Here's my dirty secret: I don't love queso. Or even like most versions with which I am presented. Does this make me a bad Texan? Maybe.
Don't get me wrong: I am definitely a disciple of the Church of Cheese. I just prefer my fromage (near or completely) melted, thick, and, if appropriate, stringy. Hence my adoration of soft, stinky cheeses like Epoisses.
For this reason, my appetizer of choice at Tex-Mex restaurants is queso flameado and that served at El Tiempo is lit. Actually, literally, because that's the point.
El Tiempo offers several varieties of queso flameado infused with various types of meats and vegetables. My go-to is the poblaqueso (white cheese laced mushrooms, poblano peppers, onions, and bacon).
When you order any type of queso flameado in-house, your server will artfully construct some delightful cheese roll-ups using your queso and piping hot corn tortillas. This set-up is most convenient for dipping them into the complimentary verde sauce and salsa.
At one point in my life I went on the record saying that America does dessert better than any other nation. I had to seriously rethink that claim the first time I tried knafe at a restaurant in Syria. My friend's aunt and uncle were hosting a "night before the wedding" dinner for all the guests and had designed an excellent set menu whose sweet finale was this terrific warm cheese pastry soaked in syrup.
Traditionally made with akawi cheese, which is similar to mozzarella in its ability to melt easily but with a less salty profile, knafe's mild floral sweetness is derived from the use of orange blossom water.
I ate my portion. And my husband's. And those of two other people at our table who were "too full" for dessert. Me Not Know What That Is.
One of my autumnal objectives is to learn to make knafe but until then I get my fix at A Sweet Factory, a wonderful Middle Eastern patisserie that also happens to make kick-ass baklava and mamoul.
Like many Houston businesses, 3 Brothers Bakery was hit hard by Harvey. Seeing the devastation the hurricane wrought on one of their locations was painful, especially knowing they had already had to rebuild several times due to damage from past storms.
I have covered 3 Brothers Bakery's delicious baked good developments for years. I regularly write positively about the Bakery for the simple reason that they consistently produce quality cookies, cakes, pies, and breads executed often in creative sophisticated fashion but always without pretension.
To say I have a "favorite" item on their menu is a lie, but on my birthday, I would like to spotlight the amazing and sometimes over-looked hamantaschen. Though traditionally made and served at Purim, 3 Brothers vends hamantaschen in various flavors (prune, apricot, lemon, cherry) year-round. Buttery, soft dough forms the base for the triangular pocket into which a generous dollop of sweet fruit nectar is ladled. A brief stint in the oven renders the cookie surface slightly crunchy, the interior warm and flaky, and the jam vibrant, warm, and comforting. Pair three or four with a cup of tea, turn off CNN, and count your blessings.
Close proximity to my studio apartment and Rice University led The Davenport to become my "Cheers" during graduate school. I spent many a post-seminar happy hour/birthday party there commiserating/celebrating while nursing one of their very strong martinis, of which there are more than 30 varieties (purists, get over yourselves).
Through careful and regular research, I soon identified those that I preferred over others and among them emerged a favorite: The Lady In Red.
What's in it? A Whole Lotta (and that's a technical term) Absolut Vodka, a generous dose of sweet vermouth, and a dash of cranberry juice. Full-bodied, a tad earthy, and timidly sweet.
All of the bartenders at The Davenport are top-notch, but I always check to see if my favorite (Alex) is on hand to pour my favorite drink.
Those that know me well can attest to the fact that I really like popcorn. Six out of seven nights a week I air-pop plain corn then dress it with different oils of my choice, and sometimes dried dill. Addiction or manifestation of my OCD? Probably a little bit of both.
Lest I bankrupt myself I try to limit my trips to The Popcorn Bar, a fabulous establishment owned and operated by Houston couple Kisha and Lorenzo Armstead that offers dozens upon dozens of classic (caramel, butter, kettle), sweet (chocolate peanut butter, lemon cake, heath toffee almond, banana pudding), and savory (salt and vinegar, pizza, fried pickle, jalapeno ranch) popcorn flavors.
There is something, however, about the coconut curry that has me seriously hooked. It is as if Willy Wonka invented a machine that changed red curry into popcorn form, which, while ostensibly dry and crunchy, also manages to evoke smooth sugary, spicy creaminess with appropriate notes of ginger, lemongrass, and turmeric.
I try to limit myself to one "junior" bag ($4.25; 6 cups). "Try" being the operative word.
You know you have lived in Houston a decent amount of time when 1) you have at least two hurricanes under your belt (Ike & Harvey) 2) you visited the very first location of a now very popular string of restaurants in its very early days.
With regards to #2, I'm referring to Local Foods, which now has outlets in Downtown, Tanglewood, Upper Kirby, and Rice Village. I remember popping into their debut site in Rice Village after working out one morning to pick up what I thought would be a 'light' lunch. This assumption was derived from the fact that this genius misread their light-up wall sign "Local Foods" as "Lo Cal Foods." Yes, I am just that with it.
