Friday, January 28, 2011

Spaghetti all'amatriciana: Layers of flavor and history

The Via Salaria — the Salt Road — was one of the earliest roads built by ancient Rome to lash together its far-flung empire.

Spaghetti all' Amatriciana at La Conca
Traditional spaghetti all'amatriciana at La Conca in Amatrice, Italy

The actual path of the road predated the Romans — the Sabine people of central Italy would trek down from their mountain redoubts to the mouth of the Tiber river, where they would collect sea salt which at the time was a prized commodity. Today the Via Salaria is labeled the SS4, or Strada Statale 4 (State Highway 4). It's an otherwise mundane two-lane blacktop that overlays the track of the original Roman road, exceptional only in the path of history which it follows both literally and figuratively.

Via Salaria - Salt Road
The Via Salaria north of Rome, Italy

We were driving north on the SS4 from Rome to the small town of Amatrice. It's generally agreed that Amatrice is the birthplace of the classic pasta dish spaghetti all'amatriciana. I'd eaten amatriciana for years when visiting Rome, but like many dishes and cuisines in this part of Italy, the provenance, recipe and ingredients of amatriciana were all in dispute. I decided to visit the supposed birthplace of the dish and find out what an authentic version of amatriciana really tastes like.

First, a few notes about the many-layered history of the dish. The basis for the recipe begins in the 15th or 16th century when migrant shepherds living in a nearby town used readily available ingredients to make the classic dish pasta alla gricia. The ingredients were pecorino (a readily available sheep's milk cheese), guanciale (salt-cured pork cheek), black pepper and dried pasta (the final three ingredients being resistant to spoilage). Pasta alla gricia became known as amatriciana bianca or the "white amatriciana," referring to the color of the sauce made from the pecorino cheese.

Then, sometime in the 17th century, the tomato was introduced to Italy from the New World. It was only then that the Italian love affair with tomatoes began. Tomato sauces became a staple of Italian cooking, and eventually came to define Italian cuisine as it traveled with waves of Italian immigrants all over the world. The classic amatriciana bianca recipe was no match of this pomodoran invasion, and a generous portion of tomato sauce was layered on top of the original shepherd's concoction. Somewhere along the way, red pepper flakes were added to the recipe to give it some spicy heat. Amatriciana bianca had transformed into amatriciana rosso and a canonical recipe was established.

Amatrice Italy
The road sign leading into Amatrice, Italy

As we drove into town, a sign announced our arrival into Amatrice. While signs in the U.S. may celebrate a city as home to the largest ball of twine or the local high school football team, city signs in Italy often denote the birthplace of an emperor, or perhaps more importantly, the birthplace of a dish like spaghetti all'amatriciana. Such was the case in Amatrice.

Our destination was Albergo-Ristorante La Conca, a source for traditional amatriciana mentioned in the book Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. The restaurant was empty for lunch on a bright day in November (off season for this area of Italy). But the staff was eager to take care of us; they knew exactly what we wanted when we walked in the door (did we have an American flag painted on our foreheads?). The spaghetti all'amatriciana here hewed to the traditional recipe: pecorino, guanciale, tomato sauce, black pepper, red pepper flakes and dried spaghetti pasta. It was the best I've ever had.

But the story doesn't end there. The amatriciana I ate in Amatrice only vaguely resembled the dish I'd eaten in Rome for so many years. What accounted for the discrepancy? The ancient Romans, of course, were known for assimilating the culture and traditions of its conquered peoples. Similarly, and perhaps even more controversially, contemporary Romans have assimilated amatriciana as a classic dish of cucina romana — the cuisine of Rome.

This next layer in the flavor and history of amatriciana originated when migrations from the countryside (Amatrice) to the city (Rome) brought an influx of regional cooking into the capital city. There, the dish got its own slightly different version of the name: pasta alla matriciana. Ingredients were added in various combinations: onions, garlic, white wine, basil, sage. The pasta is usually bucatini, a thicker, hollow version of spaghetti. Indeed the dish I'd been eating in Rome all those years was bucatini alla matriciana. A delicious dish no doubt, but lacking in the focused simplicity of the classic spaghetti all'amatriciana I sampled in Amatrice.

