Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Anvil Bar and Refuge

Last weekend I finally made it to Anvil, where owner Bobby Heugel mixed us up some sensational afternoon cocktails. Anvil -- which you probably have heard of by now -- replaces the lowly Daiquiri Factory on the Westheimer bend (How’s that for a trade up?) and has been collecting disciples left and right.

I have to admit that I’m on the A-train now, too. This place -- and I mean everything about it -- is impressive. Anvil is owned and run by a team of folks focused on the dying art of the cocktail. While the Prohibition-era drinks are the main draw, Anvil also boasts a beer selection of 40+ (mostly Belgians and microbrews), along with a few choice wines.

Sound overwhelming? Get a rec from Behind-the-Bar Bobby, who gave us an on-the-spot history of the margarita, plus a nice primer on cocktails through the ages. Does such an in-depth understanding of booze translate to the cocktails, themselves? All I know is that my Pimm’s Cup was plain awesome.

Owner Bobby Heugel skillfully slips the egg white into what will eventually become...

A pisco sour. Mmmmmm!

Anvil Bar and Refuge -- 1424 Westheimer

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Waffle House, Lard, and Rose-Colored Glasses

This morning I had breakfast at Waffle House. That’s right. Waffle House. I luuuv me some Waffle House, so when two students invited us to join them for an early breakfast, I jumped at the chance.

I have fond memories (read: hazy recollections) of Waffle House from college. We used to cab to the closest WaHou -- which was about 15 minutes from campus -- around 3am to grub on what was clearly a fine example of pure culinary genius (PCG). It was almost always packed, but we crammed ourselves into a booth, laughing about old funnies and making new ones. Never had I seen the interior of a Waffle House by the light of day, but that didn’t matter. Ten-year-old memories tell me that Waffle House riggity rules.

Walking in this morning I felt the undeniable sense of regret. Should I have accepted this invitation knowing full well that the Waffle House of today can *never* live up to Waffle House circa 1998? Am I gonna haveta take the framed copy of the Waffle House menu out of my pantry? Do they still have that bucket of lard next to the griddle?

Hesitations firmly under wraps, I went with my ancient usual: a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich (on white bread, of course) and a waffle. What I learned was many-fold:

1) The waffles at Waffle House are not bad. If you are striving for a breakfast that qualifies as not bad, there you go. But the sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich (on white bread, of course) is not good.

2) Waffle House has made an attempt to get with the times and now offers “lite” items. Like a Lite Waffle. I barf all over this idea.

3) There is still a bucket of lard next to the griddle, making the previous item even more hilarious.

4) The salty cooks and waitresses are 100% the same, and 100% awesome. And the people-watching is not to be missed. For reals.

5) It seems likely that I will never eat at a Waffle House again.

In all honestly, breakfast this morning was crazy fun and did nothing to dispel my love of college-era Waffle House.

Good news: The framed menu can stay.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Loving Cup Rice Pudding Bar

Ambling down Polk Street in San Francisco last week, I found Loving Cup, a relatively new rice pudding bar.

Um, rice pudding bar? Yes! Who knew? Walk into a well-lit, welcoming small space where the lady behind the counter takes you through the flavors of the day. Loving Cup features five keen flavors of rice pudding daily, with a full rotation of about thirty. Holy cow. In my short stay in SF, I tried the pistachio, lemon-vanilla, and pumpkin... but was sinfully tempted by the chocolate-thin-mint, mango, mocha, and Madagascar vanilla. There’s certainly a flavor for every mood -- and they’re all light, healthy, and delicious.

Loving Cup is -- in a word -- dreamy. I’d love love love to see one in Houston. But could this concept even work here? It would *rule* to get beyond the ubiquitous frozen yogurt, but we’d need to find a health-conscious area with plenty of foot traffic.

So my guess is... No. Or am I just being pessimistic?

A girl can dream. [Sigh]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In-N-Out Burger

As soon as my foot hits the warm California pavement, the carnivore in me comes out. I know: Sounds weird that a Texan goes to California for a good burger, but Cali, after all, is home to In-N-Out.

In-N-Out Burger is the fresh fast food with a cult-like following. And to me, it’s the very antithesis of McDonald’s... In-N-Out is still a family-owned business, nurtured and grown over the years primarily through word-of-mouth advertising. They pay employees well and offer benefits like paid vacation, health insurance, and a 401k. Golden Arches? Not so much.

The menu exudes simplicity. You can get a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or a double-double, plus fries, a drink, or a shake. Nada mas. And everything -- from burgers to fries to shakes -- is made fresh on location. No freezers allowed.

