Monday, December 28, 2009

My Top 10 Food Photos of 2009

When it comes to food, you can eat it, cook it, write about it, obsess over it, talk about it, read about it, make friends over it, and, perhaps most memorably, take pictures of it.

Conos Rellenos de Crema Mexican Pastry
El Bolillo Bakery — Houston, Texas — 7 February 2009

This pic was snapped at El Bolillo Bakery on Airline Drive before the first Chowhounds taco truck crawl. We were noshing on the delectable goodies and taking photographs the whole time. These conos were some of the most photogenic (and tasty) of all the pastries. A flaky pastry cone is stuffed with a not-too-sweet vanilla custard.



Frito Pie
Casa de Houston Foodie — Houston, Texas — 29 March 2009

Cooking took a backseat for me in 2009, with restaurant visits and food writing taking up most of my free time. I did find some time to cook up a bowl of chili for a blog post I did about Frito pies. I wanted to get as close as possible to the Frito pies I ate at Little League games when I was growing up in Beaumont. This was the result. I think I got pretty close.



Barbacoa Tacos
Noemi's Tacos — Houston, Texas — 30 April 2009

For a blog post on Menudo, I visited Noemi's Tacos on the advice of Alison Cook. The menudo was great, but I also ordered a side of barbacoa tacos just to try them out. Talk about sexy. They tasted as good as they looked. As my friend and fellow food blogger Ruthie so aptly commented, "I want to make out with those tacos."



Fried Boudin Nuggets
Al-T's Seafood & Steakhouse — Winnie, Texas — 17 June 2009

I reviewed Al-T's for the Houston Press, and on one of my first visits we ordered pretty much the whole menu. Catfish and gumbo are the specialties of the house, but one of the most pleasant surprises was a plate of these fantastic boudin nuggets. Thick slices of housemade boudin sausage, breaded, deep-fried, and served with a side of ranch dressing. Awesome road food.



The Inn at Dos Brisas — Brenham, Texas — 24 June 2009

The Inn at Dos Brisas in Brenham sponsored a group of Houston food bloggers on a visit to tour the grounds and sample from a menu inspired by the produce grown in their extensive gardens. During the tour, ranch manager and horticulturist Johnnie Boyd Baker picked these tomatoes and presented them for us to taste. Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between the tomatoes you get at the supermarket and those that are grown locally and organically.



Barbecue Crabs
Sartin's West — Beaumont, Texas — 19 September 2009

Nothing says "good eats" to my Southeast Texas born-and-bred palate like these spiky crustaceans. These barbecued and fried crabs at Sartin's West in Beaumont were the pinnacle of my BBQ crab eating season. Just the right heat and spice level, with tender, steaming and flaky crab meat. I ended up writing an overview of Beaumont/Port Arthur BBQ crabs, with a more ambitious Southeast Texas review slated for this spring.



Nippan Daido — Houston, Texas — 21 September 2009

Natto is not something you usually find on Houston menus, even on Japanese restaurant menus. For a Houston Press blog post, I headed west to the most authentic Japanese market in Houston: Nippan Daido. Natto has one of the most unusual textures, colors and flavors I've ever experienced. The slimy, snotty texture and the funky orange-brown color make for a great, if not particularly appetizing, visual.



Bacon Cheeseburger
Hubcap Grill South — Houston, Texas — 23 September 2009

There's lots of goodness in this pic of the bacon cheeseburger at the Hubcap Grill South location. The slightly charred top bun, the impossibly thick slice of tomato, the gooey cheese, the jauntily tilted hamburger patty, the glistening and vaguely erotic slices of bacon. Note the burger drippings soaking the bottom bun and pooling to the bottom right.



Roasted Pig Snout
Feast Restaurant/Jolie Vue Farms — Brenham, Texas — 27 September 2009

The roasted pig snout picture is back in all its majestic glory! Few of my pics have elicited such a broad range of responses from "Cool!" (my nephew) to "Ewwww!" (everyone else). It generated a popular blog post too. And to answer your questions in advance: 1) no, you couldn't feel/taste the whiskers, and 2) it tasted like fatty ham.



Cochon Butcher — New Orleans, Louisiana — 13 December 2009

On a recent trip to New Orleans with a group of Houston food bloggers, Jenny and I ventured to one of the more notable restaurants open on a Sunday: Cochon Butcher. We ordered up a couple of dishes, sat down, and started snapping pics. When the counter person saw us, she kept sending out more dishes, including this very nice boudin.

Notes on the pics

I have no idea what an f-stop is. Or an exposure or an aperture. I have a trusty Fujifilm F20 point-and-shoot that does the job. I guess. I've never had a pro photographer look at my pics and render judgment. I like my pics. That's all that matters.

The only settings I use on my Fuji are the flash and the something-is-really-close-up setting. All of the pics listed here are un-retouched, except for resizing. All are taken without flash, except maybe the Frito pie, which looks like there might have been a flash involved.

Since I'm not mucking about with camera settings, I can turn my attention to subject, composition, lighting, and scale. When food is the subject of a photograph, texture is the key. Absent smell-o-vision or taste-o-vision, the visual texture of food is the best way to get your mouth watering. The texture of the sliced boudin at Cochon Butcher is a good example, the whiskery pig nose, maybe not so much.

I love (lurve?) curves as part of the framing of my compositions, the Frito pie and boudin nuggets being good examples. Needless to say, I'm always a little disappointed when a restaurant uses square plates. Lighting is always a crap shoot — one of the most important food blogger skills is the ability to arm-twist a maître d' into seating you at the best lit table in the house.

Scale is a quality of food photography that I find intriguing. In a recent food photography workshop we were taught to place a fork or other utensil in the photo to provide scale. However, most of the time I find it interesting to leave the scale (relative size) of the food ambiguous. Just how big is that Conos de Crema? The size of a quarter or the size of a fist? And is that cheeseburger a full size burger or a slider?

At the end of the day, I write about and photograph food because it is an endlessly fascinating subject. Everyone has to eat food, and seemingly everyone has an opinion about food, and many make their living working with food. People who are passionate about food are inevitably the most interesting people I meet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Po-boy

A leprechaun was marauding through the crowded streets of the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival, inadvertently scaring little children and hoisting a sign imploring visitors to visit Mahony's Po-Boy Shop.

