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

Takeout. Er…Outtakes.

I’ve been hard at work on my very first cover story for the Houston Press. Admittedly, the story wasn’t my idea (although I wish that it were); it was handed down to us from the powers that be at Village Voice Media. And I’m pretty sure that one of the major reasons they’re allowing me to do it is because it’s very photo-centric and my photography comes at a rock-bottom price: Free!

On the other hand, it meant so much to me that when I offered to do the story — everything from hunting down the participants, scheduling their photo shoots, interviewing the subjects, shooting the portraits, editing the photos, writing the story and doing behind-the-scenes work on the web extras like audio recordings and slideshows to accompany the feature itself — Margaret actually agreed to let me do it. Me. A non-journalist. A lowly blogger. Who — prior to a year ago — had never had anything published in print, yet alone was allowed to work on an entire feature by herself.

So far, everything has gone so well that we’re discussing doing another feature after this. Hooray!

Below, enjoy the outtakes from the upcoming feature “Kitchen Ink.” I think you can probably guess what the story is about.

Taka Sekiyuchi, executive chef at Sushi Raku.
Chaunte Gooden, executive chef at Lucky Strike.
James Silk, chef and co-owner at Feast.
Chefs and line cooks at The Rockwood Room.
Jose Luis Vela, executive chef at Mockingbird Bistro.
Mindy Kucan, mixologist at Anvil.
Brandon Allen, sous chef at The Rockwood Room.

The Meat Sweats

The sixth day straight (out of ten) of working, walking, networking, schmoozing, live-blogging SXSW and shooting bands can sometimes lead to impaired judgment and poor decisions. Mental exhaustion will do that to a person. Which is what led me to think that ordering – and then consuming – 17 ounces of T-bone at Hoffbrau Steaks would be a good idea. I’ll just let the pictures below speak for themselves.

Parnters in crime: Brigitte, Hala, Dave, Marc and Adam.
World famous for one thing, and one thing only: steaks.
There's no menu at Hoffbrau. You eat what they have. Including this very garlicky salad.
Adam decided to be a rebel and ordered extra onion rings with his meal.
Hoffbrau is more than a bit lost in time, in a comfortable and comforting way.
Hala was ready for her steak.
My rare T-bone (yes, it's sitting in a pool of butter) before...
A brief interlude of steak fries, each one the size of an ear of corn.
...and my steak after. The gristle was happily consumed by Adam, as we all watched in horror.
Shiner Bock beer, salad, steak fries and T-bone grand total: $22, including tip. Not bad.

While the steak was tasty (after I sopped up all the grease with some spare bread and disposed of it), I still prefer my steaks cooked on a real grill – not a griddle – and definitely much smaller. I had a vicious meat headache within minutes of finishing it, and sweated it out walking the umpteen blocks back uphill to our hotel afterwards. The good news is that after all that protein, I had enough energy to finish off the day without consuming any caffeine or any of the terrifying energy drinks that every SXSW party seemed to have on hand like party favors. (Oh, wait – those were party favors. Ick.)

Still, the next time I’m suffering from sleep deprivation and a fuzzy head, I’m letting someone else choose both the restaurant and my food. A responsible someone else. Who’ll choose a salad and some fruit. Anyone?

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Justin Burrow and a perfect Manhattan.

Sunday night, my friend Marc was showing me handwritten letters that his grandfather, Otis, had saved through the years. They were beautifully written, with the kind of intricacy of language and penmanship (my God, remember penmanship??) that’s been lost to microscopic circuits, illuminated screens and instant gratification. One of the letters was from a friend, wishing Otis luck on the high seas in the kind of boisterous and inspiring yet entirely guileless prose that today’s motivational speakers only wish they could scrape together on their best days behind a podium.

It occurred to me the next evening that we often reserve expressing that kind of fond appreciation for others, keeping it to ourselves. These days it seems almost too schlocky to admit that appreciation, to open ourselves up in that way. And we get far too busy. Busy moments turn into busy days, busy days into weeks and without knowing it, we’ve completely forgotten to take that extra moment and tell our friends and family how much they mean to us, taking it for granted and assuming that they automatically understand our thoughts and feelings towards them.

I had a very difficult day on Sunday. I don’t want to expend further energy on even discussing why, but it was a very painful near-end to a time which I’m hoping will become a vague memory very soon. After taking care of my business, I headed to Anvil.

German-style pretzel with mustard at Anvil.