Now that’s all well and good, but how does it taste? FRESH. The burgers are something special, old-fashioned, but without a lot of hullabahoo. The fries are definitely missing that extra something which only the fryers at McDonald’s seem to contain -- let’s call it grease from 1982 -- but the burgers and shakes more than compensate. Like they say, it’s quality you can taste.

I miss it already.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tasty Salted Pig Parts

My standard Saturday morning breakfast in SF is the astronomical plate of Chilaquiles at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a food Mecca if there ever was one. I crave this dish. I dream of this dish. I want to make out with this dish. It is rad.

But not ten minutes after I stuffed down my brekkie this weekend did I discover this bad boy, a new addition to the Ferry Building.

Tasty salted pig parts?! [Swoon.] And as I freak out about the amazingness of this sign, my astute friend Julie quietly puts me in my place by pointing out that the sign is redundant: Salted pig parts are *always* tasty.


Monday, March 16, 2009

A Dog, a Cat, and a Rat

Economy got you down? Here’s a thought.

The guy below was walking down Union Street in San Francisco last Saturday with a dog, a cat, and a rat -- all carefully balanced -- pausing to take pictures with the suckers (like me!) who were out ‘n about. After collecting a *tidy* profit, he jumped into a cab, menagerie and all, to panhandle another part of town. Seems the recession has not affected him greatly.

Only in San Francisco. Crazy, cartoonish, entrepreneurial San Francisco.

Friday, March 13, 2009

San Francisco’s Top 100

Today as the school bell rings, I will Fred Flintstone myself out the window and head to lovely San Francisco for Spring Break. SPRING BREAK!! [Huge sigh of relief.]

Now. After living in San Francisco for seven years, I’ve knocked off a mere 30% of 7x7’s 100 SF Things to Try Before You Die. Think I can check off the rest of them in a week?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Adventuring Out: Greek

This semester we’ve starting taking our students to try new foods. They’re not required trips, but anyone who wants to expand the ol’ comfort zone is welcome to join. In January we took nine brave souls to try Indian food for the first time. February found us with seventeen students trying Vietnamese. And last week we took a whopping thirty-five kiddos on a maiden voyage to a Greek place near campus.

Greek food -- according to them -- is distinctly less “weird” than either of the previous ethnicities. We started out with a few orders of hummus and pita to get the party started, and then moved onto dolmades, grilled shrimp, and beyond. Lookin’ good...

Most students ordered Gyros for dinner and were pleasantly surprised with the stack of crispy French fries that showed up alongside. They loved the thin slices of meaty lamb and adored the soft, steamy pita bread. A few students went one step further, ordering shish kebobs, crab cakes, or pastichio, and then raving about it all afterward.

We ended the night with a few orders of baklava to share for dessert, and reactions were decidedly mixed. Most enjoyed the consistency of the Phyllo and the sticky-sweet flavor of the honey-soaked pistachios, while others were terribly vocal in their hatred.

The entire evening was fun and festive. The good news is that the kiddos have really taken to this new food thing! They love asking what’s what on the menu, sampling new flavors, and giving their opinions afterward. The bad news is that the group size was a little overwhelming... I don’t want to limit the number of students that go, but thirty-five teenage diners is, um, quite loud.

Next up? Crawfish and oysters at Floyd’s. I know next to nothing about crawfish, so will be learning right alongside the students. If there are any experts out there who’d like to give up an evening to join us down on Nasa Road 1, please, please, please let me know. I’ll buy your mudbugs!

Monday, March 9, 2009

It’s Hard to Have a Bad Weekend When...

You start out with an ever-fabulous #1 combo meal (with cheese) at Whataburger in glorious Pasadena. Always a winner in my mind.

And end with the sinfully rich Carrot Cake French Toast at the South Congress Café in Austin. Who decides to take an awesome-in-its-own-right dessert and pan fry it for brunch? Because I heart you.

Belly out. Hootie-hoo!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Asia Market

Strange circumstances found me with a free-ish afternoon in the city last week, and the first thing that needed attention was my belly. Ha HA. I smell a food-venture. Where to go, what to do?

I settled on Asia Market, a small Thai restaurant and grocery on Cavalcade near Main. I had been meaning to try the place since I read about it in the Fearless Critic, but had yet to venture over... My mistake. Seriously.

What was once clearly a Stop ‘N Go in a former life is now a hotspot of activity. The small parking lot was full, and what I found inside was a warm and welcoming space, bustling with people. And everyone -- whether shopping, eating, or serving -- had a smile on. The atmosphere is one of casual warmth.

