TTFN, BBQ

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An icon of the barbeque world here in Houston is closing.

The uninitiated quickly learn what eating, Bush-plate style, is all about. A poster on the wall of the barbecue joint explains that the presidential feed consists of beef ribs, links, potato salad and beans — all for $9.79. No substitutions.

A veritable stampede of cattle has been served up as burgers and brisket at Otto’s since the restaurant’s founder, Otto Sofka, grilled that first burger at his family’s grocery 56 years ago. Otto’s wife, Annie, their son, Marcus, Marcus’s wife, June, and three of their seven children all have pulled duty at the business.

Otto’s may seem like a timeless place. The hands of a Schlitz beer clock never budge from 10 minutes till 2. The restaurants exude an authenticity that competitors can only covet. But time does move forward, and Sofka admitted that her business has been eroded by a growing public acceptance of the virtues of healthy eating.

Amid the Bush memorabilia and religious and patriotic artifacts on the walls are signs advertising new items on the menu: grilled chicken breast sandwiches and turkey burgers. Also displayed is a plug for HeartBrand beef, which is touted as “good for your body, heart and waistline.”

“As you see, we’ve enhanced the menu,” Sofka said. But, she added, business has been slack.

“It’s been a great ride, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But now it’s time to go.”

Otto’s is one of the first places that I can remember eating barbeque with my father, who is a true barbeque connoisseur.  It was rare that we actually went out to eat barbeque, since so few restaurants could meet his exacting expectations or turn out a rack of ribs or a pork butt quite as well as he could at home.  But Otto’s was always a favorite of his, especially the Bush plate as described above.

In a recent article in Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com, Otto’s was listed as one of the “legendary dealmaking entities” across the country.  A place where “…business is discussed, ideas are hatched, and deals are often sealed over a meal rather than in an office.”  Otto’s is consistently listed as one of the best barbeque joints around, at low-key websites like Roadfood.com and at high-end review houses like Zagat.  But sometimes, accolades just aren’t enough.

Otto’s was always one of those restaurants that seems trapped in an indeterminate time period, somewhere between 1965 and 1972, similar to another old favorite, Bellaire Broiler Burger.  It’s become quite unfashionable as of late to be “old” in Houston, though.  Houston seems to be purging itself of all buildings and memories prior to 2000, tearing down beautiful old houses and replacing them with shoddily-built, stucco McMansions and replacing wonderful old structures like Otto’s with faux-stone strip malls that, inevitably, only reach about 50% occupancy and sit there looking pretty but dead, even more of an eyesore than what they replaced.  This particular corridor of Memorial Drive is particularly susceptible to gentrification, having already lost the classic “One’s-a-Meal” diner years earlier only to see the 5,782nd Starbucks and 30th Texadelphia take its place a few months later.

And it’s just as sad to me that people are becoming so “health-conscious” (actually, “image conscious” — I fear that Houston is rapidly becoming the new Dallas sometimes…) that they can’t appreciate good comfort food in moderation.  Sure, you don’t need to be eating burgers and barbeque for every meal.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go enjoy a plate of brisket on the weekend or grab a good, oozy burger with some friends over lunch.

The whole thing just makes me sad.  But the only thing to do now is to go grab a good Bush plate at Otto’s while I still can.  I recommend you do the same if you have the chance.

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Southwell’s

Southwell’s (I-10 & Echo Lane location), Houston, Texas
November 30, 2007

There are days when, being a red-blooded American girl, I crave a cheeseburger. Nothing fancy on those days — no cracked peppercorns or Havarti cheese or sauteed onions, although all of those things are delicious. Just a fully-loaded cheeseburger: patty, cheese, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. And on those days, I usually find myself at Southwell’s.

Southwell’s is a well-established burger joint with several locations here in town. I frequent the one at Echo Lane and I-10, since it’s just down the street from both my house and my office. Although I adore Southwell’s, I understand that it’s not everyone’s favorite. And why would it be, in a city with as many great burger joints as Houston? My personal favorite is Bellaire Broiler Burger and all of its late 1960s glory, but that doesn’t stop me from grabbing a good, juicy burger at Southwell’s.

When I lived in Waco, my favorite burger place was a rundown joint in one of the many “bad” parts of town. It was called Dubl-R, and for all its inaccessible parking, shady patrons, yellowed linoleum and torn vinyl seats, I loved it. It wasn’t the prettiest sister, but it was the sister with the mad burger flipping skills.

Dubl-R’s burgers were classic: fresh beef patties, the tops of the buns glistening with grease and the entire concoction whacked flat with the palm of the cook’s hand as he manhandled it into its white paper wrapper. They oozed happiness and — for me — the joy of knowing that I was enjoying something that most other people in Waco wouldn’t, simply because they never looked past the exterior of Dubl-R to come inside.

