China Cottage

China Cottage, Houston, Texas
January 4, 2008
 

When my dining companions described China Cottage to me as a “hole in the wall,” two things came to mind:

  1. Must eat there NOW; and
  2. Exactly what is their definition of a “hole in the wall” anyway?

In answer to my question, their definition was truly spot-on.  China Cottage is, quite literally, a tiny little hole of a place inside a non-descript strip mall off Gessner behind Memorial City Mall.  It contained exactly three booths and two tables, all of which looked to have been originally made for either preschoolers or forest gnomes.  I’m 5’1″, so if something looks small to me, then it’s probably really freaking tiny.

But it was charming; tiny, uncomfortable booths aside.  What astonished me was the incredible breadth of items available on their menu, considering the very small kitchen (75% of which you can see directly from the dining area).  They had Chinese, Thai, and Greek (yes, Greek!) dishes on a menu that unfolded like some sort of complicated set of instructions for a home theater setup.

I’d been told that their pork dumplings were to die for, so I tentatively ordered them (tentatively only because they were listed as an appetizer and I wasn’t sure they’d tide me over for lunch…).  One of my companions took the plunge and ordered a gyro, complete with a side of fried rice.  And another companion followed my lead and ordered the pork dumplings as well.

As we sat and waited on our food, I watched the cooks scurrying around the tiny kitchen with clockwork-like efficiency while the cashier took order after order for delivery or pick-up.  It is a very popular place with the lunchtime crowd at the medical center across the street as well as the giant office buildings a few blocks away.  People in suits and scrubs flew in and out of the door, picking up their food and exchanging a few quick pleasantries before taking off back to their offices.  It was like watching a post-modern ballet of sorts.

Our food made it out in about ten minutes.  The steamed pork dumplings were, as promised, scrumptious.  And there were more than enough to fuel me for the rest of the day.  I could have used a knife, as they were a bit doughy in places, but the filling was so delicious that I ended up abandoning utensils altogether and eating them like finger food.

As for the Greek food, my companion proclaimed it a total success.  He stated that he would never have known it was from a Chinese restaurant; it tasted just like a gyro from Niko Niko’s.  I scowled at him with distaste as he made a giant garbage plate out of his meal by mixing in the fried rice with the tzatziki sauce and onions, and then slathering the mixture on top of the gyro meat.  He seemed to be some strange hybrid of Greek-Chinese heaven, though, and swore to return again for the same concoction.

I plan to visit China Cottage again soon so that I can try some of their Thai menu items and delve a bit deeper into the actual Chinese entrees, instead of just ordering an appetizer and calling it lunch.  And with the almost anachronistically-low prices and proximity to my stomping grounds, it’s a great place to grab a cheap bite of Chinese comfort food.  I think I might leave the Greek food to Niko Niko’s for now, though.

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Otto’s and Beaver’s (oh, my!)

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This was the scene at Otto’s this past Saturday afternoon, around 11:45 am. Not exactly as I expected, given that old friends and patrons only have a short — albeit indeterminate — amount of time left to eat there before it’s closed for good.

Strangely, when I checked back to re-read my original entry on Otto’s upcoming closing, the link to the Houston Chronicle story I’d referenced was no longer working. Even better, their “search” function comes up with absolutely no articles for Otto’s or Otto Sofka or any other combination of “Otto’s” and “barbeque” and “hamburgers” that I could come up with. I mean, I’m not surprised — the Chronicle‘s archive and search features are a bit of a laughingstock — but I was still irritated.

To that end, here are two new links concerning Otto’s that aren’t broken and which are much more informative than the original Chronicle article was in the first place: Original Otto’s barbeque up for sale and Family sale signals farewell to Otto’s.

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My father and hubby and I were in the mood for barbeque on Saturday and had originally intended on trying out the new Monica Pope joint, Beaver’s. However, after driving down to the little ice house off Washington and, in the process, getting hit by a car who was broadsided by an 18-wheeler, both of whom peeled off as fast as they could (true story…but we’re all fine and I’m glad we were in my Sherman tank of a Volvo at the time), we were heavily disappointed to find it closed for lunch.

