Jimmy Changas

Lunch at Jimmy Changas
It would take knowledge of a history of success of a particular restaurant group to entice me to drive to Deer Park/Pasadena area for a quick lunch.  Such is the case of the growing world of restaurant concept successes by Russell Ybarra.  He literally grew up in the business of Tex-Mex/Mexican restaurants. I as reared in Shoreacres and the closest “Mexican Restaurant” to us was El Toro in LaPorte, owned by the Ybarra family.  It was, literally, the first “Mexican restaurant” I ever ate at! So, after Ybarra founded the extremely successful Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen group with its first location in Pearland in 1993 and later, the Bullritos concept of quickly served cooked-to-order Tex-Mex food, it is looking like he has the golden touch in the crowded Tex-Mex food industry in Houston.    I attended a “soft opening” a few months ago of Ybarra’s newest concept, Jimmy Changas in Pasadena near Deer Park and had been looking for an opportunity to try it again.

So, when I had a function in Texas City yesterday to attend, I decided to travel through Deer Park and try out a few items in Jimmy Changas for lunch on the way.  I asked my server what she felt would describe Jimmy Changas and its approach to food.  She told me to imagine a “kicked up” Gringo’s.  After dining there, I disagree with that characterization.  There IS a kicked up approach to the restaurant itself.  More formal in design and décor, it is slightly more formal than a Gringo’s.  Certainly the service at Gringo’s did not need to be “kicked up”.  I think that from the standpoint of service, Ybarra would bristle at the idea that the level of service in one of his restaurants was any better than in any other (except in a Bullritos where there is counter service).  The service I experienced at Jimmy Changas was attentive and courteous. Although (full disclosure) I know Russell Ybarra, he did not know that I was dining there, nor did any of his staff know me.  I ordered so much food that my server warned me that I would “probably need several doggie bags”.   At any rate, I would describe the food as “Tropical Tex-Mex”.  While there are Tex-Mex staples on the menu, street food-inspired offerings typical of Tecate taco stands (Traditional and Fajita Rolled Tacos), Tamale Plates and El Paso Burritos (a tip of the sombrero to classic Tex-Mex offerings)… the flavors of the signature items there are strongly influenced by coastal Mexican areas I am familiar with… such as Veracruz, and the Baja Mexico Pacific coast. Lots of seafood there… and several offerings with crawfish featured (Texas/Mexico/New Orleans fusion?).

Regardless of the influences that helped Ybarra craft the menu at Jimmy Changas, the menu is different from “standard Tex-Mex”… it is different from “plain Mexican” and it is interesting enough to stand on its own and warrant a visit to try it.
Shrimp and Mango Tostada Salad
A real Summer star on the menu is the Shrimp and Mango Tostada Salad. This colorful salad is a food photographer’s delight and it was stacked with large shrimp, chunks of sweet mango and creamy avocado, pecans, black beans, red peppers, strawberries, lettuce and what the menu describes as “our signature Margarita vinaigrette dressing”.  There was a nice contrast between the sweetness of the strawberries and mangos against the more traditional combination of the avocados with shrimp that actually made the salad fun to eat. Aside from the fact that the overall package was seriously delicious, a lady diner at the next table spotted it (it’s about 5-6 inches tall) and came over to my table and walked around looking at it from all angles, then announced that she was going to order it. She later thanked me as she left, so I have no problem at all with recommending it.
Pollo Marisco
The Pollo Marisco was one of the server’s recommendations and frankly, I was surprised by how delightfully polite this dish was! Chicken breasts were covered with crawfish tails and a creamy simple white wine sauce.  I think the dish demonstrated a resistance to the temptation to produce a self-important glop typical of Mexican restaurants and instead was smooth and understated. As I planned to take some home to share, I forced myself to stop eating it long before I was ready to.  
The Veracruz

The Veracruz is a kind of surf, turf and fowl dish with bacon-wrapped shrimp served with a combination of beef and chicken fajitas (I was offered the choice of just beef fajitas instead of the combination, as I was already having an entrée with chicken).  This dish shows off two things I think that are done well at Jimmy Changas.  First of all… if you are just looking for beef fajitas, this may just be the place to go. In the world of fajitas, restaurants soak skirt steaks in everything from soy sauce to coffee to Italian salad dressing.  Jimmy Changas’ fajitas are simply marinated in pineapple juice and lime juice. The tenderizing effect and the acidity of the lime juice combined with the sweetness of the pineapple juice adds the tropical flavor I mentioned, yet is another example of the adherence here to the adage that “less is more”.  As far as the bacon-wrapped shrimp are concerned, somehow the bacon was cooked through without over-cooking the shrimp. It’s difficult to do it in my opinion, but the combination of these shrimp with the fajitas showcases two things done right here.

House-made Fresh Corn and Flour Tortillas

I am sometimes criticized for only writing about the good I see and it is sometimes said that there must be “something wrong in every meal”, but I ignore it.  While I didn’t order it on my lunch visit today, but at the soft opening, I tried what has become one of the most popular dishes at Jimmy Changas. A house specialty is Stuffed Avocado.  This is a breaded and stuffed whole avocado (stuffed with beef or cheese) served atop a “ranchero salsa”.  Every one of my tablemates at the opening of the restaurant months ago thought that this was wonderful. Me? Not too much. I thought that the combination of the avocado and the deep frying was too contrived (gratuitous textural contrast) and distracted from the creaminess of the avocado. Yet, everyone else loves it. Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.  Just sayin’.

Black Beans
There is a choice of refried, black or charro beans with most entrées.  I ordered a different one with each entrée and my personal favorite were the black beans, but the charro beans were well-seasoned and tasty, too.
Possibly, unrelated to the food and service, I want to mention that employees at Jimmy Changas  (responding to my questions) talked about feeling honored to be able to work for Ybarra.  While I was aware of his community charity work (He was honored by the Greater Houston Restaurant Association for much of this is 2009), he seems to take an “extended family” approach with his employees.  He has done everything from providing needed medical care to employees who needed help to buying a home for one who lost his due to a catastrophe. I mention these things because knowing what type of a person owns and (hands on) operates this company makes me feel good to eat there. It may also have something to do with why the food and service at Jimmy Changas are really good in my opinion.

A second location is slated to open in the Spring of 2012 on Highway 646 in League City.  The new location, like the one in Pasadena,  will also be family-friendly with a fun playground for younger members of the family dubbed “Jimmy’s Jungle”.

 5144 Center Street

Pasadena, Texas 77505

713-575-2700

Lunch at Sorrel Urban Bistro

Sorrel Urban Bistro has been open for a while and although I have stopped in a couple of times, I thought it was time to write about a quick lunch there after all of the other reviews slowed down.  Interesting thing about Houston (and many other places, I guess), is that restaurants have to point out that they are a farm-to-table restaurant to attract a crowd that cares about such things. 
Ray Salti is also owner of Ray’s Gourmet Country
Ray Salti has been in the organic/local/green business for some time as demonstrated by his restaurant, Ray’s Gourmet Country in Fulshear, where I first noticed his dedication to a constantly changing local and seasonable menu. While I’d rather just talk about the fact that the food at Sorrel is excellent… the produce is fresh and crisp (at least the produce that is supposed to be crisp is crisp), I felt that diners should know that in addition to all of that, they are supporting local farmers, ranchers and seafood industry… as well as supporting the growth on an organic, green wine industry, which at the time I dined there, made up about forty percent of the solid wall of wines at Sorrel.  
Executive Chef Soren Pedersen
Executive Chef Soren Pedersen is the inspiration and artist behind the menu at Sorrel… a menu that changes not once a day, but twice a day, depending upon what he, local  farmers as well as foragers might bring in that’s fresh and gorgeous. I assume that this is heaven for Pedersen, as before he and Salti put this together, he had to drive to Fulshear every day to practice his craft, when he actually lives near this new restaurant in Montrose.
Heirloom Tomato, Applewood Smoked Bacon and Basil Aioli
is a Deconstructed BLT
The lunch menu on our recent visit included offerings like Seared Black Drum with Herb Rissoto and Charred Lemon; Green Peppercorn Crusted Pork with Pan-Seared Polenta, Watercress and a Dried Cherry Demi; Chili Cured Scallop with Boston Bibb Salad and Anjou Pear, Texas Bleu Cheese and Simple Dressing.
Grilled Sirloin, Texas Bleu Cheese and Caramelized
on House Corn Bread
While the lunch menu was what we chose from on our visit, the dinner menu looked equally enticing with choices like Rack of Lamb with Spaghetti Squash and Pinot Noir Reduction; Seared Ahi Tuna with Lobster White Asparagus Reduction; Smoked White Rabbit Ravioli with Chardonnay Root Vegetable Glace; and Sea Salt Crusted Pork Chop with Creamy Pancetta Cous Cous and Rustic Local Tomato Confit.
Chili Cured Scallop with Boston Bibb Salad, Anjou Pear
Tecas Bleu Cheese and Simple Dressing
Frankly, all of my choices were excellent and even taking the local-organic part out of consideration, I could still see this place becoming the favorite neighborhood bistro. But don’t spot a dish that you like here and run over hoping to order it, as it may or may not be available, depending on what is seasonal, and available TODAY.
The Reception Area Has a TV Screen Showing the Kitchen.
Salti and Pedersen are proud of the preparation, as is demonstrated by the fact that when you enter the restaurant, the first thing you see at the reception area is a TV screen showing activity in the kitchen… then after being seated, the fully open kitchen is the entertainment.

