Thursday, December 17, 2009

Best App Ever? Quite Possibly.

My sister-in-law and her culinary Hercules of a mother win the award for Best Thing I Have Eaten at a Holiday Party this year. A coveted trophy, I know. Anyway, it’s Brie -- with dulce de leche. Great Jeebus! Why have we never thought of this before?! Simple, beautiful, and mind-blowingly delicious, this alluring app draws people in like a siren song on crack. For reals. Add it to the bar, buffet, or coffee table of your choosing to impress guests with your gastronomic genius. Party on, my friends!

Sweet Brie with Pecans
-- Slide a round of Brie onto a serving plate.
-- Spread a generous amount of dulce de leche evenly on top.
-- Garnish with toasted pecans in a fancy-schmancy pattern.
-- Serve at room temperature with the wafers of your choice.
-- Stand alongside your creation to accept the praise forthcoming.

What’s the best thing you’ve eaten at an event this year? As the holiday season prepares for its culminating events, perhaps someone will compile these goodies into a festive pantheon of savory and sweet delights and INVITE ME over to chow.

A Festivus miracle, indeed.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Branch Water Tavern

I’ve been so *stupidly* busy lately that I haven’t even had time to tell you how much I’m enjoying the new Branch Water Tavern. This speakeasy-like restaurant (read: dimly-lit with a kick-ass bar) replaces the old Cue & Cushion on Shepherd near Feagan.

Replaces the Cue & Cushion -- Ha! I just like saying that.

Anyway, go there. It’s centrally located, yet far enough from Washington that the DBs haven’t discovered it. And when you do go, get the chicken fried oysters. I might have turned my nose up a touch when I read this on the menu, but the resulting dish is perfectly sinful. Rich, meaty oysters are lightly battered and chicken fried; they go down the hatch tasting a heckuva lot like buffalo wings, only a jabillion times better. Asdlkgjlsdkjg!

The charcuterie plate cannot compete with the betters around town and the mussels were overly fishy in a disjointed broth, but the remaining apps -- like prosciutto-arugula rolls and bacon-wrapped prawns under a poached egg -- are duly impressive.

The table favorite of the mains was the slow-cooked snapper, served with a flourish in a plastic bag that’s cut right open at your table. When the steam clears, you’ve got a mild and flaky fish, lightly flavored with complex Provencal herbs. Delicious. And ‘tis the season for Santa’s venison. The one at Branch Water is a tender delight -- beautifully cooked and with a sprinkle of salt in a huckleberry sauce -- but I wish it came with more of the lovely butternut squash and wintery Brussels sprouts served diminutively alongside.

In other news, you might have noticed that I’ve been writing for the food blog at The Houston Press. It's been fun and challenging, but means that I’ve been updating this bad boy much less frequently. I’m enjoying it, *except* for the fact that they don’t use the serial comma. I am semi-obsessed with the serial comma -- and quite loud about it, too -- but will attempt to reconcile my differences to promulgate a positive working relationship.

Place your bets, fools.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Adventuring Out: Dim Sum

Foodventures with our YES Prep student have continued and are more popular than ever! I’ve actually switched to a World Literature curriculum this year -- not only because it’s closer to my heart, but also because it ties to well to introducing food in the classroom.

Laugh it up. I’m not joking.

This past Sunday we took nine confident and capable sophomores to try dim sum for the first time at Ocean Palace. Since we’re reading The Joy Luck Club in class, we’ve had a cultural amuse bouche, and several students were ready for a true main course. Excited were they to show up at school -- on a Sunday -- to meet up with their teachers for a trip to Houston’s Chinatown.

Upon arrival, we told them, “No sodas today!!” [with a fist shake] and they shrugged, “OK.” And then we told them, “You have to try everything!!” [with a fist shake] and they said, “No problem.” We were shocked at how easily they slipped on their adventure caps, trusting us to steer them right.

