Thursday, May 3, 2007

Superb Robb Walsh review on H-town taco trucks

Outstanding article in the Houston Press about Houston taco trucks and trailers.

Houston Taco Trucks

This is what being a Houston Foodie is all about. This has got to be one of my all-time favorite lines from a food reviewer:

The raw-flavored dried chile salsa came on like mole poblano’s punk-ass cousin.”


Monday, April 23, 2007

Can’t Beat Braised Baby Back Ribs

"If you could have anything to eat right now, at this exact moment, what would it be?" If you want to work-up a true Foodie this is the question to ask.

Some will give an immediate answer, some will ponder for a moment. Some will give a different answer every time they are asked, some will always give the same answer. I would say 9 out of 10 times I will answer "Baby Back Ribs."

One of my favorite Baby Back Rib recipes is from Alton Brown's Good Eats program on the Food Network. This is a braising recipe, not BBQ. Braising usually involves the "low-and-slow" cooking technique which inevitably leads to meat following off the bone. And that is the way I like it.

Braised Baby Back Ribs
The basics: a meaty slab of baby back ribs and dry rub ingredients.


Braised Baby Back Ribs
Dry rub applied, allow to marinate overnight if possible.

Braised Baby Back Ribs
Wrap that rascal in tin foil and add braising liquid.

Braised Baby Back Ribs
A few hours later, we have reached the promise land.

Braised Baby Back Ribs
The braising liquid makes an incredible sauce. BBQ sauce? We don't need no stinking BBQ sauce!

Braised Baby Back Ribs
Let me at it!.

Braised Baby Back Ribs
Tender as a mother's love, falling off the bone, moist, perfectly seasoned. I'd like to write more but I'm drooling on the keyboard. Bon appetit!

Friday, April 20, 2007

How to be a Foodie and not get fat

Being passionate about food and restaurants is both a blessing and a curse. You get to spend alot of time in great places, with great people, eating great food.

On the other hand alot of the food you eat is not exactly “lite”. I get asked alot about how I stay healthy and keep a normal weight for my age and height. Fortunately, the way to do it is not rocket science. The hard part is having the discipline to stick with the plan. Here are a few tips I live by to stay healthy and energetic.


1. Exercise. 30 minutes a day of reasonable aerobic exercise is half the battle.

2. When eating at a restaurant, eat half the dinner and take the rest home for lunch the next day. This technique can really challenge the discipline of a foodie. Having to deny yourself that half plate of the delicious food in front of you is a real test. But after you do it a few times, it gets easier. I promise.

3. Eat whole, not processed, food. I’m not a scientist so I don’t have any proof of this, but from my experience processed food in any quantity makes you fat and lethargic. Instead of eating 1 pop tart, eat 2, even 3, bananas.

4. Don’t drink soft drinks. They are basically a container of chemicals and sugar that goes directly to your waistline.

5. Drink water. Lots of water. Again, I can’t give any scientific explanations, but drinking lots of water somehow helps to cleanse your system and help digestion.

6. Get the most bang for your nutritional buck. Why eat a bowl of iceberg lettuce that has very little nutritional value, when you can eat a bowl of fresh spinach that is bursting with vitamins and fiber? If taste is an issue, just throw on some non-fat, all-natural salad dressing. Don’t know what foods have the most nutritional density? Glad you asked. Check out The World’s Healthiest Foods website. This site includes incredibly detailed nutritional information about all the food you should be eating. Highly recommended.

7. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, keep it as simple as possible. Obviously fruit is the first choice. And you can always dress it up–some fresh sliced peaches with a drizzle of whole milk and a sprinkle of sugar is refreshing and satisfying. When you crave chocolate–and every foodie craves chocolate–just stick with the good ol’ Hershey’s chocolate bar. And as much as it hurts, keep the chocolate ice cream to once a month.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

This is where I learned everything I know about food…

A good part of my mis-spent youth was spent working at Quatorze Bis in NYC. How did I end up there?

Well, after 5 years in college and a $100K in tuition, what is a young, highly-educated and ambitious young man to do? Move to NY and work as a waiter/bartender/maitre d’ of course. I liked to call it “graduate school for life”. My family was NOT AMUSED.