During my senior year, Dubl-R closed down. I was crestfallen. I tried to enjoy the burgers at Health Camp, down the road, but nothing compared. And then, to my complete astonishment, Dubl-R reopened right next to Baylor’s campus. Not only did they reopen, they had restyled themselves into the kind of subtly hip place that college students would inevitably flock to by the hordes.

Suddenly, the place was overrun with my fellow classmates. Dubl-R began to showcase cottons (the awful slang term at Baylor for sorority and fraternity event T-shirts) on their walls. They began to pander to the college masses. What’s worse, their burgers began to suck. Once again, Dubl-R was dead to me.

I’m coming to a point here, I promise…

Southwell’s is like a strange hybrid of the lost Dubl-R of my memories — the Dubl-R with the excellently greasy burgers that doesn’t exist anymore — and the one today. Southwell’s is mostly overrun by what I politely refer to as “yuppie scum.” At my local Southwell’s, nearly every car in the lot has a Memorial High School sticker on it and everyone inside would fit in quite comfortably at my alma mater. It’s clean and neat inside: no linoleum floors, no sticky booths with cracked seats.

However, Southwell’s has managed to retain great burgers amidst all of this. Their menu is simple and straightforward, belying the attitudes of crowd they routinely serve. Their burgers are served in the same white paper wrappers, their waffle fries in the same red plaid paper boxes, as burger joints throughout the decades. Their cheese fries are unabashedly drenched in half a gallon of cheese. And their cheeseburgers would be at home in the Dubl-R of my memory.

And at the end of the day, I don’t care if I have to endure the shrieking children of clueless, vapid, self-absorbed parents or their Range Rovers parked across three spaces in the parking lot; the endless lines of chattering, high school volleyball players and their constantly-ringing cell phones; or the droves of chubby, red-faced wheelers-and-dealers who clog the lines at lunch, answering their Blackberries and telling off-color jokes to their business partners. It all fades away when I’m burying myself in this:

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On Ethiopian Food

Note:  This is actually a transported post from my other blog, which I wrote nearly two years ago, but I wanted to share it here nevertheless.  I — mercifully — don’t work for this boss or at this company anymore.

I conned a few of my coworkers into going to one of my favorite restaurants today, Blue Nile, with the promise of “It’s just regular food, like lentils and chicken, but cooked a little differently!”  Which is true, if a little misleading.  I left out the part about eating with your hands because I was stretching my luck as it was by dragging them out to the Richmond boonies amidst places with names like “Discoteca #14” and “La Belleza Salon — La Mas Bella!”

Blue Nile serves the most delicious Ethiopian food this side of Addis Ababa.  I am such a dork.  And yes, I’ve heard the joke about “How many ways can you cook a grain of rice?” or the one about “It’ll be a quick meal; we’ll order two empty plates and leave,” both courtesy of my manchild boss.  Quick visual of the boss, while we’re on topic:

He usually wears sleeves, but the accent and attitude is still Da Bears.

Ethiopian food is, as I said before, pretty much the same food we eat over here — chicken, beef, potatoes, lentils, greens, etc. — just prepared differently and with very distinct, unique spices and lots of clarified butter.  It’s also eaten without the use of utensils; you use pieces of injera bread to pick up your food.  Injera is a slightly sour-tasting flatbread made from teff flour, which is very nutrient-rich and does a good job of balancing out the spicy nature of most Ethiopian dishes.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’d just like to say that I’ve learned a lesson today.  Don’t force Ethiopian food on good friends.  It will only make them fear and resent you.  Also, when you’re driving back to work, sheepishly, let them listen to the radio and don’t force them to listen to your new Coheed and Cambria CD, which also — clearly — is not for everyone.

Within five minutes of returning to the office, everyone had heard about the fearsome meal.  I’m not going to say that Ethiopian food is an aquired taste, because I instantly liked it from the first time that spicy, rich, earthy doro wot first passed my lips three years ago.  I just think that maybe it isn’t for everyone.  As my friend Aurora pointed out, it’s hard to get past that first visceral reaction to food that looks as if it were a challenge on Fear Factor.

Okay, I admit that the injera does look a little like a Dr. Scholl’s insert.

All of that aside, I highly recommend Blue Nile as a jumping-off point for Ethiopian food.  The waitstaff are friendly and more than willing to explain their dishes to any newbies, the food is very reasonably priced (on other occasions, my friend Jacque and I have been known to split their enormous vegetarian platter between the two of us for $4.50 apiece; yeah, that’s right — $4.50 apiece!) and it’s all delicious.