I ordered a few dishes to try and then set out to explore the small market, where you’ll find dozens of varieties of fish sauce, plus things like galangal, bamboo shoots, Thai spices, preserved duck egg, and... fermented lettuce. Huh.

The real winner, of course, is the food. The green papaya salad, which you just can’t find at many Thai places here, is wonderfully flavorful and s-s-s-spicy. Get it with the tiny dried shrimp... and don’t forget to order a side of sticky rice to go with it.

Pad Se Ew is my favorite Thai dish, and the one here is top notch. Wide rice noodles stir fried with garlic, egg, light soy sauce, and Chinese broccoli (which is more like green onion). Rice noodles have such an incredible texture to them -- meaty and dense. And besides, they’re just downright fun to eat.

On my two return trips I tried the also-fantastic Kee Mao noodles, wide rice noodles stir fried with basil, egg, onion, cherry tomatoes, garlic, and chili sauce. And the Tom Kha Ga, traditional Thai hot and sour soup with coconut milk, galangal, and chicken. Creamy, spicy, tremendous. I’ve yet to find a disappointment.

A few final randoms: 1) Portions are huge. Plenty to split or take home for your next day’s lunch. 2) Want a napkin? Take a paper towel of the roll in the center. 3) FYI, they’re open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 7pm.

Asia Market is only minutes away from my house in the Heights, making it my new go-to joint for pick-up. See you there!

Asia Market - 1010 W. Cavalcade

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Brennan’s to Reopen in October

Bananas Foster, anyone?

You’re *almost* in luck! The venerable Brennan’s announced today that it will reopen this October, restoring a hefty 80% of its crazy-cool-and-historic original building...

“Houston Mayor Bill White and restaurateur Alex Brennan Martin announced at a press conference today that the esteemed Brennan’s of Houston would re-emerge at its long-standing Smith Street address this fall, just 13 months after having been damaged by fire as a result of Hurricane Ike. Slated to open in October 2009, the restored Brennan’s is expected to bring an additional 125 jobs back to Midtown.”

Hooray -- Let the countdown begin!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Crazylicious Dessert Tasting at Textile

Most people don’t dream of dessert. But here at Great Food Houston, I do. Even still, the thought of a five-course dessert tasting from Houston’s top pastry chef was at least as much intimidating as it was exciting. Could I handle five courses of sweet... on top of five courses of savory? As it turns out, I can. [Sigh]

Before we begin, let’s get this on the table: It is a devastating understatement to call pastry chef Plinio Sandalio talented. He is a soft-spoken, always-innovating, intensely creative beast in the kitchen. Houston is lucky to have him... though we won’t have him for much longer. Ardent to nurture his skill, Sandalio plans to move to Chicago next year. So. The clock is on. Get thee to Textile. Or to Gravitas. Both bear his sugar stamp.

OK. Our first dessert was a bittersweet chocolate orb filled with quince juice and topped with honey. I popped that sucker like a pill and was amazed at the insanely smooth combination of flavors. The slight bitterness of the chocolate played well with the slight sweetness of the quince juice, which all benefited from the lingering bit ‘o honey. Interesting and yum.

Course two was a vanilla pound cake with apple confiture and blue cheese ice cream. The creative flavor combination was certainly pinnacled by the ice cream. While blue cheese might not sound like a gotta-have-it 31-flavor, the taste was beautifully mild. Plinio has said before that he considers ice cream to be more of a sauce. In this sense, the unique tang is perfect.

Course three? Coffee and milk. Aka: pain perdu with ice milk, bacon streusel, and coffee foam. The smoky bacon streusel added a fantastically unique flavor to the traditional French toast. The coffee foam was a little bitter for me, but the supple French toast more than made up for it. Delicious.

Next was a grapefruit pisco sour, topped with foam and rimmed with pop rocks. To make this, Sandalio mixes the drink in a siphon, then charges it with nitrous oxide cartridges and chills it for an hour. The drink had just a hint of sweetness and served as an ideal palate cleanser before the big hizzah.

Finally came the sweet potato beignets with pecan streusel, honey, and -- wait for it -- bacon ice cream. The diminutive beignets were warm/crispy on the outside, steamy/soft on the inside, rich, dense, delicious. And, Lord, the bacon ice cream. Again, Plinio takes an intensely savory taste and tones it down to let the best part of the flavor just creep through. Dy-no-mite.

Last but never least came the mignardises. Mignardises are bite-sized desserts, much like bonbons. Ours included a lemon truffle, a white ganache truffle, a shortbread, and a cocoa nib brittle. The perfect ending to a perfect meal.

[The Elite King of Sweet. Don’t leave us, Plinio!]