Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CFS Challenge: Hickory Hollow vs. Ouisie's Table

This chicken-fried steak (CFS) challenge features two of Houston's traditional CFS heavyweights: Ouisie's Table and Hickory Hollow. Although the chicken-fried steaks at these two restaurants are consistently rated as the best in Houston, both the restaurants as well as their corresponding steaks are worlds apart.

Hickory Hollow CFS
Hickory Hollow

Hickory Hollow

Hickory Hollow has been serving CFS and other comfort foods in gigantic portions at reasonable prices since 1977. Located in a time-worn brick-sheathed building on Heights Boulevard (there are two other locations) just north of a rapidly gentrifying stretch of Washington Avenue, it caters primarily to a mixed blue-and-white collar crowd. On a recent weekday lunch, the restaurant was packed with a mix of downtown office workers, hipsters from the adjacent Washington corridor, elderly patrons who appeared to be longtime regulars (judging from the banter at the counter), and a table full of police officers.


This is a counter-service restaurant: get in line and peruse the wall-mounted menu. Step-up to the counter, place your oder, pay, and then you get one of those buzzer things to take with you to your table. You are provided with a tray, and you pass through a salad bar and self-serve drink area. It's a great communal atmosphere, with small four and two-top table intermixed with communal and picnic tables. When the buzzer goes off, you trek back to the counter to pick up the order yourself.

The CFS comes in a whopping four sizes: from the "Small Cowgirl" (billed as "perfect for the ladies"), the "Small Plowman" ("perfect for lunch"), the "Medium Hired Hand" ("Texas size"), and the "Large Rancher" ("the Saddle Blanket"). Prices are very reasonable, ranging from about eight dollars to thirteen dollars. A salad is included, and a choice of fries or a baked potato. I ordered the Large Rancher with fries ($11.49).

Hickory Hollow CFS
Hickory Hollow CFS

The breakdown:

Meat. The steak itself was fresh, nicely tenderized (fork tender), with a good thickness and perfectly cooked. Regrettably, the meat itself was completely devoid of seasoning.

Crust. The crust was fried to a gorgeous golden-brown color - this is what a CFS is supposed to look like. The crust was wonderfully crispy and although it pulled apart from the meat, the overall technical execution of the steak was excellent. Unfortunately I found the crust, like the meat, to be devoid of any flavor or seasoning.

Gravy. It's possible for a bland CFS can be rescued by an otherworldly gravy, but that wasn't the case here. Supposedly a cream gravy, this gravy had an unusual yellowish tint and a gummy texture. It reminded me of the turkey gravy you get at Thanksgiving. Strangely, it is identified on the menu as "Texas River Bottom Gravy."

Value. Excellent. The mammoth "Large Rancher" CFS is a steal at $11.49 (with fries) or $13.49 (with baked potato).

Extras. I did not notice (and was not offered) any standard CFS extras like rolls or cornbread.

Overall grade: B- . That such a beautiful looking CFS could taste so bland is depressing. But if you can spice it up yourself with some salt and pepper, ketchup and tabasco, this huge portion at the right price is worth the trip.

Ouisie's Table

Ouisie's Table is a meandering maze of a restaurant off San Felipe in the decidedly upscale Afton Oaks/River Oaks neighborhood. The crowd is upscale too, as is the menu - billed as upscale southern food with eclectic tendencies. Still, sitting in the main dining area with other diners who, on another night, might be at Tony's or Del Frisco's, you can't help but feel at home. An army of servers and staff flitter about the room, graciously taking orders and fussing over the clientele.

The chicken-fried steak here is a centerpiece of a large menu of kicked-up southern comfort dishes like shrimp and grits and fried oysters. Ouisie's serves food that people like to eat - a restaurant strategy that isn't as obvious as you might think. And customers reward owner Elouise Adams Jones with an often full dining room.

Not unexpectedly, wine is big here. When we sat down, the waiter rattled off any number of expensive bottles and wines by-the-glass. I can't bring myself to drink wine with CFS, so I opted for a good ol' Shiner Bock (which turned out to be a great pairing). The CFS is billed as "The Ouisie’s Original Chicken Fried Steak with The Works" at a relatively eye-popping $23 for dinner ($17 for lunch). The "works" being mashed potatoes, gravy, black eyed peas, mustard greens, and corn pudding.

Ouisie's Table CFS
Ouisie's Table CFS

The breakdown:

Meat. The steak itself was pounded thin, very tender, with excellent moisture and good flavor. This is a high quality piece of meat.

Crust. Extremely crisp and crunchy, with an undulating golden-brown color, the steak appeared to be pan-fried (that may explain why the steak was slightly greasy). There was minor separation of crust and meat. Excellent flavor and seasoning.

Gravy. This is a peppery cream gravy in the classic Southern tradition. The flavor was outstanding, but the consistency was somewhat watery - I prefer my gravy a little thicker.

Value. Average. The large CFS and plentiful sides certainly justify the $23 price tag, but it's still a bit steep for a traditionally blue-collar dish.

Extras. Before the CFS came out, a plate of tiny biscuits and cornbread was provided for noshing. Tasty but not really impactful on the CFS experience. I single-serving bottle of Tabasco sauce was provided with the CFS - a nice touch. The mashed potatoes that came with the CFS were some of the best I've had in Houston.

Overall grade: B+. Great flavor and execution, along with some delicious sides, make up for the hefty price tag.

All things considered, Ouisie's Table wins the matchup with Hickory Hollow. Great flavor and abundant sides win out over the huge portions and reasonable prices.

This blog entry was originally posted 1 December 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dining Tips to Live By

The observance of table manners is a tricky thing. I am by no means a stickler for table manners - I often catch myself with elbows on the table or talking with my mouth full.

Dining Room
Finger Lick'n Approved

I've had the occasion to learn some of the finer points of dining etiquette, which makes for some interesting people-watching. As a guest at one of Houston's most august country clubs, I've watched a Fortune 500 CEO push peas on to his fork with his fingers. As a volunteer at a soup kitchen, I've watched elderly patrons sip (never slurp) soup from a spoon with a technique worthy of the Queen of England.

So after decades of eating in restaurants, and especially the last few years eating in a lot of restaurants, I often get asked about how to deal with certain dining situations. Here are a few tips I've collected over the years, and that I find myself using on a regular basis.


1. Don't sniff the cork.
When evaluating a bottle of wine in a nice restaurant, never pick up the cork and smell it. I can tell you now what it smells like: cork. You can squeeze the cork and look at it to make sure it's in good shape. Then smell and taste the wine. For ladies on a date with Mr. Smooth Operator, if he picks up the cork and smells it, you know he's just winging it.

2. Never offer to do the math on a group check.
If you are in a big group and you can't split the check, somebody's going to have to figure what everyone owes and collect it. This is a good time to go to the bathroom. If you get stuck doing it, no one will believe they owe what you tell them they owe. "How much? But I only had one glass of wine!" You will be despised as you take their money, and in the end you will probably end up paying any shortfall yourself just to get it over with. If I'm with a group of friends and I've organized the event, I will occasionally just hand a credit card to the server and pay for it myself, then collect later.

3. If you have a reservation at a restaurant, don't get upset if your table isn't ready when you arrive on time.
It happens. Just sidle up to the bar and have a drink while you wait. If the wait is 30+ minutes after your reservation time, let the host know. If the restaurant is on the ball, they should offer to comp your drinks. On the other hand, if you are seated immediately and the host tells you that you have to be finished by a certain time so the table can be turned, you should say "No, thanks" and get up and leave. There are better ways for a restaurant to handle this. For instance, if a table is lingering (unreasonably) in a busy restaurant, the host should politely explain that other guests are waiting for tables and suggest that you adjourn to the bar with their coffee/wine/digestif.

4. Don't drink your dining companion's water.
Even after decades of eating in nice restaurants, occasionally I'll forget how the place setting works, especially on large 10- or 12-person tables where you're sitting all squashed together and the table is a sea of glasses and utensils. The trick to remembering is the 4 and 5 letter word rule. Fork and dish (4 letters) on the left (4 letters), knife and glass (5 letters) on the right (5 letters).

5. Food goes out on the same utensil it went in on.
It's always a conundrum: you've bit off a piece of steak that's too gristly to chew, or you've got a bad mussel. What to do with it? If you're in a casual atmosphere, no problem: just grab a paper napkin, raise it to your mouth and spit out the offending material. In formal restaurants, it's a bit more complicated. Etiquette suggests that you cup one hand over your mouth, raise your fork and spit the food out on to it, then discreetly lower the masticated food to the side of your plate. I've got about a 50 percent success rate with this one. Half the time the food rolls off the fork and plops into the middle of my dish. If a society-type lady is at the table and gives me a funny look, I just respond with a saucy wink.

