Monday, October 27, 2008

Luling City Market BBQ in Houston

Please see amazing visual aid here. It is too large for my page, and I am computer illiterate.
For lunch, I had some brisket, a sausage, potato salad, and iced tea from the Luling City Market in Houston. There is an original location in Luling, TX, while this is their big-city outpost. It represents the "Central Texas style" of BBQ, whatever that means. It was nothing like Waco BBQ (which is frankly not very good, but makes up for it with kitsch and sheer quantity of food). Regional BBQ styles usually have to do with smoking wood (at LCM, oak) and sauce. Their sauce was strange. I'd classify it in the vinegar category, which seems to agree with what the map says. It just wasn't very pungent, very spicy, or very sweet; kind of nondescript.

The meat was so good! This is the best BBQ I've had in Houston by far, and the best sausage anywhere. (FYI, stay away from Goode and Co. I was shocked to discover how many people like their brisket while researching BBQ online. They're an awful Houston chain, and the reason I hated BBQ for the first eighteen years of my life.) Luling was so good, I proceeded to rhapsodize about my wonderful meal with a friend shortly thereafter. A friend who I cleverly forgot was a vegetarian. Oops. The brisket was a little dry in spots, but it had really nice texture and caramelization, and I appreciated that they trim off all the really fatty, gristly bits before weighing your meat. I found it delectable all by itself- BBQ sauce would've masked its meaty goodness.

The sausage was even better. I have no clue what was in it, I suspect all pork. It was very finely ground, mixed with spices, and contained within a crisp-cooked casing. It was clearly not healthy, and tasted amazingly rich, but did not ooze grease. I have very mixed feelings about eating pork, but it is so very good.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Boring Chicken at Home

For dinner, I had parmesan-crusted chicken and roasted kabocha squash from Whole Foods, with a glass of Cotes du Rhone.

The chicken was awful! I wish I'd chosen the pecan chicken instead. The crust was crumby rather than cheesy, and got progressively mushier as the baking time went on. Most of the bottom crust became irreversibly stuck to my baking sheet, and the rest remained a pallid, spongy white. The flavor was of mush, not parmesan, with little clusters of parsley and maybe some onion powder.

The kabocha was interesting. I'd never had japanese pumpkin before, so I selected it over the acorn squash, mostly for the novelty and its adorably ugly shape and color. It's similar to sweet potato, with a slight pumpkin flavor. I also roasted the seeds while the squash was baking, and then snacked on these while the chicken was finishing in the oven. Freshly toasted seeds are tasty! Everything I read suggested scraping off all the pulp and leaving them to dry for a day, but I threw them in a well-oiled pan with some pulp remanants, and they turned out fine.

The Cotes du Rhone was pretty good, it was Les Violettes. Just a typical, nondescript
wine that was a little too light. It would be nice with a salad.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Azuma Japanese in Houston

For dinner, I had vegetable tempura, a cucumber roll, a spicy tuna roll, and some sake. It was all rather unexceptional. The location was Azuma, a mini-chain of Japanese "sushi and robata bars". I had never heard the term 'robata' before, and wondered if it was some sort of robot kitsch takeoff on Benihana. If only.

The food wasn't bad, just boring and average and kind of pricey. I usually end up spending too much time and brainpower with the menu at this sort of place trying to cobble together a meal out of appetizers and a la cartes, because all the yummy-looking entrees are $20+.

The tempura was doughnut-like. Tempura should NEVER be doughnut-like. Anything deep-fried is still delicious, but the whole point of tempura is a light coating of crispy batter. The cucumber sushi tasted clean and refreshing, but it's pretty hard to screw up sushi rice, cucumber, and seaweed. I got a chunk of cucumber by itself, and the flavor was not very good- they had some produce sourcing issues. Likewise, the salmon was spicier than any I've ever had (good), but it smelled pretty fishy (scary). Jon said his hirame was likewise very fishy tasting.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Brunch at the Empire Cafe

For brunch, I engaged in a bit of cultural anthropology by trying the "Northwestern Breakfast". It was interesting to see what a Houston restaurant thinks of as Northwestern. It consisted of a smoked salmon, onion, and tomato omelette, some not-very-ripe fruit, and oatcakes with blackberry syrup.