Here comes another poor boy leprechaun

As an advertising gimmick it worked great, but I had to ask myself, "Does Mahony's need more recognition?" The week before, a New York Times article had all but anointed Mahony's as the standard-bearer for the so-called neo-tradionalist po-boy makers of New Orleans.

You see, according to the powers that be in the Big Easy, the New Orleans po-boy is an endangered sandwich. An invasion of five dollar footlongs as well as aggressive cost-cutting by long-established New Orleans po-boy shops has apparently resulted in a lowering of both quality and expectations for one of the truly unique creations of this food mad city — the authentic New Orleans po-boy. This "preservation" festival would celebrate and confirm everything that is good and true about the New Orleans po-boy.

Leidenheimer po-boy loaves

I went to the New Orleans Po-Boy Preservation Festival to find out for myself what makes a New Orleans po-boy truly authentic. For months, my fellow po-boy fanatics and I had debated whether the current crop of Houston po-boy shops served the real thing. Some of my friends would even drag along native New Orleanians to confirm authenticity or to cast doubt (and aspersions) on Houston po-boy shops like Calliope's Po-Boy, Jazzie Cafe and BB's Cajun Cafe. For me, the festival offered a one-stop shop to sample only the most authentic po-boys to be had in New Orleans.

Upon returning to Houston I visited local po-boy shops on a regular basis. As a baseline, I ordered a fried shrimp po-boy at every location, on every visit. After eating 20-plus po-boys in Houston over the last couple of weeks, I was ready to render a verdict.

What makes a New Orleans po-boy authentic? Fresh ingredients are a must, be it the "filling" in the form of shrimp, oysters or roast beef, or the "dressing" in the form of mayonnaise, lettuce and tomatoes. But after much research, both on the web and on the ground at the festival, I confirmed what po-boy aficionados already know: it's the bread. Specifically the po-boy loaf produced by New Orleans bakers like Leidenheimer and Gendusa. The bread has a thin, crisp, parchment-like crust covering a downy, light-as-air interior. New Orleanians claim that due to factors unique to their city such as the sea level (it's mostly below), humidity and even the water, authentic New Orleans po-boy bread can only be produced in New Orleans. These arguments, in my opinion, are specious, driven more by turf protection than scientific fact. But still, such claims did not bode well for finding authentic po-boy bread in Houston.

Acme Oyster House fried shrimp po-boy

As a benchmark, I chose my favorite fried shrimp po-boy at the festival: Acme Oyster House. Acme is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the po-big-boys of New Orleans like Domilise's, Crabby Jack's, Mother's, or Uglesich's (R.I.P.). But on this day, Acme put out a no-frills, authentic, prototypical fried shrimp po-boy: Leidenheimer bread ("hinged," i.e. not cut all the way though length-wise, arguably a sign of authenticity), a simple dressing of mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, and tomato, and an overstuffed filling of perfectly crisp and seasoned fried shrimp. I would evaluate all Houston po-boys against this tasty benchmark.

Calliope fried shrimp po-boy

Calliope's Po-Boy (2310 Jefferson) is owned by a former New Orleanian who left after Katrina and eventually made it to Houston. She claims that her bread is produced locally and is authentic New Orleans po-boy bread. It's not exactly like Leidenheimer bread, but it's close. It has a crisp, snappy crust, with a lighter-than-normal (for Houston) interior. The fried shrimp filling is overstuffed if a bit bland. Dressings are fresh and tasty. Calliope's po-boys may not be completely authentic, but they are a pretty good approximation. The Louisiana hot sausage po-boy is worth a try.

BB's Cajun fried shrimp po-boy

On every visit to BB's Cajun Cafe (2710 Montrose), the bread was the least appealing of all the Houston po-boy joints. Invariably chewy and dense, I would often toss the bread aside and pick out the fried shrimp. This bread was closer to a traditional French baguette, rather than a New Orleans po-boy loaf. Admittedly (and possibly forgivably), BB's bills its po-boys as authentic New Orleans "style" po-boys. Which is kind of like saying you own an authentic Rolex "style" watch, but whatever. Less forgivable are the rubbery fried shrimp I encountered on a couple of visits. Some of my friends swear by the "Midnight Masterpiece," the roast beef po-boy. This may be a better choice than the shrimp.

Jazzie Cafe fried shrimp po-boy

Jazzie Cafe in the Heights (1221 West 19th) is another joint opened by former New Orleanians displaced by Katrina. It's gone through at least a couple of ownership changes since opening. A few regulars I know have noted ups and downs over the years. Still, it's gained a sizable following for its large and tasty, but mostly unauthentic, po-boys. Mainly it's the bread: a soft exterior and a dense interior are admittedly delicious but not recognizable as authentic po-boy bread. Ultimately, it's more of a fried shrimp subway sandwich. Some swear by the soft shell crab po-boy here.

The Big Mamou fried shrimp po-boy

My friend and fellow food explorer Jay Francis turned me on to the po-boys at The Big Mamou, the newish Cajun joint in the Heights (903 Studewood). He pointed out that they claim to procure their po-boy bread from Gambino's Bakery in New Orleans (Mama's Cajun in Cypress claims the same). That sounded promising. The bread does indeed have a thin, crispy, crumbly exterior with an airy-light interior (hinged too). Checking Gambino's website, they do offer national distribution of frozen loaves which they (unbelievably) claim to be tastier than fresh baked loaves! The main drawback of this po-boy, however, was a filling of small shrimp whose breading separated after a few bites. Messy and annoying. The remoulade-like sauce was a positive. Overall, The Big Mamou fried shrimp po-boy is the closest to an authentic New Orleans po-boy you can get in Houston.

So is it possible to get an authentic New Orleans po-boy in Houston? Regrettably, but not unexpectedly, the answer is no. You can get a fair but flawed approximation at The Big Mamou, and a very tasty and filling ersatz po-boy at Jazzie. If you pick the right po-boys at BB's Cajun or Calliope, you can get some very good sandwiches there too. For now, the only place to get an authentic New Orleans po-boy is in New Orleans. Perhaps that is as it should be. We should all be happy to let Mahony's, Domilise's and Crabby Jack's continue to hoist the banner (sans leprechaun) of the bona fide New Orleans po-boy.