Quatorze Bis NYC

Anyway, as a maitre d’ I could eat whatever I wanted off the menu and drink whatever was behind the bar every night I worked. Cassoulet? Check. Steak-frites? Check. Choucroute garnie? Check. And my mouth still waters when I think of the chicory salad with bacon and a hot vinaigrette...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fettuccine Alfredo: How do I love thee…

Fettuccine Alfredo is one of those dishes that looks simple on paper, yet you can spend a lifetime perfecting it.

It’s also unique in that it’s an Italian-inspired dish (the Italian version being Fettuccine al burro) that contains no garlic or olive oil. The trick to great FA, in my experience, is to layer enough mellow, sweet flavors into the dish to balance the savory sharpness of the fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.


Here’s my trick. Sure, the sweet butter and heavy cream add a mellow sweetness to the sauce. But one more layer can’t hurt, and I add a bit more sweetness and zing with one of my all time favorite ingredients: shallots. Start by sweating the chopped shallots in a full stick of butter over medium heat. Add a pinch of salt and fresh cracked pepper to get the seasoning started. At this point, take a deep breath. The aroma of the bubbling butter and shallots is just plain sexy. Once the shallots are translucent, add lots of heavy cream. Cook down for a few minutes and add the fresh, finely-grated Parmigiano cheese. Don’t let it get too thick! Perfect creaminess is the goal here. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary.

Fettucine Alfredo

Another couple of minutes and it’s ready to go. And now for the final ingredient: freshly chopped, Italian flat-leaf parsley. Not only do the green parsley specks add a beautiful visual texture to the pale sauce, the little spikes of bitterness add yet another layer of flavor to the whole dish. Once the ingredients are combined, take the pan off the heat. If you’ve timed it perfectly, you can transfer the cooked fettuccine directly into the pan, twisting the pasta into the sauce with tongs. Add a bit of pasta water to loosen up the sauce if necessary. Let sit for a couple of minutes to let the pasta soak up the sauce. Transfer to a serving dish, add a sprinkle of parsley and Parmagiano, and let the culinary love begin!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Felix Mexican Restaurant: Old school, no reservations, no apologies

“I remember eating there when I was a kid!” This is the initial response when I invite my thirtysomething friends to dinner at Felix Mexican Restaurant. But this is usually followed by, “Let’s go somewhere else.”

Indeed, dining at Felix can be a lonely, as well as satisfying, affair. Living nearby, I pass Felix every day and never see more than 2 or 3 tables occupied. Suffice it to say that no reservations are necessary. Obviously, the history of Felix is long and colorful and beyond the scope of this review. But in order to set the stage I’ll briefly give my own personal experience with Felix Mexican restaurant.


Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, there were two choices for Mexican food: Felix (owned by the same family as the Felix in Houston) and Monterrey House. Monterrey House was closer to the “nicer” neighborhoods of Beaumont, so that is where we dined more often. Felix was on Calder Ave. on the way into downtown, you couldn’t miss it. By the time I got a driver’s license, I would occasionally trek to Felix for what my young palate deemed the superior Mexican food in Beaumont. And like the Felix in Houston in 2007, dining at the Felix in Beaumont circa 1985 was a lonely affair–I was usually the only one in the place. Around this time the Casa Ole Mexican restaurant chain got its start in Beaumont and that’s where all the cool kids hung out. Stubbornly, I continued patronizing Felix, sometimes taking dates there. Being 17 years old, on a first date, in an empty Mexican restaurant, surrounded by puzzled Mexican waiters, and eating food that would be considered boring compared to Casa Ole’s atomic tex-mex, well, let’s just say I didn’t get alot of second dates. After moving away from Beaumont to go to college, I never went back to a Felix restaurant until I moved to Houston. And it was at the remaining Felix restaurant near Montrose and Westheimer where I found myself dining on a Tuesday night not long ago.

Felix Mexican Restaurant
The Holy Trinity of Mexican Food

Food/Drink (5/10)
First things first: magarita, chips and salsa.

The margarita was strong and tasty, nothing special, but enjoyable and satisfying. The chips were hot and fresh. The salsa was clearly old-school. Very tomato-ey, but surprisingly sweet with a spicey kick. The kick must have come from jalapenos as I could not detect any recognizable cilantro or garlic. Compared to contemporary tex-mex salsa, the sweetness and wateriness of this salsa may be off-putting for some diners. For me it was a welcome change.

