Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Taco Tuesday: La Michoacana

How many times have you passed a Michoacana and wondered exactly what’s inside? You’ve seen the signs -- I know you have -- so here’s a brief explanation for anyone curious.

La Michoacana has quietly dominated Houston’s Hispanic grocery scene since 1986 and now boasts 50+ locations around town. The layout of each location is roughly the same: A small market full of Hispanic produce and brands, a large and insanely well stocked meat counter in the back, and a small in-store taqueria up front.

When you go, browse through shelf upon shelf of salsas, spices, and chilies, then take a minute to gawk at the serious abundance of cow and pig parts hanging in the rear. Welcome to Meatopia -- What’s your dream? When you’ve had enough, make your way back to the front for some grub. You’ll need to pay for your tacos before ordering; do this at the cash register, where they’ll likely have to ask around for a translator if you don’t have a basic knowledge of Spanish.

The steam table has winners and losers for sure. The lengua at every location I’ve been to is packed with flavor -- soft pillows of meaty goodness topped with diced onion and cilantro -- yet the barbacoa is often stringy, tough, and bland. Similarly, the chicharrones are soft and marvelously delicate, yet the chicken lacks any discernable flavor.

La Michoacana is a fun, Houston-centric experience that’s dirt cheap and will [likely] take you out of your comfort zone. And even if your tacos aren’t the bestest ever, a few of the lightly sweet, fantastically awesome pineapple empanadas can make up for anything. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

2nd Annual BBQ Smackdown

Yippee-aye-kay-yay, yesterday was the 2nd annual Houston Chowhound BBQ Smackdown, a hard-nosed, meat-a-rific, head-to-head blind tasting to crown a new Houston-area ‘Q King.

This year’s line-up was intense, people. We pitted the top three finishers from last year’s hard-fought battle (Burns, Pierson & Co, and Luling City Market) against three new entries: Vincek’s, Thelma’s, and Virgie’s. Lest you forget, three of these contestants -- Burns, Virgie’s, and Vincek’s -- hold distinguished spots on Texas Monthly’s 2008 list of the top 50 BBQ joints in Texas, and all are local favorites. No gimmes, no obvious duds. Just pure, unadulterated meaty love.

Diners tasted brisket and ribs from all six venues, rating each on a 1-5 scale in categories like smoke, tenderness, flavor, moistness, and seasoning. Faces around the crowded room scrunched up in thought as voters wrestled with meat hierarchies, flavor ranks, and the dreaded full stomach demon. Many *burps* later, votes were tallied, and the winners announced...

1. Pierson & Co.
2. Virgie’s
3. Vincek’s

1. Virgie’s
2. Pierson & Co
3. Vincek’s

My personal fave in both categories was Pierson’s. The ribs had a distinctly charred outside protecting a moist and juicy, well smoked interior. The tender brisket was lean, beautifully spiced, and absolutely delicious. Luling City Market and Burns, both in last year’s top three, did not place this year. And Thelma’s, recently resurrected after a bad fire, took dead last in each category.

This is a fun and hilarious event, a jovial gathering of meat loving folks joined in a common goal: to find the BBQ best -- and smackdown the rest. While drinking beer. Be sure to get involved in next year’s event -- but you gotta join the Houston Chowhounds first!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fu Fu Café

I used to be one of those people whose eyes glazed over when someone mentioned Beltway 8. I mean, pfffft -- Isn’t that in another time zone? Across the International Date Line? Just to the west of Mars? And guess what: Calling it the Sam Houston Tollway doesn’t make things any better. Geez.

Happily, I’m no longer in that category. Recent trips outside the loop (OTL) for hot pot, dim sum, and crawfish have opened my eyes to the grab bag of goodness out yonder. Additionally, these trips have taught me that “out yonder” isn’t actually that far. Heh.

My latest trip was to Fu Fu Café, a small spot on Bellaire in Houston’s Chinatown. The Houston Chowhounds have been abuzz with love for this place, so my friend Dorothy and I went in with a laundry list of possibilities -- And thank goodness, since the menu is a jabillion pages long. Yikes! Here’s where we ended up...

The beef noodle soup arrived steamy hot with generous portions of tender meat and bok choy. The broth, itself, is excellent, and the interior spaghetti-like noodles are thick and hearty. Try and try again, I couldn’t tear myself away from this dish and its simple appeal.

Green onion pancakes were tasty, though uninspiring, but the myriad dumplings are something special. The long, thin pan-fried wigglers are crispy on one side and chewy on the other, a nice paradox of textures to crown the flavor. And the soup dumplings (which masquerade as “steamed pork buns” on the menu) are even more impressive: soft, warm pockets filled with spicy pork and steaming, salty broth. Both versions are beautifully delicious.