6. In a restaurant, say "Please" and "Thank you" to your servers.
Waiters have endless stories about obnoxious guests, so we as diners can balance that out one thank-you at a time. I always say thank you to the server when they bring or remove my plate. Busboys in particular seem absolutely shocked and appreciative when you thank them for refilling a water glass. Of course, at those restaurants where they seem to refill your glass after every sip, you may want to pace yourself.

This blog entry was originally posted 24 November 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Almost Famous

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the lack of national recognition for Houston's thriving food scene.

Pupuseria Emanuel
Pupuseria Emanuel
But God forbid, the day comes when selling yourself is as important as the music you make.   - Russell Hammond

It's a legitimate argument - Houston and Houston's restaurants are mostly overlooked in the ubiquitous Top Ten Restaurant/Chef/City Lists that are like content crack for editors of national food websites and blogs.

The current skirmish springs from Houston Chef Bryan Caswell's appearance on the Food Network's high-profile cooking competition: The Next Iron Chef. Unlike a lot of reality cooking competitions that feature heavily tattooed and chain-smoking contestants who spend half the show sitting around an impossibly luxurious villa complaining about each other's fashion styles and grooming habits, The Next Iron Chef is actually known for testing the contestant's cooking chops.


Caswell was a perfect fit for the show, and for representing "H-Town." There are few chefs who are as hard working, classically trained, and firmly rooted as a native Texan. And if anyone can spread the gospel of Texas/Houston/Gulf Coast, it's the media-savvy Caswell. After a strong run though the show in which he gained accolades from the judges and grudging respect from his (mostly East Coast) competitors, it was a buffet of Gulf Coast cuisine that eventually did him in.

It was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moment - Caswell had to cook his native Gulf Coast cuisine (the theme of the challenge was "inspiration"), but putting an uber-regional dish like barbecue crab in front of a British food blogger (one of the judges) will always be a tough sell. And indeed, despite what looked like great dishes, Caswell was voted off The Next Iron Chef island.

Several days before the elimination show aired, Caswell penned a passionate defense of the Houston food scene on CNN's Eatocracy blog. He again pointed out that the city is regularly overlooked by the national food media, as exemplified by the fact that, the national network of food blogs, recently launched a blog in Austin rather than Houston.

He's right: the idea that the Austin food scene - as good as it is - deserves more coverage than Houston is preposterous. As someone who has spent a lot of time in both places, Austin simply doesn't have the breadth and depth of food offerings that Houston does. I agreed with Caswell's implication that's decision was driven more by style than substance, as did the echo-chamber of Houston's food bloggers and Twitterati (for what that's worth).

Ultimately, though, I kept thinking to myself, "Who cares?" Yes, Houston's restaurateurs and chefs must consider professional reputations and economic factors that could benefit greatly from more national exposure. But would that be good for Houstonians and the Houston food scene? Would Houston's chefs be better off showboating for a national audience like so many other regional chefs have done? As much as I'd like to see Houston chefs like Bryan Caswell, Monica Pope, or Chris Shepherd get their own TV shows, I'd much prefer them in their own kitchens cooking for fellow Houstonians. And somehow, I get the feeling, that's what they'd prefer to do too.

And even if there was a concerted effort to raise the national profile of the Houston food scene, how could you "brand" the bubbling cauldron of cuisines, dishes and ethnicities that make up the culinary landscape of Houston? ("Creole" and "New Creole" are terms that are sometimes used). The sheer size and diversity of Houston food scene is overwhelming even for those of us who spend a great deal of time trying to make sense of it all. On a recent speaking gig in Houston, TV food personality Anthony Bourdain admitted to being "intimidated" by Houston.

Chalk it up to fear of the unknown, I guess. On a recent jaunt down Telephone Road in southeast Houston, amidst an endless parade of shady lounges ("best mixed drinks" "set-ups"), taco trucks and car parts stores, I notice a ramshackle former drive-thru burger joint that had been transformed into "Pupuseria Emanuel." I checked the usual websites for information: Yelp, B4-U-Eat, Google. Nothing. I observed for a while. A steady stream of take-out traffic. I decided to give it a try.

Peering through the takeout window, I watched as two (presumably Salvadoran) women hurried back and forth in the small kitchen, preparing what seemed to be an endless number of takeout orders. I scanned the menu - I'm not an expert in Salvadoran food - which listed several different kinds of pupusas - basically thick corn tortillas stuffed with various ingredients. I settled on pupusas de pipián, a pupusa stuffed with a sauce/mole made from the seeds of the calabaza (winter squash). After waiting for what seemed like an eternity as my pupusas were made to order, the result was one of the most delicious, seasonal and inexpensive dishes I've had in Houston.

I couldn't imagine there being a better pupusa anywhere this side of El Salvador - not in Austin, Los Angeles or New York. But then I thought, how in the world can the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau possibly market Pupuseria Emanuel? The food is unique and great, but the menu is impenetrable for most people and the location is one of the "least scenic" (to be charitable) parts of Houston. And even if they did, do we really want Guy Fieri tooling up and down Telephone Road in his cherry red convertible with a camera crew in tow?

Recently, I re-watched the classic coming-of-age movie Almost Famous. It's about an obscure yet talented rock band with its coterie of fans, writers, and groupies who travel around the country playing gigs for the love of the music. Then the national media start to take notice, and the inevitable existential crisis occurs: do they stay small and true to their roots, or do they in some way "sell out" for bigger national exposure? (watch the movie to find out what they decide). I thought there were some interesting parallels between the talented musicians and dedicated hangers-on of the movie, and the free-wheeling, "almost famous" buzz of the Houston food scene.

Houston, it's all happening.

This blog entry was originally posted 17 November 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Return of Chicken Fried Steak

A funny thing happens when you Google "sysco chicken fried steak." You're directed to a page on the website of Sysco Corporation, the foodservice giant. It is a catalog entry for the "Country Fried Steaks" that Sysco sells to restaurants.

Chicken Fried Steak
Chicken Fried Steak at Dot Coffee Shop

In the sugary promotional copy, these chicken fried steaks "have a natural shape" and a "made-from-scratch appeal." They're "individually quick-frozen" and "guaranteed to be preserved to perfection." It's enough to make any true Texan weep.

I'm not a Sysco hater. Some people profess to never set foot in a restaurant if they see a Sysco delivery truck outside. In reality, it's a rare restaurant that does not procure something from Sysco, even if it is just something non-food related like to-go boxes. Sysco provides a valuable service to restaurants in a professional manner. But the country fried steak thing bothered me.


I'd been tooling around Houston for a couple of weeks, checking out restaurants known for chicken fried steaks (CFS). Like everything else, some were good and some were bad. But on at least two occasions, I could have sworn I had eaten the exact same CFS at a different restaurant. That prompted my Googling. Sad to say, but at least one of these places - somewhat of a Houston institution - had been recommended for having great chicken fried steak (I can't get them to admit to using Sysco CFS, so they'll remain nameless for now). I came to realize that the quality of chicken fried steak in Houston just wasn't as good as it used to be.

I grew up in Beaumont, Texas. If you went to public school in Texas in the seventies and eighties like me, you probably remember looking forward to "chicken fried steak" day, or sometimes it was called "veal cutlet" day. These breaded steaks were certainly prefab, but they were unusually delicious, and the trick was to take one of the big fluffy rolls you got with lunch and make a CFS sandwich with them. Good eats.

Then in the early eighties, a restaurant called The Black Eyed Pea opened in an old house on Seventh Street in Beaumont. This is the same Black Eyed Pea chain that exists today, before it was corporatized, sold, bought, resold, bankrupted and its carcass picked clean by corporate raiders. Back then, the Black Eyed Pea made one helluva chicken fried steak (some claim it still does - it's on my to-do list). So big it covered the plate it was delivered on, it had a crispy, seasoned, golden-brown coating fused to a well-tenderized slab of top round steak. Peppery cream gravy on the side (always). Creamy mashed potatoes. Also, a basket of freshly-baked pull-apart rolls and sweet, crumbly cornbread. A ginormous glass of iced tea rounded out the experience.

Dot Coffee Shop
Dot Coffee Shop

Can you still get a classic, made-from-scratch chicken fried steak in Houston? Yes, but it takes some research (tough job, but somebody's gotta do it). I'll spend the next few months traveling around greater Houston, and reporting on my findings. Surprisingly, a lot of the places people swear by for chicken fried steak aren't very good in my opinion. Some are just bad, some try to get fancy with presentation and ingredients, and some do indeed use the dreaded Sysco chicken fried steak.

I start by checking online menus of diners and comfort food restaurants in Houston. I stumbled across Dot Coffee Shop, a Houston institution, and a place I had never been. Diner food is hit-and-miss everywhere, but I had always heard good things about Dot. Dot is owned by the Pappas family of restaurants. In fact the Pappas family empire started with a Dot Coffee Shop downtown in 1967. The Dot on the Gulf Freeway is still going strong. On a recent Saturday morning, I waited about 20 minutes for a table.

