Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Luling City Market

No, not the one on Richmond. I was driving back from a mediation in Laredo and stopped off in Luling for lunch. It would be an overstatement to say that I drove (instead of flew) to Laredo just so that I could hit Luling for lunch, but one of the nice parts about driving around central Texas is the ready availability of great smoked meats in nearly every small town.

But strangely, I was disappointed by City Market's meats. The atmosphere was great -- a happy storefront on a friendly, well-maintained block downtown -- but the pork ribs were overcooked and dry. (Well, one rib was excellent, but the others -- perhaps from a different slab? -- were just plain overdone.) The hot links had good flavor, but paled in comparison to Smitty's. The brisket was pretty good, moist and smoky, but couldn't do much to raise the overall level of the 'cue. Maybe City Market simply suffered by comparison to my road trip earlier this month to nearby Lockhart, or maybe I caught them on a bad day?

Fred's Italian Corner

Certainly, it's nice to have chef Marco Wiles and others working busily to maintain a presence on the Houston dining scene for serious, authentic Italian cooking. But foodies' entirely-understandable love for guanciale and pizza con tonno shouldn't mean that there's not a place for good, old-fashioned Italian-American fare. As Allison Cook notes in her blog, Craiganale's -- a longtime standby for courthouse lawyers downtown -- has recently expanded to a more full-size location in Midtown, demonstrating that Houstonians, as much as anyone, recognize the need for a good meatball sandwich.

In the same vein, Fred's Italian Corner has been flying the red-sauce flag for nearly a quarter-century now, serving the Rice University area from their humble abode in a strip mall at Holcombe and Greenbriar. Fred's is as genuine a neighborhood joint as you'll find anywhere, locals walking in with their families on a Friday night for chicken cacciatore and spaghetti with meatballs in marinara sauce. There are always a couple of tables taken by Rice students on dates, and the friendly bustle on a weekend evening lends a communal feel which can often be hard to come by in Houston restaurants.

Obviously, to be worth a damn in the red-sauce business, your marinara had better be good. And Fred's is good, rich and satisfying without being too sweet (the usual failing of Italian-American sauces). The spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, basil and anchovies is very good (though the pasta tends to be a bit overdone, which, sadly, is an almost universal problem in restaurants like Fred's), as are the meatballs and Italian sausage. Wines are unimpressive but inexpensive, which all you could reasonably ask for. Lasagna is rich and well-cooked, served in its own little chafing dish.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


So I was thinking about empanadas -- the tasty, stuffed-pocket dumplings popular throughout Latin America -- after trying to interest my boys in the beef empanadas at Goode Company's "Armadillo Palace" on Kirby. (Which, for the record, is a surprisingly negligible food location, despite some decent venison chili and the tasty aforementioned beef empanadas.) The Armadillo's version are pretty good, but they invite comparison with the much more impressive seafood empanadas at Goode Company Seafood, around the corner on Westpark: those are spicy and flavorful, with chunks of peppers and crawfish tails. Good stuff.

But Houston is awash in good empanadas. One place definitely worth checking out is Marine's, at 3227 Hillcroft in west Houston. Marine's, a Colombian mom'n'pop kitchen with a friendly atmosphere, claims 45 different stuffings ranging from the usual savory meats (beef, chicken, pork, etc.) to numerous sweet and fruit fillings. (Marine's also makes a mean arroz con pollo, and there's usually a soccer game playing on the TV.)

Somewhat more expensive (but still a relatively good deal, for an appetizer) is the "empanadita" plate at Churrascos. Chef Michael Cordua's little empanadas (usually a selection of beef, chicken, and shrimp with cheese, together with chile and cilantro dipping sauces) are more refined than Marine's, perhaps, but still pretty unassuming. And tasty.

I've heard excellent things about Marini's Empanada House in Katy, though I haven't had a chance to try it out yet; the problem, of course, being that if/when I get the craving for empanadas, there are just too many options available in the twenty miles between my house and Marini's. But the day will come.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Central Market's Black Pepper and Prosciutto Ficelle

Obviously, Central Market is a bad and evil place, haunted by uneasonably high prices (Three dollars for a pepper? Seriously? Just because it's from Holland?) and addled richies from River Oaks.

So you shouldn't go there at all. But, if you did, you should buy a black pepper and prosciutto ficelle from their bakery section. They are simply outstanding: dense, intensely chewy skinny demi-baguettes with big chunks of salty prosciutto and a pleasant peppery heat. Whole Foods tried very briefly to compete with Central Market on this point, but theirs was bland, soft, and just plain uncommitted. If you can, bribe someone at the front door to buy one for you (the way you did for six-packs in high school). If that doesn't work, you may have to go in the store -- but don't say I didn't warn you. And don't visit the olive bar. It's a crushing disappointment.

Van Loc (Is Not As Good as Mai's)

This isn't as much a full-fledged blog entry as a simple observation that Van Loc is just not as good as its supposed rival, Mai's. Sorry. You know it's true. The spring rolls? Not as fresh, not as well-wrapped. The barbecued pork? Fatty and not as flavorful. It's just not as good. Not. As. Good.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Schilo's - Twilight of the Hot Dog Gods?