Our amazing Algebra II teacher is originally from Hong Kong, and giggles broke out when she spoke to our servers in Cantonese. Then, a quick lesson on chopsticks before digging in... Hi-YA! Dishes piled up under the watchful intrigue of the kiddos. They loved the shrimp dumplings, pork buns, and daikon radish cakes. They connected the spongy tripe to meaty menudo. They took turns filling each other’s cups of tea. They each tried a saucy chicken foot. And they fought over the last sugary coconut treat. 100% awesome.

Each student walked away just a little wiser in the ways of the world -- and I walked away contented by teenagers who show a genuine curiosity about our global community. It is a wonder to watch how food can teach, create, unite. The day turned out serene, fast, formidable, and exciting-to-the-max. If only all my school weeks could begin with such varied grace.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Deck the City

It is *splendid* outside right now. Absolutely splendid.

Yes, the weather’s nice and the livin’s easy. So where do you dine to take advantage of this fleeting joy? The problem is, no matter how nice the temp gets, “outdoor dining” here often means you’re sitting in a glorified parking lot. Never fear, gentle eaters! Here are a few selections to take your mind off Concrete City. Next stop, Niceville.

If it’s a burger you seek, head to Beck’s Prime on Augusta for a two-hander and one of the best milkshakes in town. Get yer grub on while you cool your jets under the shade of Houston’s largest tree, a great-granddaddy live oak. Little Big’s provides another option, and if you sit with your back to Montrose, you can *just* make out the downtown skyline among the Phone Pole Wasteland.

The Black Lab on Montrose gives you the unique opportunity to sample Houston’s finest cheese soup while you play a lifesize game of chess on the hedged-in front patio. Or get your Tex-Mex fix under the lighted palms on the back patio at El Pueblito. [Sigh!]

For something a little nicer, try the aptly named Treehouse on the Discovery Green; it’s American food and cocktails galore, elevated high(ish) into the downtown skyline. A true Houston jackpot is the Backstreet Café. If the food there weren’t so darn good, I’d attribute its 20-year success to the legendary garden deck. Or grab a date and take a strip mall hiatus at the Daily Review or Tiny Boxwood’s, which offer serene garden havens where you can wine, dine, recline, and refine. Hoo-ahhhh.

There’s plenty of beauty to be found in Houston’s madness -- Bodegas in the Museum District, Petrol Station in Oak Forest, Giacomo’s in River Oaks. Just keep your eyes peeled and your mind open. Any outdoor treasures I missed?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vegan Dining to the Max

There are four reasons why I could never be vegan, and their names are Red Hawk, Milk in My Coffee, Butter, and Macaroni and Cheese... Pleased to meet you. I do, however, hold a healthy respect for anyone with willpower enough to strike these demonic joys from their lives. I couldn’t do it, for sanity’s sake, yet I envy their healthy digestion :)

I attended last night’s vegan dinner at Beaver’s to satisfy a long-standing curiosity. My concept of vegan foods had been the nasty-looking bulgur and oat cakes wrapped in plastic next to the cash register at coffee shops in San Francisco and Austin. Is that all there is to it? I was dying to see what some of Houston’s most celebrated chefs could do with the genre.

And I was not disappointed. I left the festively *rad* evening 100% stuffed and begging host Jonathan Jones to please have a similar dinner in the spring when we have entirely new crop of vegetables to choose from. Yup, my first meatless, cheese-free, all-vegan, no-butter experience was just that good. Here’s a rundown in case you’d like to satisfy your curiosity, too.

