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.