Monday, July 24, 2006

Jamaican Beef Patty Alert - Tropicana Grill

In my younger and more dissolute days, I lived in Brooklyn around the corner from the finest hangover cure known to man. (Just another example of the mysterious ways in which the good Lord looks after us.) On Flatbush Avenue near Grand Army Plaza, there's a tiny bakery called Christie's. Christie's makes and sells The Best Jamaican Beef Patty in New York - a spicy, greasy, flaky bit of goodness tucked inside a buttery lump of coco bread.

Christie's is a bit of a hike if you have the misfortune to be hung over in Houston in, say, July. But there is an acceptable local substitute: the Tropicana Grill at 6521 Bissonnet (near Hillcroft). Homebaked beef and chicken patties are available to go ($1.50 per), and the fresh-baked coco bread makes an excellent companion. Neither the patty nor the bread compares with Christie's, but both are very good. And the folks who run it are very friendly. It's worth a trip just to hear the Jamaican owner valiantly trying to communicate with the Hispanic kitchen help.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Goode Company Barbecue

It's difficult to talk or write about barbecue without falling into a lot of mystical bullshit. Most people who write about barbecue believe -- or would have you believe they believe -- that all "real" barbecue must be had at a Hill Country pit tended by gruff old Czechs who haven't washed their hands since Anschluss, or else at an black Baptist church where your ribs are doled out by Mother Abigail herself. God knows you couldn't get decent barbecue on, say, the Kirby strip.

Except, of course, that you can. Jim Goode has been dishing up excellent 'cue at his original location at Kirby and 59 for decades now, and of course he's got a lot of hokey Texana in his shop -- stuffed armadillos are sort of de rigeur -- but he doesn't need to, because he does his shit right. He rubs the ribs, brisket, turkey, etc. with a good dry rub and then smokes the shit out of it. Voila! Barbecue. Good barbecue, too.

Now, before you people get your panties in a wad, I'm not saying it's the finest BBQ anywhere in the land. I agree, there's better 'cue to be had in Lockhart and, in fact, in Houston. But let's give credit where it's due. Jim Goode could serve up some boiled, liquid-smoke-tastin' meat these days without any appreciable decline in business (see, e.g., Pizzitola's), but he doesn't.

Let's talk first about what they do right. The brisket's outstanding. There's smokier brisket to be had in town, and more tender brisket, and God knows there's fattier brisket available, but Goode Co. strikes an excellent balance. The ribs are very good, though -- and here I risk sounding like the guy who argues the Beatles went to shit after 'Revolver' -- they used to be better. They're just not as tender as they used to be, and they don't separate from the bone the way the best pork ribs do. Wife reminds me that I'm supposed to be talking about what they do right. Quite correct. They do a mean pot of beans, and the barbecue sauce is simply outstanding. Smokey, spicy, with little bits of barbecued something floating in it.

What?! Wait -- did he just praise barbecue sauce? Infidel! Right, I know. I 'm supposed to disdain barbecue sauce. Sauce is for invalids, and Yankees, and other sissies. But you know what? They serve sauce because people like sauce. Properly done, it tastes good. And it moistens the meat. And soaks the bread. These are good things, people. I know, Kreuz Market doesn't serve sauce, so no one should serve sauce. But why does everyone else have to be like Kreuz Market? I'd rather put a little barbecue sauce on my ribs and enjoy them without having some barbecue imam shrieking at me that I'm violating an immutable code, thanks very much.

Another thing that Goode gets right is blending barbecue traditions with equally-indigenous Mexican and Cajun ingredients and flavors. The jambalaya has bits of barbecued pork chopped up in it, and the sausage is flecked with jalapenos, as is the cheese bread that comes with your order. Everything has jalapenos in it, and why not? Liking barbecue sauce may or may not make you a sissy, but objecting to some harmless chiles definitely does.

