Saturday, December 24, 2011

Local Foods

2424 Dunstan

This new sandwich shop in the Village, next door to and owned by benjy's, has been getting lots of positive reviews in the short time it's been open, in the press and on user review sites. And unlike the flurry of rave reviews that frequently accompany new places on user review sites, these accolades actually seem to be written by someone other than the owner, sitting at the keyboard, menu propped up alongside. (Disclaimer: I have the menu propped up next to the keyboard, but I am not the owner). Local Foods serves a small menu of sandwiches, soups and salads made from locally sourced ingredients. It occupies the space formerly occupied by the Original Antone's Po Boy shop, which has moved out on Bellaire at Wesleyan.

I had noted the raves about the seafood sandwich with Gulf shrimp and Texas Blue Crab. Well, I have had this thing about seafood of late so I was off to try it.

Very impressive, and a very generous sandwich and sides for the price - tender shrimp and crab with house-made green goddess dressing. Best sandwich ever? as some have raved. Well, I don't know about that but it's certainly in the running as best seafood sandwich I've ever had. I felt I was going to be hard-pressed to bring myself to try anything else on the menu.

For my sides I chose the Tuscan kale with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts and the white bean, bacon, grape tomato and dill and was equally pleased.

My dining companion went for the house-made pastrami with caraway sauerkraut and provolone on rye. He pronounced himself very satisfied. I got to sample only a small bit of this but definitely plan to try one for myself one of these days. He was not that pleased with his sides, red skinned potato, oregano, sherry vinegar and dijon aioli and the quinoa, olive, carrot and oregano. He said they both needed salt; I didn't try either of them.

On another visit, I tried the Avocado, Potato, Leek and Chive soup, topped with house-made potato crisps with a side of the butternut squash, cilantro, red chili and Thai basil. Though I didn't taste much avocado the soup really hit the spot and once again I was very pleased with the side, but at $4 for a 1/3 to 1/2 cup portion, sides ordered a la carte are kind of pricey.

I had seen bags of benjy's blend from Katz's on display on my first visit but didn't spot any coffee being served; on my second visit, there were airpots of coffee, leaded and decaff, in another corner, a welcome addition.

On my first visit on a blustery, balmy autumn day, the doors had been propped open, the winds occasionally gusting into the interior, the trees in the parking lot swaying constantly, I felt far removed from the hustle of the big city, almost like I was at some seaside cafe overlooking a coastline (not the Texas coast, either). I loved the eclectic seating and minimalist decor. My second visit came on a shiveringly cold day, however, and with the doors closed, the hard surfaces of the walls and floor and glass reflecting sounds made the space seem very impersonal and harsh. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the small list of places in the Village I'm willing to hazard the traffic and parking situation to take advantage of.

Local Foods

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Total Catch Market

4410 W. 12th Street

I first heard about Total Catch Market last spring when it opened but it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I stopped by to check it out. Since then it’s become a regular Saturday morning trek for me and seafood has been a lot bigger part of my diet that ever before.

Though I grew up within 15 miles of the coast, seafood was never a big part of my family’s diet. The fish we ate came out of the deep freeze or cans, just the way General Electric, Gorton’s, God and Starkist intended. Only occasionally did we go fishing (and even less often came home with anything). I don’t even remember that there were seafood counters in grocery stores back then. Yes, Texas is beef country, right down to the coast.

It’s not as though I don’t like fish; there have been only a handful of fish dishes I’ve had in my life I haven’t liked and I love virtually all shellfish. It’s just that the habit of eating seafood was never formed and has never taken root.

That has changed rather dramatically since I’ve been going to Total Catch. I’ve eaten more seafood in the last couple of months than I usually eat in a whole year. And it hasn’t been farmed catfish, farmed tilapia and farmed salmon but far more interesting and tasty fish, straight out of the Gulf. And I've been eating out a lot less.

Total Catch sells the bycatch of Gulf fishermen, little known but tasty fish that you’re likely to find only at ethnic seafood markets (I’ve seen some of these fish at Fiesta stores, for instance) or not at all unless you catch them yourself. Each Friday they post on their blog what fish they’re going to have the next day, together with some brief descriptions and maybe suggestions for preparation. The market is open starting at 9am on Saturday in the small retail storefront at the Lousiana Foods warehouse on West 12th Street, off of North Post Oak. Get there early or you may miss out completely or have very slim pickings but it does depend on how much catch they have and how big the crowds are, so it varies.

Barrelfish and Triggerfish have been my favorites so far. The triggerfish looks like a fish only it’s mother could love, perhaps, but it’s a very tasty, very firm-fleshed fish. That’s almost a 3 pound fish (it’s about half skull); I did it whole, on the grill, and had fish tacos from the leftovers for a couple of days. The barrelfish (about a 14 oz filet) was even better, with a texture reminding me of pork loin. I’ve had that as filets, steaks and in fish tacos. I was told it is sometimes sold as Bel Grouper (not sure of the spelling as there is no such fish), because it’s similar to grouper. I’ve seen it at one of the Fiestas near me labeled ‘gruper’ with barrelfish in parentheses on the sign.

I”ve also enjoyed the Porgy (I believe that was Silver Porgy) and Blue Runner and the Beeliner or Vermillion Snapper. The first fish I tried was a Blackbelly Scorpionfish but I forgot to take a before picture and the after picture was not a pretty sight as I really overcooked it on the grill - it had been a long time since I grilled a fish. I've also had hake and drum.

One of the things I like about Total Catch is how fresh the fish are. You’re not going to get fresher fish unless you catch it yourself, go down to the coast to get some right off the docks, or shop at one of the few places with fish tanks with a few live species to choose from. There’s much more variety from Total Catch and there's never any fishy smell.

I have also really gotten into this because it appeals to my interest in exploring new and different tastes. Beats me why some of these fish aren’t more popular. Yes, yes, yes, so far I've stuck to fish that actually look like fish! - they get some pretty exotic species in from time to time but mostly they've been gone by the time I get there.

Here’s more on Total Catch from Robb Walsh, the Chronicle, and even a report from Dallas. And don't miss the Professor Fish Heads blog, linked to on the Total Catch blog, for more in depth information about some of the species including a recent article on fish offal.