This blog entry was originally posted 8 Dec 2009 on the website.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Big Pimpin' in NOLA

A month or so ago, a representative from Ogilvy Public Relations contacted me via Twitter and asked if I would like to spend a weekend at the Harrah's New Orleans casino/hotel free of charge, as a guest of Harrah's. I said yes.

The purpose of the weekend is to show me (and several other Houston bloggers and social media "influencers") all the great things that Harrah's NOLA has to offer. The idea, of course, is that we will communicate our experiences to our blog readers and Twitter followers so that Harrah's may get more visitors (and business) from the Houston market.

In exchange for flying me to NOLA, putting me up in their hotel, and wining and dining me (all free of charge), Harrah's has asked for nothing in return. Only that I have a good time. Of course there is the implication that I should tweet and blog about my experience, preferably positive things. But at least so far, no one from Ogilvy or Harrah's has explicitly asked for this.

Which I appreciate. Ogilvy is a very sharp oufit; I've known about their social media blog, 360 Digital Influence, for some time now. In addition to their own Blogger Outreach Code of Ethics, they have made it clear that we must adhere to the FTC Guidelines for Endorsements (PDF) and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Code.

I also admire the Harrah's brand. The last three times I have been to Las Vegas I have stayed at the Rio or Bally's. As part of agreeing to the free weekend, I asked that they provide me information about Harrah's involvement in the NOLA community and recovery from Katrina. The information they sent me about their community involvement is impressive. I hope to hear more over the weekend.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure: Harrah's New Orleans is flying me to NOLA, putting me up in their hotel, and wining and dining me at no charge. They have asked for nothing in return. During this trip I will be tweeting and blogging about my experiences (objectively, in my opinion). I hope my followers/readers will find my experiences in NOLA entertaining or at least informative.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A5 Kobe Beef at Vic & Anthony's

Kobe beef probably isn't what you think it is. The term "Kobe beef" gets thrown around alot — you see it on some high-end steak house menus in Houston, and more ubiquitously on burger joint menus as a "Kobe burger."

Filets: USDA Prime (left), A5 Kobe (right)
A tale of two tenderloins: USDA Prime (left), A5 Kobe (right)

There's a certain mystique about Kobe beef, vaguely associated with fat, docile cows from Japan that get massaged with sake and force-fed beer through a tube. Though it's sometimes hard to separate hype from reality — the steak from the sizzle if you will — one thing's for sure: real Kobe beef is very hard to come by.

Carlos Rodriguez knows this. He's the Concept Chef (i.e. head honcho) at Vic & Anthony's in downtown Houston. He's spent the last three years trying to source the real Kobe beef to serve here in Houston. Problem is, what limited supply there is gets shipped to cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Las Vegas. Recently, he was able to work through a broker in New Jersey to have the Kobe beef shipped directly from Japan. This past Friday he started serving a five ounce tenderloin of real Kobe beef for an admittedly eye-popping $130.


Why so expensive? First let's establish what Kobe beef is and isn't. Kobe beef is a cut of meat from the Tajima breed of Wagyu cattle that is raised and slaughtered in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan (the city of Kobe being the capital). The traditions associated with raising cattle in this area of Japan — including feeding the cows beer and massaging them with sake — are supposedly ideal for producing the highest quality beef from Wagyu cattle (the breed itself is genetically predisposed to producing highly marbled beef). It's this intensive process combined with limited production that makes real Kobe beef scarce, and therefore expensive.

Most of the Kobe beef listed on restaurant menus is actually from Wagyu cattle that were imported to the US and then cross-bred with Angus cattle. Officially, this type of beef is supposed to be labeled as "Kobe-style,"American Kobe," or "American Wagyu." Unfortunately, most restaurants do not make the distinction and incorrectly label their beef as Kobe, either through ignorance or willful misrepresentation.

Dry aged Kobe Strip
Dry-aging Kobe beef strips at Vic & Anthony's

The Kobe beef at Vic & Anthony's is the real deal. As per the Japan Meat Grading Association, this beef is graded as A5 Kobe beef, the highest grade based mainly on the density of marbling. Rodriguez is currently offering the previously mentioned five ounce tenderloin, and is in the process of dry-aging several large cuts of strip loin. The tenderloins should be available for at least another 10 days, with the strips being offered some time in the next week. The strip steaks will be available in about the same portion size and price.

Medium-rare Kobe tenderloin
Finished product: medium-rare Kobe beef tenderloin

On a recent Tuesday night, myself and a group of fellow steak lovers descended on Vic & Anthony's for a Kobe beef taste test. We ordered two A5 Kobe tenderloins and two USDA prime tenderloins, both cooked medium-rare. The differences were striking. Texture-wise, the Kobe beef is buttery and velvety, and exceedingly tender. Obviously, the traditional USDA prime tenderloin is tender but much firmer. But the real difference is in the flavor. The only way I can describe the Kobe is to say that this is what beef might taste like if a scientist decided to "perfect" the flavor of beef. The beef flavor is exceedingly refined and concentrated. Due to the marbling and medium-rare preparation, the beef almost melts in your mouth.

Although Rodriguez hopes to offer A5 Kobe beef as a regular menu item in the future, he is currently just testing the waters to see what kind of demand there might be in Houston. For any serious steak lover in Houston, a trip to Vic & Anthony's to try this rare delicacy is a must (for tasting purposes, you can split a portion among 2-3 people to help with the cost). Plus you'll be supporting and acknowledging Chef Rodriguez's prodigious efforts to bring A5 Kobe beef to Houston steak lovers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

State of BBQ Crab - Beaumont/Nederland

The quest to find, eat at, and rate the BBQ crab joints of Southeast Texas has begun.

I'll dispense with the long and storied history of BBQ crab and just say that a comprehensive review of this native Southeast Texas cuisine is long overdue. The fact that BBQ crab joints keep popping up all over Southeast Texas is a tribute to the strong demand in this area. We all grew up eating them, and for many of us BBQ crab evokes memories of summer vacations to the beaches of the Gulf Coast.

The prevalence of BBQ crab in our area is also tied to the family that made it popular — the Sartin family of Sabine Pass and Beaumont. Various siblings, children and extended family of the founders continue to open Sartin's restaurants. At last count, there have probably been 15 to 20 instances of Sartin's Seafood restaurants over the years. On this trip we visited two of them: Sartin's Nederland and the new Sartin's West in Beaumont.