Chicken Fried Steak
Chicken Fried Steak at Dot Coffee Shop

The CFS here is nicely sized, with a crisp, crunchy coating that adheres nicely to the well-tenderized steak. The coating is a golden brown, with light and dark patches (you don't want it too uniform), and a few splotches where the meat shows through the coating (again, the sign of a made-from-scratch CFS). Meat and coating are well-seasoned. It is fork-tender. In a slight deviation from protocol, the CFS is served with French fries instead of mashed potatoes, but that's fine by me.

Rolls and cornbread
Rolls and Cornbread at Dot Coffee Shop

The CFS extras are excellent. The cream gravy is served on the side, with the proper consistency and peppery flavor. Curiously, there seems to be an undercurrent of onion powder in the gravy, not unpleasant and not unusual, as traditional cream gravy is often spiced up with the flavor of onions, garlic, or Tabasco. When it comes to CFS and gravy, I'm a spooner, not a dunker. I like to spoon some of the gravy on a section of the CFS, then cut off those pieces and eat them. This keeps the coating crispy. Some people like to cut off a piece of CFS and dunk it on the gravy - that works too. I also like ketchup with my CFS; mixing it up with the gravy and some Tabasco is delicious.

Finally, the CFS at Dot Coffee Shop is served with excellent pull-apart rolls and cornbread. The roll is hot, fluffy, sweet and buttery; the cornbread is moist and crumbly, but not too sweet and not too bitter. A big glass of iced tea and some fantastic people watching round out the classic Texas chicken fried steak experience at Dot Coffee Shop.

This blog entry was originally posted 17 November 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dude, where's my chi? Hot pot for mind and body

Traditional Chinese medicine is a mind-numbingly complex, and yet artfully simple, way of a looking at the physical and spiritual health of a human being. Very generally, it is based on the philosophical belief that the universe is saturated with constantly-flowing energy (called chi), and that our bodies are a universe unto themselves, with our own chi ("life force" or "vitality").

Hot Pot ingredients
Hot Pot ingredients

We are healthy when our chi — energy — is in balance. Sickness is caused when our energy is out of balance, and traditional Chinese medicine prescribes various treatments to nudge our chi back in the right direction. Acupuncture, meditation, herbal remedies and food therapies are a few examples.

I think it's fair to say that Americans, in general, don't subscribe to the idea of chi. And if we did, it would be wildly out of balance, especially as it relates to food and nutrition. When we get sick, an obvious response would be to consume natural foods like fruits and vegetables (indeed, this is a tenet of traditional Chinese medicine) to restore balance and health. But in America, more often than not, we reach for a Z-Pak instead of an apple. Eating in general has become a competition to see how much food, regardless of its nutrition or restorative powers, we can shovel into our mouths. Regrettably, this competition is measured in rising rates of obesity and diabetes.


So be it. I'm not here to lecture you about how or what you should eat. There's enough lecturing going on in the media about how fat and lazy Americans have become. But I will make a pitch for adding some semblance of balance to our lives, especially when it comes to eating. One way to do that is to seek out those dishes which are by equal measures delicious, filling, nourishing and restorative for both mind and body. A perfect example of this type of dish is known as Chinese hot pot (huo guo). Also referred to as Chinese fondue, steamboat, Mongolian hot pot, or shabu-shabu (Japanese), "hot pot" is both a dish and an eating experience that encourages balance in how and what we eat.

First and foremost — energy, chi and balance aside — hot pot is a delicious and filling meal. But it takes some effort and knowledge to get the most out of it. I know what you're thinking: Americans don't like food that comes with a user manual. Furthermore, we don't like to go to a restaurant, spend our hard-earned money, and then have to cook the food ourselves. Fair enough. But with just a few tips and lessons, and a few trips to a hot pot restaurant, you'll come to understand why hot pot is an ingrained culinary tradition in many parts of the world, and why it is a healthy remedy to a diet of fast food in enormous portions.

Here's how hot pot works. You sit at a table which includes a heating element in the middle. In older restaurants, the heat source is an actual flame, often a propane burner. In the newer hot pot restaurants, an induction burner is used, where the heating element is cool to the touch but heats the pot through an electromagnetic current. In both cases, you have a control knob, like any stove top, to increase or decrease the level of heat.

Vegetables are added to broth
Vegetables are added to broth

Hot pot is made up of several basic elements: cooking broth, proteins (meat, seafood), noodles/tofu/mushrooms, vegetables, and dipping sauces. Your server will first ask you how spicy you want the broth to be. At its most basic, it could be "spicy" or "not spicy." The actual hot pot itself is partitioned into two separate containers, so it is normal to get one spicy and one not spicy. The broth-filled hot pot is then brought to the table and heated to a boil. The other (raw) ingredients are brought out, and everyone at the table chooses what ingredients they want to cook.

A typical self-cooking process might go like this: add some vegetables (baby bok choy, lettuce) and tofu or mushrooms to the broth to allow them to cook. Ladle some of the broth into your individual soup bowl. Use the strainer ladle to cook the cellophane noodles in the broth, then add that to your bowl. Now use the tongs to pick up a piece of the thinly-sliced meat and dredge it in the boiling broth. It cooks fast! For beef, cooking time may be only 5-10 seconds. Add the cooked meat to your bowl. Now fish out the cooked vegetables, tofu and mushrooms, and add those ingredients. Add a few drops of a dipping sauce and mix it in. Use chopsticks to eat the meat and vegetables, then drink the broth from your bowl.

Meat about to be cooked in broth
Meat about to be cooked in broth

The process and experience of hot pot is healthy on many different levels. First, the ingredients are supremely fresh and, for the most part, unprocessed. The broth itself is a fragrant, pungent concoction chock-full of Chinese herbs that are both delicious and associated with medicinal and restorative qualities: scallions, whole cloves of garlic, ginger, ginseng, wolfberry, red dates, black cardamom, fox nut, Sichuan peppercorns, to name a few. Also, the fact that you cook your own food in small quantities forces you to slow down and eat at a leisurely pace - there's no chance to shovel enormous portions of food into your mouth.

But there is also a spiritual, or more specifically social, aspect to hot pot. Traditionally you will share hot pot with a group of friends and/or family. The cooking procedure engenders lengthy meals, and thus time spent together. All kinds of conversation comes up as you slowly eat and drink; negotiations, queries, and goodwill offerings are part of the process: "Is that my bok choy?" "No, I put it in there a couple minutes ago, but you have it, I'll cook some more." The give-and-take, the cooperative cooking, the leisurely pace, and the inevitable laughing and conversation are undoubtedly restorative and good for our chi, such as it is, in both mind and body.

New hot pot restaurants:
Mongolian Hot Pot
Hot Pot City

Local Chinese restaurants with hot pot on the menu:
Sinh Sinh
Tan Tan

Other international hot pots:
Thai Tom Yum Hot Pot - Thai Spice Asian Bistro (Bellaire & Eldridge)
Shabu House (Japanese)

This blog entry was originally posted 27 October 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Belgian cuisine doesn't have to be mussels bound

To the casual observer of lesser-known international cuisines, Belgian food might appear to consist of beer, "french" fries, chocolate, and more beer. Actually you wouldn't be that far off.

Maredsous 8 beer
Maredsous 8 beer at Jeannine's Bistro

Belgian beer is consistently heralded as some of the best in the world, and the artistry of Belgian chocolate makes the confections of neighboring chocolate-mad countries like France and Switzerland seem positively pedestrian. And then there's the food. True, there's perhaps no greater outrage than the French hijacking of the name of deep-fried potatoes, a dish inarguably invented in Belgium and still one of the foods most associated with the country. But culinary kidnapping aside, frites, french fries, Belgian fries, freedom fries, or just plain fries are one of Belgium's most notable food exports.

In Houston, Belgian cuisine has enjoyed a storied history, beginning in 1999 when the legendary Cafe Montrose opened in the neighborhood of the same name. The fries made there were consistently ranked as the best in Houston, and were paired with steamed mussels in the restaurant's (and Belgium's) signature dish, moules frites. Cafe Montrose closed in 2008, but two of the original owners, the brother-sister team of Andrew Klarman and Jeannine Pettas, opened another Belgian restaurant in Montrose called Jeannine's Bistro in 2009.


Jeannine's menu is similar if not identical to the Cafe Montrose menu - a slew of mussels dishes with salads, omelettes and meat dishes also available. And with Klarman in the kitchen, the cooking is the virtually the same as at Cafe Montrose and consistently well-executed. If you've never been to Jeannine's or had Belgian food before, by all means, get the moules frites. Klarman uses Mediterranean mussels farmed in Puget Sound in Washington state - fresh, plump, sweet and perfect for soaking up the savory, rich broths in which they're cooked.

