Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Barbacoa at Pico’s Bakery

I have become absolutely fascinated with barbacoa this year and the shocking amount of variety one can find in the various meats, methods, and spices. A seemingly simple substance comes diversely alive when slow cooked with assorted chilies and flavors, each version different from the last.

The barbacoa at Pico’s Bakery is quite simple, yet could go head to head with any middleweight meat in town. The meat simmers in a reddish-orange achiote marinade until it is achingly tender and rich with spice, shreds of sunset-colored goodness ready to sink into your taste buds at will. Wrap it in a warm tortilla just off the grill, top with onion and fresh cilantro, and you’ve got the ideal lunch: one that leaves you questioning the square footage of your tummy. Yum!

Pico’s Bakery (the new offering from chef Arnaldo Richards of Pico’s Mex-Mex Cocina) is open breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. The breakfast tacos are outstanding, as are the tortas at lunch. The meats -- barbacoa and chilorio, et al -- are the real deal, as clean and fresh as sunshine, itself. And don’t miss the fair trade Katz coffee created especially for Pico’s.

Pico’s Bakery - 5710 Bellaire Blvd (near Chimney Rock)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Crawfish at The Boiling Crab

Memorial Day is made for crawfish, and there’s no better place to get them than The Boiling Crab. So off we went last night in search of Cajun splendor. Right there on Beltway 8. Who knew.

As we pulled up, crowds overflowed from the tiny indoor waiting area to the sidewalk outside, and a forty-five minute wait greeted us from the hostess stand. Sigh. Fortune was smiling on us, though, because our name was called in a mere five. It’s a Memorial Day miracle!

Inside, sturdy wood tables are blanketed with butcher paper, an early indicator of the mess to come. The diminutive space is filled with kitschy nautical relics, and the mostly Asian staff scurries about, quickly catering to the diverse crowd. No sooner had we placed our order, in fact, did it show up: 2 pounds of crawfish, 3 blue crabs, sausage, corn, and potatoes, all cooked medium spicy with a cherry on top. Fine, no cherry, but we did get “the whole she-bang,” a fierce combination of the three house seasonings: Ragin’ Cajun, lemon-pepper, and garlic butter.

We ripped and tore our way through the whole lot, scavenging for meat and taking care not to touch our crying eyes with spicy fingers. All in all, the crawfish and crabs were outstanding. At $5.99/pound, they're not the cheapest offerings in town, but they’re fresh and huge, well spiced, and served red hot. Check out the carnage below!

The Boiling Crab - 8300 W Sam Houston Pkwy S (at Beechnut)

Monday, May 18, 2009

New York Food Shorts

This past weekend found me in a New York state of mind. And a New York state of body. Though it wasn’t *quite* as gluttonous as the trip to New Orleans, it was close. Here are a few favorite dishes.

Crispy Pork and Watermelon Salad at Fatty Crab
This? Was the best thing I ate all weekend. For reals, yo: Crispy chunks of fried pork belly sitting perilously atop vibrant cubes of watermelon, all tossed with scallions and a lovely splash of ginger dressing. The various textures, temperatures, and consistencies held a torrid threesome in my mouth that both made me a little shy [blush] and left me sorry that I agreed to share [curses]. Thank you, funky, outgoing, bespectacle’d server, for this stunning recommendation.

Pork sausage with Rice Cakes at Momofuku Ssäm
Ssäm Bar is the casual leg of David Chang’s restaurant trifecta. The diminutive space consists primarily of long, communal tables, giving the trendy space an oddly rustic feel. Our group’s favorite dish was easily the spicy pork sausage with rice cakes, served with Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots. Shazam! The gnocchi-style rice cakes perfectly balanced the meaty-and-heaty spice in the sausage, and the strangely texturific combinations were a welcome surprise.

Lobster Roll at Mary’s Fish Camp
We ordered Mary’s lobster roll at the suggestion of a friend, and thank goodness. Placed happily before us was a generous helping of lobster salad on a gorgeous, super-soft, buttery yum of a toasted hot dog roll. The uber-fresh lobster exploded with flavor, enveloped by just the right amount of mayonnaise and lemon. This thing immediately found a spot on my daily agenda for the weekend… until we scornfully discovered that “Market Price” actually meant $30. Grumble, grumble. Still worth it –- but just this once.

Sausage and Mushroom Pie at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria
We got to the original Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn around 6:15, hoping to beat the dinner rush. No dice. The line spanned the block. And we waited. And waited. And went for coffee. And waited some more. And finally took a seat more than an hour later. What we received in exchange for our time was a traditionally awesome New York pizza: thin, coal-charred crust topped with standard ingredients and smooth Mozzarella. And while I wasn’t blown away with the flavor, I was enamored of the pie’s sheer simplicity.

The famous Shack Burger at Shake Shack
We were a bit deterred by the line of 100+ snaking around the park, but two girls near the front swore that it moved quickly. Turns out they are lying liars because we waited an hour plus just to get an order in. Mere moments afterward, though, our annoyed patience was rewarded with the juiciest of Shack Burgers. Made with high quality meat, fresh vegetables, and secret sauce (which is oddly reminiscent of the one at In-n-Out) this burger is the real deal. Our only problem was that it seemed way too small for our needs.

Cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery
A mandatory stop on all my New York itineraries, Magnolia Bakery is as busy as ever, even despite the numerous cupcakeries that have matured in its shadows. Despite their abundance, though, I still like to top my meals with an original delight. And while the icing seems to have lost a step, the cake remains the golden standard: ever beautiful, ever buttery, ever pristine.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Michelada Me, Baby.