For purposes of this survey, I've organized the geographic disposition of BBQ crab into three areas: 1) Beaumont/Port Arthur/Nederland, 2) Houston/Galveston/Bolivar, 3) East Texas/Orange/West Louisiana.

This trip ventured deep into the heart of BBQ crab country: Beaumont and Nederland. We visited the best known purveyors of BBQ crab in this area: Sartin's in Nederland, and then Isaac Lee's, Sartin's West, and Floyd's in Beaumont. After the fact, I was informed that The Schooner in Nederland may also be serving BBQ crabs. I'll follow up on that.

A note on All-You-Can-Eat Platter service. Obviously the tradition is to serve BBQ crab as AYCE, but in the last 5 years or so that seemed to have changed. Many reasons for the AYCE downfall are promulgated, and a simple supply shortage is certainly believable.

Fortunately, AYCE seems to have returned, at least temporarily. All the locations we visited except Floyd's offered an AYCE option, generally in the $30 range. I believe all options included AYCE everything — in addition to BBQ crabs you can get catfish, shrimp etc.

Of course availability of blue crab is seasonal, and that may explain the return of AYCE. Blue crab season runs from around April to November in Southeast Texas. Supplies currently seem to be plentiful and of good size and quality. It will be interesting to see how many locations are offering AYCE in December.

What follows is a summary of our experiences on a recent Saturday's BBQ crab excursion to Beaumont and Nederland.


Sartin's Nederland

Sartin's Nederland

After an hour-and-a-half drive from Houston through rice fields, oil refineries and saltwater marshes, we arrived at Sartin's in Nederland. This location is owned by Kim Tucker, formerly Kim Lynch and formerly Kim Sartin. It's the last bit that's important. Kim was married to Doug Sartin Jr., the son of the original Sartin's founder. While married, Kim and Doug started a Sartin's in Nederland in 1990, but that was short lived. They divorced in 1993, but Kim made another go of it by opening another Sartin's in Nederland in 1997 (no original Sartin family members are involved). If you are judging by seniority rather than blood relations, this is the current "original" Sartin's seafood restaurant. It's still going strong and this location was our first stop.

This location offered AYCE BBQ crab platter service on Wednesdays only. It is in the $30 range. At other times, BBQ crabs are always available, either as a part of a seafood platter, or a la carte. I recall individual crabs being in the $3 range. That's usually the going rate.

Pacing ourselves, Jay and I split a large seafood platter which included two BBQ crabs and a bunch of other goodies to sample. Beer Chris just wanted a couple crabs to sample too, and our very friendly and knowledgeable waitress recommended getting the kids BBQ crab dinner which was couple of BBQ crabs and fries. Hey, whatever works. When the plate arrived, we all stared at the plate of giants crabs and murmurred that kids in Nederland must really like BBQ crab.

The BBQ crab we sampled at Sartin's Nederland was excellent. Of all the joints we visited that Saturday, this came the closest to what I remember eating growing up in Beaumont. A bit larger than average in size, a good coating of spice mix, and, most importantly, flaky, moist, and sweet crab meat. The other dishes were well-prepared also: fried catfish, shrimp, fries, etc. A good start to the day.

Service was excellent — our server appeared to be a manager and was very friendly and helpful. Jay, undeterred by any sign that says "Employees only" when it's attached to a kitchen door, got permission for us to step into the kitchen. The industrial strength fryers and bins of BBQ crab were an impressive sight. This is clearly an operation that has been around for a long time and that knows what it's doing.

As we left, Kim Tucker introduced herself. She was interested in hearing about our BBQ crab tour. From our 10-15 minute conversation, it is obvious she takes pride in her operation and is a worthy protector of the Sartin's Seafood name.


Isaac Lee's - Beaumont

Isaac Lee's Beaumont

Isaac Lee's is owned by sisters Kim Vawter, Stacy Mathews and Tracy Mathews. After Kelli Sartin (daughter of the original Sartin's founders) opened a Sartin's restaurant in Clear Lake, Texas, the Mathews sisters later bought that restaurant. And in what became a major point of contention, they seem to have thought they bought rights to the "Sartin's" name as part of the package.

In addition to buying the Clear Lake restaurant, the sisters also later opened a branch in Beaumont on College Street in an old Denny's location. They advertised both restaurants as "The Original Sartin's."

This apparently did not sit well with Kim Tucker at the Sartin's in Nederland (there seems to be some friction between Kim Tucker and Kelli Sartin, but then again, there seems to be some friction between everyone involved in Southeast Texas BBQ crabs and the Sartin's trademark). Eventually Kim Tucker would sue the Mathews sisters in federal court in Beaumont for trademark infringement. Things get murky from there (I've yet to speak with Kelli Sartin -- I'm working on that -- and I may try to pull the case records next time I'm in Beaumont). In any case, the Clear Lake Sartin's closed and the Beaumont location rechristened itself "Isaac Lee's," apparently named after the sisters' father.

So that's a whole lot of groundwork laid for this stop on the BBQ crab tour, and we'd not even yet stepped foot in the restaurant. Such is the baggage that comes with eating BBQ crabs in Southeast Texas. We rolled up to Isaac Lee's around 1pm on a Saturday. There were a couple of tables filled, but generally it was quiet. The space itself is no-frills, with a few marine-themed decorations like nets and anchors on the walls. It reminded me of a Red Lobster circa 1978, but in a good way. Walls of windows let the light shine in and made the place bright and welcoming.

We ordered a half dozen BBQ crabs, chicken and sausage gumbo, and boudin balls. Note that this location is the only BBQ crab joint I know of that still offers AYCE BBQ crab all day, every day for $28.50. God bless'em. For the record, the gumbo was not so good (watery broth, rubbery sausage), and the boudin balls were pretty good.

As for the BBQ crabs, these were definitely the most unique taste/preparation. The spice accretions on the crabs themselves were quite light. Still the spice flavoring was good. I'd guess they also use the Fiesta mix. Crab size was good, and the meat was steaming and flaky.

However the most unique aspect of this BBQ crab was the taste of the crab meat. Traditionally, good BBQ crab meat is super sweet and flaky, with the spice dredge occasionally getting mixed in during the eating process to offer an otherworldly sweet/savory/spicy combination. But as Jay first pointed out, the crab meat at Isaac Lee's tasted vaguely of chicken broth, or at least unusually salty. We pondered and puzzled over this for a while. We asked the waitress if they parboiled the crabs, perhaps in salty water, before BBQ-ing (frying) them. She checked with the kitchen and they said no.