Look at that sandwich. That's a fine looking sandwich, people. You wish you could make -- or have -- a sandwich like that. And you can, without driving two hours into Hill Country. You're hungry, damn it to hell. The aesthetic travel experience can wait.

Follow-up Note on the New Urbanism: One of the many pleasures of Goode Co. is sitting outside at the big family-style picnic tables and watching the world go by on busy Kirby Drive. On our last visit to Goode Co., a very nice (if extremely filthy and, well, not a little menacing) homeless fella offered North a bright yellow balloon, which the ordinarily suspicious North was about to accept when his dad interrupted the transaction. It wasn't merely the prospect of a five-year-old accepting (metaphorical) candy from strangers that bothered Dad. It was that, not two hours earlier, Dad had seen the same homeless fella swoop down on an unsuspecting pigeon, grab it, and run off into the bushes next to the Kolache Factory. Now, it may have been that the pigeon was ill, and said homeless fella was simply attempting to render some field veterinary medicine. But I think it's more likely that bird season arrives a little earlier on Upper Kirby than elsewhere in Texas.

La Mexicana

Tex Mex. That, people, is what we really eat here in H-town. Not Mexican food. Oh, I mean, there are places to get real Mexican food (Hugo's, 100% Taquito, etc.), but when a Houstonian suggests going out for Mexican food, he generally has in mind a place with chips on the table and a fifty-gallon vat of queso bubbling somwhere in the back.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Tex-Mex is our regional contribution to the umbrella cuisine of Mexican food and we should embrace it. So what if our indigenous terroir tastes of Velveeta? It tastes good, and that's more than you can say for many others. Besides which, Tex-Mex properly reflects much about Houston and Texas generally, including our agriculture (beef, corn), our ethnicities, and -- as demonstrated by the number of pleasing, 1960s-style eateries remaining (see, e.g., Felix's) -- the fact that Houston first came into its own with the post-war oil boom.

Which brings me to La Mexicana, located for many years now at Montrose and Fairview. La Mex is not, strictly speaking, a Tex-Mex joint. There's lots of Tex-Mex on the menu -- combo plates, cheese enchiladas, chile con queso galore -- but there's also a fair number of more traditional Mexican dishes. La Mexicana offers a brilliant guisado de puerco (a Platonic dish), a rich, brick-red stew of tender pork slow-cooked in a dried-pepper (though not overly spicy) sauce, as well as nopalitos and, for breakfast, chilaquiles -- the classic day-old tortilla dish with queso fresca and tomato broth. In other words, there's plenty on the menu for both Tex-Mex traditionalists, like my mother-in-law (who regards dishes lacking a friendly blanket of cheese with suspicion, if not outright disregard), and for those interested in something a little different.

First, the chips and salsa are excellent. There are two salsa: a vibrant green tomatillo salsa, often quite hot, and a dark red chile salsa. North -- our five year old chile-head -- thinks, and loudly opines, that the green salsa is immensely, immeasurably great, and that the red salsa is desperately, almost unbelievably inferior. I like them both.

Tex-Mex trads will particularly enjoy the beef fajitas. (Ignore the chicken fajitas. Technically, there's no such thing anyway, and they're typically pale and undistinguished here.) It's the usual sizzling iron skillet of meat, but at La Mex it comes piled high with grilled scallions, lemon slices, cilantro and japalenos.

The aromatic effect of all these fragrant additions makes a significant difference. The fresh-made flour tortillas are simply fantastic. Just try finding anything like these in New York, people. Ain't gonna happen.

Also excellent is the sopa Azteca, basically a more authentic version of the always-popular (if often-bland, tasteless, and crappy) tortilla soup. Why anyone in their right mind would pay $7.95 for tortilla soup at Chili's instead of $4.95 for the vastly superior sopa Azteca at La Mexicana is beyond me. Maybe it has something to do with Americans being fat, tasteless slobs who belly up to the trough without any regard for what they're eating? Perhaps.