Amuse: Fantastically rich Forest mushroom shooter with soy; could have been my favorite dish... (David Coffman, Benjy’s)

1) Delicious Brussels sprouts with chestnut pesto (Monica Pope, t’afia)

2) A lightly-dressed Persimmon and radish salad, red Cerignola and green Castelvetrano olives, and arugula (Monica Pope, t’afia)

3) Creamy-without-cream roasted red pepper and garlic hummus with house-made crackers (Russell Kirkham, Beaver’s)

4) Fall-tastic pumpkin-cushaw squash and ginger risotto with smoked corn (Russell Kirkham, Beaver’s)

5) Heirloom grits cooked in corn juice (giving the dish an incredible enhanced flavor), corn ricotta, and salsify, and cooked in the style of bacon (Randy Rucker, Tenacity Supper Club)

Intermezzo: Carbonated grapes, orange ice, celery root soy bubbles (David Coffman, Benjy’s)

6) Another candidate for my favorite dish: Salt-cured smoked tofu, sloppy BBQ with wild mushrooms, crispy garlic, sweet potato vine (Jonathan Jones, Beaver’s)

7) Interpreted Fall colors of New England as described by Alison Cook: potato risotto under foam (Randy Rucker, Tenacity Supper Club)

8) Abalone mushroom “lasagna,” smoked turnip “cheese,” Texas eggplant bolognese; wins the award for most creative (Jonathan Jones, Beaver’s)

9) Savory with sweet: Roasted pear tart with mushroom iced tea (Plinio Sandalio, Textile)

10) Decadent sweet potato beignets (Plinio Sandalio, Textile)

11 and 12) Autumn cake with candied carrots and pistachio (not pictured) and an amazing I-don’t-miss-butter-at-all “Hostess Cupcake” with vegan buttercream (Jody Stevens, Jodycakes)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loves Me Some Chicken and Waffles

Without a doubt, chicken-and-waffles is one of the best inventions to come out of the 1800’s, right alongside the light bulb, the telephone, and industrialization. Seriously. More recently, this historically soulful concoction has found a little cubbyhole in my heart that I never knew existed. And while I generally don’t love mixing savory with sweet, I’ve developed a shameful lust for C-n-W that demands to be fed.

To that end, I’ve been making my way around town in hopes of locating the very best iteration. Fried Chicken? Awesome. Waffles? Awesome. Fried chicken and waffles together? Triple awesome.

It may sound obvious, but chicken-and-waffles is essentially two dishes cooked separately, then smashed together. What I’ve learned is that most restaurants place *great* emphasis on one half, while completely disregarding the other. For shame! Research below.

The Breakfast Klub
This place is firstly famous for its Wings and Waffles dish, and indeed the chefs here crank out batch after batch after batch, breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday. In terms of experience, no one beats these guys. As expected, the chicken here is 100% incredible, but they have *got* to do something about their chewy, reheated, Eggo-like waffles which do this dish a severe injustice.

Max’s Wine Dive
The Sunday brunch menu is where you’ll find Max’s Wing Cakes, an enormous plate of beautifully seasoned fried chicken waaaangs served over pancakes. Not surprisingly, the chicken here is great -- golden, spicy, and without grease oozing out everywhere. But the pancakes are just average. Also? They’re not waffles. And honestly? It seems semi-wrong to eat soul food in a wine bar. Just sayin’.

Dry Creek
Dry Creek’s brunch menu features crispy wings over Grandma’s Waffle. This was, by far, the best waffle of the lot -- airy, thick, and golden -- but the fried chicken was an overly-breaded salty pool of grease. Yikes! If we could only get the waffle peeps here to meet the chicken peeps at The Breakfast Klub, we’d be in Wings ‘n Waffle heaven. Only I don’t think that’s happening this century. Poochie.

This new Heights diner serves chicken-and-waffles all day. I went in with low expectations (Lola is new, after all), and was pleasantly surprised by the gold-medal goodness. The fruit-laden waffle is nicely crisp and the chicken is expertly breaded, then fried without a mess of excess grease. While the waffle, itself, is a bit chewy, this dish is great. Theo didn’t like his, but I truly enjoyed mine.


