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.