On the menu that day, and to this day, as it is a crowd favorite, was the truffled egg salad, served as a sandwich on a pretzel bun. Obviously, I knew from the name that truffle oil was involved; what I didn't know was what a profound impact it would have on this all-too-familiar dish that is typically already rich given its egg yolk and mayonnaise components.
I know Gordon Ramsay has a good argument about the use of white truffle oil in cooking, but whatever the team at Local Foods is using is fine by me. Its addition provides the egg salad with an unctuous vegetal dimension that beautifully complements the fatty ova and salty, malty pretzel roll. Some tomato slices and mixed greens then intervene lest the savoriness get too cray-cray.
The sandwich is usually my favorite vehicle for enjoying the truffled egg salad, though on lazier days I get it by the pint and eat it with a spoon. Or Cool Ranch Doritos.
I have already gone on the record regarding my appreciation for the coconut cream cake at The Dessert Gallery.
Therefore I will not excessively expound on why their coconut cake is par excellence but just emphasize that its salient virtue, and what distinguishes it from other coconut cakes I have sampled, is that the cake proper, not just the icing, has a very strong coconut flavor. Although this feature seems like a no-brainer, many other bakeries use white or vanilla cake and rely on the frosting for the coconut punch.
While you're at The Dessert Gallery picking up your slice of coconut slice, please also take home a few of their Houston-themed cookies, the proceeds of which go to Hurricane Harvey Relief.
So, I have this THING about twins. My fascination found its origin in the fact that twins run on my father's side of the family (currently, we have 6 sets within 3 generations). I loved hearing stories about my uncles' special twin language and the antics my father and his twin got into during Catholic school.
I channeled this fascination (never fetish) as a former academic and continue to be drawn to narratives involving fraternal and identical sibling sets. Pepper Twins naturally piqued my interest when they opened as I assumed there was a great real-life twin story regarding the name. Well, not really. However, by the time I learned the owners are "just" brother and sister, I was already smitten, but for a far different reason.
Three words: Fish Loves Tofu.
This fine romance between silken tofu and tender, lightly battered white fish in a red chili sauce that boasts a tremendously sophisticated flavor profile. Each spoonful reveals alternate notes of pepper, sweetness, tang, sour, salt, and umami, which in culmination make for a comforting, highly addictive stew. Such broth is only improved upon via the presence of the supple piscine and bean curd proteins.
Yes, it's a love story - just say yes.
Given my obsession with all things edible, it's hardly shocking that my initial forays into the working world involved food service. My first official 'real job' was at an ice cream shop and my second was at Bob's Bagels, a now-defunct bagel bakery that at the time was the only place in central Pennsylvania (save chains like Bruegger's or Dunkin' Donuts) where you could get fresh bagels.
Bagel aficionados and/or those familiar with traditional New York-style bagels would have probably scoffed at Bob's versions, which were over-sized, chewy almost to a fault, and made of dough that too closely resembled regular bread. But they were hand-rolled (I know 'cause I rolled 'em), boiled appropriately, decorated with traditional toppings, and to me, most excellent. Especially the sesame ones.
I first became acquainted with what some refer to as the 'holeless bagel', the bialy, through Mimi Sheraton's terrific and well-researched monograph, The Bialy Eaters. A bialy is similar to a bagel in texture but is only baked (not boiled beforehand) and the inner depression serves as a lovely well for poppy seeds, onions, and/or garlic. You can thank the Third Reich for the fact that bialys have virtually disappeared from their country of origin thanks to the systematic murder of thousands of Jews (including bakers) from Bialystock, Poland, once the epicenter of bialy production. Fortunately, bialys did not go extinct as Jewish immigrants to New York reproduced their own versions from family recipes passed down through the generations. So, suck it, Nazis.
The Hot Bagel Shop makes a mean bialy liberally sprinkled with poppy seeds and toasted garlic. Eating one plain is pleasurable as you really appreciate the simplicity of the soft, yeasty dough contrasting with the piquant nuttiness of the seeds and garlic; however, halved, toasted, and coated with butter makes for a richer, borderline divine experience.
First, let me emphasize that I have fared much better than others these past seven days. Our house sustained extremely minor damage and we have the means to make repairs fairly quickly. I am blessed a thousand times over. Many, many others are not so lucky and their road to recovery will be longer and far more arduous.
September is my birth month and I had planned already to do a round-up of my favorite foods found in Houston in the form of a "baker's dozen." I am particularly fond of this measurement unit because baked goods are almost always involved in its application. Also, any sort of culinary lagniappe charms me.
In the aftermath of Harvey, calling attention to Houston's restaurants and their comestibles, even if through the selfish lens of my birthday, seems all the more important. So, here we go.
Note: Serving order not representative of preference. All are 'favorites.'