged on how un-greasy the pupusas here are and I found that to be true although this was too hot to pick up at first and by the time it cooled off enough to handle the bottom had gotten soggy and the filling broke through. This was a very good pupusa but I don't mind the greasier ones I've had.

This pupuseria keeps its curtido more or less at room temp as many do and it had fermented just a bit. Combined with the loroco that can make for a rather unpleasant taste to me; this one wasn't bad but I prefer a well chilled, crisp curtido.

Oh yes, I had a big glass of lemonade. I don't think it was fresh squeezed but it sure did hit the spot on that blistering, brutally hot day. The menu is rather small and they did not have a copy to go but I noted Bandeja Paisa, the Colombian combo plate, Carne Guisada, Ropa Vieja, Chile Relleno, and Tacos Alegres. The sign out front says Comida Salvadorena y Latino America.

La Pupusa Rica
9399 S. Gessner, between 59 and Bissonnet

I stopped in at this place for the first time today; it has been open about 6 months and is doing a good business. It's a very large, banquet hall-sized room.

I had a Tamal de Elote con crema, Pupusa Revuelta and Pan con Gallina or chicken sandwich.

The meal was preceded by chips (store bought I think, Doritos?) with a warm salsa; I've never had chips and salsa at a Salvadoran place before. The coffee came with a carafe for refills. I've never had that before either and it was a pretty good, basic coffee.

The steamed tamal had a cake-like texture; it was not very warm but good nonetheless. The crema had a pinkish tinge to it but I couldn't decide what the flavoring was; it had a whipped texture and was very good and there was a generous amount.

The pupusa was very thin and very big and seemed to include some yellow cheese, which is unusual. I could taste some pork flavoring but I'm not sure I ever encountered any actual shreds of meat. The pupusa tasted more like an American grilled cheese sandwich than any pupusa I've ever had, not that there's anything wrong with that.

The chicken sandwich was very good. A hollowed out, toasted bolillo with mayo and/or crema, curtido, chunks of tender, braised, seasoned chicken breast (a generous amount), with thick tomato, cucumber and radish slices. Despite being a very wet filling the bottom of the roll never gave way and the only drawback was the charred portion of the bread. Alas my picture doesn't show any of the chicken.

I had wanted to order the Empanada de Plantano, according to the menu a deep fried plantain puff stuffed with custard cream, but they weren't able to serve it so I went for the sandwich, which is on the appetizer menu, and I wound up with way too much to eat. I've had Salvadoran empanadas before and wouldn't have described them as puffs so I'm interested in going back to try this. What I've had were deep fried portions of plantain with a thick dairy filling which has been described to me as a milk cream.

The curtido was in a large jar on the tables and was very vinegary but you got a pasta fork to retrieve a portion with and could let it drain; mine was still pretty crisp. You can see the prongs of the pasta fork sticking up behind the sandwich in case anybody wondered what that is.

The service was very blah but I was able to coax both the waitress and the cashier into a smile.

I liked both of these pupuserias and likely will return to both. La Rica is just blocks from my home.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Afghan Cuisine

11920 Highway 6 South (at Voss Rd), Sugar Land

This Restaurant is Closed.

I was happy to discover this restaurant recently and have enjoyed a couple of visits in just the past week. This is my first experience of Afghan cuisine. So far as I know there is only one other Afghan restaurant in Houston and perhaps only one other in the entire state. On my first visit I went with a couple of appetizers in order to sample a couple of different dishes (there is no buffet or even a special lunch menu).

I had the Borani Badenjan, an eggplant dish with tomato, cayenne and garlic, topped with a yogurt sauce and herbs. The amount of heat was a pleasant surprise; it is not mentioned in the description of the dish on the menu. This was perhaps more tomato than eggplant and quite oily but very good. Is also available as a vegetarian entree.

I also had the Mantoo which some online sources describe as the Afghan version of ravioli - steamed dumplings stuffed with a mixture of minced beef and onions and spices, topped with a tomato and ground beef sauce with green onions and more of the yogurt and herbs. This is available as an entree, also, and was excellent. The dumplings, gathered or folded rather than pressed as best I could determine, are slightly chewy.

I understand the yogurt is homemade and it is very rich, more like Greek style, I think.

Afghan naan is extra ($1) and I thought on this visit what I got was re-warmed and perhaps not baked on premises.

On a second visit I went with the Quabili Pallow, the Afghan national dish, with long grain basmati rice topped with sauteed carrots, raisins and almonds, served with bone-in lamb shank.

This was very, very good, the sweetness of the carrots and raisins contrasting with the nuttiness of the rice, the meaty flavoring of the rice and the crunchiness of the almonds. On the menu this is described as baked brown rice but I think this is one of several examples of problems in translation; as I understand it, this is dish gets it's coloration from the broth the rice and meat are baked in and this is not what we would consider brown rice.