Penne Amatriciana at Nino's
Penne amatriciana at Nino's in Houston

Back in Houston, I searched for a restaurant that serves amatriciana. Could I find a faithful representation of this dish in a city known for many middling Italian restaurants, and only a few good ones? Scouring restaurant website menus yielded one solid result: the "penne amatriciana" at Nino's on West Dallas. A weekday lunch visit revealed a generous portion of the dish that was both delicious and well-made, if not wholly faithful to the original recipe. The amatriciana at Nino's included onions, making it a closer relative of the Roman version. In a nod to the Americanization of the recipe, pancetta is substituted for guanciale (which can be hard to find in the U.S.), and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese was offered instead of pecorino.

Still, even if a restaurant in Houston offered a faithful recipe of the dish, it would be difficult to exactly reproduce the version from Amatrice due to the obvious lack of access to the local Italian ingredients: the velvety richness of the rendered guanciale, the salty sharpness of the local pecorino cheese, the tangy sweetness of the Casalino tomatoes that are a hallmark ingredient of the dish in Italy. Certainly, using the original recipe and good quality ingredients, a delicious approximation of the dish is possible outside of Italy. But I've resigned myself to the fact that a taste of the real amatriciana is only attainable by a flight to Rome and a drive north on the Via Salaria to Amatrice — the "citta degli spaghetti all'amatriciana."

This blog entry was originally posted 12 January 2011 on the website.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Restaurant rules to survive (and thrive) by

I recently wrote about etiquette tips that diners can use to make the restaurant dining experience more enjoyable. Similarly, there are rules that restaurants can follow to make the diner's experience more enjoyable and thus have the salutary effect of creating a successful and thriving restaurant.

The rules at Gilhooley's oyster bar are short and sweet.

These rules may seem obvious. But a sampling of several new restaurants opening in Houston reveals surprising oversights in even the most basic tenets of running a restaurant. Reasons are numerous and well-documented -- a wealthy owner with more money than experience; a celebrated chef striking out on his/her own who, when faced with the day-to-day business of running a restaurant, can't keep up in the kitchen.

All reasonable explanations for why a restaurant might be destined to fail. But by following just a few simple rules, a restaurant can survive the worst of times and thrive in the best of times. I've had the good fortune of working in a restaurant run by consummate professionals, and several of these rules were learned in that milieu. Others are more common sense, or learned from being a regular patron in many thriving and not-so-thriving establishments. I'd suggest that a restaurant could survive if it ignores a few of these rules, but I doubt one could thrive without following all of them.


1. Serve food people want to eat. To be successful in business, you have to supply a product that the market demands. But many new restaurants have a visionary or artistic concept/menu that is foreign to potential diners. Should a restaurant serve "avant-garde" food or "comfort" food? This is a point of some debate in the Houston food community. Many recently opened restaurants are serving comfort food -- fried chicken, burgers, pizza -- i.e. food with which people are familiar and comfortable. The knock on this trend is that the food choices in Houston are becoming homogeneous (the phrase you often here is that Houston as a whole "doesn't have an adventurous palate"). But many restaurateurs respond by saying, "We're not here to reinvent the wheel; we just want to serve good food and make a living at it." Fair enough. But for the ambitious chef, this may not be good enough. And it's obviously not good for those Houstonians who do enjoy trying new and different cuisines. So in the case of an ambitious chef, rule #2 may apply.

2. Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want. In the classic food movie Big Night, scheming restaurateur Pascal, whose highly successful restaurant serves schlock Italian food, gives this advice to failing restaurateur Secondo, who insists on serving only the most uncompromisingly authentic Italian food: Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want. Cynical advice from a not-very-sympathetic character to be sure, but the words ring true. An ambitious chef with a singular vision should, by all means, open a restaurant that does not compromise on its beliefs. But if a chef, perhaps relatively unknown, wants to realize a vision while hedging his chances of success, he can create a menu that includes conventional dishes as well as "haute cuisine". Then, as his clientele grows, he can expand his offerings of inventive and visionary dishes, thereby fulfilling his ambitions while at the same time expanding the palates of his diners.

