February 7, 2023

Tacos - Tacos in Houston - An Ann Nava Discovery

 Houston Chowhound member, Ann Nava, put together a list with links, recommendations from various sources for tacos in Houston. A pretty exhaustive list actually, and a job very well done. Thanks, Ann!

Links to Top Taco Lists in Houston (2022-2023)
Foursquare-15 Best Places -Tacos on Washington Avenue
Foursquare-15 Best Places -Tacos on Washington Avenue

February 6, 2023

Carnitas - A John Nechman Discovery

  Carnitas. Where one cooks down chunks of pork with their fat. The fat comes out, just like you’ve probably observed when frying bacon, and meat continues to fry in its own fat.

John found a place on Airline for carnitas, in that complex of flea markets just before West Mount Houston and writes: 

“. The best carnitas I’ve ever eaten were prepared by Mama Ninfa herself for my family and me when we were kids. I’ve been on the search for any that can compare ever since. On rare occasions, I found some fairly close—San Antonio’s Carnitas Lonja and Don Raul’s, Carnitas Qerétaro in El Paso, and in Laredo, Carnitas Uruapán comes to mind. But I haven’t found any others at that level in Houston, including at Ninfa’s (the secret must’ve died with Mama!). Diego’s Famous Carnitas on Veterans Memorial and Gerardo’s in the North End are pretty reliable.

“And then Saturday, we continued our trek to try the only taco spots on the Chronicle’s recent Top 25 Tacos in Houston list ( https://www.houstonchronicle.com/projects/2023/best-taco-spots-in-houston-area/ ), which let us to the busy Sunny Flea Market on Airline. I’ve often stopped here for the spectacular tacos at Taquería 4 Hermanos, but this time, we went in search of a place called Que Tacote (8705 Airline). And at this sweet little family-run stand, we found the best carnitas tacos I’ve had in Houston. Not as good as Mama Ninfa's carnitas, but for flavor and flair, these come the closest in this area.

“Look for the stand in about the midpoint of the market. It consists of one section that makes fresh churros, which are also excellent, and then the main attraction, which is all about the pork! The massive chunks of succulent pig are braised in lard and finally chopped, with huge portions stuffed into fresh tortillas. You can go pura carne, or add-in any of the skin and organ meats that you find to your liking. Whatever you do, make sure to ask for a hearty sprinkle of the fresh crackling chicharrón, and don’t forget the all important cebolla y cilantro, as well as some caramelized cebollas, too. And try all of the five amazing sauces, but beware—a few of them should come with a fire extinguisher!

“The only problem with this stand is that it’s only open on Saturday and Sunday when the market is open. It will be painful trying to overcome mid-week cravings for these amazing tacos, waiting for the weekend to arrive.“

January 30, 2023

Cold Weather Hot Pot - Happy Lamb on Westheimer

 (Note: several locations for Happy Lamb in Houston)

Cold Weather Hot Pot.

We sometimes forget how good hot soup can be during the short period of cold Houston days that we have. Many places to choose from. Today, a venture to the Happy Lamb Hot Pot on Westheimer. A bargain at $25 per person. The two of us had three meats, plus all the seafood options, plus the vegetables and noodles. We never got tackle the third meat choice (chicken) because we were so full. And we learned quickly that our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. So go gently through that line of seafood. Highly recommended.

Here is a good trick to remember. When you get the glass noodles, don't drop them into the broth right away. Allow the broth to develop its flavor profile after cooking the meat and vegetables fully. Then, use the slotted spoon to remove the "debris", that is, the chillies, and other dry ingredients that came in the broth. If you don't do this, the noodles will get tangled up with the chillies and be difficult to separate.

Today I had the pleasure to take a friend who had never experienced hot pot. She loved it. Hot Pot 101.

An Asian friend of mine once remarked that, growing up, the kids HATED when their parents planned for a hot pot get together as they knew they'd be stuck at a restaurant with the grown-ups for HOURS lol.

Here are some photos. The last two are from the Happy Lamb website.

January 29, 2023

Mexican Breakfast - Cucharita

Could this be the best chicken and vegetable soup in Houston? And the best mole tamal in Houston?
I’m beginning to think so. Yep. They are imho.
I had an opportunity today to pop in to the new Cucharita, on Fairview, for breakfast for the first time and because I am not big on eggs I defaulted to the caldo/soup and a mole tamal. Both were so good and I am already dreaming about coming back again for another tasting. The tamal was the bigger, CDMX style that I love. The “ambiente” here, is wonderful.
And it really did remind me of hanging out at a place in the Roma neighborhood of CDMX.
They have an extensive surtido/selection of breakfast breads, and pastries. You can skip the coffee in my opinion, because it is roasted dark (unless that is your thing).
But the soup and the tamal…Oh my.
I left with a big smile on my face.
A tip of the hat to Ana Beaven for a job well done.
If you go, please report back on the other breakfast offerings.