On this occasion it was obvious the naan was freshly baked, so piping hot just out of the oven that I couldn't pick it up for several minutes.

Western style implements are provided or you can tear off a portion of the naan, use it to pinch off some of the meat, also gathering a pinch of the rice or anything else on the plate, and bring it to the mouth. A large spoon is provided with the entrees or appetizers to make it very easy to share either, transferring a portion to the individual plates that are provided.

I also sampled the dogh, a refreshing yogurt drink. I have been fond of what I have known as borani for years and make it often at home and this was the best version of a non-sweet yogurt drink I have encountered at a restaurant, even better than what I've made at home, with chunks of cucumber, minced onion, garlic, spices and pepper. There were so many chunks of vegetables attempting to drink this through the straw provided was frustrating and I finished the generous goblet off with the tablespoon. I've had doogh at one of our Persian restaurants before an found it unpleasantly over-carbonated. I understood dogh (or doogh or dough or dugh) is always carbonated, ideally naturally, but I detected none in this drink.

After just a couple of visits I've ranked this restaurant on a par with our very good Persian restaurants with which it shares some very similar dishes and put it into a league including them, Polonia, Cafe Pita + and a few others. I enjoyed the Quabili more than the lamb biryani I had once at Himalaya which otherwise I place a notch above these and I'm looking forward to more visits to see if that assessment holds up. It's certainly a welcome addition to the far west side-Fort Bend County-Sugar Land dining scene. Incidentally, I've read there is quite a Muslim community in Sugar Land and this whole corner bears that out; besides Afghan Cuisine, which claims to serve only Halal, there is an Indo/Pak grocery, a Halal butcher, Cafe Yasmeen, which is also Halal, and even the grill inside the Chevron station on the corner claims to be Halal.

The room is large and while not sumptuous is about on a par with rooms like Kasra and Cafe Caspian; there is a large TV on one end and you might want to avoid sitting close to that. The staff has been friendly.

Update: Recently I returned after an absence of several months. In the meantime, the reviewer for the Chronicle has given the restaurant a rave review, which I thoroughly think it deserves, and I was a little sad to see the place empty at 1pm; perhaps they do most of their business in the evening. My opinion of the food is still very high.

This time I tried the Aush soup and Bolani, two more appetizers.

I expected a porridge like soup but this was a broth with noodles, ground beef and split chickpeas, plus a dollop of yogurt, some tomato sauce and the chutney seen in the dispenser. I also thought there were some cheese curds in there. There was a surprising level of heat coming from the chutney and perhaps some other spices. Some sources online describe this as a tomato soup but the tomato flavoring was not prominent in this dish. It was very good although perhaps over-herbed.

The menu refers to Bolani as the Afghan version of calzone but I get more of a comparison to a filled roti of India such as Pooran Poli. The filling is potato and leek with cilantro and I think green onion. The Chronicle reviewer wrote that to compare these to calzone is to be very kind to calzone! I wouldn't go that far but this was immensely satisfying; I could have noshed on these all afternoon. They were slightly flaky, pliable rather than crisp as I had expected them to be. I would top one of the pieces with a dollop of the restaurant's homemade yogurt and a teaspoon of the chutney for some impromptu Afghan nachos.

I was disappointed on this visit that they were unable to serve the dogh.

There is no website so I've scanned the to-go menu here. Prices and dishes may differ on the menu in use at the restaurant.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Cajun Stop

2130 Jefferson


There's a new po'boy shop in town and it's a good one. According to what they told reporters, the owners are from New Orleans; they settled in Hattiesburg after Katrina but decided they missed the big city and wound up here. We're fortunate to have them.

I've tried the lunch special, a generous cup of gumbo (close to 16 ozs worth) and a small sandwich for $10. The chicken and sausage gumbo is thin but very tasty and loaded with tender chunks of smoky sausage and white and dark meat chicken pieces; it's mildly spicy.

It was hard to pass up the assortment of seafood po'boys available (soft shelled crab, oyster, fried crawfish, shrimp, catfish - there are 13 po'boys on the menu in 4 sizes, including the 32" extra large plus buns) but I was drawn to the roast beef and I was not disappointed. A grievance of mine for a long time has been the bread used for po'boys by most places here and while BB's and Jazzie both have bread that is better than most I think Calliope outshines them both. There are hints that it's bread from the Leidenheimer Bakery in New Orleans, or at least a very near clone. It's nice and crusty but lighter than a baguette or bolillo, still much better than the usual sandwich roll served by many places, toasted or not.