Sparkle’s hamburger joint has exactly the ambiance you seek for chicken-and-waffles. It’s a run-down shack on a run-down corner south of downtown. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high when I laid eyes on the place because I was severely disappointed with the food. The chicken was *beyond* salty and the waffle, tough. They are not afraid of the butter (as noted in the picture below), but even that godly substance couldn’t jack the love.

Despite their ups-and-downs, I’ve enjoyed most iterations of the dish, at least to some extent. However, I definitely haven’t found the golden standard. Any suggestions?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Shame of Our Schools

You might already know that I teach 10th grade English at a rigorous, low-income charter school called YES Prep. What you might not know is that more than 80% of our students qualify for free and reduced meals -- and what you almost assuredly do not know is what “free and reduced lunch” looks like.

Well, here you go. It looks like this.

Students qualify for free and reduced lunch, of course, because their families cannot always afford to pay for or provide regular meals. Oftentimes this lunch is the only meal of substance a child receives in a day. And when that “substance” consists of an off-color hot dog plus a few tarnished pieces of canned pineapple –- or about 350 calories total –- we’ve got a problem. It’s called Hollow-Eyed, Malaisical, I-Have-No-Energy-to-Pay-Attention disease. [Sigh.]

This problem is not new. Plenty of people are loud about the fact that school lunches absolutely blow. Chef Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, is one of them. A few weeks ago, Cooper came to town to tout the School Lunch Revolution, an idea she successfully implemented in Berkeley, CA. This plan seeks to make lunches healthier and more substantial, yet still tasty: Whole wheat crust and veggies on pizza, roasted potatoes instead of French fries, baked chicken instead of mystery meat. In short, her idea looks like this meal, sponsored by Whole Foods and served to us at the info session.

Chef Cooper has even put some numbers behind her idea: She says that 25% of our country’s healthcare spend goes to obesity/diabetes (that’s $260 billion of $1 trillion). And her solution is simple: We currently spent $8.5 billion on school lunches, and we need to up that number to... $14 billion.

I’m sorry, what?

It’s a great idea in theory: We can pay for better, healthier food now, or we can pay even more for fancy-pants healthcare treatments later. And where do we get all this unaccounted-for money? Easy, she says -- We need $1 more per student per day, so quit funding money-suck initiatives like Cash for Clunkers and the Iraq War.

The simplicity is *almost* refreshing -- yet also completely infuriating.

There’s no one out there that’s opposed to serving healthier, more substantial lunches in schools. But the question remains: If you had $5 billion to spend on education, would you put it towards food?

Consider the alternative.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pumpkins at Canino's...

Are just .25/pound! And man, are they gorgeous.

Every time I go to Canino’s I kick myself for not going more often.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ciao Bello

Tony Vallone hasn’t gone out of his way to promote his new restaurant, Ciao Bello, yet it’s near-packed early on a Wednesday night. Sheesh. Given the stature of the Vallone name around town, this is not a big shock. Also not surprising is that Ciao Bello is another gold star on his already dazzling resume.

Walking in you’ll notice that the place is a near replica of the restaurant’s previous iteration, complete with high ceilings, beautiful bar, and a window into the kitchen. It’s a nice enough space, but prepare to get a little cozy -- the dining room is so crammed with tables, so you’ll need to think thin if nature calls.

Once your food arrives, though, you’ll immediately forget about the vociferous neighbors only a forearm’s length away. The caprese salad is standard at best, so start with one of the more creative options... Like the antipasti, a gorgeous selection of stuffed mushrooms, roasted peppers, artichoke hearts, eggplant, salami, and more, each tastier than the last, perfect for sharing.

The much-touted osso bucco ravioli meets its delicious expectations. Tender, disintegrate-in-your-mouth strings of buttery osso bucco hide inside a glorious pasta pillowcase, topped with a rich and meaty sauce. Totally dreamy. The Chicken al Matonne, too, is a win -- a lemony poisson, seared, pressed flat, and cooked under a brick. Moist and satisfying from the first bite to the last.