On Grits

One of the things that I get asked fairly often is, “How can you eat grits?”  More often than not, it’s Richard, asking after I’ve snuggled into the couch with a bowl of cheese grits on a weekday night when I’ve had an intense craving for comfort food.  Other times, though, it’s people that are actually from Texas — people that I expect not only to enjoy but to celebrate grits — but who are either repulsed by grits or simply unfamiliar with them.  These people confuse me.

Grits were an integral part of my childhood and they remain a huge part of my cultural identity.  My mother would make grits for me on cold mornings before I headed off to the bus stop for school.  They will stick with a child’s stomach all day, making lunchtime a mere social gathering as food isn’t yet a necessity.  I remember her serving them to me on our old, wooden breakfast table with a huge pat of butter and some cream poured on top.  I would slowly swirl the grits until all of the ingredients were emulsified into the warm, creamy breakfast cereal and then gulp it down with relish.

Every church potluck included at least three different types of grits dishes:  regular grits, grits with sausage, grits with shrimp, grits with cheese, runny grits, thick grits, etc.  In fact, it’s a running joke that you can’t have a Church of Christ potluck without grits.

When we did a holiday buffet in middle school, I insisted on bringing cheese grits, much to the chagrin of my mostly foreign schoolmates.  No one except my English teacher, a down-home Southern belle, touched them.  But she and I ate nearly the entire dish.

And as an adult, when it’s my turn to bring breakfast for our breakfast club at The Day Job, I always bring grits.  I consider it my mission in life to turn as many people onto grits as possible.  I’m pleased to report that I’m doing much better these days than my failed attempt in middle school.

Why grits?  Why eat something that has the visual consistency of wallpaper glue (as Richard so lovingly puts it)?  Why do I have such strong feelings for what is, essentially, corn porridge? Continue reading On Grits

Bistro Provence

Location:  Bistro Provence
Date:  November 14, 2007
 

Robb Walsh, who is quite possibly my favorite food journalist and who we Houstonians can proudly call one of our own, has a timely review of Bistro Provence up at the Houston Press.  I say “timely,” because I just ate there for the third time two weeks ago.  I had mixed emotions about my last visit, so I’m glad to see that a professional food critic has vindicated my feelings about the place, whether he knows it or not.

We took my Day Job boss to Bistro Provence for her ten-year anniversary with my company.  Since there were six of us, I called the restaurant the day before our lunch to make sure that they could accomodate six people during their busy lunch rush.  The person who answered the phone sounded harried and uninterested at the same time, even though I made sure to call around 3:30 pm (hoping to catch them in between the lunch and dinner rushes).  He snootily told me that they don’t accept reservations, something of which I’m very well aware, and I told him so.  He responded with, “Okay, then you know we don’t take reservations.  Just show up and you’ll be seated.”  And then abruptly hung up the phone.

The next day, the group of us showed up at 12:30.  The parking lot was full, as always, but we were heartened by the fact that several tables outside on the popular patio area were empty.  Inside the restaurant, several other tables were empty as well, but they were all two-tops: nothing large enough to accomodate our group.  Every table seemed to be inhabited by — quite fittingly — actual French people enjoying their traditional long lunches with bottles of wine.  The boss loved the quaintness and “authenticity” of the place, and she happily agreed to wait for a table.

…this was a bad idea. Continue reading Bistro Provence

The Red Lion

Location:  The Red Lion Pub, Houston, Texas
Date:  November 10, 2007

If you formed an opinion of the Red Lion strictly based upon the piss-poor grammar and misguided attempt at political humor showcased on the front page of their website, you probably wouldn’t be too disillusioned during your visit to their actual restaurant.  I, however, only recently discovered their website and was therefore unprepared for the disappointment that awaited behind the heavy, wooden doors.

Before we begin, let me kick things off by saying that I love English cuisine.  I might be in the minority on this, as most people seem to think that English cuisne is too starchy or bland for their tastes.  But give me a steaming Cornish pasty or delicate Yorkshire pudding any day of the week, and I’m hot to trot.  I don’t find English food to be at all bland, provided that it’s been prepared correctly.  Like anything else, it can be cooked appallingly poorly and presented in a likewise unpalatable manner (such as Scotched beef, which can easily look like someone sicked up on top of a pile of mashed potatoes).  But when it’s done correctly, it is something delivered straight from the Gods of Comfort Food Heaven.

I’d been to the Red Lion on many, many occasions prior to this evening’s meal, but always for a pint or two of Boddington’s after dinner or before a movie.  Once, Richard and I made the mistake of ordering their $4.00 papadom basket, which sounded like a deal amidst their sea of overpriced menu items until we received our basket and saw with great chagrin that it contained exactly three papadoms, each roughly the size of a small corn tortilla.  That should have been my first indication that you don’t always get what you expect at the Red Lion. Continue reading The Red Lion