Say what you will about Anvil, that it’s uppity or expensive or scene-y (none of these things are true, by the way). I love it there. And this is why: Within moments of arriving, one of my favorite bartenders in Houston (it’s a very close tie between Marc Borel, the effervescent and knowledgable sommelier at 13 Celsius, Bobby Heugel, the cocktail wunderkind and gifted writer who created Anvil, Claire Sprouse, the spunky and inventive brains behind the bar at Beaver’s and Justin Burrow, the curmudgeonly yet kind man behind the beard at Anvil) was crafting what he and Bobby termed the “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” Manhattan, and four of my friends had already shown up to rally my flagging spirits and lift me out of my funk.

The bottle marked P.I.G. holds pear-infused gin.

Anvil is the kind of bar where the bartenders take their craft very seriously, with much care and consideration, yet without an ounce of pretension. It’s the kind of bar where the regulars care just as passionately about cocktails or beer as they do about Filipino food, Russian literature, Nintendo games, graphic novels and 70s yacht rock. It’s the kind of bar where – at least on a week night – it’s impossible to leave without making a new friend, and not the kind of friend who’s hoping to eventually bed you.

Marc.

And oh, my friends. Ann and Cathy gently listened to me rant and rave, offered kind shoulders and understanding nods. Marc and Jason made me laugh, took me out to get tater tots and French silk pie at House of Pies and took me home after it became apparent that I’d had too much too drink. Countless people consoled me on Twitter and Facebook, offered supportive text messages and phone calls. I felt suddenly so much less alone, so much less adrift in all the craziness that seems to have permeated certain parts of my life lately.

Jason (fuzzy, in foreground).

I may not say it enough. I may forget to say it. I may want to say it, but my shyness creeps up and smothers me. (And although people don’t seem to believe me when I tell them this, I struggle with almost crippling shyness nearly every minute of every day – I’ve just gotten better at talking through it and masking it after 29 years…) But I do think it all the time: I have amazing friends. I have an amazing family. And you all make my life so much better simply by existing.

So thank you.

Mushroom Madness

Of all the many throwdowns, smackdowns and showdowns I’ve attended and judged (including the one ill-fated smackdown that I organized), this past Monday’s was the best one yet, both in terms of accumulated talent and organization. And although there were some folks in attendance that I could have done without seeing and frankly wish would leave Houston altogether (is that negativity? or just honesty? sometimes it’s hard to tell…), I had a wonderful time.

And although I really enjoyed judging the first Houston Chowhounds throwdown (Monday night’s was the fourth) — which meant all the fried chicken I could possibly eat and then some — the thing I enjoy most about these get-togethers is snapping photos. Hope you enjoy some of my favorites below.

Carlos Rodriguez of Vic & Anthony's may be a jerk, but he plates a mean dish.
The team from Brenner's was like a mad symphony working the line.

Patricia Sharpe of Texas Monthly took photos of all the dishes she judged.
Continue reading Mushroom Madness

Tomatoes & Rice

My freestanding pantry

January can be a difficult time of year for most of us, financially, owing to the one-two punch of the holidays and the fact that most companies no longer provide any kind of Christmas bonus (and, no, Jelly of the Month clubs don’t count). It was particularly tough for me this year, owing to the dual facts that (1) getting divorced is rather expensive and (2) working at an alt weekly – while magical and fulfilling in many ways, including in the way they let us drink beer at work – means that I make very little money.

More destitute than ever, I’ve been hoarding the gift cards I received at Christmas – a $5 Chick-Fil-A card here, a $5 Starbucks card there – knowing full well that there will be dry periods when a chicken sandwich and a grande coffee materializing out of seemingly thin air will make me feel like a triumphant prince among men. Or princess. (It doesn’t have the same ring to it, really.) And I’ve been lucky recently to have meals paid for by thoughtful friends getting me back for a meal they owed me – a great system, I suggest everyone invest in it – or generous friends treating me to a night out for helping them with a project or just because we haven’t caught up in a while.

And while I’m sitting pretty today with $172 in the bank after all my bills have been paid, the shadow of being in debt as I have been so many times before and in much fatter, richer times looms overhead constantly. So on nights when I’m not working or going out, I patiently stare at my refrigerator, my little pantry and wait for ideas to spring to mind from ingredients that I already have on hand. It should be noted that I’m not very good at this. I’ve written about this process (and its accompanying failures) before. And tonight wasn’t all that different.

Tomatoes & rice in a bright green bowl

Tonight’s meal was Basmati rice with stewed tomatoes, cooked down in a little olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar and red wine. Not terribly interesting. Not particularly inventive. Not going into any recipe books any time soon. But it was tasty, it filled me up, it gave me leftovers for lunch tomorrow and it made me happy.