In the words of Owner Ray Salti, “When local organic produce, game and seafood are available,  I really cannot understand why all restaurants don’t offer that quality to their customers.  It’s not just the right thing to do… it actually tastes so much better.”

2202 West Alabama

Houston, Texas 77098

713-677-0391

Hugo’s Regional Mexican Cuisine… the Test and Taste of Authenticity

In my opinion, Hugo’s has the most extensive all-around selection of authentic regional Mexican cuisine of any restaurant in Houston.

I spend as much as half of my time in Mexico writing about the cultures and cuisines for my blog  Jack Tyler’s Mexico.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am asked almost every day to recommend the “best Mexican restaurant in Houston” based upon my day job as a Mexico travel writer.  I decided it’s time to talk about some of these Houston eating establishments and what I feel is offered in them as authentic Mexican dishes.  I thought I would take a look at how far one may go in seeking “real Mexican food” without having to cross the border of our neighbor, Mexico.  Many Mexican restaurants in Houston boast of the authenticity of their menus and at some point or another, we’ve checked a lot of them out.

I found that Hugo’s was the answer that I gave to the question more often than not.  There are others I frequent when I am in the mood for Mexican food, but frankly, Hugo’s is my favorite, I decided to start with it and move on along the list. The engine that runs any restaurant is the chef/owner and Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s exemplifies this rule.

Chef Hugo Ortega with Diana Kennedy at her home in Mexico
Born in Mexico City as one of 8 children, at the age of 15, Hugo Ortega was working in a Proctor & Gamble plant in Mexico.  In the 80’s he moved to Houston and worked as a dish washer, then later as a busboy.  He made little money, but worked hard and learned English while learning the back of the restaurant house from (literally) the bottom up. He eventually earned a culinary degree and, as far as I can tell… he has never stopped his quest to learn and cook the regional Mexican dishes that he had not even tasted prior to his decision to move to Houston.  He makes four to six culinary journeys to Mexico annually and regularly attends cooking classes taught by his mentors in Mexico, such as Diana Kennedy. This is important, as there are many chefs in the U.S. promoting “regional” cuisines of Mexico, but in many cases, they promote only the dishes that they grew up eating as children or cooking as adults. In the case of Ortega and his restaurant, both are always a work in progress.

Huachinango a la Veracruzana (Snapper Veracruz) photo by Paula Murphy
A dish that can immediately sell me on any Mexican restaurant is authentic Snapper Veracruz, or Huachinango a la Veracruzana.  This is a favorite dish from the state of Veracruz and one that a trip to the port city of Veracruz is not complete without. It is so loved across Mexico that cooking classes I have taken as far away from Veracruz as Cancun and Cabo San Lucas have included it.  This Gulf Red Snapper loaded with olives, capers, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes is one of my favorite Mexican dishes.  Hugo’s version of it may as well have been made in my favorite Veracruz restaurant, Villa Rica. While on the menu at many Mexican restaurants in Houston, it is prepared properly at Hugo’s and is a destination dish as far as I am concerned.
Chiles en Nogada are served only when pomegranates are in season.

A true test of a Mexican restaurant’s dedication to regionality, as well as seasonality (unfortunately… as I would love to have it year-round) is Chiles en Nogada, a dish that many would call the “national dish” of Mexico.  To make a long story interminable, the dish was “invented” in the town of Puebla in 1821 by Augustinian nuns of the Santa Monica convent to honor Agustin de Iturbide, the commander of the Mexican army who had fought in the battle for Mexico’s independence. The treaty that granted Mexico this independence was signed in Veracruz and on his way back to Mexico City, de Iturbide was treated by the nuns with a dish using local and seasonal  ingredients, called chiles en nogada, which means chile (in this case, a Poblano pepper ) in walnut sauce.  The dish has the colors of the Mexican flag in it… red from the seeds of the pomegranate; white from the walnut sauce; and green from the Poblano chile. The period of time that the dish is served in Mexico, as well as at Hugo’s is determined by the season for the pomegranate and when the seeds are no longer fresh and crisp, the dish is discontinued until the following year.

While the dish is out of season at this writing, Chiles en Nogada are a prominent component of Hugo’s seasonal menu and, as one who has enjoyed the dish in Puebla, as well as throughout Mexico, Hugo’s is truly authentic and it is served as it is in Mexico, with the walnut sauce (nogada) cold or at room temperature.  Hugo’s recipe follows this prescription.  Don’t look for it now at Hugo’s, as it is out of season and he is serving his summer menu of squash blossom dishes. I have tasted and reviewed several of these in this article, as they are now available and without exception, delicious. By the way, all of the squash (and blossoms) served at Hugo’s is local and grown for him on a farm near Houston.

Chapulines (Grasshoppers)
I chose to make mine into tacos with Hugo’s
Chipotle Tomatillo Salsa and Guacamole

Throughout the southern Pacific coast of Mexico (Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas), no culinary stone seems to be unturned, as it is the land of the edible bug!  While the mecca of the consumption of grasshoppers, or Chapulines, is Oaxaca, I’ve strolled through the market in the Tzotzil Maya community of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, and bought bags of Chapulines fried on a comal with oil, garlic, salt and lime to snack on like popcorn as I shopped. They’re served all over Mexico and most of them probably come from Oaxaca. 

This Tzotzil Maya woman in the indigenous village of  Zinacantan,
Chiapas cooks on a traditional comal.  Although she was making tortillas
 for me, she has also fried Chapulines on the same surface.

In La Diferencia in Tijuana, Chapuline Sopes are on the menu and I’ve followed Andrew Zimmern in there to tape an episode for his Bizarre Foods where he proudly ate what Mexicans all over the country consider nothing more exotic than hopping popcorn.  The Chapulines at Hugo’s are the perfect size for crispy sautéing (They are traditionally graded in three sizes) and I made three tacos from the order with guacamole, tortillas and chipotle tomatillo salsa. In case you are wondering what grasshoppers taste like, all I say is that they taste exactly like sautéed grasshoppers (not chicken)…YUM.

Also, by the way, Hugo cooks with lard!  While I’m talking about a restaurant in Baja California (Tijuana) it reminds me that the importance of lard in Mexican cooking was never driven home to me as clearly as it was in a little town called Puerto Nuevo.  It’s a lobster village on the Pacific with nearly forty restaurants and nothing else, it seems.  All sell a dish called Puerto Nuevo-style lobster… a spiny lobster boiled, then finished off by frying in lard. They’re delicious and they get a unique flavor from the lard.  Hugo doesn’t serve them, but he uses lard in many of the dishes he offers in his restaurant… because he wants to duplicate the unique flavors that certain dishes have when prepared in Mexico.  That special flavor is subtly there in his carnitas, quesadillas, cochinita pibil, carnitas de pato, lechon and of course… his beans. And, because of the beans, it’s in his empanadas.  It’s a small thing, but if one is going to cook food like that in Mexico, one should cook like a Mexican.

