Wine Wishes & Cupcake Dreams

If you don’t remember watching that show, I feel vaguely sorry for you.

Nearly every Tuesday night, I can be found at the same place with the same assortment of friends. As I told Marc, the capable bartender at this establishment, I think it says a lot about the group of people and the libations he serves up that the night I look forward to most in my week isn’t Friday or Saturday, but Tuesday. It’s almost a reward for making it through Monday and Second Monday (because, let’s be honest, that’s all Tuesday really is).

The people that gather here every week are the brothers and sisters I never had, and the sense of family and comfort and assurance that you’re accepted as yourself at all times is strong and encouraging. As is the wine.

The cupcakes, on the other hand, are just divine.

Continue reading Wine Wishes & Cupcake Dreams

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Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Justin Burrow and a perfect Manhattan.

Sunday night, my friend Marc was showing me handwritten letters that his grandfather, Otis, had saved through the years. They were beautifully written, with the kind of intricacy of language and penmanship (my God, remember penmanship??) that’s been lost to microscopic circuits, illuminated screens and instant gratification. One of the letters was from a friend, wishing Otis luck on the high seas in the kind of boisterous and inspiring yet entirely guileless prose that today’s motivational speakers only wish they could scrape together on their best days behind a podium.

It occurred to me the next evening that we often reserve expressing that kind of fond appreciation for others, keeping it to ourselves. These days it seems almost too schlocky to admit that appreciation, to open ourselves up in that way. And we get far too busy. Busy moments turn into busy days, busy days into weeks and without knowing it, we’ve completely forgotten to take that extra moment and tell our friends and family how much they mean to us, taking it for granted and assuming that they automatically understand our thoughts and feelings towards them.

I had a very difficult day on Sunday. I don’t want to expend further energy on even discussing why, but it was a very painful near-end to a time which I’m hoping will become a vague memory very soon. After taking care of my business, I headed to Anvil.

German-style pretzel with mustard at Anvil.

Say what you will about Anvil, that it’s uppity or expensive or scene-y (none of these things are true, by the way). I love it there. And this is why: Within moments of arriving, one of my favorite bartenders in Houston (it’s a very close tie between Marc Borel, the effervescent and knowledgable sommelier at 13 Celsius, Bobby Heugel, the cocktail wunderkind and gifted writer who created Anvil, Claire Sprouse, the spunky and inventive brains behind the bar at Beaver’s and Justin Burrow, the curmudgeonly yet kind man behind the beard at Anvil) was crafting what he and Bobby termed the “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” Manhattan, and four of my friends had already shown up to rally my flagging spirits and lift me out of my funk.

The bottle marked P.I.G. holds pear-infused gin.

Anvil is the kind of bar where the bartenders take their craft very seriously, with much care and consideration, yet without an ounce of pretension. It’s the kind of bar where the regulars care just as passionately about cocktails or beer as they do about Filipino food, Russian literature, Nintendo games, graphic novels and 70s yacht rock. It’s the kind of bar where – at least on a week night – it’s impossible to leave without making a new friend, and not the kind of friend who’s hoping to eventually bed you.

Marc.

And oh, my friends. Ann and Cathy gently listened to me rant and rave, offered kind shoulders and understanding nods. Marc and Jason made me laugh, took me out to get tater tots and French silk pie at House of Pies and took me home after it became apparent that I’d had too much too drink. Countless people consoled me on Twitter and Facebook, offered supportive text messages and phone calls. I felt suddenly so much less alone, so much less adrift in all the craziness that seems to have permeated certain parts of my life lately.

Jason (fuzzy, in foreground).

I may not say it enough. I may forget to say it. I may want to say it, but my shyness creeps up and smothers me. (And although people don’t seem to believe me when I tell them this, I struggle with almost crippling shyness nearly every minute of every day – I’ve just gotten better at talking through it and masking it after 29 years…) But I do think it all the time: I have amazing friends. I have an amazing family. And you all make my life so much better simply by existing.

So thank you.