Anyway, a word about the margaritas: cold, delicious, and maybe a hint of mint to them? The wife disagrees about the mint. Get frozen, never on the rocks.

Finally, the vibe at La Mex is very Montrose and very welcoming. A well-modulated mix of couples, families, gays, college kids, and the other neighborhood residents. Sit outside: there's generally a breeze even in the summer, and the crackheads stop harassing you once they recognize you as a regular.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I'm snotty about pizza. I grew up in Philadelphia. I lived in New York. I know from pizza. Houston's not a pizza town. It just isn't. There's no indigenous Italian population to speak of, certainly not the sort of settled-off-the-boat population you can find in South Philly or Little Italy, or on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.

But amazingly, there are excellent pizzas to be had here in the Bayou City.

First and foremost, there is Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca on Westheimer. First off, let's just get it out of the way: Dolce Vita is a complete rip-off of Mario Batali's Otto at One Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. It is. The menu was simply stolen from Otto (as the Chronicle's Allison Cook actually discovered), and had some trademark attorneys not whispered in the chef-owner's ear, it probably would have been called "Otto West" or something similar. But ignore all that. Who cares? How often do you get to Otto? The parking situation is bad at Dolce Vita, but believe me, it's worse at Otto. More importantly, Dolce Vita has better pizza than Otto.

This isn't reverse-snobbery, people. It's true. Everything at Otto is super-uber-wonderful, except for the pizza. Batali's concepts far exceed his cooks' grasp at Otto, if only with regard to the pizza. Their appetizers are fantastic, their wine list brilliant and reasonable (for NYC), the vibe fun and downtown-y. But the pizzas? Eh.

The pizza at Dolce Vita is simply spectacular. Thin, fresh, bubbly and oily pizzas with immaculate toppings. My siciliana pizza, with olives and fresh tomato sauce, was so fruity and perfect that my friends tore pieces of it for themselves, like feral dogs. Even wacky pizzas, like the tonno pizza (covered with canned -- yep -- canned tuna) worked beautifully.

On the other end, the home-delivery front, New York Pizzeria (a local chain) has one Platonic pie: the Prosciutto Pizza. Thin slices of prosciutto and Roma tomatoes with (just okay) mozzarella cheese and basil on an honest-to-God, chewy, yeasty crust. It ain't pretty, people. It's not supposed to be. What it is, is a brilliant alternative to the increasingly repulsive national chains like Dominos and (sadly, because they used to be different) Papa John's. They're not always consistently great -- every fourth or fifth time, they give us a sucky pizza, just to remind us how good they usually are -- but when they're on, it's a great pie.

WARNING: we've only ever ordered from New York Pizzeria's Midtown location on West Gray. When we moved to a different part of town, my wife begged and wheedled the Midtown guys -- who call her "doll" and don't even let her specify her order when our number pops up on their caller ID, because they know -- into delivering to our new digs. Which is to say, I don't have any reason to think the other locations suck, but who knows?

Mai's Restaurant

Years ago, when I was an impoverished Rice undergrad, I lived in a dilapidated old manse in what then called "Little Saigon," and is now known, somewhat more blandly, as Midtown. Of course, the generic new name is somewhat appropriate, given that most of the Vietnamese-Americans who lived in the neighborhood have since left and been replaced by hordes of yuppie singles. Although not all of the neighborhood's kinks have been ironed out, the local crackheads seem to have reached stasis with, if they are not now actually outnumbered by, the number of mid-century modern "antique" shops.

Depending on your point of view, this is considered progress.

One thing that hasn't changed is the ready availability of excellent Vietnamese food. Van Loc, Mai's, Les Givral's, and other restaurants bear witness to what was once a substantial, if not particularly vibrant, Vietnamese neighborhood.