Moules marinnieres is the traditional choice - a big, steaming pot of mussels in an addictive broth of butter, white wine, onions and celery. Once you've plucked the last mussel out of the pot, use the spongy bread to sop up the remaining broth. And of course a flute of hot, crispy frites is provided with a ramekin of traditional Belgian house-made mayonnaise for dipping.

"We constantly strive to source the best potatoes for our fries," says Klarman. "Too much sugar in the potato and the fries will burn. Right now we are using a Kennebec potato that's working well for us." And in several lunch visits, I was able to confirm this. The fries are perfectly sized, golden and crispy on the outside, steamy and molten on the inside. And although the fries are great with the mussels, I've also had the opportunity to try several other Belgian dishes on Jeannine's menu. And I've come to the conclusion that although moules may be the best known Belgian dish, there are many others that can be described as the essence of comfort food.

Carbonnade Flamande
Carbonnade Flamande

A classic Belgian meat dish is Carbonnades Flamandes (Flemish stew). I've always thought of Belgian food as a user-friendly version of French cuisine (unfussy, unpretentious, big portions), and this dish is a good example. Similar to beef bourguignon but made with beer instead of wine, this dish is simple, flavorful, and filling. Big chunks of beef are stewed in a subtly-sweet sauce that includes beer, carrots, onions and brown sugar. At Jeannine's, you can get this dish with fried, mashed, or boiled potatoes. Again, I usually go with the fries. After I finish off the beef chunks, there's usually a good amount of sauce left on the plate, and if you accidentally-on-purpose mix the remaining fries with the sauce, you've got a do-it-yourself version of poutine.

Belgian beers on tap
Belgian beers on tap at Jeannine's Bistro

And then there are the beers. Mostly known for being dark, sweet, satisfying, and steeped in tradition, Belgian beer is the perfect complement to the country's food. The tradition of Belgian beer is forever tied to Trappist monasteries (a Roman Catholic religious order) in which monks help to produce the beer and all profits support the monastery and its philanthropic programs. One of the most famous Trappist beers is Westmalle, which Jeannine's sells by the bottle in dubbel (double) and tripel (triple) varieties (the naming convention loosely referring to the strength of the beer). I usually go for the Belgian beers on tap at Jeannine's, my current favorite being a Maredsous 8. Maredsous is the name of a Belgian monastery that licenses its name to Duvel, one of the biggest breweries in Belgium. The "8" refers to the alcohol by volume (ABV) of the beer - at 8 percent it's considered a dubbel.

So after consuming copious amounts of delicious sauces, meats, mussels, and frites, and all of it washed down with rich, highly-alcoholic beer, you will naturally want to partake of Belgian chocolate. Jeannine's offers an exceptional chocolate mousse, as well as a dish of profiteroles drenched in Callebaut chocolate. And in addition to Belgian restaurant desserts, Houston is fortunate to have one of the best retailers of Belgian chocolates in Texas - Chocolat du Monde in Rice Village. Owner David Heiland carries exclusive Belgian chocolates such as Neuhaus and Leonidas. These chocolate pieces, known by the Belgian term praliné (not to be confused with the candy associated with New Orleans), are traditionally a chocolate shell filled with a paste of nuts or cream. Now if we can just get Belgium to make a chocolate praliné filled with Trappist monk beer.

Jeannine's Bistro
106 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77006
(713) 874-0220

Chocolat du Monde
5302 Morningside Dr.
Houston, TX 77005
(713) 520-5600

This blog entry was originally posted 12 October 2010 on the website.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fried Shrimp with a Side of Texas History

The substance seeps from every crack and crevice of the ground that surrounds the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. The air around here - humid, often filled with mosquitoes and the sound of ship horns - is permeated by it. It's one of the biggest industries on this patch of land and swampy bayou in far east Houston.

Fried Seafood Platter
Fries Seafood Platter at the Monument Inn Restaurant

And I'm not even talking about petroleum.

I'm talking about history.

The Lynchburg Ferry has been running almost continuously across Buffalo Bayou (now, the Houston Ship Channel) since 1822. The tiny dozen-car ferries scurry back-and-forth across the channel, dodging and weaving among colossal oil tankers and container ships - every one of which must pass through this narrow strait to get to the refineries and bulk cargo terminals farther up the channel. Think of it as Houston's own Bosporous Strait, but instead of connecting Europe and Asia it connects Baytown (technically Lynchburg) and La Porte. And although the two channels can't compare in the sheer sweep of history, they are, at least to Texans, easily matched in historical significance.

Lynchburg Ferry
The Lynchburg Ferry prepares to take on tanker traffic

The southern terminus of the ferry is a plot of land best known as staging area for refugees of the "Runaway Scrape" of 1836 - Texian colonists and settlers fleeing north from the advancing Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Some 5000 refugees camped and waited for passage across the channel on a small flatboat powered by hand-pulled rope. Reinforcements for General Sam Houston's gathering army came back in the other direction.

Legend has it that Nathaniel Lynch, the operator of the ferry, raised the crossing price when overwhelmed by the refugees and soldiers, only to lower it again when ad interim President of the Republic of Texas, David G. Burnet, threatened to commandeer the ferry for government service.

On this same plot of land (4406 Battleground Road) today stands the Monument Inn, a restaurant with its own long and storied history. The tradition of a family-style seafood restaurant in this part of Houston started in 1918 when local resident Jack Sanders and wife Bertha opened the San Jacinto Inn on the north side of the ferry landing. The plentiful catch of the nearby bays and bayous established a tradition that lives on today: all-you-can-eat seafood. The original inn burned down in 1919 and relocated to the south side of the ferry - on land that is now adjacent to the Battleship Texas historical site. Throughout the 1920s, the price of all-you-can-eat seafood was $1, rising to $2 in the 1930s. Another fire in 1927 leveled that building, and a new two-story structure opened and served the area until it closed in 1987. Although primarily known for seafood - especially shrimp - the San Jacinto Inn was also known for fried chicken and biscuits whose recipe is still used today.

The San Jacinto Inn
The San Jacinto Inn

In 1974, a new seafood restaurant called the Monument Inn (named, obviously, for the nearby San Jacinto Monument) opened further south down Battleground Road. It was part of a local chain of seafood restaurants owned by restaurateur Richard Tannenbaum that included Atchafalaya River Cafe and at least one other Monument Inn location in the Galleria area. In July of 1990, one of Tannenbaum's longtime employees, Ann Laws, along with her husband Bob, bought the Monument Inn at 2710 Battleground Road from Tannenbaum for almost $1 million. The restaurant did its normally good business until New Year's Eve 1990 when the Laws received a late night phone call from an employee that the restaurant was on fire. The fire, accidentally started by a busboy, burned the restaurant to the ground. The Laws had owned it all of six months.

The Laws were determined to rebuild until they realized their insurance only covered $1 million in damages. To rebuild would cost at least $1.5 million. So they turned to Tannenbaum who owned an old restaurant property back up north on Battleground Road that was previously called the Lynchburg Crossing Restaurant. On January 20th, 1991, they leased the building with an option to buy in 5 years (they did eventually buy it and own the property today). After alot of work and remodeling, the new Monument Inn reopened on March 18th. Although they were still paying off the loan on the old site, the new restaurant was a financial success. The Laws had to admit that the new location was a big improvement - the views of the ship channel, ferry and endless parade of ships added to the unique atmosphere of the Monument Inn.

Monument Inn Restaurant
The Monument Inn Restaurant

Twenty years later, it's this same building, on this same historical ground, that still stands and serves customers seven days a week. "We're still busy and still going strong," says owner Bob Laws, although he notes the recession has had an effect on business and a tenuous supply of oysters is currently hampering their availability at the restaurant.

The most recent challenge was Hurricane Ike, which damaged the lower part of the building. According to Laws, "The day before Ike, I handed a check to my contractor and told him to be here the day after the storm. The upstairs dining room was open two weeks later when the power came back on, and the lower rooms were open a month later after remodeling."

On a recent Tuesday evening, the spacious, simply decorated upstairs dining room was about half full and filling up fast. Container ships cruised past just beyond the reach of our booth, and the ferries plied away on their usual, unchanging route. The menu continued the tradition of all-you-can-eat seafood with a $28.95 option that's billed as "We serve until you say stop!" Cold boiled shrimp, raw oysters (when available), fried just-about-everything (shrimp, catfish, oysters) are all included.

I decided on a fried seafood combination platter - shrimp, catfish and stuffed crab. All excellent with some of the best fried catfish I've had recently. My friend got the shrimp étouffée - one of the best versions of this dish I've tasted in Houston. Cold beer, a classic iceberg lettuce salad, and a basket of old-school cinnamon rolls completed the dinner.

Standing in the parking lot of the Monument Inn Restaurant, you can't help but imagine all the natural and man-made disasters that have plagued this small area of Texas - wars, hurricanes, fires, floods. And through it all, the legends, the ferries, the monument, the memories, the battlefields, the battleship and the Monument Inn have all endured.