Ashford Pub

I remain convinced that Ashford Pub is one of the great undiscovered gems in Houston. And I like it that way. So why am I writing about it, telling the world of its greatness? Well, it is OTL after all (that’s “outside of Loop 610” for us mouthbreathing knuckledraggers who live in the suburbs). And more than just OTL, it’s OTSL (outside the second Loop — Beltway 8), so I don’t expect it to be rushed by roving gangs of hipsters any time soon, review or not.

Ashford Pub is in a grotty old strip mall off Dairy Ashford, between Memorial Drive and Interstate 10. For being in a relatively wealthy area of town, both Ashford and its host strip mall are incongrously seedy looking, as are most businesses along this stretch of Dairy Ashford. Maybe that’s why I like it.

Inside, low ceilings and dark carpet give the pub an almost den-like feeling. Non-functioning brick fireplaces with wooden mantels at either end of the pool table/darts area and chairs with well-worn cushions only add to that sense. The bar is small but well-stocked, with friendly bartenders and your average assortment of regulars, and the entire place feels like you’ve stepped into your neighbor’s basement. It’s a welcoming feeling.

Every Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m., Ashford hosts a trivia night. This isn’t your fancy, hand-held, television-screen, compete-with-random-people-in-Buffalo trivia, though. This is old-school trivia, called out over a scratchy microphone and written down on sheets of paper that are turned in at the end of the game. Twenty questions, three bonus questions, all deceptively difficult.

Wes Mantooth

Teams competing range from white collar types who just got off work at Technip or BP America or Chevron, blue collar types who play pool in between questions, retirees with walkers and portable oxygen tanks (who comprise a particularly tough team to beat: Van’s Vandals), your run-of-the-mill stoners and burnouts, and neighborhood regulars young and old. Each team speaks in hushed whispers as they consult one another over the trickier questions, no one wanting to reveal a possible answer to the other tables, and then pens begin scribbling furiously as an answer is expelled onto the paper, which is — in turn — quickly and pointedly turned over. People here take their trivia seriously.

But that’s not the only charm of Ashford. If it was, I wouldn’t be writing about it on a food blog. Every Tuesday night when you walk in, you’re greeted by the smell of homemade food. You never know what it’s going to be, but you can count on it being good. Ashford doesn’t have a permit to serve food — or, rather, to charge you for the food they serve — so the food is always free. This could possibly cloud my judgment on how good it truly is, but I like to think that I’m not that easy.

Week after week, the owner hauls in crock pots and chafing dishes and wicker baskets filled with the kind of food you only ever find at church potluck suppers: beef stroganoff with egg noodles, meatloaf with deliriously creamy mashed potatoes, meatballs in gravy with fresh bread for making sandwiches, salisbury steak with a dark mushroom sauce, fried chicken, King Ranch casserole, garden salads with iceberg lettuce and Ranch dressing, red velvet cake, apple pie and — this past week — pumpkin pie with whipped cream. This isn’t Textile or *17. This is the basement at the Columbus Avenue Church of Christ on a Sunday afternoon, intimate and comfortable and redolent of home.

It’s certainly a strange thing to have in a bar — especially one that looks as seedy as Ashford does from the outside — but the thing I love about Ashford is that it isn’t truly a bar. It’s a pub, in the most British sense of the word we Americans can muster. It’s a gathering place for the community, for friends, for families. People don’t come here to drink and party. They come to reconnect. Tuesday Trivia and home-cooked meals are just one example of how Ashford helps to forge and strengthen those bonds.

In our crazy lives, it’s such a relief to walk into a place and just…relax. To be with friends who know me by my real name, not the fancy, trumped-up professional name I’ve used since college. To know which chair I want by sight, since it’s the one that has the softest green cushion because it’s slightly broken. To tease the little Irish bartender about the accent that we still swear is fake after all these years. To see the same smiling faces, week after week and year after year, keeping you grounded. To tell the same old stories, which somehow grow funnier and more grandiose with time.

