Thursday, December 23, 2010

State of the City: 2011

I’m sorry to see 2010 come to a close. It was the year I got both engaged and married and switched from teaching high school English back to full-time copywriting. I traveled, I lived, I lounged, and I ate. But I’m certainly excited to see what 2011 has in store.

Houston tends to fly under the radar of the national food scene, but that’s alright by me. Yes, I loved seeing Bryan Caswell on The Next Iron Chef this year, and it’s cool to see Houston on John Mariani’s list of Best Restaurant Cities, but I think our food scene rather benefits from the relative national obscurity. After all, the Bayou City has been setting off culinary fireworks left and right this year, thanks to generally amiable attitudes from kitchen compatriots and diner darlings alike. No pressure, little drama; just a friendly competitive spirit.

Here are a few reasons I enjoyed the 2010 culinary air around town.

In one especially eclectic week last summer, I ate Serbian, Filipino, Moroccan, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mediterranean food... in addition to my usual fare. Recently I had Ethiopian food for the first time in eight years, and then went next door for a post-meal pupusa with bubble tea. Friends like Dr. Ricky and Jay Rascoe introduced me to Hot Pot, Peking Duck, and the wonderous array of taco trucks. Maybe the diversity, itself, isn’t new, but perhaps our growing desire to seek it out is.

Wine is typically the chosen buzz agent at fine-dining establishments, but this year the beautiful brewsky stepped into the foreground. We began flocking to beer-loving places like Petrol Station and Liberty Station, and restaurants began offering fancy-pants beer dinners. I attended the Southern Star beer dinner at VOICE in May, but was sorry to miss those Stone Brewing beer dinners at Vic & Anthony’s, among others. Perhaps this also reflects our growing preference for casual dinners and comfort foods.

It’s not just restaurants and breweries working together... Chefs are sharing kitchens, too, wowing eaters by combining culinary repertoires. There was the Lazy Summer Repast featuring chefs from Chez Roux, Bootsie’s, and the Just 8 Project. Shortly after that came the 10-10-10 dinner: 10 courses and 10 drink pairings from Seth Siegel-Gardner, Justin Yu, and David Buehrer, held at Paulie’s in Montrose. Pastry chefs Plinio Sandalio and Rebecca Masson even held their own collaborative dessert tasting.

Houston has never been known as a local food mecca, but that’s starting to change as restaurants citywide are spotlighting our local bounty on their menus -- or even growing their own. Eh, we’re no California, but Texas does have a surprising girth of local foods in the form of Gulf seafood, local cheeses, area beers, and Texas tomatoes, peaches, and grapefruits. Look for them on menus citywide, area farmers markets, or at the soon-to-open Revival Market. Hooray!

The City of Houston is notoriously hard on food trucks, but the community is beginning to prosper despite the strict regulations. Now that a few are up-and-running, they’ve created a kind of support group for one another, offering tips and advice to the newer ones making a go. Everyone’s a winner now that we have stands like Melange Creperie, the Eatsie Boys, and Oh My Pocket Pies. Even some of the brick-and-mortar restaurants are going mobile -- like Hubcap Grill, Armando’s, and Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.

Yes, it’s been a banner year for lovely H-Town. And my calendar’s never complete without a list of selfish requests for the year to come.

1) A continuation of the trends from above. Why not? I like where we’re headed.

2) A return to dessert. With all the savory hullabahoo this year, we seem to have forgotten about dessert. Gone are the days when I checked out the dessert menu first to decide whether or not I needed to save room.

3) More pop-up restaurants. The Just August Project opened our eyes to culinary possibilities, creative cheffery, and a new type of dining. More, please!

4) More vegetables. Some of my most memorable dining experiences this year (in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver) included vegetables in starring roles. I want more of this in Houston, though places like Haven, The Grove, and Bootsie’s are close.

(A plate at OIMBY, a feast made almost entirely from locally sourced foods.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Culinary Camaraderie at Kata Robata

It’s fantastically awesome to see that there’s so much *fun* going on in the kitchens around town. Truly, the restaurants are thriving these days are the ones that don’t take themselves too seriously and continue to step up their games by playing with flavors and techniques. They love it, we love it; it’s textbook win-win. One only need follow Randy Rucker (of Bootsie’s Café) or Carlos Rodriguez (of Vic & Anthony’s) on Twitter to see an endearing sort of kitchen camaraderie going on... It’s the kind that spills from the kitchen to the dining room via a freight train of fabulous food.

