Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Slather me in cheez and onion: The Philly Cheesesteak Challenge

I’m not sure where I initially heard about the the Philly Cheesesteak Challange, but the idea stuck in my head like chewed up gum on the bottom of my shoe in the grocery store parking lot today. After all, nothing says culinary genius like fake cheese on bread. With meat. All in excessively excessive excess. So what is it?

Geno’s and Pat’s are two long-standing Philly institutions, cranking out cheesesteaks directly across the street from one another. In my head, the relationship between the pair is much like that of Cheers vs. Gary’s Olde Town Tavern, a heated rivalry that involves much fist-shaking and I’ll-get-you’s.

Over the years I’ve researched the challenge, pouring over write-ups and verifying the locations, talking to people who’d done it and learning the history of the establishments. Yes, I’d heard that both venues have declined through the years, rejected by Philly elders and Old Pharts for the newer, prettier offerings around town. But there festering away was a challenge too captivating to pass up: a Cheez Whiz’d hoagie at Pat’s, followed by a comparative second one from Geno’s across the street.

How. Barbarically. Awesome.

My annual baseball trip this year provided the right opportunity for such an inane feat. Not only would I be a bean toss away in Baltimore, but I’d be with a ragtag group that’s just lackadaisical enough to go along with the plan. I could taste the Yellow-5 already. So last week we sped off from Baltimore in our rented Chevy Equinox, passing through Delaware for the tiniest moment, arriving in Philly at the lunch hour.

First stop? Pat’s. Pat’s touts itself as the King of Steaks… And asks you not to make a “misteak” by going to somewhere else. Like Geno’s across the street. Pat’s, which opened in 1930, has history on its side; it’s in an old-school white building with a classic set-up. Thankfully, the folks who run the place have included a primer on the vernacular of placing your order because it’s that complicated.

I arrive at the front and spout my order with the feigned wisdom of a thousand Philly Phanatics: “Wit whiz,” I say. I rule at this.

The cheesesteak wit whiz at Pat’s looked exactly as you’d expect: A long hoagie roll, filled with iPad-thin sliced ribeye, then topped with diced onions and gluey-orange cheese. Just looking at it was magnificent—but biting into it was brilliance. The white bread was soft and welcoming; it has a velvety feel. The meat was cheesy, and the cheese was meaty. We licked the paper wrapping afterward. Nothing, it seems, could top this greatness. Except, maybe, a repeat performance.

Bread: 5 barbells
Meat: 3 barbells
cheese: 4 barbells
Overall ooze: 4.5 barbells
(All rankings out of 5 barbells)

Second stop? Geno’s. In contrast to its rival, Geno’s opened in 1966 in a neon-orange building; it’s covered in police paraphernalia and offers mostly standing/counter eating. The crowd at Geno’s was noticeably thinner. (That’s to say that there were fewer people there.) In fact, we skipped right up to the window, placed our order, and walked away with gut bomb in hand in under a minute.

Even wrapped in paper this thing looks large. (Side note: it also weighs slightly less than a V2 missile—but like the German at Pearl Harbor, I will not be defeated.) We unwrap and notice a few differences immediately. The bread at Geno’s was harder and dry—more like French bread than a loafy roll—and the cheese was thinner and scant. But less cheese meant we had a firmer grasp on the meat, which was sliced dollah-bill thin. And while the meat held tremendous flavor and polish, the bread and cheese fails left Geno’s far back, wallowing in the Philadelphia philth.

Bread: 3 barbells
Meat: 4 barbells
cheese: 2 barbells
Overall ooze: 2.5 barbells
(All rankings out of 5 barbells)

In sum, Pat’s was awesome, totally smoking the competition from Geno's. While I don’t generally seek out IBS, Pat’s is a sandwich I’d go back for.

(And with that, I hope Geno is shaking his grandpa fist somewhere.)