I hope everyone has a place like Ashford. But if not, come by some time on a Tuesday night. We’ll even let you join our team — we could use the help.

Food Poisoning + Chili = A Surprising Amount of WIN

A mysterious thing happened on Friday afternoon.  I was suddenly and fiercely stricken with some of the most unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms I’ve had since a full-blown bout of gastroenteritis a few years back.  All of Friday afternoon, evening, night and well into Saturday morning were spent virtually chained to the toilet.  Lovely, I know.

But here’s the mysterious part: Jenny, Fayza, Monica and I all came down with the exact same symptoms at the exact same time.  And we were all at the exact same party on Wednesday night.  Coincidence?  I think not.  While I was holding out hope that this was some kind of stomach flu and not food poisoning, I’ve had enough stomach bugs in my life to tell the difference.  All that’s left to do now is figure out the culprit…

While I was laying in bed sometime around 3am on Saturday morning with vicious stomach cramps, all I could think of was I’ve GOT to get better in time to judge the chili cookoff!  Nothing stands between me and chili/passing judgment on others.  I’m devoted like that.

So on Saturday afternoon, I dragged myself out of bed — pale and achy and weak — and down to Shady Tavern.  The smell of chili and barbeque in the air was like an aroma from the gods, like a victory banquet at Valhalla.  Surely I didn’t have the stomach flu; if I did, this smell would make me vomit immediately.

Along with Richard and fellow Chowhound Peggy, I began making my way through the tables and tents of contestants, eyeing their cooking methods and decorations.  One table, Hunka-Hunka-Burning Chili, had framed Elvis pictures painted on black velvet hung on the fence behind them, along with enough Elvis memorabilia to make Graceland pale in comparison.  Another table offered tempting side dishes — freshly pickled jalapeno carrots, various sausages and beer-butt chicken — in addition to their chili.  One team had men wearing wigs and housecoats (the Yo Mama’s Chili team) and another had small, adorable children passing out appetizers at the incongrously-named TNT Tits-n-Tails Chili tent.  And I sensed a distinct rivalry between the Sexual Chili and the Sensual Chili teams.

Continue reading Food Poisoning + Chili = A Surprising Amount of WIN

The Days of Mediocre Food and Roses…

sans roses.  Which makes the days even less enjoyable.  Meh.

The week has been filled so far with ample opportunities for good food, and yet everything has fallen short so far.  I hate weeks like that.

Monday afternoon was the perfect day for a lunch outside, luminous blue skies and cool weather glittering brilliantly across the city.  Except that I spent my lunch hour on a dingy couch in a shady inspection sticker place off Long Point, sitting in uncomfortable proximity to a man in a “U.S. Army Artillery Unit” gimme cap with dirty socks pulled up to his knees, who muttered incessantly to himself in between short bursts of yelling, “Hey, boss!  Heya, boss!  Heya!”  I don’t even know that he had a car there to be inspected.  And I ended up failing my inspection after all that.

Monday evening was spent in a private room upstairs at Del Frisco’s Steakhouse.  On hand was plenty of free wine and hors d’oeuvres.  Wine?  Good.  Hors d’oeuvres?  Should have been good, but were frustratingly mediocre: overcooked lobster, well-done steak, fried asparagus with sickeningly sweet sauce.  Then again, what kind of complete jerk complains about free food?  Well…me, I guess.  I ended up eating a stray granola bar at home later on.  You willingly eat a grotty old granola bar, but complain about free lobster?  you may ask me.  Yes.  The difference?  I expect the granola bar to be mediocre.

Tuesday’s lunch was…oh, wait.  I didn’t get a lunch break on Tuesday.  I spent the morning at that squat, hideous, unapologetic trash-magnet, the Harris County Courthouse on Chimney Rock, and had to work through lunch to halfway catch up on the piles of crap littering my desk.