Fu Fu Café has some of the best Chinese food around in terms of authenticity and value. Portions are generous and service is OK.

Yes, Virginia, there is life outside the loop. Hizzah!

Fu Fu Café - 9889 Bellaire Blvd (near Beltway 8)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Taco Tuesday: Fiesta Loma Linda

Let’s test your Houston heritage... Do you remember the Loma Lindas? According to Jay Francis, the Loma Linda chain was a Houston institution in the 60’s and 70’s. The oil bust of the 1980’s sent the family-run business into a tailspin, forcing it to close. Soon after, a friend of the original owner took it upon himself to preserve the tradition, reopening the Fiesta Loma Linda on Telephone Road, which still serves up tacos, enchiladas, and nostalgia today.

A visit to this homey little place is a trip back through time. Servers in traditional Mexican attire provide excellent service in a quiet, uncluttered locale. Remember when you were a kid and you used to get those old-fashioned puffy tortillas covered with chile con queso? That’s precisely what you get with a Loma Linda taco: Handmade tortillas brushed lightly with oil and “puffed up” in the skillet, then topped with tender meats, fresh lettuce, and juicy tomato. Add the spicy homemade salsa, and dig in. I prefer the fresh picked chicken over the ground beef (your only two options with the puffy tacos), though both are moist and meaty.

Loma Linda is straight Tex-Mex. And while I prefer my tacos in the Mexican steam-table style of meat, onion, and cilantro only, this is certainly a fun place to try and has much to offer in terms of food, service, and legacy. They do serve some of the best breakfast tacos in town, and the lunch and dinner menus are quite extensive as well.

Fiesta Loma Linda - 2111 Telephone Road (near I-45)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sandwiches at Carter & Cooley

Can you believe I had never been to Carter & Cooley before @SheEats met me for lunch there last week? For shame! This endearing little deli has been a Houston spectacular for twenty years.

Why? The outgoing staff claims that they craft every sandwich “as though it were the only sandwich we were going to make,” and methinks it shows. Sandwiches are large, packed with fresh-sliced meat and accoutrements, and served on thick slices of soft bread. They may be a little pricey (~$7.95), but each comes with a mound of gorgeous potato salad… Soups, too, are delicious and made in house daily. And on top of the good eats, ya get good seats, in the loveliest of historic buildings on 19th Street in the Heights. Dreamy.

Carter & Cooley – 375 W. 19th (at Ashland)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tasti D-Lite in Houston: Fact or Fiction?

Tasti D-Lite, to me, has always seemed like some fanciful, fictitious hideaway which I generally placed in the same category as Neverland, Narnia, Toontown, and Fiji... Places I float off to in my mind during stressful times. Like last week when I took an earful after my puppy pooped in someone’s yard. Eeee!

Turns out Tasti D-Lite is as real as this Gulf Coast heat. You already know the name from character obsessions on NYC-centric shows like Seinfeld and Sex & the City, and now Space City has our very own! A bubbly, colorful little shop at the corner of Post Oak and San Felipe.

Tasti D-Lite serves up close to a jabillion flavors of low-calorie frozen yogurt each day. They feature vanilla, chocolate, and four others as daily standards, but can whip up from scratch any flavor from the list of 100+ as soon as you say the word. Today’s treats included Rocky Road, Tapioca Pudding, and Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, while other days might include things like Coffee Cake, Pistachio, Brownie Batter, and German Chocolate Cake.

On top of the standard cups-n-cones, Tasti D-Lite also makes gorgeous frozen yogurt cakes in house and will start its breakfast fare (parfaits, muffins, and the like) next week. Considering I nearly fainted into a power nap walking between my backdoor and car yesterday, it’s a safe bet that I’ll throw some bidness their way. Look for the Highland Village location to open on August 15.

Tasti D-Lite – 1707 Post Oak Blvd. at San Felipe

Taco Tuesday: Chilosos

Sometimes it’s just nice to go to someone’s home for lunch, and that’s precisely what you get with Chilosos, a small steam-table Mexican joint brightening up a converted house in the Heights. Two sisters own and run the bustling operation, governing the place with a welcoming, comfortable warmth. Inside you’ll find two colorful rooms full of high-top tables and stools, a few TVs, and lots of people. The covered outdoor patio, too, is chock full when the weather allows.

Place your order at the steam table, where you can choose from dozens of meat preparations. The menu is neither elaborate nor complex, but the kitchen staff turns out orders with efficiency and flair. Tacos vary in price from $1.75 to $1.95 and arrive in simple fashion with meat and tortilla only. While critics may scream about paying an additional fifty cents for cheese, lettuce, or tomato, the plain truth is that these tacos do perfectly well on their own.

