Monday, February 21, 2011

CFS Challenge: Black-eyed Pea vs. Saltgrass Steak House

We continue our search for the best chicken fried steak in Houston by visiting two chain restaurants known for tasty CFS.

Chicken fried steak at Black-eyed Pea
Chicken fried steak at Black-eyed Pea

The Black-eyed Pea restaurant chain has been around for decades, and in its earlier incarnation as a series of Texas-based, privately owned restaurants, earned a reputation for one of the best chicken fries steaks in the state. I hadn't visited a Black-eyed Pea restaurant in years, and hadn't had a CFS there in more than a decade. Did it still make a great CFS?

Similarly, Saltgrass Steak House started as a private restaurant chain in Houston and was eventually acquired by the Landry's Restaurant group in 2002. The CFS here is not often mentioned in Houstonians' or Texans' lists of great CFS, but it does seem popular with out-of-towners. I'd never eaten at a Saltgrass Steak House and it seemed like a worthy local competitor to the long-storied reputation of the Black-eyed Pea CFS.


Black-eyed Pea

On a recent weekday lunch the dining room at the only remaining Black-eyed Pea inside the loop (4211 Bellaire Blvd.) was full. The clientele was older. This isn't surprising, since the restaurant chain has been around for almost thirty years and the menu features the same "home-style" American comfort foods it has always served. Roast turkey breast, made-from-scratch meat loaf, pot roast, and of course chicken fried steak keep the regulars coming back year after year.

This is a table service restaurant. The dining room is comfortable and well-lit, if a bit the worse for wear, and my servers on this day were friendly and attentive. I noted that the market segment served by the Black-eyed Pea is quite successful — a step up from comfort food cafeterias like Luby's, but not as fancy or expensive as a slightly more upscale chain like Saltgrass. This is comfort food in a comfortable atmosphere at a comfortable price.

The CFS here comes in two sizes: the regular chicken fried steak ($8.99) and the "Texas sized" chicken fried steak ($10.99). Two vegetables, rolls and cornbread are included. I ordered the Texas size, with side orders of mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli, and the requisite ginormous glass of unsweetened iced tea.

Rolls and cornbread at Black-eyed Pea
Rolls and cornbread at Black-eyed Pea

The breakdown

Meat: The Texas sized version filled a whole plate, with the meat aggressively tenderized -- in some places almost falling apart -- with a good thickness and properly seasoned. It was fork tender and contained only a couple of gristly pieces.

Crust: Fried golden brown, with areas that were thinner/thicker and lighter/darker with spots of the underlying meat occasionally peeking through. Nicely seasoned and flavorful. The crust adhered to the meat perfectly.

Gravy: It was average. Thickness and texture were good, with a respectable richness of flavor. Seasoning was light and meant to be inoffensive, I'm sure. Adding a bit of salt and a lot of pepper would greatly improve this gravy.

Value: Very good. For $10.99, the CFS was huge and well-executed and the sides were respectable. The bottomless basket of rolls and cornbread is a nice (and filling) tradition.

Extras: Excellent. The rolls and cornbread may not be like your momma made them, but they are addicting. The rolls are unusually, but not unpleasantly, sweet with a gooey, doughy texture. They come out steaming hot and drenched in butter. The cornbread is similarly sweet and addictive — certainly a crowd-pleaser but probably unacceptable to the purists who believe cornbread should feature a more bitter flavor.

Overall grade: B+ The Pea still makes a mean chicken fried steak. This will come as a relief to those of us who grew up on the CFS here, but don't get back often.

Saltgrass Steak House

Salt Grass Steak Houses dot the suburban landscape of Houston. I can never remember exactly where one is, other than it's usually somewhere along a major highway like I-10 or I-45. The closest one to my house is on I-10 near Shepherd, and that's where I visited on a recent weekday lunch. This location has a small dining room with clubby, comfortable booths lining the walls. The crowd consisted mainly of urban professionals and office workers.

For lunch, you've got two choices for the CFS: the "lunch cut" ($9.99) and the full dinner size ($13.99). The dinner portion includes a soup or salad, beer bread, and one side dish. I went with the full dinner portion, a salad, and a side of macaroni and cheese.

Chicken fried steak at Saltgrass Steak House
Chicken fried steak at Saltgrass Steak House

The breakdown

Meat: Nicely tenderized; perhaps too much, as the meat was a bit thin. Good flavor and freshness.

Crust: Flavorful, crispy and well-seasoned, but there was large amount of crust relative to the meat. There was virtually no adhesion of the crust to the meat, a deal-breaker for some.

Gravy: Outstanding, some of the best I've had in Houston. Wonderfully creamy texture, great depth and richness of flavor. Good seasoning. I'd even like a bit more pepper in there.

Value: Good. $13.99 for a large CFS, side and salad is very reasonable.

Extras: Poor. The "beer bread" that accompanied our lunch on this day was dry, crumbly and flavorless. The salad was a standard-issue iceberg lettuce concoction.

Overall grade: B. The CFS at Saltgrass is overall pretty good, but somewhat thin relative to other chicken fried steaks in Houston, and the lack of the traditional rolls and cornbread is a drawback in my opinion.