Felix is known for its chili con queso, but tonite I went straight for the combination plate, Felix Mexican Dinner #1. This consisted of a beef taco, rice, tostada “veracruzana”, tamale, and cheese enchilada, with the final two smothered in Felix’s signature chili gravy. And you know this is old-school tex-mex when you can get an optional side of spaghetti and chili gravy. Tempting, but maybe next time.

Felix Mexican Restaurant
That chili gravy is c-r-a-z-y !

The tostada, rice, tamale, enchilada and chili gravy were all quite bland but well-prepared and enjoyable; these are recipes suited to a palate from the 1950s when the experience of gastronomical fireworks was not the norm it is today. The one standout feature of the enchilada was the presence of fresh, crisp and very sweet chunks of onion sprinkled over the top of the cheesy enchiladas. You don’t see this alot in contemporary tex-mex.

The standout dish was the beef taco. The taco shell was made the old-school way–fresh corn tortilla fried and shaped until golden brown. This results in a perfect edible container for the ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes. Unlike store-bought taco shells which are so crispy they often break up during eating, tacos shells prepared this way retain a chewy/crispy texture that holds its form after biting into it. The beef was coarsely ground and spicey, and the lettuce fresh. The chopped tomatoes had a peculiar orange tint to them, but by all measures were fresh and flavorful.

Felix Mexican Restaurant

Having been denied flan during a previous visit to a different tex-mex restaurant, I ordered it here for dessert (flan and sopapillas were the only desserts offered). What arrived was, again, bland yet edible. The caramel syrup was watery but sufficiently sweet. The custard had a good, silky texture, but lacked any flavor of cream or vanilla that is to be expected from good flan. Strangely, the plate was warm but the flan was (appropriately) cold.

Generally, this is the same food I remember from growing up. Of all the dishes, the beef tacos have stood the test of time better than anything else. On future visits to Felix (and there will be many as long as it is open) I will order the beef taco plate and an obligatory side of chili con queso.

Service (7/10)
The service was excellent. There were literally more staff in the restaurant than customers.

Atmosphere (6/10)
From the half-broken neon signs and faded Houston Press banner claiming “best retro-mex 2004” on the outside, to an interior filled with rickety hand-painted chairs and walls covered with pictures of the Felix Tijerina family, the atmosphere at the Felix Mexican Restaurant is, like the food, a fascinating time-warp. The sheet of glass covering my table protected pictures and nametags from a recent reunion of Lamar High School c/o 1954.

Value (4/10)
Although the food may be from the 1950s, the prices are not. Most entrees are in the $10 range, comparable to the higher end of prices at contemporary tex-mex restaurants like La Mexicana. But Felix has a loyal and captive audience who is willing to pay these prices to get the retro-mex food that they crave.

The Bottom Line (5/10)
Felix unapologetically gives its loyal customers exactly what they want: time-warp tex-mex food from the 1950s, attentively prepared, forever unchanging. If a contemporary Mexican restaurant were serving this food, it would not be a Foodie Favorite. But this is Felix, and respect must be paid. Being a Foodie is not just about gastronomical adventure. It is also about tradition and history. The value of Felix–aside from providing enjoyable if somewhat bland retro tex-mex food–is that it remains a still-living culinary baseline from which to evaluate all other tex-mex.

PostScript: By total coincidence, the day after visiting Felix here in Houston, I was reading the Beaumont newspaper website and found this article about the demolition of the old Felix restaurant location in Beaumont. (80KB PDF)

Foodie Favorite: Yes

PostScript #2, August 2008: Felix is no more. I went for lunch today and the door was locked and the lights were out. No sign on the door or any other notification of closure. But I, along with a few other bewildered lunch-goers peering through the windows, knew the unspoken truth. We nodded to each other and went our separate ways.

A week-or-so later a sign went up announcing a going-out-of-business sale. I stopped in. Not much to see but a lot of rickety chairs and a stack of old menus. I found a menu with the Houston and Beaumont locations listed and bought it for $10(!). I have made the Felix Restaurant menu available here for posterity. (130KB PDF)

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Asia Market: A trip to Thailand inside the loop

One of the distinctive qualities of living in a large metropolis like Houston is that you can visit certain ethnic stores and restaurants and get a truly authentic feeling that you are in a different country.