January 26, 2023

Gumbo in Houston - A Work in Progress


Gumbo recipes are like fingerprints. No two are exactly alike. But, “ no roux, no gumbo.” There has to be a roux.

My personal preference is for a dark roux. If you don’t get your roux dark enough, you’re missing out on some deep, toasted flavors. Shocking the trinity in the super hot roux starts the caramelization process.

Gumbo is translated from  West African words for okra (kingombo or quingombo). But I’ve noticed very little use of okra in the gumbos that I’ve been sampling.

Beginning in February of 2022, I began sampling gumbo at restaurants around town. Some were not great. Some were good enough. And some would warrant a return visit.

First off, the ones that I did not like.

Acme Oyster and Seafood. The first time I sampled it, there wasn't any seafood to speak of in it. Just a mediocre, lukewarm gumbo broth. The second time, pretty much the same experience. Not recommended.

Eugene's Gulf Coast Cuisine. The day I went the chicken in the gumbo had that warmed over flavor profile that comes from refrigerating chicken and bringing it out of the fridge the next or subsequent days. 

Eunice Restaurant. The chicken was so heavily smoky that this became a one note gumbo. Smoky chicken.

Goode Company Seafood. A thick, flour-y gumbo broth that was really unpleasant. See roux comments under "Flying Fish".

State Fare Kitchen on I-10. I sat at the bar and ordered the gumbo. The bartender said "let me bring you a sample first to taste as some people think it is too dark." Well, I LOVE a good gumbo where the roux has blackened sufficiently. It shows the chef has the necessary skills. In this case, it wasn't a dark roux. It was a burned roux. And I was so grateful that I got to do a taste test first. Big tip to the bartender that day.

Flying Fish on Durham. I really wanted to like the gumbo here because they are local to the Heights. When you make a roux, that hot oil breaks down the glutenin and gliadin, the two proteins that form the gluten web when liquid is added. So the flour loses its thickening ability as it develops for the nutty roux flavor we all love. Although the roux here was dark, the gumbo had this thick flour paste feel and taste to it that was very unpleasant. There was a nice amount of sausage and shrimp but I couldn't get past that flour paste consistency. Same problem that I had with Goode Company Seafood.

Alfreda's. I remember not liking this one bit. Can't remember if it was because it was really greasy (but not in a good way like at Viola and Agnes) or that the spicing was just unbalanced. I seem to remember thinking "clueless kitchen".

Joe's Deli on Winkler on the East Side. More like a gumbo porridge. Cheap sausage, with a texture more like Vienna sausages. Broken up bits of rice cooked down in the gumbo. 

Esther’s Cajun on N Shepherd. Piled high with meat and fixins’ but very little broth. It wasn’t a favorite. I took it home, added two cups of water to thin it out and create a broth. While I finished it completely, I can’t imagine going back for it again.

 Willie's Bar and Grill off of 290. Come here for the burgers and onion rings but not the gumbo. I have to qualify by saying that I finished the bowl. But they dump too much worcestershire sauce into it and that is all you taste. Was it a goof on one particular day? I don't know as I haven't gone back for a second test.

And now, on to some gumbos that I liked.

1929 Po-Boy Cajun Kitchen inthe Lyric Market food hall on Smith.. For me, this is about as good as it gets.

Viola and Agnes on NASA Road 1. Still my favorite. The chef is from Lake Charles. The gumbo is really rich, with a layer of spicy oil on top, and includes a crab claw and a chicken drumstick. This is a place I would take out of towners as I pretty much like everything on the menu.  (http://www.houstonfoodexplorers.com/2021/07/gumbo-viola-agnes-nasa-road-1-in-clear.html )

Christie’s Seafood on Westheimer.. For me, this is about as good as it gets. It is the style of gumbo I like best. Dark roux. Thinner broth. Lots of flavor. Shrimp added at the last moment so as not to cook down.

Gatlin’s Fins and Feathers on Crosstimbers. While their fried chicken was “good enough” but saltier than I like, I enjoyed their gumbo a lot. I would go back for the gumbo.

Bayou City Seafood on Richmond. I liked this gumbo a lot and it was one of the true bargains for the price. Big shrimp. Real seafood. I've been back three times now.