3. Spend good money on a capable sous chef. Too many restaurants develop a reputation for inconsistency because on the days when the executive or "name" chef is off, the food is opined to be inferior. A capable second-in-command for the kitchen who can faithfully and consistently reproduce the quality of the restaurant's dishes is invaluable. Really, there's no better investment for a restaurateur than a loyal, capable and reliable sous chef.

4. Don't skimp of front-of-house talent. It's a common refrain from restaurateurs and chefs in Houston -- it's hard to find good help. And although there are some restaurants who can put together a professional FOH staff from top-to-bottom, most restaurants have to get by with a relatively inexperienced team of servers. And that's fine. In general, Houston diners out for a casual meal aren't going to demand formal service. Unfortunately, I've been in highly regarded restaurants where the service falls apart when the restaurant gets busy. At the very least, every restaurant should have a couple of FOH veterans who can act as floor managers and keep things running smoothly when the restaurant gets busy, and always with an eye for details, which brings us to rule #5.

5. Do sweat the small stuff. My first restaurant job was as a busboy in an upscale French restaurant. After setting a table, the owner would review your handiwork, and if the utensils were not placed at an exactly prescribed distance from the plate, you'd receive a firm-but-polite dressing-down before the other staff. Some staff interpreted this as the owner's Napoleon complex, but really he was just setting a standard. If the service personnel are conscientious about the small details of service, the overall experience of both the diners and staff will be improved. This attention to detail can be manifested in many ways that make the diner's experience more enjoyable, and therefore more memorable -- a sincere smile from a hostess as he greets you, a server re-folding the napkin of a guest who has excused herself from the table, a busboy in a fancy French restaurant anticipating the drop of a utensil to the floor, and sprinting to replace it, even before the guest has the chance to reach down half-ashamedly to pick it up.

This blog entry was originally posted 3 January 2011 on the website.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Resolve to explore Houston food in the New Year

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions, and my suggestion to Houstonians for 2011 is to get out of your comfort zone when it comes to food.

Chicharron tostada
The mysterious chicharrón tostada

Food, of course, is all about comfort, and there’s nothing more frustrating than spending your hard-earned money on a dismal meal. For that reason, we tend to stick with our tried-and-true when it comes to dining out. That’s understandable.

On the other hand, Houston is blessed with one of the most diverse food scenes in the country, and eating at the same places every day is simply untenable for anyone who wants to enjoy and soak up everything that our great city has to offer. But it’s hard to find new, good places to eat.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of “food streets” in Houston that offer great opportunities for food exploring in 2011. The concentration of good eats on these streets should provide a higher likelihood of finding new and interesting food.


As with any new and different experience, exploring good food and restaurants requires patience, common sense and an open mind. You may find some places where no one speaks English and the menu is written entirely in a foreign language. In this case, you can just look around at other tables and point to dishes you find interesting. In most cases, the staff and fellow diners are friendly and accommodating — sometimes you’ll even find another diner willing to translate.

Similarly, you may walk into a restaurant that seems unsanitary or just “off.” In that case, I ask for a to-go menu and vow to come back later, if warranted. You can always check the Houston Health Department’s website,, for a restaurant’s inspection record.

With those brief tips in mind, here are few food streets that you should resolve to explore in 2011. Felice anno nuovo e buon appetito, feliz año nuevo y buen apetito, bonne année et bon appétit, happy new year and good eating in 2011.

