Chinatown, Summer in the City

2646909021_24c485e5c4(2)
Chinatown, USA

Inspired, of course, by the classic Lovin’ Spoonful song.

Despite the fact that we’re experiencing the longest, strongest heat wave since 1980, I decided that today would be a good day to roam around Chinatown and finish collecting information for a Press article I’m working on. So I grabbed one of my trusty partners in crime, Groovehouse, and we hit the streets.

Our first stop was Banana Leaf, one of the few Malaysian restaurants in Houston. I am constantly amazed that we don’t have more Malaysian places in a city like ours (and I’m not the only one). Malaysian cuisine combines the best of Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking into a delicious amalgamation of flavors and spices. You’ll find sweet peanut sauces and tropical dishes alongside spicy curries and mild fish head casseroles — Banana Leaf has something for everybody. On this visit, I had the roti canai (flat, doughy pancakes served with curry sauce), crispy fried tofu with cucumber and bean sprouts in satay sauce, a gingery masak lemak with shrimp, sambal shrimp with mango and — for dessert — more hot roti filled with butter and bananas. I won’t say too much more for now, lest I have nothing to write about later on, but it was one of the better meals I’ve had in recent memory — and that’s after eating at a $600 a night farm-to-table, five-starred restaurant on Wednesday that I thought might be the pinnacle of Texas restaurants. Groovehouse loved it, too.

Afterwards, I took him on a tour of the “new” Chinatown along Beltway 8. Since the “old” Chinatown just outside of downtown off Chenevert has all but dried up and blown away, too many die-hard ITLers are now missing out on one of Houston’s greatest and most fascinating landscapes. I first took him past the little-known Vietnam memorial located on Bellaire Boulevard, notable for the fact that it was financed by local southern Vietnamese business owners to thank American soldiers who tried to help them during the quagmire that was the Vietnam “War.” The memorial depicts an American soldier and a southern Vietnamese soldier fighting side by side and is remarkably moving for a statue located in a strip center parking lot. Continue reading Chinatown, Summer in the City

Following Erika Ray

I’ve somehow ended up following someone on Flickr whom I don’t know.  Everyone else on my friends list is just that — an actual friend.  So I’m not quite sure how Erika Ray got into the mix.  But I’m glad she did.

Since I don’t know who she is and I really know absolutely nothing about her, I have no idea why she’s in Japan at the moment.  But she seems to be  having a wonderful time.  And I’m having just as good a time living vicariously through the photos she posts nearly every day.  She has an eye for exactly the kinds of things I’d be taking pictures of if I were in a foreign and amusing country.

Below are a few of my favorites along with her descriptions.

3325063253_4d74c176af

“Sexy water.  For those of you who like to feel on your water bottle.”

3321821252_3c6037eae81

“Giant cracker!  This was fried before my eyes, painted with soy sauce, and then wrapped in seaweed.  Delicious!  Katy and I ate these on a park bench with a can of beer.  Yum.”

3320564739_4312b1d7e5

“Donut-scented shower gel: brilliant.”

3317999939_cb2c92c45f

“Someone pissed off the chicken.  Sendai, Japan.”

3315468321_4ceb43b20d

“Ummmm…shouldn’t this be illegal?”

3325900378_df9051a183

“Truck stop tempura.  Tempura was perfect. Noodle soup hit the spot while the snow came down outside. “

Check out more of her photos here, including trips to Bruges, Barcelona, Rome, Porto and all kinds of fabulous places that I’ve never been.  But it’s like I have now!

Been Gone Too Long

I haven’t had time to update she eats. as often as I’d like lately, owing to work (curses!!!) and actual paid writing (although if any of you want to start paying me to blog here, I’m cool with that, too). So just to briefly round things up, this is what I’ve been up to:

Writing articles for the Houston Press, such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Mimosas” — an account of the inaugural Gospel Brunch at the new House of Blues here in Houston — and “The Grocery Store Corridor” — which is exactly what it sounds like. And although I haven’t quite figured out the settings on my new camera well enough yet to shoot moving things in the dark (i.e., concerts), here are some of the shots I was able to salvage from Gospel Brunch itself:

Concert Hall
The concert hall stage.