Monument Inn Restaurant
4406 Independence Parkway South (formerly Battleground Road)
La Porte, TX 77571
(281) 479-1521
Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm
Fri-Sat 11am-10pm

This blog entry was originally posted 6 October 2010 on the website.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pierson's BBQ just keeps on smokin'

"Trinity Plate!" shouted the lady at the pickup counter at Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que in Houston's Oak Forest neighborhood. Five minutes before I had stood at the adjacent order counter and requested a three meat plate: brisket (loose cut), ribs and sausage.

Brisket, Ribs, Sausage
Trinity Plate at Pierson's BBQ - Brisket, Ribs, Sausage

I looked up at the lady and she looked back, blinking and thinking, I'm sure, "What's this guy waiting for?" Then it dawned on me: Trinity. Three meat plate. I stood up and meekly gathered my plate. The lady smiled knowingly. I've been to alot of barbecue joints, but I've never heard a three meat combo called a Trinity Plate. I liked it. It's one of the many endearing eccentricities at Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que that keeps me coming back.


Of course it all makes sense. Brisket, pork ribs, and sausage is the holy trinity of Texas barbecue. Every barbecue joint worth its salt is judged on those three dishes. When you talk about barbecue in Houston, Pierson's is always mentioned as one of the best when it comes to "the trinity." By some counts, there are over 200 barbecue joints in greater Houston. As I sat in the mesquite-drenched air of Pierson's small dining room, working my way through generous portions of fatty brisket, fall-off-the-bone ribs and meaty, spicy sausage, I thought about the other reasons I keep coming back to Pierson's, and why it's held in such high regard in a crowded field. Of course, you consider the food. And you also consider the people who make the food.

The barbecue at Pierson's is often described in the context of the East Texas/African-American tradition of barbecue, that is, with a focus on a sweet sauce as a complement to the meat (often chopped instead of sliced). This is certainly true, but I would also argue that Clarence Pierson, the owner, is a quintessential pitmaster, a smoke man, very much in the tradition of the legendary Central Texas pitmasters. In fact, when someone asks me where they should go to get Central Texas-style barbecue in Houston, I usually refer them to Pierson's.

In the Central Texas barbecue joints that evolved from meat markets run by Czechs and Germans, it's all about the meat and the smoke. Side dishes like beans and potato salad are secondary; barbecue sauce is an afterthought. Heck, most of the big traditional joints like Kreuz and Louie Mueller don't even provide plates or utensils. Smoked meat is served on sheaths of butcher paper. You eat it with your fingers.

Clarence Pierson
Clarence Pierson

It's this almost religious devotion to the infusion of meat with smoke that sets Pierson's apart. Pierson smokes his meat for fourteen hours using mesquite wood that's fed into a mammoth David Klose-built upright smoker (David Klose is the pre-eminent maker of barbecue rigs and smokers, and is headquartered in Houston). After three years of continuous smoking, the inside walls of this smoker are incredibly well-seasoned. You can taste it in the barbecue here. "When I had David build this smoker for me, I had him add a gas-fired heat source to the fire box. That was a waste of money. I never use it. A pile of coals and four pieces of mesquite is all that's needed to fire it up."

Similarly, there's a devotion to and respect for the meat, especially the brisket. A brisket is basically two slabs of meat (the "point" and the "flat"), one on top of the other, separated by a layer of fat, with the outside surface covered with another layer of fat (the "fat cap"). Some barbecue joints consider this fat a nuisance and trim it off; Pierson trims off very little of the fat and this ensures the moist, smoky and flavorful brisket for which he is known.

Now, you'd think that this devotion to smoke and meat would be de rigueur in Houston (or all) barbecue joints. It's not. Through some process of devolution or just plain carelessness, many barbecue joints will trim almost all the fat off the brisket before cooking, and then only smoke it for a few hours. This results in the dreaded dry brisket with a "roast beef-y" flavor. Of course, if you're just chopping the brisket into sandwich meat and dousing it with sauce, this may be okay. But it's not great Texas barbecue. It takes an individual with single-minded devotion to the art of smoking meat to make great Texas barbecue.

Native Houstonian Clarence Pierson came to barbecue almost by chance. After high school, working as a machinist, he frequented a barbecue joint tucked away in an alley near the intersection of 19th Street and Shepherd in The Heights. It was called Po-boy Joe's Bar-B-Que and the pitmaster was a man from New Iberia, Louisiana named Joseph Bourda. Clarence and Joe became fast friends and Clarence eventually became a partner in the business. Joe taught Clarence everything he knew about smoking meat.

Po-boy Joe's closed in the 1980s and Clarence went back to conventional day jobs for the next decade or so. But his skill at smoking meat did not languish and was not forgotten; over the years he continued to perfect his technique by cooking for family and friends. In 2007, having "gotten tired of working for other people," Clarence resurrected the memory of Po-boy Joe's in his own barbecue joint on West T.C. Jester: Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que.

Today, the Pierson's operation is run by Clarence who prepares and cuts the meat, his sister Diane works the pickup window ("Trinity Plate!"), and his niece Britny takes the orders. On a recent afternoon, Diane and Britny were bemused that a writer was interested in taking pictures of their brother/uncle, and asking him alot of barbecue questions. But in Texas, whether east, west, south or central, if you stake a claim to smoking meat and creating the best barbecue that Texans love to eat, you will be recognized.

Pierson & Company Bar-B-Que
5110 West T.C. Jester
Houston, TX 77091
11am - 7pm Tues. thru Sat.
If you're going late, call ahead to make sure they still have BBQ available.

This blog entry was originally posted 29 September 2010 on the website.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bandeja Paisa: South American Sampler Plate

In the pantheon of international cuisines that grace Houston's culinary landscape, Colombian food often gets short shrift. Not unexpectedly. The starchiness of Colombian dishes dominated by staple crops like beans, rice and potatoes looks positively stiff compared to the salsa and salsa-dancing flavors of spicy Tex-Mex.

Mi Pueblito - Bandeja paisa
Bandeja paisa at Mi Pueblito

Thai food? Rightfully celebrated for the fireworks of spice, flavor, color and diversity of ingredients. Japanese food? A balletic combination of raw and cooked fish, meat and vegetable. In a neighborhood of flashy ethnic food competitors, Colombian food may seem like a dreary storefront, a single neon "Open" sign flashing longingly, beckoning passers-by to step inside and give it a whirl.

As well we should. Far from being a one-dimensional cuisine, Colombian food represents a rich mix of cultures, ingredients and preparations. Colombia is blessed with a diversity of regions and ingredients, from the seafood of the coast to the staple crops of the Andes mountains. A melting pot of indigenous Colombian traditions, African/Caribbean influences, and Spanish colonial techniques fuses into a rich comida criolla ("mixed cuisine").


There are many typical dishes of Colombia, all vying for the title of the country's national dish. There's sancocho, a hearty soup made of potato, yuca, plaintain and corn with a meat component of chicken or beef. Ajiaco is a potato soup traditionally made with three types of potatoes, chicken and the herb guasca (known as "gallant soldier" in the United States). Arepas are the fried or grilled corn cakes that accompany every Colombian meal. Tropical areas of Colombia provide a rich palette of fruits that form the basis of traditional fruit juices made from blackberry (mora), mango, passion fruit (maracuya) and soursop (guanabana) to name a few.

But arguably the best-known of Colombian dishes is bandeja paisa ("platter of the paisa people"), a colossal plate of meat and starch that is often served at lunch, traditionally following a long morning at work, and then followed by a siesta before resuming work in the afternoon. Originating from the Antioquia region of the Andes mountains (where the local population are known as "paisas"), this South American sampler plate combines many of Colombia's most popular dishes and ingredients. Recipes vary by region, but the basic components include red beans, rice, chorizo sausage, chicharonnes (fried pork rind), grilled flank or skirt steak, fried plaintains, avocados, arepas, a fried egg and a salsa-type condiment (usually a hogao sauce made of tomatoes and onions).

Certainly an ambitious dish worthy of national recognition. Indeed in 2005, the Colombian government under the administration of Álvaro Uribe (perhaps not coincidentally born in the Antioquian city of Medellín), decided to make bandeja paisa the official national dish of Colombia. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well with the population in other parts of Colombia, who argued that the dish represented only a small fraction of the country. In a somewhat clumsy compromise, the government offered to rename the dish bandeja montañera ("platter of the mountains"). Many believe it's just a marketing gimmick to raise the profile of Colombian cuisine, much like the fabled Juan Valdez did for Colombian coffee. Protestations aside, bandeja paisa is now generally recognized as the national dish of Colombia.

In Houston, bandeja paisa is featured prominently on most Colombian restaurant menus. On a recent lunch visit to Mi Pueblito, one of Houston's best known Colombian restaurants, I sat down with a dining companion at a small table by the window. Surrounded by photographs of Botero sculptures and a wait staff wearing starched blue shirts sporting the restaurant's logo, we told the server we wanted to order the bandeja paisa. With a straight face that would make Roy Scheider proud, he replied, "You're gonna need a bigger table." Relocated to an adjacent four-top, we sipped our Mexican cokes (we'll get the fruit juices next time) and waited for the bravura feast to begin.