A recent Twitter conversation left me craving a michelada, another of Mexico’s great gifts to the culinary marketplace. There are, oh, upteen jabillion ways to make one of these tangy, tasty beverages, but the basic formula is [Mexican beer + clamato] salt-rimmed glass = delicious. From there, you can add lime juice, Worcestershire, or hot sauce. And don’t forget the ice!

Thanks to a recommendation from Plinio Sandalio, I squelched my desire with this limey, tall, Tecate-flavored bad boy from the Taqueria Arandas on Shepherd. Now that’s a lotta michelada...

I hear the michelada at Ninfa’s on Nav is not to be missed. And I love the one at Connie’s Seafood on Spencer Highway as well. The time (and weather) is right, my friends... Arriba!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Adventuring Out: Thai

Last week was our final Ethnic Night with the YES Prep sophomores. After previous trips to get Indian, Vietnamese, Greek, and Cajun food, Thursday found us at a Thai restaurant near campus. We took eleven students with us -- all experienced brancher-outers, ready to learn a new cuisine in the best way possible: family style, suckas!

Spring rolls set the tone for the evening, leaving everyone enamored of the flavorific peanut sauce. Then, oddly and interestingly enough, most students chose to skip the Pad Thai in favor of more authentic dishes like Pad Se Ew, Duck Curry, and Tom Yum. They were fascinated by the glutinous consistency of the thick rice noodles, the sweet heat in the brothy soup, and the new range of foreign spices in every single dish.

As always, the kiddos loved trying the various different drinks and desserts. Thai iced tea and Thai sodas were a huge hit, as were the fried ice cream and mango sticky rice. Mmmm, my fave!

All in all, Foodventure nights were a raging success. Nearly fifty different students joined us for at least one dinner. Three students joined us for all five. And twenty or so made it to at least three ethnic evenings. Ask them which was their favorite, and you’ll get a range of adamant answers and supporting evidence. Perhaps the biggest indicator of success, though, is the reaction of the junior class: “That’s not fair -- we didn’t get to do that last year!”

Well, sorry about that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen

Busting out of a strip mall on Woodway, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen embodies the curtsy and flair of a Texican hacienda. Sylvia, herself, roams the place, checking on tables as her enormous turquoise earrings sway delicately along with her non-stop motion. She is the center of this colorful universe, mimicking the flavors of her youth in the Rio Grande Valley.

Start out, of course, with a margarita, limey and fresh. Avoid the bland tortilla soup, and instead try the plateful of fresh guacamole. Sylvia’s version is served with piles of diced tomatoes, onion, and jalapenos on the side so you can flavor it up to each person’s liking.

One would expect an “enchilada kitchen” to rule at enchiladas. But these are just so-so. Meats are fresh and well seasoned, but the sauce is where the dishes fall short. Portions are reasonable, though, rather than the hulking beasts you find at other joints around town, and not slathered with cheese. On the other side of the plate, pay close attention to your pile of rice lest it disappear at the hands of your dining partner... Jay Francis tells us that Sylvia actually employs an arrocero (read: rice guy) who is responsible for nothing other than making the rice, a lovely version of the traditional Mexican standard.

Looking past the enchiladas, fish tacos are a consistently solid choice: grilled or fried strips of tilapia stuffed into delicious housemade corn tortillas. What really sings, though, is anything made on the mesquite grill -- like beef fajitas, shrimp, and tilapia. Items arrive well cooked with a nice smoky flavor alongside a spicy set of poblano rajas in a creamy cheese sauce.

Sylvia’s is a bright and casual moderately-priced neighborhood joint, good for a night out with family or friends. It’s worth a stop if it’s on your regular route, but no need to go out of your way.

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen - 6401 Woodway

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Weekend Food Shorts

1) I never forget how much I love farmers markets, but I sometimes forget about the exceedingly happy, wonderfully relaxed feeling of Zen I get while sipping my coffee among the vendors and fresh produce. Saturday morning found me at the Midtown Farmers Market, where I indulged in an open-faced breakfast sandwich with all my favorites: Rosemary flatbread topped with garlic spread, a thick layer of eggs, gorgeous smoked salmon, shreds of lettuce, and grilled sweet onions. Dfkhgskghsdfkgh! That’s how good it was.

2) Later that day I ran into Jay Francis, food explorer, at Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen on Woodway. Jay cradled a bottle of his storied homemade Rompope with care, and we were fortunate enough to beg a taste. Upon hearing about the mixture of milk, egg yolks, sugar, vanilla, and rum, I immediately assumed it would taste like eggnog, which I do like (read: loathe). But what I tasted in the Rompope was a deliciously creamy, lightly sweet custard of a drink. It was divine.

(Photo courtesy of Rompope King Jay Francis)

3) There are few places I enjoy more than La Guadalupana for breakfast. Crammed into a dilapidated triangle next to a Laundromat and corner store, the place was ravished by Hurricane Ike in 2008; the owners had no insurance, leaving patrons with a sick feeling that this Little Engine that Could just wouldn’t survive. Rightness has prevailed, though, and the storied joint reopened its doors only a few months after closing them. Insert huge sigh of relief. Owner Trancito Diaz was once a pastry chef at the Houston Country Club, so you know the breakfast sandwich -- a spicy omelet served in a flaky homemade croissant -- rules. What a great way to start the new week!