Besides the roll, the beef, gravy and other condiments were all tasty and there was an appropriately generous amount of both the gravy and mayo (I believe the correct measurement of the latter is 'gobs'). This was the best New Orleans-style Roast Beef Po'Boy I've ever had in Houston.

The manager asked me, as I was finishing up, if it had been messy enough - the right question to be asked after a New Orleans Roast Beef Po'Boy. The pile of wadded up paper towels on my table told the tale.

I'm looking forward to many more visits.

The place was virtually deserted when I was there just after 1pm; perhaps the downtown lunch crowd has not discovered it yet. The staff was very friendly. Despite the Jefferson Street address of the shopping center the restaurant is hardly visible from Jefferson; it's actually closer to the intersection of Hutchins and the St. Joseph Parkway.

The Cajun Stop

The Frisco Shop

6801 Burnet Rd., Austin

Back in the dark ages, when I was a student at UT, one of my favorite restaurants was the Night Hawk on the Drag. I don't know how I managed to eat there as often as I did - Vienna sausages and saltines or canned soup warmed on a hot plate in my room was more common fare - but as my situation improved, I ate there 2 or 3 times a week. The daily plate lunch specials were very good eats; occasionally I'd splurge in the evening on one of the larger Top Chop't Steaks and on weekends, maybe a Frisco Burger with a gaggle of friends crammed into a booth.

Over the years, I often returned to the Night Hawk when I visited Austin. The chain briefly had a location in Houston far out on Westheimer but it didn't last and neither did the main restaurants in Austin. It got down to where the Frisco Shop on Burnet Rd. was the only outpost left; I'd visit it on occasion when in Austin and swear I recognized some of the waitresses (and customers).

Then a couple of years ago I heard that even the Frisco Shop was closing, a casualty of the drugstore wars in Austin. I made sure to stop by on my next visit to Austin for one last taste and caused some mild consternation with my camera.

The Top Chop't Steak was not as good as I remembered it, although a little better than the ones you can find in the freezer section of every grocery store in these parts. Likewise the fries, which I had remembered as the best I'd had up to that point, were somehow not as wonderful, limper and perhaps a little too greasy.

I had not been that fond of the Frisco Burger in my college and grad school days but over the years, perhaps as my taste in steaks improved, I turned to it more and more when I visited and I found it just as wonderful as ever. As is apparent from the picture it's very different from what most people want in a burger these days, smallish instead of so big you can barely pick it up, much less get it in your mouth. It's unique appeal lies partly in the special relish on the top bun, a blend of ketchup and pickle relish and maybe something else I think; it is also unfailingly freshly prepared and served on a toasted, soft bun.

The big surprise on this visit was the coleslaw, which I had completely forgotten over the years. Large shred cabbage, mildly acetic, crisp and well-chilled, it is perhaps my favorite restaurant coleslaw and I was amazed I could have forgotten it.

Recently I found out that the Frisco has reopened, apparently just a few yards away from the former location, and so I thought I would pay homage (and make use of these pictures). I'll be looking forward to a visit on my next trip to Austin.

The Frisco burger is one of my all time favorite burgers and it's good to know an old friend is going to be around for a few more years.

The Frisco Shop

Caribbean Cuisine

7433 Bissonnet, Suite F, caddy-corner from Sharpstown Hi

I describe myself as a food explorer but sometimes I think a better term might be fickle feeder. Sometimes I get so obsessed with trying new places that I forget about and ignore places I've discovered that are really good. Such is the case with Caribbean Cuisine.

For the past several months I've been doing a lot less exploring, staying in a lot because of the heat, and hitting old favorites and especially places near by. Caribbean Cuisine fits all those descriptions nicely, it's just blocks from my home and very good.

I don't know how long I've been going to this neat, friendly little hole-in-the-wall, but for several years at least. They used to have a small buffet on Wednesdays and Fridays, may still, for all I know. After just a few bites on my first visit and sampling of the buffet I knew I was coming back and I've never hit the buffet again (the steam table is still up against the wall so I presume they still do a buffet regularly).

The jerk chicken is excellent, as are the sides.

The place has usually been packed so I've often called ahead and gotten food to go and dashed home with my bounty. Besides patties, jerk, rotis and plates they offer Miss Ina's Hardo Bread, CoCo Bread, Gizzada (coconut tart), Buns, Bulla, and a selection of homemade juices including Sorrel, Soup Sop, Irish Moss, and, of course, Ginger Beer, plus a small selection of other Jamaican groceries.

Recently I visited again for the first time in about a year and tried a jerk chicken sandwich, a vegetable patty and a banana-raisin muffin. The sandwich was excellent; despite that big roll it was not too dry as there was a lot of jerk sauce on the generous portion of chicken. I was a little disappointed in the patty but the muffin was wonderful.