Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Italian Chicken Sandwich at Second Baptist Church

No, I have not undergone an evangelical conversion. But I did eat lunch at the biggest, creepiest bastion of televangelism in Houston. Perhaps lesser known than Joel Osteen's carnival extravaganza, Second Baptist is the original megachurch. I couldn't even guess what the square footage of this place is, but it's about eight stories high and boasts a school, sanctuary, gym, restaurant, bookstore, and g-d knows what else.

Jane's Grill is a cafeteria on the second floor with seating for maybe one hundred and a nice terrace. Their menu is not very creative, but is cheap and not too bad. Today, I had an herbed sub ($5.99) with chicken, weird seasoned mayo, and some processed white cheese slices. It was rather greasy, and the mayo tasted like generic jarred crap mixed with chopped herbs and maybe a little food coloring, but it wasn't awful. Plus, it came with TATER-TOTS!!!!! Oh, the fourth-grade cafeteria nostalgia. I'm pretty sure they were frozen and then reconstituted in the deep fryer, as they were crispy and mushy and absurdly greasy all at the same time. Not too bad. The locally-made flavored iced tea is a plus, too.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Orzo and Frozen Yogurt at Home

For dinner, I made some orzo with butter and parm. It went nicely with some leftover red wine and amazing Greek yogurt frozen yogurt.

I've never cooked orzo before, so it was quite exciting. Especially exciting was the fact that our spaghetti pot has a built-in colander that is generally very useful, but the holes are large enough for orzo to escape. Straining the cooked orzo was ineffectual, but I was able to salvage enough for dinner. I covered it with butter, kosher salt, and some Kraft parmesan cheese. Oddly, it tasted exactly like Kraft's Mac N' Cheese.

The best part, as is usually the case, was dessert. Greek Gods makes fabulous frozen yogurt! I think it's the best ice cream product I've ever had, and is slightly lower fat than real ice cream. My fave is the chocolate fig, so much so that I've never bothered to try their others (which include pomegranate and honey, and also sound tasty). The bizarre ad copy on their website includes these tasting notes:

"Greek Gods Chocolata Fig Pagoto Ice Krema is a rich unique blend of flavors. It combines our signature honey cream base with a mixture of pure fig and chunks of dark gourmet chocolate. The fusion creates a stunning flavor profile that has hints of butterscotch, fig, chocolate and nuts in a creamy and smooth delicacy."

I also learned from their website copy that the yogurt's texture comes from mastic gum...yum.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Frozen Pizza at Home

For dinner, I had a Safeway Organics frozen spinach and cheese pizza, and a glass of gloriously tannic Portuguese red table wine.

First, these pizzas are fabulous. If generic brands would import all of their foods from where they are made best, it would create a revolution of sorts. The pizzas are made in Italy with a list of tasty ingredients and no weird additives. The crust contains only (organic) wheat flour, salt, olive oil, and yeast, and is topped with spinach, four cheeses, tomato sauce, and olive oil. I hate frozen pizza, but these taste like something I could have made; at about $4 each (maybe $5 when they're not on sale, but they always are), they're cheaper than any other organic frozen pizzas, and taste way better.

The wine is also very good. Can you really go wrong with wine from Portugal? It's nice, a little less rich than others I've had, very tannic. Yay dinner!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Posh Grocery Store Food in Houston

Central Market is crazy, and crazy expensive. Despite being owned by the H.E. Butts company, this place gives Whole Paycheck a new name- maybe Quarter Paycheck? If I had a real job, I think I could spend days in this place. I'm a pretty educated food person, and they stock fruits and potato varieties I've never heard of. They stock more Amarone wines than I've seen in one place in my whole life. They have a chocolate AISLE. The whole aisle. I think I could happily live there. Long story short, I bought whatever I felt like, and ended up consolidating some beets, microwave organic popcorn, and awful blueberry beer for dinner.

The beets were amazing, as always. Beets really are the perfect food. I roasted them with olive oil and green garlic, then sliced and covered them with more of the same and some salt. The microwave popcorn was a bizarre craving I had, although the butter remained stuck to the sides of the bag, hindering my enjoyment. The beer was not Central Market's fault, it should be noted. This beer is so bad, Jon thinks it deserves its own blog post...

