Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sheba Cafe

6251 Bissonnet @ Hillcroft


I've been seeing this restaurant when passing by on Bissonnet for months now but it never has registered with me. Recently on a wee hours insomniac's cruise I saw it again and finally remembered to look into it when I got home. When I realized it was Ethiopian I had to check it out.

It's a pretty new place, open only a few months. I like the room a lot. There's very limited seating - only 4 tables, 12 chairs, plus some stools at a counter. Unlike many small ethnic restaurants it's actually kind of roomy for such a small space. The table linens look like craft work instead of mass produced and the overall effect is peaceful, not what one would expect from the exterior of a cookie-cutter strip center in Southwest Houston.

I asked the waitress, who I think is also the owner, for a her best dish and she suggested the Kitfo (minced tenderloin of beef in spiced butter, the ubiquitous niter kebbeh of Ethiopian cuisine). I hadn't read up on Ethiopian in some time and didn't remember just what this dish is and misread the menu, thinking that by ordering it medium rare I was ordering it less cooked than it normally is served. Actually, this is the Ethiopian version of Steak Tartare and fortunately she seemed to have realized I didn't know what I was doing and the dish came out barely cooked at all, still very rare if not completely raw. It was accompanied by a small side of Iab (eyeb), a slightly sour Ethiopian cottage cheese made from buttermilk, and a small portion of Gomen (collards) and it was excellent. Having tasted the dish and observed the cleanliness of the restaurant I would have no qualms about ordering this raw next time.

At the end of the meal I had a cup of Ethiopian coffee. She doesn't do the coffee ceremony here but she does roast and grind her own beans and this too was excellent. Some years ago, having read about Ethiopian coffee, I bought some roasted beans myself and ground them at home for my coffee but it was nowhere near as good as this. I usually don't like sugar in my coffee but I understand Ethiopian coffee is typically consumed with lots of sugar or honey so I added a generous amount and it made it even better. I lingered over my cup for some time after the meal as customers tend to do here and walked out the door on a huge protein, caffeine and sugar high with expectations of returning very soon.

Actually I wound up going back the very next day. I had not been able to eat even half the Kitfo (you eat a lot of bread at an Ethiopian restaurant, of course). I had calculated from the portion I took home it was about a 12 ounce serving of tenderloin + niter kebbeh and I wanted something light on my second visit. I decided to try their vegetable combination platter to compare with what I had the only other time I'd visited an Ethiopian restaurant. This was only half the number of wats I had at Nazareth but much larger portions of each. From 11 o'clock there is the Kit Alicha (split yellow peas), Gomen (collards), Shiro Wat (pureed split peas), Tekel Gomen (sauteed fresh cabbage and carrots), Fasolia and Carrots (green beans) and Mesir Wat (lentils), plus a salad in the middle with some slices of fresh jalapeno that had been completely de-veined and de-seeded. I loved the Mesir Wat, Fasolia, Tekel Gomen and salad; I'm not fond of either of the split pea preparations or the collards - what can I say, I'm a dyed-in-the-cotton Southern boy I guess, I love a mess of greens but I've never found any preparation I like as well as one that includes pot likker.

Light? Hah! I know well by now of course that vegetarian food is not necessarily 'light' fare. Once again I couldn't finish the dish, barely more than half, and I passed on that excellent coffee this time - I wanted to go home and take a nap.

I wanted to visit again soon so I could post a report since this place is pretty much off the radar and deserves to be known. I knew my friend Ziggy Smogdust wanted to go with me on a visit to an Ethiopian place so I emailed him a copy of the menu and we made plans. While the vegetarian dishes were good I was so impressed by the Kitfo I definitely wanted to try another meat dish; we discussed one of us ordering a lamb dish, the other one of the other beef dishes. I went in wanting to ask about the Dulet, listed on the menu (linked below) as a lamb dish - tripe, liver and red meat with onion, garlic and jalapeno with niter kebbeh, cardoon and mitmita, the ground African bird's eye pepper used for heat (shakers on each table for added heat as diners prefer), served anywhere from raw to well-done - but it is not on the in-house menu any more. I asked about the best lamb dish and she suggested the Yebeg Yeawaze Tibs. Ziggy beat me to ordering that one and I went for the other raw beef dish, Gored Gored.