Now I’m planning on having fish for Christmas, but it’ll be Gravad Lax and Heering from IKEA and possibly a poached salmon not from Total Catch - I’m having my own Julbord celebration. But looking beyond Christmas I know what one of my New Year’s Resolutions will be, and it’s going to be easy to keep - Eat More (Locally Caught) Fish.

See an update on Total Catch Market here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Year's Hallacas Haul

Venezuelan holiday tamales

I got my first taste of hallacas last year with a sample from the El Punto Criollo cart on Beechnut at Highway 6. Of the various nacatamales I've had (Colombian, Guatemalan) I liked it best and went back to get a few more to tide me through the year. I've been hoarding my stash up until a couple of months ago when I finished off the last one, buoyed by the expectation that this year I'd be collecting specimens from the other Venezuelan places around the area.

This year I found three (in order below) - from El Punto Criollo, Tuttopane on Westheimer, and Deli's Cafe in Katy. I called Budare, also in Katy, and the Sabor Venolozano truck on Westheimer and learned they don't have them (or maybe just didn't have them the day I called? - we didn't speak each other's language so I wasn't entirely sure).

None of the samples so far this year were as impressive looking as what I had last year and I'd have to say they weren't quite as tasty, but they still were good. I like my tamales very moist and was a little disappointed in the texture of the masa in the Tuttopane and El Punto Criollo samples and decided to simmer the one from Deli's instead of steaming it. That gave it a little edge over the others, at least for me. All had diced meats (beef, pork, chicken) as opposed to the larger chunks of last year's sample. Besides the meats there are potatoes, onions, pimento, raisins and olives. The potatoes in Deli's were mashed instead of in chunks; I initially didn't think I'd like the mush-like filling but that one did end up my pick of these three while the meat-intensive sample from Tuttopane was my least favorite.

The were all about the same size; prices ranged from $7 to $7.75 with the one from Tuttopane the priciest one. They should be available until year's end or so. I'll probably be going back to get more of each.

(The h is silent in hallacas - ayacas).

Deli's and Tuttopane review on this blog.

The Deli's website is down but here is Tuttopane.

El Punto Criollo review

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Big 6 Bar-B-Que

9431 Highway 6 South @ Bissonnet (and on the northeast side).

This trailer has been doing business along Highway 6 for several years but recently moved about a half mile south of it's long time location to a strip center on this corner and is parked right next to the Yum Yum Snow Ball trailer.

I'd been meaning to try it for a long time and had a taste for some barbecue so I wheeled in. The menu lists chicken, sausage and ribs before brisket and I wondered if that was a suggestion of what they think their best product is but I prefer to judge a barbecue place first by the brisket, in this case a sliced beef sandwich since I wasn't hungry enough for a plate.

It was about 8 oz of meat; they use oak and pecan and the smoke sure smelled good. The brisket on top was all from the lean part and was good and smoky and tender with a nice char but a bit dry. Fortunately there was some fatty meat in the middle of the sandwich which redeemed it. Sauce, minced onions, pickles and sliced jalapenos all came on the side, each in their own small containers. The onions were a little past prime and I decided not to use them but the real negative was the sauce, an unappealing smelling concoction to my nose. I'm anti-sauce anyway and this one did nothing to change my mind. I had to use a small amount to keep the sandwich from being too dry and fortunately the flavor of the meat itself wasn't overwhelmed by it. Sauce on the side and some fatty meat included without it being requested are all good signs at a barbecue place as far as I'm concerned.

I got a small sample of their home-made sausage, a typical East Texas fine-ground, synthetic casing product but made with pork instead of the usual beef. I thought it was very promising. They also have a home-made smoked boudin.

They've opened a brick and mortar place on the Northeast side, off of Lockwood, north of 610. It is open 7 days a week but the trailer is only open Friday-Saturday-Sunday.

Big 6 Bar-B-Que

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Myung Dong

6415 Bissonnet

And the award for Stealth Restaurant of the Year goes to....Myung Dong. The street-side signs are faded beyond legibility, the sign on the rooftop in Korean is gone, the door is hidden back on the side and the piece of paper taped to the door gives only the days and hours of operation without identifying the business. And I must have been to La Roca right next door dozens of times without ever realizing there was any kind of business operating out of this space that served the general public, much less a Korean restaurant along this stretch of Bissonnet.

But I happened upon a picture of the building on Yelp and immediately recognized it. The reviews on Yelp are almost uniformly positive and so was a report by Tasty Bits a couple of years ago. Once I saw the picture of the seafood pancake, I had to go.

For my first visit I went in during the hellish days of our summer; advised by a Yelp reviewer that there was no a/c, I went right after they opened intending to get food to go but I found the room pleasantly cool, with two floor fans on stands keeping the air moving, though it was a little musty from having been closed up for two days. For some reason I couldn’t understand (very little English is spoken), they couldn’t do the Bee Bim Bap to go so I opted for the Seafood Pancake - Hae-Mul-Pa-Jun. I took a seat, fortuitously as it turned out, where I could see into the kitchen a little bit and once the lady started cooking and the aromas started wafting out, all traces of the unpleasant mustiness disappeared. And it was clear this was gonna be good.

It took a long time for my food to be ready. During the wait a delivery of supplies took place. I saw cases of frozen oysters, chili powder and other supplies I couldn’t identify being brought in. Finally I was summoned to the cash register to pay (cash only), took my sizable tray of goodies and happily made a bee-line for home. It weighed a ton. Well, more like 4 pounds, maybe, but way too heavy for my kitchen scale. I’ve had Green Onion Pancakes at Chinese restaurants before and picked up Scallion Pancakes in the ready-to-eat section of Super H Mart, but I’d never seen anything like this. The aroma was incredible. I portioned out some for my first sample and dug in. Oysters, shrimp, mussels, scallops, they were all there and in great abundance; I think I got a bit of each in the very first bite. The crust had a nice crispness on top and bottom and was good and moist throughout. It’s been noted elsewhere they use surimi instead of real crab but with all the other types of seafood in such abundance, I hardly noticed. And it was readily apparent why it had taken so long to prepare. This is more like a sheet cake than a pancake.

The quantity of dipping sauce and banchan that accompanied the pancake was rather skimpy. I found myself regretting that I had not tried to write down what was in the sauce so I could attempt to duplicate it later but I have since learned that a shortage of banchan is not a problem you’re ever going to encounter here if you eat in. I ate on the pancake for 3 days, then wound up freezing about a third of it. This surely would be enough for a family of four for at least one meal. (Pictures of the whole package will be posted below. The pancake reheats successfully from being refrigerated, not so well out of the freezer in my experience).