The salty flavor of the crab meat was not a big deal — the overall experience was all quite satisfactory, if not exceptional. We came up with a couple of possibilities for the salty crab meat, the first being that maybe the oil was old and infused with salt and spices and maybe the crabs were a bit overcooked in that oil. Alternatively, we surmised that crabs that taste like this may be secretly parboiled to give them a little extra edge (at this point we were just thinking out loud — we took the waitress on her word). There is some precedent for this. Some BBQ crab recipes call for the crabs to first be marinated in a liquid smoke mixture to give them an even more BBQ-y taste, then dredged in spice rub, then deep fried.

In general, Isaac Lee's is a good place for BBQ crabs especially if you are seriously hungry and want an AYCE option and the other crab joints aren't offering them at that time/day.


Sartin's West - Beaumont

Sartin's West - Beaumont

Sartin's West is the most recent endeavor of Doug Sartin Jr. and his current wife Emily Summers. Doug is the oldest son of the original Sartin founders, Charles and Jeri Sartin (still alive and living in Sabine Pass). Doug and his first wife Emily opened the Sartin's in Beaumont north of Parkdale Mall in 1990. When they got divorced, Kim got ownership of it. She also opened the Sartin's in Nederland (above). In 2002 Kim passed control of the Beaumont Sartin's to Geneva Broussard, a longtime Sartin's associate. Hurricane Rita closed that location in 2005.

Around that time Doug Sartin and his new wife Emily opened a Sartin's Seafood out on Highway 90 west of Beaumont. It was very close to where my sister lived at the time — I drove by it all the time. Eventually they would move into town to Calder Street where the old Cody's used to be. But it looks like Hurricane Ike hit that location hard and it was closed by 2008. The current location of Sartin's West on I-10 in Beaumont opened in early summer, just in time for crab season. Every time I've driven by, it's looked busy.

Like almost all previous incarnations of Sartin's West, this location is in a longtime restaurant location. The last business here was a comedy club. It's a great building for a restaurant, with a huge dinign room space with lots of light. I imagine the kitchen is industrial strength too.

Jay, Beer Chris, and I arrived around 2pm. There were a few large tables occupied. As with every other Sartin's restaurant I've been in, the staff is mostly made up of cute local girls in tight shorts and T-shirts. I suppose if you're a waitress at Sartin's and are lucky enough, you'll marry a Sartin and open a Sartin's restaurant somewhere.

Sartin's West was offering AYCE BBQ crab for around $30. We had just about had our fill so we asked to order just four crabs. The waitress surprised us by quoting $2 per crab. This is a lot lower than the going rate of $3 per crab. I assume she new what she was talking about — on the otherhand, maybe she had never had a request for individual crabs and just made a guess. In any case, $2 is what we paid.

The menu included two crab options: BBQ or Fried. Intrigued, we ordered two of each. Turns out the fried option is just a crab dipped in batter and fried without the BBQ seasoning. (Sartin's in Nederland also offered the fried crab option which I noticed on the menu some time later).

The crabs were larger than average and perfectly cooked. How can you tell? Because this was the only location where each crab yielded the highly prized "crab claw lollipop." With the best BBQ crabs, when you gently pull the crab legs from the body, a giant chunk of crab meat should come off with it. Otherwise you have to dig around in the socket to get to it. All of the crabs at Sartin's West willingly yielded the sweet and flaky crab meat.

As far as the seasoning goes, the fried crabs were absolutely delicious. The batter was nicely seasoned and may have had some impact on sealing in the super tasty crab meat. The BBQ crab had lighter spice dredge than Nederland, but more than Isaac Lee's. I'd say it was just right. We told the waitress we thought the BBQ crabs were better here and she acted surprised because she thought Sartin's West and Sartin's Nederland used the same spice. Based on Kim Tucker's comment's earlier in the day, I can then assume Sartin's West also uses the Fiesta seasoning.

We polished off the four crabs, and frankly, I couldn't wait to come back. At this point Beer Chris had to continue on to Louisiana, so Jay and I headed down the I-10 service road the few yards to the final stop on our tour — Floyd's Cajun Seafood.


Floyd's - Beaumont

Floyd's Beaumont

At this point in the narrative we diverge from the Sartin's branch of Southeast Texas seafood history, and take up the even more entangled story of the Landry's branch of Texas-Louisiana seafood lore.

The Landry brothers — Don, Willie, and Ashby — would start the Landry's/Don's Seafood empire in Louisiana and two of their sons — Billy and Floyd — along with a host of business partners, brought the Cajun style seafood to Southeast Texas and Houston. The sons and partners would eventually sell out to Tilman Fertitta who would create the Landry's Restaurant empire. Billy Landry died several years ago, but Floyd Landry is still going strong.

In addition to Floyd's locations in Webster and Pearland, the Floyd's in Beaumont was created from a venerable Don's seafood restaurant that Floyd re-acquired in 2006. I spent a good deal of my time growing up in Beaumont going to that Don's location — it was a family favorite. When Jay and I pulled up at around 3pm, this was the first time I had been back since it had changed to Floyd's. It had been 7 or 8 years.

The interior had been completely gutted and opened up. Floyd's signature horseshoe bar took up half the space, a dining room the other half. At 3pm, there were a few tables occupied and a few people at the bar, including hostesses. We sat at the bar and asked the bartender about BBQ crabs.

BBQ crabs are only briefly mentioned on the Floyd's menu, so the bartender ran down the options: 3 crabs for $9.75, 6 for 16.95, and 12 for $28.95. This is typical pricing for restaurants that do not do a high volume or are not known for BBQ crabs. There is no AYCE option.

I placed an order for the minimum 3 BBQ crabs. The bartender went back to the kitchen to put in the order. When she came back she related that the fryers were not yet ready and we'd have to wait until 4pm. I told her we'd come back some other time. But before we could leave, one of the cooks came out and said he'd fire up the fryers just for us. They seems genuinely accommodating, I was impressed. I love Floyd's but sometimes the service and quality can be wildly inconsistent. I sometimes get the feeling that the inmates are running the asylum at Floyd's, but in the best possible way.