I wouldn’t have pegged Seth Siegel-Gardner and Manabu Horiuchi to have that sort of Be/Fri relationship, but the pair is making sweet, sweet gastronomy together at Kata Robata. Hori is a classically trained sushi chef from a small town outside Tokyo. Siegel-Gardner is a Houston native who has honed his cheffery at next-level places like the Fat Duck in London at C-House in New York. Each is a culinary genius in his own right—and now they’re combining their knowledge and packing a serious one-two punch for Houston diners to enjoy. For a limited time.

Below are some photos from my omakase experience at Kata Robata last night. All of these items are from the recently overhauled menu, which you should try as soon as is possible. Siegel-Gardner will be sharing the spotlight at Kata Robata for the next few months before possibly moving on, so the time is now.

Honey mussels from British Columbia. The one on the left has a light citron vinaigrette and char roe; the one on the right has a cucumber vinaigrette and ponzu. Simple, smooth, and totally flavorific.

House smoked salmon served with puffed salmon skin, thin sliced pickles, and a purple cabbage reduction. The puffed skin adds a nice measure of savory.

My favorite dish of the night: Grilled sushi rice topped with smooth uni and a rich togarashi lardo, served with a poached quail egg. Mega flavor fireworks with every bite.

A paper-thin slice of dehydrated short rib. Below is the rest of the dish: Perfectly hydrated Akaushi beef short ribs with broccoli stems and toasted nori yogurt. Amazing.

Barbecued unagi under a pile of powered bone marrow snow. Supine in the background is a slice of foie gras studded with stripes of unagi sauce. Pure decadence.

Fresh toro tar tar with wasabi vinaigrette, kumquat cream, and crunchy gobo chips. Simple and light, a beautiful mix of textures, served with just the right accoutrements.

Salmon and lightly fried softshell crab studded with Korean barbecue powder and togarashi. On the other side of the plate was the pork belly roll topped with hardboiled egg and a seedless slice of jalapeno.

Shockingly light puffs of doughnut: A coconut one lies in the foreground. The ones in the back are filled, one with sweet potato and the other with red bean paste. A stunning way to end a stunningly delicious meal.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Popover Mania

The first time I had a popover, I remember wondering what kind of magical ingredients could make a breadform so airy and light… Was it yeast? Fairy dust? Unicorn tears?

Turns out, it’s none of the above. Even though popovers might taste like little pillows of heaven, they’re actually quite earthly to make. So easy, in fact, that I’ve been wearing out my new popover pan with a steamy batch almost daily. Yes, my popover obsession is both otherworldly and out of hand. And while I like to savor them, I’m not ruling out a game of Chubby Bunny this Thanksgiving either. Mmmm!

Below is my family’s tried-and-true recipe for popovers, the one I keep coming back to... my golden standard. And as friends have suggested, I’ve also been kicking this basic version up by adding chopped nuts, a pat of soft cheese, or a dollop of strawberry jam to each batter’d cup.

In our world of excess, it’s nice to find a recipe that’s as simple as it is scrumptious. But that doesn’t mean I don’t overindulge in the bad boys below. Happy Turkey Day!

2 large eggs
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup flour (bread flour works best)
1/8 cup sugar (or less)

Preheat oven to 450. Beat egg, then add milk, melted butter, salt, flour, and sugar. Mix until smooth and well combined. Place popover pan (or muffin tin) in oven to heat for five minutes. Remove pan, spray with cooking spray, and fill cups about 1/2 to 2/3 with batter. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 and bake until popovers are puffed and golden, 15-20 minutes more. Do not open oven door during baking or popovers may fall. Finally, remove popovers and use a knife to knock a small slit in the top of each popover to vent the steam. Return to oven and bake for 5-10 minutes more until golden brown. Remove from oven and serve hot. Makes 6 classic popovers, or 12 using a muffin tin.