Asia Market, a non-descript Thai mini-mart on Cavalcade near Airline just inside the north loop, offers a perfect example of this vicarious culinary travel.

Asia Market Houston

On Saturdays, a table is set up in the front of the store and aspiring cooks within the Houston Thai community bring in their fresh culinary creations for sale and tasting. On this Saturday, it was all Thai desserts–lots of coconut and banana flavors.


Asia Market Houston

The store shelves are filled with an amazing variety of exotic Thailand/Phillippines/Asian products, both packaged and fresh. A sample is to the left.

The proprietor, after overcoming a healthy suspicion of the caucasian male asking all the nosy questions, explained that on Saturday they cook fresh lunch dishes in the tiny kitchen in the back. Asked about durian, the infamously loved and hated produce native to SE Asia, she explained that the season was May, June and July and I should come back for a fresh sample. Oh I’ll be back.

For today I chose to purchase a fresh Thai dessert known as Kanom Tien.

Asia Market Houston

Kanom Tien is a moist, sticky pastry that comes wrapped in banana leaves. The external dough appears to be made of sticky rice flour and mung bean paste. The texture is reminiscent of a Chinese dumpling, though thicker and stickier. The taste was sweet and earthy and admittedly my first experience with mung beans.

Asia Market Houston

The interior is filled with coconut shavings and thick, sweet jam or jelly.

Asia Market Houston

I can’t say that I’ll be eating Kanom Tien on a regular basis but it definitely satisfied my craving for vicarious culinary travel. You just don’t get this kind of unique flavor anywhere else in Houston. Counting the days until durian season!

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Friday, March 2, 2007

District 7 Grill: A diner is a diner is a diner

There’s nothing more painful for a Houston Foodie than to see a promising young restaurant with an identity crisis. Can we help District 7 Grill find itself?

"Zesty food. Zesty life." That’s the sign that greets visitors entering the parking lot at the midtown location of District 7 Grill. Very promising. To be honest, I had no idea what the name of the restaurant was until I got inside and looked at the menu. I only knew there was a relatively new restaurant in the classic diner-looking building I always see on my way to the office. Stranded on an urban island bounded by Brazos, Pierce, and the Pierce elevated, I knew this location had been the site of various restaurants over the years, all of them diners (I presumed). So when I sat down to a late lunch on a Saturday afternoon, my expectations were immediately challenged by six words at the top of the menu: "The New Age American Urban Cuisine". Say what? I just want some eggs and taters!

District 7 Grill
Are we inspired?


Food/Drink (4/10)
Perusing the menu, I kept asking myself, “Is this a diner”? The building itself, and the black-and-white pictures of old diner restaurants on the walls and menu, would suggest just that. Or is it a “grill” as the name implies? Well the menu laid to rest any doubts: this was indeed “new age American urban cuisine”. Grilled sushi tuna salad with pecans and pesto vinaigrette? Not gonna find that at the Pig Stand (R.I.P.). I chose the most recognizable diner food I could find–pecan pancakes with eggs, sausage, bacon, and “country potatoes”. In other words, eggs and taters.

From the picture above you can see the plating/presentation was a bit…droopy. But tasting is believing, so I dug in. The eggs, ordered over-easy, were small, overcooked, and unseasoned. The breakfast sausage and bacon were tasty and good, if somewhat greasy, but that’s to be expected. The pancakes were thin and dry, with a miserly jumble of chewy pecans cooked into the middle. The individually packaged containers of syrup were scary, but the syrup was edible. The only inedible part of the dish was the “country potatoes”. I never understood the idea of mixing pieces of onions and bell peppers in with breakfast potatoes. Just give me some crunchy, seasoned, shredded taters and I’m happy. But these potatoes were accompanied by dry and bland, yet colorful, pieces of bell peppers. Unfortunately they did nothing to improve the potatoes. I’m not exactly sure how they were prepared, but at some point these mushy chunks of potatoes were fried in oil that must have been days old. They were, unfortunately, inedible. On the bright side, in true diner fashion, the cup of coffee was fresh, strong and hot.

Service (6/10)
The two servers were solicitous, friendly, sincere, and yet somehow distracted. They were doing some type of paperwork, presumably to close out the lunch service.

District 7 Grill
Hmmm...looks like a diner to me.

