The Dallas Farmers Market: What Houston Should Aspire To Emulate

That’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear me say that Houston should aspire to mimic anything that Dallas has done, and that includes things about Dallas that I do find quite lovely: the Arboretum, the Kalachandji temple, the new Whole Foods at Park Lane, large swaths of Lower Greenville and the redevelopment of Oak Cliff. As far as those things are concerned, I feel like Houston has our own interesting versions of them and doesn’t need to look to Dallas as a role model for such things.

But when it comes to the gigantic Farmers Market in downtown Dallas, I feel only a heavy heart for Houston.

It’s long been a fact that our own farmers markets have been segmented due to in-fighting and petty disagreements among the various organizers and farmers themselves. Way to let your entire city down because of ego and unresolved drama, folks.

There have been strides made, of course, and as a result we have a plethora of great markets to choose from…but most of them are only open on specific days of the week and most of them have a limited selection. How wonderful would it be if Houston had a central farmers market that was open at least five days a week, if not seven? I know full well that I’m probably the eight millionth person to complain about this and that my two cents are just that…two cents out of many.

So instead of whining and moaning, let’s be inspired by some of the photos from the Dallas market. Maybe we can be the change we hope to see in Houston.

Continue reading The Dallas Farmers Market: What Houston Should Aspire To Emulate

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Chinatown, Summer in the City

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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

Morning at the Midtown Farmers Market

Overcast day at the Midtown Farmers Market

Let’s get the unpleasantness straight out of the way, so that we can concentrate on all of the wonderful things that were at the Midtown Farmers Market this weekend.

They are now charging you to park.

Listen, farmers market folks.  I know that parking is at a premium in Midtown.  I know that you’re competing with the thronging horde lined up outside the breakfast klub and people hungry for eggs and chorizo from Tacos-A-Go-Go.  Hell, you’re even competing with your own restaurant, t’afia.  But charging people $3.00 to park in a muddy pit a whopping ten feet away from the market itself is utterly pretentious and directly contrary to the entire down-to-earth, communal spirit of a farmers market in the first place.  Ya feel me?  It really sucks.  It sucks more than places like Dolce Vita and Molina’s all-but-forcing you to valet your car.  Stop it.

UPDATE:  According to Andrea from t’afia (please read Andrea’s comment below; very interesting stuff), it’s the Continental Club who owns — and is charging for — the parking lot, despite t’afia‘s attempts to contribute their own money towards the cost so that their customers won’t have to pay the fee.  Boo, Continental Club.  I thought you were a lot cooler than that.  How very disappointing.

Okay, onto the good stuff.

For Sale

We bought some greens and carrots (seen below), which were all very reasonably priced as you can see from the quaint pricing list above. 

Deformed Carrots

I was totally in love with these oddly-shaped little carrots.  They reminded me of one of my favorite books as a kid.  Trust me on this one.

Houston Dairymaids

The Houston Dairymaids were there as usual, plying their delicious, creamy wares.  They had other treats besides cheese this time, though.

Hey Honey

Honey!  It’s Native Nectar, which is guajillo honey made in South Texas.  Flowery and light; good stuff.

Keeping Cool

I wanted to abscond with every basket of fresh greens I ran across.  I could have been quite the little felon that day.

Sharpened

This delightful man sharpens and fixes dull or broken knives.  He sharpened eight of my mother’s knives for only $41.00, after which they were sharp enough to split a hair.  Seriously impressive, not to mention a hoot to talk to.  He’s also got a glut of knives for sale out of his van (what?) if you’re in the market.

Other vendors included a new group of utterly charming kids in highly-creased Wranglers with enormous, shiny belt buckles selling fresh pullet eggs and — next week — fresh beef.  The grass-fed cows will be slaughtered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then brought to the market on Saturday mornings.  They take orders in advance and their price list was on par with what you’d pay at your local grocery store or butcher.  I’m eagerly awaiting next Saturday morning so that I can get some oxtails and a porterhouse.

We also grabbed some lettuce from the folks at Last Organic Outpost and some ready-to-eat dishes (chickpeas with olives and parmesan…NOM) from inside t’afia before picking up my mother’s knives and heading out into the day.  Next time, we’re definitely getting there early to sign up for Monica Pope’s new Green Plum Cooking School.  Maybe we’ll see you there…

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!

Mo’s Bacon Bar: The Meaning of Life?

As I believe I’ve made perfectly clear here in past posts, I love pork. I love pork belly, pork cheek, pork snout, pork loin, honey-baked ham, hot dogs, pancetta — if it’s pork, I love it. And I love no pork-based item more than I love bacon.

A strong runner-up to pork in the Food I Live For Battle is chocolate. Chocolate on its own is lovely, but I really love chocolate when it’s been smacked around a bit and perked up with an unexpected ingredient, hence my total foodgasm over Starbuck’s Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate.

When I heard about Vosges Haut Chocolate’s new creation, Mo’s Bacon Bar, I knew it was only a matter of time before we’d meet and fall madly in love. My totally rad friend Groovehouse obtained one for me this week, and it’s totally on, people. The love affair has begun.

As with every Vosges bar, the packaging is just as fascinating as the chocolate inside. I giggled as I read the back of the package, which smacks strongly of food porn:

Beside my chocolate-laden cakes laid three strips of sizzlin’ bacon, just barely touching a sweet pool of maple syrup. And then, the magic—just a bite of the bacon was too salty and I yearned for the sweet kiss of chocolate and syrup, so I combined the two. In retrospect, perhaps this was a turning point; for on that plate something magical happened, the beginnings of a combination so ethereal and delicious that it would haunt my thoughts until I found the medium to express it—chocolate.

It’s always nice to see I’m not the only one that holds such intense feelings for bacon and/or chocolate.

Following their instructions, I opened the package and broke off one small square of the smooth, dark chocolate, rubbing it with my thumb to release the dusky aroma.  Upon first glance, it looks like any other bar of chocolate.  Where is the bacon?

Still following instructions, I snapped off one small piece from the square and popped it into my mouth.  Ah.  Yes.  There it is…

The bacon is buried deep inside the bar in the most delicate little nuggets.  I was fascinated, and kept breaking off successively smaller pieces of the chocolate just to see the bits inside.  For such small pieces, they pack a hell of a punch.  Not aggressive or overwhelming, just an unexpected salty rush with just the faintest hint of sweet maple syrup.  It’s a pairing made in food heaven.

In a move that’s surprised even me, I’m now viciously hoarding the rest of the bar, determined to make it last as long as possible.  Greedy, rapacious me?  Who hoovers up anything set in front of her?  Hoarding food?  I know; it’s stunning.  But that should give you an idea of just how damn good this chocolate bar is.

I’d suggest getting one of your own, since any attempt to take mine would result in teeth and/or scratch marks.  It wouldn’t be pretty.  You can order it online at Vosges for a mere $7.50, or simply head down to your local Whole Foods Market and raid their Vosges section yourself.

p.s.  The answer is no longer 42.  It’s now Mo’s Bacon Bar.

Free Gunshot Wound with Purchase

In case, perhaps, you were thinking of doing your weekly shopping at the All Star Super Market on Hartsville at Cullen (that’s in the glorious southeast side of town, folks):

Man, 22, Boy, 3, Shot at Market

In two separate incidences in one day, no less.  Makes that Food Town down the street look pretty good right about now, doesn’t it?