Umbrellas
Bringing diners/patrons up at the end of the show.

Testify
Sylvia St. James, emcee .

Bronze Peacock Room
The Bronze Peacock Room in the members-only Foundation Room, marking my second time to weasel my way up there and get free booze.

Buffet

The only picture I could get of the buffet; hungry socialites are like stampeding, enraged water buffalo, I tell ya.

I went to Gospel Brunch with my friend Eric Wilson, the music editor at Houstonist, which I’ve also been writing for as time allows. That said, none of my pieces are pertinent to food in the least (midget wrestling, anyone?). For one that is, check out this article by Jason Bargas on the closing of none other than that bastion of shitty service, The Daily Grind. As I’m sure you can guess, I was heart-broken.

I’ve also been eating this week. A lot. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I finally made it over to Cafe Pita + (read Jenny’s great review with pictures here). It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped. On Tuesday, I ate with Jenny, Katie, Hala, and nearly all of the Schipul girls (and poor Lance, who was the only guy at the table). Despite the high concentration of giggliness and silliness at the table, the waitstaff were very patient with us. And the food was amazing. I had the plejskavice, which is a lamb and beef patty stuffed with melted cheese and mushrooms, all on top of this beautiful, fluffy bread with pureed red pepper sauce. I was in heaven. The next day, I dragged Jeff out there and had the cevap, the sausage link version of the plejskavice (sans cheese) and had a fried cheese appetizer in its place. Jeff had the burek, which is essentially spanakopita on steroids and is about as large as a clown shoe.

On Friday, I grabbed lunch at my favorite pho place, Pho Huy, with some coworkers and found out that I should really stop speaking Vietnamese in restaurants when all I really know is “restaurant Vietnamese.” Or, as a friend suggested, at least learn how to say, “I’m going to order in Vietnamese for everyone, but that’s really all I know how to say.” In Vietnamese. I think it would solve a lot of problems. Friday night found me at Goode Co. Seafood with Groovehouse, as we sat at the bar and devoured the best campechana in Houston (seriously. I don’t say this lightly.). We watched enraptured for hours as a little old man behind the counter shucked oyster after oyster, placing them temptingly on platters of crushed ice and lemons. Next time…

There’s been more eating, of course. And even more pictures. And news, news, news. But for tonight, I’ve got to finish writing articles and paying invoices (two entirely separate work functions, mind you). So I’ll leave you with this photo from the market where I picked up some excellent, cheap produce this morning:

Favor de no mayugarlos
Produce stands behind Canino’s on Airline.

Good night, all!

Dinner for Eight

…not to be confused with Dinner at Eight, my favorite Rufus Wainwright song.  You should listen to it.  Right now.  Before you go any further.  Go on; I’ll wait here.

Great!  Now, about this dinner.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not every day that I eat seven course dinners.  And it’s not every day you meet someone so talented in the kitchen that it makes you want to go play in traffic for the shame of it all.  Last night, those two things collided quite amazingly when we had dinner at Shannon‘s house.

Describing the Feta

Our gracious hostess, describing the process by which she debrines Bulgarian feta cheese.

Shannon, one of the newer (and younger!Houston Chowhound members and a recent transplant from St. Louis, kindly issued an invitation a few weeks ago for a dinner at her home.  We should have known what to expect when we received an elegantly printed menu in our email inboxes a few days prior to dinner: seven courses, all of which sounded magnificent and none of which were anything like you’d typically find in a restaurant, much less in someone’s home.

Place Setting
Place settings.

When we showed up yesterday evening — myself, Ruthie, Jenny, Joanne, Robert and his wife — we were all greeted by the intoxicating scent of freshly-baked brioche and another, less familiar aroma.  I soon discovered it was the first course: Ash-e Reshteh, Iranian bean and noodle soup.