Sopa de Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom Soup)

Now, to the seasonal Squash Blossom menu being served at Hugo’s as I write.  Plentiful in Mexico, Diana Kennedy uses squash blossoms frequently in casseroles, quesadillas and soups.  In the U.S., Rick Bayless is fond of them and they are used in his restaurant in Chicago. Hugo’s Sopa de Flor de Calabaza, or Squash Blossom Soup, is the best way to start to appreciate the tastes and beauty of the squash as a basis for all of the dishes offered on the seasonal menu.  In Mexico, by the way, Calabaza means “pumpkin”, but several types of squash are used, as are their flowers.  This rich soup is made with squash, corn, chicken stock, onions and garlic with masa (corn flour) dumplings.  Garnished with a squash blossom, this is a beautiful dish. More points for authenticity.
Platón de Flor de Calabaza

A nice way for two to share samples of various squash blossom dishes would be the Platón de Flor de Calabaza is a sampler plate including Stuffed Squash Blossoms, Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Coctel de Flor de Calabaza and Sopesitos de Flor de Calabaza (small sopés). This is a well-spent $38.00 for two to share and there’s no tourist food on it.

Enchiladas with Squash Blossoms, Calabacitas, Poblano

A favorite for me on the Squash Blossom menu is the Enchiladas entrée.   Two enchiladas are stuffed with squash blossoms, corn, poblano and calabacitas (miniature squash) and topped with tomatillo salsa and crema fresca.  This is a wonderful dish and I recommend it heartily.

Caesar Cardini making the original Caesar’s
Salad at his restaurant in Tijuana (I took this
shot of a framed old photo in the restaurant).
I like the fact that Hugo Ortega offers a Caesar’s Salad as authentic Mexican food. I’m usually stared at when I talk about my obsession with the Caesar’s Salad (It’s NOT Caesar Salad) as authentic Mexican food.  Not that it is typical of any other Mexican cuisines, but that it was first prepared in Mexico and it’s not named after Julius Caesar, but after Caesar Cardini, an immigrant to the San Diego area of California.  Cardini, in attempt to skirt the laws of Prohibition, opened a restaurant in Tijuana in the early 1920’s as primarily an Italian restaurant (serving liquor).  Late one night, some American aviators came to the restaurant to dine and drink and wanted something to munch on.  Scrounging around the kitchen, Caesar (or his brother… there’s disagreement on this point) came up with some finger food for the pilots to eat with their drinks.  Whole romaine leaves with a dressing made of olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, eggs, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and croutons were the munchies and it became so popular that it was placed on the menu and called Aviator’s Salad.  It was later called Caesar’s Salad. 

Hugo’s Caesar’s Salad
is made with Caesar Cardini’s original recipe.
When I was taught to make the salad in the kitchen of Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, I was taught to use anchovies, although Cardini originally felt that the Worcestershire sauce had enough anchovy in it already.  There’s actually no record of when Caesar started putting anchovies in the dressing, but he eventually did. Ortega uses the original recipe and adds anchovies, as is done today in Tijuana, but is happy to serve it with or without.  Ortega also serves the Romaine lettuce in smaller pieces to be eaten with a fork, but is very happy to serve it with the whole Romaine heart leaves for those who try it as finger food like the original.

Traditional dances from all regions of Mexico are performed
on two stages at Hugo’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.

 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla where the French were soundly defeated by Mexico on May 5th, 1862.  This is a Puebla event, however, it freed all of Mexico and it is celebrated throughout Mexico.  While Ortega has roots in Puebla and Mexico City (100 miles apart), he celebrates the cuisines and cultures of the entire country in Hugo’s annually on Cinco de Mayo.  Most recently, folklorico dancers from across Mexico performed in their respective traditional dress as revelers dined upon special drinks and a buffet of typical regional dishes from across Mexico. Cinco de Mayo celebration at Hugo’s is a celebration of an entire country’s heritage.
Cinco de Mayo is a serious celebration at Hugo’s

In short (I guess it hasn’t been short), one of the restaurants that I most often mention when I am asked what my favorite authentic Mexican restaurant in Houston is… is Hugo’s. At the end of this article, I have placed the recipe for Chiles en Nogada, compliments of Hugo Ortega.  I offer it not so much for you to make, but for you to understand that this is not a plate of Tex-Mex enchiladas!  It can take a couple of days to make it correctly and it is typical of the attention to authenticity at Hugo’s.  If you want to make them, print the recipe out… put it on your refrigerator and wait a few months for pomegranates to come into your supermarket.

Hugo’s Regional Mexican Cuisine
1600 Westheimer
Houstn, Texas 77008
713-524-7724.

Recipe for Chiles en Nogada:

RECIPE: Chiles en Nogada
(serves 8)

12 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes

4 cups pork stock or water
3 tablespoons corn oil
2 roasted tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped white onion
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 pound fresh peaches, large dice, skin on
1 pound fresh Washington Red apples, large dice, skin on
1 pound fresh Bosc pears, large dice, skin on
1 large ripe plantain, large dice, skinned
1/3 cup raisins, whole
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
3 tablespoons sugar
8 large poblano peppers, carefully roasted, peeled and     seeded keeping stems attached
2 cups white flour for dredging pork
1 tablespoon salt for dredging pork mixture

Seeds of 2 ripe, fresh pomegranates for final garnish. (about 8-10 seeds on top of each pepper

For the pork mixture:

Simmer the meat in the stock or water over low heat until it is soft (approx. 2 hours).  Cool and shred it.  Set aside.  In a large saucepan, heat the corn oil and fry the tomatoes with the onion and garlic. Cook until the liquid evaporates.  Then add all the fruit, almonds, sugar and meat and cook together for about 10 minutes. Cool mixture. 

The peppers:

Stuff the prepared peppers with the pork mixture, being extra careful not to tear them.  When the sauce has been made and the peppers stuffed and ready to serve, dredge the peppers in flour seasoned with salt.

Walnut Sauce:





3 cups milk
4 cups of walnuts
½ cup Cinzano Sweet Vermouth
4 ounces queso anejo
4 ounces queso fresco
1 cup sugar

Blend all five ingredients together into a smooth sauce. Serve cold over finished chiles.

To serve:

Sauté the floured, stuffed peppers in corn oil and finish them in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes, carefully turning them from time to time.  Arrange the 8 peppers on your serving platter.  Pour the cold walnut sauce over the peppers and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.  Serve with white rice if desired.

Taste of Chicago… Da Dogs, Da Italian Beefs and Da Pizzas in Houston?