Having done research before embarking on our Beaver’s journey — hitting up Beaver’s website, www.b4-u-eat.com, Citysearch and Alison Cook’s blog — I knew what I wanted to eat before we even set foot out the door. What I did not know, however, were the hours of operation, because they weren’t listed at all on Beaver’s website or on any other place that I checked (that said, the only place I’ve found so far with operating hours for Beaver’s is Dai Huyhn’s article, where it’s ambiguously stated that lunch service will begin in mid-January).

Was I stupid to assume that a brand-new barbeque place would be open for lunch on a Saturday? I suppose so, since we were greeted by an empty parking lot and a paper sign on the door with the business hours. To quote Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer, it was “information that could have been useful to me yesterday.

Geez, Ms. Pope. Is it too much to at least post the hours of operation on Beaver’s website? That’s all I’m saying…

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Anyway, it worked out for the best, as we all decided to visit Otto’s for one last time as a group. After we walked into the barbeque entrance, my father stood still and took a deep breath. Looking around fondly, he said, “That’s the smell of a lifetime of barbeque. Can’t beat it.”

My father and husband ordered their Bush plates and they worked their way through them as I slowly enjoyed my links covered with onions and pickles. The dining room was vacant save for an older man, who seemed to be a semi-permanent fixture. All of the women manning the barbeque counter knew him, as did all of the busboys. He sat perfectly content with his plate of ribs, his cowboy hat perched on the table next to him and his eyes staring off into space as he dined.

Was he thinking about Otto’s closing? Was he contemplating all the meals he’d had there, the accumulation of which eventually led to his camaraderie with all of the various restaurant staff? Was he trying to figure out exactly how many root beers and ribs he’d had over the course of his friendship with Otto’s?

Whether he was thinking about these things or not, I was. I watched him and wondered where he’ll go when Otto’s is gone.

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America’s

America’s, Houston, Texas
January 3, 2007

Oh, America’s.

What is there to say about you that hasn’t already been said dozens of times by dozens of other food writers?  You are such a bulwark of the Houston restaurant scene.  You and your little ones, Churrasco’s and Amazon Grill, define an entire category of dining in Houston that didn’t exist before you did.  Out of the void, you created “New World Cuisine” and we’ve been slavishly devoted to you ever since.

There are things about you that I don’t like; just minor imperfections, really.  I don’t like that most of your food tastes too similar — like Hungry’s, you seem to employ the same spice blend on about 75% of your menu items and it tends towards the repetitive.  Good, but repetitive.  And I’m always slightly — just so slightly! — disappointed in your steaks, since you always season them with the aforementioned spice blend and I’m a girl who likes her steaks naked, save for a pat of butter and a little sprinkling of salt.  But I’ve learned not to order your steaks and instead focus on other, often neglected areas of your menu.  Your seafood is consistently wonderful, as is your pork.  And because of these minor imperfections, I seem to love you even more.  You are like Cindy Crawford or Lauren Hutton — tiny blemishes or gaps only seem enhance your true beauty.

Let me tell you what I ordered last night:

  • America’s Tower, because none of us could decide on an appetizer.
  • A spinach salad with manchego cheese and a perfectly sweet and tart viniagrette.
  • Cerdo, served with an artichoke stuffed with spinach and goat cheese
  • Bread pudding with coconut ice cream

I was very tired when I came to visit you last night.  I couldn’t think straight, except to judiciously avoid the chimichurri sauce on my plantains because you do tend to use too much garlic there.  But I was so tired that I couldn’t possibly look over the entire wine list and decide on something to go with my meal.