I was much less impressed with the Kal-Guk-Su that I tried on my next visit, hand-made noodles in anchovy broth with vegetables. The noodles had been snipped into short lengths, precluding the joy of slurping, and some were clumped together and undercooked, the anchovy disappointingly very understated. While this was no where near as impressive a dish to me as the pancake one of the reviews on Yelp explains the origin of the restaurant name and the significance of the dish and proclaims it the ‘Star of the Menu.’ So there you go - to each his own.

One of the things about Korean restaurants is even if your main is disappointing you’re not likely to leave hungry. On this visit I was introduced to the wide array of very generous portions of banchan including about 2 cups of rice that reviewers have referred to as purple but I believe is unhulled, sticky rice which takes on a purplish tint when cooked plus a very good kimchi, nabak kimchi in a cool broth, kongnamul (sprouts), fish cakes, sesame spinach and one I haven’t identified with bitter greens, both leaves and stems.

I have become fond of the ever-watchful mackerel which is one of the banchan at Jang Guem so when I saw a couple of mackerel preparations on the menu at Myung Dong, I went for one, Ghong-Chi, grilled, salted pike mackerels. Mackerel flesh is very oily and these were very moist on the inside and tended to flake into small pieces, difficult to handle with the chopsticks, but very good.

Once again there was a full array of banchan and I way over-ate. There were also some new offerings. The spaghetti-like item was crunchy, shredded daikon I think. In front of it chunks of daikon, also, possibly. The little silvery fishes, stir fried sardines they’re referred to in the ready-to-eat coolers at Super H Mart, I initially thought I was not going to like but wound up polishing off all of that bowl and ignoring the fish cakes. The chewiness was another nice contrasting texture to add to the mix.

There are many other things on the short menu to try. Korean food is addictive but it’s way too easy to over-eat when presented with such a feast and since it’s mostly vegetables I can tell myself ‘it’s low calorie, a few more bites won’t hurt.’

By way of disclaimer I perhaps should acknowledge that I haven’t commented on any of the meat dishes which are probably the main thing that people go to Korean restaurants for, but I eat very little meat these days and the portions, judging from the reviews and pictures on Yelp, are very large and I just haven’t felt like trying them. Nor have I had the Bee Bim Bap here; their version is not served in a hot stone bowl so you do not get the crispy rice to savor.

This is a two person operation, at least it has been every time I’ve been in. Service is practically non-existent as the lady spends almost all of her time in the kitchen and the man is frequently by her side or across the prep table from her helping. Diners help themselves to the tea from a big pot on the counter, and the condiments, such as they are. It’s not that the people are rude, they’re just busy and that’s fine with me. The lady can cook, and it’s perfectly alright that she spends her time doing that rather than fussing over me at the table.

They are open Tuesday thru Saturday, 11am to 9 pm. Since the menu photos on Yelp are pretty useless, here are some better shots of the short menu plus some pictures of the seafood pancake and banchan that I got to go on my first visit.

Friday, November 4, 2011

AL/Al's Quick Stop and Grill

2002 Waugh Drive

I’m sure this little corner grocery was in existence umpteen umpteen years ago when I lived near Cherryhurst Park but I never went in. The menu says only since 1991, probably meaning the popular eatery inside the store. I’ve been hearing about the latter for years and wanted to check it out but I seldom get back down to the ‘trose.

It was 8 months ago when I found myself close by and decided to try it out. Though I’d heard most about the gyro when I noted the spit was not turning nor glowing I opted for a falafel plate with tahini and relish.

My first thought on getting a good look at the finished product - uh oh. That’s not the color I like to see when I behold falafel and just as I expected the exterior was too crusty and overcooked, there was even a slight taste of charring. The interior, a beautiful forest green, was mush. I seldom throw food away but I tossed several pieces of this as just not worth eating. The pita bread was dry, too, but the rest of the plate was very good; I particularly liked the pickled vegetables and hummus and would go back to try other plates if I get those things; the bed of parsley and radish underneath the falafel patties was also a nice refreshing note.  (Edit to add:  I have since learned the falafel may have been revithkeftedes, the Greek version of falafel, which is made with cooked, mashed chickpeas instead of ground, dried chickpeas.  This would account for the mushy texture.  I plan to give them another try).

Though I had shied away from the gyro, I had noted there seemed to be some pink on the meat on the spit and I still wanted to give it a try but it was not until earlier this month that I was back in the neighborhood. Though again the spit was not turning I went for a gyro anyway. A large portion of meat was deftly sliced off and warmed up on a flattop. A modest portion of onions and tomatoes were added as well as a pita.

Okay, this one lives up to the hype. Though it’s not apparent in the picture there was a tinge of pink on some of the pieces of meat and this was by far the juiciest gyro meat I’d ever eaten. And probably the biggest gyro - I think the whole sandwich weighed in at 11 oz. Some reviews online have stated it’s only beef, not the typical beef and lamb mix, but I didn’t think so and the menu does say it’s both. The pita in this case was fresh and fluffy, almost like naan. I could have used more of the onions and tomatoes and sadly the quantity of tzatziki which I got (to go) was very inadequate. I must admit the sauce is half the reason I like gyros so I was disappointed but I’m sure if you ate in, you could ask for more, if necessary.

The menu is very varied with Tex-Mex, Mediterranean and American sections; given how infrequently I’m in the neighborhood, it’ll probably be a long time before I try any thing else and I’m probably going to want another gyro next time.

Now, under the heading of Unsolved Mysteries of the Montrose, I'm not sure what the name of this place is. The sign and the take-out menu both say AL Quick Stop. Capital A, capital L, no apostrophe, no s. (The take-out menu makes it even clearer- there are pictures of the menu on Yelp so I’m not going to post it here). But it’s known by everybody as Al’s, listed on every user review site that I know of as Al’s, and there are dishes on the menu such as ‘Al’s Diced Salad,’ and ‘Al’s Chicken Sub.’ Rogue sign maker and rogue printer perhaps? Or perhaps the chef at AL is named Al?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sammy's Wild Game Grill

3715 Washington Ave.

I like this little place on Washington Avenue, in spite of the fact it's on Washington Avenue. It's in a small, wedge-shaped space back from the street, easy to miss, especially if you're headed east.. There's even a drive-thru. How suburban, and in the Heights, yet.