Zydeco Restaurant in downtown Houston. I ordered both a seafood gumbo and a chicken and sausage gumbo. The steam table looked really sad, but the gumbo. These were the simple but well prepared gumbos that I could eat every day. Actually, I had planned to just have a taste of each bowl and take the rest home. But spoonful followed spoonful and I burned through both bowls. And the jalapeño cornbread was tasty, too. Now, they had jars of Kary's Dark Roux for sale. I'm not sure if they make their own or just use the jar roux. 

Le Pam's House of Creole out on 1960. Very Louisiana. Very home cookin'. I liked the way the gumbo came together as it was ordered. Some roux and broth. Add some seafood. Heat it up. Tasty gumbo for sure. One thing that I suspect, though I'm not 100% sure...unlike every other gumbo I've tried, the Le Pam gumbo seemed to have a hint of Zatarain or Louisiana Foods crab boil liquid in it. 

7 Spice Cajun Seafood (right across the street from Le Pam's, and, I see that there is now one on Westheimer also). Funny that I did two places in one day. I suspect the gumbo at 7 Spice is more "chain restaurant", might have been where they just opened a jar of roux, etc. But you know, something about it, I kinda liked it just as much as Le Pam's. Go figure.

Grace's on Kirby had a decent gumbo that I would order again.

Lucille's. They feature a gumbo z'herbes, which I always thought was a meatless gumbo for Lent made with 9 kinds of greens. But theirs had meats in it and I've since learned that this is not out of the ordinary in the world of Louisiana gumbo. Online, I've seen a bunch of recipes for this type of gumbo that include ham hock or other types of meat. (the Leah Chase recipe has chorizo, sausage, brisket, etc. for example : https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/leah-chase-gumbo-z-herbes) It was a tasty gumbo.

Little Daddy's Gumbo Bar. In Galveston and also in League City. I've always liked their gumbo and enjoy getting a bowl when I am out that way.

Saigon House. The Vietnamese restaurant of chef Tony Nguyen, located out on 1960 (aka Cypress Creek Parkway). And a mile or so from Le Pam's and 7 Spice. A gumbo that I really enjoyed. Some comments from others indicate it may be a tad inconsistent so, fingers crossed, it will be delicious on the day that you visit. Here's a photo of their gumbo presentation.

Babin's Seafood Katy. I was torn on whether to give this a "favorite" listing or a "good enough" listing. It's part of the Landy's chain of restaurants. I'm pretty sure it is a jar roux. But it was a nice, dark roux. And the shrimp were succulent, though not as impressive as, say, Bayou City Seafood. In a pinch, I'd go back for the gumbo. 

Rainbow Lodge. I found the duck and andouille gumbo to be very tasty and I would order it again.

"Good Enough Gumbo" (Because sometime good enough is good enough)

Abe's Cajun Market in Clear Lake.  A salty gumbo which would normally be an instant deal breaker. But I really like this gumbo. Even with its saltiness, it has a nice amount of sausage and chicken and a pretty good flavor profile.

BB's. A very meh gumbo, but still a good enough one if one isn't obsessed with finding the best.

Brennan's. Again, a gumbo with no soul. Kind of bland. Kind of boring. I wouldn't order it again. But not bad, so I put it in this "good enough" column.

A friend said good things about the Jason's Deli gumbo (prepared at one location in their commissary). I tried it at two locations and found it tasty enough.

Crawfish Cafe in the Heights. And I think the original location is on Bellaire Blvd. Again, a perfectly acceptable gumbo. The place is rocking at night, due to the boiled crawfish or seafood that you order sauced to your particular tastes.

Crescent City Beignet on San Felipe. An "okay" gumbo with no soul to it.

Captain Benny's. A perfectly acceptable gumbo. 

Frank's Americana. It was a thicker gumbo than is my preference, but I liked the flavor. And the shrimp in it weren't over cooked.

Roux Pour. Various locations. A decent enough gumbo from a chain.

Joyce's. A perfectly acceptable gumbo.

Pier 6 in San Leon. Another "okay" gumbo. Smallish serving. Decent flavor. Included okra in the recipe. Included two oysters which was a plus. But they cooked the smallish shrimp in the gumbo instead of cooking them separately and adding to the hot broth just before serving. So the shrimp were tough and not very appealing.

House of Roux in Old Town Spring. Original Visit: "For me, this is about as good as it gets. I discovered that I like dark, thin roux broths, like what I had at Liuzza's by the Track in New Orleans. I like them more than the thicker, flour gravy rouxs. For me, House of Roux, along with Viola and Agnes, and Bayou City Seafood are my three favorite gumbos in the Houston area. 

