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.