Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Shandy’s Café

Tucked into a strip center between a gas station and a Spec’s sits Shandy’s, a comfy, cozy café near Memorial Park. The place is tiny and parking is semi-scarce, but don’t let that scare you away... It may not look like much, but Shandy’s is an absolute jewel.

Shandy, herself, does much of the serving, and she’s a pistol. She runs the place with an iron fist and stern eye, cranking out orders with efficiency and flair. For those of you who worship at the house of bacon, you’ll find no better BLT in Houston. Served warm on whole wheat toast, this version features chipotle mayo to spice up the crispy bacon, sheets of lettuce, and fresh tomatoes. I’ve sampled my way through much of the menu, but the BLT is a beacon, forever guiding me into its arms of potable joy.

Burgers are plump, juicy, and made to order, and the fries are beautifully crisp. The chicken salad sandwich, served on warm Ciabatta bread, is a lover; try it with the uniquely Shandy side of roasted artichokes and cherry tomatoes.

The menu is varied: Tarts, salads, hummus, and pasta. And the only major flaw I can find is that the dang place is closed on Sundays.


Shandy’s Café - 5814 Memorial Drive (near Westcott)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Great Big Glutton Goes to New Orleans

Before heading to New Orleans last weekend, I sought the restaurant advice of a few trusted advisors. My friend Elizabeth passed on her list, adding: “If you don’t come back from New Orleans feeling fat and disgusting, then you haven't done NOLA right.”

Well. I do like my ribbons blue.

We kicked the weekend off right, spending Friday night at John Besh’s deluxe restaurant, August. Everything there -- save the attitude -- was fantastic. The gold star goes to the roast duckling, which came with mounded squirts of buttery foie gras, creamy grits, and smooth quince jelly.

Saturday’s winner was the shrimp po’ boy at Johnny’s: Piles of perfectly crisp fried shrimp with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles atop a heavenly pillow of French bread. Add a little bit of Louisiana’s “perfect” hot sauce, and I can feel my blood turning Creole.

The rest of the weekend turned into a progressive eat-a-thon: Grilled oysters at Acme, outrageous cheeseburgers at Port of Call, sugared beignets at Café du Monde, seafood gumbo and bourbon bread pudding at Lüke, spicy jambalaya at The Gumbo Shop, pecan pralines at Southern Candymakers, toasted muffaletta at Napolean House, and everything with a side of Abita beer, sazerac, or absinthe. I give quiet thanks that New Orleans is a walking town. *Burp*

I wondered beforehand how the city would look, now several years post-Katrina, and I think it’s safe to say that the New Orleans food traditions are alive and well. The beignets are as wonderful as ever, the po’ boys are as filling as ever, and the bread pudding is still as devastatingly rich.

As directed, I am feeling fat and disgusting. And also? Gloriously content.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hot Pot at Sichuan Cuisine

Last week I met a few Chowhounds for a night of Hot Pot at Sichuan Cuisine, a mad-authentic hole in the wall in the heart of Houston’s Chinatown.

At a basic level, hot pot is Chinese fondue: you order a hot pot of broth, which is kept simmering on your table, plus various meats and vegetables to cook inside. I was admittedly torn on the debate between “this is awesome” and “I’m at a restaurant, but doing all the work myself,” but vowed to have a good time regardless.

Our group, which featured novices and experts alike, ordered a pot split between spicy and mild broths. My biggest rookie mistake (and there were many) was thinking I could handle the chili-laden soup. But even just a half-spoon of the intensely hot substance lit my insides with a Joan-of-Arc-like fire. Holy crap! My eyes teared up, my face reddened, and I quietly prayed for peace in the Middle East. Pride be damned, I’ll switch to the mild, thankyouverymuch.

Onward. We went all out -- lamb, shrimp, beef, crab, fish, chicken, squid, tofu, spinach, noodles, wontons, mushrooms, and more. The nearly unanimous table favorite was? The lamb. Mmmmm! But I’ll throw in votes for the tofu, wontons, and mushrooms, too.