Ultimate Guide to the Taste of Chicago in Houston… and the Great Chicago-Style Hot Dog Myth…
(and where to find them in Houston)
No food shot from Chicago would be complete without da bean.
I understand the attraction of Chicago and the unique foods that one seeks out when visiting there.  I understand the desire of those who move here from Chicago to seek out those familiar treats in Houston.  I’m not too sure, though, that I understand the number of expats who whine that they cannot find the Chicago-style hot dogs… the Italian beef Sandwiches… the Maxwell Street Polishes the deep dish pizzas, etc.  While the Italian beefs, and the deep dish pizzas may be subject to a lot of personal preference and customization in spices and sauces, this continuing myth that they can only be found in Chicago is really rather silly, isn’t it?  It’s particularly silly when you factor in the number of Chicago expats living here in Houston who now have restaurants and make ‘em the same way that they made ‘em in Chicago.  There are PLENTY of things to miss from Chicago… it’s a great town. But the Italian beefs and the hot dogs (especially the hot dogs), you don’t have to miss.
At any rate, this article is about Chicago’s unique casual offerings (It’s fitting that a city that HUGE that’s still called a “town” would be proudest of its sandwiches and pizzas).  It’s also about the most famous of the treats… the delicious Chicago-style Hot Dog!  Unique among hot dogs, it is not, however, a rocket science formula.
The very proponents of the Chicago-style hot dog demand uniformity. They demand the cookie cutter profile of the sandwich.  They will be quick to tell you that it must have nine specific and non-negotiable ingredients… and under no circumstances, may it have ketchup (thank God). Must-haves are:  All-beef wiener (preferably Vienna Beef), a STEAMED poppy seed bun, neon relish, shopped white onions, yellow mustard, sliced tomato, two sport peppers, a slice of Kosher pickle and a sprinkle of celery salt.  That’s it.  It is tasty… it is reliable… it is predictable and it is the most formulaic of all hot dogs in America.  What’s more, the Vienna Beef Company in Chicago, which is considered by most to be the gold standard of the product, sells the entire package to over 1500 venders, carts and restaurants in Chicago (They even rent the carts). They also sell the entire package to restaurants, carts and vendors all over the United States, including Houston. They also claim that the package of components that they sell guarantees the genuine article whether it’s assembled in Chicago or Charleston.  When in Chicago, however, you will hear that you MUST go to the Maxwell Street area and experience the Maxwell Street Polish made at Jim’s Original World Famous Stand,  Key to this one are the grilled onions, peppers and mustard piled high on the polish sausage.  If you’re looking for atmosphere, you won’t find this feeling in Houston… but Charles Rivers at BB’s Beef and Hot Dog here in Houston says he will give you the product. When I headed for Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Charles headed there the next day, too… with his taster set for Maxwell Street.
A hot dog cart on Chicago’s Navy Pier…
one of over 1500 supplied by the Vienna Beef Company
After trying deep dish pizzas in Chicago, I decided that there’s no way to talk about them in this article.  Every place that sells them has a different recipe.  Every place that sells them in Chicago and Houston has a different style.  All pizza places in Chicago, as well as those here in Houston seem to agree with two basic tenets of the Chicago rule book.  The crust must be tall and brown (and crispy on the sides only) and the cheese MUST be on the bottom and gooier than Hell. Really thick and really gooey.  So, in my mind, what this really means is that Chicago ex-pats are going to love one that tastes exactly like the one that was made in their own neighborhood and whine about all others… Houston, Chicago or anywhere else. Let’s face it… a deep dish pizza is comfort food and it either tastes like the one you are used to, or it doesn’t. You’re homesick!  Speaking of home sick, I tried an experiment at Gino’s East in Chicago. 
Gino’s East, a favorite pizza restaurant in Chicago
I ordered the Gino’s deep dish equivalent of my favorite pizza here in Houston… Star Pizza’s Joe’s Special.  You know which one I mean… sautéed spinach and fresh garlic?  There’s no way to describe two solid inches of fresh sautéed spinach with chunks of fresh garlic bubbling on top gooey mozzarella and tomato sauce I was served at Gino’s.  You would have to eat in a lot of Chicago and Houston pizza joints to make a statement that Chicago has the best pizzas.  I CAN, however, say that the best pizza I ever had in my life was the spinach and garlic pizza I had at Gino’s East last week!
You may have your favorite,
but this one from Gino’s East was the best pizza I ever ate!
There’s more than one Gold Standard in Chicago (MUCH more than one).  I also thought that a non-Vienna Beef maverick should be mentioned here. Portillo’s is a chain that sells it’s own version of all the icons.  They have their own wieners made for them and they’re 50% longer.  They make their own jus for their Italian Beefs and it’s a little less spicy.  I happen to prefer the spicier (Italian)components of the Vienna products, but this one is good, too.

Portillo’s Maxwell Street Polish

Portillo’s extra-long all-beef wiener Chicago-style hot dog

Just for the sake of honoring the other iconic delicacies, I should mention some of them and I’ve enjoyed them all… in Chicago, as well as in Houston.   A really good way to get a taste of Chicago is to visit there during the last week of June and the first week July (approximately) during the huge Taste of Chicago event. Having just returned from there last week and wearing out a pair of shoes, I’m an expert.  In what is billed as the World’s Largest Food Festival, hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans swarm Grant Park on the lakefront and wander the blocked-off streets to taste Chicago. In a sense, It’s not really a taste of Chicago, as the upscale restaurants aren’t represented there.  You won’t taste Charlie Trotter’s offerings, nor the seriously authentic Mexican dishes of Rick Bayless’ restaurants… but the iconic signature dishes that Chicago calls her own are all there.  Admission is free and the tickets used to buy the “tastes” are reasonable.  Pictures tell the story best:

Early in the day, but 100’s of thousands will pass through here.
Billy Goat Tavern was the inspiration for John Belushi’s famous
cheeseburger skit on Saturday Night Live
“Cheeborgie… cheeborgie”
Bobak’s is all about sausages… and they were grillin’.
Ya gotta eat the official dessert since 1980…
Eli’s Cheese Cake
The Vienna Beef stand has to be here at Taste of Chicago.
Lou Malnotti’s Pizza!
SOME PLACES TO TASTE CHICAGO IN HOUSTON:

Because the good citizens of Chicago have given us a formula for judging an authentic Chicago Hot Dog, I checked out a few here in Houston.  There are more here, but I don’t need to taste them all to know that they exist. The Houston versions are easy to judge because  there’s not much variance allowed.  I tasted them both before and after my most recent trip to Chicago:

Sonic Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Sonic’s Chicago-style Hot Dog looks good,
but the bun wasn’t nice and soft on either visit.
Sonic Drive-In isn’t too hard to rank from an “authenticity” standpoint.  My Poppy Seed Bun wasn’t steamed and the wiener, while it IS “100% beef”, isn’t Vienna Beef (but then, there are a lot of folks in Chicago that keep the Portillo’s Chicago chain in business and they have their own 100% beef wiener made for them).  Believe it or not, wieners have taste… and Vienna wieners have a flavor, just like all others do. If you like Vienna Beef… you will know the difference.  If not, this might appeal to you.  And while we’re on the wiener, I had to move the mustard off of one end of it to take a photo with it showing. Kind of diminutive, don’t you think? I didn’t have that problem in Chicago. But as they say, “size isn’t important” and most wieners in Houston and Chicago are about the same size.  At Portillo’s, the wiener is 50% longer and you can’t hide it.  So, Chicago die-hards can claim triumphantly “It ain’t REAL”.  Is it a tasty dog, though? Why, yes it is.  MY problem with it is that (believe it or not) you don’t have to be from Chicago to understand the subtle softness and tenderness of a steamed bun, poppy seed or not.  My mother used to put a colander over the pan she boiled wieners in when we were growing up in the 50’s.  At the last minute, she put the buns in over the boiling water to soften them.  Perfect.  I found the dry bun at Sonic distracting. As far as atmosphere is concerned… it’s a drive-in… atmosphere here isn’t that important.  If I were in the mood for a Chicago Hot Dog, I wouldn’t seek it out at Sonic Drive In.  If I were already at Sonic, I might order a Chicago dog in addition to another dog that they do better. But, probably not.
James Coney Island Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Authentic Chicago-style hot dog at JCI
I have a soft spot in my heart for James Coney Island.  It’s a Houston institution and a tribute to the Papadakis family that has made chili dogs for Houstonians for generations. Love ‘em or like ‘em, they’re Houston comfort food for a lot of us.  I LOVE JCI original chili dogs. So, I felt that they’d do it right if they wanted to.  I went to the JCI closest to me, at Westheimer and Bering. 
(Me)“I’d like a Chicago Dog”. 

(Him) “Do you want that all the way?”
(Me) “Yes.” 
(Him) “Foot-long?” 
(Me) “WHAT?” 
(Him) “We have two sizes.  Regular and foot-long”. 
(Me) “In a Chicago Hot dog?” 
(Him) “Yes”. 
(Me) “OK.  “Drag” it through the garden.”  
(Him) Puzzled look.  Oh well… they get their ingredients from Chicago, but not their employees.

I was handed a foot-long chili cheese dog at the register with an apology that they had no foot-long poppy seed buns.   I explained to the manager that the servers needed to be trained in what products they sold. Manager went away and brought me a James Coney Island Chicago-style Hot Dog while I stepped aside for the non-problematic customers to pay through and waited.  All of the components were there.  The snap of the natural casing Vienna Beef wiener sets it apart from the “100% beef wieners” that some others sell.  The bun was steamed, but then they steam all their buns.  Opulent display of celery salt. Same thing I’ve had around Chicago… exactly (I would not quibble about pickle length, which even varied from dog to dog in Chicago).  The atmosphere is OK… it’s a hot dog joint after all.

www.JamesConeyIsland.com

Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef Chicago-style Hot Dogs
Chicago Dog. I liked the hand-cut fries here, too.
I love the atmosphere at Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef.  Proprietor is from Chicago and miss  town, but has adopted Houston… it’s a neighborhood pizza (deep dish)/Italian beef/Chicago-style hot dogs joint. Signs on the walls leave no doubt that this place is Vienna Beef formulaic CHICAGO.  It’s a full-menu restaurant with burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, pizzas, etc., etc. , beers and Italian wines.  We’re just talking about dogs here, but I thought I’d show a photo of the pizza and the atmosphere, too:
The walls brag about the Vienna Beef Connection.  This place had the
most Chicago neighborhood feel of all I visited.
Kinda hard not to think that this doesn’t look pretty good. However
on a subsequent visit, the crust was thin… the filling was thin and runny.
Unfortunately, the quality of the pizza here seems to depend upon who makes it.