Because of this, your always expert waitstaff brought me a glass of La Crema pinot noir and It.  Was.  Divine.  It was otherwordly.  It was so good that I wouldn’t have cared if the price per glass was a pound of flesh and my firstborn child.  But the wine wasn’t very expensive at all!  It was very, very reasonably priced.  So not only did our waiter bring me an unbelieveably good glass of wine to go with my meal, he also didn’t employ the occasion to bring me the most expensive wine on the menu.  I was doubly-impressed.  Do you see how much I love you?

But my love extends further than just wine.  The pork (cerdo) was perfectly cooked with just a hint of pinkness and it didn’t taste anything like the Churrasco steak or the succulent little marineros or anything else that normally bears your signature spice blend.  I was so happy that you let the pork speak for itself.  And the artichoke that was artfully balanced on top was gushing forward with melted goat cheese, spinach and a bit of clarified butter.  It was the ideal sauce for the pork.

My love for you even extends to the simple but delicious spinach salad.  It was all spinach, no filler, with extremely gracious shreddings of manchego cheese throughout.  And the viniagrette, as I stated before, was a wonderful blend of sweetness and sharp tartness.

America’s, my dear old friend, I know that demolition/construction in the Galleria area is making life tough for you.  And I know that the long, drawn-out construction of this new BLVD Place whozamawhatsit (which is taking fooooreeeeveeeer) has got to be frustrating.  But just make me a promise during all of this craziness:

Don’t ever change.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

This makes me kind of sad.

Inspired by Alison Cook’s recent article on the Houston Department of Health and Human Services’ new online health inspection reports site, I set about researching some of my favorite restaurants.  Inevitably, the restaurant that I just raved about yesterday was also temporarily closed due to health code violations last year:

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Call it living dangerously if you will, but this isn’t going to keep me from going to Brenda’s.  I figure that if their numerous health code violations haven’t killed or hospitalized me by now, I have no reason to stop eating their delicious, delicious food.

So which is it, guys and gals:  Have I built up an immunity to/tolerance of dangerous bacteria from my years of eating at questionable holes-in-the-wall?  Or am I tempting fate with my callous disregard of health code violations and will ultimately be doomed to contract salmonella from an innocent-looking taco and die a painful death as a result of my hubris?

I’m hoping for immunity, obviously.

Save Money, Live Better? Doubtful.

As if we needed any, here’s additional proof that some Houstonians don’t have an ounce of sense when it comes to grocery shopping:

New No. 1: Wal-Mart bags top grocery spot

Wal-Mart Supercenters have overtaken Kroger as grocery market-share leader for the Houston area.

That’s according to the most recent market survey published in the January 2008 issue of the Shelby Report, a national trade publication covering the grocery industry.

According to the report, Wal-Mart Supercenter has a 28.5 percent market share, compared to Kroger’s 25.6 percent. Wal-Mart Supercenter’s market share is up 0.88 percent from the previous quarter, compared with Kroger’s decline of 2.10 percent. Third place H-E-B is up 0.26 percent.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy my groceries from Wal-Mart if they were the only store in town. Leaving aside for a second their highly-questionable business practices and the fact that they also sell motor oil and paint thinner under the same roof with their groceries, let’s talk about the quality of their produce and meats.

Quality. As in, it’s non-existent.

Have you ever seen a decent piece of produce at Wal-Mart? I haven’t. Maybe I’m just going to the wrong Wal-Marts, but every single onion, potato, head of lettuce, apple, bag of carrots, orange, etc. looks decidedly unfresh. They look either wilted or dented or bruised or past their prime. And this doesn’t surprise me. After all, when you’re dealing in bulk and when you’re also shipping boxes of sweatpants and lawnmower parts into the same store, freshness and quality probably aren’t going to be your main concerns.

And the meat? I shudder to think about the subpar, low cost facilities from which that meat originates. Certain scenes from Fast Food Nation come immediately to mind. The fish all looks and tastes farmed.  It’s not the kind of meat or fish that I want to eat, and it’s certainly not what I’d feed to my friends and family.