NOTES: 1) I've taken to making the batter right in my large mixing cup, which makes for easy pouring into the pan. 2) Last night I tried using a muffin tin; the popovers cooked much faster and weren't quite as airy. Cook be that I overcooked them a bit, though.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Local Holiday Gift Guide

As December approaches, we’re often tasked with finding the perfect holiday or hostess gift. Below is a list of gift ideas that support our fabulous local Houston-area food community. I’ve broken them up into five groups: gifts that give back, ideas for the food lover, cookbooks to catch, drink suggestions, and creative local favorites that just didn’t fit anywhere else. Enjoy!

The Center is a wonderfully inspiring nonprofit that serves Houstonians with mental retardation. Why not gift some of their famous gingersnaps or cheesesnaps for the holidays? Both offerings come in gorgeous tins, no gift wrap required. Similarly, the Brookwood Community for adults with special needs sells fabulous salad dressings, roasted pecans, and jalapeno jelly. All items are wonderful and keep well in the fridge or freezer. Katz Coffee features three flagship cause coffees: Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Friends of Enchanted Rock, and Austin’s Bat Conservation International. Each organization has its own specialty beans, and 50 cents of every pound sold goes directly to that charity. Need something longer lasting? Urban Harvest sells fantastic “I Dig Houston” shirts at its Eastside, Discovery Green, and City Hall farmers’ markets for $15, with proceeds benefiting the gardening community. Or try a donation to the Houston Food Bank. A special card lets them know that a donation was made in their names, and you can tell them the part about how $1 in the hands of the Houston Food Bank can provide a full day of meals for someone in need. HFB also sells coffee mugs, tote bags, and cute holiday ornaments made in the HFB youth programs.

It’s super fun to troll the farmers’ markets for various things to give to family and friends. How about some of the fantastically earthy olive oil from the Texas Hill Country Olive Company? You could pair it with a fresh baguette from Slow Dough or Angela’s Oven and a hunk of local cheese from the Houston Dairymaids. On the other hand, you could also offer some homemade granola with a tub of creamy goat’s milk yogurt from Swede Farm and some delicious local honey from Bee Wilde. You could always pack up some cured meats from Chris Shepherd at Catalan. Some people might *love* the Gluten-Free Holiday Kit from Gluten Free Houston. Or if you really need to wow ‘em, try a ready-to-bake cheese soufflé from Elizabeth Swift. They are? To. Die. For.

We’re Houston proud of our local cookbook celebs... Among Robb Walsh’s hometown collection, Sex, Death, & Oysters is pretty much a must-have. Or if you’re thinking of something a little more ethnic, Indo-Houstonian Shubhra Ramineni’s Entice with Spice offers dozens of fantastic Indian-inspired recipes with stunning photos and detailed explanations. Shubhra’s subtitle is “Easy Indian Recipes for Busy People,” and she takes great care to create accessible recipes without compromising the distinct flavors. My old standbys are the Junior League of Houston cookbooks, which offer fabulous meal ideas while giving a little something back to the Houston community (a portion of the books’ proceeds goes to Texas Children’s Hospital). If a magazine’s more your style, My Table has a holiday special: Buy one subscription at regular price ($24 for a one-year subscription of six issues) and get unlimited gift subscriptions at half-off.

Give your friends a trip down Memory Lane with a bag of Fluffernutters from the Fluff Bake Bar. Need more variety? You could also give the super cute cookies from Paulie’s, the gorgeous macarons from Maison-Burdisso, or the sensational cupcakes from Jodycakes. Want something more versatile? Then perhaps a few cinnamon rolls from Sinfull Bakery. If all else fails, a gift card to Hank’s ice cream just might do the trick. Maybe you can get them to sell ya a pint of peppermint!

For the beer enthusiast, give a grab bag of local brews from St. Arnold’s and Southern Star. St. Arnold’s even offers a super duper Christmas Ale. Plenty of other labels have seasonal offerings, too -- they’re just not brewed right here in your backyard. Tito’s Vodka and Deep Eddy sweet tea vodka are from right up the street in Austin. Or if you’re looking for something a little more tame, try Mexican hot chocolate mix from El Bolillo or a gift card to a local coffee shop, like Antidote or Catalina.