Finally, save room for the Zeppole Zia Maria, warm, beignet-like doughnuts topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of pastry cream. These puppies top a crazy-enticing list of meal-enders.

Ciao Bello is touted as a casual Italian place. And that’s true in the sense that you can leave your tux at home. But when the median pasta costs $17, I’d say you’ve moved right on into the upscale. However, the food is outstanding and the service supreme. So as long as you don’t expect to get outta there for less than two or three Jacksons, you’ll come out seeing stars.

Ciao Bello - 5161 San Felipe (at Sage)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lola in the Heights

The Heights may be ablaze with a local arsonist, but one new restaurant has also sparked interest: Lola, the diner-style new offering from Ken Bridge of Dragon Bowl and Pink’s Pizza fame. Housed in a remodeled building at the corner of 11th and Yale, Lola meets the mid-range restaurant need for an area dominated by low-end taco shops and high-end eateries.

Upon entering, you’ll notice first that the interior of the building lacks cohesion. Like, really. A beautifully shellacked traditional wooden counter immediately draws the eye, which is then *blinded* by the surrounding fluorescent walls. When your head spins, you’ll be smacked by the industrial open metals of the front wall. It is as if Cyndi Lauper, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the father from “A Christmas Story” were unable to decide which style to use, so they compromised and each took a third. True, it’s a nice conversation piece, but it also left me wondering if the restaurant’s interior was actually completed.

The menu is similarly disjointed -- but it’s less noticeable. Breakfast items, served all day, are anchored by egg dishes (like the ubiquitous Huevos Rancheros) and a Chicken-n-Waffles plate that puts the Breakfast Klub to shame. The fruit-laden waffle is golden crisp and the chicken is expertly breaded, then fried without a mess of excess grease. The Day-After-Thanksgiving sammich falls way short, though; the turkey, stuffing, and flavorless gravy each miss the mark, leaving bites bland and mushy. But do not pass up the near-perfect French fries. Dinner items are a hodgepodge: salmon, meatloaf, and the like.

I’ve heard the gripes about the pricing, and indeed it is high for diner-style food. However, Lola is no greasy spoon. Chefs use quality ingredients and portions are huge. And it’s early, yet. I have no doubt that the menu and prices will improve with time.

In short, Lola will succeed because there are enough people that want it to. Ken Bridge has the experience and know-how to run a successful restaurant, and local Heights patrons are happy to have a novel and decently-priced addition in the ‘hood. So even though I’m not enamored of the place as is, it has the potential to become a regular stop. And that, my friends, is upside.

Lola - 1102 Yale (at 11th)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Houston's Fearless Critics

Good news -- The updated version of Houston’s best restaurant guide hits the shelves tomorrow! That’s right: The Fearless Critic is back with even more outlandish, outrageous, and hilariously rad reviews. Since the last guide was published two years ago, Houston has gained and lost restaurants with only slightly more grace than a Hollywood starlet. Here’s your chance to find out which ones are worth the effort, and which are already on the road to the glue factory.

Houston was The Fearless Critic’s test market to create an undercover council of local food writers and bloggers, and I had the distinct honor to be included in the mix. We ranted and raved, argued and ate our way through just about every restaurant in town. And I do mean argued; at one point we jammed the WWW by throwing out 200+ emails per day, all in the name of declaring a best burger. Our spats resulted in a straight-forward, no-holds-barred, kick-in-the-pants restaurant guide that offers a “brutally honest” picture of Houston’s culinary landscape.

And yes, we did give one burger the coveted blue ribbon -- but I could never deprive you of the chance to devour this *exceptional* piece of contemporary literature by teeing up the answer on a little old blog. The only shortcut on the path to gastronomic excellence is to buy the book yourself. Sorry :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Food in the News

Just plain weird...
A North Carolina man -- who admits that he tends to gulp his food while eating -- suffered from unexplainable coughing fits, fatigue, and pneumonia-like symptoms for two years. Doctors finally locate the problem: A piece of a Wendy’s spork lodged in his lungs.