That's the beef dish on top; guess which was better? Actually we were both disappointed in the Gored Gored; supposedly filet mignon it was a little tough and chewy and though both dishes are made with awaze, not as spicy or favorful. The lamb dish was awesome, I may like it better than the Kitfo; it had a slightly greater heat level from the jalapeno slices, though Ziggy was regularly reaching for the Mitmita shaker. Both dishes came with a small side of Tekel Gomen.

One of my pieces of injeera was rather dry; I tore off a sample of Ziggy's and his was not quite as stale but neither was really fresh. This had not been a problem on my earlier visits but was a little disappointing.

I wanted Ziggy to try the Ethiopian coffee. He is much more of a coffee connoisseur than I and I wanted his opinion. I could tell from the reaction on his face at the first sip that it was going to be positive - he was really impressed and asked the waitress some questions about the preparation. Score another big one - you have to try the coffee when you go to an Ethiopian restaurant.

They are open 7 days a week; due to proximity to a school they are not able to serve alcohol nor allow BYOB. This will put them at a disadvantage to the other Ethiopian restaurants in town. Obviously if it catches on, there's going to be a problem of limited seating.

Having only been to one other Ethiopian restaurant and a grand total of four meals I'm clearly no expert nor able to judge which of the two I've visited is better but I do plan to hit both of them again, as well as Blue Nile and Addis Ababa, our other well-known places. This one is so convenient to me I will probably hit it with more regularity.

A web site is supposed to be in the works. In the meantime, I have scanned the hand-out menu and posted it here where you can read more complete descriptions of the offerings. Remember prices and dishes may differ at the restaurant; in particular, as noted above, the Dulet is not on the in-house menu any more; there are also beverages listed on the back of the menu - as best I can remember they were Ethiopian coffee and herbal tea, latte and cappuccino, sodas and bottled water.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tropical Diner and Cocktail Lounge

9409 S. Gessner, just north of Bissonnet


I first went to this place about 10 months ago, a couple of months after they took over the space from the short-lived 3Ps Barbecue. At that time they had a daily lunch buffet plus menu service and a cocktail bar. The buffet was rather small and there were no jerk items on the day I went in.

I had some Brown Stew Chicken, a stewed dumpling that seemed to have been stewed with bananas or plantains (which I didn't get any of), sauteed plantain, meatballs, rice and peas and a cabbage dish. There was a soup which as i recall was chicken. I like dumplings but this one was very gummy, otherwise everything was okay but nothing stood out and nothing (excepting that scotch bonnet) was very spicy, which I, rightly or wrongly, associate with Jamaican food. Nothing was labeled on the buffet but a server had identified the dishes for me. There were also several pans on the steam table with nothing in them and I judged that perhaps they didn't quite have their act together yet and have put off going back for many months.

I'd noticed they're doing better business than 3Ps and I recently stopped in to give them another try; I'm glad I didn't write them off completely. Gone is the daily lunch buffet and in its place is a lunch special menu with prices ranging from $6.99 to $8.50. That includes a jerkwich served on coco bread and fish and chips ($8.50) which I'm going to have to try. The regular menu includes small and large plate alternatives and includes fried chicken ($6.99 and $8.50) which I also want to try.

I chose the small jerk chicken plate on this visit ($7.25). This came with rice and peas, a salad and a single slice of sauteed plantain. The chicken was juicy and tender but at first I thought under-seasoned. However as I worked my way through the plate, the jerk seasoning asserted itself more and I wound up very satisfied with this dish. The salad ingredients were crisp and fresh (I could have had a dressing if I'd wanted it); the rice and peas were a little on the dry side (and with very few peas) and I sure could have used a bit larger portion of the plantain.