Finally, I now know that Houston’s newest cheesesteak place – Pappa Geno’s – offers a pretty authentic take on the sandwich. But ironically, it’s more akin to Pat’s than to its namesake. Perhaps they should have called it Pappa Patrick’s, butwhatdoiknow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sweet and Savory: The Lucky Dog Dinner

Every few months, pastry chef Rebecca Masson corrals some of the finest and most buzz-worthy chefs in Houston for a multi-course meal benefitting Lucky Dog Rescue. I finally made it to one of these storied dinners this past Sunday, and… Well, wow.

Sunday’s event featured seven courses with seven different chefs—outstanding, outrageous, outspoken chefs who were each given one course to showcase their culinary wares. The resulting dinner was a series of food fireworks that meshed perfectly with the wonderful weather and amiable atmosphere to create what’s certainly one of my favorite meals in recent memory. Oh la la!

And it went a little something like this. Guests checked into the event with a delicious pork snuggie from the Eatsie Boys, one of the newest and most popular vendors in Houston’s burgeoning food truck biz. The snuggie paired beautifully with its partner, a lovely vodka-ginger-hibiscus punch. Truly sweet and savory. (Marcy Jimenez of the Houston Wine Merchant did the pairings.)

Onward! The first seated course was a gorgeous display of clam varietals on a bed of leeks and rice from Ryan Pera. The dish was also topped with the very first salumi to come out of Pera’s new Revival Market... Pig parts—yum! Next came a delicious rendition of smoked pork sopes with chipotle-tomato jam and pickled red onions from Cyclone Anaya’s Jason Gould. The dish was texturally complete with its accompanying cotija-avocado puree, which I would now like to live in.

And then came Seth Siegel-Gardner’s midpoint masterpiece, the third seated course and my favorite dish of the night: toasted lavender meringues paired with Barely Buzzed Cheddar from the Houston Dairymaids and topped with nasturtium and chicory. But get this: also floating around the plate were chunks of apples that had been baked in a coffee crust. So that’s bitter-tartness with a sweet-creaminess; in short, a perfect plate.

Three desserts followed: Uchi’s Philip Speer created a savory-sweet pretzel ice cream with beer foam, mustard sauce, crumbled peanuts, and a spear of chocolate ganache. Rebecca Masson’s pistachio macaron filled with rhubarb-raspberry ice cream was a standout, accidentally reminiscent of a burger and fries, and I loved the sparkling red wine that came alongside it. And Chris Leung from Bootsie’s capped the evening with a tremendously rich chocolate ganache with lemon and caramel accents, plus a more savory caraway ice cream.

Not lost in the fabulous food was the fact that the dinner was a charity event, complete with a dynamite silent auction (Sadly, I lost out on the preview dinner at Underbelly, making me bittersweet and savory), plus amazing gift bags for every guest. In total, the evening raised $7300 for Lucky Dog Rescue. Happy tails, indeed.

The next Lucky Dog Dinner happens in October. I'll be there, and I hope you will, too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

5 Reasons I'm Geeked About Revival Market

Revival Market, a rad new source for fresh local bounty, is officially ready to open—tomorrow morning! Here are five reasons to get super-excited, Houston.

1) Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera. These guys are going to make *great* neighbors. We already know that they’re kind to animals and good with a garden, but they’re also incredibly knowledgable and just plain nice. Wait, what’s that...? Oh — I think my property value just went up!

2) Fantastic meat selection. Revival Market was initially slated to be a butchery; it’s just our dumb luck that it turned out to be so much more. But the owners’ dedication to quality meats that are humanely raised and their expertise with cuts and preparation dictates that this place is gonna be a meat heaven-destination-party-place.

3) Awesome take-away food. Ryan Pera is a classically trained French chef who knows his way around a spice rack. Last week I sampled a fabulously simple local carrot salad and a dynamite-delicious Asian duck slaw (pictured below), both of which I can’t wait to add to my regular dinner rotation. They’ll soon have a full case of similar offerings, plus lunchtime grab-and-go sandwiches.

4) Locally sourced products. Local bounty abounds! Farmers now have a daily outlet for their goods, rather than relying solely on a weekly or bi-weekly trip to the farmers markets. They sell more and waste less—and we have better access to awesomely fresh local produce. Wins all around. It’s also an incredible repository for local products like cheese, eggs, honeys, jams, breads, and desserts.

