Testing the Water

Among the things I now get paid to do (such as make ice cream sandwiches out of Pop-Tarts and eat them) is test whatever makes its way into the Houston Press offices, especially if it seems (a) interesting and/or (b) sublimely ridiculous.  Luckily, the LifeBag water filtration system came to our offices just in time for hurricane season and our editorial assistant, Blake, had the brilliant idea of finding the most disgusting water in Houston and seeing what the LifeBag would make of it.

Our first idea was to take water from Buffalo Bayou and attempt to make it potable, clumps of unidentified detritus and all.  But then we noticed some language on the side of the filtration system that warned against using raw sewage (and seawater, for that matter).  So, obviously, Buffalo Bayou was out.

We didn’t want terribly clean water, though, and set about thinking of the nastiest water we could put into the LifeBag without potentially compromising our health and wellbeing.  We finally settled on the duck pond at Hermann Park, at which point Blake set off to gather water for our test.  A transcript of his conversation with two concerned gentleman at the duck pond, as well as the results of our test, follow here:

The Facts of LifeBag

If the above isn’t enough to convince you to go read the post, here are two added bonuses: (1) there’s video and (2) after the pond water experiment, we tried filtering vodka.

Go.  Read.  Now.

Battle Michelada

The ballot and the remains
The ballot and the remains

Even though our own Plinio Sandalio once competed on Iron Chef (Battle Mango, alongside Chef Robert Gadsby), those guys have nothing on our boys and the Battle Michelada.

An impromptu michelada throwdown was organized on Twitter within the span of a few days after a fellow food blogger mentioned that she couldn’t find a good michelada in Houston. Before long, the discussion had evolved into a full-blown showdown between three of Houston’s best culinary talents.

Read all about it here to find out who won and to watch the video of the contest (which yours truly narrated, National Geographic-style).

Spirited Houston

Books & Bottles
Books and bottles behind the bar at Anvil.

No, I’m not talking about haunted Houston.  I’m talking Houston’s busy wine, beer and spirits scene.  (Although I could just combine the concepts and write a post about La Carafe.)

I was at Anvil Bar & Refuge yesterday afternoon, getting a sneak preview of the bar in its [nearly] final incarnation and chatting with owner Bobby Heugel for an interview that will come out in the Houston Press food blog later this week.  It struck me — and not for the first time — that in addition to the growing emphasis on local, fresh, organic, artisanal food and restaurants in Houston, we’re lucky to have people pursuing that same level of craftsmanship and attention in the spirits scene.

Pimm's Cup
Freshly-made Pimm’s Cup with muddled cucumber, homemade lemon juice, homemade simple syrup, gin and soda.

Bobby and his crew at Anvil aren’t the only ones in Houston who are once again giving bartending as a profession — and alcohol as a libation — the credibility it deserves.  Cocktails made in restaurants like Beaver’s and Textile (both of which were training grounds for Bobby and his staff, and both of which owe their success in those areas to the likes of the Anvil crew) demonstrate a level of craftsmanship and creativity not seen at places like the Daiquiri Factory, the vulgar intoxi-quarium that used to exist in Anvil’s building.

Likewise, more bars around town are seeking out local microbrews and unusual imports to add to their draft beer selection, aside from simply leaving beer-flavored water like Miller Lite on tap.  Grum Bar and Grill is an example of this phenomenon, their beer selection being extremely limited to only beers that they themselves would drink: no Budweiser or Miller to be found here.  More established pubs like the Ginger Man and the Stag’s Head have embraced the concept of exploring unusual or exotic beers for years, and the beer-drinking public is following suit.

Avery Cask Conditioned Ale
Avery cask-conditioned pale ale at The Petrol Station.

We’re also lucky enough to have a local microbrewery — Saint Arnold — that supplies Houston and points beyond with finely-crafted ales and lagers in addition to being a community-minded organization that does much more than simply create beers.  We even have our own local  association of homebrewers —  the Foam Rangers — and entire shop devoted to the craft, De Falco’s.  Beyond Saint Arnold are many other exquisite Texas microbreweries such as Real Ale in Blanco and Southern Star in Conroe.  And let’s not forget the one and only Spoetzel Brewery in Shiner, Texas.

Wine bars, too, have cropped up around town like Starbucks.  Although each is different in its character, all are devoted to the ideals of exploring and discovering wine and educating their consumers to do the same.  From high-end, glitzy concepts like The Tasting Room to local, neighborhood-y joints like Boheme, it’s never been a better time for oenophiles in Houston.

To whit, I’d like to encourage you to read a few local spirit blogs that do a far better job of explaining and capturing all of this than I do.

Barley Vine:  This man has the word on wort, hands down.  A local hop-head who provides insightful commentary on the Houston beer scene and Texas microbrews. And he doesn’t just review beers; restaurants occasionally make the cut, too.  Writing consistently since 2006, his blog is the best local resource on beer, breweries and news as it relates to the beer world.