I had encountered this beer back in May, when I was caught in a tornado and ended up at the Anheuser-Busch factory in Ft. Collins, CO. I sampled several beers, but had a cold, and was confused when all their flavored beers tasted like cough medicine. Knowing A-B, I figured they might be as sickly-sweet as they seemed, but figured they deserved a second chance. I also noted that the packaging has NO mention of their corporate overlordship, and that they have a cute cartoony label that looks very microbrewery.

Fast forward to this week, when we were at a convenience store in Houston looking for expensive cigarettes and cheap beer. Jon was fooled by the cute package, the "North American Brewer's Association Gold Medal" claim, and the statement that it was brewed by the "Blue Dawg Brewing Co." of Baldwinsville, NY. I thought it was the A-B beer I'd tried, but wasn't sure, due to the cutesey packaging and lack of A-B labeling.

I do not currently have a cold, and it still tastes like cough syrup. I have no further tasting notes, because that is all. Eau de cough syrup. In fact, I think the alcohol content (8%) may be similar to cough syrup. Assuming the label is not trying to mislead further, the label claims that the flavor is completely natural. If this is true, A-B must just add blueberry juice from concentrate to the final product, as it is a freakish purple shade. I can only imagine this product survives due to the 8% ABV and the malt beverages market.

More than anything, I'm appalled that A-B is so obviously misleading the public about the origins of "Wild Blue". Not as though I harbored much respect for large-scale American brewers, but really. Maybe if you have to lie about your beer to sell it, you should just give up. It's that bad. If you're ever in Ft. Collins, go to their brewery's tasting room and try it, along with their "hefeweissen" style 'Shock Top' can guess why I put hefeweissen in quotes. Please don't encourage its production by buying it, but it is so morbidly awful it must be sampled. Perhaps it would be ok reduced and drizzled over cheesecake.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Designer Burgers in Upper Kirby

For dinner, I had a cheeseburger and fries from Beck's Prime. Beck's is a Houston burger chain boasting fresh-cut fries, 1/2 pound burgers cooked over mesquite coals, and $22 steaks. Imagine Good Times with bigger burgers, minus the frozen custard and plus $15.

The fries were very good. They are allegedly hand-cut on site every day, which is worthy of praise in an age when even Thomas Keller has given in to Sysco. Having never tried TK's fries, I will refrain from further judgment. These had a nice potato flavor, good crispy-smushy balance, and were dusted in a sassy blend of spices. Yes, sassy. Maybe some cumin? They were actually a little weird.

The burger was interesting. It was huge, and contained a slice of cheese on each side of the meat- a bit too cheesy for me. They considerately sliced the onion into little square chunks, and smushed them into the melting cheese so they did not slide off the burger, which is a huge (if neurotic) pet peeve of mine. They also agreed to cook my burger medium-rare, and actually followed through! This made it perfectly cooked for my tastes, and (hopefully) shows some confidence in their ground-beef sources. Inshallah, E. Coli is not in my future...

People watching was ok. This place is down the street from the most expensive and storied neighborhood in Houston. We shared the place with some wealthy-looking elderly ladies, and a weird couple- snobby, botoxed, wedge-heel-and-capris-clad woman with balding, fat, denim-from-head-to-toe guy. Maybe she is having an affair with her gardener?

Finally, I apologize for the random photo of Thomas Keller. He's kind of a handsome guy, I guess. I couldn't find good photos of his fries. Seriously though, what kind of burger joint's website lacks photos of burgers?!?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ravioli at Home

For dinner, I had store-bought ravioli from Nuovo Pasta, with leftover pasta sauce from Alessi and a beloved Cerveza Cusqueña. The ravioli flavor was appropriately bizarre: Crawfish and Andouille, with caramelized onion and peppers. I'm a little disappointed in the company- apparently, they make other interesting flavors (Crab, leek, and lemon; asparagus, lemon, and mascarpone; squid ink, etc.), but they are only available to food service professionals. The crawfish ravioli was ok, but I really hate red and green peppers. They were not noted on the packaging except in the ingredients, and by the time I noticed, it was too late. Still, I think it's the strangest ravioli I've ever had, which is worth something.