Maxwell Street Polish
Tiramisu (nothing to do with this article… but I liked it). 

The wieners have the perfect snap to the tooth.  The buns are steamed perfectly. The neon relish and celery salt are authentic and the veggies are all fresh.  I guess I look like a wimp, as my first one was served without sport peppers, but that was remedied after I took the photo above.  I hate to break it to you Chicago exes, but the only thing missing here is the homesick factor (“I miss Chicago and I only like Chicago-style dogs exactly where I ate them all of my life… AT WRIGLEY FIELD!”).  I agree that Wrigley Field adds to the experience big time.  As far as the product is concerned, it is the exact delicious Chicago Vienna fill-in-the-blanks dog sold at over 1500 locations in Chicago. As far as the people are concerned, they were nice and I felt sorry for them, as they were concerned about me when I came in alone and ordered a deep dish pizza, an Italian Beef and a Chicago dog all to eat there by muself. The atmosphere here was the most like a neighborhood joint one might find in Chicago… so they got a 10.

Chicago Pizza and Italian Beef is at 1777 Airline Drive, Houston, TX 77009, 713-862-2844, www.chicagopizzaanditalianbeef.com
 BB’s Beef & Hot Dog Chicago-style Hot Dogs
There’s so much of the garden, it wouldn’t all fit on the hot dog
I have to thank Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press for the “heads up” on BB’s Beef and Hot Dog.  It would have been an incomplete study of Chicago-style eats available in Houston without the offerings of two Chicago ex-pats named Brenda and Charles Rivers. 
Charles Rivers… owner and head chef
They offer several Chicago treats, including the Chicago Italian Beef and the Maxwell Street Polish. All are authentic and all components come straight from the Vienna Beef Company in Chicago.  The Italian beef is served double dipped and per my request, was served with extra jus on the side (I also order French Dips in other restaurants that way).
Italian Beef all wrinkley from floating in the jus.
While the components are the same as other restaurants in Houston (and Chicago), the Italian spiciness of the jus seemed to stand out here and I particularly enjoyed it.  First of all, per the scoring system set up by the people of the great city of Chicago themselves, we have an authentic Chicago-style hot dog here.  The entire package comes from Vienna Beef in Chicago… poppy seed buns (perfectly steamed), neon relish, tomatoes, pickles, sport peppers, yellow mustard and the boiled (then steamed) Vienna Beef wiener. When you have just returned from Chicago (as I have) with the taste, feel and the aroma of the general article still permeating your essence, there is no doubt that there are branch offices of the windy city in Houston.  I rated the atmosphere here a “10” due to the presence of Charles Rivers and his willingness to come out to the small lunch counter and tell Chicago and Maxwell Street food stories.
BB’s Beef & Hot Dog is located at 11611 W. Airport Blvd. in Stafford.
 Chicago Hot Dog Shack Chicago-Style Hot Dog – CLOSED
Dragged through the garden, there’s nothing missing here!
Several years ago (I don’t know how many), some Chicago expats started talking about this place which operated at the time from a little trailer with an awning and some table seating.  It has grown by word-of-mouth and is now in a strip center west of I-45 on 1960 near the Champions area.  I’ve sampled their Maxwell Street Polish, their Italian Beefs and of course, their Chicago-style Hot Dogs.
Maxwell Street Polish
I say this with respect and agreement on the authenticity of these three products when I say that they make them correctly from ingredients ALL supplied by the godfather of all things wienered from Chicago… the Vienna Beef Company.  I stopped in to buy and taste the three sandwiches with the idea that I would taste them all when hot and juicy and then take the remnants home to finish off later.  When I ordered my lunch, the young lady said “Is this all for YOU?” I told her my plan, then blew it by eating all of all three sandwiches.  The Italian Beef was excellent and dipped in the spicy jus to make it properly impossible to eat without putting your face in the basket, also.
Chicago Hot Dog Shack is at 954 FM 1960 W. at Red Oak. Phone 281-537-2322
Did I miss some really good Chicago-style eateries in Houston?  If so, e-mail me and I’ll check it out and this article will magically change to reflect your suggestion.

London Sizzler Indian Restaurant

LONDON SIZZLER SIZZLES
(Contributed by George L. Rosenblatt, whose bio and introduction follow this review.)

My palate and my paunch have been savoring the many joys of LONDON SIZZLER nearly every weekend since February, thanks to an informal prescription by Houston Pain and Spine’s Dr. Asif Chaudhry.

While, sadly, I have not visited India, happily I have enjoyed outstanding Indian food in London, plus in such far-flung locales as Amsterdam, Singapore, and Mombasa — and for 35 years, in Houston.

Of my happy discoveries, LONDON SIZZLER is among my happiest.

Absent the buffet of its opening nine years ago, I sample LS specialties by grazing on the installment plan, although my curiosity is bigger than stomach and budget combined.
Here are my leading favorites as on the menu, with current prices and my reasonings.
The London Sizzler sampler is presented Sizzling
The London Sizzler ($42)

This mouth-boggling feast of six meats on a platter literally sizzles its way to the table. The superb six are tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, kebabs of ground chicken and of ground lamb, lamb chops and jeera wings – each redolent of its respective spicing and marination. If you normally enjoy lamb, you’ll swoon at London Sizzler’s. If, like me and, surprisingly, owner Ajay Patel himself, you dislike lamb’s inherent flavor, these chops and kebabs will pleasantly surprise you. Conspicuously muted, if not totally absent, is sheepmeat’s characteristic gaminess that I term “armpithian.” For tamer enthusiasts than I, each of the meats on the assortment is available as a separate entree.

Garlic Bullet Naan features chilis. 
Four Naan versions are served. This is the best!
  
Jeera Wings ($13)
Along with the restaurant’s megameat namesake, this component sizzler was one of the first that Dr. Chaudhry specifically recommended to me. My first bite told me why he dreamily rolled his eyes in recollection. Marination in fresh garlic and green chili, then charcoal grilling in the intensely hot, jug-shaped tandoor, distinguishes its flavor clearly and deliciously. As expected, wings jeera rate a cheera among my LS favorites.
Goat Buna Masala
Goat Buna Masala ($15)

Marination, spicing, timing, plus the instincts and patience enabling them to work, hallmark the cuisines of India and those of neighboring Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Perhaps no other single dish supports this principle as flavorfully as does this one. Goat, like lamb, can have its own armpithianicity, but Indian restaurants in general — and London Sizzler in particular — know how to remove it. Piquantly exquisite, LS goat buna masala, bones in, combines the leg meat with tomato, bell pepper, and the restaurant’s own “fresh Bombay masala” (a blend of numerous spices in an honest garam masala, of which Western “curry powders” are corruptions). My biggest surprise: how rapidly and completely Goat Buna Masala butted to the top of my flavorites. A best-seller, it’s Patel’s own favorite, too.

Paneer Tikka
Paneer Tikka ($12.50)

Also asizzle is this inspired version of the premises-made cheese (paneer), the focal ingredient of saag paneer, itself the other world of creamed spinach often a standard gauge of an Indian restaurant’s general quality. As the vegetarian paneer tikka, the ultra-mild, nutty, tofu-esque cheese cubes share the tandoori orange hue of the venerable boneless chunks of white meat chicken tikka. I first saw paneer tikka at a nearby table. Until tasting it, I couldn’t take my mind off it. Now I still can’t take my mind off it. Yum’s the word!

Saag Paneer

Garlic butter shrimp or masala orange roughy, both turbocharged with at least a dozen spices. Soupy tarka dal, studding piquant lentils with slivers of stir-fried garlic. Aloo gobi,  swaddling potatoes and cauliflower in yet another spice blend. Raita, one of the best versions of the ubiquitous yogurt-cucumber-onion condimental salad I’ve tried anywhere. I could go on ad infinitum, but let Jack Tyler’s mouth-inundating photos from  our recent London Sizzler lunch clarify the picture.