5) A kickin’ coffee bar. I have one cup of java daily. No more, sometimes less. I don’t need anything fancy, but I do like to splurge on weekends. Great — Revival Market offers a full coffee bar (open at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays) with beans from local roasters like Katz, Amaya, and Fusion, plus pastries from Kraftsmen. Eventually they’ll offer hot breakfast items, too—like steel-cut oatmeal and breakfast sandwiches. Yum!

You’ll find Revival Market at 550 Heights Boulevard (at White Oak) in Houston's Heights neighborhood. It'll be open weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (it opens a bit later and closes a bit earlier on weekends). Can’t wait to drop by and give those guys a spirited high-five or twelve... See you there!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Scenes from San Francisco

Somehow I got lucky: I live in Houston, but my office is in San Francisco. So I work from home almost exclusively, but return to SF about once a quarter to put in some face time at the office. I’m not gonna lie… It rawks. I spent last week out there on that crazy left coast, catching up on all my favorite things—and trying some decidedly new things with some of my favorite people. Here’s a summary.

Now that Blue Bottle has a storefront in the Ferry Building, I can skip over for my workday morning coffee. Hooray! Sure, craploads of places in SF now use Blue Bottle beans—but it’s not the same as having one of those skillful baristas work up your chosen buzz agent. Here is my gorgeous (and mega delicious) Blue Bottle latte.

When my friend Julie told me about the bacon-wrapped mochi at Chotto, I couldn’t wrap my head around what it’d be like—but the dish was so creatively amazing, we had to order a second. The meaty and crisp bacon paired beautifully with the chewy consistency and basic taste of the mochi. I wanted each bite to last forever. And with the mochi’s crazy texture, they almost did.

After Japanese on night one, I had Italian four dinners in a row. This is odd, as I rarely go out for Italian in Houston. When I tweeted about our extraordinary meal at Flour + Water, @tasty_bitz responded, capturing my swirling sentiments perfectly: “Does it make you a little sad about the state of Italian food in Houston?” Yep, a little bit. After all, this pasta dish—tiny dumplings filled with game hen and pancetta—is made of awesome.

It was @tetsujustin that told me about Una Pizza Napoletana, a small place serving some of the best pizza in the country. The menu contains five pizzas, all very similar, and an arrogantly strict warning: “All pizzas are 12” round, no slices. No substitutions or alterations. Pizzas come as listed below only. No condiments available.” They do it their way, or not at all. It’s a good thing their way is spectacular.

This banana and dulce de leche empanada could have used more filling, but the pastry was outta this world. The fragile outer layers gradually attained purchase as they circled closer to the center. It wasn’t dry or bready; just lightly firm, a perfect afternoon snack. When will we have an empanada stand in Houston?

Farm egg raviolo at Cotogna: the image below is basically a gargantuan ravioli with a poached egg inside. Break it open, and the yolk spills out, masking the plated brown butter sauce below. The thing was beautiful, rich, and gloriously decadent. We split it among three of us, which was both utterly perfect and horribly wrong.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is, perhaps, my favorite way to spend a Saturday morning. I capped my week in San Francisco with my friend Jamie, gnoshing on flavorful pork buns, delicate oysters, and a sinfully good burger from the 4505 Meat Company (below). Doesn't it just look like a place that sells happy?

And after six days away, no matter how fun, I’m always happy to come back home.

Hello again, Houston!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Latest Obsession: Latin Bites Café

Houston’s economy is squarely on track. At least that’s what the recent influx of new restaurants would have us believe. But hidden among the mediocre, the standard, and the just plain gimmicky is the Latin Bites Café, my low-key new favorite and a shining beacon of a culinary gem.

Latin Bite Café is Peruvian by birth, but compiles its menu with clear influences from all of South America, plus a little Asia, and even some Africa thrown in for good measure. How’s that? Well, most of what you’ll find is South American in nature — like the thick empanadas encasing tender meats and veggies that arrive alongside two bright dipping sauces. But stir-fries conjure up the Asian, and meaty stews offer a taste of Africa.