Atmosphere (7/10)
The atmosphere is wonderful. It has a great diner feel, with a counter and kitchen on one side, and bells dinging to alert the servers that the orders are ready. On the other side, a row of booths align along a full wall of windows looking out to a narrow patio and Pierce Street beyond. Catty-corner to the restaurant is the Houston Technology Center which surely provides a built-in clientele during the week. People in technology incubators LOVE TO HAVE MEETINGS, so I imagine a bustling weekday lunch service with aspiring entrepreneurs sketching their best ideas on District 7 Grill napkins.

Value (5/10)
The prices are excellent, but the value is OK. Amazingly there is nothing on the menu over $10. But I would pay a little extra to eat food of a higher quality and prepared with more inspiration.

The Bottom Line (5/10)
So is this diner food, or new age urban something-or-other food? Interestingly, the menu at this midtown location appears to include “diner food” (brunch, breakfast) that is not on the menu at the downtown location. It appears as if the owners carried over their original “new age” menu to this location and then glommed on some diner items. And that would explain the identity crisis. Clearly, the proprietors of District 7 Grill are talented, sincere and successful (with the downtown location). My suggestion is this: a diner is a diner is a diner. Don’t make it out to be anything else. Serve people what they expect from a diner: the freshest, tastiest and most inspired eggs and taters you can make.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

There’s something about Whole Foods…

I’ve never been a big fan of Whole Foods, although I do admire their very successful ability to market expensive (some would say overpriced) products to an upper income demographic. This Whole Foods article from the NY Times seems to bear out alot of things I’ve suspected for years.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It’s all about the steak

Anybody who knows me knows that it’s all about the steak. There is nothing more sexy than a perfectly cooked and seasoned piece of prime Texas beef.

Yeah, I know it’s not that healthy, and it can be damn expensive, so I keep it down to one steak a week and I’m always keeping my eyes open for a good deal. Sure you can go to Central Market and get a great strip for $16/pound, but that’s $20 bucks with no sides and not even cooked. I don’t even bother checking the prices at Whole Foods anymore. Which leaves me to my humble neighborhood supermarket–the venerable Disco Kroger. Perusing the pre-packaged meats last week, I found a nice NY strip, bone-in, about 1.25 pounds, for…$4.49 a pound. You read that right. It was discounted w/Kroger Card from $9.49/pound. That, my friends, is a deal. The fruits of my labor are documented below. Before and after…

Uncooked Steak Cooked Steak


I started by taking the steak out of the fridge about 30 minutes before cooking, allowing it to come to room temperature (grilling a cold steak can be tricky). Seasoned both sides (liberally) with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Some people like to throw some steak seasoning on there, or even briefly marinate it, but consider me old-school–basic seasoning only. I got the grill nice and hot, very hot actually, and then brushed on a layer of olive oil to prevent sticking. I put the steak on. The smell and sound of a steak hitting a hot grill–there’s nothing better for a true foodie. This steak was about 1¼ inches thick, so I grilled 6½ minutes on each side for medium-rare. I removed from heat and let rest for about 5+ minutes. This is the one step alot of people skip–letting the steak rest. But it is absolutely crucial because that steak is going to continue cooking for a while after it is removed from heat. By the time you are ready to cut into it, it will be perfect…

Medium Rare Steak

And there you have it. Perfectly medium-rare. Tender as a mother’s love. Fellow Houston Foodies, if that picture doesn’t get your “juices flowing”, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Florida beats Texas? Are you kidding me?

No, not in football. In good food! Or at least in the perception of the best places to visit for culinary tourism.

According to this post on the most popular destinations for culinary travel, California, Florida, and New York all beat out Texas as a popular destination. Now I might surrender this distinction to Cali and NY, but never Florida. C’mon Houston Foodies, let’s do everything we can to move Texas up a notch!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chapultepec Lupita: No flan for you!

Chapultepec Lupita serves up great margaritas, great salsa, great food and great atmosphere. Just don’t ask for any dessert.

Tex-mex restaurants are to Houston what Ray’s Pizzerias are to NYC–seems like there’s one on every corner. So how does the typical Houston tex-mex restaurant differentiate itself from the competition? In the case of Chapultepec Lupita on Richmond Avenue in Montrose, the food is fresh and attentively prepared, the variety of tequilas is plentiful, the salsa is homemade, and the staff greet regulars with hugs and kisses (seriously). And did I mention it’s open 24 HOURS?