When the crabs came out, they were about average size, with probably the heaviest spice dredge of the day. They were super salty, which for Jay is always a deal-breaker. I plowed ahead, even though I was stuffed from eating BBQ crab all day. These crabs were not quite as meaty and sweet as the ones we had earlier, but still very serviceable.

As for the salt issue, the crabs were edible for me, but I could taste the salt on my lips afterwards. Did they use their own spice blend? Were the crabs always this salty? I related to Jay that this may be the normal preparation — there is rarely anything subtle about Floyd's. I figured I'd visit a couple more times before I made a conclusion.

And with that final stop, Jay and I piled into the car and made the drive back to Houston. The Beaumont/Nederland leg of the BBQ Tour was complete. Or was it? I later found out that The Schooner in Nederland may be serving BBQ crabs. Looks like a followup visit may be in order.


BBQ Crab Ratings

Here are how the various participants rated the BBQ crabs on this day. Keep in mind that based on our experience, the quality of BBQ crabs can vary wildly from day to day and from season to season. In all probability, the Sartin's restaurants will always be top two, with the exact order determined by the vagaries of preparing BBQ crab.

Houston Foodie
1. Sartin's West
2. Sartin's Nederland
3. Floyd's Beaumont
4. Isaac Lee's
1. Sartin's Nederland
2. Sartin's West
3. Isaac Lee's
4. Floyd's Beaumont
Beer Chris
1. Sartin's West
2. Sartin's Nederland
3. Isaac Lee's

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tour de Q Ratings

When I wrote a blog post for the Houston Press chronicling a day trip to Texas Monthly's top five Texas BBQ joints, my main goal was to convey the fun and camaraderie of such a seemingly audacious culinary adventure. As it turns out, a lot of people had no interest in the trip itself — all they wanted to know was, "Who's got the best 'Q?"

View Texas BBQ Tour 8.22.09 in a larger map

Fair enough. Although I do consider myself above the whole "Which BBQ is best" argument because such debates usually devolve into Texas-sized pissing contests. I personally subscribe to former Texas Monthly editor Greg Curtis' opinion about other people's opinions about BBQ: "All barbecue experts are self-proclaimed." True.

Still, there is that competitive streak in all of us that demands some accounting of relative greatness, or in this case, tangy and smoky goodness. I mentally arranged rankings for the best dishes and BBQ joints into their appropriate slots, but never took time out from stuffing my pie hole with BBQ to actually write them down. Fortunately there was someone on the trip who was surreptitiously jotting the ratings down on the back of BBQ sauce-stained napkins. So, by popular demand, the official Tour de Q ratings.


The surreptitious BBQ ranker was in fact Fulmer, who along with Collier, joined me for the day trip to BBQ nirvana. You have no idea how happy I am to have at least two buddies willing to spend a whole day driving around central Texas looking for transcendent Texas BBQ.

Now on to the ratings as compiled and documented by Fulmer. I believe that both Collier and I agree with these ratings, except where noted. We stuck to the big three BBQ dishes: Brisket, Ribs, and Sausage. We visited Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Kreuz Market and Smitty's Market in Lockhart, and City Market (no website) in Luling. We made a couple of impromptu stops at Burton Sausage in Brenham, and Taylor Cafe in Taylor.

Note: What follows is a guest blog post by fellow BBQ enthusiast, foodie, bon vivant, raconteur, noted wordsmith, and all around super guy, Fulmer.

Tour de Q Ratings

The goal: Visit the top 5 Texas Monthly barbecue joints. Mission accomplished and we visited two more for good measure. So here’s how our esteemed panel of three ranked them.

Brisket: The true litmus test of any barbecue establishment.

  1. Snow’s — Texas Monthly got it right as this place lives up to the hype. The lean and fatty cuts all had a consistent, but not overpowering smokiness. A beautiful layer of fat that was crisp on the exterior and just moist enough on the interior so that the leaner, drier cuts were always delicious. Collier chose Mueller’s as a top pick owing to his preference for pepper and spice over smokiness on the flavor component.
  2. Smitty’s — The second to last stop on the tour and just about when we were all ready to scream, “Uncle!” from BBQ overload. Incredibly moist and a smoke ring that wowed us back into a state of reverence.
  3. Louie Mueller — Generous with the pepper and spice and virtually no portions were even remotely dry. Light smokiness.
  4. City Market — Delicious and mostly lean cuts that had a trace smokiness.
  5. Kreuz Market — A good smoke ring, but rather dry. Some pieces needed a little more time in the oven as there was some connective tissue that was difficult to pull apart (remember, served sans cutlery).

Ribs: Texture and taste rankings.

  1. City Market — The meat fell right off the bone and had a wonderful smoky flavor. Despite being the last stop on the tour we wanted more, but it was physically impossible.
  2. Taylor Café — A wild card entry that we made a seal team strike (in and out in a flash) to on the advice of a fellow traveler at Louie Mueller. Incredible flavor despite the leanness of the rib. Peppered generously, but not over done. A great find.
  3. Snow’s — Just a prod from our light plastic fork and the meat dropped to the plate. Not much flavor beyond the rib meat itself and that’s just fine.
  4. Smitty’s — A little tough, but good flavor. Not bad, but not very memorable either.
  5. Kreuz Market — Unimpressive, but still palatable.

Sausage: A bit problematic to compare head to head as they were all a little bit different in ingredients, but were for the most part prepared the same way.

  1. Kreuz Market — Talk about redemption. After a decidedly subpar brisket and a mediocre rib, the jalapeno-cheese sausages were amazing. Easy to bite through the casing and a perfect texture of moist firmness that had the up front heat wonderfully mellowed by the blanket of cheesiness on the back end. We took two packs of ten back home to our friend’s so they could share in our gastronomic joy.
  2. City Market — It’s the end of the tour and we are almost catatonic from the experience. We traverse the long late afternoon line and forget (or did we?) to procure some sausage. After finishing the brisket and rib we somehow are coveting the sausage at the table next to us. A rather demure elderly lady is going at her food with a concerted earnestness and after some good natured chatting, offers up a link for us to try. Good enough to win any competition that omits Kreuz’s. Smoky, great firm texture that still has a well balanced fat to meat ratio.
  3. Snow’s — If not for the somewhat chewy casing they could vault to silver medal status.
  4. Smitty’s — A very light smokiness and a somewhat mealy texture.
  5. Louie Mueller — The casing was inedible and the sausage filling had not enough fat to bind it and thus spilled out over the plate.