The size, quantity and quality of food was excellent. The platter covered a good quarter of the table surface, steaming and piled high with the traditional ingredients of bandeja paisa. A pool of red beans with an adjacent pile of rice was delicious and perfectly cooked, worthy of any Cajun red beans and rice recipe to which it might be compared. A generous slab of thinly tenderized flank steak lined the bottom of the platter, nicely marinated and flavorful. A sinuous strip of pork rind was scored into bite-sized chunks and then deep fried into knobs of pork "candy" that could be snapped off and popped into the mouth. The chorizo sausage was diminutive and overly pungent with cumin, really the only misfire of the dish. Pucks of fried white corn meal - the arepas - were included, along with a garnish of fresh avocado and an over-easy fried egg piled on top for good measure. A saucer of aji, a chimichurri-like condiment was also provided.

The bandeja paisa at Mi Pueblito comes in two sizes - "medium" and "regular." The medium size is clearly meant for one person, the regular size is meant for two, and indeed my dining companion and I easily finished off the regular size. At $13.45 split between us, this giant plate of food was a delicious bargain.

And really, this type of dish is meant to be served family-style, with each diner picking and choosing from the components, combining them in different ways, adding garnishes and sauces here and there. It's not a coincidence that bandeja paisa is served on (and named after) one big platter. Individually, the ingredients and components may seem dull, but it's really how you blend and mix them up that makes this a fascinating dish, both culinarily and culturally.

This blog entry was originally posted 21 September 2010 on the website.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Woodlands is Becoming a Dining Destination

For a lot of Houstonians, The Woodlands is that place up north where you go to see concerts. We make the trek up I-45 to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion to see the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Van Morrison, or, perhaps because we got free tickets, Creed.

Jasper's Pulled Pork Sliders
Pulled pork sliders at Jasper's

We may catch a bite while we're there - maybe a sandwich shop or Landry's or the Cheesecake Factory. And when the music stops, we drive back to the cocoon of the inner loop.

Recently, The Woodlands gained notoriety for more than just concerts. Travel + Leisure Magazine named The Woodlands one of the "Coolest Suburbs Worth a Visit." Uber-indie rock band Arcade Fire wrote a whole album called "The Suburbs" inspired by the founding members' experience growing up there ("Living in the sprawl/Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains"). And Hubbell & Hudson, the gourmet supermarket and foodie mecca, was named Retailer of the Year by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

Hubbell & Hudson
Hubbell & Hudson Market & Bistro

It's this last bit that I find particularly interesting. Recently, I've had the opportunity to spend time at several of The Woodlands' best restaurants, always with an obligatory trip to Hubbell & Hudson before dinner to pick up some fresh pasta, dry aged steaks, or bread that's baked fresh several times throughout the day. After dinner, on the way back to Houston, with a cooler in the trunk filled with Hubbell & Hudson goodies I can't get inside the loop, I've found myself in agreement with something others have noticed: The Woodlands is becoming a legitimate dining and food destination.

And it's more than just the restaurants that make it an attractive source for good food. As an urban development, The Woodlands also benefits from an enlightened sense of design and planning. The Town Center area is built around pedestrian friendly areas such as Waterway Square and Market Square. Restaurants, bars and shops commingle in a sophisticated way to encourage outdoor eating, strolling from restaurants to coffee shops or wine bars for a nightcap, running into neighbors, lounging on benches, listening to free concerts and eating ice cream with the family. Of course, The Woodlands can't measure up to the well-established and effortless urbanity of the piazzas of Europe, but it would be difficult to find a better-planned and more successful urban experience in the greater Houston area.

Which, I believe, adds to a great dining experience. Sidewalk cafés may be both a cliché and a holy grail of utopian city planners, but the fact is that most city dwellers enjoy the bustle and camaraderie of outdoor dining, busy sidewalks and adjacent piazzas filled with families strolling around in a suburban Texas version of the la passegiata. The Woodlands creates this sense of urbanity in a convincing way, and this adds to the attraction of many of its finest restaurants.


Take Jasper's for example. Billing itself as "Gourmet Backyard Cuisine," this Dallas-based restaurant anchors the west end of the Market Square neighborhood. Fancy slogans aside, Jasper's offers kicked-up comfort food in an urbane, upscale setting. The food is consistently well-executed and the service is always professional and friendly. Two large outdoor seating areas overlook the rectangular greenspace of Market Square. Jasper's outdoor seating areas, with their groupings of tables, couches and fireplaces, contribute to the uniquely urban quality of Market Square, especially when the weather is cooler in the spring and fall. Not to be outdone, the highly-regarded 1252 Tapas bar sits on the north side of Market Square, adjacent to the always busy Crú Wine Bar. The east end of the square is anchored by the Tommy Bahama Café - named after and adjacent to the clothing retailer of the same name.

Of course, The Woodlands isn't without its perceived drawbacks. It's both blessed and cursed by its image as an unmistakably wealthy enclave (median family income is $113,243). On the plus side, it's a relaxed and comfortable place to bring a family for dinner or a concert. On the other hand, its predominantly white population (92%) may feel homogeneous and sanitized to some people. Wealth and status are revered and flaunted here, from the obligatory Bentley parked in front of the best restaurants to the tanned and toned soccer moms driving Cadillac Escalades.

Still, a palpable sense of community and urban living in The Woodlands can't be denied. And the dining options continue to expand. It's been reported that Marco Wiles, the quintessential inner loop chef and restaurateur, is venturing north to open a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Tesar's Modern Steak and Seafood. Though for some it may seem like a world away, The Woodlands continues to build on its growing reputation as a food and dining destination for all Houstonians.

This blog entry was originally posted 16 September 2010 on the website.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Last of the Summer Crabs at Benno's

On a recent Saturday afternoon I sat on the patio at Benno's on the Beach in Galveston eating what seemed like bushels of whole blue crabs.

Benno's on the Beach
Time for crabs at Benno's

I was with four of my most die-hard blue crab-loving friends. Amid the cacophony of a choppy Gulf surf, screeching seagulls, and the roar of Harley-Davidsons cruising Seawall Boulevard, we quietly assumed the position of all serious crab eaters: heads down, wooden mallets at the ready, reams of paper towels within easy reach.

Eating blue crabs is somewhat of an art. The technique of eating whole blue crabs often takes years of delicious practice: the ability to delicately crack the claw without damaging the meat inside, extracting chunks of meat from even the tiniest of crevices in the crab's body, twisting and turning a crab leg so it pops out with a nugget of crab meat known as a "crab lollipop." On this day we sat and worked earnestly, employing our learned technique, goggling at the occasional jumbo lump of crab meat extracted, oblivious to each other except for the occasional wayward bit of splintered crab shell that would fly into our purview, courtesy of our neighbor's overexcited mallet.


Among many blue crab connoisseurs in the greater Houston area, Benno's is the gold standard in both quality and size of crab, as well as in the consistency and diversity of preparation. In my small group of crab aficionados, the phrase most often heard is "I've never eaten a bad crab at Benno's."

"We source all of our crabs directly from local crab fishermen around Galveston," says Tracy Deltz, Benno's owner and manager (and son of founder Benno Deltz). Alluding to the consistent quality of his crabs, I asked Tracy about the rumor of Texas crab fishermen reserving Texas' best crabs for high-paying distributors along the east coast, particularly Maryland. "I've heard of that happening, but we certainly aren't affected by it. Our sources provide us with the best crabs that Galveston waters have to offer." On the day I visited, the crabs bore this out - big, meaty "jumbos" measuring 5-6 inches across.

Blue crab season traditionally runs from around March through October when waters are warmest. However, because Texas Gulf Coast waters are relatively warm throughout most of the year, Benno's can offer whole blue crab almost year-round. According to Deltz, the current harvest of crabs is a bumper crop: "Earlier in the season after the Gulf oil spill happened, supplies tightened up. But now, we're seeing the most crabs we've seen all year."

Benno's serves its crabs using two basic preparations: boiled and fried. Boiled comes in the original and the garlic-butter variety. The original is the simplest preparation: just a blue crab boiled in water and seasonings. If you want the most pure and essential flavor of blue crab, this is a great choice. Kicking it up a notch, the garlic-butter option douses the boiled crab in an unctuous sauce of garlic-infused butter that seeps into every crack and crevice of the crab. Gobs of the butter sauce fill the crab's body cavity and pool in the bottom of the tray in which the the crabs arrive. Fresh garlic bread is provided for sopping up the remaining liquid.