Food/Drink (8/10)
On a recent Tuesday evening the restaurant was about half full. As i stretched out in a booth, the server–friendly and smiling Ines–arrived immediately with the menu and I immediately ordered a Margarita. Ines recommended the happy hour special: the Charro Rita made with El Charro Silver Tequila and La Grand Marsalle liqueur. It was excellent.

Chips and salsa arrived next. One of the best ways for a tex-mex restaurant to differentiate itself is to serve fresh salsa. Middling tex-mex restaurants might underachieve and serve Sysco salsa, or overachieve with some kind of crazy pineapple salsa. This salsa was fresh and good. Like all great salsa, the base flavor eminated from the freshly chopped tomatoes, followed by a layer of cilantro, onions and jalapeno peppers. Sippin’ my maggie and munchin’ on the chips and salsa started to raise my expectations for Chapultepec Lupita.

The main course was the Chapultepec Special: Shredded chicken enchilada, beef tamale, ground beef crispy taco, queso chip, rice and beans.

When the plate arrived, a couple of things portended a special experience–the giant queso super chip and the screaming-hot plate. So hot that the main plate sat on a stack of about 15 paper plates (presumably so as not to burn the lovely Ines), and so hot that the overflowing enchilada cheese was crusted and bubbly along the edge of the plate.

I’ve had queso chips before, but this monster covered half the plate, was perfectly crisp and crunchy, and the thin layer of queso was smooth and spicy. The highlight of the dish was definitely the chicken enchilada. The shredded chicken was moist, tender and well-marinated, wrapped with tortilla and cheese that acted as a worthy complement. The tamale was 80% masa and 20% beef, but that was OK–the masa was smoky and moist with a silky/buttery texture. The beef was almost an afterthought but added just enough zing to counter the earthy masa.

The rest of the dish was serviceable. The taco part of the crispy beef taco was crisp and fresh like the queso chip, but the ground beef was somewhat flavorless. The rice and beans were standard-issue–but again, better prepared than most and completely enjoyable.

Impressed so far, I thought I’d go for the hat-trick and try the homemade flan for dessert. And that’s where the problems started. Read on.

Service (5/10)
Service was great until the dessert course. Normally I wouldn’t get a dessert but the food up to that point was so good, I had to try the prominently displayed homemade flan. I placed the order with Ines and waited expectantly. Ines returned with a sheepish grin and some bad news. No flan for you! They had not made any flan for the day. Maybe dessert courses aren’t very popular on Tuesday night? They did have New York Cheesecake, but I passed.

Atmosphere (7/10)
Located in an old house in Montrose, dining rooms are scattered throughout the house with an enclosed patio tacked on to the front. Pictures of Lupita along the walls and neon shrines to the Virgin Mary add to the quirky atmosphere. The jukebox played (not too loudly) groovy 70’s tunes.

The eclectic crowd on this Tuesday night reflected the Montrose neighborhood. The table next to me was a young family, with the older child maybe 11 or 12, sporting a fabulous mop of dreadlocks. I knew that made him either the most popular kid in school or the biggest outcast. It didn’t take long to figure out which.

“Everbody hates me!” the child tearfully mumbled. The dad was having none of it. “We don’t hate you! Stop whining and start talking!” Conversation ensued and the child was mollified. After the food arrived the table became curiously quiet.

Value (8/10)
The value is excellent. Chips and salsa, Margarita, and a big plate of food for $16 drive-out. There were a few main courses in the $15 range–steaks and fajitas and such–but if you stick to the tex-mex basics there are few better deals out there.

The Bottom Line (8/10)
Chapultepec Lupita offers fresh, inspired, and attentively prepared tex-mex food at reasonable prices in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. And it’s open 24/7.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cafe Montrose: Pulling mussels from a shell

That perennial understudy of Gulf Coast seafood, the lowly mussel, takes center stage at Cafe Montrose and turns in a command performance.

Pity the poor Texas mussel. Constantly playing second-fiddle to other more popular molluscs like clams and oysters, not to mention its crustacean cousins like crawfish, shrimp and crab, it’s fair to say that the unassuming mussel just doesn’t get any respect. Sure, it will turn up in a bowl of bouillabaise or a platter of paella, but rarely is it showcased as a dinner “main event”. Unless you visit Cafe Montrose, that institution of Belgian cuisine on lower Westheimer. And as any good international foodie knows, the Belgians are famous for two culinary distinctions: “moules” and “frites”, i.e. mussels and french fries. Oh and beer too. Stella Artois to be exact. But let’s start with the moules.