Closer to home...
Workers at Tampico Seafood on Airline in the Heights had a hell of a night last Friday when they were robbed at gunpoint and then held hostage once police arrived on the scene. Fortunately this one has a happy ending for everyone except the gunmen.

Most exciting of all...
Former Chez Panisse chef launches a line of ready-to-heat meals available at Costco. The line offers four dishes (polenta, penne bolognese, braised beef, and turkey meat loaf), all organic, no preservatives. The meals serve five, and none sells for more than $14. Just one more reason to luuurve Costco!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Return to Luby's

Man, did I love Luby’s when I was in high school. Didn’t everyone? And I used to get the same thing every time: fried okra, mashed potatoes, and macaroni-n-cheese. Sometimes jello. Last night I went back to this Lone Star staple for the first time in fourteen years. Turns out, a lot has changed...

Now that Luby’s is owned by the Pappas group, it’s a fancy-pants cafeteria with track lighting and upscale-ish food. Nearly everything is low on flavor and high-high-high on salt, and I found it -- dare I say it -- overpriced. This, my friends, is not the same place I see in my rose-colored memories. But even though their food and my taste buds have evolved over time, one thing at Luby’s is still as awesome as ever: the macaroni-n-cheese.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Rise of the Casual Italian: Giacomo's

The corner of Westheimer and Bammel has been a revolving door of restaurants over the past several years... Sausalito, Palazzo’s, Pan y Agua. All epic fails. Now the space is Giacomo’s, a casual Italian eatery offering hot and cold dishes and drinks at reasonable prices.

The once-dingy space has been converted into a light-filled sanctuary, sort of a modern 70’s look with its mint green tables and color splashed walls: There’s a bar for a pre-meal prosecco, a small outdoor area for when the weather allows, and an accommodating staff for all your questions and needs. But of course, the real draw is the food.

Take the minestrone soup, for example. It’s a clean and delicious combination, heavy on the carrots and kale, swimming in a complex vegetarian broth that’s made in house daily. And then there’s the orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta topped with broccoli rabe and lamb meatballs in a light, brothy sauce. The pasta, itself, is good, but the stand-out is the super-spiced waterfall of lamb meatballs which add just the right kick to the otherwise vanilla dish.

The real show-stealer, though, is the half-moon pasta filled with Swiss chard and goat cheese in a sage butter sauce. The handmade pasta packets have that exact texture we wish every noodle could emulate, and the creamy, flavorful filling provides just the right accompaniment. Simple, satisfying, dreamy.

So lovely was my experience that I placed a to-go order on my way out the door to use as my next day’s lunch (and dinner): four of the vegetable sides for $10. Cauliflower with hazelnuts and capers, beets with gorgeous chunks of goat cheese, crisp carrots in a vinaigrette, and a colorful array of roasted peppers -- all of it prepared from scratch daily. I was the envy of the lunch room.

Giacomo’s - 3215 Westheimer at Bammel Lane

Monday, September 14, 2009

Boudin Kolaches: Cajun-Czech Fusion?

I’m all kinds of Friday-tired today. And it’s only Monday. So I’m going to make like it’s the weekend and drool over this boudin kolache from the Shipley Do-Nuts on North Main (near 45), available on Saturday and Sunday only. It’s a fluffy-warm bread pocket stuffed with a tender scoop of boudin that’s just the right mix of savory ‘n spice.

As I grabbed the last one on the shelf yesterday, I had to tip my hat to the culture collision in effect. On the one hand there’s the boudin, a quintessentially Cajun invention of pork sausage and rice. And yet it arrives in kolache, a deliciously Czechoslovakian vessel. The resulting package makes me believe in globalization. And long for the Olympics kinda. This bad boy will surely find a regular place in my dreams and my belly. Good thing I live nearby.