First Course
Topped with crispy fried onions.

The soup was an immense hit right off the bat. None of us had ever had Iranian bean soup before. Except, of course, Shannon’s husband, who is Iranian and who serves as a huge inspiration for her cuisine. The soup — which normally has ground beef and is cooked with beef broth — was a vegetarian version of the traditional Iranian recipe made with kidney and garbanzo beans, which made it both immensely healthy and hearty. The copious amounts of dill and parsley managed to keep it from being too heavy, though, and lent a refreshing crispness to the soup.

Continue reading Dinner for Eight

Na Zdrowie!

A few of the loyal Chowhounds and I met up last night at Polonia, one of the few Polish restaurants in town — really the only Polish restaurant in town, as far as I’m aware — for what I’m sure will become a cherished Election Night ritual in decades to come: pints of Pilsner, tons of cabbage and CNN on the big screen under a huge Polish flag.  I mean, that’s how you spent your election night, right?

Polonia

Before heading in for our feast, however, Peggy and I sampled the wares at Polonia‘s sister deli next door.  Although it may seem difficult to imagine, there are quite a few jars of sauerkraut lining the shelves at Polonia‘s deli.

Pickles

Even more surprisingly, there is roughly a metric tonne of sausage available for purchase. Kielbasa? Yes. Kabanosy? Yes. Kabanosy suche? YES. No need to do a crazy, eager waiting dance for days as you wait for your kabanosy to dry out — they sell it pre-dried here.

Sausages

Aside from sausage and sauerkraut, there is the traditional bounty of food one would expect in a Polish deli: jars of beets, freezers full of many varieties of pierogi, Princessa bars, bottles of carbonated water, to-go containers of bigos and gołąbki, and assorted Polish memorabilia.

I purchased some fresh kabanosy (which will go well with the bottle of Żubrówka that’s chilling in my fridge) and a yellow greeting card with a piano on it that says Serdeczne Życzenia.  I have no idea what that means.  My Polish is extremely limited, as you shall learn later.

Bar

Soon, our other Chowhounds showed up — Ruthie and Victoria — and we ended our shopping excursion and headed into the restaurant.  Inside, most of the tables were full of jovial families and couples, while a harried but charming waitress worked her way through the small, cozy dining room.  A bar stood in one corner, with only one beer on tap: Pilsner.  The breadth and variety of vodka behind the bar was staggering, though.

The menu at Polonia is like a guided tour through Poland’s best cuisine.  You’ll be hard-pressed not to find a dish that isn’t represented, from barszcz all the way to paczki (which are only available on weekends, however).  As a result, we were faced with the difficult task of choosing only four dishes off the menu.

Combo Platter

As you can see, we were more than up to the task. The combination platter presented a tidy solution to our dilemma, containing a heart-stopping mixture of pierogi, kielbasa, gołąbki (cabbage rolls), bigos, meat loaf, baked pork, duck legs and several cold salads.

Potato Pancakes

What’s that? Oh, you thought that was all we ordered? Amateur.

Before digging into the combination platter, we ordered a serving of potato pancakes (appetizer portion), two bowls of barszcz and a bowl of sour rye soup. All were huge hits as they were passed around the table. Ruthie’s germane comment on the barszcz was that it tasted “…like a bowl of health.” To her point, the dark ruby-red barszcz was very brothy — much more so than I’m used to — but had hearty meat-filled dumplings to offset its thinness.  The tangy sour rye soup with its chunks of sausage and hardboiled eggs also drew rave reviews, as did the utterly comforting potato pancakes.

What Were We Thinking?

Along with our combination platter, we also demolished a plate of golonka (braised pork shank) and some veal schnitzel.  The golonka was the favorite of the night, the pork falling off the bone with only the lightest breath and its silky, paprika-spiked sauce being eaten by the spoonful.