Food/Drink (8/10)
At Cafe Montrose, you can choose to have your mussels served up in a variety of preparations, from good old-fashioned steamed mussels in white wine, to mussels in a tomato sauce, and my choice, “Moules au Gratin”, mussels in a cheesy Parmesan sauce. For me, Parmesan cheese is one of those ingredients you can add to any dish and it will make it taste like a million bucks. Kind of like bacon in that way. But I digress. The Moules au Gratin appeared before me fresh out of the oven, in the gratin dish it was cooked in (hot to the touch), with that unmistakable fragrance of baked Parmesan. The mussels remained unseen, swimming in a creamy cheese sauce hidden just under the thick, crispy crust of baked Parmesan. Taking my spoon and cracking the Parmesan crust, creme brulee-like, exposed the cheese sauce and mussels below. The savory Parmesan crust was a nice complement to the briny, metallic taste of the mussels. The neutral cheese sauce acted almost as a go-between, setting the stage for the interaction of the Parmesan and mussels. The texture of the mussels varied widely, from an almost buttery consistency (good) to stringy and chewy (not so good). But that is to be expected in the world of seafood, and a small sacrifice to make for the overall high quality of this dish.

On to the frites. What can I say? The french fries at Cafe Montrose are the best in Houston. THE BEST. And I know that over the years many people and institutions have come to the same conclusion. Well, we’re all right. Perfectly crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and steaming on the inside. The golden brown color is emphasized by a thin sheen of cooking oil. A liberal dose of salt and ketchup makes for a perfect plate of French…er, Belgian…comfort food.

And to complement all this degustational goodness is a vastly underrated Belgian beer (at least in the US)–Stella Artois. One of my favorites, it is a smooth and mild lager that only reinforces the unassuming quality of Belgian cuisine.

One minor consideration. I live near Cafe Montrose and frequently see its (catering?) van puttering around the neighborhood. In the mornings I see it parked at a neighborhood bakery, presumably where it gets its daily bread. It’s a well-regarded bakery, so I can only assume the spongy and plastic baguette slices that were served as a complimentary appetizer did not come from that bakery. I once worked in a high-end French restaurant with outstanding food about which our customers raved, but every one of those customers complained about the quality of the bread. It wasn’t bad, just kind of chewy and dry. The owner courteously listened to the complaints and assured the diners he would take it under consideration. But it never changed. Why? He believed, and rightly so, that diners should not “fill up” before the main course on bread and butter. I’d like to think that the quality of bread at Cafe Montrose is governed by the same philosophy.

Service (6/10)
This is obviously a family-run establishment, and the staff and service reflect that. Efficient, workmanlike and attentive.

Atmosphere (7/10)
I could see where the atmosphere at Cafe Montrose would not be suitable for everyone’s taste. From the dark, low, narrow space, the dingy ceiling tiles, the kitschy European background music and posters, the funky roller chairs and the Dr. Evil action figure sitting next to the cash register, some people may find the restaurant to be a bit “cheesy”. But not me. All of these quirky qualities, combined with the family service and comfort food, work together to create a unique, warm and familiar atmosphere.

Value (7/10)
Although the cost of the typical entree here is moderately expensive, between $10 and $20, I think the value is still very good. Ingredients such as fresh mussels and Parmesan cheese are not inexpensive, so I think they are doing a good job at holding the line on customer prices.

The Bottom Line (7/10)
The dark, quirky atmosphere, the satisfying comfort food, and the familiar staff all combine to make Cafe Montrose a unique dining experience, worthy of its namesake Houston neighborhood.

Update 11/9/08
Cafe Montrose is reportedly temporarily closed. Hopefully they will reopen soon. But in these tough times who knows. I'll miss the frites.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Julia’s Bistro: Mmmmm…cactus!

On a cool, lazy February evening, Julia’s Bistro underachieves in the kitchen, overachieves in the dining room, and commits a management faux pas.

Alley Cat and I took our time perusing the handsomely designed menus. After all, with only two other tables seated, we weren’t in any hurry.