Raita

 Patel is expanding the menu with weekly specials, excitingly focusing on India’s kaleidoscope of regional cuisines, spotlighting such as the vegetarian galaxy of Gujarat, the seafood spectrum of Kerala, and the meaty, Portuguese-influenced infinity of tiny Goa.

Patel’s own roots are in Gujarat, state of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. Unlike Patel, most Gujarati are vegetarian, their specialties showcasing a nearly unimaginable variety of vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs. Surekha, his mother, prepares the enchanting, souplike khadi and its accompanying porridgelike kitchri . While meatless in Gujarat’s strict tradition, such Gujarati goodies will surely tantalize even committed carnivores.
Just two more aspects I feel I must mention.
The table troopers at London Sizzler are the best. Binu, Anup, Sarina, Sunita, Prakash, Rita, Oswaldo – all of them. They are diligent, genuinely friendly, incredibly patient in explaining the menu and amazingly, consistently pleasant. Nearly all are Nepali.
Next door, the owners have London Sweets.
As tails wag canines, explains Patel, today’s restaurant was originally intended to transplant a similar sweetery his family ran in London (hence the British-inspired nomenclature).
London Sweets custom assortment (mine!)

Even after I yield to post-prandial temptation by malai kulfi (a thick, creamy, caramelly, pistachio-dusted Indian ice cream) or mango lassi (a forkably thick, yogurt-based beverage) at London Sizzler, I waddle into London Sweets. There I challenge my three remaining sweet teeth from dazzlingly varied traditional Indian sweets and snacks. My loves: pinwheely kaju pista (as in cashew and pistachio) roll, fudgelike khoya burfi, and chewy, cookie-esque sweet sata. I discover more every time.

Manager Rajesh Patel (kin to Ajay) packs boxes to order. The sweets tend to be really sweet. Nearly all contain nuts, albeit often ground, crushed, slivered or pulverized.
Enjoy London Sizzler and its next-door sibling London Sweets half as much as I do, and you’ll love both.
LONDON SIZZLER
6690 Southwest Freeway at Hillcroft
713-783-2754
fax 713-783-2759
Tue.-Thu. 5-11 p.m., Fri.-Sun. 12-11 p.m., Closed Mon.
LONDON SWEETS
713-278-9247
adjoins the restaurant
open Tue.-Sun, 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Closed Mon.

An introduction and background of Houston’s newest Food Blogger:

George Rosenblatt and I have been close friends for the better part of 15 years, and, knowing him well, I invited him to guest post on my blog. I believe I have successfully convinced him to return from the world of the retired and start a new life as Houston’s newest (and possibly Houston’s most credentialed) food blogger. Before you say “HELL, that’s all we need! Another food blogger!” let me tell you a little about George’s qualifications.



We share a deeply rooted passion for food and restaurants, plus a compulsion to experience them, talk about them, write about them, and photograph them, often in a style that celebrated author and former chef Anthony Bourdain calls “food porn.”
His photo of an oyster Tequila shot near
Villahermosa, Mexico, begs the question
 “Just what IS George’s interest?”
Long before we met, George was one of the Houston Business Journal‘s first anonymous HBJ Gourmet columnists. Before that, George was the Houston dining correspondent for the Continental Airlines in-flight magazine.
Later, over nearly 14 years as the Houston Chronicle‘s first full-time travel writer, he worked in about 60 countries and on all seven continents, whenever possible focusing on edibles. His writing, photography and editing won more than 50 awards, including two internationally prestigious Lowell Thomas Awards for an unusual photo of the Eiffel Tower and a personalized feature on Kenya.
Satay Club is fan club in Singapore
As China normalized relations with the United States, George was the first journalist from the Southwest to travel there on his own, producing among his features an interview with a chef who’d been roasting Beijing kaoya (Peking duck) since the year George was born.
In 1988, Texas Monthly ran a feature on George’s propensity to describe travel experiences and observations in terms of food. As a business writer before landing in Travel, he even found ways to explain petroleum refining in culinary terms.
A Hamburg eel skinner wields
a sharp blade.
He considers himself an “impurist” in matters of culinary technique, as long as integrity and ingredients produce a tasty desired result.
Hong Kong fish monger
walks on water for customers.
Everywhere he’s gone except Antarctica, which has no restaurants, he’s indulged his fascination with flavors, his appetite to experience them and his thirst for learning about the world’s universe of food-related aspects.
Even a Gar on the menu in Mexico
 fails to escape George’s sense of food  humor.
George has traveled with, worked with or photographed such culinary luminaries as Joel Robuchon, Patricia Wells, Alice Waters, Joan Nathan, and Paula Wolfert.
He also created, researched, wrote and photographed a popular column, Let’s Eat!, for the weekly West University Examiner.

George and I together developed and published GREATER HOUSTON RESTAURANT BUSINESS as the official magazine of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.Our common, positive approach to food and restaurant journalism relies on a genuine respect and affection for both. We consider readers friends to tell what we enjoy where, and why we feel they would, too.

Like me, George usually picks up his own tabs in restaurants (he’ll tell you when he doesn’t), and restaurateurs owe him nothing but their professional best, with honest answers to his questions and, perhaps, a soupcon of courtesy.
I introduce you to George via his review of London Sizzler and London Sweets in Houston’s Little India along Hillcroft, Harwin and the Southwest Freeway. He invited me to dine with him and I convinced him to write about the experience as I photographed it. You’ll like his photography far more.
Contact George at restauwriteur@sbcglobal.net

Caribbean Cuisine Restaurant

We’ve had bones to pick with this restaurant… and that’s good!

I don’t remember if it was Tony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern we were watching when we got hungry.  I assume that it was Bourdain on the Travel Channel, as the food was attractive and all of it looked edible (not usually a Zimmern trademark).  He was in Jamaica and what he was eating really looked good, so I searched for Caribbean food on a local Houston dining site.  Forty-five minutes later, we were sitting in a parking lot out Bissonnet between Fondren and Gessner looking at the store front of Caribbean Cuisine Restaurant & Catering.  African/Trinidadian/Jamaican-Americans were heading to one corner of the parking lot and Hispanic-Americans parking nearby were headed to a Mexican restaurant in the other corner of the lot.  All families… a good sign to us.

Decor is Definitely Island Here

Caribbean Cuisine Restaurant is in a strip center and certainly not fancy, but when inside, you feel like you are in the Caribbean.  A colorful mural depicts an island beach scene… coolers are filled with fruit drinks from Jamaica and Trinidad (there are no alcoholic beverages sold in the restaurant)… and in one corner of the restaurant, there’s a small mini-mart selling staples and products from the Caribbean, such as fresh plantains and hot sauces (and Miss Ina’s Jerk Spice).

Typical Island Staples for Sale
Plenty of Juice Drinks… but no Alcohol

Miss Ina” is the locally iconic proprietor of the restaurant and while she is evidently there constantly with her hands in everything, both times we visited, we “just missed her”.   Too bad, as everyone we met seems to feel that she is part of the charm and the experience.

Beef Pattie

The menu selection opens with the typical starter/snack called a “pattie”.  Actually, it is more like the Jamaican version of an empanada… a very spicy and tasty fried dish made with beef, chicken or vegetables. We had the beef pattie and quickly decided that this is a “destination dish” and it was proven by the fact that a couple of the customers in line at the counter were there to buy there then “by de dozen” to take back to the office, or a party.

The food of the islands is all very rustic and quite informal in its presentation and almost everything is served on the bone.  Ribs on the bone… chicken on the bone… goat on the bone… ox tails… whole snapper (served “stew down style”)… all food that can be cooked on the bone is done so for the added flavor to the food.  It’s also served on the bone and you will use your hands a lot to eat it all without wasting some really good food.
Coco Bread
When ordering almost dish on the menu, remember that there is a LOT of wonderful sauce to be eaten and while most of it may be enjoyed by mixing it with the rice mixture, you might want to order a side of the requisite Coco Bread served here… you’ll like it and it’s perfect to enhance more than one of the dishes on the menu.  Coco bread is typical of Jamaica, but is popular throughout the area islands and is made with a little coconut milk.  Many open it and make a sandwich with a meat pattie.