The Cusqueña was very exciting. I haven't had it in years, because the importation supply lines were that bad. I think it might actually be on the menu at Los Cabos II, in downtown Denver, but every time I was ever there, they were out. The story they told me was that one company imported it into Los Angeles, and that they sent some poor employee off driving through the desert to bring it back to Denver in the trunk of his car, at which point it sold out in about a day. No, it is not the best beer in the world, but it's pretty good, and it's from Peru, which is one of the best places in the world. Hence, my ridiculous joy at finding it in the expensive grocery store here in Houston. In Peru, it's about $1.50 a liter. Here, it's almost $8 for a six-pack. I really hope some of that money makes it back to Peru.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

More Greek Food in Houston- Niko Nikos

For dinner, I had a Greek roast chicken half, with fries, tzatziki sauce, and a Red Stripe. The location was Niko Nikos, a Greek place on Montrose introduced to me by my lovely cousin Kristen. They recently expanded a bit, resulting in even more congestion despite more square footage and a larger parking lot. Their food is just that good.

The roast chicken was not quite as good as my fave Greek chicken place in Denver, Central II (by Swedish Hospital), but it was pretty good. Just your typical roast chicken with garlic, rosemary, lemon, and olive oil. Their fries were delicious, as usual, especially dipped in their yummy tzatziki sauce. They also make great oven-roasted potatoes with lemon and olive oil, although I did not have any tonight.

Likewise, the people-watching was fascinating. There was a Greek family eating near us that clearly had some drama going on (gesticulating hands, a little screaming), and a very Texas family consisting of overweight mom, overweight dad, and, sadly, overweight five-year-old girl. The food was a little heavy for the heat, but I'd been having a huge craving for their food since we moved down that had to be sated. I think it will be a nice go-to place for wholesome Greek food, although it lacks the charm and grease of a traditional Greek coffee shop.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Hobbits in Houston

No, I did not eat hobbits for dinner. I ate a cheeseburger and fries made by hobbits, with a beer from the local St. Arnold's brewery.

The Hobbit Cafe has been around since the mid-70s, in an old house tucked behind some trees just off of one of the city's main thoroughfares. Their menu is part hippie relic, with smoothies and brown rice, and part tasty burger joint. I had a buffalo burger with cheese and onions, and seasoned fries. It was slightly better than mediocre. My 'buffalo' tasted quite a lot like beef, was overcooked, and placed in a multigrain bun- par for the course here, but does anybody really want a grainy bun with their cheeseburger? The seasoned fries were nice, particularly dipped in Tabasco.

St. Arnold's is, as far as my uneducated and unresearched self knows, the only local brewery in Houston. They give tours of their facility on Saturdays with generous free samples, I'm told, but I have not yet visited because I've also heard there is no A/C. They make a mean Christmas Ale, and a nice summer ale, Lawnmower Ale. All of their beers are rarely available outside the state. I'd never had their Amber Ale before, so I went for that one. It was decent, if a little hoppy for my tastes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Greek Food in Houston- Yia Yia Mary's

For lunch, I had a mezze portion of taramasalata and a small salad at Yia Yia Mary's. YYM is the only Greek-themed outpost of the Pappas restaurant chain (See: Pappasito's Cantina, Pappadeaux's, Pappa's BBQ, Pappa's Grill, etc.), with only one location, which is here in Houston.

I had visited a few months ago, and was excited to see they have taramasalata on the menu, as it is very rare in American Greek restaurants. In fact, every other time I've eaten fresh taramasalata has been in Germany. Taramasalata is a spread made of cod roe blended with lemon juice and olive oil, which is eaten with pita bread. It can sometimes be found in the U.S. at grocery stores in jars from Krinos, but does not seem to be a popular dish at restaurants on this side of the pond. Despite its eerie pink color and ghastly saltiness, the flavor is awesome and somewhat unique. The accompanying pita bread was freshly baked and perfectly crisp, with a light sprinkling of kosher salt. It was tasty alone, but I had to brush off most of the salt before dipping it in the salty taramasalata.