Food/Drink (4/10)
AC suggested that a complimentary plate of munchies would be nice–some plaintain chips or tasty bread might set the mood (but no chips and salsa please). Alas none arrived so we ordered a bottle of the Tintara 2004 Shiraz, a nice choice from an excellent wine list. The rich/smooth taste did not disappoint.


For the first course we shared an order of the Emapanadas, or “Empanaditas”, always a good measure of a Latin American menu. We chose the mixed plate–one each of pork, chicken and beans. They arrived crisp and golden brown a bed of spinach, with a cilantro/cream/garlic sauce on the side. For me, all empanadas are measured by THE Gold Standard of empanadas–the famed La Cupertina in Buenos Aires. Julia’s empanadas held up very well indeed with the crispy, steamy empanadas perfectly matched with the smooth/spicy sauce. The pastry crust was perfectly cooked, obviously from fresh dough, and the fillings delicious and fresh. The only misstep was the lack of distinct flavor of the individual fillings–the fried crust and cheese tended to muddle the taste of the pork/chicken/beans fillings to the point we were debating which was which. All-in-all a good start though.

For the main course I chose the Patito al Horno, or roasted duck in a mole poblano saucenserved with carrots and grilled nopalitos (that’s cactus for all you non-foodies). What words do I use to describe the dish that arrived? Uninspired. Underachieving. Lackadaisical. Let’s break it down. The baby carrots were crisp and fresh–no complaints there. But the duck, well, it just laid there. From the pallid grey/pink color to a texture that ranged from mushy to stringy, the chef on duty obviously was having an off night on this one. Admittedly, slow and lazy weeknights can be a challenge for restaurants to keep the focus on quality, but I thought the effort was poor. This may be a great dish on a busy night when the head chef is working, but tonite it didn’t work. As for the napolitos, after setting the plate down, our server assured me that if I didn’t like the cactus I could swap it out for something else. Ha! Our server did not know that we were foodies, and foodies eat cactus dammit! And it was good. I agreed with the server’s assessment that cactus is a bit like okra in its bitter taste and gooey texture. Fortunately the grilling preparation added a layer of flavor that made the taste unique if not completely pleasurable.

Service (6/10)
Our waiter was unfailingly polite and attentive, if a bit lethargic and inexperienced. Refreshingly, when we asked what was good on the menu, instead of the expected “Everything’s good!” he actually told us what he thought was good and maybe not-so-good. Kudos to you my friend!

At the end of the meal AC noticed a problem with the check. Specifically we were undercharged by 4 bucks on the wine. For a restaurant reviewer this is a dream come true–you can always tell alot about a restaurant based on their response to a problem. And AC, being the saucy vixen that she is, jumped all over it. “What if,” she purred, “we tell them there is a problem with the wine charge, but don’t tell them it was an overcharge or undercharge?” And that is just what she did. Experience would suggest that the waiter, eventually noticing the undercharge, would return with the check and an accommodating smile informing us that “It was undercharged, my bad, don’t worry about it.” But when the check returned it was 4 bucks MORE! D’oh! It’s not that big of a deal but I would expect a more seasoned service team to eat that charge.

Atmosphere (7/10)
Julia’s Bistro offers one of the truly urban experiences in Houston dining. With full-length windows on 2 sides of the perfectly proportioned main space, and the Metro Rail trains humming past on a regular basis, it is a comforting and enjoyable atmosphere. On this Tuesday night the noise level was quiet, although I wonder what it’s like in a full restaurant with a concrete floor and lack of sound absorbing fabrics on the walls. Lighting for the dinner hours is inviting and professionally done. It works even better from the “outside-in”–driving past the restaurant, the big picture windows frame the glow of the soft interior lighting that beckons the hungry foodie to come and bask in the atmosphere.

Value (3/10)
$100 for two people is certainly the going rate for a nice restaurant in Houston, but for this meal, the value was poor. On Julia’s best night the value will surely be good, but on this night were felt that our Benjamin could have been better spent.

The Bottom Line (4/10)
Julia’s didn’t have it tonite. Our solicitous waiter and the fantastic room were not enough to overcome the underachieving preparation of the cuisine. But I got the feeling this was just an off night and Julia’s Bistro has the potential for a more inspired effort. We will definitely dispatch a Houston Foodie reviewer for a follow-up visit sometime in the future.