In the late nineties, I would go out at lunch time and sample the food at a different ethnic restaurant in Houston, return to the office, and write a brief review. At the end of the year, I used the office copier to put together a guide, to give as Christmas gifts to friends. The original Word document ended up floating around the web, picked up by many people in Houston, eventually finding a home at B4-U-Eat dot com, Houston's earliest restaurant guide, populated by personal reviews, predating Yelp. So many of these no longer exist. It's a document of Houston, circa late nineties. In addition, I made some remarks on various cuisines in my "Let's Talk About" section, as follows.
Mexican Food and Taquerias in Houston
All of the entries in the guide for Hispanic restaurants follow the same rule of alphabetization. They are listed by the first letter of the real name, ignoring the articles and other descriptive titles. For example, La Fonda Tipica Restaurante would be located under 'F' for Fonda. Taqueria Atotonilco would be located under 'A'. Restaurante Puerto Vallarta Ostioneria would be located under 'P'.
With a few exceptions, these are working class eateries, serving simple, typical, Mexican fast food, like you'd find in any city in Mexico. Whereas the typical Tex-Mex taco is a crispy fried tortilla, filled with lettuce, tomato, ground beef, the Mexican taco usually consists of two soft corn tortillas filled with one of several traditional meat fillings, onion, and cilantro. You'll note that sometimes I describe the food as Mexican, sometimes Tex-Mex, depending on my gut feelings. I think of Tex-Mex as being more heavy with the cumin and chile powder than traditional Mexican food.
In assessing the quality of a taqueria, you should be on the look out for better-than-average of any of the following:
- The tastiness of the hot sauce.
- The quality of the meat: freshness and flavor.
- The chips are called totopos in Mexico. The Aztecs called tortillas tlaxcalli, and the chips have evolved out of the name, tlaxcaltotopochtli which incorporates the word for thunder and tortilla, so I guess we could say the meaning implies "noisy tortilla.
Are they greasy? Over-fried? One thing I've noticed is that our corn here in the States fries up a lighter chip than I've seen in Mexico. Mexican tortillas tend to soak up the fat, due in part to the quality of the corn, possibly due to the use of lard (called manteca) instead of vegetable oil, or possibly due to a lower frying temperature.
- The lightness and delicacy of the rice and beans.
A typical taqueria will offer your choice of the following fillings for your taco:
Sesos: Cow brains.
Barbacoa: you'll see this translated as 'barbecue' but it is actually more akin to pot roast.
Carne asada: chopped beef ( res picado) similar to fajita meat, generally tough and chewy.
Pastor: a style of cooking (pastor = pastoral or country style) chunks of pork on a rotating spit. You'll see these as upright, vertical, roasters, usually with a pineapple and onion skewered on top. This is a style very typical of Mexico City.
Alambres: basically a shish kabob (alambre means wire). Sometimes a better cut of meat, sometimes not. Often served with grilled green onions on the side. Note (a la parilla usually means 'grilled' as in camarones a la parilla...grilled shrimp).
Pibil or Cochinita Pibil: usually shows up at better restaurants, This is a slow cooked pork roast, usually cooked with orange juice and garlic, very typical of the Yucatan.
Nopales: the nopal or prickly pear cactus, usually sauteed till tender, and a vegetarians best choice for tacos. Nopales are a little slimy, like okra, but not at all unpleasant.
Aguacate (avocado): When it is blended with lime, chiles, garlic, and onions, it becomes guacamole. The traditional Mexican avocado is small with a thick, black skin, and not as cloyingly sweet as our big old American green Haas avocados.
Most taquerias will serve up soups called caldos or sopas (note: 'soap' in Spanish is jabon, not 'sopa'). Many feature seafood (mariscos) or fish filet (pescado). While the fish is a fish, it's a pez; once it's caught it's pescado. If it comes from the sea, i.e., seafood, it's mariscos. Also on the menu, although usually just offered on the weekend are pozole, which is a chili flavored soup with pork meat and white hominy, and menudo, which is a chili flavored soup with pork or beef tripe.
One of the signs of a good restaurant is if the pozole is served Mexico City style with chopped cabbage, onions, and radishes on the side for adding to the soup.
In Houston, you'll usually find a good ol' Tex-Mex plate of enchiladas, usually cheese or beef, served with refried beans (frijoles refritos) and Mexican style rice (arroz a la).