This isn’t some hoary argumentum ad lazarum where I’m going to try and convince you that I’m happier now because I’m poor. Am I making far less money now than I ever have? Yes. Am I more satisfied with my life now than I’ve ever been? Yes. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc? No. But it is one of the things that’s making me happier these days. I’m living on less and making more of myself and more of my life. I’m not living on anyone else’s money but my own these days. I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. And I’m more accountable and aware than ever. And there is a quiet, calm beauty in that.

And in a little bowl of tomatoes and rice.

Moonshine in the Afternoon

Martini with ruby red grapefruit juice and champagne at Moonshine
Ruby Slipper Martini with ruby red grapefruit juice and champagne at Moonshine

I’ve made a few recent weekend trips to Austin — for work both times — but managed to have a little fun on the side while I was there. This most recent trip to the Hill Country was for the Austin City Limits Music Festival (ACL) and just to answer any questions you may have, let me just say this: I saw exactly one band over the course of three days, subsisted on nacho cheese Doritos and Red Bull in the media area and worked for a good portion of the weekend with my laptop in a clear plastic garbage bag to protect it from the torrential rain.

The highlight of that particular weekend was getting fresh carnitas tacos (with pickled habanero peppers!) and elotes slathered with mayonnaise and parmesan cheese delivered to the tent courtesy of an Austin taco restaurant whose name I shamefully can’t remember (I think I was distracted by fighting for the last plug on the lone power strip so my laptop didn’t die). And after the last band played on Sunday night, Groovehouse and I packed our gear, hiked out of Zilker Park and back to our car, where we promptly deposited a heavy load of cameras, lenses, batteries, docking stations, laptops, iPhones, power chargers and all manner of 21st century detritus before walking to Shady Grove for a late dinner.

It was far from the best meal I’ve ever had, but we both dove headfirst into our veggie burgers and salads, clinging desperately to the promise of roughage cleaning out our systems from the trash we’d shoved into it all weekend. I reflected later on the poor quality of my Thai noodle salad and how eagerly I devoured it, thinking that I should never, ever, ever review food when famished.

The trip to Austin before the three-day endurance sport that was ACL was decidedly more relaxed, however. I was in town at the request of Robb Walsh, serving as a preliminary judge for the 19th annual Austin Hot Sauce Festival. I chronicled my misadventures on Sunday in a recent post on the Houston Press, if you care to read about how sick I got somewhere around sampling my 200th salsa. The highlight of that trip was a meal at Moonshine, the pictures from which are below.

And they still look pretty damn delicious, if I do say so myself.

Continue reading Moonshine in the Afternoon

Have You Been to Pho Binh?

IMG_4716
Pho with brisket and crispy fat at Pho Binh

If you’re a Houston Chowhound or a resident of South Houston, the answer might be a resounding “YES!” But if you aren’t in one of these groups, you’re probably missing out on the best pho in Houston.

The best pho in Houston. That’s a minefield of a statement. After all, Houston’s thriving Vietnamese community means that there are at least 70 pho restaurants in town — and probably far more than the ones I could count in the phone book — which would seem to make choosing a favorite a difficult task. But it’s only difficult if you’ve never eaten at Pho Binh. In the face of its highly fragrant broth with a silky sheen of beef fat floating on top, all other pho becomes a distant and slightly disappointing memory. This is truly how pho should taste.

Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho
Jalapenos, limes and bean sprouts for the pho

I’m not the first to write a love letter (or love video, even) to Pho Binh and I certainly won’t be the last. And I certainly can’t claim to have discovered the place. Pho Binh has been a staple of the South Houston dining scene for at least 20 years, according to my friend and area resident David Tong. He seemed shocked to hear that Houston foodies have discovered the little place — a ramshackle pairing of a single-wide trailer and a tumbledown house — and are currently singing its praises far and wide. He half-jokingly told me that people who find the place have a duty as secret-keepers to make sure it doesn’t become too popular. After all, they run out of pho every day as it is.

I had the pleasure of eating breakfast there last weekend with a collection of some of my favorite food lovers: Misha, Dorothy and David. David, who owns Tuscany Coffee, bragged of eating at Pho Binh at least five times a week when he was working in South Houston and therefore was our guide for the meal. He advised us to get the bo vien (meatballs) and extra fat with our pho. I went with both of those options as well as brisket and crispy fat for my soup. I thought of my former boss, Trang, and how she and her family would eat pho every morning for breakfast (pho is a traditional Vietnamese breakfast, lunch or dinner item — versatile!). If every morning started over a rich, invigorating, slightly spicy bowl of noodle soup with thick cuts of brisket and fat, I feel I’d be at least half as productive as she was. Or not. She had that whole half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese, crazy hardcore Asian work ethic going for her. And…I don’t.