Tuesday evening was slightly better.  We (myself and some fellow Houstonist writers) started out with drinks at Gingerman.  All things are made better by Gingerman.  I had a crisp, refreshing pint of Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA (oh-so-hoppy and delicious) and enjoyed the gorgeous weather with my gorgeous Houstonist friends.  We ordered the spinach-artichoke dip, but ended up getting a bowl that looked as if it had been grabbed off another table, half-eaten and then nuked.  It was disgusting.  We ate it anyway.

Feeling that we should attempt to procure some better food, we headed directly across the street to that quaint little Italian market/restaurant D’Amico’s.  I hadn’t eaten at D’Amico’s in years, but had some very fond memories of a smashing walnut and wild mushroom risotto that I’d ordered several times with exceptional results each time.  Scanning the menu, I was sad to see that they seemed to have taken it off and replaced it with a walnut and wild mushroom tortellini instead.

I ordered the tortellini, looking to get that elusive walnut/wild mushroom fix any way I could.  We sat under the darkening sky outside, laughing, bitching, telling stories and generally being far too philosophical for a Tuesday night.  The company, at least, was fantastic.  The food, not so much.  We all happened to order various tortellini dishes.  And we all agreed that the tortellini was far too doughy, the fillings too dense, the sauces too watery, doing nothing to hold the dishes together.  Once again, frustratingly disappointing.  I think it’s too soon to claim that D’Amico’s has jumped the shark, but I’m only giving them one more shot after that.

Today’s lunch was a last-minute bite at Berryhill’s.  I used to be a huge fan of theirs, especially their happy hours and their tamales, but my feelings for them have become extremely lukewarm in recent years.  Today’s lunch just reaffirmed my waning affections.  The fish tacos had almost no cilantro in them (you will not deny me cilantro!), very little red cabbage and disgustingly over-fried, eeeeenormous portions of fish.  Let me elaborate briefly on the “over-fried” part, if you will: there was more liquid in the tacos from the grease dripping off the fish than from the almost non-existent remoulade sauce.  Horrid.  At least the hot pickled carrots were reliably good (although one never truly knows how long those have been hanging around…).

Tonight’s dinner will most likely be whatever I scavenge out of the cupboard when I finally make it home.  I swear to God, this week better shape itself up food-wise unless it wants me to give up food blogging for a while.  But there is hope yet: the weekend is still to come!

Washington Avenue: A Long Day’s Journey Into Tacos

AIEEEEE!  It’s finally posted!  Go to Houstonist and check out my latest Urbanist article (with lots of photos), which took far too long to write than it should have.  Topics covered include:

  • the new Benjy’s (not to replace or be confused with the old Benjy’s)
  • El Rey Taqueria
  • The Daily Grind
  • Max’s Wine Dive
  • Pearl Bar
  • Guadalajara Bakery
  • …and more

And here’s a link for your browsing pleasure:  Urbanist: Washington Avenue.

/self-promoting off

CityCentrestaurants

See what I did up there?  That’s because we live in A-MURR-CA, not England.  It’s spelled “center.”

*ahem*

Been wondering about the new restaurants and watering holes going into the new CityCentre mixed-use development on the site of the old Town & Country Mall?  Well, wonder no more.  I’ve got yer lists right here, baby.

  • Ra Sushi
  • Brio Tuscan Grille
  • Como Se Dice (“modern Mexican”)
  • Eddie V’s
  • Sur La Table (which isn’t a restaurant, so I don’t know why it’s listed)
  • The Wine Loft
  • Potbelly Sandwich Works
  • Chipotle
  • Jamba Juice
  • The Yard House (yippee!!!)

There will be more added to that list as leases are signed, buildings are finished, etc.  And, of course, there’s going to be a Studio Movie Grill, which will — frankly — be bad ass.  I’m most excited about The Wine Loft and The Yard House (big surprise to you all, I’m sure), but the entire thing looks like it will bring a certain ITL ambience to our little slice of Memorial, which ain’t all bad.  I don’t want people out here getting big ITL heads, mind you, but it would be awfully nice not to have to hop on the Katy Freeway anymore to get decent sushi, sample some microbrews or catch an arthouse flick.

Suck on that, Inner Loopers!  😉