A very filling sandwich is the Mexican torta, which, when done right, will be a toasted, fresh, bolillo (a French bread type dinner roll), smashed flat and grilled, spread with frijoles, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and meat of your choice, re: the taco fillings, or, milanesa, which is a thin scallopine of meat, breaded with cracker crumbs and deep fried ( a battered, fried dish is called 'empanizada', by the way...Milanesa, or Milano style, refers to the cracker or bread crumb breading). Delicious when all the ingredients are freshly prepared.
A burrito, I'm pretty sure, is a Californian invention. You find it in Mexico now, but I never remember seeing it on menus when I was growing up.. Basically it is a taco made with a soft, hot, flour tortilla (re: Taco Bell), rolled, sometimes deep fried but usually not. Burritos at taquerias can be big enough to be a meal in themselves.
A flauta is a corn tortilla, stuffed usually with chicken, rolled tight, and deep fried. Very greasy.
Carne guisada is a stew, usually chunks of beef stewed with potatoes in a chile gravy. It can be very delicately flavored, with a light gravy, or dark and heavy with a lot of chile powder.
Tinga is another kind of stew, usually very spicy, which may show up on a menu.
If you can handle hot food and you see something on the menu that has the word 'chipotle' or 'chipotlado/chipotlada' in its description, this is the smoked, dried, jalapeno pepper, which gives a wonderful but fiery flavor to everything it touches.
Be sure to try an 'agua'. You'll recognize limonada as our limeade. But you need to try an agua de tamarindo (tamarind) which is very tart and tangy, or an agua de jamaica (jamaica pronounced. hah-my'-kah, is the flower of a type of hibiscus, what the Jamaicans call sorrel, and what we know as the flavor in Celestial Seasoning's 'Red Zinger' tea).
There is a traditional seafood cocktail from the state of Veracruz called, "Vuelve a la Vida", which translates as 'return to life'. Various seafoods such as shrimp, octopus, oysters, etc. are served in a sauce made of ketchup or tomato sauce, orange juice, onions, cilantro, and chile peppers.
Quick Dictionary of Mexican Foods and Terms
Huaraches. An open fried masa stuffed with goodies. Huarache is a sandal.
Gorditas. A fat tortilla type masa (similar to an El Salvadoran pupusa), stuffed pita bread style and griddle fried.
Sopes or Zopes. Open flat tortilla fat fried masa topped with goodies, very similar to a chalupa ( chalupa would be a thin fried tortilla).
Quesadillas. Two flour tortillas stuffed with a white mozarella type cheese, griddle fried until the cheese melts.
Horchata. A delicious rice based drink flavored with sugar and cinnamon
Naan- a flat spongy bread, long, and oval, yeast based, fired up in a Tandoor oven.
Puri- a whole wheat dough rolled flat and fast fried to puff up. Usually served in threes with a yogurt dipping sauce.
Paratha- a flat bread like naan, but with a lot of butter blended in to the dough. As far as I can tell, Bhatura is the same.
Onion Kulcha- a naan which has been stuffed with sauteed onions.
Roti- the generic name, equivalent to our word, bread. Note: in Jamaican cuisine, roti is something completely different.
Quick Dictionary of Indian Foods and Terms
Tandoor- A large clay pot for barbecuing.
Idli- A spongy, moist, thick, flying saucer shaped steamed rice cake.
Sambar- A thin, vegetable broth, slightly sour and spicy, used as a dip with masala dosa or as a soup accompaniment.
Methi Vada- Donut shaped, fried, crispy rice cake.
Pakora- A batter made of bessan flour (ground chick peas), vegetables are dipped and then deep fried. Sometimes called Bhajia, for example, onion bhajias are thinly sliced onions, salted so that some of the water is drawn out, mixed with bessan and deep fried as little clumps.
Samosa- The triangular shaped, empanada like dough with a spicy potato or meat mixture inside.
Paneer- First you bring milk to a boil, then you add lemon juice, vinegar, alum, or some other acidic ingredient to separate the solids from the liquid. The solids are drained from the liquid portion and are then pressed into a soft cheese.
Rasam- Thin, spicy, tomato and tamarind soup.
Raita- Yogurt with onions and cucumbers.
Gulab jamun- Round fried sponge cake ball, dipped in rose flavored sweet syrup.
Pappadum- Crisp, lentil wafers, either baked or deep fried.
Mattar- Green peas.
Channa- Chick peas.
Keema- Ground meat.