Thanks @sharonmoves for the rec!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Classroom Cuisine

Last week my 10th grade English class at YES Prep started our Melting Pot Cookbook in which we’ll compile various recipes from our studies in World Literature. Since we started with Latin America, it was easy for my mostly Hispanic students to track down a family recipe and write an imagery-laden paragraph describing the dish. Yesterday they brought in several of the selections so we could triple-check that their writing measures up with their cooking -- and vice versa.

Well before school, students poured into my classroom to leave huge trays of homemade delicacies: enchiladas, tamales, caldo, quesadillas, empanadas, gorditas, pupusas, arroz con leche, churros, and chocoflan. Wow, holy heck, and goodness me. My students impress me [almost] daily, but this display was beyond belief.

One chica waltzed into class well into first period, a basket of empanadas slung over her wrist like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She reported that her mother had started the meat at midnight, and that the two of them had risen at 4am to begin the assemblage. How could I give her a tardy when she brought us -- hands down -- the best empanadas I’ve ever tasted, hot out of the oven? With homemade hot sauce and a gorgeous writing selection to boot. [Swoon]

Pastes, I learned, are savory wheat pastries filled with meat and potatoes, native to the state of Hidalgo, Mexico. Another student gracefully wrote about her early childhood in Ixmiquilpan, where she and her mom stopped at a tiny pastes shop every Monday after buying groceries. She may be lightyears away from her home state now, but her family’s pastes recipe always gives her a warm and memory-filled taste of her far away youth.

From Gabriel and his caldo to Tamale Brenda to Jose and his first experience making gorditas with mom, each student had a story to gush. I only hope that they “get” the embedded memory, language, and cultural significance of food when we virtually travel to India during out next unit. Onward!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Original Carrabba's

When Johnny and Damian Carrabba sold their string of Carrabba’s restaurants to the Outback Steakhouse group in 1995, they kept the original two locations (Kirby/Richmond and Woodway/Voss) in the family. And while the franchised versions have fallen into the dogfood abyss that are chains (blech!), the original two shops continue to turn out consistently great dishes on a daily basis.

Much like the *ONLY* Ninfa’s I go to is the original one on Navigation, the *ONLY* Carrabba’s I’ll go to is the flagship one on Kirby. Eh, you won’t find the sophistication of Da Marco or the creativity of Dolce Vita, but you will find classic Italian dishes, well prepared with beautiful sauces and pasta al dente.

Crab cakes are light and fresh, chicken dishes cooked just right. The pizza crust could use some work, but the fresh toppings and pure simplicity almost make up for it. Cappelletti -- ravioli-like pasta stuffed with chicken, ricotta, and spinach in a tomato cream sauce -- stole the show as the evening favorite. But the Pasta Weesie -- with mushrooms, scallions, and sautéed shrimp -- sings with flavor in a neck-and-neck, NASCAR-like race.

The original Carrabba’s isn’t anything mindblowing. Really, it’s not. But it is a fun night out with great food, nice service, and an upbeat atmosphere. So why the heck not?

Carrabba’s -- 3115 Kirby (near Richmond)

Friday, September 4, 2009

School Daze: Delicious Learning

It seems like just yesterday I was thinking about allllll the tiiiiiiime I had on my hands to get things done this summer. Well that bubble burst when I started school again a month ago. [Gasp!] That’s right -- August 3rd, fools. Let’s check out how I did food wise:

-- Find the best soup dumplings in Houston – CHECK
-- Find the best pho in Houston – CHECK
-- Try a million taco places – CHECK, CHECK, and CHECK.
-- Grab a burger at Hubcap Grill – Curses. Never made it.

Somewhere in there I had a lot of fun. Also? I made the terrifying discovery that relish at Wrigley Field looks like fluorescent goo from someone’s stomach lining, a Harvey Keitel movie, or the farthest reaches of space. I wonder if it can eat through diamonds.

