Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Grilled Oysters

One of the best and most unusual dishes in New Orleans is the grilled oyster: an oyster, on the half shell, grilled over an open flame. Very simple; amazingly good. And very popular in NOLA. Drago's in Fat City is probably the most famous practitioner of the art form, and you can watch the cooks shucking and sliding the oysters onto the grill from the bar area; great entertainment, and delicious bar food. I don't know if it's a New Orleans original, or whether perhaps the Croatian oystermen who founded so many of New Orleans' great oyster joints (Drago's, Uglesich's, etc.) came up with it. Doesn't matter. Delicious.

But very difficult to find in Houston. (Gilhooley's is the best-known exception.) Fortunately, with Gulf oysters cheap and delicious and easily had, you can make them yourself. I drove down to Captain Wick's, in Seabrook, and bought a 100-count sack of fresh San Leon oysters for $20. (That's a fine deal, by the way, for briny, plump oysters from the best spot on the Texas coast.) Then I made a basic garlic butter sauce with minced raw garlic, melted butter, olive oil, red chili flakes, black pepper, and a little Tony Chachere's. Shuck the oysters, place them half-shell down on the grill, and baste with a little sauce. Once the edges curl and the oysters plump up, they done. A little Parmesan to finish is optional -- but make sure it's the cheapo fake Parmesan in the green can. (I don't know why that's so important, but it is.)

(Thanks to houseguest extraordinaire Mo for the pic.)

Friday, March 23, 2007

Boiled Crawfish

As most crawfish fans on the Gulf Coast know, we are now in high crawfish season, and 2007 is looking like one of the best seasons in years. Tons of fat crawfish at low prices have been a boon to Louisiana farmers and mudbug eaters everywhere. As we get ready for our own annual crawfish boil later this month, I thought I'd mention a few places that have been turning out good mudbugs around town:

Pappadeaux isn't my favorite Cajun/New Orleans-themed restaurant, to be honest, but they do a mean crawfish boil, as we found out on Mardi Gras night this year, when we dropped by the Richmond Avenue location. Spicy, deeply flavorsome crawfish dusted with Tony Chachere's lit a nice fire on the lips and in the belly. The only complaint was that the crawfish were unusually small for this year's batch, but they were cooked perfectly and proved easy to extract from their shells. The boiled red potatoes and corn on the cob are also excellent, totally drenched in flavor and spice. (Pappadeaux also has consistently excellent raw oysters, though rarely as good as Goode Company's.)

Floyd's Kitchen, on the other hand, had giant, fat crawfish but disappointingly little flavor. Floyd's could use a boost in their boil, but they can't be faulted for the quality of the bugs. (Floyd's also serves some of the flat-out best fried oysters I have ever eaten -- a subject for a later post. But don't go without ordering some.)

Ragin' Cajun is dependable: good crawfish in good boil. They won't change your world, but you can't go wrong, either.

But, just to annoy you, I should mention that we stopped in for dinner at Franky & Johnny's while passing through New Orleans last weekend. There's just nowhere in Houston that matches F&J for crawfish, I'm afraid. They manage the best balance of size, flavor, and cooking time, to produce a slow-burn heat and rich, buttery flavor at an excellent price. Well off the tourist trail for most NOLA visitors, F&J's divey location on Tchoupitoulas turns out some of the best home cooking in the city, as well as some of the best Uptown people watching. There's also a menacingly enticing "bowling" game in the bar area that managed to wound both my children while we waited for a table. (Their father's contributory negligence pretty much blew any likelihood of recovery in court.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sichuan Cuisine

It's an odd restaurant that I really, really like but won't recommend to everyone. Sichuan Cuisine, at 9114 Bellaire Boulevard in Houston's Chinatown, is definitely one of those restaurants. Sichuan Cuisine is an often-brilliant, always-authentic hole in the wall in the vast Diho Square shopping center on Bellaire, with a clear focus on regional Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan cuisine features a lot of poultry, a lot of pig, and a good amount of freshwater fish (owing to Sichuan's landlocked status). Oh, and small mountains of hot peppers. Pepperheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stomach linings! Sichuan Cuisine deploys spice with abandon, but rarely overwhelms the flavor of the food. The sheer number of peppers sometimes seems intended for comical effect: the ChongQin Chicken, for instance, is literally buried beneath an inch of dried red peppers.

But the carpets of capsaicin are moderated somewhat by the nearly ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorns, actually the husk of a small seed from the prickly ash tree. The peppercorns have a bright, lemony flavor with a peppery finish and add an intense aroma to the food. But the flavor is only one component of the peppercorn's appeal; equally important to Sichuan cooking is the almost novocaine-like numbness that the peppercorn imparts. Coupled with the heat of the chile peppers, the two create a sensation called "ma la," or hot-numb, which is the signature of Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan Cuisine is really into ma la. The appetizers offer a good introduction. Dan Dan Noodles ($1.95) are deliciously slippery, udon-like noodles in a soy-based sauce with fresh basil, peanuts, and chiles. The noodles offer a delicate kick at the end, and a hint of numbness. My five-year-old took a bite of the Dan Dan Noodles and announced, "Dad, we can come here all the time."