Despite a rather sleek interior and full bar, it seems to be in existence mostly because of the food, not a desire to be trendy or hip, and without a 'we're so cool, shut up and eat our food' attitude. They do, however, make at least a passing mention of being 'gourmet.' (Shudder).

The lure, besides the unconventionality of the setting, is in their specialty meats, showcased very simply in burgers, dogs and sandwiches. The website touts the meats, even putting the nutrition information in full view on the front page instead of squirreling it away someplace that requires multiple mouse clicks to find. In the restaurant, there are placards mounted on the divider between the dining area and kitchen with the nutrition data and notes on the provenance of their meats so you can be well-informed as well as well fed. Sammy's is on a mission. Bravo for them.

On my first visit, I tried one of the house specialties, a Barbecue Pulled Wild Boar sandwich with cilantro slaw, pickles, cheese, fried onion strings and barbecue sauce. I was a little concerned that the menu description mentions cheese. Barbecue and cheese don't go together to me, I'll leave that combination to BK and Whataburger. I was even more dismayed when I saw what appears to be regular American cheese on the sandwich. Other than doing a good job of insulating the crispy fried onion strips from all the juiciness below, the cheese added nothing to the sandwich for me and next time I'd ask for it to be omitted.

But other than that, I liked the sandwich with it's bold flavors and it was as juicy as all get-out. I thought the pickles and sauce were nothing special but it's really about the meat. The pretzel bun from Slow Dough Bread Co. was dense and chewy enough to stand up to the juiciness and there was never a chance of it becoming a soggy mess, falling apart in my hands (very important when being a gourmet), but it was messy enough that I had to wash up afterward.

One of the meats they offer is elk. I've had bison and venison many times but except for the bison dogs and bison chili at Bubba's Texas Burger Shack, I've never really had anything made with bison that I liked - it's too lean and dry. I've had some good things with venison, sausages from some Texas sausage makers and the venison chili at Armadillo Palace, that I like, but I've heard great things about elk. I've heard it makes awesome chili. I know you can buy elk here in Houston and online but have never gotten around to trying it so on my second visit I tried the Elk Dog (and kudos to Sammy's for calling their dogs sausage dogs rather than hot dogs).

The Wild Boar sandwich had come will all the factory options installed but with the dog I was confronted with the dilemma of what toppings and sauces to add. I didn't have a clue what goes with elk. I asked the cashier for a suggestion and he mentioned sauerkraut. Really? Sounded awful to me for some reason. I settled on the purple cabbage, feta and cilantro aioli. Much to my relief, they went very well with the elk and didn't overpower it. I loved the meat and I must try everything else on the menu with elk. I wish they made an elk chili. (Actually, I wish they made several chilis; the only one of the menu is Rattlesnake Chili).

The very sturdy roll from Slow Dough was perhaps the only element that was a little off, too sturdy to be at all soft and squishy like the roll encompassing a dog usually is and chewier than it needed to be next to the tender meat. Maybe those excellent New England style split-top buns from Slow Dough that the Good Dog Food Truck uses would be a better choice, I don't know.

Whatever. I'll be back for more.

Sammy's Wild Game Grill

Friday, October 21, 2011


Kempwood @ Blalock

I have to thank commenter Rubiao for tipping me about this one. It's quite a ways outside of my regular roaming area but I took a little detour after a shopping trip to Super H Mart, cruising up Blalock past the best Polish grocery store and restaurant in Texas (and possibly the whole Southern US).

There are actually two units here; a short Sazon bus purveying hot dogs, hamburguesas, papas asados, papas fritas and tortas is parked at a right angle to the bigger unit. And the menu is not the same old-same old lonchera menu, either. One specialty is barbacoa de borrego available either as consomme or tacos.

I got a couple of tacos with everything, after ascertaining that meant onions and cilantro and not lettuce and tomato. Then I helped myself to the salsas on the side of the truck including a very spicy salsa fresca with marinated onions, habaneros and jalapenos, I think. That was the best of the three and really picked up the tacos which were already very good. There are not that many places offering borrego; I wish this wasn't so far away.

Also on the menu were pancitas, which I think is menudo made with sheep stomach, fajitas, cabeza de res, flautas de pollo and more.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Refresqueria y Taqueria South Houston

3812 South Shaver @ Edgebrook, South Houston, TX

After a recent shopping excursion to Mi Tienda I headed south on South Shaver instead of back across Spencer Highway, hoping to find a new scenic route home. It wasn't a mountain road snaking through snow capped peaks or a coastal highway overlooking a surf pounding up against a rocky shoreline that I was expecting to see, nor even a meandering drive through a lush forest. About a mile south of Spencer I did spot exactly the sort of scenery I was hoping for - a sign for a refresqueria touting trompo. The beauty of the scene was enhanced by a sign also touting home-made tortillas.

As we all learned from Robb Walsh a few years ago, authentic trompo preparation (al pastor) is prohibited in Houston by health department regulations. The meat that goes on the spit has to be already cooked and can only be kept warm on the trompo. This results in al pastor as served in Houston frequently being over-cooked and dried out.

This refresqueria y taqueria, however, sitting right next door to South Houston High School, clearly was not in Houston and hence not subject to those restrictions. Whenever I see trompo advertised at a taqueria or lonchera outside of the Houston city limits, I know there is at least the possibility they do it the way it's supposed to be done.

I've tried this gambit a number of times, sadly with disappointing results more often than not, but it's always worth a try and I made a note to hit this place the next time I trekked over to Mi Tienda.

Alas, the curses of living in Houston. I can get just about everything I ever need for Mexican cooking at the carnicerias, mercados, tortillerias and Fiesta stores near me (even a Food Town), and I seldom have a need to go all the way over to Pasadena. It was going to be months before I was over that way again and a few weeks later my expectations and cravings got the better of me and I made a special trip just to try the trompo.

I arrived about 1:15 pm and encountered a problem I had not anticipated - no parking place. The parking area was jammed with two rows of cars in a strip center lot intended for just one; a narrow alley was left between the rows making it possible to gingerly enter or leave the front row. More customers were parked on the shoulder of Shaver. This place is popular. I cruised around South Houston for a few minutes, spotting a few taco trucks of possible interest, but having come this far I was not going to be denied. After passing back and forth several times I finally spotted an opening and zipped in.

