Monday, January 18, 2010

Hubcap Grill: The Burger as Art

I’m no burger expert. I prolly eat about five burgers a year -- or definitely fewer than ten. I just don’t crave them like so many of you ravenous beef hunters do. I mean, they’re good and all, but so’s macaroni and cheese. Sheesh.

Within minutes of opening, Hubcap Grill, the diminutive downtown burger joint, had a slew of supporters and longer lines than the MFAH on free day. It was everyone’s favorite new place, nearly universally loved. The patties! The toppings! The composition! But come ON -- It’s *just* a burger, I thought to myself, though was secretly intrigued by anyone that could artfully combine burger with Frito Pie. [chin scratch]

Wouldntcha know. This past Saturday morning I tweeted that I was looking forward to my first ever visit to Hubcap Grill, and immediately received a dozen responses, most of which explained that I had to get this burger or that burger, be sure to try the fries, and don’t forget to say hi to Ricky, the amiable owner. Inspired by the outpouring of Hubcap evangelism, my excitement grew as I silently hoped my expectations weren’t growing out of control. It’s *just* a burger, I privately reminded myself.

Turns out, these are not *just* burgers. They are meaty buns of art, the carnivorous form of Monet’s Water Lilies, a Picasso among impostors. I loved the bacon cheeseburger with its thin patty that creates the ideal ratio between grilled meat and chopped toppings. I loved the Philly Cheese Steak burger, crowned with thin-sliced ribeye steak and melted Swiss cheese. I loved the buns, lightly toasted to offer just the right crunch. And I loved the atmosphere, which melds families, yupsters, athletes, hipsters, youngsters, old folks, Americans and non, and people from all walks of life, all gnoshing content in close comfort. What a delicious palette.

My 2010 burger total just might double.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

State of the City: 2010

Remember when you were little how time seemed to stand still? And now that you’re older, it pretty much travels at mock speed. Yeah, um, who can we speak to about that?

Ten short years ago we sighed with relief as the millennium swooshed by without the trolls of technical and physiological misfires that were “destined” to occur, Houston was settling in under the guidance of our first African-American mayor, and FORTUNE magazine listed Enron as one of its “100 Best Companies to Work for.” Ten years later technology pervades our every move, we welcome our first openly gay mayor, and the mere mention of Enron inspires sadness and spite, some nine years after it imploded. We’ve certainly aged.

To say that the past decade brought massive changes to Houston’s culinary landscape would be fairly banal on my part. Lord, in the last year alone we added gems like Stella Sola, Vinoteca Poscol, Bodegas, Giacomo’s, Canopy, Branch Water Tavern, Ciao Bello, Yelapa, and Kata Robata, among dozens of others -- all in a down economy. Chefs have become mock celebrities around town, Twitter changed the way we communicate, and diners are more willing to try new foods and preparations... as long as there’s a juicy steak to fall back on.

If anything, The Oughts taught us that with passion, skill, and the right tutelage, anyone can succeed in Houston’s culinary landscape. Anyone -- that is -- except Robert Gadsby, who proved that the fourth requirement around town is humility. Hot damn, Texas proud!

And even Texas isn’t bass-ackwards all the time. Over the past decade, Ruggles Green and Haven gave us Houston’s first green-certified restaurants. Monica Pope worked tirelessly to advance the slow food movement. Feast taught us to savor every part, nose to tail. The Houston Chowhounds inspired camaraderie through foodie smackdowns, rockstar throwdowns, and general chowdowns. And chefs like Randy Rucker, Plinio Sandalio, and Jonathan Jones challenged our thinking with their creative, avant-guard styles.

Tilman Fertita became the Microsoft of Houston’s culinary world: An experienced veteran churning out mediocre products with little in the way of serious competition. Landry’s is the evil empire everyone loves to hate. But 2009 saw Bryan Caswell emerge as the gastronomic Google: Young, brash, and infinitely cool, slowly adding new venues and rising chefs to his culinary pantheon. (Is anyone else picturing a Fertita/Caswell knife fight a la Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Beat It” video?) Caswell will never reach Fertita’s status -- he’d never choose to sacrifice quality for quantity -- but he has become Houston’s new prodigal son. It will be interesting to see how his 2000-teens play out.

Right now, the city is sittin’ pretty like pocket aces. What will the next decade bring? I have no idea. But here’s to hoping that our metaphorical adolescence sees us capitalize on the upswing.

My 2010 wishlist:
-- More street food faster
-- Better food in schools
-- More midrange restaurants like Giacomo’s
-- Fewer, more comprehensive farmers markets
-- A rad grocery store in the Heights (please!!)
-- Reasonably priced organic/sustainable food
-- Meatloaf, corndogs, and banana pudding
-- And, of course, more candy necklaces

What’s on your New Year’s wishlist?