Drink Dogma:  A blog established by Bobby Heugel and his partners — including Kevin Floyd and Justin Barrow — to keep the public abreast of their progress on the Anvil opening, it’s evolved into a fantastic resource for cocktail information ranging from the history of certain drinks to their favorite libation literature.

Blue State Carpetbagger:  A wine blog from a man who knows his varietals, Tom Casagrande worked in the wine business in New York City for five years before moving to Houston.  His blog is a great read for two reasons: He’s been blogging continually since 2005, so there’s a wealth of information from prior years and posts and he specializes in recommending inexpensive yet wonderful wines, an especially welcomed speciality these days.

Do you have your own local favorites? Did I miss a beverage blog you can’t live without? Leave it in the comments section below; we want to hear all about it!

And…cheers!

Tuesday Trivia: Part Troll

The past couple of weeks have been both good and bad.

Good because I’m still excited about the Textile review, still excited about blogging at the Houston Press, still excited about all the wonderful meals and glasses of wine I’ve enjoyed with friends lately, still excited about writing articles for the Press’ upcoming Menu of Menus edition and still excited about being able to balance everything — work, home, writing, etc. — without too badly damaging any one area in the process.

Bad because I fear that I won’t be able to continue this balancing act, because I’ve been overwhelmed with work from all sides (no, seriously, I do have a day job, despite some peoples’ fanciful ideas to the contrary, and it continues to be quite demanding) and because I’ve been letting the trolls and negative comments — both on my blogs at the Houston Press and on blogs that don’t even belong to me — get me down in spite of myself.  I’m not linking to any of the comments; it’s not worth it and they don’t deserve the attention.  And I’ve begun immediately deleting the particularly nasty ones that discuss things like sex acts and contain vicious personal attacks on my character, as if the trolls actually know me from Adam.

I had a nice discussion with Houston Foodie last night over an amazing dinner at Gravitas, though, which gave me much needed perspective on the whole issue.  This morning, he sent me a fascinating New York Times article that takes a look into the psychologies of trolls.  It makes me sad for what are essentially very damaged and/or very deranged people, taking out their frustrations in the ultimate passive-aggressive medium and cowering behind anonymity.

I’m not new to the Interwebz.  I’m not new to trolling.  I’m not naive or stupid and I usually don’t rise to the bait when I see trolls performing their socially awkward little dances on forums or blogs.  So I’m more disappointed in my own behavior and childish responses than in anything these few people have said, but the only thing to do now is to follow my own advice to countless other people and let them haters hate.  Rising to the occasion only makes me look like the asshole.

So let’s put all this nastiness behind us and instead focus on today’s Tuesday Trivia (or, as I’ve been reminded to call it by Groovehouse on the non-Q&A days, a “survey”).  Let the games begin!

  1. How do you take your coffee?  Don’t drink coffee?  How do you take your tea?  Don’t drink tea?  Good God, man, what do you drink?
  2. My university was practically owned by a bizarre combination of Drayton McClane and Dr Pepper.  We had Dr Pepper hours every Thursday and it was the only carbonated beverage poured on campus.  As a result, I have Dr Pepper coursing through my very veins and would choose it over any soft drink, any day of the week.  What’s your favorite soft drink?  Or, for you Texans, what’s your favorite coke?
  3. Food and wine pairing is a given.  Do you consciously pair your food with beer?
  4. What’s your favorite beverage to cool you down on a hot day?  To warm you up on a cold night?
  5. It was always a huge treat on the rare occasion that my mother put those little silver Capri Suns into my lunchbox as a kid.  What was your favorite drink from childhood?

…and I’ve inadvertently turned this into an all-beverage survey.  No matter.  Drink it up and pour it out in the comments section below.

Big Expectations; Little Results

Little Big's, Now Open

I finally made it to Little Big’s this past Friday night after an evening spent at West Alabama Ice House with some friends. After having our fill of Shiners and bikers, nothing sounded better on a cool night than to relax on the patio with some hot sliders.

As expected, the place was a madhouse when we arrived at about 8:30.  Parking wasn’t an issue — surprisingly — but the barely-contained chaos inside was.  It was difficult to tell who was in line, who was waiting for their food, who was just milling about drunkenly…but we managed to get our orders in without too much difficulty (although with a lot of yelling; it’s extremely noisy inside the small space).  My three sliders — one beef, one chicken and one mushroom — and butterscotch milkshake came to $10.25.  A bit much for three twee burgers and a shake, but these are supposed to be top-shelf sliders after all.

We took our seats on the patio and began the wait.  The patio itself is every bit as relaxing as anticipated, the smell of freshly-cut wood under the sprawling oak trees, the breeze rustling through the leaves, the hypnotic sights of red-lighted traffic and wild pedestrians wandering up and down Montrose — I could have sat there all night.  Good thing, too, because that’s about how long it will take to get your order out.

Forty-five minutes later, the first name was called.  By this time, we’d run through a sickly sweet frozen sangria and a bland frozen White Russian.  Both were deemed barely drinkable by the group, but we continued to suck on them for lack of anything else to eat or drink.  My butterscotch milkshake was still nowhere to be seen.  When I finally heard my name called, I anxiously ran in to grab my sliders — only to see someone else pick them up from the unattended counter and abscond quickly with them.  Bastard!