Dishes are fun and fresh. The technicolored ceviches are stunningly great, different from any I’ve had. Almost nightly I dream about the ceviche mixto, a plate of marinated shrimp, octopus, and fish, served with tender hunks of sweet potato and giant kernels of Peruvian corn; just add the zingy-zang of a sauce and stir to combine.

And while my menu standbys are clear favorites, I’m just as enamored by the daily specials. A recent lobster club sandwich at lunchtime remains freshly etched in my memory, and a decidedly decadent lobster risotto topped with beautifully pink strips of filet mignon was unsane — that’s right, unsane — as delicious as it was distinct.

The tiny Latin Bites space is BYOB and fills quick like lightning, so be sure to make a reservation if you go. It’s a sparse dining area that reverberates with laughter and care, great for a working lunch, a casual date, or a night out with friends. Enjoy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ten Favorite Meals of 2010

It’s no secret that the best meals are more than just food; they’re about the family, friends, and feelings you share while taking in the dishes. A truly exceptional meal engages the senses and leaves you with a well-rounded, happy-go-lucky, when-can-we-do-this-again sensation.

Below are my ten favorite restaurant meals of 2010. The one commonality among them is that I went in with no expectations, and emerged with a feeling of completeness. And while they all included exceptional dishes, they also remind me that good food is best when shared with good company.

American Seasons (Nantucket, MA)
The tiny island of Nantucket grows most of its own produce and raises most of its own meats. Dozens of restaurants on the island capitalize on the fantastic abundance of local ingredients, but American Seasons is my favorite, executing a creative daily menu with flair... Last summer my family and I enjoyed an exceedingly pleasant meal of seared scallops, tempura figs, and Nantucket mushroom tarts.

l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (London, UK)
My husband and I capped our holiday season with a brief jaunt across the pond. Several restaurants on my list were closed for the week, but that gave us a chance to sample Robuchon’s global appeal at the two-Michelin-starred l’Atelier. The meal was exceptional—from the scallop tartar and egg cocotte to the Iberico ham and foie gras burger. Plus, we sat at the bar, a favorite vantage point of mine.

Bootsie’s Heritage Café (Tomball, TX)
Randy Rucker’s latest venture concentrates on local ingredients served up in outrageously delicious way using interesting techniques. The “3rd coast menu,” a five-course culinary fireworks display for just $35, reminded me just how fun eating can be—and gets me all kinds of excited for Rucker’s next venture, restaurant connate, opening soon. The meal was complete, from small-plate appetizers to larger meats to wowerrific dessert.

Commis (Oakland, CA)
This tiny eatery in Oakland was perhaps my single favorite meal of the year. That’s partially because I had no idea what to expect and was then awed by the jaw-dropping dishes that expertly played with textures, flavors, and styles. Commis has all the pizzazz—with none of the pretention. Fennel bulb soup, wild hake, abalone, and butter-poached chicken… Amazing. Plus I was with my hilarious friend Julie, which always makes everything better.

Just August Project (Houston, TX)
Houston’s first pop-up restaurant stunned diners with creative texture and flavor pairings. I loved that the chefs placed a distinct emphasis on each dish’s accoutrements… Things like powdered red wine vinegar, ash yogurt, black garlic jam, and dehydrated chorizo added a thundering depth, plus a ribbon and bow, to each course. We ate with our ever-entertaining friends Greg and Sharon, which only enhanced the good eats.

Kata Robata (Houston, TX)
After the Just 8 Project, Seth Siegel-Gardner popped up again, joining chef Manabu Horiuchi in the kitchen at Kata Robata for a limited time. Omakaze at the sushi bar offers the best chance for both a stunningly delicious meal, which comes complete with entertainment as you watch them prepare it. We had ten courses this past December, each excellent in its own way. My favorite bite of the night was the grilled sushi rice topped with uni and togarashi lardo. [Swoon!]

Matt’s in the Market (Seattle, WA)
I take a baseball trip with three close buddies from San Francisco every summer... The most recent found us in Seattle, where we happened upon this lovely place—and glad we were. Located in a light-filled haven near the storied Pike’s Place Market, Matt’s is the essence of fresh, cooking almost entirely with local produce and seafood. Buzzed on good weather, good friends, and beer, we sat at the bar and shared oysters, fish stew, and scallop ceviche.