While hot pot is much cheaper than traditional fondue, I have to conclude that food is just better when someone else makes it for you. But who cares. In the end, hot pot is a group of friends, sitting around a steaming broth, talking, laughing, joking, and sweating, not caring about the weather, the economy, or everyday stress. zhù nǐ hǎoyùn!

Sichuan Cuisine -- 9114 Bellaire Boulevard

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Look What’s Lurking Around the Corner... VD!

I will refrain calling this post “Valentine’s Day for Dummies” because 1) that would be fairly banal on my part, and 2) I’m a dummy in that area, myself. However, the main point, here, is that Valentine’s Day is one month from today... and it’s on a Saturday. That means getting a reservation anywhere will be damn-near-impossible. Consider this an official heads-up.

Looking to impress? If it’s a fun and fancy dinner you’re looking for, best to lower your expectations now. I hate the pressures (for restaurants and patrons alike) that go along with the day. However, the ever-fabulous Textile is accepting reservations for the big day, and I think Divino is another ideal spot. You can always do as my sister does and celebrate the day before.

Or try something lower-key... Go for a lap at Memorial Park and then dine at the Beck’s Prime right there. Grab a glass of wine at Oporto Cafe before a movie. Order a Bada Bing from Pink’s Pizza. Go ice skating at the new Discovery Green and then grab a late lunch at The Grove. Sign up for the afternoon Chocolate Desserts cooking class at Central Market -- or for the Couples Cook class that night.

And you could always host a progressive take-out meal of personal favorites... Mine would be something like spring rolls from Les Givral’s, cheese soup from The Black Lab, a green papaya salad from Nidda Thai, macaroni and cheese from t’afia, and Tres Leches from La Guadalupana. Does it have any kind of flow, overlap, or consistency? Nope, none. But who cares -- I get all my favorite stuff!


Monday, January 12, 2009

Salad City

It’s still early enough in January that you might not have broken *all* of your New Year’s resolutions... So where do you go to pick up a good salad?

My go-to to-go place is none other than Mission Burrito, where I fawn over the Que Mas salad. For non-natives, “que mas” means “what more,” and the salad is truly a Cuisinart of stuff: greens, potato, corn, roasted red peppers, jicama, tortilla strips, cheese, and the meat of your choice. Hearty, healthy, and gooood. Especially with the Cilantro Ranch dressing. Which makes it decidedly less healthy. Hmpf.

Guadalajara’s Caribbean Chicken salad is another favorite: Mixed greens, grilled chicken, corn tortilla strips, pineapple, and mango. Goode Company Taqueria actually has a great Grilled Chicken Salad, too, with tomato, avocado, corn, black beans, jicama, and cheese.

On the traditional side, Backstreet Café wins the award for best Cobb: chicken, avocado, bleu cheese, hard boiled egg, bacon, tomato, watercress, and butter lettuce with a red pepper vinaigrette. Most people love the Big Salad (romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, carrots, mushrooms, avocado, and feta) at Paulie’s, but I prefer the conventional Spinach. Or, run next door to pick up a Grilled Chicken Salad at Be’Witched: greens with grilled chicken, dried cranberries, walnuts, and goat cheese. Mmmmm!

The Confetti Salad at Dharma Café tastes like perfection, with walnuts, red onion, mango, dried currants, and bleu cheese over greens. Then there’s the Ruggles famous Toasted Almond and Goat Cheese salad, topped with Granny Smith apples in a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. You all know and love the Chinese Chicken Salad at Barnaby’s, and Chatter’s updates the traditional Greek with a fantastic Mediterranean Salad (gyro slices, tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpeas, feta, kalamata olives, and stuffed grape leaves).

If nothing here tickles your fancy, head to Bowl, where you can design your own salad from what seems like hundreds of possible toppings.

Any more recs?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Eleven Things on My New Year’s Wish List

Out with the old, and in with the new! Here are *eleven* things I’d like to see happen in 2009.

1) New takes on old styles. For example, I like tuna tartare as much as the next gal, but? It. Is. Everywhere. Try something new! Perhaps, like Randy Rucker, you could do a scallop tartare. Mmmm!