I’m still struggling to come up for air this school year, but am getting there. As always, I’m thinking of all the ways I can incorporate food into the classroom. Our first initiative, which started today, is creating a Melting Pot Cookbook with recipes from the various regions we study. Each student brings in a recipe and an associated paragraph designed to entice. Next week we’ll sample each dish after reading the paragraph to assess whether or not they used the right imagery to capture the recipe’s spirit. Mmmmm... Loquacious and delicious!

Due next week are the Latin American ones, so I’m hoping for all their double-secret family recipes for mole, posole, and empanadas. I’ll keep you posted. Arriba!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

One Word: Joeychestnut

So I hung out with Joey Chestnut on Friday in San Francisco. That’s right: hot-dog-scarfing, world-record-holding, small-child-frightening Joey Chestnut, currently ranked #1 by the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating, Inc). It was pretty awesome.

Our conversation went like this:
ME: How’dya get so good at eating?
JOEY CHESTNUT: I’m the youngest of four boys. Growing up, if you didn’t eat fast, you didn’t eat.
ME: Huh. Will you go eat that side of beef?

It was a fascinating study in restraint. Anyway, really nice guy. And according to Wikipedia, in ten minutes, Joey Chestnut can eat:
- 45 pulled pork sandwiches
- 118 jalapeño poppers
- 68 hot dog with buns
- 130 Krystal hamburgers
- 231 pork gyoza

Daaaang. That’s efficient. It takes me, like, ten minutes to get through a yogurt. [Sigh]

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's the Pork Belly Throwdown, Fools!

Homer: What?! Lisa, are you saying that you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, maaaaagical animal... Heh heh heh.

Latent in Homer’s philosophically persevering words is the idea of an animal so miraculous that it provides us with a waterfall of pork-flavored sundries. The pinnacle, of course, is pork belly, the happiest pork product of all. [Dreamy sigh.]

As it turns out, pork belly is to a chef what Megan Fox is to a guy: Lusty delicious. So when Jenny mentioned a pork belly throwdown, chefs from the far reaches of the city (well, kinda) came scurrying to throw their hats into the proverbial ring. And the match was set.

Last night more than 100 of us gathered at Catalan to pork our way through a buffet of pig-product-n-beans. Kitchen camaraderie overflowed into the adoring crowd, creating an atmosphere of warmth contagious. And then Christmas came early for the intrepid panel of judges (one of whom claims to have had a hamburger beforehand), which made its way through the TWELVE pork belly dishes concepted and created by some of the city’s most inspiring chefs. The line-up included such all-stars as Cody Vasek (VOICE), Randy Evans (Haven), Randy Rucker (Rainbow Lodge), Jonathan Jones (Beaver’s Ice House), Manubu Horiuchi (Kata Robata), and Ryan Pera (The Grove), among others, all strutting their culinary stuff in a no-holds-barred, epic battle for burly greatness. Daaaaang!

When the smoke cleared, one contestant reigned supreme. First place went to VOICE’s sous chef, Cody Vasek, whose offering included sweet-and-sour pork and a mesmerizing “pork ’n bean” ice cream sandwich. Of note: Cody also won the fried chicken throwdown, so with this victory, he now officially owns the Htown Throwdown and can back up any verbal trash.

As one of the hovering beasts begging tastes off the ever-benevolent judges, my favorite offering was the pork belly torta from Randy Evans. This? Was a thing of beauty: a messy titan of a dish oozing with pork belly and fresh avocado on a pillowy bread vessel. Randy, if you can hear me, please put this on the menu at Haven. Please...?

Yes, sports fans, the Pork Belly Throwdown was a fun and hilarious event which showcased Houston’s amazing pool of culinary artists. Above all else remains the simple and indisputable sign of a successful food nerd event: it’s nearly 24 hours later, and I’m still full.

Shout out to my fellow mooching Chowhounds!