Sons & Daughters (San Francisco, CA)
Dinner at Sons & Daughters was a last-minute venture on my recent trip to San Francisco. Went there on the rec of a trusted advisor… and then basked in the glory of lamb tartare with dehydrated beet chips, sweetbreads with creamy foie gras, and herb salad with microgreens and edible flowers. We knew nothing about it going in, and it has become a favorite recommendation ever since.

Tag (Denver, CO)
Tag describes its fare as Continental Social, which is somehow supposed to imply that’s it’s unconstrained by geographic borders. Certainly the menu is playful and fun, capitalizing on Chef Troy Guard’s Hawaiian upbringing and global travels. I loved eating the duck fat fries and sliders, stunning carpacchios, and taco sushi, but I had even more fun watching my young nieces reveal in the sushi topped with candy pop rocks.

Uchi (Austin, TX)
We went to Uchi on the night after we got engaged, so I was probably too in love to truly notice the food in front of me. Mmm-hmmm, I honestly can’t remember the specifics of a single thing we ate, but I do remember the overwhelming happiness as I coupled incredible food with an overwhelming feeling of joy. Not that I’ll be able to emulate that again, but I simply can’t wait to return.

Honorable mentions: Lunch in the sun at Gilhooley’s, birthday dinner at Brennan’s, testing the entries for the Peking Duck Food Fight, girls night at Vic & Anthony’s, lunch at Japadog in Vancouver, and happy hour at Catalan.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

State of the City: 2011

I’m sorry to see 2010 come to a close. It was the year I got both engaged and married and switched from teaching high school English back to full-time copywriting. I traveled, I lived, I lounged, and I ate. But I’m certainly excited to see what 2011 has in store.

Houston tends to fly under the radar of the national food scene, but that’s alright by me. Yes, I loved seeing Bryan Caswell on The Next Iron Chef this year, and it’s cool to see Houston on John Mariani’s list of Best Restaurant Cities, but I think our food scene rather benefits from the relative national obscurity. After all, the Bayou City has been setting off culinary fireworks left and right this year, thanks to generally amiable attitudes from kitchen compatriots and diner darlings alike. No pressure, little drama; just a friendly competitive spirit.

Here are a few reasons I enjoyed the 2010 culinary air around town.

In one especially eclectic week last summer, I ate Serbian, Filipino, Moroccan, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mediterranean food... in addition to my usual fare. Recently I had Ethiopian food for the first time in eight years, and then went next door for a post-meal pupusa with bubble tea. Friends like Dr. Ricky and Jay Rascoe introduced me to Hot Pot, Peking Duck, and the wonderous array of taco trucks. Maybe the diversity, itself, isn’t new, but perhaps our growing desire to seek it out is.

Wine is typically the chosen buzz agent at fine-dining establishments, but this year the beautiful brewsky stepped into the foreground. We began flocking to beer-loving places like Petrol Station and Liberty Station, and restaurants began offering fancy-pants beer dinners. I attended the Southern Star beer dinner at VOICE in May, but was sorry to miss those Stone Brewing beer dinners at Vic & Anthony’s, among others. Perhaps this also reflects our growing preference for casual dinners and comfort foods.

It’s not just restaurants and breweries working together... Chefs are sharing kitchens, too, wowing eaters by combining culinary repertoires. There was the Lazy Summer Repast featuring chefs from Chez Roux, Bootsie’s, and the Just 8 Project. Shortly after that came the 10-10-10 dinner: 10 courses and 10 drink pairings from Seth Siegel-Gardner, Justin Yu, and David Buehrer, held at Paulie’s in Montrose. Pastry chefs Plinio Sandalio and Rebecca Masson even held their own collaborative dessert tasting.