The Empire Cafe is a cute cafe with nice outdoor patios and great trees. It's in Montrose, almost across the street from Cafe Brazil. I'd forgotten how interesting the menu is at Empire, and how good their coffee is. We'll probably end up here more often (assuming we wake up before the huge crowds that materialize around 10am).

Overall, not bad. The omelette was good. The smoked salmon was cold, but that also meant it wasn't cooked into pallid mush, and maintained texture well. The oatcakes were bizarre- very flat, on the raw side, with gummy chunks of steel-cut oats, weird texture, and a troubling shine. I can only presume they were very, very healthy. The blackberry syrup was good, and the cakes had a nice cinnamon flavor, texture notwithstanding. The fruit was like cardboard. Interestingly, I learned from my grandmother how to pick honeydew melons yesterday- if the skin is smooth, it's not ripe. The key is slightly rough, chalkboard-like skin.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Goat at the Taqeria

I really need to back off the unconventional meats. Last weekend it was lamb, now it's goat. For dinner, I had the "Birria Platillo" at Taqueria Tepatitlan, with tamarindo to drink.

Tepatitlan was my favorite sketchy taqueria in Houston before I moved here. They usually have interesting aguas frescas (hooray for Mexican fruit Kool-Aid goodness), and their refried beans are truly a mound of lard-studded beauty.

The first problem with dinner was the beans. Or lack thereof. I must be on their frijole boycott list or something, because the TWO times I've been there since moving to Houston, I have failed to get my beans. The first time I was there, I asked for a side of beans. The waitress completely forgot, and I was too full of tacos to complain. This time, I requested all beans and no rice (I may have an obsession with my rice cooker, but I really hate Mexican rice). Instead, I got a huge mound of rice, and no beans. I felt bad for the waitress, who had been having trouble understanding our Spanish anyway, so I contented myself with mooching Jon's beans. They were typically fluffy, flavorful, and undoubtedly lard-filled.

The goat was okay, on the greasy side. I'm not even quite sure how I ended up with goat- I guess I was feeling indecisive and it looked interesting. I like cabrito (baby goat), but haven't been up to eating it since I milked a goat in college and met its adorable babies. Birria is adult goat- musky, a little gamey, greasy. Meh. I don't think I'll be eating goat again. The dog certainly enjoyed the leftovers, though.

I'm always impressed with Tepatitlan's extras. They offer only two salsas with the chips- a garlicky tomatillo and a smoky red- but they offer pickled spicy carrot slices as condiments with dinner, and their corn tortillas are beautiful. They're freshly browned on the griddle, thick and puffy, and probably also filled with lard. The guacamole is always fresh and delicious, and they make the labor-intensive aguas frescas no one wants to make (watermelon, cantaloupe). Tonight, their selection was limited, so I chose the tamarind. It was good, with a slightly astringent flavor. It's probably the only agua fresca that tastes better with less sugar rather than more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Butter Makes Everything Better

For dinner, I had crab meat with purple sticky rice, rosemary sourdough bread, and a glass of viognier(!!!).

Steamed and pre-packaged crab meat is awesome. Not as expensive as fresh fish, but very tasty covered in butter, and super-easy to heat up. It smelled slightly funky, but tasted great. Chalk it up to the sodium benzoate preservative, at least until I wake up vomiting in the middle of the night...

My love affair with the rice cooker continues, but I wanted something a little healthier than refined basmati rice. Whole Foods had a few interesting varieties- Himalayan red rice, Canadian wild rice (pricey!), and my final choice, the aforementioned purple sticky rice. I think it's supposed to be used in Thai desserts or something, but it was nice by itself, covered with some butter and salt. The texture was not as horrifically grainy as brown rice, but nicely chewy and fragrant. Complimented with some toasted rosemary sourdough with butter, the meal was very easy and yummy.

To make dinner even better, I actually found a reasonably priced vionier! It is my favorite summery wine, after vinho verdes, and always amazing with seafood. This one was under $10, from Loredona Vineyards in California. It's pretty nicely balanced, although I'd like it better a bit leaner and drier. The flavors reminded me of Ironstone Vineyard's Symphony, an amazing wine in its own right (symphony being a grape variety developed in mid-century California), although Symphony is very, very sweet.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Punjab Eggplant and Rice at Home

For dinner, I had Indian eggplant mush and rice.

