Texas Food Blog – Part 2 – Houston

Houston isn’t all about fast food and chain restaurants, though it may seem that way from reading Part 1. I could write so many blogs about the food in Texas that I love…and I probably will at some point. I really only ate at a fraction of my favorite restaurants this trip. For instance, I didn’t eat ANY Vietnamese food, which is a travesty. There is some excellent Vietnamese food to be had there. Unbeknownst to a lot of people outside of Texas, Houston has one of the largest Vietnamese populations outside of Vietnam. So many that the “Wash your hands before returning to work” signs are translated into Vietnamese at Treebeards!

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At least I think that’s what it says. For all I know, it says: “Kill all Westerners” or “Don’t forget to spit in their red beans and rice.” Not doubt, they were drawn to Houston after the fall of Saigon by the similar climate and the fishing. Well, Vietnam’s loss is our gain. I fell in love with Vietnamese food in Houston and it’s a love that continues to this day. Maybe at Christmas, I will have some time to hit a few and I’ll have a Part 4 and 5 for you guys.

Anyway, now that the Fast Food King (Sean) has flown back to LA, it’s time to hit some more of my favorites, as I’ve had my fill of queso and chips these last few days. There are many delicious and ground-breaking fine-dining establishments in Houston, such as: Café Annie, Robert Del Grande’s venerable, 25-year old love letter to Southwestern cuisine. (Though, I always preferred a place in Montrose called Sierra, since closed, that had the most amazing blue-corn crusted oysters with beurre blanc.) There’s Arcodoro, a rather unusual but absolutely delicious Italian restaurant in the Galleria area. Unusual because it focuses on regional Sardinian cuisine and is successful doing that in a town that thinks Italian food is all about Macaroni Grill or Olive Garden.

One of my favorite Italian restaurants, speaking of Italian, is
Da Marco. Having been to both, I would say that Da Marco would give
Babbo in NYC and
Osteria Mozza in LA a run for their money. They’re a bit fancy and I didn’t think they’d appreciate me bringing a screaming baby. Luckily, they have a sister restaurant, an enoteca/pizzeria called
Dolce Vita, (think Mozza, LA people), that I personally like a bit better because it’s more ‘me’: casual, raucous, with delicious seasonal, Italian food in a great location in Montrose, the artsy section of Houston. One of my favorite ways to start a meal there is with antipasti. They have all sorts of wonderful small plates that you can mix and match to form a meal or just order a bunch of for the table, such as rapini, deep-fried in olive oil served with a shaving of parmagiano-reggiano and a lemon on the side:

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I love this dish. It’s deep-fried until it’s so crispy, it almost disintegrates in your mouth. I have made this at home too. It’s a bit dangerous as any drops of water clinging to the leaves have a tendency to explode when they hit the hot fat. I’m still trying to replicate it. I think it has a bit of a tempura batter clinging to the leaves. When I made it, I washed the rapini and dried it as best as I could. Then, I tossed it in rice flour, so that any remaining moisture formed a batter and then I deep-fried it in olive oil in VERY SMALL BATCHES. Trust me on this. If you try it at home, start with very small bunches. Not only will it explode and overflow on you if you add too much at one time but it brings down the temperature of the oil making it greasy. Any time I go to Dolce Vita, I end up ordering it twice and when I made it at home, everybody wanted the recipe. If you think you don’t like vegetables, give it a try.

Another one of their delicious verdura are beets with horseradish and walnuts:

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If you think you don’t like beets, try this. My dad loves everything on the planet but he’s never been a big beet fan. He likes THESE beets.

How ‘bout their truffle egg toast? (Sort of like an Italian Toad-in-the-hole, with a piece of rustic bread, hollowed out and filled with an egg and baked in the wood-fired oven with shaved black truffles.) Uh yeah, this one is sooo up my alley. I’m a freak for eggs and truffles:

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In the past I’ve had their shaved Brussels sprouts with pecorino, calamari with mint, oranges and olives, autumn squash and ceci and their beautiful pastas, which are all delicious. But, this trip was about the pizza, all baked in their wood-fired oven…Prosciutto di San Daniele, tomato, mozzarella and arugula:

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Sausage, rapini and pecorino:

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And a special of squash blossoms, salami, tomato and mozzarella:

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Maggie wants some:

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Oh wait, she’s going for the wine…that’s my girl….a gorgeous ’99 Brunello that was drinking beautifully.