Sauce: Why bother. Sauce is for dry and/or bland brisket.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Inn at Dos Brisas

I recently had the good fortune of joining a group of Houston food bloggers on a trip to The Inn at Dos Brisas, a resort and restaurant in Washington County near Brenham. Our hosts were the owners, Doug and Jennifer Bosch.

Fresh Tomatoes

Dos Brisas ("two breezes") is distinguished by both a Mobil Five-Star rating and an admittance into the Relais & Chateaux association of luxury resorts. In addition to the accommodations ("casitas") on the property, the dining room — helmed by Chef Jason Robinson — is known for dishes created with ingredients from the property's own extensive produce gardens. The folks at Dos Brisas like to say they are not just a farm-to-table operation, they are literally a table-on-farm experience.

We were invited to a complimentary lunch on a weekday that showcased the produce grown on the farm. Except for one protein course (halibut), all of the dishes were made from fruits and vegetables from the Dos Brisas farm and garden. Wine/drink pairings were included. We also took a tour of the property and were tutored on the craft of cheesemaking (they make their own cheese too) by property manager Christopher Bates.

Below you will find a review of my experiences during our visit to Dos Brisas.

Canapes Guests Arrive Guests in the Garden Johnnie in the Garden Chard Jennifer and Johnnie

Upon arrival at Dos Brisas, the most overwhelming sensation you get is that of an attention to detail in everything around you — the grounds, the buildings, the service. The staff is imminently professional and experienced. This commitment to uncompromising detail and service is a credit to the owners who are obviously passionate about Dos Brisas. That passion comes through from the time you enter the gates of the property to the time you leave. For someone like myself who has been both an emplyee and a guest of some of the best resorts in the world, that passion and attention to detail is greatly appreciated.

After a meet-and-greet in the bar area, complete with Canapés and one of the best Bloody Marys I have ever had, we went on a tour of the grounds. Ranch manager and horticulturist Johnnie Boyd Baker provided an extensive overview of the farm and garden operations. Back in the main pavilion, we settled in for a multi-course lunch experience.

Garden Tomato Salad

The first course was a garden tomato salad with micro arugula, housemade goat's milk ricotta, and lemon essence. It was paired with a 2002 Lucien Crochet Sancerre wine. This dish proves the axiom that less is more -- the perfectly fresh flavors of the sweet tomatoes combined with the slight bitterness of the arugula and the earthiness of the cheese was inspired.

Risotto and Corn Balls

The second course was organic risotto and corn balls, sweet basil purée, and remoulade. It was paired with a champagne: Krug NM, Brut, "Grande Cuvée." Preparation was perfect on all levels, with a bit more complexity added with both the basil purée and the remoulade.

Roasted Day Boat Halibut

The third course was a roasted day boat halibut with poached rhubarb in a cucumber broth. It was paired with a specially concocted "Dos Brisas Cucumber Cocktail." The cucumber broth itself was wonderfully restrained — not overseasoned — and worked well with the salty crust of the halibut. The sweet, mellow cucumber cocktail paired perfectly with the cucumber broth.

Summer Squash Tian, Garden Ratatouille

The fourth course was a summer squash tian and garden ratatouille with a balsamic dressing and elephant garlic emulsion. It was paired with a 1990 Joseph Biffar Riesling. Until this dish, I never knew a "vegetarian" dish could have such an incredible depth and complexity of flavor. If more "vegetarian" dishes tasted like this, there would be alot more vegetarians in the world. The wine, too, matched the dish in complexity. I had never tasted a riesling of this age, and it was a revelation.

I'll make a brief aside and relate a discussion I had with Jennifer Bosch at about this time in the lunch. After I had commented on the complexity of the flavors, Jennifer mentioned a philosophy that she and Doug (as well as many of the best restaurants) aspire to. And that is within a given dining experience, the goal is to create a sense of increasing complexity and interest so that towards the end of the meal there is a sense of building intensity and climax. The lunch we had a Dos Brisas captured this idea perfectly, and was one more example of the attention to detail practiced here.

Eggplant Beignets

The dessert course was a dish of eggplant beignets, eggplant cardamom ice cream, caramel, and lavender foam. It was paired with a 2005 Kerpen Riesling. Again the execution was suberb. It was a light, refreshing end to the meal.

Cheese Expert Separating the Curds and Whey Fruit and Cheese Casita Bedroom Welcome Casita Fireplace

After lunch we got a cheesemaking tutorial (including a tasting), a tour of the world-class wine vault, and finally a visit to one of the casitas.

A stay at The Inn at Dos Brisas is not inexpensive — averaging about $600 a night. You can, of course, just come for dinner. Even with the cost in mind, I can wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Dos Brisas. The uncompromising quality of the food and the service, the attention to detail, not to mention the beautiful countryside around Brenham, make Dos Brisas a great destination for a special getaway weekend or a special event.

The Inn at Dos Brisas
10000 Champion Drive
Washington, Texas 77880

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Testing flickr to blog

Testing flickr to blog, originally uploaded by houstonfoodie.

This is a test of the flickr blog broadcast system.


NB: This was a test of the iPhone-to-Flickr-to-Blog functionality I hope to use on my upcoming European vacation. Specifically, you take a picture with your iPhone, choose to Email the photo, the subject of the email is the blog title and then the body of the email is the blog content. Pretty cool. Blog functionality looks great, just hope to get good pics with the iPhone. This picture is from a dinner at Tinto's Tapas Restaurant in Houston.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Michelada Me, Baby: The Genesis of a Throwdown

The story of how an offhand remark on Twitter resulted in a Michelada Throwdown at Anvil Bar & Refuge.

Micheladas in a Row
Not Bobby Heugel

One of the more interesting developments in the last few years is how people use social media sites like Twitter to discuss common interests and then meet IRL (in real life) to explore those interests.

A recent event organized by a loose group of Houston foodies, chefs, bartenders, and bloggers is a perfect example. The genesis of this event is a fascinating look into how social media can be used in a seemingly haphazard and impromptu way to create a snowball effect of buzz and interest. And with most social media-generated events of this type, it began with a completely offhand remark.


Offhand Twitter Remark. Snowball Effect. Meme Created.