Howsabout a tshirt from our local favorite burger chain? Customize your Whataburger shirt the same way you customize your burger. Tamales always make great gifts, and Berryhill sells thousands of them over the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s only, they’ve got the fabulous turkey tamales. Go get ‘em! For something a little more “little guy” local, you could gift a holiday burger challenge: gift cards to local burger shops Hubcap Grill, the Burger Guys, Becks Prime, and more. Include handmade score cards so you can determine the true Burger King for yourself. Or more creatively, give an herb garden starter kit with planters or seeds from Buchanan’s Native Plants.

Got any more local gift ideas? Let me know, and I’ll add ‘em to the list!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jus' Mac and Cheesy

Show me someone who doesn’t love macaroni and cheese, and I’ll show you a liar. The dish is warm, creamy, and comforting… It’s basically a bear hug in a bowl. So strong is my affinity for the stuff, I had a mac-n-cheese bar at my own damn wedding. Sweet! Not that I was really able to partake.

But I had mixed feelings when I heard about Jus’ Mac, a new restaurant based entirely on macaroni and cheese, opening in the Heights. On the one hand, macaroni and cheese is awesome, and it’s great that creative versions are there for the taking. On the other hand, do we really need a gimmicky place that’s destined to fail when the trend grows old? Hmmmm... I was intrigued enough to give it a whirl last week for lunch.

The menu at Jus’ Mac offers a fairly extensive list of creamy mac ‘n cheese options. They’ve got an All-American and a Chili Cheese. The Popeye has spinach, mushrooms, and onions, while the Pit Master is topped with beef brisket. The Rustic comes with basil, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and mozzarella, and the Puebla features roasted poblano peppers. There’s a Buffalo Chicken, a Four-Cheese, and a Bacon Bliss. Along with a handful of other iterations.

As best we could tell, the kitchen just cooks up huge vats of mac ‘n cheese, then adds the toppings to order. I tried the Mexi-Taco, a fake cast-iron skillet of mac-n-cheese topped with ground beef, tomato, onion, avocado, and tortilla chips. And my friend Victoria got a bowl o’ nostalgia: mac-n-cheese topped with hot dog bits and a squiggle of yellow mustard. We both agreed that the toppings were nice -- interesting and creative options, a little something for everyone. But we also agreed that the pasta could use some help in the form of seasoning. As Victoria said, “There’s just something nice about that saltiness that comes from good ol’ American cheese.” And she’s right -- that’s what was missing. The delight here is not the mac-n-cheese, itself, but rather the mask of additional flavors. At $9, the portions seemed pricey; however, neither of us was able to finish our serving and ended up packing up about half to go.

Is this the best mac-n-cheese in town? No, I’d still give those honors to Beaver’s. But if you can get past the annoyingly small parking lot, disposable utensils, and fake cast-iron skillet dishes, Jus’ Mac is fun for a try. Once. Are there enough people to support the spot throughout the years? I have my doubts, but only time will tell.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Delicious Assistance for Thanksgiving

Preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal on your own can be scarier than snakes, Marilyn Manson, and politics. In that sense, it’s nice to have help with at least a component or two. Here are a few ideas for those of you looking to take it a little easier this holiday.

If you need help with the star of the show, try a smoked turkey from Wood Duck Farm. The farm-raised birds are brined with salt and molasses; then they’re trussed, stuffed, and smoked with Red Oak that's picked fresh from the backyard. You can choose from 1) unstuffed, 2) stuffed with apples, thyme, and rosemary, or 3) stuffed with cilantro, lime, and jalapeno peppers. Sound good? Just place your order online, then pick up the turkey on Tuesday 11/23 at the Rice University farmers market or on Wednesday 11/24 at the City Hall farmers market. Turkeys come in three sizes and price points:

-- A 10-12 lb. dressed bird is $42
-- A 12-14 lb. dressed bird is $49
-- A 16-18 lb. dressed bird is $63

Or maybe you’ve got the dinner down, but can’t even think about dessert. In that case, pastry chef extraordinaire Rebecca Masson is ready to help. This year she’s offering a fabulous pecan pie with an outrageous shortbread crust and a side of philanthropy. Pies cost $25, with $5 of that going directly to the Corridor Rescue program. Order your pies online; then pick them up on Tuesday 11/23 or Wednesday 11/24 (between 12 noon and 5 p.m.) at the Natural Paws store at 514 W 19th Street in the Heights. Deliciously sweet and sinfully easy.