A full parking lot is not necessarily a sign of good food within, of course, but it is a hopeful sign. Just inside the door was another - the trompo itself, readily on display in the open cooking area just inside the door. However I noticed the coils were not glowing and the spit was not turning, the meat had been whittled down to resemble an apple core more than a child's top. Had I gotten there too late? Was the meat that was left going to be too dry?

I was just planning on trying the trompo but assessing the situation and surveying the menu, I went for one taco de mollejas (sweetbreads), one taco de cabeza (the menu says pig's head), and one taco de trompo, plus a Coca Cola Mexicana Grande.

The waitress delivered a basket of chips and generous sized bowl of salsa to the table along with a cup of very good frijoles charros with almost as much meat and chicharron as beans. The chips were cold, possibly store bought, but the creamy salsa verde was interesting with just enough heat. I nibbled at a few chips as I observed my order of trompo being skillfully sliced off the spit. In a corner, some balls of dough were retrieved out of a bowl covered with cloth and placed one by one in a large wooden tortilla press and my tortillas were ready for the grill.

Before long, one of the three taqueras brought out my basket of tacos and I smiled as big as I could, pleased at the appearance of these beauties and patting myself on the back for being such a genius to have discovered this place. I hadn't even tasted any of the meats but they sure looked promising. One of those 3 bowl servers like you get with a baked potato was brought to the table with one bowl of chopped onion, one of chopped cilantro and one of lime slices and I was ready to dig in.

I nibbled a few pieces of each meat plain, then folded up the tortillas and tried them that way. . The trompo was just a little dry but not bad while the other two meats were exceptionally good. I applied a little lime and tasted again, then the onions and cilantro and more lime and tasted again, then finally some salsa to finish each taco off. The thin, floppy, slightly irregular tortillas, just one per taco and slightly crispy around the edges, were exemplary. They had to be the thinnest tortillas I've ever had. These were some very good tacos, worth the time and trouble I had gone to to try them.

My tab came to $6.50 - $1.25 per taco (more for flour tortillas), $2 for the coke; apparently there is a $.75 charge for the beans though I didn't recall seeing that on the menu. Fair price, anyway. Three tacos and beans and I was stuffed.

While it lacks the ambiance of Karanchoe's in Channelview and the trompo is perhaps not quite as tasty (it's been more than a year since I've been there), this place is not without it's charm. I could wish for better chips and salsa (and a little fresher looking cilantro) but South Houston is a whole lot closer to where I live than Channelview and I have the occasional need to be in the neighborhood, anyway, so I will be back.

The menu includes tacos, platillos, hamburguesas and a few other things. The meats, besides what I had, were fajita, pollo, barbacoa, chicharron, and deshebrada, as best I can remember. I saw no sign about hours or days of operation but it is cash only. One side of the menu is s devoted to the refresqueria offerings.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Budare Arepa Express

402 W. Grand Parkway S (TX 99), Katy

I was heading back into town from the westerly nether regions recently and pulled off I-10 to check this place out. I'd seen it mentioned on Yelp. Katy has been called Katy-zuela because of the concentration of Venezuelan expats there but so far as I know this is one of only two brick-and-mortar Venezuelan restaurants in Katy and none of the Venezuelan mobile units I know about are located there.

Like the other place, Deli's Cafe, this one specializes in arepas, which are like Mexican gorditas, but with lots more on the menu. It's a small place but nicely appointed; most of the tables are two-tops.

There are 23 varieties of arepas on the menu; I went with the Pabellon which puts most of the ingredients of the Venezuelan national dish, Pabellon Criollo, in one of these corn pockets - carne mechada, black beans, fried plantains and cheese (queso de mano, I think).

This was by far the largest arepa I've ever encountered and I enjoyed it but, perhaps due to some medications I'm taking, everything seemed underseasoned for my taste. There is a help-yourself condiments bar with 5 different sauces available in squeeze bottles, 2 kinds of peppers, chopped jalapeno and some small peppers looking like stunted banana peppers that I'm not familiar with, and other things. Oddly, there was no guasacaca among the sauces.

My sandwich was almost ready before I spotted the poster for the Patacones, a spectacular Venezuelan sandwich which uses mashed, fried plantain for bread and which I've had before at the short-lived Pana's on Scarsdale and from the Sabor Venozolana truck on Westheimer (picture here). It is not listed on the menu board. This place is too far away for me to be a regular but next time I'm out that way I'm definitely going to go for that.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Chili Cook-off for Kids

There's a chili cook-off coming up on October 22 that promises to be interesting while also raising funds for a worthy cause. Young Professionals for Children, part of Child Advocates, Inc., is hosting a chili cook-off to raise funds for it's important activities. Several well known restaurants are participating and there should be some goooooood pots of chili simmering on that day. I was invited to be a judge but won't be able to attend.

There's more specific information on their website and there should be more as the day gets closer. There's also contact information on the website.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tacos la Joya

Southwest Freeway frontage road, outbound, @ Beechnut

I'm always on the lookout for something different and new, something I haven't tried before, and driving down this stretch of the 59 frontage road I seldom use I spotted this lonchera I'd never seen before advertising tortas y tacos al vapor.

It's in the parking lot of the Bonita Chica Bikini Bar for those interested (there's also a Wings spot, what else?, and Tau Bay and several other businesses - it's a big parking lot).

Tacos al vapor, i.e., steamed tacos, are a rarity around here. I can't name one place that serves them and I had to give them a try. According to some discussions and explanation online, they may be produced by layering tortillas and meat in a tamalera, covering with a towel and steaming for a hour or so. Sometimes the tortillas are folded over the fillings and the resulting tacos are somewhat like dumplings; some people prefer to eat them with a fork.

That's not the way mine were produced, however. I saw tortillas being put into the tamalera, just inside the window where you order, but the tortillas for my tacos came out of a plastic bag and were heated on a griddle, just like other tacos are done. But with the differences that they were heated in stacks of two and for a very long time, maybe close to five minutes, getting flipped at least a dozen times and tested (kudos to the taquerero for wearing a plastic glove as he is supposed to). The burner must have been on very low.