I know the old argument: It’s so cheap to shop at Wal-Mart!  Bullshit.  When you go to Wal-Mart, you aren’t just going to a grocery store, and they know this!

You’re going to a glorified flea market, where you feel like your dollar will go further just because that porcelain angel or candle holder shaped like a cat is marked down to $0.99.  So you fill up your basket not just with food, but with all sorts of other things that you don’t need.  And all those $5.00 picture frames and $12.99 DVDs along with your bags of Cheetos and 12-packs of Big Red quickly add up to a $100 tab at the register.  How is that saving money?

It’s NOT cheap to shop at Wal-Mart.  They just make you think that it is by artificially lowering their prices so that you’ll buy more crap.

By comparison, let’s look at a normal grocery store.  Let’s look at H-E-B. Continue reading Save Money, Live Better? Doubtful.

Taqueria Brenda

Taqueria Brenda, Houston, Texas
January 2, 2008

If you drove past Taqueria Brenda on your way to or from the Westchase district, you probably wouldn’t stop there.  In fact, even if you stopped for gas at the Valero station with whom Taqueria Brenda shares a tiny parking lot, you still wouldn’t make your way across to the slightly shabby little place with the aqua awnings and rows of metal boxes outside holding weekly Spanish circulars and newspapers.  But, boy, would you be missing out.

Taqueria Brenda has been a mainstay for me since my post-grad days, when my friends and I all finally got apartments of our own — cheap apartments in arguably bad parts of town — and began exploring the local dining options.  Brenda’s was one of our first discoveries and we’ve been devoted to their tacos and tortas ever since.

Brenda’s is always cheerful inside, no matter what time of day or night you go.  Even better, it’s open 24 hours, so you’re guaranteed to observe more than a few interesting characters during the graveyard shift.  There are typical Mexican restaurant accoutrements inside — sarapis hanging from the walls, a mural of a gigantic guitar, a jukebox full of reggaeton and ranchera music and a mural of an ideastically pristine Mexican village.  The waitresses giggle together by the kitchen as they wait for their orders to come up.  And the 1994-era television never shows anything aside from Univisión.  It’s a happy, comfortable place. Continue reading Taqueria Brenda

59 Diner

59 Diner (Town & Country location), Houston, Texas
January 1, 2008

I hope you all had a fun, relaxing and — for some — quiet, Advil – and – bottled – water – filled New Year’s Day!

For my part, I spent a good hour and a half parked in front of a mouthwatering Texas Grilled Cheese sandwich and a butterscotch malt at 59 Diner. I was in comfort-food heaven.

It was initially a tough debate between the meatloaf with sides of baked squash casserole and mustard greens and the Grilled Cheese, but here’s what ultimately swayed me: two kinds of cheese, with tomatoes (!!!), all grilled together on thick slices of jalapeño-cheese bread. Oh, you sweet, sweet cheese. You’ve got me by the heartstrings.

The 59 Diner at Town & Country took the place of a Macaroni Grill that — thankfully — vacated a strip center which was once anchored by a Best Buy and a large pet store, up until about four years ago. The entire Town & Country/west Memorial landscape has changed so much in just the last five years that I’m sure someone returning to their childhood home would hardly recognize the place for all of the freeway expansions, demolitions and stucco monuments to conspicuous consumption.

While I certainly don’t miss Macaroni Grill, it was heartening to see 59 Diner take its place after it was eminent domained out of its prior west Houston location further up I-10. Nothing will ever replace the original 59 Diner of my childhood and adolescence — one of the few warhorses still left around Greenbriar — and its funky charm. I have many fond memories of devouring Rings of Fire (am I the only one who remembers those? they were like an Awesome Blossom, but incredibly spicymmm…) along with my ubiquitous butterscotch shakes, crammed into a booth with friends at ungodly hours of the night, laughing and people-spotting and scarfing down plate after plate of greasy, onion-based diner food. Continue reading 59 Diner