The side salad was ok, if generic. It consisted mostly of sweet onions, black nicoise-looking olives (rather than the larger Kalamatas I would expect to see), tomato, very salty feta, lemon wedges, and some spices and olive oil. My only complaint would be the feta, which was too salty to enjoy. I have not had Greek feta in a very long time, so I am not sure if this was normal or not.

Pappas tends have pretty solid, if somewhat expensive, restaurant food, and YYM is no exception. Their prices do not change according to the time of day, so there is actually a $23 entree (I think it involves lamb chops?) you can order at lunch. I ordered off the appetizer and side menus, and I still spent about $11 on food. It's worth an occasional splurge when I'm in the mood for taramasalat, but not otherwise compelling.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tortellini at Home

For dinner, I had Buitoni's "100% Whole Wheat Three Cheese Tortellini" with marinara sauce from Alessi and Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Sorbet for dessert.

(On a sidenote, I had to Google "Haagen-Dazs" to figure out how to spell it, and it was not the first, second, or even third suspected spelling. And it's not even a real word, in any language. Somehow, this really bothers my inner grammar nazi.)

The tortellini was shockingly good, especially for something that contains a fearsome SEVEN grams of fiber per serving. I do like whole grain everything, but I'm a little skeptical of the alleged quantity here- not even scary, chunky, super-duper whole-grain bread has that much fiber. The packaging does not indicate the presence of added wheat germ (which could conceivably boost the fiber to that degree), only whole wheat flour and a little gluten. Does gluten contain fiber? The package also lists about thirty other chemical-ey ingredients, presumably to mask the flavor of real wheat. I do own a ravioli maker, but I am willing to ingest all this extra crap for convenience's sake.

The sauce was likewise very tasty. I have yet to try an Alessi product I don't like. They are made in Italy with relatively high-quality ingredients (olive oil only, yummy Sicilian tomatoes), and not as pricey as other imports. This sauce was $4.99/bottle. The only problem with Alessi is that their sauces are viciously hard to find, particularly in Denver. I went years without their sauces, only to discover them one night at Queen Soopers, hiding on the bottom shelf. Their puttanesca is also very good, if a little sweet.

Dessert was awful! I never thought anything bad could be said about Haagen-Dazs, but Haagen-Dazs and low-fat do not mix, apparently. I had intentionally avoided the fudge bars on the ice cream aisle, because they're disgusting. I would rather eat Adria's doggy ice cream, even the peanut-butter-and-cheese flavor she loves so much, rather than eat a fudgesicle. Guess what Haagen-Dazs Chocolate Sherbert greatly resembles? Yuck. I suppose I should have been put on notice by the term "sherbert", as this tends to denote a water-based frozen dessert, but the fact that it was Haagen-Dazs falsely reassured me.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Indian Food in Houston- Madras Pavilion

Today, I had lunch at a South Indian vegetarian restaurant in Houston, Madras Pavilion. Their specialty is dhosas filled with various veggies, but we were there for the lunch buffet. Overall, it was pretty good, and included many things I'd never seen before, despite having been to India and eaten at a South Indian joint in Delhi.

Among the "new" foods were deep-fried lentil doughnuts and lentil-rice pancakes (see photo, above). They were very into lentils- at least half of the buffet items included them in one way or another. Lucky for me, I like lentils. The lentil doughnuts were tasty, with little black flecks I assume were lentil chunks. It tasted like a very dense potato cake, with a bit of Indian flair. The lentil pancakes reminded me a little of my beloved Ethiopian injera- no relation, obviously, but they were great for soaking up the curry-like sauce from my paneer and peas. I was shocked they contained lentils, as they looked more like a bleached-white Little Debbie snack cake than anything else, but they had a nice texture and a sour flavor kind of like injera. Everything else on the buffet line was pretty typical- a curry dish, a lentil dish (actually, several), a few more veggies-in-curry dishes, some rice pudding. Not bad, as Indian buffets go. They apparently try to represent Indian food as a whole, with dishes from many different regions in the buffet line. They will also make fresh dhosas for you to wrap your veggie goodies in, but we were too full.