At last they were removed from the griddle and assembly took place very quickly. A pile of meat was retrieved from the tamalera with tongs and the cebolla y cilantro were added, they were wrapped up and handed to me along with a half lime and a small cup of dark green, thick salsa, in exchange for $3.75 for three and I was on my way. They're available only with this chopped beef filling.

It was apparent right away when I dug into them that the tortillas were very moist so I concluded they must have been steamed previously and held until needed. The quantity of salsa was completely inadequate but it was a squeeze of lime that most benefited these delicately flavored tacos. Obviously with steamed beef, you're not going to get the intense flavors of some other means of preparation, so if you're longing for the caramelized beef of tacos al carbon of the intense flavors of al pastor or barbacoa, you're not going to get it with these tacos. I really liked them however.

The first time I saw the wagon during the day it was closed; I caught it open around dusk. I didn't notice any posting of hours but since it's only about 20 yards from the door to the bikini bar, I'd hazard a guess they're only open in the evenings.

Now, does anybody know where to get tacos a la plancha in Houston? That's another method of preparation I'd like to try.

Edit to add: I was quite surprised to read in the Press that these tacos did not live up to my expectations. I hadn't realized that.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kräftskiva at IKEA

I-10 @ Antoine, once a year

My mother was half-Swedish, on her father's side. Both his parents came over from Sweden in the 1870s and 1880s and the two families settled near each other in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But he moved away from his family to go to law school before marrying and moved his young family completely out of Michigan by the time my mother was 5. She learned to cook as a teenager from her maternal grandmother, who was of English descent, through New England, and she was never exposed to any Swedish customs or culture or cuisine, nor was I.

But I spent several years doing family genealogy and had a fascination not just with birth dates, deaths and weddings but with how my ancestors lived, what kinds of times they lived in, what were their prized possessions (revealed sometimes by wills), who were their neighbors and who did they know and what did they eat. And I've wanted to sample the foods and customs of their home countries and possibly visit there.

Our roster of Scandinavian restaurants here pretty much begins and ends with a certain home furnishings store so far as I know and I've been to the IKEA cafe a couple of times over the years. There really isn't much on the menu that's specifically Swedish, though most recently I had the smoked salmon plate, a decent meal for $6. It was a little less that ideally fresh from sitting out on the cafeteria line for too long but it was a nice, light counterpoint to this blast furnace summer we're having.

When I learned of the Kräftskiva or traditional summer crayfish party, I signed up (you had to purchase tickets in advance). I arrived early, hoping to get some shots of the buffet, and for some reason they called it a buffet rather than a smorgasbord, but hordes of my possible kinsmen had arrived early also and the gates had been let down and they were already wreaking havoc on the mounds of food while I snaked my way toward the ticket table.

Billed as all you can eat adults actually were limited to two plates of the crayfish each. It was clear some people had done this drill before and bought more than one admission ticket so they could get more but two was enough for me - there was much more on the buffet I also wanted to try. There were lots of people in the room who I suspect had only minuscule amounts of Swedish blood coursing through their veins. Crayfish or crawfish, I guess no matter how you spell it or spice it it's hard to keep Texans away when you're serving it. Swedish crayfish are served chilled, seasoned just with lemon and dill, and they were succulent and tender and delicious. Who needs cayenne and garlic? I did wish there wasn't so much more I wanted to try.

The rest of the buffet offered cold water prawns, seasoned again with lemon and dill, rolls of smoked salmon with dill sauce, boiled new potatoes with dill (no wonder I love boiled new potatoes with dill - it's in my genes), a selection of Swedish cheeses and a cucumber salad, plus hard-boiled egg with shrimp and mayonnaise. I passed over what is probably the most popular Swedish item on the regular cafe menu, Swedish meatballs with lingonberries, and there were also mashed potatoes and a tossed green salad that I remember.

Then there was a selection of Swedish breads, crispbread, crisproll and dinner roll; I've had them all before, plus the Swedish meatballs, purchased in the IKEA store. I love the crisprolls and the dinner rolls. Besides the two chocolate covered marshmallow heads pictured, made not with dense, heavy marshmallow, but almost whipped cream like texture - the dark chocolate one was the best, there were some Swedish cookies which I stuffed my pockets with before leaving.

I thought this was markedly better food than I've had in the cafe. The prawns were served cold and with shells, tails and heads intact; apparently Swedish diners are more fearless than most Americans. I observed most people laboriously picking the shells off but I just noshed away. I know there are people who claim the heads are the best part. I haven't had an 'Aha!' moment with regard to that yet but it certainly is a good way to work off some aggression and tension mandibularly, chewing on those shells. I think next time I may skip the shrimp and load up on more salmon and crayfish, though.

All in all it was a very enjoyable evening. I felt not only stuffed but also culturally enlightened just a little bit. I saw only one lady in a colorful traditional garb and I wanted to get a picture but by the time I had finished making a glutton of myself, I couldn't find her.

I've read they have done a traditional Swedish Easter smorgasbord in the past; I hope to make one of those in the future and I'm looking forward to the next crayfish party.

God it's great being Swedish.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pupuseria Emanuel

5822 Telephone Rd.

I had to drop a friend off at Hobby recently and took the route down Telephone so we could get a Tex-Czech fix at the Original Kolache Shop. Heading on down the road I spotted Pupuseria Emanuel and remembered I’d read an Alison Cook review a couple of years back and had it on my list to try if I was ever over that way. So I dumped my so-called friend at the terminal, told him I’d call him if I wanted to pick him up when he got back to town, and headed back to tend to the important business of the day.

It's several notches below funky as far as ambiance goes - a couple of metal benches and a metal picnic table out front, more of the same in a screened-in but un-air conditioned dining room. The pupuseras work out of sight so you can't see or hear them patting out the pupusas but you can see them sizzling on the griddle. As I walked up to the window the entire griddle was covered with them - they were working on a large to-go order and it was ten minutes before they took mine.

The pupusas here are larger than most and excellent, not as greasy as some and with lots of filling and with some varieties not commonly seen. I got a couple of those - calabacito con queso and camaron con queso. The curtido is mildly brined, not overwhelmed by the vinegar as some are, and the salsa is shockingly spicy. At most Salvadoran places, the salsa is not much more than tomato sauce since Salvadoran's supposedly don't like spicy food, but this had a lot of heat. The pupusa de camaron y queso was the best. It was just tiny, frozen shrimp but they imparted a lot of flavor making this probably the most flavorful pupusa I've ever had. Too hot to pick up right off the griddle, of course; amazingly I got all the way home and they were still good and warm.