Among the beverages besides the usual soda, tea and coffee are tropical sodas, Ting and Ginger beer plus smoothies, Tropical Rhythm, a line of tropical juice drinks from Grace, and home-made carrot juice and ginger beer. I'd never had home-made ginger beer and decided to order that ($3.00 for a glass). Initially I was disappointed that it wasn't carbonated at all (nor fermented) but I really came to like it. I judged it was possibly sweetened with honey and the waitress said sometimes honey, sometimes cane sugar but she didn't know what had been used for that batch. It was rather murky (unfiltered) and got stronger toward the bottom of the glass. This is a strong drink you sip slowly. I thought I could feel the plaque being dissolved in my arteries just as I sat there and was disappointed when I got home and looked it up to discover that's not one of the claimed benefits of ginger. Maybe it was just the sugar high.

There is now a Sunday lunch buffet ($10) and I went back to check that out, planning to opt for something off the menu if the buffet didn't look very good but the buffet is all there is on Sunday (hours are also much shorter - 12N to 4pm only). The buffet looked pretty good and I decided to try it.

At 10 o'clock are some of the slightly sweet meatballs like I'd had before; at 11 is a green curry chicken dish. The baked macaroni and cheese at the top of the plate was one of a small number of non-meat dishes and was disappointingly dry (mac 'n cheese is not a favorite dish of mine anyway). The slaw was crisp, chilled, lightly dressed and only slightly sweet; I liked it a lot.

At 4 o'clock was the least appealing dish, salt mackerel. I wouldn't go for that again. I also got beef liver, which was excellent. The most interesting item on this plate, however, is the stewed beef tripe at 8 o'clock. I've never become a fan of menudo but have enjoyed tripe tacos, especially when extra crispy, but I loved this - it was my favorite thing on the plate, tender, only slightly chewy, very savory. One of the cooks who was doubling as a server (they seemed to be short-handed) said it's on the regular menu but I didn't get the name of the dish and I can't identify it on the take-out menu.

I also got a piece of jerk chicken which was not quite as juicy as what I'd had previously, and a piece of carrot cake. Besides what I sampled, the buffet included a tossed salad, rice and peas, the stewed dumplings and plantains, brown stew chicken, Sock-it-to-me cake, watermelon and cantaloupe wedges and, I think, one other beef dish. It was a more than adequate spread for me.

I tried the home-made carrot juice to accompany the buffet ($3.50). This was a sweet as a strawberry shake and not very carroty. I thought I had it figured out (carrots, honey, nutmeg and vanilla) but couldn't account for the color so I asked the chef who told me it had sweetened condensed milk in it rather than honey. A non-dairy version is available but not listed; ask for it if you're lactose intolerant. This also got more interestingly thicker toward the bottom of the glass; some people might not care for the slight graininess toward the bottom but it didn't bother me. This was good but I definitely prefer the home-made ginger beer.

They also have ready-made patties (beef, chicken, vegetable) and roti (your choice of filling).

They're open Monday thru Saturday 11a to 8p. The staff has been very hospitable. I overheard one diner thanking the chef for kicking up the spice level on his order and the chef saying they restrain the use of pepper since not all diners appreciate it but you can ask for spicier versions of the dishes.

This is a good addition to the SW Houston dining scene and I hope they make it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kaq-ik at Guatemala Restaurant

3333 Hillcroft, N

For some time the turkey soup at Guatemala Restaurant has been beckoning to me. I've had some very good Guatemalan food in Houston at the now closed Lo Nuestro on Bissonnet (the last time I went, the kitchen had taken a big nose dive) and here at Guatemala and at the Chapinlandia Bakery, but nothing that really seemed to match the dishes discussed on Antigua Daily Photo, a very good Guatemalan blog. I've been following some fascinating posts on Chowhound by a San Francisco woman who is living in Guatemala with her new in-laws and writing about her culinary experiences and it has piqued my interest in Guatemalan cuisine. Recently when the temperature dipped down to the low 90s I thought it was time to have a big bowl of this hot and spicy soup.

According to some accounts, this was a dish reserved for Mayan kings and their guests. Ik is said to mean 'hot and spicy' or to be the word for the ground form of the dried chile cobanero, a key ingredient. Most recipes include several chile peppers and I'd judge from the taste of this one that there were at least 2 or 3 although I couldn't identify any of them as I'm not familiar with them at all.