Supreme Gumbo. It was a little  food truck on Southmore at Almeda. Now, it is a stand alone on Cavalcade. It can be an acceptable gumbo with a real Lousiana feel to it. Or it can be totally awful. Depending on the day. Caveat emptor.Update 2023: "We had some gumbo more recently that was “meh”. So caveat emptor. Was it just an "off" day? 

January 25, 2023

Puffy Crispy Tacos at Doña María on Navigation

 This Houston institution slipped by me. I’d never been. I knew that it was historically significant to the max. On previous attempts, it was always too crowded. “Next time”, I would say. But recently, having seen a photo of their puffy taco, I knew that it was a “must”.

Damn, that puffy taco plate was good. The rice and beans that accompanied it were great. As were the tacos. Crunchy. Not those softer, chewier, thick masa ones that SA is known for. A tad thicker than the ones at the (now closed) beloved Fiesta Loma Linda.

And, I saw that caldo de menudo is a daily feature. Not just on weekends.

This is a breakfast and lunch place. It closes at 2:00 pm.

Adán Medrano, culinary historian and author of two superb books on the cuisine of Mexicano cuisine in Texas, wrote the following for The Houston Press, part of articles he did as he explored Mexican restaurants on Navigation. Here is a link to the Houston Press article:

The Houston Press - Adán Medrano

Both of Adán's books are available at the River Oaks Bookstore and also online from Amazon (support local businesses as your first priority though)

He wrote:

"Doña María Mexican Café serves the type of breakfast tacos that are at the heart of traditional Mexican American home cooking. The cafe is one in a six-cluster of restaurants on Navigation that reveal the original, indigenous culinary traditions of Houston. 

Taco choices include scrambled eggs with either chorizo, potato, chicharrón (bits of pork skin), or with country sausage, all of them cooked to order, à la minute. A delicious option for any of the tacos is to add pinto beans cooked in the traditional way, mashed and pan-roasted with very little oil, if any. As for me, I’m hopelessly in love with the straightforward combination of scrambled eggs and pinto beans, just a little salt. Why gild the lily? 

The menu offers full breakfast plates like the familiar and well-executed huevos rancheros and eggs a la Mexicana with diced fresh jalapeño, but also the lesser known machacado con huevo, this last one truly a core tradition. Machacado is made with meat that has been salted and air-dried, a technique employed for centuries in Texas, salt being central to Native American cooking. It was first employed because it was necessary for food preservation, but today it’s the flavor appeal that keeps the technique a constant one. 

My dad and most of his generation dried venison and also beef. He sliced it as thin as paper, cut it into large sheets (sábanas) then salted and air-dried it. To make machacado from these sheets, they are pounded on a mortar, crushed into strands, like thin threads. “Machacar” means to crush. Then the strands are scrambled with eggs, sometimes adding a trio of diced green chile, onions and tomato. The breakfast machado plate is served with traditional mashed pinto beans, cubed potatoes, and a side of tortillas. It’s a favorite of the regulars at Doña María and if you’ve never tried it, go ahead and step into the welcoming world of Texas Mexican cooking. 
Anna Hernandez is the owner of Doña María Mexican Café, along with her husband Juan, and they feature recipes that are traditional in Mexican American families. 
Photo by Adán Medrano 
“It’s a corner of culture,” says Anna Hernandez, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Juan. To Anna and Juan, culture means hospitality, the welcoming context that all home cooking has in common, in every part of the world. Dr. Alston Thoms, Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M, explains that the Karankawa and Atakapa people who flourished in Houston for 2,000 years until the conquest were all groups of families. “The sense of family and community is decidedly indigenous,” he adds. At Doña María there’s a non-clubby family feeling to the small frame house that seats 50.

Doña María was founded in 1988 by María Piñeda (hence the restaurant name) and in 2005, Anna and Juan took over the business, keeping some of the recipes but replacing many with those of Anna’s family. Anna is from Houston and Juan is from Mercedes in the Rio Grande Valley, so their menu is 100 percent comida casera, home-cooking, of Texas Mexican American families.

Picadillo, ground beef with vegetables, potatoes, one of the iconic dishes of the Mexican food of Texas. 
Photo by Adán Medrano 

Picadillo and fideo are prime examples of this unique cuisine. Picadillo is ground beef stewed with onions, carrots, bell pepper, potatoes, and seasoned with a trinity of spices unique to Texas Mexican cooking, the combination of garlic, black pepper and cumin. Order that, and I’m back home, with mom and impish siblings.
Fideo is an iconic dish of Texas Mexican cooking, pan roasted vermicelli in a seasoned tomato broth. Doña María adds a slice of poached chicken breast. 
Photo by Adán Medrano 
The production secret for delivering such good-tasting picadillo without fail is the expert kitchen staff that Anna hires. The sous-chef is Ever Ochoa. She is skilled in making mole and other sauces, and she heads the cooking line. “Es puro sabor casero,” Ever says, the flavor is pure home-cooking.