The fried preparations, on the other hand, infuse the crab meat with an additional complexity of flavor. There's a traditional fried crab which is breaded and then deep fried. The other dish is called "Cajun-fried" but is equivalent to the traditional Southeast Texas "barbecue crab" preparation. The cleaned crab is dredged in a spicy Cajun-influenced dry rub, then flash fried until the meat is moist and flaky, but not mushy.

Fried crabs
Traditional fried crabs at Benno's

A note on ordering and atmosphere at Benno's. You place your order at the counter, then take a number to your table where the food is delivered when it's ready. At the height of a summertime weekend, the line can get long (a 20-30 minute wait is not uncommon) and it can take just as long to get your food. But that's just part of the summertime tradition at Benno's. The atmosphere is casual. Families literally step off the beach, cross Seawall Boulevard and get in line. At the height of summer it's not unusual to see the patio filled with families wearing bathing suits or wrapped in beach towels. Fortunately, on this Saturday, there was no line and the restaurant was half full, thanks to summer winding down and school having just started the week before.

Whole blue crabs are ordered by the pound. On the day we visited, the cost was $15.95 for two pounds. This is equivalent to about four large or five medium-sized crabs. Among the five of us, we ordered two pounds of each preparation - original boiled, butter-garlic, traditional fried and Cajun fried - for a total of eight pounds. Combined with the included garlic bread, french fries, and corn on the cob, we were all well-satisfied.

After polishing off the last of these summer crabs, we glanced around furtively at each other, orgy complete, the flotsam and jetsam of crab guts ringing our mouths, crab shell pieces pooling in our laps. We surveyed the destruction before us. Trays of deconstructed blue crabs covered the table, picked so perfectly clean that they appear to have been run through some type of crab woodchipper. Benno's never disappoints.

This blog entry was originally posted 8 September 2010 on the website.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

All In the Indian Food Truck Family

The sign on the food truck parked next to a Valero gas station in the hinterlands of northwest Houston reads, "The Original Desi Dhaba." I found this to be a curious statement. I mean, in order for something to be original, there has to be more than one, right? And there aren't a lot of dhabas in Houston.

Desi Grill and More
Mr. Vinod Mehra welcomes you to his food truck

A dhaba is a traditional roadside food stand of northern India that, depending on who you ask, serves either the most dreadful and dangerous, or the most delicious and authentic, Indian street food.

I had ventured far north on Veteran's Memorial Drive to specifically check out this truck. The food truck craze sweeping through cities like New York, Los Angeles and Austin was slowly making its way to Houston. There had already been several high profile successes and failures of "gourmet" food trucks in Houston and I wondered what makes a food truck successful. I wanted to find a food truck in Houston that was both successful and different from the ubiquitous taco trucks for which Houston is well-known.


A South Asian friend of mine recommended Desi Grill and More, a food truck that's been around for several years, mostly flying under the radar, probably due to it's relative inaccessibility on a rough stretch of Veteran's Memorial near FM 1960. The first thing you notice when you pull into the parking lot is the size of the truck, one of the smallest I've ever seen. If it's a slow night, you'll also notice a South Asian man sitting in a lawn chair near the front of the truck. This is Mr. Vinod Mehra. He is the owner, host and chef of Desi Grill and More.

Every time I've visited his truck, Mr. Mehra has stood up and welcomed me to his establishment. The menu features north Indian/Pakistani cuisine and often includes new or special items. Mr. Mehra is always happy to recommend dishes. After ordering, you take a seat in the slapdash seating area behind the truck. A blue tent covers an endearingly ragged collection of mismatched folding tables and reclaimed Dairy Queen-style booths. One night, a South Asian woman tended a young child laying on a flat, sofa-like day bed of woven fabric. Electric fans offer respite from the summer evening heat, and an old-school boom box blasts desi music.

In terms of pure atmosphere, there are few places in Houston that can match the communal seating area of Desi Grill. Every time I visit, I strike up a conversation with fellow diners, mostly South Asian, who are more than happy to offer recommendations for Houston's best Indian dishes and restaurants. And this is one of the most important factors in a successful food truck: a seating area, small or otherwise. Unfortunately, seating areas are restricted for food trucks in the city limits of Houston. Desi Grill is located outside the city limits, and the seating area serves it well.

Desi Grill Tandoori Mixed Grill
Tandoori Mixed Grill Plate at Desi Grill and More

As for the food, it's great. Mr. Mehra has worked as a Indian food chef in Houston since the 1980s. A recent dinner included an enormous Tandoori Mixed Grill Platter of moist chunks of chicken and minced lamb. Eminently soppable juices from the chicken, lamb, tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers and lime coated the bottom of the platter. Fragrant garlic naan (flatbread) arrives at the table so hot you can't touch it for a few minutes. Tearing it apart releases a cloud of steam and reveals generous chunks of sweet, tender garlic. Sopping ensues.

On several visits, Mr. Mehra has stopped by my table to inquire about the meal. One night I took the opportunity to ask him about the curious tag line on his food truck.

"Why do you call yourself the "original" desi dhaba?"

"Well, a new dhaba-style truck recently opened on Highway 6 near Sugar Land."

"Is it any good?"

"I hope so. It's owned by my son."

Tandoori Nite
Tandoori Nite food truck

The Tandoori Nite food truck is parked in a Phillips 66 parking lot on a stretch of Highway 6 about halfway between Interstate 10 to the north and Sugar Land to the south. It sits across the highway from the Old Hickory Barbeque Inn, and is sandwiched between a Palace Inn motel on one side and a shopping center with an African grocery store on the other. Sitting in the small seating area (it's also located outside the city limits) is a feast for the senses. Unmistakable scents of Indian spices - cumin, cardamom, turmeric - waft from the open windows of the truck as you watch the comings and goings at the gas station; the incessant whoosh of traffic on Highway 6 competes with, but never drowns out, the sound of desi music emanating from the truck.

In India, dhabas are manifested as roadside food stands often associated with crossroads and truck stops. In an Indian society that still retains traces of a caste system, dhabas are known as gathering places for Indians of all castes and backgrounds. The location of Tandoori Nite truck certainly captures this spirit: a shiny new Mercedes SL roadster sits at a gas pump across from a Ford F150 with it's hood up and "Ruben's House Painting" etched on its side. Foot traffic between the Palace Inn and the gas station convenience store is constant, marked by individuals whose lives may be charitably characterized as "in transition." Novels could be written, I'm sure, of the cast of characters who flit and float through this unremarkable gas station in far west Houston.

Tandoori Nite is owned by Sakun "Ginny" Mehra, the son of Vinod Mehra. As voluble and gregarious as his father is taciturn and formal, Ginny grew up in Houston and most recently worked as a service rep in an AT&T Wireless store. Several months ago he decided to join the family business and open an Indian food truck for himself. Not unexpectedly, the menu and recipes are similar to his father's truck. "My father roasts and grinds his own spices," Ginny notes, calling his father a "master chef." Everything, according to Ginny, is "fresh" and prepared daily. As noted by one of my dining companions, the presence of coriander stems and big, unseeded chunks of jalapeno in several of the dishes bears this out.

Tandoori Nite Tandoori Chicken
Tandoori chicken at Tandoori Nite food truck

As the truck's name suggests, the Tandoori chicken is a great choice here. Big pieces of bone-in chicken are liberally marinated in a yogurt and masala sauce and roasted until each piece has a slight char. On the days I visited, the chicken was moist, with a wonderful (and surprisingly high) level of spicy heat. Small cups of a bright, addictive coriander chutney are offered as a condiment.

Tandoori Nite
Butter chicken, chana masala and mutton korma at Tandoori Nite

Other dishes sampled include butter chicken, chana masala and mutton korma. The korma was a standout for me, with a well-balanced sauce and fresh pieces of tender, but not mushy, lamb.

Neither the Desi Grill nor the Tandoori Nite truck sell alcohol, but it's perfectly acceptable to go to the adjacent convenience stores and bring back a beer to drink with your dinner. Sitting at one of the picnic tables one night, lingering over the mutton korma and a bottle of Shiner Bock, I asked Ginny why he chose this location for his food truck. Was there a big South Asian community nearby?

"Not really," he said. "But it's a good central location, a crossroads. There's a big South Asian community in Sugar Land, and a growing one in Katy. And the South Asian community around Hillcroft Drive is within striking distance."

He also noted that he is friends with the South Asian owner of the gas station where the truck is parked. Which is another clue as to how a food truck can be successful: a support system that is both family and business oriented. The South Asian business community in Houston is well-organized, and a good relationship with a property owner is one of the biggest factors in the success of a food truck.

Ultimately, there are many factors in a food truck's success: a cuisine and culture with a tradition of street food, a strong family and business support system, advantageous government regulations, and, most importantly, great food made with care and sincerity. Would-be food truck entrepreneurs riding the crest of the wave into Houston would be wise to take notice of the success of the Mehra Indian food truck family.