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Grandma and Grandpa are going to try to distract Maggie with a book, while I peruse the dolci menu:

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Despite having worked in pastry a lot, I’m not a huge dessert person. I’ll generally go for a few scoops of gelato, which is what my parents decided on. But tonight, I felt like something seasonal, so I went for a quivering mound of panna cotta with fresh strawberries and some cappuccino with frangelico:

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See, Texas isn’t just about BBQ and Chicken-Fried Steak. But, hey, now that you mention it…barbecue. I would love to hear some suggestions on the best BBQ in Houston. Most people will say to go to Goode Company BBQ. Well, I’ve been there many times and I think it’s a bit overrated. Their brisket is good but I’m not really crazy about their ribs. I know, I know…Texas is about brisket and links and yes, they’re both good at Goode Company. Still, I like ribs too. My pick for the best BBQ in Texas is a little place in
Gruene, Tx called Janie’s Table. Their ribs are spectacular and everything else is really good too. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Janie’s this trip and it’s just as well. I sent a friend there and they were closed temporarily. But, their website is up and running, so I’m assuming it’s not permanent.

Anyway, I had to get some barbecue so I decided to try somewhere new. Well, new to me. This place has been around for ages but I’ve never made it in before: Pizzitolas BBQ on Shepherd Dr. I had read some stuff on the internet about how great their ribs were so I had to give it a try. They certainly get an “A” for hospitality. Owner Jerry Pizzitola himself seated us and was extremely friendly and welcoming. The menu is pretty simple, so we just ordered the usual stuff: brisket, links, ribs, coleslaw and beans.

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I thought the links were the best part, coarse, a bit spicy, tons of flavor. The brisket was a bit inconsistent. Mine was really good: tender, moist, falling apart. My dad’s was a bit dried out. The ribs…sorry, but I didn’t like them. I thought they were a bit tough but the worst part was that they had so much black pepper on them that you couldn’t taste the meat. My one rule about bbq is that it has to be better than mine but I make way better ribs than this, so the search continues. Still, I would go back in a heartbeat for the links, brisket and hospitality. Jerry even brought over some free banana pudding that he says his mother (?) still makes for the restaurant. I think he said his mother…anyway, if you like banana pudding, it was really good. I always find it a bit sweet but to each his own.

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Maggie has been eating well on this trip too. When she’s here in LA, she’s lucky if she gets solid food once a day. It’s such a process!! Well, in Houston, she had a very willing Grandma spoon-feeding her twice a day, every day:

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What? No, I didn’t forget about the
Chicken Fried Steak. Are you kidding me? I HAD to get me some
Chicken Fried Steak on this trip. Where do I go? Well, in Houston, for me the place to go is
The Black-eyed Pea.

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Several of the branches that I used to go to have closed down, namely, the one in Town & Country Village, the one on Westheimer near
The Galleria and the one on West Gray at Shepherd. I was worried that they weren’t open anymore but a quick Google check turned up one nearby. Who knew they were also in Colorado? I thought they were just a Texas thing.

I used to go to The Black-eyed Pea every day for lunch when I worked at the Galleria. I would get a Chicken Caesar salad, dressing on the side, rolls with ranch dressing on the side to dip in and a big iced tea with 2 lemons. (I was on a diet after all…ha!..rolls with ranch…yeah…good plan.) I so miss regular iced tea. Here in LA, if you ask for iced tea, you invariably hear this: “Passion Fruit or regular?” You ask: “What’s your regular like?” You hear: “Kiwi Strawberry.” Um, why the hell is it so hard to find regular, old Lipton Iced Tea…unsweetened…here in LA. Not that I don’t like flavored teas but sometimes you just want regular, old iced tea. Not sweet tea. I keep hearing that sweet tea is a big thing in Texas but I’ve never seen it. It’s always just unsweetened tea in Houston..to which I add a nice dose of saccharin in the form of Sweet-n-Low…mainly because it dissolves better than any other sweetener.

Anyway, back to the
Chicken Fried Steak. I didn’t go to Black-eyed Peanut (as our friend
Brady used to call it) to diet…though I probably should. I wanted a good chicken-fried steak and they have an amazing one there. You can get the regular chicken-fried steak, which is huge or the Texas-sized, which is massive and takes up the whole plate. I ordered the regular because I had my eyes on some of the special appetizers, namely deep-fried pickles…yeah, you heard me right. There aren’t really a lot of food products that escape the deep-fryer here…including the special that day: sour cream and pico-de-gallo stuffed, battered and deep-fried AVOCADO. Texans….ahhh…God bless their artery-clogged little hearts.

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Now, one of my other favorite things to do, inexplicably, is to dip Black-eyed Pea rolls in ranch dressing. They have really soft, yeasty, warm rolls and I think I discovered it by accident one day in the manner of: “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” I don’t remember but I dream of the rolls dipped in ranch so I had to have that too:

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Ahhh..the chicken-fried steaks are here. I figured that I didn’t have enough saturated fat yet, so I got a side of mac-n-cheese with mine. Mac-n-cheese used to be a treat at Black-eyed Pea. It was a daily special and they would only have it on Saturday. Now they have it all week long…heaven. My dad went for the Texas-sized steak…and he finished it!