Hot Pepper Sauce from Trinidad

I think I should also mention that the food at Caribbean Cuisine Restaurant is “spicy”.  It comes in a couple of strengths, from what I can figure.  The most common strength is “hot”.  After that, you’re on your own with a bottle of what seems to be Scotch Bonnet hot sauce from Trinidad on every table.  Looking around the room, I noticed that the bottle was in use on most tables. For me, it was just fine as served.
Chicken Roti

A  favorite in Jamaica is Roti and this delicate crepe-like bread  is used to wrap huge chunky curry sauce-filled goat, chicken, potato or shrimp roti’s.  When you cut the wrap open, you immediately notice that it is very hot (steam) and whatever the meat it is stuffed with, you will still get to pick up and eat it off of the bone… except, of course, the shrimp. Don’t get me wrong here when I talk about picking it up, as you CAN eat every dish here there a knife and fork, but why waste good food? We had the Chicken Roti.

Goat Curry

On my first visit, Curry Goat was my favorite and it has plenty of curry sauce to mix with the rice and beans served with it.  Rice with beans or peas are staples in the islands and look for it with most dishes at the restaurant… along with the fried plantains.

Jerk Chicken

IWhen most people think of Jamaican food, the word “jerk” comes to mind.  I went back a second time just to try the Jerk Chicken.  That alone was worth the trip.  Ina’s jerk sauce is really, really good and the chicken skin was perfectly caramelized and crispy.  The extra jerk sauce served on the side got poured on the chicken, the rice and the plantains and was a good addition to all.

I asked a few of the customers where they were from and most were from either Jamaica or Trinidad.  One, from Jamaica, told me that nobody makes food like his “mama”, but “dis is de bess in Houston.”

Go south on Fondren from the Southwest Freeway (59 South) to Bissonnet.  Go right for two blocks and it’s on your left.

Caribbean Cuisine Restaurant & Catering
7433 Bissonnet
Houston, Texas 77074
713-772-8225
cuisinecarib@yahoo.com

God Bless America, Osso Buco and Where’s the Lettuce?

SOME ICEBERG WITH YOUR OSSO BUCO?
Our Flag to Honor the Memories
Those Who served in the Past and
the Present.
Like hundreds of millions of Americans, I think of three things on Memorial Day… God, Country and Osso Buco. I know there are a few people who still stand around the grill in the back yard, patio or the beach… but for me, it’s gotta be air-conditioned with China, crystal, silver and at least five hours preparation for a meal that I start in the morning and serve late in the afternoon and clean up after for a couple of hours.  I DO go outside to hoist Old Glory, though.  I enjoy that.
My Osso Buco with Wild Rice, Squash and Carrots

Actually, the easy part here is the Osso Buco and I’m not going to belabor the obvious with the recipe nor the blow-by-blow. There are a million ways to do osso buco and mine isn’t like yours. I want to talk about lettuce. This won’t take long.  All joking aside, I like the idea of putting out the effort to braise a few really nice veal shanks (polish up the marrow spoons)… tiny root veggies and squash… wild rice (I know it’s not really rice)… creamy mashed Yukon potatoes and parsnips… and a really crispy “interesting” salad.  How about frisée with walnuts, bleu cheese and dried cherries?  It’s on nearly every restaurant menu in Houston, isn’t it?
Not MY Salad (Unfortunately)

I already had some dried cherries, bleu cheese and walnuts, so I jumped in the car to grab some frisée from one of the five markets in our neighborhood… and maybe even a trip to the hallowed halls of the goddess of all supermarkets in Houston… CENTRAL MARKET!
  • Kroger at Voss Road and San Felipe: “I’ve never heard of it.”
  • Randall’s at Voss Road and San Felipe: “Is that the only name it goes by?  I’ve never seen it here.”
  • Rice Epicurean Market on Fountain View near San Felipe:  “What is it? I don’t think we have ever had it.”
  • H.E.B. on Fountain View at Westheimer: “I don’t know what it is, but we don’t carry it.”
  • Whole Foods on Woodway at Voss:  “How do you say it again?  I don’t see it on the produce list… but if we DO, it would probably be over there with the bean sprouts.”
  • Central Market on Westheimer: “No sir, we didn’t get it.” 
It’s in SEASON, when DO you get it?!!!
Others across the country love to refer to us in Houston as a huge culinary hick town.  We’re really not… some of the finest restaurants in the country are here. There are 5,000,000 people in the Houston Metropolitan area.  Can you please sell us some freakin’ interesting lettuce?

You know, this is deeper than merely forcing the sale of romaine, iceberg, red tip and bags of “spring mix” (with one sprig of frisée in it).  I’ll deal with that someday, but probably after I talk about the vast conspiracy of the supermarket industry to force us to choose between U.S.D.A. Select beef and U.S.D.A. Prime with nothing in-between.  Have you ever tried to CHEW a U.S.D.A. Select steak? Or, BUY a Prime steak?

God bless America and our troops… past, present and future. We had a wonderful dinner on Memorial Day and I wish we could have shared it with them all.

Crapitto’s Cucina Italiana Revisited

When Crapitto’s opened on Mid Lane over a decade ago, there were a lot of jokes about the name and I am reminded of the slogan of the jelly company… “With a name like Smuckers…”   In the case of Crapitto’s Cucina Italiana, (actually, a well-established and respected name in Houston’s restaurant industry) the fact is that the experience really IS good.  We were driving aimlessly of a Sunday morning foraging for food and decided to drop in on Crapitto’s to see how it had changed over the past decade. It’s a plus that it was open as early as 11:00 a.m. and we found that it was a really pleasant place for Sunday brunch. It is in an old farmhouse, also.  It’s also time to stop the name jokes and references to the restaurant that was here before it became Crapitto’s in 1997.  
One of our favorite Dining Patios in Houston 
It is a compliment when I say that Crapitto’s is seriously “old school”. There are absolutely no trendy stacked entrees there.  There are some slightly personalized old standards, prepared to very high standards… and served with aplomb by servers who are as much at ease with a ninety-year-old regular as they are with a teen with a chartreuse Mohawk and nose ring dining with his family. I mention those demographic groups, as we were seated within chatting distance of both.  The atmosphere is formal… it is casual… and it is very comfortable.  For outside dining, its tree-covered patio is on our short list of the top three in Houston.
Shrimp Nellie
So we started with Shrimp Nellie ($12.00).  This appetizer at Crapitto’s is made with jumbo shrimp sautéed in a flour and egg batter then served in a garlic cream sauce.  The shrimp sautéed in this manner also may be served with the same cream sauce with fettuccini as an entrée ($22.00)… and it is so good that I feel that any meal there should probably include one variation or the other. 
Asparagus and Lump Crabmeat
Asparagus and Lump Crabmeat ($14.00) has both the visual appeal and the taste to please and it is served with a tangy lemon butter sauce.  I’m somewhat picky about the way lump crabmeat should be dealt with in a kitchen (commercial OR home) and it looks like the rule I follow of “Only touch it once!” is followed to keep the crabmeat big and intact. There’s not a lot more that can be added to this description except that you already know what lemon and butter do for both asparagus and crabmeat.
Veal Crapitto
Veal Crapitto ($23.00) was next in line and it is a crisply sautéed veal scaloppini with prosciutto, mozzarella and an Alfredo sauce. I didn’t order it, but after I tasted it, I picked unceasingly at Sally’s portion.  Luckily for her, it was a generous cut of veal.
Cappellini di Mare
My entrée was Cappellini di Mare ($22.00).  There are a lot of things I can say about this mound of shrimp, lump crabmeat, red bell peppers, onions and a sherry cream sauce is that the soft aroma of the sherry beckons the second it touches the table and if you look at the picture, you can’t find the pasta.  Some say that a rule in fine food restaurants is the higher the price, the smaller the quantity… but there is plenty to share in this dish and as with all sauces served at Crapitto’s, this one is classically understated and doesn’t overpower or steal the stage from the seafood.
Dessert Choices
Desserts at Crapitto’s are all house made and have all attained “signature” status through the years, they are ceremoniously offered… proudly served and really are excellent. 
Tiramisu
 I like it when the waiter brings your tiramisu to the table and anxiously watches to see your reaction when he places it in front of you. Order what you want for dessert at Crapitto’s, but in my opinion, you’re missing out if you don’t order the tiramisu and cappuccino to top it off. 
All in all, Crapitto’s has mellowed… it has become more comfortable and they just really have it down.   I introduced myself as we prepared to leave and asked for a recipe.  The server said he would ask his manager.  His manager is Justin Harbar, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York (unusual for a manager in a restaurant in Houston).  I got the recipe (verbally), as Justin recognized me… I had last seen him over 30 years ago when he was around five or six years old and the son of my best friend at the time.
If you are looking for a romantic dining experience in Houston… this is it.
Frank Crapitto also owns Frank’s Chop House at 3736 Westheimer He and Chef Frank Butera bring together two of Houston’s most respected restaurant families there and it may be our next stop.
Crapitto’s Cucina Italiana

2400 Mid Lane

Houston, TX 77027

713-961-1161

EKKO’S Greek American Deli (and Gas Station)

In a town that sells food in car washes with Christian background music, it’s not a surprise that there’s really good Greek food in a gas station, is it?  EKKO’S Greek American Deli is not a secret to many in the “Galleria area”.  We’ve driven past it on Richmond Avenue at Rice.  We’ve read reviews about it and have eaten there before.  I feel it’s time to write about it again, though.  I talk with people frequently who have never heard of it.  Secondly, the Greek food served at EKKO’S is really good. The third reason is that the food is actually evolving and getting even better than it was when I started eating there. 