The eggplant was vaccuum-sealed in a foil pouch, courtesy of Tasty Bite. Their food items are awesome: cheap, relatively healthy, and super-easy to prepare. I microwave them for less than a minute; Jon somehow thinks the flavor is magically better when he takes the time to boil the foil bags in water. My faves are the Punjabi eggplant and Kashmiri spinach, with the peas paneer a distant third place option. The eggplant is always very good, just spicy enough. The texture takes some getting used to, but that is the eggplant's fault, not the preparation's. To go with it, I once again trotted out the trusty rice cooker and made some fresh basmati with butter and salt. Yummy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sausage at Home

For dinner, I had boiled sausage with baked acorn squash and a glass of vinho verde.

The sausage came from the meat section of Central Market, and was chosen for its bizarrely tasty-sounding composition- chicken, kalamata olives, and feta. We chose to boil them to prevent the cheese from leaking out of the casing upon melting. They were surprisingly yummy, in a strange sort of way. The feta added a peculiar tang and good texture, while the olives added moisture and a nice saltiness. The chicken was on the dry side; ideally, the ratio of chicken to olives would be dialed down a little to improve texture.

The squash had been lingering around the house, one of my sad attempts at pretending it is fall despite the temperature outside. I baked it, cut in half, cut side down in a pan of water for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Every internet source I found said to cook it for an hour, but it was on the overdone side after 45 minutes. Slathered in butter and fleur de sel, it was still awesome.

The wine was decent- Famega vinho verde, about $7. Aveleda is still my favorite vinho verde, but this was better than Casal Garcia, and about on par with La Santola. It is relatively dry and tastes primarily of apples.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Khorashe Bademjan Outside the Loop

For dinner, I had an Iranian lamb dish with eggplant, tomatoes, rice, and the best hummus in the world. You can see the morning-after carnage, above.

We went to Kasra Persian Grill, a nice (but not pricey) restaurant tucked into the corner of a strip center halfway to suburbia. It seems very obscure and off the beaten path, but it apparently won best Persian restaurant last year.

It is "outside the loop" in Houston parlance, meaning that it may as well exist in another universe for the large swath of people too snooty to venture outside the Hwy. 610 loop. That means more great food for me!

I ordered the khorashe bademjan, lamb shank slow-cooked with amazing eggplant slices, tomato, and apparently a sour grape sauce. The sauce tasted mostly of tomato, with a nice acidic bite that could be the grapes. We also ordered hummus to go with their freshly baked pita, and it was the best hummus EVER. It was very, very heavy on the garlic, with a relatively smooth texture, dusted with sumac powder and some fruity olive oil. The garlic made it wonderful.

Today for lunch, I had the leftovers. They were even better, because the flavors had blended together nicely overnight. I was able to recognize the raisin-size green orbs as small, sour grapes. I was also feeling brave enough to go after the marrow. It is the best part of the whole meal, salty and meaty and very fatty. Yummy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Salmon at Home

Last night, I ate baked salmon and rice for dinner.

The salmon was from Whole Foods, one of their pre-seasoned fish selections. I chose the almond-encrusted honey seasoning because it sounded revoltingly sweet and a little strange. In fact, it was very good, in a buttery-sweet sort of way. We'd planned on eating our fave canned fava beans (Palestinian recipe is the best, btw), but I ended up making more tasty basmati rice in the cooker instead. To drink, I had a Lone Star beer, the PBR of Texas. Yum.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Light Dinner at Home

For dinner, I had a large bowl of rice and some French Onion soup. Jon and I have been sick and lazy today, so we didn't want to cook real food. Jon had leftover tofu for dinner, but I found the concept a little depressing.

So, I measured out some basmati, washed it in my Japanese rice washer (the most versatile and under-rated kitchen tool I own), popped it into my rice cooker, and pushed the "cook" button. Lest anyone think I'm overly lazy, note that rice cookers have literally changed the world for millions of people in Asia, and may be used to cook full meals. I don't think my mother has noticed I neglected to return it to her when we moved, and I'm not giving it back if she does. I love that thing. The fluffy rice, with a paper-thin crust of toasty yumminess on the bottom, was ready in no time. I added some sea salt and butter.