The Black-eyed Pea takes this round. The overall quality and value is excellent. But like any CFS comparison between two restaurants, wishful exchanges of different components is always in order. The Black-eyed Pea rolls and cornbread would greatly improve the experience at Saltgrass. The Saltgrass gravy would push the Black-eyed Pea experience into the A or A- category. Such is the creative thinking of the CFS connoisseur.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Previous CFS challenge:

Dot's Coffee Shop

CFS Challenge: Hickory Hollow vs. Ouisie's Table

This blog entry was originally posted 7 February 2011 on the website.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Turkish Cuisine Delights

The staff at Istanbul Grill in Houston's Rice Village wear T-shirts emblazoned with a symbol of concentric blue and white circles. Round glass objects of the same design hang from the walls of the restaurant.

nazar boncugu
Nazar boncugu, or the Turkish evil eye stone

For anyone who has ever visited Turkey, you will recognize these objects as the same ones sold in stalls of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, hung from the walls in commercial establishments, and dangled from the rear-view mirrors of taxicabs. This is the nazar boncugu, or the evil eye stone that's meant to ward off bad spirits. It's the first and most prominent sign that you are in one of Houston's relatively few Turkish restaurants.

Just looking at the menu here, you might not be so sure you're in a Turkish restaurant. Kebabs, hummus, tabouli and baklava are prominently featured — all dishes with a Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or South Asian association, at least to the eyes (and palate) of the Western diner. Undoubtedly, native Turks would vehemently disagree that the kebabs produced in Istanbul are even remotely similar to those made in Tehran, much less London or Berlin. If politics and religion are historically the major sources of international conflict, a nation's claim to its cuisine, dishes and ingredients can't be far behind.


In Houston, Turkish cuisine is less well-known than its culinary cousins from Greece, India, Pakistan or Lebanon. Three (out of maybe four or five) of Houston's Turkish restaurants are located a couple of miles from each other inside the loop — Istanbul Grill and Pasha in Rice Village, and Turquoise Grill just north on Kirby near the Southwest Freeway. Although menu items may seem similar, it's been my experience that Turkish cuisine in Houston has stayed closer to its roots than Greek or Indo/Pak cuisine, which over the years has ballooned in portion sizes and unsubtle uses of mass-produced ingredients and palate-destroying spices. Much of the Turkish cuisine you get in Houston is simple, fresh and flavorful, and accommodating to both meat lovers and vegetarians alike.

A meal will often begin with a glass of hot tea, or cay (pronounced chai). Drinking tea in Turkey is an important social tradition — outdoor cafes are filled with Turks drinking tea, smoking and socializing, all tended to by waiters darting between tables, carrying impossibly tall stacks of glasses in each hand. On the occasion I've stepped in to a Turkish restaurant in Houston for an order to-go, the owner will often bring out a glass of hot tea while I wait — a perfect example of the hospitality for which Turkish people are known.

Meze tabagi, or mixed appetizer plate at Turquoise Grill

The appetizer course of a Turkish meal, the meze, is usually made up of soups, salads, dips and spreads, and small portions of meat or fish. Most Turkish restaurants offer a meze tabagi, or mixed appetizer plate, which allows you to choose 4-8 dishes to sample. It's a great way to try the many different options. On a recent visit to Turquoise Grill, we ordered a meze tabagi which included patlican salatasi (baba ghanoush, or cooked and mashed eggplant), hummus (chickpea dip), yaprak sarma (dolma, or stuffed grape leaves), and haydari (lebni, or strained yogurt). This course is served with pide bread, similar to the Greek pita bread, but thicker and fluffier, and often sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Lahmacun at Turquoise Grill

Main courses feature a wealth of fried and grilled meat and seafood dishes, as well as dishes featuring wonderfully grilled and seasoned vegetables that are a godsend for long-suffering vegetarians. The usual beef, chicken and lamb kebabs are here; for a distinctive Turkish version try the Iskender kebab, named after its Turkish inventor, Iskender Efendi. Long, thin slices of doner kebab (lamb) are layered over butter-soaked pieces of pide bread, then topped with a tomato sauce and served with a side of yogurt. Another unique Turkish dish is lahmacun (pronounced lah mah zhoon)— crispy, thin pide bread topped with a paste of minced lamb and beef, onion, tomato, garlic and parsley. A side salad of crispy, vinegary red cabbage and lettuce is spread on top, a squeeze of lemon is added, and the lahmacun is rolled or folded together and eaten by hand.

Meat pide (Turkish pizza) at Pasha

Another type of "Turkish pizza" is known as pide, named after the pide bread that forms the crust of the boat-shaped pizza. Thicker and more substantial than lahmacun, pideler features many types of toppings such as sausage, cheese, beef and lamb. A delicious vegetarian pide features onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and cheese. And in an endearingly diplomatic gesture, many Turkish restaurants will list a "calzone" on the menu, really just a folded-over pide, for timid eaters or kids looking for something familiar.

Turkish coffee
Turkish coffee at Turquoise Grill

There are the usual sweets for dessert — honey and pistachio-laced baklava, and a more subtle sutlac, or oven baked rice pudding. But the true culmination of any Turkish meal is coffee. Turkish coffee is not distinguished by the ingredients (though it is often infused with sugar or cardamom), but rather by the preparation method. Coffee beans are ground into the finest possible powder, then mixed with hot water until the flavors are extracted and the powder settles on the bottom of the cup. The result is visually murky, with a grainy-thick texture, and with an intensely focused flavor of coffee-caramel-earthiness.

Much like the diverse nation of Turkey, which sits at a geo-political crossroads between Europe and Asia, the cuisine of Turkey is a rich fusion of dishes and ingredients derived from neighboring regions, as well as dishes unique to the country itself. The Turkish restaurants of Houston offer an authentic snapshot of this world-class cuisine and culture that is a fresh, unique and reasonably priced alternative to the city's usual Mediterranean food offerings.

This blog entry was originally posted 24 January 2011 on the website.