As we ate, we noticed a little boy wearing what looked like a smallish knit hat. We speculated about the sense in wearing a wool hat on a warm summer day. A few minutes later, as several orthodox Jews walked in, we realized the 'hat' was actually a large yarmulke. Walking out, we noticed a large plaque advertising the restaurant's status as a kosher dairy restaurant, and the seal of approval given by the Houston Kashruth Association. I don't know if it would drive mohels wild, but it was definitely tasty.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olive Garden by the Medical Center

Today, I had lunch at the much-maligned Olive Garden. Not my choice, but it was interesting after so many years away. Even their menu seems to have changed significantly from what I remembered; to me, it looked less classically Italian (if you could ever have labeled anything on the menu 'classic Italian') than ever before.

Not too much has changed otherwise. I tried to order a glass of their rose wine, but the waitress misunderstood me. I can't help but wonder how many people order wine by requesting "rosso", "bianco", or "rosato", as they are listed on the menu. Apparently the linguistics were sufficiently misleading so that I ended up with a glass of RED wine. Maybe I shouldn't expect someone who works at Olive Garden to know what rose is. It was very sweet and otherwise undistinguished, kind of like cheap wine from California. I was, however, encouraged to see that there is a Nero d'Avola on the menu, as this is not a very commonly imported Sicilian grape that I adore.

I could not decide on food. Their menu is kind of pricey (even at lunch) for my perception of the quality of what's served...$15 for grilled fish and pasta? I settled on the $9.95 cheese ravioli, which came with salad and breadsticks. No objection to the salad. The breadsticks were fine, even if I find the concept of spongy, greasy, wheat-germless "bread" kind of scary in general. The ravioli was decidedly not good. Olive Garden gets kudos for not overcooking them, but the filling needed help. It was particularly gross, as one lunch companion had just told me a story about 'The Simpsons' that involved Ralphie eating paste. Very chalky paste. They were covered with a very generic and salty marinara sauce and a little grated mozzarella. Not an awful meal, but nothing to change my mind about the chain. At those prices, I can cook pre-made ravioli at home with better sauce and wine.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Roast Chicken in Houston

Today, I finally got roast chicken (which I'd been craving for days); unfortunately, it was boring chicken masquerading as roast chicken. We ate at La Madeleine, a chain based mostly in Texas that purports to be "French bakery, European cafe, and cozy bistro" in one. In general, I do like the place- they have tasty salads, quiches, a mean tomato soup, and lots of cozy fireplaces and French country decor. They even dump bourbon cream sauce on their fruit, which I really can't argue with.

We had the misfortune of coming in about 3pm. Their pre-made food (quiches, galettes, croque monsieur) looked like they had been sitting around too long, so I elected to pick something off their longer menu. I ended up with a rosemary-encrusted roast chicken half with a Caesar side salad. The meat was kept moist by the thick layer of rosemary, and the skin was crisp in places and dried out in others, but it still lacked flavor throughout. Salt it did not lack. I was mystified by the chicken's flavorlessness, considering the thick layer of herbs visible. I tried dipping the chicken in butter and even strawberry jam (verdict: pretty good), before settling on lemon juice. The acid greatly improved the flavor, but not enough to want it again. The salad was tasty and filling. I guess it's interesting that a "French bistro" serves an incontrovertibly American salad, but there was otherwise nothing remarkable about it.

My typical meal at La Madeleine is a potato galette and a field salad with interesting house-made vinaigrette, sometimes with bourbon-cream strawberries. Next time, I think I'll just stick with that.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Turkey Burgers in Katy

I had a home-cooked turkey burger with oven-fried potato chunks and Nestle Quik for dinner tonight. I've always wondered how to make great turkey burgers, but have not yet discovered the secret. These were good, but turkey tends to get dried out and flavorless on the grill. This turkey burger was nestled in a toasted whole-wheat bun with a few slices of asiago cheese, but some onion chunks or maybe a buttery glaze would have helped to retain flavor better. Of course, it doesn't make sense to grind up turkey and expose it to high heat when it is so tasty roasted with some butter and herbs. Another instance of attempting to make food healthier and faster at the expense of flavor, I suppose.