The event is a "Michelada Throwdown" that will happen at Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston at 5pm on Sunday, May 24th. The event will feature well-known bartenders and chefs creating their own versions of that venerable Mexican adult beverage, the Michelada.

The genesis of the event occurred at 10:17pm on May 11th, 2009. A local Houston food blogger, @ruthiejsf, submitted the following offhand remark/tweet to her Twitter feed:


14 minutes later, @psandalio, the pastry chef at the acclaimed Textile Restaurant in Houston (@TextileRest), responded the way any self-respecting beer lover would when someone (even jokingly) mentions Michelob beer:


The next morning, @ruthiejsf replied back:


And with that seemingly innocuous tweet, a Twitter meme/movement was born.

Over the next few days the snowball effect took over and the Michelada convo gained traction. Other Houston food tweeps joined the conversation: @viva_victoria, @esandler, @theoshu, @treelight, @EatingOurWords, and yours truly @houston_foodie.

@ruthiejsf would eventually write a blog post Michelada Me, Baby documenting a trip to Taqueria Arandas to satisfy her Twitter-inspired craving for Micheladas.

Undoubtedly the foodie community in Houston is an eccentric and lively bunch — a fact which can almost explain this eruption of Michelada-envy on Twitter. But other factors were involved in fanning the flames of the growing Michelada-madness, as I mentioned in one of my tweets during the convo:


The New Flea Market.

For a small group of Houston food lovers, Micheladas and the New Flea Market hold a special place in the pantheon of Houston food adventures. And it all started with a taco truck crawl some months before.

Taco Truck Crawl. New Flea Market. The Dead-Enders.

The New Flea Market on Long Point Road in Houston is a wild-and-wooly bastion of Hispanic American-inspired capitalism. Housed in a gigantic barn-like structure in an even more gigantic parking lot, the New Flea Market specializes in selling, among other things, lots of jewelry sold by Asian Americans to Hispanic Americans, garish T-shirts, belt buckles, cowboy boots, DVDs and music CDs, haircuts, tires, and the occasional fake ID. Along the back wall of the building is a string of Mexican restaurants and churro stands which seem to be a favorite target of the city health department.

And that is just inside the Flea Market. Outside in the parking lot is an even more chaotic atmosphere where homemade goodies and products of questionable provenance (CDs and DVDs primarily) are hawked with the fervor of a Middle-Eastern bazaar.

Back in February, the Houston Chowhounds, a group of food lovers dedicated to exploring the culinary delights of Houston, organized a crawl of several prized taco trucks. The final stop was the well-known El Norteño taco truck which is actually a big blue bus and is known for pollos asados — roast chicken — rather than tacos. It also happens to be parked in the New Flea Market parking lot.

A wonderful time was had by all and everyone left stuffed to the gills with tacos and roast chicken. However, as often happens with a Chowhounds event, there will always be a small group who stay long past when the others have left. I affectionately refer to this rotating group of members as the dead-enders (I'm usually one of them). We refuse to go home. We refuse to give up. There is always one more dish to eat, one more restaurant to visit, one more drink to swill. "I dare you to eat one more taco" is a typical challenge. It is a hilarious, dizzying culture of culinary one-upsmanship. And for those in the know, it is indeed only after the official event is over and only the dead-enders are left that the real fun begins.

Only a few hardcore HouCHies left

For this event the dead-enders were myself, @viva_victoria, @esandler, @collierchin, and @jodycakes. After a final round of tacos, chicken, churros, and raspas, we ventured inside the Flea Market for the final adventure — authentic Micheladas at one of the restaurants lining the back wall of the building. It was a Saturday so the places were packed (everyone Mexican American) and soccer games were blaring from overhead flatscreens. All of the customers were sipping Micheladas.

New Flea Market + Somebody's Cool Car Who figures an immigrant's going to have a pony? New Flea Market Entertainment Churro Acquisition Micheladas in a Row Michelada @ El Oceano in New Flea Market

We picked a place called El Oceano that had Michelada glasses lined up on the bar. We ordered a round. The waitress and owner were very accommodating. They even sent over a batch of complimentary seafood tostadas which we ate heartily, health department reports be damned.

As for the Micheladas (which we can only assume to be completely authentic considering the surroundings), they were, let's just say, memorable. The flavor of the Tabasco, Clamato, and/or Worcestershire sauce was intense and completely overwhelmed the beer. Some in our group sipped tentatively, others gulped it down. Either way, we were all hooked. Micheladas were in our future.

As we left the New Flea Market for good, we got an order of churros to go.

Double Dog Dare. Twitter Harassment. Challenge Issued.

So back to the current Michelada mania on Twitter. The New Flea Market Michelada veterans ratcheted up the pressure like any true Chowhound would. @esandler fired the first volley. Invoking the wildly popular new bar Anvil, he wondered if the Anvil mixologists could come up with an artisanal version of the Michelada. Anvil is known for making old-style, Prohibition-era cocktails, made from scratch and with an obsessive attention to detail and craft.


@psandalio, perhaps smelling blood (or at least Worcestershire sauce), immediately dared @esandler to order a Michelada at Anvil.


Later that day, @viva_victoria cheekily pushed the action by calling for a Twitter campaign to get @bobby_heugel, one of the owners of Anvil, to come up with his own version of the Michelada. A possible visit to the Flea Market was indicated.


After two days of intense lobbying and convo, @bobby_heugel enthusiastically agreed.


But that wasn't the end of it. In true Houston foodie and Chowhound fashion, @bobby_heugel threw down the gauntlet to @psandalio to come up with his own version of the Michelada and bring it to Anvil for a side-by-side comparison.


It's on! @psandalio agreed to the throwdown.


In the following days, as the snowball kept rolling and the buzz kept building, several other notable Houston chefs/bartenders signed on to bring their own version of the Michelada.

And of course the Chowhounds, led by @esandler and not content with just one stop on a Michelada Sunday tour, organized an all day Michelada crawl to several of Houston's best known Michelada sources — Connie's Seafood, Teotihuacan, and Taqueria Arandas. But the real question is, where will we go after Anvil?

Below is the threaded Twitter discussion documenting the genesis of Michelada Throwdown. Scroll to the bottom to see the earliest tweets. It is by no means comprehensive and may have left out a few participants, but it is a good timeline for reviewing the overall discussion. Of course it is still ongoing...