More pronounced are the Dragon Wontons ($2.95), flat pork-filled dumplings in a red-oil sauce. The wontons are excellent, and leave a tingling numbness on your lips. Also outstanding are the Chengdu Dumplings and the Crispy Yam Cakes with Sesame ($2.95), a cousin of the sesame bean balls so popular at dim sum palaces.

But it's in the main courses that the ma la comes into its own. ChongQin Chicken ($7.50) -- tiny cubes of fried chicken dusted with salt and Sichuan peppercorns, then smothered under dried red chiles -- is utterly addictive, even better after a night in the refrigerator. Twice-Cooked Pork ($6.95) is outstanding: chunks of pork belly (that's right - bacon, baby!) boiled and then sauteed with leeks, garlic, chiles and peppercorns. Outrageously delicious and decadent, and an Atkins Diet superstar if ever there were one. Any of the entrees will feed two or three adults, easily.

The Boiled Slice Fish came recommended to me, despite its, um, less than compelling name. It's an interesting dish but not for everyone; perhaps not for me. Reminiscent of a Vietnamese hot pot, the fish arrives piping hot in a soup-like sauce of chilis, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. The taste -- powerful, hot, and garlicky as hell -- is delicious, but the unctuous oiliness that works well with the restaurant's stir-fried dishes is kind of overwhelming here.

The service is, like many Chinese restaurants in town, brusque but functional. The first time I took the family to the restaurant, we actually received excellent (and friendly) service; familiarity has, I fear, bred contempt, or perhaps we've lost our novelty as The White Family in The Corner. But the focus is on the food at Sichuan Cuisine, and the food is outstanding.

Max's Wine Dive

Max's Wine Dive has nearly every indicia of hipness. Seedy-but-upcoming-neighborhood? Check. Cute bleach-blonde hostess in a 1984 Go-Gos dress? Check. Deafening noise level? Check. Irreverent menus, waitrons in funky T-shirts, and an interesting wine list? Check.

But then.... a few kinks emerge. First you notice that the hipster crowd is actually a little older than you first thought -- in fact, they're considerably older than they're dressed. When their Razr V3s ring, it might be a friend calling to meet them for drinks; more likely, it's the babysitter asking when they're coming home.

Then you notice that the top-volume music you've been humming along to happily is oddly reminiscent of a high school dance. But not a 2007 high school dance -- your high school dance, circa 1989. Yes, that's "Bigmouth Strikes Again," but no, you're not seventeen. You're married with kids and a Volvo, and that's a good thing, because most of the food here is priced well out of any self-respecting hipster's budget.

Max's Wine Dive is really a carefully-constructed simulacrum of hipness designed to appeal to yuppies in their thirties who've developed a taste for wine, but prefer to think of themselves as unpretentious and cool. Hey, who doesn't? The wine list is interesting, and the policies progressive: the house will open any bottle on the list if you agree to purchase two glasses or more.

The food is more retrograde. Filled with "fun" updates on Southern dishes and some bistro faves, Max's success rate is spotty at best. Frites (f/k/a french fries) are a decent snack, and arrive hot and properly salty in paper cones with a chipotle mayonnaise. A bowl of mussels topped with garlic, shallots, and hot peppers nestled in a creamy, citrus-y broth was fantastic; there's not enough bread in the world to soak up the juices left at the bottom.

But the appetizers generally set you up for disappointment. Max's fabled "Haute Dog," an unimpressive wiener lost amidst a sea of bland chili and smothered fries, was an unappealing, sloppy mess. I have no idea what goes through the mind of a Texas chef who puts out tasteless chili. Texans are primed to appreciate a spicy, flavorful bowl of red; why do you disappoint them? How hard is it to make a decent chili? The best part of the "Haute Dog" is the homemade pickled jalapeno slices that litter the plate. Skip the dog and order a side of those.

Fried chicken was good, crispy and thin-skinned, if unnaturally sweet. My friend ordered the Kobe beef burger, which arrived wet, red, and barely warm, like a newborn pig. Notably, the crowd of people nominally sitting at the table behind us completely ignored their food when it arrived. They were too busy partying with the folks at the bar.

As Robb Walsh points out in his (generally admiring) review, even the better dishes aren't really well-suited to accompany wines. The emphasis on fried foods and pickled things -- while nothing to be ashamed of, especially when done properly -- isn't really conducive to sharing with wines.

So, take Max's Wine Dive for what it is: a loud wine bar with loud food. But if you're really interested in wine -- or food -- you're probably better off somewhere else.

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.