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 Eater.com, 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 Eater.com'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 www.29-95.com 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 www.29-95.com 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 www.29-95.com website.