And if you *really* need help this Thanksgiving, you can pick up pretty much anything on the list of traditional Thanksgiving favorites at Central Market. Less fun, maybe -- but also less stress, giving you more time to make hand turkeys and pilgrim hats.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Houston's Cult Classics

Last week Poor Taste came out with a list of the Top 100 Cult Restaurants in America. What elevates an eatery to that God-like status? Here’s how they measure success:

“First, the restaurant must have a highly devoted customer base and should appeal to locals and tourists. Second, the food must obviously be stellar and unique enough to produce a dedicated clientele. Being home to ‘The Best’ or ‘The Original’ of something helps. Third, the wait is almost always unbearable -- but worth it. Fourth, multiple locations are okay, but not too many. Finally, a single meal should be relatively cheap. Less than 20 bucks per person is ideal.”

It’s not surprising that the list is big-city heavy… But while California accounts for a whopping 32 of the 100 (including 26 of the top 50), only three Texas restaurants make an appearance: Smitty’s in Lockhart (26), El Rey here in Houston (79), and Salt Lick BBQ outside of Austin (80).

While I’d like to rage against the pub for quashing Houston, I can’t actually think of many restaurants around town that meet their criteria. The thing about our fair city is that it really doesn’t have two or three of those restaurants that capture the precise amalgamation of taste, touch, and tenure as to be considered cultish. What we have instead is the luxury of so many great places that there’s not one or two that truly stick out as cult phenomenons.

That said, here are a few things that strike me as cultish from Houston:

1) Ninfa’s on Navigation. Poor Taste chose El Rey as Houston’s lone cult restaurant, but that place doesn’t fit the mold nearly as well as the original Ninfa’s. Yes, El Rey has a devoted customer base and the menu is somewhat unique, but the food is definitely not stellar. In fact, it’s actually dog food disguised as Cubo-Mexican. Or something like that. Only Ninfa’s inspires as much love from in-towners as it does from out-of-towners, has an often unbearable wait, and makes outlandish claims to be the original creator of the fajita. Perhaps most endemic to the list, they offer some of the best Tex-Mex around, including fantastic iterations of stuffed quail, Shrimp Diablo, and softshell crab. While the franchised versions imitate the original, they never come close to equaling it, which makes Mama Ninfa’s my cult favorite.

2) Bryan Caswell. Even before his run on The Next Iron Chef, Bryan Caswell had a semi-Koresh-like following around town. And it’s easy to see why: Each of his three restaurants (REEF, Stella Sola, and Little Big’s) is unique, offering fresh foods in interesting combinations that glorify the local and the seasonal. Even more interesting is that these places all managed to avoid the sophomore slump so common in the industry. True, the Little Bigs in Hermann Park closed recently, but the original location on Montrose still packs ‘em in. Don’t expect Caswell’s Midas Touch and rockstar status to plummet with his next venture, either -- a new take on Tex-Mex with Houston’s other favorite son, Robb Walsh.

3) The debate over the best burger. Houston’s Burger Battle happens often and happens crazy. Mmmmhmmm, it’s been known to incite the kind of feud that can resurrect wrestling or separate a family. Touchy stuff. Rumor even has it that the cult-like In-and-Out Burger chose Dallas over Houston for its first Texas location to avoid competing with the Bayou City’s proliferation of solid burgers: Hubcap, Sam’s Deli Diner, Tornado, Christian’s Tailgate, Becks Prime, etc, etc, etc, and it’s easy to see their point. As for me, I generally try to avoid the debate -- not because I don’t have a dog in the fight, but rather because I really don’t care. Too many awesome burger joints is a problem I’m happy to have. Let the debates rage on!

What do you think? What else is cult-like in Houston’s culinary pantheon?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Is Houston Ready for a Permanent Just8?