For my part, I enjoyed the bigos and the gołąbki the most.  I’ve never tasted bigos quite like Polonia‘s, which was much sweeter and vinegary than I’m used to.  Instead of only sauerkraut, they add shredded carrots and apples to the mix, which — along with the traditional juniper berries — lend it a sharp sweetness that’s addictive.  I could have easily eaten the bigos as a meal on its own (and probably will next time I’m there).

Pilsner

And I realize that we should have been enjoying a nice vodka with our meal, but while I love and appreciate the Polish people and their culture, I’m simply not that in love with it.  I just can’t sip vodka throughout a meal; your mileage may vary.  We stuck with the cool, sweet Pilsner that perfectly complemented the meal — a good thing, too, since it’s all they have at Polonia.

As we wound down our meal, discussion turned to why I like Polish food and why on earth I speak Polish.  While that’s a long story, the night ended with me attempting to teach Victoria and Ruthie a few choice phrases.  I considered teaching them something highly useful, such as “Ja nie mam nogie…” but settled instead on the simple “Thank you” and “My name is Ruthie.”

Victoria managed “Dziękuję” quite handily, even if it sounded more like “Jane cool ya” when spoken aloud.  Ruthie, on the other hand,  ended up mnemonically remembering “”Nazywam sie Ruthie” as “nauseous upchuck Ruthie.”  That said, when she stopped our waitress to proudly display her newly acquired linguistic skills — “MY NAME IS RUTHIE!!!” — the waitress understood her Polish immediately and grinned from ear to ear.

“Who taught you that?” she asked.

“She did!” Ruthie grinned back, pointing at me.

“…her?”  The waitress stared at me quizzically.  “Czy mówisz po polsku?”

And at that point, my Polish skills ground to a halt. “Nie.”

“Nie?”

“Nie. Ja nie jestem polski.”

More staring. And then the waitress just walked confusedly away.

Now, this is a bit like walking around with a great green balloon tied to your wrist, and someone asking you, “Hey, do you have a green balloon?” And you responding, “No. No, I do not.” And then trying to pop that balloon really fast, while they’re still staring at it.  Awkward…

That lesson in linguistic diplomacy notwithstanding, I couldn’t recommend Polonia more highly.  Wonderful food, reasonable prices, friendly service and — most importantly — the best bigos this side of Krakow.  Bonus:  Check them out for yourself this weekend and you can catch some hot, fresh paczki.

Smacznego!

Bière française: existe-t-il?

…et s’il fait, est-il bon?

That’s the question that one of my favorite bloggers, Croque Camille, has bravely attempted to answer in a recent post about French beers.  An American ex-pat pastry chef living in France, Camille is living the dream while eating and drinking her way through the bounty of incredible foods and wines that France has to offer.

But I posed the question to her one day: are there any good French beers?  It’s a reasonable question, as one always hears about French wine, but never French beer.  Their neighbors all make fantastic beer — Belgium, Germany, even Italy — so why not France?

Camille and her husband purchased a few French microbrews and began their journey towards discovery.  Their first beer, Etoile du Nord — a hoppy blonde that sounds terribly promising at first glance — is reviewed here:  Worthwhile French Beers.

Does it live up to the standards set by French wine and cuisine?  Find out for yourself…

The Omnivore’s Hundred

Cleverley posted this to our Houston Chowhounds board this morning, and I simply couldn’t resist…

From British food writer Andrew Wheeler’s blog, Very Good Taste, comes this list of 100 things that — apparently — you should eat before you die.  Here’s how it works:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at www.verygoodtaste.co.uk linking to your results.

There’s not a lot that I won’t eat (so you probably won’t see many strike-throughs).  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot I haven’t yet had a chance to try.  And I think this list is as good a place as any to start…

  1. Venison
  2. Nettle tea
  3. Huevos rancheros
  4. Steak tartare
  5. Crocodile
  6. Black pudding
  7. Cheese fondue
  8. Carp
  9. Borscht
  10. Baba ghanoush Continue reading The Omnivore’s Hundred