Dosas or Dhosas are a Southern delicacy, originally from Madras but now found all over India. Think of them as the Indian crepe or enchilada. These are lentil flour based pancakes, fairly large, stuffed traditionally with a mashed potato and onion mixture flavored with mustard seeds and turmeric. The dosa is made by grinding very fine a mixture of urad dal and rice flour, adding water to the right consistency, and leaving the batter to ferment so that gas bubbles form. Served with sambar which is a thin spicy vegetarian broth or soup, hot tomato chutney, and mild coconut chutney.
Here are several types of Dosas which may show up on a menu.
Plain Dosa: Crepe made with fermented lentil flour.
Masala Dosa: Crepe stuffed with the potato onion mixture.
Rava Dosa: Crepe made of cream of wheat and rice flour.
Pesara Dosa: Crepe made with moong bean flour, onions, chilies, and cumin seeds.
Other Related Vegetarian Dishes
Masala Vada: Crisp deep fried lentil patties.
Methu Vada: Urad dal lentil patties deep fried.
Dahi Vada: Methu vada soaked in yogurt, ginger, and chilies.
Idli: Steamed rice cakes.
Uthappam: Thick pancake made with fermented lentil flour, onions, and chilies.
Upma: Thick cream of wheat type pancake cooked with butter, ginger, onions, chilies, and cashews.
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A collection of Latin American and Pakistani stores and restaurants.
Spicy Foods Grocery
Sheikh Chilli's Pakistani Restaurant
Mazatlan Seafood Restaurant
Chat 'n Paan Snacks
Azukar Salsa Nightclub
This is one of the better areas for Middle Eastern and Indo-Pakistani grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and video stores. Places worth checking out include:
Jerusalem Halal Meat Market
Good meat market and sandwich shop with kabob sandwiches. Good Islamic stuff for sale.
Sri Balaji Bhavan Restaurant
Great place to get southern India foods including excellent masala dosa.
Another great location for inexpensive all you can eat Indian buffet.
Specialty is Persian style chelo kabab with freshly made flat bread.
Asian American Food Market
One stop shopping for all your Indo-Pakistani groceries.
Cairo Palace Restaurant
Egyptian style restaurant and place to hang out with friends over coffee or tea.
Raja Indian Restaurant
Samosas, pakoras, thalis, and other fast food.
This is one the great concentrations of Chinese and Southeast Asian grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, and more. I would recommend starting off some Saturday morning at Bellaire and 59 and making your way up Bellaire, stopping off at the two Diho Markets (One is "L" shaped, the other is a long "C" shaped strip mall), continuing west on Bellaire, stopping off at the market center where Corporate meets Bellaire (Treasure Island is located here), and finishing up on the other side of the Beltway at Hong Kong City Mall. Places worth checking out include:
Vietnam Coast II for black pepper crabs and other delicacies.
Santong Snacks for regional dumplings and noodle soups.
Treasure Island for dim sum on the weekends.
There are several Korean grocery stores and a pair of Korean restaurants worth your investigation on Long Point.
Hyundai Department Store
8624 Long Point
Teapots, videos, weird Korean knick knacks, Jesus paintings.
Dong Yar Market
(Next door to Hyundai Department Store)
Fermented soy bean paste and hot pepper paste in giant plastic tubs.
Boiled royal fern.
Banana powder beverage.
Acorn barley tea.
Honey flavor twist snacks
Oriental Super Market (Recommended)
9501 Long Point
Piping hot Korean red bean pancakes shaped like fishes in kiosk outside. 3 for $1.00.
Udon noodle samples.
Seasoned fish and kimchi with descriptions in Korean and English.
Pumpkin gruel beverage powder.
Giant beverage boxes of peach juice, citron tea, carrot juice, and Chinese date juice.
Korean Garden Restaurant
(Next door to Oriental Super Market)
Well reviewed and recommended eatery for Korean foods. Also, down the road, Seoul Garden Restaurant with beautiful interior decoration ( waterwheel at entrance)
Big grocery store with Korean, Chinese, and standard grocery store fare.
Giant electronic kimchi pickling tanks.
Korean tatami spreads.
Exotic tea gift sets.
Korean deli, soup and sandwich shop.
The Cho Que Huong Center has the excellent soup restaurant, Pho Cong Ly and:
Cho Que Huong Supermarket
Hong Kong Restaurant
Thien An Sandwich Shop
Lu Quan Cafe
Nguyen Hue Restaurant
The Hoa Binh shopping center includes the Hoa Binh Vietnamese supermarket, one of the best in the downtown area and:Phnom Penh Tailor
Banh Me Ba Le Restaurant
My Phat Fashion
Pho Tau Bay
There are several other strip centers to the west on Smith with restaurants and specialty stores.