A pho-ntastic meal
A pho-ntastic meal

The folks who run Pho Binh had just returned from their annual two month trip back to Vietnam. During that time each year, the restaurant is closed. As in, tough luck, go eat somewhere else, we have lives to live closed. I love that attitude, and wish it extended to American culture as well. As a result, the place was utterly packed with happy customers, joyful for the return of their beloved pho. We scored a rickety couple of tables in the single-wide portion of the restaurant, which is technically the storeroom/back half of the kitchen.

As I slurped my noodles and savored each drop of broth, surrounded by boxes of paper napkins and flats of aluminum cans, I thought how odd it was that one of the best meals of my life was being enjoyed in a poorly-lit trailer off Fuqua and I-45. But isn’t that all that we hope for in Houston? And isn’t that what we love about this city?

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

A Weekend at the Lake

Chef Albert Roux, photos by Jeff Balke.
Chef Albert Roux in the kitchen; photos by Jeff Balke.

After attending a very, very, very soft opening in October 2008, I was invited to the grand opening of Chez Roux — the principal restaurant at the newly redeveloped La Torretta del Lago resort on Lake Conroe — this past weekend.  You can read an in-depth review of the resort itself and its many restaurants over at the Houston Press, where Margaret Downing — our editor-in-chief — hashes out the details.

For my part, I wasn’t overly impressed with either the resort or Chez Roux.  I enjoyed meeting Chef Albert Roux once again; he is an impish, charming little man who doesn’t take himself too seriously, a refreshing quality in a chef of his [extremely high] caliber.  A lot of the dishes were very good — braised short ribs paired with a stunning Cotes du Rhone, octpus cooked in its own ink (a personal favorite of mine), a terrine of foie gras and a mish-mash of other ingredients that was too fatty but had a lot of potential — but so many more of them were downright pedestrian.  Teriyaki quail was a low point, as was a smoked salmon wrapped around salmon mousse — far too much salmon in one bite.  Other dishes were decidedly old school, such as puff pastries in a morel cream sauce.  Delicious?  Yes.  A bit banquety and stuffy?  Yes.

kitchen
Serving straight from the kitchen. Busy, hot, crowded, but wonderful fun.

The resort?  In a nutshell, I was one of the very few people there without an entire matching set of Louis Vuitton luggage and I don’t have a deep yet vapid interest in The Hills, so I was bit out of my element.  La Torretta del Lago caters to a very specific demographic:  Bill and Muffy Wasp, who are going up for the weekend to golf and “spa,” respectively.  They will also inevitably dine in one of La Torretta’s several on-site restaurants — perhaps even Chez Roux — and not understand or care about what they’re eating, but they’ll be sure to pay lots of money for it because they’re being seen in “the right place.”  So, really, it’s a win-win for everyone!

As you may imagine, I clawed my way out of the resort as quickly as possible on Sunday morning.  Choosing not to stick around for breakfast, I instead ended up at a charming little place next to Conroe High School called Egg Cetera.  The owners previously operated restaurants in Maui and San Francisco, so I’m a bit confused as to how they ended up in Montgomery County, but glad.

The restaurant serves an entirely fresh, all-organic menu.  Everything is made from scratch at Egg Cetera: sauces, dips, salsas, etc.  The seafood is freshly caught.  The eggs are hand-gathered yard eggs.  The one single item that’s not organic is the milk, but the high quality of the ingredients shows in the amazing food.  What’s even more impressive is the unpretentious nature of the place and the extraordinarily low prices.  Talking to the owner afterwards, I suggested she needs to open one of these in Houston, like, yesterday.  I’m planning a more extensive write-up — with pictures — of Egg Cetera (and a few other spots we hit while up in Conroe) in the Houston Press next week, so keep your little eyes peeled.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures that my good friend Jeff Balke took at Chez Roux.  If anything, at least their presentation was stunning.

Previously mentioned terrine.
Previously mentioned terrine.
Salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon.
Salmon mousse wrapped in smoked salmon.
Busily plating food in the kitchen.
Busily plating food in the kitchen.
The wine vault at Chez Roux.
The wine vault at Chez Roux.
Braised short ribs with mashed potatoes.
Braised short ribs with mashed potatoes.
Sinfully good.
Sinfully good.