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]