Several excellent grocery stores including Kim Hung and restaurants are concentrated right near the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Kim Hung Grocery Store
Very good Chinese grocery in a two story complex on St. Emanuel which includes eateries, liquor stores, clothing shops, and jewelry stores.
New My Canh II
Good choice for dim sum on Saturday mornings, and the starting place of Dorothy Huang's Chinatown tour through Leisure Learning.
The Lucky Inn Restaurant
A real mixture of Pakistani ( The Savoy strip center on Wilcrest...restaurant, grocery store, video store, and jeweler), Mexican taquerias, and one or two Chinese buffet style restaurants.
A gem of a Thai grocery store, Asia Market, caters to the Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian community. Laotian soups and weird stuff to snack on, on Saturdays. Located on Cavalcade between Airline and North Main.
An interesting mix of Pakistani halal style butcher/grocery stores, restaurants and an excellent Guatemalan restaurant ( one of the best in Houston ) called, Lo Nuestro. I've been told that the newly re-opened Koh I Noor Pakistani Restaurant is very good.
Timmy Chan's Chinese Restaurant
Maki Masjid Temple
Quality Sweets Chaat Restaurant
Middle East Halal Meat
Afrikiko Nigerian Restaurant
Top Flite Club
The Maru Ethiopian Grocery has unroasted coffee from various regions of Ethiopia, freshly made Injerra bread, teff flour, Bethany flat electric grills, Ethiopian clay coffee pots, and really fresh spices. You can buy the green coffee beans and roast them at home in your hot air pop corn popper (Wear-Ever Popcorn Pumper, available at second hand stores for about $5.00. Look for the ones which have ribs at the bottom, these will impart a spin to the beans to keep them from flying out. Use 2-3 tablespoons and roast for 7-15 minutes).
Gran Tangolandia is your one stop shop for music from all over South America, and especially Argentina. They also stock giant bags of Mate tea, many different brands.
The Russia General Store is one of the coolest places in town to check out. They have Russian souvenirs including medals and pins from the Communist era, samovars, Russian style dry salami, sunflower halvah which looks a lot like something you might step in accidentally but probably tastes terrific, Russian malt beverages, lots of candies, Russian videos, music, and newspapers.
Andros Foreign Foods is a Greek oriented sandwich shop and grocery specializing in Greek videos, wines, coffee pots, spices, sailor caps, halvah, and various frozen and fresh goodies.
Another big Chinese/Vietnamese venue. Includes:
Hong Kong Market
This place smells like a Hong Kong market. You can get ginseng, teas, herbal medicines, coconut graters, religious candles, all the cuts of meat for each critter you can think of (everything but the "oink" as they say). I noticed the packaged beef cuts say "Shoulder Road" instead of "Shoulder Roast". This was the forerunner of the new Hong Kong City Mall mega-complex on Bellaire.
Huong Viet Restaurant
Vietnamese Noodle Shop Restaurant
A little cluster of West Indian places.
You can get authentic Jamaican jerk chicken, Jamaican patties, roti, and curried goat here. Also, ginger beer, banana bread, jerk seasoning, and fried plantains.
Another West Indian restaurant which has not been tried by me but looks very enticing.
On both sides of the street, some interesting places such as the Sahara bakery, La Gran Sorpresa Restaurant, the World Food grocery store complex, Mi Pueblito Colombian Restaurant, and Dodo's Chicken.
The sign says "Oriental Foods" but this is Nippon Daido, Houston's Japanese grocery store. All manner of Japanese products, fresh flying fish roe, boiled lotus root, dried fish, fresh fish, chopsticks for beginners, sake, magazines, videos, this place has it all. Located in the same shopping center is a Japanese fast food cafe, and a Japanese travel agency.
Droubi's Bakery and Imports - a nice Lebanese store, making some of the most delicious Middle Eastern style flat breads in Houston, which also sells a variety of foods from the Middle East (including Israel) and Greece, excellent selection of olives and feta cheeses, and a terrific steam table style lunch counter.
This is another truly amazing by-way in Houston, full of discount perfumeries, sunglass stores, luggage stores, and more. One of the most interesting shops which you will find is on a side street. At 5615 Savoy Lane, you will find Paayal, an Indian store which stocks the wonderful stainless steel cookware and eating utensils, along with shelves and shelves of multi colored glass bracelets and other Indian curios. This is a great store.