About six weeks ago I had dinner at Houston’s first pop-up restaurant -- The Just August Project. It was an inspiring meal which showcased a range of interesting techniques and flavor combinations. My eyes were ablaze from start to finish, marveling at what was in front of me and wondering what came next. It is not a meal I would choose daily, but perhaps one I would look forward to each quarter.

(Pickled broccoli and dehydrated chorizo on a poached egg yolk at Just8)

I spent last week in San Francisco, where I had a similar experience at the more established Commis, thanks to recommendations from @tastybitz and @tetsujustin. Looking back at the exceptional meal, it’s no wonder that Just8 chef Justin Yu had recommend the place, as the parallels between the two experiences are clear. Both places offer jaw-dropping creations that play with textures and style. Both offered a range of meats and fish, including a raw course. Both played up the seasonal influences and featured a poached egg yolk. Both offer reasonably priced pre-fixe meals. And both provide an intimate setting (12 tables or so) with top-notch service that’s completely void of pretension. Commis is filled nightly in Oakland. Could the same type of place survive here in Houston?

(Fabulous fennel bulb soup with tomatoes and basil at Commis)

You tell me. At Commis, we started with a flavorful fennel bulb soup studded with tomatoes and basil. What followed was raw albacore tuna with scallion, pepper, lime peel… and gorgeous golden chunks of fried okra -- A little bit of the deep south all the way over on the Left Coast. Next came the wild hake with squash congee, clams, and spinach. The local abalone with liver sauce, potato, and seaweed was the only course I didn’t love -- The intensely fishy flavor overwhelmed. But that helped me save room for the next dish, a chicken that was first poached, and then roasted with salted butter and marjoram beneath the skin. For dessert? A compressed honeydew with blueberries and lemongrass “snow.”

(Wild hake with squash congee, clams, and spinach at Commis)

Dining experiences like Commis and the Just August Project are the culinary “someday,” connecting the aha’s in our minds and showing us what’s possible when creativity rules the flavor wheel. I walked out of both meals with the undeniable high that comes from enjoying exceptional food at a reasonable price exchange. And that’s exactly why I think a Commis or a Just8 *could* find a regular home in Houston... It would, of course, need to stay small to cut down on staff and overhead and offer a decent price for Houston's value-driven market. But these are the places we hold fast in our memories, and I want more.

(Poached-then-roasted chicken with marjoram and chanterelles at Commis)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Buttercream Frosting and Tiers of Joy

“A cake, Franck, is made of flour and water. My first car didn’t cost this much.” -- George Banks, Father of the Bride

I’ve been to jabillions of weddings in my 33 years -- witnessed the nuptials, oogled the dresses, owned the dance floors, and raised many a glass. This Fall, I’m having a wedding of my very own. And this is the only time you’ll see me write about it :)

Planning a wedding is an interesting thing, glorified in recent years to the point of divine supernatural. Fourteen bridesmaids and Vera Wang in a million-dollar affair? It’s almost common enough to be considered passé. Even Miss Manners has come out recently to gently reprimand today’s bridezillas for creating a culture of monster weddings. I’m totally with her -- but I’ll also admit that it’s been fun losing myself in the details no one will notice. Each decision seems amplified by five, though deep down I know it really doesn’t matter what linens we choose, what sized tables we provide, or how many members are in our wedding party. And if I trip down the aisle? It’ll prolly go viral on YouTube. Eh.

Every bride, I think, has things on which she will not compromise -- whether it’s food, flowers, or formality. For me, it’s cakes... those outrageously dreamy, fairytale rounds of sweet, sweet sugar and buttercream. Wedding cakes are exquisite and artful; each is a metaphorical castle for the happy new couple to enjoy on their own and share with their friends. I just don’t understand those brides that serve cardboard. And that fondant stuff may be lovely, but it sure tastes like butt -- No, thank you. All this is to say that last night’s cake tasting appointment has been on my calendar for months. In Sharpie. With stars. Squeee!