There are a couple of other unusual items on the menu - besides tamales de pollo and elote there is a tamale piques, which means a bean filling. I was going to order one of those, too, but they said they couldn't do that the day I was there. There are also some desserts including Nuegados con Miel - fried dough with honey, which sounds like a sort of a Salvadoran beignet.

Prices are a maybe little higher than most pupuserias but the pupusas are large. This is Central American comfort food at it's best.

There are English translations on the menu posted in the window for those who don't know much Spanish or Salvadoran food but the staff I encountered was not very fluent in English. There's a second location now on Edgebrook that is also a panaderia.

I couldn’t find Cook’s old review but did find my notes - she recommended the pastelitos. So I guess I’ll go back some time to try those and since I’m going to be in the neighborhood, I’ll go ahead and pick up that guy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Chili Shak

9600 Fondren @ S. Braeswood


Wot?, as my distant (thank goodness) cousin Jim Bob would say. A chili parlor in Texas? Don’t they know every Texan over the age of two has their own SECRET RECIPE for chili that is MUCH BETTER than any other and they won’t order chili at restaurants? And don’t they know Texans don’t like to eat hot and spicy foods except in cool weather? Well, those are some of the excuses I’ve seen on discussion boards or heard from restauranteurs (maybe with a little exaggeration on my part) concerning why there are so few places that offer more than a perfunctory bowl of chili, our official state dish.

As a matter of fact, the proprietors of The Chili Shak are from Los Angeles so maybe they haven’t heard all those excuses, and I’m glad they haven’t. But this is not some West Coast la-la-land chili, it’s all beef and no beans. It’s a family recipe, too, not out of a can. There is only one variety and one spice level but chili is in or on everything on the menu including Chili Rice, a family favorite that seems to have inspired the business, Chili Nu Nus (chili on spaghetti but not Cincinnati style chili), chili fries, chili dogs, chili burgers, chili nachos, chili fritos, chili on baked potatoes and chili on tamales and burritos plus a chili sausage dog. One thing that is missing curiously - and it was my first clue the owners are not from Texas - is a chili pie; maybe that’s what chili fritos refers to. If so they might want to consider changing the name so Texans aren’t completely lost when looking at the menu.

The chili is a little lacking in heat and cumin for my tastes but I know there will be some people, including some Native Texans, who will find it too spicy. As someone who has perfected my own SECRET RECIPE for chili that is MUCH BETTER than anybody elses, I could gritch about this or that but the fact is I'm tickled to have an honest-to-goodness chili parlor in the neighborhood. I really liked the Chili Dog - a bun-length all-beef skinless weiner, split and grilled, on a grilled bun, with a smear of mustard and a generous ladle of chili plus onions and cheese. Jalapenos are available as an extra. It was very messy but it was possible to pick it up and eat it out of hand, one of the requirements of a hot dog as far as I’m concerned.

The proprietor says he thinks their best offering is the Chili Burger, but I haven’t tried that.

The website gives the history of the enterprise but isn't about the restaurant. They're closed on Sundays.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Taco Keto

1401 Cullen

I first heard of this taco truck a couple of years ago but never caught it open until recently. The owner is from Guerrero and there's a unique thing about their tacos. What they're known for is the enchiladaded tortillas used. Actually what I observed was dabbing some of the salsa roja on the tortillas on the griddle rather than dipping them, but the effect is pretty much the same and the tortillas fluff up some as they are grilled besides absorbing the flavors of the salsa. You get only one tortilla per taco here, at least with the corn (didn't try the flour if they even offer it), and fillings are perhaps a mite skimpy, but the extra step with the tortillas makes a big difference flavor-wise. I found myself craving more of these before I even got back home. As you can see, they also use grilled onions, and a generous amount, and the other unique ingredient is potatoes. I wasn't too sure about that last ingredient so asked for no potatoes on the al pastor (top) and potatoes on the fajita (bottom), but I wound up with no potatoes at all and all the onions on the al pastor. There was a breakdown in communications between the two workers on the truck, apparently.

Oh yes, another thing - parking is virtually non-existent: they're in the parking lot of a tire shop. I drove a block away to the parking lot of a rather infamous Kroger in a torrential downpour that lasted about 3 minutes to dig in.

I'll be going back to this truck again.

Open only Tuesday thru Saturday, 11a to 11p.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cedars Bakery

8619 Richmond, previously reported on in my Vegetarian for a Week, Part 1

Ever since I first read Ellie Nassar's post in 2007 about Labib's in Beirut my mouth has been watering for mana'ish, so when I first came across Cedars a month or so ago and saw they called some of their offerings manakeesh (there are many spellings) instead of just Lebanese pizza, I had to rush over to try it.

I had the kafta manakeesh, apparently the same meat that would be formed onto skewers and served as kafta kabobs. There are only a couple of manakeesh on the menu with other offerings labeled pizza and bread and whether they cook them on a saj or not I don't know, but I was wowed by this. Talk about aromatic - I was almost knocked back from the table by the aroma of the sizzling, flavorful and juicy topping. The crust, just their thin pita I think, is thin enough to be flexible a la a New York pizza. They also serve a couple of wraps, including a sojok and manakik, both being sausages, and schawarma on the weekends.

Edit to Add: I have since learned there are two types of manakeesh - those baked in an oven, as here, which are more like pizza, and those baked on a saj which are more like a crepe.

Cedars Bakery

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Kolache Shop

120 S. Hwy 288 B @ Main Street, Clute

Behold the celebrated and award-winning Jalapeno Pig. It was named Grand Champion of the state of Texas in 2007 in a statewide kolache competition. This place does call their offerings pigs-in-a-blanket rather than sausage kolaches or klobasneks. It’s about twice the size of any I’ve had before, weighing in at about 6 or 6 and a half ounces, with a good chunk of sausage with natural casing, not just a lil’ smokey or breakfast link much less a wiener, with a modest amount of cheese but a generous amount of jalapeno. An extra attraction is the bread, said to be from a family recipe. It’s more of a country style white bread with a coarser grain than most kolaches with a nice crust and crumb. The bread is also available as rolls. The pigs come with or without cheese and jalapeno, of course, and also as ham and cheese. Another option is the Fajita Pig - fajita meat and Monterey Jack in the same bread. Apparently it’s their fastest seller but I didn’t like it nearly as much. I'm a sausage-aholic though, and not much of a fajita fancier.