El Ultimo
El Ultimo taco truck

LONG POINT ROAD between Gessner and Hempstead I call this the “granddaddy” of Houston’s ethnic food streets, as it has been a destination for Houston food explorers for decades. Anchored to the west by some of the city’s best Korean restaurants and to the east by Vieng Thai, arguably Houston’s best Thai restaurant, this street includes a huge variety of taco trucks, carnecerias, flea markets and specialty food shops. The intersection at Blalock is particularly fertile: check out Korea Garden (fun grill-it-yourself joint) and the massive Super H-Mart, a Korean supermarket where the food court has some of the most authentic and tasty Korean food in the city. Antoine is the usual location of El Ultimo taco truck, known for great tripa and chicharrón tacos. Further east, in the same strip center as Vieng Thai, is El Hidalguense, known for its open pit grill used to cook tasty cabrito (goat).

AIRLINE DRIVE between the North Freeway and West Gulf Bank. If there is a wild west of Houston ethnic food, it’s this stretch of Airline north of the North Freeway. Starting in the north, the giant Sunny Flea Market harbors innumerable stalls for tacos, elotes, and the mysterious chicharrón tostada. This tostada features shredded cabbage, pickled pork rinds, tomatoes, avocados and a red sauce all cradled in a large (and edible) slab of fried pork skin. Even friends that are eminently knowledgeable about Mexican food debate the origins (and official name) of this dish, and the taste is unique to say the least. Across the street, Buey y Vaca is a Houston institution and raucous shrine to Mexico-style tacos. Further south, past untold numbers of taco trucks and food stands is Tostada Regia, a family-friendly joint featuring more traditional tostadas (crispy corn tortillas and toppings) from northern Mexico.

HILLCROFT AVENUE between the Southwest Freeway and Westpark Tollway. This short length of Hillcroft (it can be walked) is jam-packed with the city’s best South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. The shopping center at the Southwest Freeway intersection features two of Houston’s best Indian restaurants: Himalaya (Indian-Pakistani cuisine) and London Sizzler (British-style Indian cuisine). Further north, Bijan Persian Grill offers a more upscale taste of Persian (Iranian) cuisine, while Darband Shish Kabob has been serving inexpensive, delicious Persian food in a spartan yet lively dining room for many years. Across the street is Shri Balaji Bhavan, arguably Houston’s best south Indian (vegetarian) cuisine.

Tandoori Nite
Tandoori Nite food truck

TEXAS 6 between the Katy and Southwest freeways. A relative newcomer to the local food scene, this wide stretch of highway in far west Houston is the main artery for a surprisingly diverse suburban neighborhood. Toward the north, funky bars like Paul's Boat and The Dam Ice House serve up lots of cold beer and local flavor. Further south, Tortas Las Llardas offers a large menu of tortas, or Mexico-style sandwiches. Mr. Trompo serves Monterrey (Mexico) style cuisine, specifically tacos made from meat grilled on a trompo (a rotating, upright roaster). The Tandoori Nite food truck sits in a gas station parking lot near the intersection at Beechnut and serves up some of the best Indian-Pakistani street food in Houston.

BELLAIRE BOULEVARD between South Gessner and South Kirkwood. Known as Houston’s “New Chinatown,” this street is anchored by the dazzling Hong Kong City Mall to the west, and numerous small restaurants and shops to the east: Fu Fu Cafe for exquisite soup dumplings, Sinh Sinh and Jasmine restaurants for great Asian/Vietnamese/Chinese, and Umai for some of Houston’s best non-sushi Japanese food. For a truly different dessert experience, head over to Juice Box or Star Snow Ice for traditional Chinese/Taiwanese concoctions featuring a fluffy pile of shaved ice drenched and topped with ingredients such as tapioca, coconut milk, grass jelly and fruits.

This blog entry was originally posted 23 December 2010 on the website.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Courtbouillon: A Cajun Classic

The French culinary term “court bouillon” (or court-bouillon) conjures images of royalty and kings (court) as well as wealth and gold (bouillon). In reality, of course, it is something far more mundane, loosely translating to “quick broth.”

Courtbouillon at Danton's

In practice, court bouillon is usually just boiling water that’s been seasoned and infused with aromatics and then used to poach fish. In the grand encyclopedia of French cuisine, court bouillon is really rather simple and boring.