The potatoes were quite flavorful and simply prepared- roasted in small chunks and sprayed with oil until nicely browned. My uncle used some sort of peeled yellow potato, which resulted in a creamier texture and more interesting flavor than an ordinary baker. It could have been improved by mixing in garlic shredded with a microplane grater as the potato chunks cooled. Alas, not everyone loves garlic quite that much.

The Quik was a nice addition to the meal, in a back-to-childhood sort of way. If there had been no Quik, a light beaujolais or gamay would also have been acceptable choices to balance the poultry flavors and cleanse the palate.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Rotini in Katy

Today, I had whole-wheat rotini for dinner. It was homemade, with Prego spaghetti sauce, frozen green beans, a slice of bread, and homemade chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I had been reading Thomas Keller's Bouchon cookbook all day, so I was really craving some beet salad and roast chicken. It was not to be.

This meal was interesting because it emphasized the differences between how I normally eat and how normal people eat. I suppose I would consider my aunt's family to be more typical American eaters than myself. For me, the fact that the veggies were frozen, the bread came in a plastic bag sealed with a little orange twist-tie, and the altogether absence of wine felt very strange. It's interesting to see how a single meal can change so much just based on the conventions of the people who made it. For example, when I shop for pasta sauce, I try to buy one that contains only or mostly olive oil, and I prefer those made with Italian tomatoes (price permitting). I also operate on the assumption that I will go grocery shopping every day or two, so that I can make exactly what I want. Tonight, the dinner selection was basically a ploy to avoid going out and to attempt to use whatever was around. It inspires creativity, and it probably works well in a household with two busy kids, but it was definitely different.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Unidentifiable Mediterranean Food in Katy

Today, I had lunch at the Red Oak Grill, in Katy, Texas. It was recommended by friends of my aunt, who claimed the food was amazing. They probably think Paula Deen is amazing, too.

The restaurant was located in a brand-new suburban strip mall, with a menu consisting of hamburgers, salads, and not-too-threatening Mediterranean food. I ordered the Chicken Schwarma Wrap and a side of stuffed grape leaves. The owner was of undetermined ethnicity, and there was nothing distinctive about the food to indicate. Lebanese? Syrian? Either way, it was just bad.

First, I hate pickles. Pickles in Middle Eastern food, you ask? Not only did my wrap contain pickles, the pickles were the best part of the whole meal...The wrap was a great example of what happens when you take a tasty concept and execute it using the cheapest, most commercial ingredients possible. The chicken tasted like it had been repeatedly thawed and frozen, and then perhaps microwaved. It suffered from a lack of seasoning. The chicken was stuffed in a store-bought, untoasted pita, slathered with garlic sauce and covered with tomato and pickle spears. Lebanese-Jewish-Deli fusion? Oy.

The stuffed grape leaves were truly scary. Imagine a chef who cooks only Asian food, attempting to make dolmades based off of nothing more than a description. They were the size and shape of spring rolls. The outer grape leaf was dried out to the chewiness and flavor of nori, yet it retained a weird oiliness. The filling consisted of a basmati-type rice that held its shape too well and failed to absorb flavor from the cooking liquid.

When I was in the sixth grade, I made my own dolmades for a social studies project on ancient Greece`using canned grape leaves. Nobody would actually try them, including my social studies teacher (who claimed to be on a diet). My dolmades were far, far better than these...things. Of course, the menu and the owner called them "stuffed grape leaves", so perhaps this dish was meant to be something else entirely.

At least I discovered a novel use for pickles.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pho in Waco

Today, I had pho from Clay Pot in Waco. They opened my first year in Waco in what looks like an old taco shack, and threw wild concerts that were busted by the cops. It used to be called "Le Cafe", but changed its name to commemorate the most popular menu item (which sucks). Their pho, however, is the best pho in the world. Moreover, they offer most of their menu items with a tasty spring roll, peanut sauce, and amazing homemade iced tea for lunch. You can't eat a better meal for $5.40 anywhere. Back in the day, popping in for a summer lunch also meant hanging out and having a beer with the super-nice owner, Quang, and whomever else happened by.