Desi Grill and More
12672 Veterans Memorial Dr.
Houston, TX 77014
Open 7 days a week - 6pm to midnite

Tandoori Nite
7821 Hwy 6 South
Houston, TX 77083
Open 6 days a week - 5:30pm to midnite
Closed Tuesday

If you are driving far to visit these trucks, I recommend calling ahead to make sure they are open and confirm what time they are closing. Both trucks are 100% halal.

This blog entry was originally posted 17 August 2010 on the website.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bihari Kabab at Bundu Khan Kabab House

Bihar is a state in northern India. Its population is mainly Hindu, and therefore the cuisine is traditionally vegetarian. So it's ironic that one of the most popular dishes in neighboring Pakistan is a grilled beef dish called bihari kabab.

Bundu Khan Kabab House
Bihari Kabab

The provenance of bihari kabab is disputed, but it likely originated among the non-vegetarian population of Bihar, and sometime later became popular as a fast food/street food in Pakistan.

Kind of an obscure topic, right? I mean, what does a trans-bordered (and trans-religion) food dish native to provincial areas of south Asia have to do with food in Houston? Because, according to my Indian and Pakistani friends, one of the most authentic (and delicious) bihari kabab dishes you will eat outside of Pakistan can be found in a hole-in-the-wall kabab house in far west Houston called Bundu Khan.

Bundu Khan Kabab House
Bundu Khan Kabab House

The first thing you see when you step into Bundu Khan is a refrigerated glass case stacked high with skewers of chicken and meat. Directly behind the case and the ordering area is a long charcoal grill where the kababs are cooked. The menu is small, maybe 7-8 main courses, and some drinks and desserts. I was here for the bihari kabab and placed my order with the young Hispanic man behind the bar (the owners are Pakistani, but in true Houston form the front-of-house staff is Hispanic).

"Beef or chicken?" he asked. The dish is traditionally beef, but in a nod to Indian Hindus who don't eat beef, chicken is offered. I went with the beef.

"How spicy?" This is always a good sign when you are a "Westerner" eating in an "ethnic" restaurant known for spicy food. More than a few times I've been to a restaurant and got the "gringo treatment" where waiters or chefs - without even asking - pull punches when it comes to exotic ingredients or the spiciness of a dish. I gave him a thumbs up and said, "Make it hot. Hotter the better." I also ordered a sweet lassi as a hedge against the potential heat of the kabab.

He wrote up the order and I pulled out my wallet to pay. "No worries, just pay when you leave." I like counter-service restaurants that follow this procedure. It's like they're saying, "You seem like a nice fellow, you're welcome here. We're going to make sure you are fed well first, then we'll settle up the bill." I sat down in a dining room filled with a South Asian clientele and waited for my order.

The recipe for bihari kabab varies, but the basic ingredients are thin slices of tenderized beef (pasanday), yogurt, papaya paste, and spices such as garam masala, cumin and chili powder. The spices, yogurt and papaya are combined into a marinade, and then the meat is threaded onto a skewer and marinated for several hours. The kabab is then cooked over a charcoal grill.

The bihari kabab at Bundu Khan is served with lemons, cucumbers and onions. A thin raita sauce (yogurt, cucumber, herbs and spices) and a sweet tamarind sauce are offered as condiments. The obligatory naan (oven-baked flatbread) is ordered separately for $1 a basket.

The first thing I did was to pinch off and taste a piece of the wonderfully tenderized and charred kabab meat. The spiciness, especially the cumin and chili powder, was so overwhelming you could barely taste the meat! With the array of ingredients and condiments before me, I knew there must be a technique for softening and balancing the flavor of the kabab. I stole a sideways glance to the customers around me and watched their technique. Here are a few tips for eating bihari kabab (note that these are based on the traditional etiquette of eating Pakistani/Indian food with your fingers).

First, completely drench the kabab with the lemon juice. Pour some of the raita in the individual plate provided to you. Tear off a piece of naan and use it as a pouch to grab a piece of the kabab. Wedge in a piece of cucumber and onion, and then dredge the lot of it in the raita on your plate. Take a bite. The combination and diversity of flavor and texture is astounding. The cucumber and yogurt of the raita combined with the fresh cucumber perfectly balanced and complemented the yogurt/spice marinade of the kabab. A hint of beef flavor emerged. If you want to add a touch of sweetness, drizzle on some of the tamarind sauce.

There are a few things you should know before you try the Pakistani cuisine at Bundu Khan. Service can be gruff, or at least succinct. The service here is best described as accommodating and efficient. Also, the restaurant is housed in an older structure that is a bit worn around the edges (though perfectly clean). On the summer afternoon I visited, the temperature in the dining room was cool but not cold, and not uncomfortable. In other words, if you're expecting a T.G.I. Friday's experience, i.e. a smiling, flair-laden hostess seating you in a shiny new building air conditioned to arctic temperatures, then Bundu Khan may not be for you.

After demolishing my bihari kabab, naan and lassi, I approached the counter and paid the bill (about $12). As I walked out, I noticed a South Asian woman - who earlier had been working behind the counter - sitting down at a table. She was joined by two teenagers and an older gentleman. Were these the owners having dinner in their own restaurant? What looked like the entire menu of Bundu Khan was arrayed before them.

This blog entry was originally posted 27 July 2010 on the website.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Black Summer Truffles at Tony's

Truffles are vaguely associated with French farmers who lead pigs around on a leash as they root around in the ground looking for expensive mushrooms that rich people like to eat. Actually, this stereotype isn't that far off.

Tony's Summer Black Truffles
Tony's Summer Black Truffles

Truffles are indeed a type of mushroom (the edible variety of truffles are classified as fungi, and more specifically as tubers). The difference is that the mushroom grows above ground, and the truffle grows below ground. Which is where the pigs come in.

Really, the only effective way to locate an underground truffle is through the sense of smell. By a fluke of nature, female pigs are perfectly suited to sniffing out these subterranean delicacies because the scent of a truffle has the same chemical characteristics as the scent excreted by boars (uncastrated male pigs) during mating season. Think about it. Human beings enlist pigs to find and harvest gourmet delicacies by tricking the pig into thinking it's going to have sex. It's one of those crazy natural coincidences that makes us believe God must have a sense of humor.


When the pig locates a truffle, the farmer whacks the pig over the head with a stick to make it back off, otherwise the pig will immediately eat the truffle and keel over in orgasmic spasms. Once the pig stands down, the farmer digs up the truffle and away they go. To avoid the pig-in-heat complication, more truffle farmers are enlisting truffle hunting dogs that can be trained to recognize the scent of a truffle. And it doesn't look stupid to put a leash on a dog.

There are various kinds of edible truffles that are highly prized by gourmands. The white (Alba) truffle comes from the Piedmont region of northern Italy and is considered the most desirable and expensive of all truffles (a 3.3 pound white truffle sold for $330,000 in 2007). Similarly, the black truffle is associated with the Périgord region of France and is also highly sought-after. The French think their truffle is superior to the Italian truffle; the Italians respond by not caring what the French think. Both the white and black truffles are harvested in autumn and winter.

Not to be outdone, the black summer truffle is harvested starting in June and July. Although not quite as sought-after, and arguably less pungent than its cool weather cousins, it's still a mainstay of summertime haute cuisine. Recently, Tony's in Houston started serving black summer truffles from Lazio (the area around Rome, Italy) as an accompaniment to its regular menu. For about $30, you can have a generous amount of truffle shaved onto (or cooked into) any dish on the menu (call ahead for current availability and pricing). Never one to pass up the chance to sample an exotic delicacy, I rounded up three foodie friends and we headed to lunch at Tony's to get our truffle on.

Tony's Summer Black Truffles with Risotto
Tony's Summer Black Truffles with Risotto

Upon arrival we were seated in Tony's ornate but comfortable main dining room. The atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed and friendly for a restaurant considered the fanciest in town. The very professional and accommodating waitstaff at Tony's — who, I imagine, have heard just about every crazy request imaginable — didn't even blink when we said we wanted truffle shaved on everything. This included a burger, risotto, grilled cheese sandwich, and a chicken involtini. If it had been a little less expensive, we might have had them shave some truffle into our iced tea.

As it turns out, the musky, earthy essence of the truffle added a fascinating dimension to the flavor of our dishes. I had it shaved over a plate of risotto al porcini. Certainly tasty, but probably not the best choice, as the mushrooms and salty stock of the risotto competed mightily with the subtle pungency of the truffle (a risotto Milanese probably would have worked better). More successful was the grilled cheese sandwich (a fancy, Tony's version to be sure, not the kind your mom made). The truffles were cooked into the melted cheese and a few were shaved over the top for good measure. The earthy truffle nicely complemented the yeasty bread and milky cheese.

Our black summer truffle lunch at Tony's was both an enjoyable splurge and a foodie adventure. We left satisfied. Only a few more months to the white truffle season. I'm already saving up for that adventure.

This blog entry was originally posted 8 July 2010 on the website.