Their kolaches, in only about a half-dozen varieties, are quite substantial, too, but not as good as some of the best I’ve had from the Original Kolache Shop on Telephone Road or Kountry Bakery in Hallettsville and Schulenberg or Weikel’s outside La Grange.

They’re open only limited hours, 5 to 11 am, Monday thru Friday. The shop is neat on the inside, with booths and a few tables and a very friendly staff as you would expect in a small Texas town. These may not be worth a special trip from Houston to try but if you’re in the area it’s a real good bet for a breakfast nosh.

Vegetarian for a Week, Part 3

See the first part of this report here and the second part here.

On day seven I finally made it to Shiv Sagar for the Dabeli. I’d had this just once before here and thought it was the best I’d had with a wonderfully fluffy, toasted bun but he bun was different this time, seemingly nothing but a store bought hamburger bun, so this was a little bit of a let down. It was still good, though. If you like peanuts, there's a ton of 'em underneath all that sev making for a crunchy good sandwich with plenty of the chutneys to doctor it up.

Walking out I noticed Neeta’s in the same center. I’m sure I’ve noticed it before but it’s never registered and there’s not much about it on line. I guess in a shopping center with Himalaya, Shiv Sagar, London Sizzler, India Grocers and Chandrika Massala, something has to be overlooked?, but I saw the sign in the window about the lunch special Gujarati thali and decided to continue my little experiment for one more day.

This was definitely one of the best meals of the week, putting me in mind of the Gujarati thali at Sweet n Namkin I had been reminiscing about. The tray was not loaded down with as many elements as the thalis at Shiv Sagar and Shri Balaji and made for a perfect light lunch. The katoris are, I think, the smallest they make, about 1/2 cup or so. They also have a ‘combination plate’ lunch special which I think includes a sampling of their meat dishes; those plates were coming out a lot faster than my vegetarian thali but I was very pleased with what I got. The Navratam Korma, which I think is what the katori at 9 o’clock contained, was slightly sweet, something I’ve never encountered before, as were the shredded potatoes at 2, but I saved the light, cake-like steamed dhokla speckled with black mustard seeds for my ‘dessert.’ It looked like cake anyway, even though it wasn’t the slightest bit sweet and who says dessert has to be sweet?


So what have I learned from this experiment? Not much really. There were a couple of misses during the week, a couple of pleasant surprises, but it proved to be not much of a stretch for me, as I expected. I got meat cravings only once, on day 6. On the way to the courthouse, I passed the exit on the freeway I would normally take to go over to Frenchy’s on Scott and I couldn’t help but think some fried chicken would sure taste good for supper. The thought passed quickly but just to be sure I took another route home.

I could have gone on, I think, but decided 8 days was enough; I have no intention of actually becoming a vegetarian - I will continue to enjoy both vegetarian and carnivorous meals as the urge strikes me. I did wind up going back to Pine Forest Garden on what would have been day 10.

One self-realization was how much I missed exploring and trying new things. I played it very safe for a whole week; other than Cedars, which I’d been to only once before, Neeta’s was the only place I went where I didn’t know in advance what I was going to have or had a good friend to guide me. I missed the anticipation of something or someplace completely new and unknown, even though part of the time they wind up disappointing.

I made the same mistake in the meals I made at home during the week. I laid in an enormous amount of produce for gazpacho, vegetarian greens, squash soup and more, plus apples, oranges, bananas, plums, nectarines, peaches, kiwis and grapes for snacks. But I relied totally on tried-and-true, standby recipes I’ve been making for years instead of trying something new.

If I were to do it all again, I’d include exploration of new recipes as well as new restaurants.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vegetarian for a Week, Part 2

See the first part of this report here.

By Day 4 I was thinking wistfully of the Gujarati Thali at Sweet n Namkin but since that's no longer possible, I pulled a wild card out of the deck and went to Pupusa Buffet, previously mentioned here.

Salvadoran is not a cuisine that springs readily to mind when thinking of vegetarian options but I remembered the one time I went, to the original location on Bellaire just after it opened, I had liked the pupusa con queso y ayote best and I couldn't think of any other pupuseria that even offers one.

I arrived at the Hillcroft location just as lunch service was beginning. My pupusas were just being brought out of the kitchen as I ordered them - two squash and one loroco. Too hot to handle at first, and too soggy, I couldn't wait and dug into the first one using a fork. By the time I'd finished that one, the others were cool enough and dried out enough to pick up and eat. I discovered that the sogginess I had noted on my first visit is not just due to their being on a steam table - they come out of the kitchen that way.

I also got a big portion of the very vinegary curtido, surprisingly spicy for Salvadoran food with two kinds of chile peppers, both in escabeche, and the salsa picante.

Being vegetarian in Houston has got to include some vegetarian Indian and Pakistani fare and I had planned on going to Shiv Sagar for dabeli on Day 5 but got a late start on the day and didn't want to deal with the crowds in Little India on the weekends, so I headed over to Savoy Tika Kabob Restaurant and Grocery on Wilcrest for a couple of their great samosas - chunks of potato, peas, crushed spices, two kinds of chillis, I think - this is still my favorite of the samosas I've found, slightly larger and much spicier. I was going to get an assortment of pakoras, too, but they didn't have any on the menu. The samosas proved to be enough by themselves. The garlic chutney was very garlicky; I hardly bothered with the date/tamarind chutney.

On Day Six I had a jury summons for the afternoon sessions at the county courthouse. With not enough time to go to a restaurant for lunch I made a wrap at home with some of the markouk from Cedars Bakery using some vegetarian shrimp I had picked up recently at San San Tofu (made from milk whey protein), lettuce, daikon, cucumber, and, for lack of anything better, salsa. It was quite good. In fact, I made another one for dinner. I forgot to take pictures both times as I usually don't take pictures of my home meals, so that's just a picture of the markouk, right out of the bag, all folded up. The sheets unfold to 21" in diameter.

Go to the 3rd part of this report here.