The counter attendant came back and I said, “I think someone just ran off with my sliders.”  He looked at me like I was an escaped mental patient — they’re just sliders, lady, take your meds and get the fuck out of my face, read his expression — and went back to handing out the baskets of sliders that came up.  I stood there awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.

“You called my name…” I trailed off.

“What’s your name?”  Gruff and irritated.

“Katie.”

“No, we didn’t.”

I looked back at my friends for confirmation that I wasn’t crazy.  “Yeah, you called her name,” one of them piped up.

“Nope.”

I continued to stand there nonplussed as he called out the names of all my friends who’d ordered after me, and handed out their baskets of sliders.

“No, seriously.  You called my name.  Can I just get the next basket that comes up?”  He ignores me completely.  In the back, the crew is working feverishly to get sliders off the grill and into the baskets.  I start to feel like an asshole, watching them work so hard as I complain.  But it’s been forty-five minutes.  And I’m really hungry.

The next basket comes up on the counter.  It has one of each slider: my exact order.  The attendant has his back turned to me.  So I do what any red-blooded American would do.  I took it and left.  Screw you, counter attendant.  You aren’t doing your job and you’re acting like a prick.  AND I’M REALLY HUNGRY.

Steeled by my freshly-acquired sliders, I go to the register to try and resolve my missing shake issue, only to have my head want to explode when the girl behind the counter snottily tells me: “We called your name for, like, ten minutes.”  I looked back at my friends in disbelief; they’re equally as adamant as I am: “NO, YOU DIDN’T.”  Which is it, Little Big’s?  Calling names and not having food ready?  Or not calling names and having food ready?  Choose a crappy customer service style and stick with it.

The girl throws the shake together quickly and thrusts it over the counter to me.  We are equally irritated with each other by this point.  But at least I have my food.

Outside, the chowdown begins.  Group assessment is that the chicken slider is surprisingly good, maybe even the best of the bunch.  The chicken is tender and juicy, lightly battered and perfectly offset by the sweet yeast roll and sour bite of pickle.  The beef slider is underwhelming.  The beef seems to be overcooked and chewy, with only a few wispy onions as an accompaniment.  The spicy remoulade sauce that I picked up from the condiment bar helps, but I end up not finishing it.  The mushroom slider is good, but the molten cheese inside is undersalted and bland.  Fortunately, the French fries and yeast rolls are out of this world.

The butterscotch shake, on the other hand, is abominable.  It tastes as if someone melted down a batch of Werther’s Originals into a tub of Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream (for those of you who don’t know, Blue Bunny is just about the nastiest ice cream on the market).  It is vile and appalling.  My friends all agree.  It’s undrinkable, as well as the third drink of the night to be deemed horrible.  Clearly, Little Big’s strength does not lie in their drink-making abilities.

I’m reluctant to go back on another Friday night (or Saturday night, for that matter).  I think I’ll go again on a weeknight, when it’s a bit calmer, and give the sliders another shot.  Those cooks were stretched to their limits on Friday, and I think the sliders suffered as a result.  Hopefully it will net a better experience this time around, as I seem to be the only person so far who isn’t blown away by their efforts.  Wish me luck!

The Smell of Good For You

I’m feeling a bit under the weather today.

My officemate, who is perfect in all ways — even down to her three perfect triplet boys and her perfectly matched outfits and her perfectly packed healthy lunches and her perfect balance of work, life, church, husband, children, friends, health and shopping — is determined to not have my sickness interrupt her perfect life.  And to that end, she’s forcing me to drink a — well, a JUG — of carrot juice this morning.

2774371636_d9ff6be091_o
Image courtesy of Flickr user Joan Thewlis.

It’s awful.

And I’m not just saying that out of petulance. I love my officemate, despite her unimperfections. The stuff is horrendous.  It’s thick, slimy and unappetizingly vegetal, with a smell like a rancid, untended community garden. My officemate disagrees.

“Cindy, this smells like the bottom of a produce bin…ugh.  It smells like dirt and old vegetables,” I whine.

“That’s what ‘good for you’ smells like,” she snaps back.
 
“The smell of ‘good for me’ smells like potato rot.  What’s in this, anyway?”
 
“CARROTS.”
 
“Just carrots?  It tastes like it has dirt in it.  And lima beans.”
 
A long, annoyed pause.  “JUST CARROTS.”
 
“I don’t believe you.”
 
She gets up from her desk and brings the glass container over to me, its interior coated with the coarse, orange flesh of the carrots like a landmine took out an entire carrot party, the carnage splattered disgustingly on the walls.

“Damn, look at the bottle, girl…  Ingredients: ‘carrots.’  See?  But for you, I’m gonna make it extra easy to understand…”

She then takes a Sharpie and writes in big black letters on the bottle, “CARROTS, FOOL.  Now drink your damn juice.”  And huffs off back to her desk, as I reluctantly begin gulping the sludge down again.

Tough love.  Works every time.