Schilo's is not in Houston, and, though I like the service and the feel of the joint a lot, I've never thought they had particuarly memorable food.

But I was in San Antonio the other day for a short deposition, and I stopped into Schilo's for a quick lunch.

I ordered the "Krautdog."

When it arrived, I said, "Whoa."

The waitress asked, nervously, if everything was okay.

"Uh-huh," I murmured, transfixed by the double frankfurter blanketed with fragrant, delicate sauerkraut. "Am good."

The hot dogs were butterflied and a deep red color. The smell coming from them was just...delicious. I thought to myself, "No way is this going to taste as good as it looks. Or as good as it smells."

But then it was BETTER. It was outrageous. It was the most German-tasting hot dog I've had outside of Der Fatherland. Much of my seventh-grade German came back to me. My grandmother, Ida Kiesewetter, seemed to call my name. When I closed my eyes, I saw edelweiss.

Then I felt guilty. I'm very, very snotty about hot dogs. I have a carefully-constructed personal hierarchy of frankfurters (crowned, obviously, by the best hot dog in the world: Rutt's Hut) and I was not expecting to have to rearrange it when I stopped into Schilo's for a quick lunch. Everything is now disarray and confusion. Gray's Papaya may have been bumped to fourth. Further research must be done to see if this was a fluke; maybe I was hungrier than I thought? More on this later.

Fung's Kitchen

New York's Chinatown is justly famous for its dim sum palaces, places like Mandarin Court and 20 Mott Street whose combination of hostile service and rolling carts filled with dazzling delicacies prompts even hungover hipsters to rouse themselves early on Saturday mornings and make the trek to Mott and Canal. One of the things that makes New York's restaurant scene so vital is the city's hugely diverse population. Rather than having, for example, just enough Chinese residents to support a few Chinese restaurants, New York has an enormous population of Chinese from all regions of that country, and they help to maintain several competitive and vibrant eating districts, most notably on the Lower East Side and in Flushing. So when you go into a good Chinese restaurant in New York, you can -- and should -- find a sizeable proportion of knowledgeable Chinese patrons eating there.

Our hometown, Houston, is also amazingly diverse; by population, it is the second-most diverse city in the country, after NYC. Fittingly, Houston also has a vibrant, if typically far-flung, dim sum scene. Ocean Palace and Kim Son have attaracted huge weekend crowds for years with their rolling carts of dumplings, chicken feet, gai lan, and other specialties. For a long time, I was convinced that Kim Son's Stafford restaurant had the best weekend dim sum. Led by a brilliant dim sum chef, Kim Son -- a Houston Vietnamese standby -- still has an outstanding service, but Kim Son has now fallen, in my hierarchy, to a worthy second place. Fung's Kitchen is number one.

Fung's, located near Bellaire Boulevard just off the Southwest Freeway, is located with the usual Houston charm between a grim collection of office towers and ten lanes of highway traffic. Inside, however, Fung's is bright, clean, and nicely decorated (a significant departure from many New York dim sum palaces, which tend toward the "gritty reality" school of decor) with decorative Buddhas and functional fishtanks.

The fishtanks are critical, in fact. Although nearly everything on the dim sum carts is delicious, the seafood takes pride of place. Shrimp dumplings (there are at least three kinds) are pristine and crunchy, with no iodine flavor of the sort one often runs into in Houston restaurants (Chinese and otherwise). Clams in black bean sauce are outstanding, as is the jellyfish salad: delicate slices of jellyfish mixed with lightly pickled cucumbers and black duck eggs. The steamed buns range from okay (chicken buns) to excellent (barbecue pork buns). And, breaking with tradition, Fung's offers not only the de rigeur sweet sesame balls (delicious, but , to be honest, not quite as good as Kim Son's) but also a more savory version with black sesame seeds. The Chinese broccoli (gai lan -- actually a kind of kale) is perfect and plentiful, as it should be at any good Chinese restaurant.

But dim sum is ultimately about the dumplings, and the dumplings at Fung's are spectacular. In addition to the usual beef and pork xiu mai, there are shrimp-and-pork dumplings; chicken dumplings; shrimp and shark fin; and a variety of vegetable dumplings filled with different greens. The steamed ginger and beef tripe (round and dumpling-ish, though technically not a dumpling) is excellent.

Perversely, my normally highly suspicious children love the food at Fung's, though they remain unwilling to sample the chicken feet. The upside-down sticky rice with pork sausage is a serious favorite, and recently our waitress introduced another crowd-pleaser: "Japanese Sprite." It's a soft drink, of course, but it comes in a heavy glass bottle with a marble that doubles as bottlecap and entertainment. The drink, actually "Ramune" (almost embarassingly, a Japanese phonetic transliteration of 'lemonade') is fizzy and sweet with a taste reminiscent of Japanese candy.

So what if you're not required to take the D train and trudge through garbage-strewn streets to stand in line for an un-air-conditioned seat with total strangers? The dim sum is just as good, and just as varied, and the crowds -- 80% or more of whom are very happy Asian families -- are just as happy. If it makes you feel better, you can always take the bus home afterward.