As we walk in, it is immediately *obvious* that the cake lady’s storefront is heaven incarnate... A dizzying array of cake layers and frosting, glazed in pastels and studded with pearls. Natural light streams through the windows as I lose myself in a world of vintage cake toppers, acrylic stands, and delicate roses. Oh, to be surrounded by those five-tiered majesties again! I immediately calculate the pluses, minuses, and sheer probability of swapping my soul for a career in cake tasting, but the downsides seem numerous. [Sigh.] Perhaps I could just pay rent here instead. We pour through scores of pictures showcasing the baker’s skill (Shapes! Textures! Plain and ornate!) and taste enough flavors to make ourselves ill. We savored every corner, analyzed every crumb, and picked apart each frosting.

In the end, the decision was surprisingly simple. Just like our wedding, itself. We tasted white cake, Italian cream, butter cake, and two chocolates. But almond cake filled with dulce de leche? I do -- happily ever after.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cultural Cuisine: Le Hotdog

One reason we all love to travel is checking out the fused combination of foods inspired by the various local populations. It’s hilarious that the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tokyo serves popcorn chicken sushi, for example, and Argentina is known for its European-evolved pastries. In Lima, you’ll find chifa, the local fusion of Chinese and Peruvian foods, thanks to a substantial Asian population. The combinations are astounding and -- oftentimes -- outstanding.

A few weeks ago I visited Vancouver and was surprised to discover that Canada has one of the largest Japanese populations outside of Japan -- which means that Canada also has some pretty kickin’ sushi. But perhaps more interesting than the upmarket food is the local favorite hot dog stand, Japadog.

Japadog takes an originally German food that has migrated to America, and then adds a Japanese spin. Um, how’s that? Simple: The meats and buns are the ballpark standards, but the gaggle of toppings offer interesting Asian-style flavors, textures, and combinations. Take Japadog’s most popular item, the Spicy Terimayo. It’s a spicy dawg topped with teriyaki sauce and dried seaweed, two standard Japanese ingredients. We also tried the delicious Oroshi, a brat covered with grated radish, green onion, and a thick soy sauce. Perhaps our favorite, though, was the Edamame Dog, a brat slice diagonally and stuffed with steamed edamame. Looking for ketchup, mustard, onion, and relish? No way -- Instead, Japadog offers teriyaki, wasabi, plum, and soy sauces.

Houston’s Hispanic population has evolved the standard hot dog into the spicy Mexican hot dog, and Vancouver’s Japanese population has developed its own cultural collision -- which begs the question of how many other populations have done likewise. Is there an Italian hot dog topped with marinara? An Ethiopian hot dog wrapped in injera? A Korean hotdog covered with kimchi?

As odd as it sounds, has the unassuming hotdog become a blank canvas for global cuisine?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Spotlighting the Locals

Growing up in Houston we feasted on Luby’s, queso, and fast food, but these days you could truly host a dinner party made almost entirely of foods produced within a 100-mile radius of Houston. The number of farmers markets and local vendors in the Houston area has virtually exploded over the past decade as more and more chefs and patrons want to know both the source of the foods they purchase -- and the makers, themselves.

Below are some of the Local Spotlight posts I’ve written recently for Eating Our Words. These have quickly become my favorite posts to research and write, as each vendor has such a unique story to tell: Some joined the trade out of basic necessity, while others did it for personal satisfaction or consider it a family tradition. But regardless of roots, each vendor highlights the inherent joys of working in and serving the local community. They've become richly fulfilled... Now, if only that paid the bills.

These posts have also, ahemmmm, helped my eating habits, as I’ve tried to incorporate more and more local foods in my own diet. Feelin’ good!

Produce from Wood Duck Farm:

Poultry and meats from Jolie Vue:

Heritage meats from Revival:

Drinks from Katz Coffee:

Olive oil from Texas Hill Country Olive Company:

Eggs from Hattermann's Farm:

Macarons from Maison Burdisso:

Cheese from the Houston Dairymaids:

Cured meats from The Grateful Bread:

Gelato from Trentino:

Houston restaurants with gardens:

Got any suggestions for future spotlights? I’m all ears!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Do Busier Bees Make Better Honey?

To say that life has been busy is like saying gravy tastes good, an understatement so comical that it was even difficult to type. With the school year hitting its home stretch, plus holidays, baseball games, weekend jaunts, out-of-town visitors, wedding planning, TAKS prep, food festivals, and more, I’ve had little time to engage in the one activity that simultaneously stimulates and calms me: Writing.

