Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fast Food in the Buckeye State

Out of town again this past weekend, I was able to indulge in one of my favorite (if not healthiest) pastimes: sampling other regions' fast food chains. It's hard to get interested in the big national chains (McDonald's, Taco Bell, The Hated Burger King, etc.) but the smaller chains can be as quirky and interesting as mom'n'pop shops.

Upon landing in Columbus, we asked the pleasant-if-none-too-quick teenager at the Alamo rental desk for directions to the nearest White Castle. Columbus is, of course, the ancestral home to America's finest mini-burger chain, and we didn't waste give minutes in our pursuit of a sack of sliders. (I say "we," but of course The Wife ate only one burger, bitched loudly about it, and refused to eat another.) I hadn't had a slider in about five years, which is right on schedule, from a cardiologist's perspective. White Castle sticks to its classic formula: small, thin patties covered with onion bits and steamed into the soft, freshly-baked bun with just a pickle to liven the deal. (Though, of course, you can aske for ketchup or mustard or both.) Why mess with perfection? Admittedly, they don't taste a whole lot like meat, or even like hamburgers, as we commonly understand the term. But they fulfill a certain need. (As do the "chicken rings," but that's another story.) Verdict: Awesomely delicious, if not, you know, particularly healthy.

If you ever listen to Astros games on the radio, you're no doubt familiar with the mellifluous tones and dry wit of Milo Hamilton, one of the best play-by-play guys in the business. Milo has certain likes and dislikes about the cities he visits, and one of his peeves about Cincinnati -- Queen City to her fans -- is Skyline Chili, an institution in southern Ohio which Milo once denounced on air as "the worst thing I've ever eaten."

Naturally, this was like a red flag to a bull for your loyal blogger. We had to visit. And we did: we dropped in on the Lebanon, OH branch for a late lunch on the way to our friends' wedding. Suffice to say, this ain't your typical Texas bowl of red. Skyline's "original secret recipe chili" (as it's referred to exclusively in the menu) is a thin, greyish sauce with finely-ground "beef" and a distinctly sweet, oddly Christmas-y flavor. There are, apparently, two classic ways to enjoy Skyline Chili: over spaghetti with finely-shredded cheddar cheese and onions (a "classic three way," which sounds dirty) or on a small coney-style hot dog. As the relationship columnists advise, the three-way is a terrible idea. Mushy spaghetti with a grey, cinnamon-flavored meat gruel on top just isn't worth the long-term damage it causes. The "Cheese Mett Coneys" are better, if you scrape off the top two inches of cheese (leaving you with a still-robust solid inch of cheese) and try not to think about Nathan's or James Coney Island. And the restaurant itself -- with counter service and 400-lb. waitstaff -- is actually rather pleasant and quite clean for a fast food joint. Verdict: Worth a visit, if only to see what passes for chili in the heartland.

Monday, August 21, 2006

NOLA - One Year Later

Just a quick note about my visit to New Orleans this past weekend. There's no question that the city is still suffering from the after-effects of the worst catastrophe in its history. Too many empty buildings, too few people on the streets (even for August, traditionally the city's quietest month), and, frankly, too few black New Orleanians. New Orleans has for centuries been a showplace of African-American culture: music, literature, and (especially) cuisine. We have to hope that the city and the state and/or federal governments figure out how to restore, and improve, the city's housing, employment, and educational infrastructure in time to lure back a sizeable proportion of those who've left.

Anyway, the food: We were there too briefly to do any kind of a widespread survey, but the results are encouraging. Napolelon House still serves its delicious muffalettas, rich with olive salad and garnished with excellent olives and pickles (and a kick-ass sazerac cocktail). Plum Street Snoballs is still the king: I had my usual lime/plum combo, and The Wife took a chance on something call "Orchid Cream" flavor, which turned out to be delicious. Finally, Galatoire's still packs them in, with the usual admixture of tourists, lawyers, pols, anniversary parties and local gentry. Hank -- all of two years old -- downed several oysters en brochette, and liked the oysters Rockefeller so much that he literally licked the oyster shell clean. His big brother ate a bowl of turtle soup and pronounced it, "the best soup [he] ever had in his life." (For the record, his dad thought it was much better than the last time he'd had the soup at Galatoire's; nearly a rival to Commander's Palace's own Platonic version.)