Since EKKO’S has been under this ownership for five years (Greek immigrant Steve Bouboudakis, the original owner, sold it to his employees and opened Steve’s Automotive across Richmond Avenue).
Jamal Malik
Jamal Malik (who has spent his entire adult life in the food service industry), the current owner/chef is proud that regardless of the fact that this Greek American deli is in a gas station… it is NOT “fast food”… but it IS “quick serve” and all menu items are made to order for the customer.
Salad Bar and Mini Mart
Oh, yes… one more thing.  They have been so successful that they are changing the name and expanding with at least two more locations (sans petrol). Originally called Stelios, the name was changed to Ekko’s for ease of finding it, as it is in the old garage area of the Ekko’s gas station.
The new name will be Great Greek American Grill and two locations are opening within 120 days… one in the energy corridor and one at Richmond and Kirby.  The menu is not changing with the new name, but the gas station component is not part of the new locations.
Gyro
In my opinion, the star of the menu is the generous, juicy gyro. It’s always been excellent and it’s still one of the best in Houston.  The tomatoes, red onions and lettuce are fresh and the pita is really soft… the tzatiki is fresh and tangy, also.  My dining companion is a big fan of the moussaka.  I agree that the moussaka, layered with eggplant, tomato sauce, ground meat and potatoes is excellent and we shared several dishes.
Chicken Kabob Plate
Greek items include Chicken Kabob Plate, Beef Souvlaki Plate, Keftedes (Greek meatballs), Pastichio (Greek lasagna), Hummus, Spanakopita and many dishes one would expect in a Greek restaurant. There is a salad bar, as well as several deli sandwiches to grab and run… or eat at one of three tables or a counter.
The Yanni Burger was named in honor of Yanni Gioldasis,
Greek-American restaurateur
Also of note here are the big hand-formed beef patties on Ekko’s burgers, along with the very fresh classic burger adornments. No fancy “gourmet” burgers here… just good, juicy classic American hamburgers. The menu at EKKO’s includes several burgers, including Buffalo, Veggie and Chicken.   I had the Yanni Burger, which I found was named after a friend of mine. 
I never thought that I would be recommending the Greek food in a gas station, but I am.
Hours are 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on Sunday.
                                                               5216 Richmond Avenue at Rice

                                                                       713-622-2625
                                                                 www.ekkosdeli.com

Pondicheri for Breakfast… a New Beginning

Breakfast is fun again.  We were brought into Pondicheri by a twist of culinary fate… a perfect storm of restaurant long lines and closings on a Saturday morning caused us to drop in on this “Indian Diner” for breakfast. We had planned to have dinner there soon anyway… and we still do.  Self-described as serving “best of classic, home-style and street foods of India”, everyone with a computer has written about this restaurant, but I’m only talking about breakfast. Chef Anita Jaisinghani had caught our attention years ago when we brunched at her Indika restaurant out Memorial Drive. After she moved to the lower Westheimer location, we faithfully followed.  Last Valentine’s Day, Sally and I celebrated there and it has been our favorite romantic Valentine’s Day destination in memory.  Jaisinghani’s new creation, named after an Indian city, Pondicherry, seemed perfect for breakfast.  After all, the name means “new beginning”, or “fresh start”.  How better to start a day?
Comfortable seating and bright window view

Tables are all very close to each other in this “Indian diner”. Conversations with fellow diners are effortless and, to us, comfortable. If you’re very private about your breakfast, you might not be comfortable here.  Somehow it seems rude to dine three feet from someone and ignore him, doesn’t it? With the efforts to get the maximum number of seats in the restaurant and with windows lining two entire walls for a street view, the interior is bright and reminiscent of some diners/cafes in Manhattan we’ve enjoyed. We agreed that this wasn’t the place to have a private, quiet, romantic candle-lit breakfast and were pleased to have our food choices validated by a foursome at a nearby table asking us “What IS that?”.

While the restaurant is open at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast and late for dinner, table service is available only at night.  I point out that there are many brunch restaurants in Houston and we have visited one every Sunday for a while to spread the word about those we like.  THIS one however, fits comfortably in the brunch category… but is what seems to be missing in Houston… a bright open-early BREAKFAST spot, not in a hotel! Ordering is at the counter with a courteous knowledgeable Indian-American hostess from a house-printed menu, updated daily.  The challenge of reviewing this restaurant is that the menu can (and does) change daily, due to availability of produce and what we liked may not be there when you go… but what replaces it probably will please you.
The breakfast/lunch menu is applicable from 7:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. and in addition to breakfast items, offers salads, burgers and “frankies” such as Paneer and Veggie Frankie (a wrap with seasonable veggies and paneer masala), Texas Wild Shrimp Salad (with beets, mango, cucumber and sprouts), Lamb Mint Burger (with cheese green chutney and onion masala). Anyway, imagine a lunch menu that isn’t offered anywhere else… but we were there for breakfast.  Scrambled /Fried Eggs, Potatoes, Toast, Jam, etc., are all on the menu, but really… you can get that anywhere, can’t you?
French Toast

As a breakfast staple, French Toast at Pondicheri is a must-order for me.  At once huge, eye-pleasing and tasty, it might be all that many diners need for breakfast.  Generous Texas toast slices cooked drenched in egg are piled with seasonal fruits such as bananas, apples and blueberries… sprinkled with powdered sugar and have jaggery syrup (a sweetener made with raw Indian sugar), served on the side.  This Indian take on French toast could have been all I needed, but it wasn’t all that was ordered (and eaten).
Fresh Fruit

A “side” or Fresh Fruit was nice, as it was seasonal, but so many other offerings at Pondicheri are already smothered in fresh fruit, as was practically everything else we had.
Nightingale

Surprise treats always on the menu, but never described completely, are Nightingales… or Daily Samosas with Chutney.  These fried pastries are filled with whatever is in abundance that day… and they are always tasty with breakfast or a perfect little chaat or snack.
Papdi Chaat

Hardly a snack is the Papdi Chaat… a mound of crispy semolina crackers with sprouts, cumin yogurt, cilantro and tamarind chutney. Speaking of seasonal, our Papdi Chaat had a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds on it… and this crispy, tart, colorful seed is usually only available until May. Sally and I kept switching the French toast and the Papdi Chaat back and forth.
Masala Chai Tea
Coffee can be American, India blend, cappuccino… or, of course, Masala Chai Tea is perfect with these offerings.  Those who wish to enjoy merely a cup of coffee and a pastry will find an array at the counter when ordering.  We chose a moist Blackberry and Apple Pudding Cake that had just been placed in front of us while we were ordering… fresh from the kitchen.
There’s always something fresh from the oven in the morning…
Blackberry and Apple Pudding Cake

You can get breakfast anywhere, but when considering location, atmosphere, uncommonly creative dishes, hours of operation and PRICE, Pondicheri scores high on our breakfast/brunch choices.
Breakfast menu served (counter service) from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. weekdays and 8:00 to 11:00 a.m. on weekends. Lunch (counter service) is from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.   Coffee, tea and pastries (counter service) from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Dinner is served (table service) from 5:00 until 10:00 p.m. 
Pondicheri Cafe
2800 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX 77098
713-522-2022

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