Tortillas are thick and sturdy with an excellent consistency; watch as they make them from scratch on the front counter as you order. If chicken’s your thang, try pollo a la Mexicana in your tacos. It’s tender roasted and topped with a slight bit of spicy red sauce. Even better is the pork, small chunks of white meat encased in a thick, mild green salsa. Ready for some hootin’? The housemade salsas on the tables are deliciously flavorful and muy picante.

Chilosos tacos are the real deal, señor. But should you feel like straying from what is clearly their bread and butter, the handmade pork tamales are a worthy option. Truly a taste of Mexico, these bad boys have all the flavor and none of the grease. No salsa required.

After working out the kinks that go along with any new restaurant, Chilosos has become a casually delicious option for breakfast and lunch, six days a week. Both nicer and tastier than your standard steam-table, it’s a casual sit-down spot where you can enjoy good food and good service, while also giving your wallet a nice break.

Chilosos – 701 E. 20th (at Studewood)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lobster Rolls Galore

Greetings! Here I am, back from a glorious week-long jaunt to lovely New England, where I took it upon myself to sample as much of the local cuisine as possible. That’s right: lobster rolls. Anywhere and everywhere I could. It was a no-holds-barred, butter-riffic, wicked-awesome, antebellum, Yankees-suck Lobster Roll Challenge, if you will. What-what?!

New England, of course, is lobster obsessed -- and with good reason. So abundant is this subaquatic gem that I can recall few menus over the week that didn’t include it somewhere. We’ve got tacos, steak, and refried beans; they’ve got lobster, clams, and mussels. Go figure.

And the rolls are something special indeed: tender, sweet, opulent meat is lightly dressed and mounded into a split-top bun. High on flavor, low on mess. So simple, yet so delicious. Of the five we sampled, here are our three faves. And fyi, the pictures do *not* do them justice. Lo siento -- I was hungry!

NEPTUNE OYSTER -- Boston, Massachusetts
A friend recommended Neptune as her #1, and we happened to pass it on our self-guided tour of the North End. Hmmm, a 45-minute wait... Can you make one to go? Of course! What we got was a grilled-till-golden brioche bun packed with oceanic booty. Huge pieces of ruby-colored goodness protruded with authority. Add a little bit o’ mayo and a dash of lemon, and this one was gone in 60 seconds.

THE CLAM SHACK -- Kennebunkport, Maine
Locals warned us not to miss this classic, and we’re sure glad we listened. The Clam Shack, which is both as divey and as cute as it sounds, uses an entire lobster in each roll -- two claws, two knuckles, and a tail. Not sliced, not diced, not chopped. Just piled high onto a gorgeous homemade bun. While a slight spread of mayo or butter gives it a little kick, this one is the epitome of simple goodness.

Right on the harbor in the Old Port, Portland Lobster Co. uses meat that’s picked fresh from Maine lobsters each morning. Sling it into a toasted split-top hot dog roll, add a slight drizzle of clarified butter and a sheet of romaine lettuce, and you’re good to go. This one also comes with a small side of coleslaw, which I gratefully added to my roll. You can take the girl outta Texas, but... Well, you know.

Haven’t had a lobster roll? For shame! @imneverfull recently loved the one at Houston’s own Rainbow Lodge, but suggests we avoid the canned version at Grum Bar. Or if you’re looking for a challenge, try whipping up this summer staple at home.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Softshell Crab at Ninfa’s on Navigation

What’s there to love about softshell crab? Maybe it’s the satisfying crunch you get when biting through the hot-n-spicy batter in search of the deliciously meaty inside. Or perhaps it’s the bestial simplicity of eating the whole damn thing, shell and all.

Or it’s both, and I couldn’t be happier that they’re fixtures around town again. My friends @houston_foodie and @viva_victoria have been raving about the softshell crab at Ninfa’s on Navigation, and I finally made it over for a taste. This version is a gorgeous golden brown, fully fried and sitting on a tangy bed of jicama-cucumber slaw. Break into the beast to find the freshest of crab inside. Lightly fishy, lightly spicy, and wonderfully crunchy. Ninfa’s receives just ten softshell crabs per day, so be sure to ask upon arrival.

We’re well into softshell season, which typically runs from May through August or so, so get crackin’. Recent stories have left me skurrrr’d to even attempt this one at home -- and why would I when there are so many great options around town? The tempura softshell at REEF is downright outstanding, as is the cornmeal softshell dinner at Tony Mandola’s. Or swing by Jazzie Café for Houston’s best softshell po’ boy.