Perhaps to better attract the yuppie hordes, most of the remaining restaurants have cleaned up considerably since the 1990s, none more so than Mai's. When I lived around the corner from it in 1992, Mai's was a clean if nondescript joint serving delicious and inexpensive Vietnamese cuisine. Today, Mai's is still clean and still serves Vietnamese food, often delicious, though the prices have gone up and the decor has gotten, ahem, "fancier."

The pho at Mai's is, in my opinion, the best in town. It's all about the broth. Mai's pho broth is clear, intensely flavored, and fragrant. With it comes a heaping pile of bean sprouts, jalapenos, mint, cilantro, and lime wedges, as well as a selection of sauces to further doctor the soup. The frisson provided by the MSG content gets your heart pounding faster than a can of Red Bull, and there's hardly anything better on one of Houston's rare cold days. And the barbecue pork spring rolls are insanely delicious: tender, chewy, deeply-flavored pork adds a zing to the (usually) freshly-prepared rolls, and the accompanying sauce is just right.

But my Lord, people, the service sucks.

"Brusque" is a eupemism that you often hear applied to restaurants with good food and bad service. The reviewer likes the place, loves the food, can't stop going back, and feels almost apologetic about criticizing the poor service that he gets despite his obvious loyalty to the restaurant. The service at Mai's used to be "brusque." Now it's "offensive."

For example, at lunch today the waitress threw the menus at us and walked off. That was it -- that's your welcome to the lunch service. And when I say "threw the menus at us," I don't mean that in a sissy, "I-wasn't-warmly-greeted-by-my-waitron!" kind of way. I mean that she threw them at us in a way that suggested she meant us harm. My lunch companion and I just looked at each other, startled, and burst out laughing.

Now, okay, it was 12:15 on a Friday and Mai's was busy. And that's the problem. Mai's is always busy. Round the clock. Lunchtime, dinner time, late at night. And so they've stopped giving a shit. But we keep going back. Why? I mean, the food is good but it's nearly as good at Van Loc, where they don't physically attack you. I stopped going to Burger King altogether six years ago because the woman behind the counter at the BK on South Carollton Avenue in New Orleans put mayonnaise on my Whopper after I specifically asked her not to. Presto -- done with the entire, 23,980-outlet chain. Screw you, Flame Broiled Whopper. Adios, Reconstituted Onion Rings (which, to be honest, I miss desperately).

But I keep going back to Mai's.

(Oh, and the waitress is the other problem. Two weeks ago, I was there with my boss and received the same treatment. Well, actually, she treated the Boss Man poorly, not me, which was kind of entertaining except that I had suggested that we eat there. Fortunately, he held it against her, not me. I think. We'll find out come bonus time.)

So, take this as my lily-livered, half-hearted threat, Mai's. You're on probation. Either start treating your customers like People Who Pay You Money, and not like muggers, or else. Seriously. I mean it.

If you live in Houston, you're probably aware that (a) there are a lot of places to eat, and (b) a good number of them are terrible. Seriously, they suck. Mark's, for instance. Mark's sucks. Oh, I mean, Mark's food is probably better than Subway's, but in bang-for-the-buck terms they're probably fairly close. And the service is better at Subway. Not that I actually eat at Subway. But you see where I'm going.

All that aside, there are lots of fantastic places to eat in Houston, and this blog is intended as a highly-biased resource for food snobs living in or -- somewhat less likely -- visiting Houston.

So welcome to the page. It's unlikely that you and I will always agree. Feel free to tell me -- that's the purpose of feedback. I'll also reserve the right to call your favorite restaurant a pig's trough. Adversity makes us stronger, etc.

I'm also always eager to learn about new places/new dishes. Houston is immense, and although it can (reasonably) seem as if there's nothing to eat but chain-restaurant silage in sterile strip malls, there's actually a dizzying variety of delicious food to be had, particularly in the low- to middle-range of restaurants. There is also a good bit of indigenous cuisine, which half-witted snobs on the other coasts would likely deny. Attention, half-witted snobs: this blog is for you. Read and learn.