Now consider the term courtbouillon (one word), a Cajun dish. Pronounced koo-bee-yahn, it’s a fish or seafood stew that’s a tomato-based cousin of gumbo and etouffee. And unlike the weak sauce of it’s French ancestor, courtbouillon is a rollicking, rich and flavorful dish worthy of its Cajun provenance. In musical terms, court-bouillon is a delicate French minuet while a Cajun courtbouillon is a full-on fais do-do, fiddles and accordions blazing.


You start with a roux. Then add the Cajun trinity: bell pepper, onion and celery. Fresh, diced tomatoes are next, followed by seafood stock and then any number of additional spices and herbs: thyme, garlic, marjoram, basil. Bring to a boil and then simmer, allowing the mixture to reduce and thicken, stirring occasionally. Then add thick chunks of fish and allow them to cook in the stew. Once cooked, ladle the fish and stew into a bowl over steamed white rice. In general, the recipe can be lengthy and involved. (A Google search will turn up many versions for the ambitious home cook.)

I asked Jim Gossen, a native of Lafayette and owner of Houston’s Louisiana Foods seafood distributorship, about the recipe for courtbouillon. “It’s traditionally a dish made at home, using family recipes. After I make the stew, I layer in thick pieces of redfish, then top it with thin slices of lemon. After you add the fish, you can’t stir it anymore, otherwise the fish breaks into pieces. So as it simmers, you grab the handles of the pot and twist it back and forth to make sure everything cooks evenly,” Gossen said.

Like most dishes that are handed down through traditional family recipes, courtbouillon has many variations. There always is a roux, but whether it is light or dark is up to the cook (tradition says dark). The Cajun trinity is a must, but some recipes call for garlic at this step. Once the stew ingredients have been added and are ready for simmering, a whole fish head sometimes is thrown in for extra flavor (don’t forget to fish it out before serving!). The fish used is another subject of debate: redfish is the traditional choice, but catfish often is used and red snapper is not unusual. And why stop at fish? Many recipes call for a “seafood courtbouillon,” which includes shrimp, oysters or crawfish.

So what do you do if you want to try out this Cajun classic in Houston and you don’t have access to a friend-of-the-family Cajun cook or don’t want to make it yourself? While not as prevalent on restaurant menus as gumbo and etouffee, some of Houston’s best Cajun and Creole restaurants include courtbouillon on the menu, including Danton’s Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen and Mardi Gras Grill, both of which serve a mixed seafood version. Brennan’s, traditionally known for New Orleans Creole-style cooking, includes a redfish and shrimp courtbouillon as part of its “Brennan’s Classics” menu, and properly describes it as “Acadian style.”

Danton's Gulf Coast Kitchen

During a recent weekday lunch, I sampled the seafood courtbouillon at Danton’s on Montrose near the Museum District. It’s a throwback seafood joint offering classic Gulf Coast dishes using traditional recipes, as well as signature dishes (“Crab Danton”) created by chef and co-owner, Danton Nix. Danton’s makes my favorite gumbo in Houston — extra rich, dark and smoky — so I had high hopes for the courtbouillon.

The courtbouillon at Danton’s is excellent. A huge portion served on a big oval plate, the stew has a perfect consistency and reddish-brown color. It came out steaming and so hot I had to wait, torturously, to take a bite. The Cajun trinity is prominent — big, tender chunks of onion, bell pepper and celery are splashed throughout. The flavor of the stew is the perfect combination of smoky richness from the roux and tangy sweetness from the tomatoes. Big, intact chunks of fish (no stirring!) are generously spread throughout. My server identified the fish as red snapper, though it easily could have been redfish. Perfectly cooked shrimp and fresh oysters round out the dish. For sides, I always get steamed white rice and garlic bread for sopping up what’s left of the stew.

I can’t wait to find and taste more versions of courtbouillon on Houston restaurant menus. And if I get ambitious, I may have to try making my own, hopefully with a little help from some of my Cajun friends.

This blog entry was originally posted 20 December 2010 on the website.