Houston has never been known as a local food mecca, but that’s starting to change as restaurants citywide are spotlighting our local bounty on their menus -- or even growing their own. Eh, we’re no California, but Texas does have a surprising girth of local foods in the form of Gulf seafood, local cheeses, area beers, and Texas tomatoes, peaches, and grapefruits. Look for them on menus citywide, area farmers markets, or at the soon-to-open Revival Market. Hooray!

The City of Houston is notoriously hard on food trucks, but the community is beginning to prosper despite the strict regulations. Now that a few are up-and-running, they’ve created a kind of support group for one another, offering tips and advice to the newer ones making a go. Everyone’s a winner now that we have stands like Melange Creperie, the Eatsie Boys, and Oh My Pocket Pies. Even some of the brick-and-mortar restaurants are going mobile -- like Hubcap Grill, Armando’s, and Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.

Yes, it’s been a banner year for lovely H-Town. And my calendar’s never complete without a list of selfish requests for the year to come.

1) A continuation of the trends from above. Why not? I like where we’re headed.

2) A return to dessert. With all the savory hullabahoo this year, we seem to have forgotten about dessert. Gone are the days when I checked out the dessert menu first to decide whether or not I needed to save room.

3) More pop-up restaurants. The Just August Project opened our eyes to culinary possibilities, creative cheffery, and a new type of dining. More, please!

4) More vegetables. Some of my most memorable dining experiences this year (in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver) included vegetables in starring roles. I want more of this in Houston, though places like Haven, The Grove, and Bootsie’s are close.

(A plate at OIMBY, a feast made almost entirely from locally sourced foods.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Culinary Camaraderie at Kata Robata

It’s fantastically awesome to see that there’s so much *fun* going on in the kitchens around town. Truly, the restaurants are thriving these days are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously and continue to step up their games by playing with flavors and techniques. They love it, we love it; it’s textbook win-win. One only need follow Randy Rucker (of Bootsie’s Café) or Carlos Rodriguez (of Vic & Anthony’s) on Twitter to see an endearing sort of kitchen camaraderie going on... It’s the kind that spills from the kitchen to the dining room via a freight train of fabulous food.

I wouldn’t have pegged Seth Siegel-Gardner and Manabu Horiuchi to have that sort of Be/Fri relationship, but the pair is making sweet, sweet gastronomy together at Kata Robata. Hori is a classically trained sushi chef from a small town outside Tokyo. Siegel-Gardner is a Houston native who has honed his cheffery at next-level places like the Fat Duck in London at C-House in New York. Each is a culinary genius in his own right—and now they’re combining their knowledge and packing a serious one-two punch for Houston diners to enjoy. For a limited time.

Below are some photos from my omakase experience at Kata Robata last night. All of these items are from the recently overhauled menu, which you should try as soon as is possible. Siegel-Gardner will be sharing the spotlight at Kata Robata for the next few months before possibly moving on, so the time is now.

Honey mussels from British Columbia. The one on the left has a light citron vinaigrette and char roe; the one on the right has a cucumber vinaigrette and ponzu. Simple, smooth, and totally flavorific.

House smoked salmon served with puffed salmon skin, thin sliced pickles, and a purple cabbage reduction. The puffed skin adds a nice measure of savory.

My favorite dish of the night: Grilled sushi rice topped with smooth uni and a rich togarashi lardo, served with a poached quail egg. Mega flavor fireworks with every bite.

A paper-thin slice of dehydrated short rib. Below is the rest of the dish: Perfectly hydrated Akaushi beef short ribs with broccoli stems and toasted nori yogurt. Amazing.

Barbecued unagi under a pile of powered bone marrow snow. Supine in the background is a slice of foie gras studded with stripes of unagi sauce. Pure decadence.

Fresh toro tar tar with wasabi vinaigrette, kumquat cream, and crunchy gobo chips. Simple and light, a beautiful mix of textures, served with just the right accoutrements.

Salmon and lightly fried softshell crab studded with Korean barbecue powder and togarashi. On the other side of the plate was the pork belly roll topped with hardboiled egg and a seedless slice of jalapeno.

Shockingly light puffs of doughnut: A coconut one lies in the foreground. The ones in the back are filled, one with sweet potato and the other with red bean paste. A stunning way to end a stunningly delicious meal.