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.