I thought there might be some guisquil (chayote) in the broth - there's been some in every dish I've had at this restaurant - or plantain or yuca, which were present on just about every dish I had at Lo Nuestro, but this was just what you see, a turkey leg in a bowl of broth. Achiote is used for the coloring; other ingredients include garlic and coriander. There were sprigs of an herb floating in the broth that I couldn't identify; I thought cilantro, perhaps, but looking into recipes online there is mention of samat, another Central American herb, and peppermint.

Whatever was in it this was delicious and very spicy for Guatemalan cuisine. It was served just with the rice and three white tamales, the firm, almost gummy tamales I've had here before. It turns out this is the classic presentation. All you get for an eating utensil is a soup spoon - this is a soup you eat with your fingers (and I went through a wad of the flimsy napkins on the table). To break the monotony of spooning up about two and a half cups of broth, I cut one up of the tamales and dropped it in the broth; it absorbed the flavors the way tofu would but it did help make the process of consuming all that broth a little more interesting.

This is a very simple but very satisfying meal, among the 2 or 3 best Guatemalan dishes I've had; I was elated and the staff was as appreciative of the big smile on my face as I was of the big smile in my mouth from the heat.

Here's a post and discussion of the dish on Antigua Daily Photo.

My earlier review of the restaurant.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Beef Tendon at Friend's Kitchen

9889 Bellaire

Once upon a time (recently) Ziggy Smogdust and I set out to visit Cafe Singapore on Bellaire but found it closed (Mondays). We studied the menu posted in the window and knew we had to come back and try it. In the meantime, we had both mused about spending some time working our way thru the restaurants in the 9800 block of Bellaire, just inside the Beltway. I've been to San Dong, Cafe Fu Fu, and Banana Leaf in there, Ziggy has been to Jang Guem and some others.

We drove back toward town and started strolling along the sidewalk in front of Fu Fu, QQ, and others, reading the menus posted in the windows. Many of the places were packed, a few were closed. Toward the back we came across Friend's Kitchen, a place which neither of us had ever heard of before. Ziggy saw something on the menu he was interested in, a cold appetizer of beef tendon. Sounded good to me; there were some available tables in the place which had a mixed but mostly Asian crowd.

I had never heard of this before but Ziggy had been doing some research on it; it was excellent, with crispy vegetables, cilantro and Sichuan peppercorns. The tendon itself was tender, slightly chewy, and very tasty.

Thank goodness Ziggy was willing to share - I ordered the fried dumplings and shrimp and tofu off the lunch menu. I was very disappointed in both although I think Ziggy found the dumplings interesting - I thought they were not as good as I've had at Fu Fu and San Dong and perhaps were only the frozen pot stickers like you can buy at Sam's. We saw several good looking dishes being served to other customers, however, so I chalk it up to my poor ordering.

Revisit 5/11: I stopped by to get something to-go recently. The menu is still posted in the window like most of the restaurants in that strip so I looked it over before going in. The sign in the window still says Friend’s Kitchen but the business card and take-out menu call it My Friend’s Home Restaurant - Classic Home Style Chinese Cooking. The place was packed when I was there before but had only a few tables occupied this time and I was worried about maybe a change in ownership and decline in the food but they say the name actually hasn’t changed?

Anyway, there are some interesting, exotic dishes on the menu including Qingdao Seaweed Jelly, Wuhan Duck Neck and Cabbage with Jellyfish but I stuck with something more familiar, squid with mustard greens. As a lunch special this was only $4.95, a bargain, and was very good, not quite as good as the beef tendon had been but better than the other dishes I’ve had. The squid (the body, not the tentacles) was firm but not tough or chewy; the mustard greens, apparently pickled Chinese mustard greens, were very aromatic with lots of crisp diced stem pieces to contrast with the leaves. They were also very, very salty. I really liked this despite, or perhaps because of, the saltiness but I watch my salt intake and am not used to this much so I was guzzling water for 24 hours.

I will be back but I think I’ll stay away from dishes with Chinese mustard greens though I really love greens.

Belated Update: I realized I'd never added the following - I went back a week later as part of a tour I was doing, trying to find steamed soup dumplings.

I really liked the ones I had here. The skin was a little thick but each dumpling was steamed atop a slice of carrot, adding both a new dimension of taste and texture that I found very likable.