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All of this food debauchery has me thinking that I need to get a little swimming in. I really wanted to take Maggie to the pool that I grew up playing in: the pool that I was swimming in when I heard over the radio that Elvis had died. The pool I used to play Marco-Polo in and dive for pennies on Memorial Day. The pool that I was always getting kicked out of for swearing or roughhousing or running. It was a sunny day and I had to make sure we brought our hats. I picked up a new cowboy hat in Houston (which I forgot on the plane) and Maggie wanted to try it on. It was a little too big for her, which is surprising because our pediatrician announced that she had a big-ass head the last time she went for a check-up. I don’t think those were his exact words. They might have been something about 95th percentile for head circumference, bitches! Awww, I love me my adorable big-headed baby.

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So, we got our stuff together and went to the pool with Grandma and Grandpa. This was a seriously unusual occurrence. I don’t remember the last time my mother set foot in that pool. I think it was around 1977 and she was dragging my reluctant ass out of the water to go home to dinner.

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All that swimming made me hungry again…I know…who woulda thunk it? Maggie was exhausted so Mom and Dad offered to babysit while I hit the last of my favorite Tex-Mex places: Guadalajara.

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I’ve been going to Guadalajara for something like 20 years. They used to be right by my house but then they moved up the freeway. I always get their chicken fajita quesadillas, chips and queso and Mexican beer. I have never ordered anything else in the entire time I’ve been going there. Why mess with perfection? Their chicken quesadillas are the standard by which I judge all quesadillas. The chicken they use is the fajita meat and it’s juicy and smoky from the grill. They use a secret-squirrel mix of Mexican cheeses that I can’t quite identify. I have never had a chicken quesadilla that can beat theirs. Now, I have no idea what the rest of their food tastes like. It could suck, for all I know. But if you want a great chicken quesadilla, this is the place to go.

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Sadly, my trip was drawing to a close. It was time to get back to the real world…and realistic eating habits. My mom and dad are both foodies from way back. Growing up, I didn’t appreciate it at all. I was an extremely picky eater and just wanted NORMAL food. For instance, I hated Thanksgiving as a holiday because, not only was I almost always sick on Thanksgiving, we almost never had turkey. In fact, I’m trying to remember if we ever did?? Nope…my dad wasn’t a turkey fan. We were always picking buckshot out of pheasant or grouse or something. I used to dream of my friend’s dry, white-meat gravy with brown gravy…green bean casserole…pumpkin pie…something NORMAL. Nope….I invariably got some sort of gamy, dark-meat, rodent-like bird for dinner. I went hungry many a Thanksgiving. Well, times have changed and I eat just about everything now. I love food, as you guys can see, and I finally appreciate my parents cooking and love of wine. My first taste of wine, btw? Cos d’Estournel out of the barrel at the age of 7.

On our last night, my mother went all out fixing up an amazing meal. She had managed to get her hands on some of Mario Batali’s father Armandino Batali’s Guanciale from Salumi Artisan Cured Meats in Seattle. So, naturally, that made her think of Mario’s Bucatini all’Amatriciana. But, she also wanted to try out the Bistecca alla Fiorentina from my previous blog. So, while she hovered over a pot of boiling water and my father hovered over the steak, I wandered around taking atmospheric pictures of them and the house that was no longer my home:

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Hmmm…what’s Dad watching? Oh, of course, gymnasts:

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Ahhhh…looks like dinner is ready. Better go back in…I’m starving.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

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Heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil

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Bistecca alla Fiorentina, arugula salad with parmagiano-reggiano and crusty bread

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Fresh berries and cheese for dessert:

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Goodnight Houston.

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INTERMISSION

Mario Batali’s Bucatini All’Amatriciana

Prep time: 15 mins.

Cook time: 23 mins.

Serves 4

Ingredients

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

12 ounces thinly sliced guanciale, pancetta, or good bacon

1 red onion, cut lengthwise in half and then into ¼ inch thick half-moons

3 cloves garlic, sliced

1½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (below) or 1 jar of prepared sauce + ½ cup water

1 pound Barilla bucatini

Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.

2. Meanwhile, in a 10-to-12-inch saute pan, combine the olive oil, bacon, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes; set over low heat and cook until the onion is softened and the bacon has rendered much of its fat, about 12 minutes.

3. Drain all but ¼ cup of the fat out of the pan. Add the tomato sauce, turn up the heat, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and allow to bubble for 6 to 7 minutes.

4. While the sauce simmers, cook the bucatini in the boiling water for about a minute less than the package directions specify, until very firm; drain.

5. Add the pasta to the simmering sauce and toss for about 1 minute to coat. Divide the pasta among four heated bowls and serve immediately, topped with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese.

Basic Tomato Sauce

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 Spanish onion, chopped in ¼-inch dice

4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried

½ medium carrot, finely shredded

2 (28-ounce) cans of peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved

In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft.

Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt to taste.

Note: Sauce holds 1 week in refrigerator or up to 6 months in freezer.

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One Response to “Texas Food Blog – Part 2 – Houston”

  1. Laura Caligiuri Says:

    Kitty, I love the roasted cream of pablano soup from Guadalajara. Try it some time. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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