I can't tell you how important it is that you go to New Orleans now and eat to your heart's content. It's important economically: now, more than ever, the city is dependent on tourist dollars. Every restaurant you visit will be encouraged to hire more cooks and waiters, which in turn will help inspire people to move back. Every club is paying attention to see whether people will come in to listen to music and buy drinks, or whether they should hang it up. It's important politically: you probably don't have a better way to show that you, at least, haven't abandoned New Orleans. And it's important to preserve the most accomplished and distinctive regional cuisine in America.

Follow up: There's an excellent piece in the New York Times food section today about the struggle to rebuild New Orleans' restaurant scene in the wake of the hurricane. It's hard to imagine being a small-business owner and having to deal with so many problems at once: a greatly-diminished workforce, diminished customer base, supply interruptions, negative publicity. Thank God so many are doing it anyway.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Lunch at 17

The first nice thing to say about 17, the restaurant at the Alden Hotel downtown, is that they offer both lime and lemon wedges with your iced tea. How hard is that? Obviously, lime tastes better than lemon in iced tea, and people who disagree with that bedrock truth have lost their minds and/or their tastebuds, but why not offer a choice? If nothing else, it's a simple litmus test that will tell the waiter a great deal about their customer's taste and sophistication.

Anyway, the second "nice" thing to say about 17 is that far too few people eat lunch there, and the service and attention is accordingly well-focused on those who do visit 17 for their delicious, seasonal American cuisine. That ain't always the case; oftentimes, for no discernible reason, half-empty restaurants have even worse service than a hopping dining room. The waiters just seem to have given up. At 17, the maitre d' is friendly and quick, the waiters are attentive without overdoing it, and the room is handsomely decorated (if a bit quiet).

More importantly, the food is extremely good: along with Bank, 17 offers the best high-end lunch available downtown. After squeezing lime wedges in their iced tea, discerning diners are given a couple tiny but hot and yeasty rolls and left to peruse the pleasantly short lunch menu. Befitting a summertime menu, there was an outstanding heirloom tomato salad: no muss, no fuss, just five spectacular slices of tomato (red, orange, yellow, and -- best of all -- a green/black slice with a pleasantly acidic bite) dressed minimally with sea salt and a scattering of tiny fresh oregano leaves. Not even any olive oil, a nearly daring touch. Fortunately, the tomatoes are good enough to stand on their own. Go now; eat tomato.

There's a standing "Chef's Noodles" entree, which varies every day and is essentially a pasta special, varying from Asian noodle dishes to Italian pasta. On my most recent visit, the pasta special was pappardelle with tiny shrimp, a basil pesto and fresh tomato chunks. The shrimp were cooked perfectly -- an accomplishment that shockingly few Houston restaurants seem to have figured out -- and went beautifully with the not-overly-assertive pesto sauce. The dish had far too much butter, which is a typical restaurant trick, but the reason so many chefs indulge in the trick is that, well, butter tastes good. And it tasted good here.

My boss bought lunch today (not for me, really, but for the other guests at our table; I was just a free rider) and reported that his gazpacho was also delicious, and it bore a close resemblance to the red, rich tomatoes in my aforementioned salad. 17 clearly has a hook into a pretty good produce supplier, and it's hard to think of a more important relationship for a restaurant to have.

Anyway, get thee to 17 for lunch, preferably on your boss' tab, before (1) the tomato season ends, and/or (2) the lack of customers knocks out the lunch seating at 17.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sassafras Ice Cream

This is nothing more than a open letter/prayer to the ice cream gods at Amy's Ice Cream on Shepherd to bring back, if only for a day, the sassafras ice cream they featured two weeks ago. Pure white, rich as Croesus, and with the most intense root beer tang you've ever encountered. It must be what Mr. Barq and Mr. Hires eat for dessert every day in the Great Beyond. Bring it back. I will pay any price. I'm not proud.