The waitresses I have encountered on my several visits have all been very nice and there’s been no problem communicating because of a language barrier. B4 has this listed as Shandong Cuisine but there's a sign on the building that says Shanghai Cuisine and there's a story there, too. The restaurant at one time was called Shanghai Cuisine and is still listed that way on some restaurant review sites; Robb Walsh visited it in 2009 and said it was the first Chinese restaurant specializing in Shanghai cuisine in Houston at that time.

I've scanned the take-out menu here. Prices and Dishes may vary at the restaurant, of course.

San San Tofu

6445 Wilcrest, just south of Harwin

This is one of my favorite cheap eats places in Southwest Houston. I understand they've moved into a new, larger location in the last year or so but I've only been going about 9 months. It's not really very close to me or I'd probably go more often.

There's grab-and-go stuff at the cash register, a better selection earlier in the day, shelves of groceries and pharmaceuticals, etc., a small eating area that is frequently packed (mostly Asian customers) and a steam table offering plate lunches and a small selection of vegetarian diem sum.

You get a plate lunch for $5.50/$6.00 including a rice or noodle main dish and sides. It's enough for 2 meals for me and I'd never be able to finish it all so I've just gotten things to go. Everything is very tasty. I picked up a quart of the veggie soup one time, canh chua, which had mushroom pieces, greens, tomatoes and the most blazingly hot chillies I've ever put in my mouth.

I usually get a few pieces of the diem sum, too.

Prices and dishes may vary at the restaurant. Note the limited hours.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Quick Bites V - Sandwiches

For the last month or so I've really been eating against the norm - my norm, anyway. For a couple of years I've been focused on exploring little hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants and for the last 8 or 9 months, really into street foods. Here recently I've been hitting more sit-down-service type places, even white table cloth places. I just needed a change of pace. I'll probably get around to writing some reviews of the fancier digs I've visited and I haven't given up on the other types of eateries, at least I don't think I have, I'm just taking a hiatus and re-adjusting my aim. And it hasn't been a total abandonment of those pursuits. Here are a few places I've eaten at over the last several months but not reported on.

Tan Ba Le, Baguettes and Fast Food, 11169 Beechnut @ Boone  This restaurant has changed names and is now known as Bo Ne Houston after its most famous dish, Vietnamese Steak and Eggs.

I first saw this place several months ago but only recently got around to trying it. I thought it was new but maybe not. I ordered two banh mi; I saw the long baguettes on the counter and assumed they would be cut in half but it turned out they already had - each sandwich measured 11" in length. This place could up its American appeal by advertising them as foot longs. The bread was lightly toasted just before the sandwich was assembled; I got a pork bbq and a vegetarian one. Both had a very rich mayo, tons of shredded carrots with just a few shreds of daikon, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno. The meat in the pork bbq was a bit overcooked and dried out; in fact as she was preparing it the server was picking out some pieces and discarding them in the trash. The meat was very flavorful, however. The bread was amazing, I think the lightest, least dense and chewy Vietnamese baguette I've ever had but the sandwich's size was too much for me, I got a meal, a late night snack and a breakfast snack out of these.

As they were putting the rubber band on my first sandwich and starting on the second one I saw their steak and eggs platter come out; the place was doing a good business but I hadn't had to pass by any occupied tables on the way to the counter so hadn't gotten a good look at anything but I immediately thought I'd have to come back and try one of those. When I had first spotted this place I had looked it up on line but found nothing. Now I find that it had been blogged about last fall, specifically the steak and egg dish, bo ne, the house specialty, and I had missed the report or I certainly wouldn't have taken so long to get around to trying this place.

The staff has been very friendly and helpful; the menu board is mostly Anglicized Vietnamese.

My pork bbq sandwich was $3; the vegetarian one was $2.

Parisian Bakery III + Cafe, 8300 W. Sam Houston Parkway South, @ Beechnut in the Viet Hoa Center

Ziggy Smogdust turned me on to these last year. There are two other locations, one on Beechnut @ Wilcrest and one on Gessner @ Harwin. I've been to the Wilcrest location and like this one better; it's a bit cheerier and more friendly and it's also closer to me.

