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 maĆ®tre 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.