Well that’s only partially true. I have been writing twice-weekly posts for Eating Our Words, the Houston Press’s hodge-podge food blog. Regular food writing has proven to be fun. Since I only post twice a week, it hasn’t completely overwhelmed me -- but it has encouraged me to do/see/taste more and to hone my writing skillz. And because a few of you have complained that it’s harder to find my posts now, here are links to a few of my favorites. Just in case you’re interested.

Street Vendor Blues
A look at why Houston’s so slow to adopt the food truck movement

Brennan’s Houston
A first taste of the venerable restaurant after its grand reopening

Road Food Rules
A glance at a recent trip to New Orleans for the Road Food Festival

Beloved Brenham
Great places to eat in Brenham, a TX town that’s close to my heart

Celestial Sandwiches
My 25 favorite sammiches in Houston

Battle Falafel
A head-to-head taste test of two respected falafel places in town

Sunday, April 11, 2010

NOLA by Committee

There are a lot of *awesome* reasons to go to New Orleans with a group of friends, but one of the biggest upsides is that with a lot of people, comes a lot of food. Two weekends ago, six of us shared, sampled, and savored our way through menus around town, barely stopping to give thanks for the amazing weather. Here are some sneak peeks of our favorite meals.

Stanley offers a fabulous brunch menu in a gorgeous space filled with natural light, right on a serene corner of Jackson Square. And while the phrase “comfort food with a twist” has become quite the cliché, dishes like Bananas Foster French Toast and Softshell Crab Eggs Benedict certainly have not. We loved how Stanley put its own New Orleans stamp on every menu item.

The six of us gobbled our way through the po’ boys around town, and I can now say with certainty that the fried shrimp po’ boy at Johnny’s is my all-time favorite. This thing is simply outstanding, a prize winner among golden standards: pillowy bread with the lightest of crunch topped with just-golden shrimp, fresh veggies, and a simple, prolonged dash of Crystal hot sauce.

Cochon Butcher is the fabulous meat market and casual restaurant from the folks at Cochon. Sitting pretty on a quiet street in the Warehouse District, Butcher provided the ideal Sunday lunch spot. We arrived early, shortly after they opened, and had the place to ourselves -- but by the time we left, the place was jam-packed with hungry diners. Among the highlights were things like lamb sausage and foie gras butter, but my two faves were the heavenly “boudinwich” and a gorgeous bowl of shrimp-n-grits.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Rounders: Livin’ Large at the Houston Rodeo

Too much work and not enough play means this girl has a lot less time to exercise than I would like. While I used to roam the athletic fields, tracks, and gyms with speed, prowess, and agility, my spare time these days generally finds me at the computer. Or on the couch. Or deeply engaged in nap. That is, when I have spare time at all.

But 2010 is a new year, a big year. A round year in which I will get less round. I will rise from the couch to strengthen, tighten, and tone. I will make smoothies, veggies, and purees -- or healthy dinners like this one. My muscles will grow, my spare tire will shrink. Small children will fear me. And I can do it, too.

But then? I take my students to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and see dastardly attractions like this. Oh, holy hell.

Curiosity 1, Will Power 0. Was that deep-fried Snickers bar worth it? Prolly not, but it sure was fun, an indiscretion I can overcome. The bad news is there’s danger lurking around every corner at the rodeo, shark-like bucking broncos ready to pounce on unsuspecting patrons who lack the discipline to turn down lovers like fried cheesecake and a side of beef on a stick. Because then we found the Frito Pie stand. Ahhhh, Frito Pie. I haven’t had one of those since my youthful days on swim team, when we used to nosh on Frito Pie, Fun Dip, and Pixie Stix before totally rocking the 400-meter medley. Are they still as tasty as they once were? Absolutely. Curiosity 2, Will Power 0. [Sigh]

Yes, that’s a funnel cake in the background. And what. I hadn’t realized that this year’s event is sponsored by the devil: A few moments of ecstasy in exchange for an evening of regret. Thank you, Houston Rodeo, for limiting your your temptress delights to a mere two weeks per year. My glut and gut are in your debt.