The baguettes here are shorter than Tan Ba Le (8"), fatter though and a little denser and chewier. I got the bbq pork banh mi here, too (and I nearly always get a pate chaud when I go here). What really stood out on this was the huge amount of meat; it was tender, not overcooked, but didn't have as much of the marinade and wasn't quite as flavorful - but there was a lot. There were also a few larger strips of daikon in the toppings, visibly identifiable but not really noticeable taste-wise, which otherwise were identical to Tan Ba Le, the cilantro was pretty bland.

The sandwich was $3, the pate chaud $1.25.

Comparing these two, I'd give the edge to Tan Ba Le, though I'd have to admit it was my first visit. I preferred the bread and that it was toasted just a bit, and, though it was overcooked, the more flavorful meat. Meat lovers might prefer Parisian however I'm sure the sandwiches differ from visit to visit depending on whose making them. I wouldn't avoid either place and it'll be partially a matter of convenience for me which one I go to.

Both the above places sell their baguettes separately. At Parisian, the 8" baguettes are 3 for a $1; each weighs about 3 oz. At Tan Ba Le, a full 22" baguette is $1 and weighs 6 oz.

Saldivia's South American Grill, 10234 Westheimer, just inside BW 8
Saldivia's has moved to 10850 Westheimer

In my explorations of South American cuisine over the past couple of years I learned that some version of a steak sandwich is very popular in several South American countries, in some said to be as popular as hamburgers in the USA. In Uruguay it's called a Chivito but despite the name there is no goat in a Chivito. I saw some awesome pictures of the sandwich online and when I found out we had a Uruguayan restaurant that served one, I had to try it out. Saldivia's, which is very new but recreates an earlier restaurant by the same owner, serves the dishes of both Argentina and Uruguay.

I fell in love with the room and it's rich woodwork; it's the former space of Cafe Malay, I think. Despite the somewhat upscale setting, the restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood cafe for expats and the owner, Gus, is a very friendly guy who likely will welcome you at the door and treat you like a friend.

The sandwich includes a grilled steak, thin slice of deli ham, lettuce, tomato, mayo and a fried egg served on a slightly crunchy and chewy baguette and was very tasty. I think the egg may have been fried in butter; even the tomato stood out - as tasty as home grown. The roasted potatoes were a little tough and chewy. There is chimichurri on the table which I had tried with an empanada and the complimentary mini-baguette appetizer but I found it too vinegary and didn't try any on the sandwich.

I've had the Churrasco sandwich at Marini's and the Lomito, a virtually identical Argentinan steak sandwich at El Gaucho and this is the best example of a South American steak sandwich I've had by a wide margin.

There are some other interesting entries on the menu including grilled mollejas on the appetizer menu. Besides the menu shown online there is a daily lunch special, Monday thru Friday, for $8.95.

As of my visit a couple of weeks ago there was zero signage along Westheimer and the restaurant, hidden in the back row of a strip center behind the Brookwood Gift Shop, is easy to miss.


City Eats, 4003 B Rustic Oaks Dr., Kingwood (faces West Houston Parkway) - CLOSED

My first taste of Sabrett's hot dogs and the typical condiments and I was underwhelmed. I bought a pound of the wieners to bring home so I could try them with some different condiments and decided I liked the Sabrett's wiener a little better than the Vienna Beef wieners used in Chicago Style Dogs because of the slight smokiness but it didn't have as much snap. I like a Nathan's Natural Casing dog over both Sabrett's and Vienna Beef, however, The Sabrett's onion sauce would take some getting used to - there really isn't that much onion in it, at least as far as bits and pieces. Besides selling the wieners (in strings, not pre-packed and cry-o-wrapped) they carry all the condiments - Sabrett's onion sauce, sauerkraut and mustard - and they also serve Italians. The website doesn't mention it nor did the in-store menu but signs in the window and on the counter said they are now serving Zweigle's White Hots from Rochester.

I went thinking I would be coming home with some of the mustard, onion sauce and kraut, but having tasted the first two, I just bought the wieners. I have to say, I saw a burger being served and it looked pretty good.

City Eats