I decided I was still hungry, so made an unfortunate (very unfortunate) foray into the world of Campbell's Soup. I am terrified of all their soups- between the rampant use of MSG and weird starches, and the salty-tangy flavor, I am not a fan. Moreover, I appreciate a good bowl of real French Onion soup more than anything in the world. Unfortunately, there was a lingering can of condensed soup in our pantry. I suspect it was a holdover from my bunker-mentality pantry in Wyoming, food only to be consumed in case of extreme snowstorm emergency. But I ate it. Yes, it was that bad. I added some Alessi garlic breadsticks to float around like bread chunks, but it didn't help. The flavor was tangy and metallic, with a vague undertone of beef.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pelmeny at Home

For dinner, I had chicken, beef, and onion pelmeny, roasted butternut squash, and some prosecco.

The pelmeny were a holdover from my jaunt to Phoenicia. They were pretty good, if a little on the salty side. I was not in a very carnivorous mood this evening; I would probably have much better things to say if I'd been craving red meat. Also, I forgot to buy sour cream to go with the pelmeny, which made them kind of sad. Butter helped, as did the nice onion flavors in the pelmeny.

The squash was similarly meh. I've been craving Watercourse Foods' roasted and crispy squash hash, so I really wanted some good squashiness. It's also a harbinger of fall, so I figured it would make me feel a little better about it being October and still not cold enough to bring out the knee-high boots, scarves, mittens, OR sweaters...I really miss me some snow. It was tasty, but I never managed to get it crispy. It was a much smaller squash than I'd cooked before, so I think that was responsible for its overwhelmingly ridiculous sweetness.

Finally, the prosecco. Some random Italian stuff. I rarely drink prosecco, but where is all the good stuff hiding? I've had great prosecco in Italy, and that's about it. Maybe it's like Italian olive oil- they don't export the cheap good stuff, just the crappy cheap stuff and the expensive good stuff. This stuff is not awful, just kind of boring, with slightly sweet melon flavors.

Note: while looking for a blog post graphic, I learned that Paris Hilton's ridiculous prosecco-marketing ad campaign is the first thing that pops up on Google. Forget Italian export habits, it is clearly Paris that's ruined prosecco for America.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lunch at Phoenicia Market in Houston

For lunch, I bought an assortment of tasty groceries from Phoenicia here in Houston. It's a bit of a drive, about 10 miles from my house, but it is the absolute best mix of strange ethnic food, exotic produce, good wine, and expensive groceries I've ever seen. Their prices are also far cheaper than your typical posh grocery store...I had serious difficulty dragging myself away from the $12 liters of unfiltered Greek and Italian olive oils.

I bought all kinds of great things (handmade pelmeni) and passed up others (vaccuum-packed lamajun, italian orecchiette). For lunch, I settled on freshly made whole-wheat pita with store-made hummus and sumac, some store-made vegetarian dolmades, a roasted head of garlic, and some preserved lemon, with a sparkling pomegranate-lemonade of French origin to drink.

The hummus was nice and garlicky, with a great, mostly smooth texture. I think it's the first hummus I've had that includes yogurt as an ingredient. I would not have known, although I suspect that's where the great texture and depth of flavor came from. The dolmades were likewise very nice. The filling is a little chunkier than I'm used to- pine nuts, raisins, spices, and rice. I've never liked raisins in my dolmades, but these were really good. The preserved lemon and roasted garlic came from their $5.99/lb cold bar full of the staples and a few strange items (stuffed mini eggplant??). I'd never had preserved lemons before, so I don't know how typical these are...they would probably work well in a tagine, but by themselves are scary vinegary and scary hot. The soda, however, was fabulous. Made by Rieme Boissons, it appears to contain only pomegranate flavoring, making me question the "limonade" label. Despite the false advertising, it's flavorful and sweetened with beet sugar.

For further rhapsodizing about this wonderful market, check out this blog I found (and borrowed the pic from...)