Mandola's Deli

As a transplanted Yankee, one of the first and most difficult transitions to be made upon moving to Houston is saying goodbye to what you knew as "street food." Growing up in Philadelphia (you can pretty easily substitute "New York," "Baltimore," or "Providence," here), street food was down'n'dirty, often Italian, and simply spectacular.

Generally, we're talking about sandwiches here: cheesesteaks, hoagies, roast pork sandwiches, strombolis, grinders, etc. Philly gets some renown for inventing the cheesesteak, but that's sort of like an art historian giving Italy credit for the Mona Lisa: Sure, no doubt, but it's hardly the beginning or end of the story. It's a fair comparison. In some ways, Philly street food is the Louvre of the sandwich world. There's almost too much variety and quality to take in, from Dalessandro's Steaks to Tony Luke's to Tommy Dinic's Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market to Lee's Hoagie House.

One of the best things about eating Italian street food in Philly is the sense of an "authentic" experience -- the same thing that gets BBQ writers all bunged up when they stumble on some doublewide outside Llano with a pit in the back. Basically, it's an elevated form of tourism: the thrill of partaking in someone else's life and culture through the medium of food. You can sort of fool yourself that, for the time it takes to eat your lunch, you are Italian/Mexican/German/Texan/etc., or that you at least appreciate a delicious part of what makes that culture so interesting.

Houston is full of such thrills, especially in the areas of Mexican food, soul food, barbeque, and Salvadoran food. But not so much with your old-line "ethnic" foods. There ain't much authenticity in a visit to Olive Garden ("Hospitaliano" notwithstanding) or even Da Marco. You're in an Italian restaurant in Houston in 2006, and that's exactly what it feels like. The over-under on the number of actual, genuine Italians working at the joint is 1. Take the under.

That's what makes Mandola's Deli, at 4105 Leeland in Eastwood, so much fun. Mandola's Deli is not in Houston in 2006. It exists in some sort of weird parallel dimension that appears to be Philadelphia, circa 1977. The atmosphere is uncanny: there has been simply no effort to dress it up and make it look like a modern food establishment. It's dark. There are almost no windows (good thing, considering the neighborhood). You stand in an un-reconstructed deli line, and the ladies behind the counter know every customer, and every customer's order (except yours, since you haven't been here before). You seem to be in line with an Italian-American chick you could swear you met on the boardwalk last summer down in Wildwood.

The food sustains the illusion. The meatball po-boy (can we get them to change the name? the dissonance is jarring) is easily the best in Houston, if not Texas. Finely-textured and well-seasoned meatballs with just enough red sauce to moisten the sandwich. Melted mozzarella that doesn't remind you of bathroom caulk. Good, chewy french bread (not quite Amoroso's, but still). There's a fantastic side dish called "Funeral Beans" (green beans with butter, bread crumbs and garlic) and slices of fresh pie. The red sauce is good, as it has to be at a place like this: tart, tomato-y, and distinctive, and (thank you Lord) not too sweet. Go to Mandola's Deli the next time you need a reality check. It's considerably more convenient than traveling to late-seventies South Philadelphia.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Thoughts on Brand Dilution

This is not a review of the original Ninfa's on Navigation Boulevard. Everyone knows about/has been to the original Ninfa's, so I'm not going to show you pictures of their delightful food or discuss how the (Platonic) Tacos Musicos achieve unparalleled heights of greasy perfections. That's not what this is about. This post is about how spectacularly suck-ass the other locations in the Ninfa's empire can be.

Now, they probably don't all suck. In fact, I happen to know that the location on Kirby isn't terrible, and the one in the Galleria offers the only decent margarita to be had in that retail hellhole. But the Ninfa's at the Park Shops downtown...that, people, is a really bad restaurant. The chips are okay, but the salsa -- particularly the red salsa -- is indisputably from a jar. The caldo xochitl -- at the Navigation original, a clear, deeply-flavored chicken soup fragrant with fresh vegetables and peppers -- is a meek, watery chicken broth with a few chunks of chicken breast huddled at the bottom of the bowl, clearly ashamed of their role in the affair. The whole restaurant shares a similar sense of perpetrating a fraud, as though you'd opened a "Kreuz Market" in a food court and were offering baloney sandwiches with A-1 Sauce to an unsuspecting populace. Shame. Shame. Shame.