2) Tap water, please. Does anyone actually elect to have highfalutin water like Evian instead of tap? Don’t make me feel cheap by giving me the option.

3) Better food education. I am a teacher, and my students know jack squat about nutrition. Let’s teach cooking in schools. Revitalize school lunch programs. Plant more school gardens. And start early.

4) Family focus. I grew up eating dinner (a meat, a vegetable, a salad, and bread) with my family every night. With the economy as it is, restaurants should forego the fancy-schmancy and entice families with wholesome, affordable meals.

5) A broader range of ethnic food. I want Mexican food that goes beyond tacos. Indian that’s not chicken tikka masala. Thai food that puts Pad Thai to shame. And diners willing to take chances.

6) Environmental aid. Another wish is for the entire food services industry to pay more attention to environmental concerns and waste reduction. A girl can dream...

7) Fun and flavorful drinks. Mix it up! I love giving bartenders carte blanche to create the perfect drink. Mixologists at Bedford, Benjy’s, and Beaver’s are quite adept. Now. Let’s all try it!

8) More BYO joints while I’m on the drinking topic. Oh, and more affordable wine lists! And lower corkage fees. Hizzah.

9) Banana pudding. Oh, Banana Pudding, I miss you so much. Especially when you have Nilla Wafers hidden in your depths. I hope one day a pastry chef will miss you as much as I do and add you to a menu.

10) Regular prices. I’ve had my last $5 cupcake. It was delicious, and I savored every bite. But next time I’ll get a second sandwich and save it for dinner.

11) Old-school manners. “Food” is both a hobby and a career. So be grateful and gracious. Place your utensils on the plate when you’re finished so the server knows you’re done. If there are people waiting, don’t linger. Keep it simple, sane, and straightforward.

Am I asking too much? Happy new year to all!

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Strip Club: Rainbow Lodge

The Men’s Club had an all-you-can-eat King Crab lunch special every Tuesday for $14.95, so a few friends and I decided to pony up. I mean, ALL YOU CAN EAT CRAB. FOR $14.95!! Only when we called ahead, we learned that the special is over. Curses.

So instead of crabs, poles, and legs, we hit the opposite end of the restaurant spectrum and visited chef Randy Rucker at the Rainbow Lodge. Rucker wins props as one of the best and most creative chefs in Houston, and we were aglow to see what he could do in his new space. He did *not* disappoint.

The amuse bouche was a poached shrimp forked nicely with tangerine leaves and a cocktail sauce gelée. The shrimp was nice and light, and the gelée added an interesting texture to the mix.

The first course was a sliced raw scallop marinated in miso, soy, and sesame oil. The scallop was topped with a creamy miso vinaigrette, thai chilies, dill, and radish. This was -- hands down -- my favorite dish of the day. The softness of the scallop played beautifully with both the spice of the chili and the crunch of the radish, and the marinade was creamy-delicious.

Second was a LaBelle Farms foie gras torchon, cured in armagnac and cooked sous-vide. The foie gras arrived on a crisp toast alongside candied bacon, BLiS maple syrup, and flowers from the Rainbow Lodge’s own garden.

Next came a bowl with a rabbit rillette and romanesco to which chef Rucker added an apple cider cream soup. The rabbit, itself, was melty, tender, and flavorful, and matched perfectly with the richness of the soup.

Our fourth course was berkshire pork belly cooked sous-vide for 48 hours and then flash fried prior to serving. it was accompanied by cauliflower mushrooms, leeks a la plancha, blackeyed peas, and more greens from the garden.

Dessert was a warm liquid pumpkin pie. The pumpkin shined with spice and just a tiny bit of sweetness. It was a light end to a fabulous meal.

I hadn’t been to the Rainbow Lodge before, but Rucker’s presence now seals its spot as a top venue in Houston. According to Jenny Never Full, Rucker’s new menu makes its debut on January 6. Be sure to check it out!

Rainbow Lodge - 2011 Ella Blvd (at TC Jester)