Sous Chef, Ever Ochoa, prepares the mole, sauces and heads up the production line in the kitchen. 
Photo by Adán Medrano 

Fideo is another dish that is iconic in the Mexican food of Texas. Vermicelli pasta is first pan-roasted to acquire color, then boiled with tomato, onion and seasonings. Chef Ochoa adds a large slice of chicken breast, and it’s a full, scrumptious meal. Like the picadillo, fideo is so traditional that it’s an indelible taste memory of the East End community. 

No truly Texas Mexican dish is complete without flour tortillas, the wheat culinary creation born in the Texas and Mexico region that extends along a band 150 miles north and 150 miles south of the Rio Grande, once just a river to the indigenous peoples, now a geopolitical border. You know it’s an expert tortilla when it balloons magnificently on the comal, griddle. 

Griselda Delgado Lamas makes them daily at Doña María, mixing and kneading the dough before shaping small balls that she rolls out and cooks. She’ll make about 300 each day, and sometimes 500 for a big catering job. Griselda has been making the Doña María tortillas already for 10 years. She’s fast, making them in the San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley style, laying them on the griddle for a few seconds, then turning them over and watching them puff up, soft and lithesome. Simply delicious.

Traditional Texas Mexican tortillas puff up on the griddle. Master tortilla maker, Griselda Delgado Ochoa, flips them effortlessly, lightly. 
Photo by Adán Medrano 
Hours are from 7 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on weekdays and 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on weekends. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. On weekends, diners leisurely congregate in conversation outside the door, their names on a waiting list. The combination of hospitality and traditional Texas Mexican home-cooking is the formula for success.

The Marigold Cafe off of 290 - Burgers! - A John Nechman Discovery

 John writes: "Many thanks to my beautiful friend Belize Love (Raimey), who will one day again be preparing her incredible Belizean dishes for Houstonians if my wishes are granted. Raimey suggested I try sweet little The Marigold Cafe (7676 Hillmont), located within an office building that looks non-descript from the outside but is of a very unique design inside. The cafe is run by a wife/husband team, and the dishes feature a delightful Caribbean flair, from the spices used on the fries (frozen, but they are sensational with the spices coating them), the curry in several of the dishes, and offerings such as "Island Spice" pancakes and waffles made with cinnamon and nutmeg.

I went with an excellent bacon cheese burger, cooked fresh to order, and a heaping side of those wonderful spiced fries. The highlight of the meal was the green power smoothie, a potent blend of kale, spinach, mango, banana, pineapple, and ginger. I definitely felt invigorated after that one!
If you are up on the NW side of town, exit off 290 at Hollister, go south to Hillmont, then hang a left till you see this building. This hard-working, kind couple will make you glad you did. "

Fat Boy Pizza - From New Orleans, Now Houston - A John Nechman Discovery

John writes:

" A New Orleans-based pizza chain named after my own heart (or body), Fat Boy’s Pizza, just opened its first of what are expected to be many Texas outposts way out in Richmond (10445 W. Grand Parkway S.). We joined the throngs of (mostly) fat H-Towners scarfing down what are claimed to be the world’s biggest slices.
First things first: we’ve been to and love a San Antonio place called Big Lou’s that serves a 42” monster that dwarfs Fat Boy’s largest pie, a measly 30”. However, Fat Boy’s, whose motto is “Size Matters,” goes one further with the dreaded “2 Foot Challenge.” Eat a 2 foot slice in 7 minutes or less and receive a FB T-shirt and $20 gift card. Lipitor injections are not included, and if you manage to beat Joey Chestnut’s record of 39 seconds, you win $10K. Those who dare are regally introduced to the rest of the diners, a timer begins (with staff exuberantly shouting out how many minutes/seconds remain), and on cue booms a relentless, pounding onslaught of high-decibel rock--think every ACDC anthem you’ve ever heard, with Europe’s “The Final Countdown” filling the final minute, and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” for the epilogue. It’s actually kind of fun, and no one we saw came close to winning a coveted t-shirt/gift certificate, much less challenging Chestnut’s record.
We fought off the urges for fame and went instead with a plenty big 16” Fat Boy Supreme, featuring all that you’d usually find on a supreme pizza. It was excellent. A pizza sort of on the level of a Fuddrucker’s burger; i.e., a chain that serves a surprisingly delightful product that may not be the best, but it’s so good that better versions are sensational. The toppings are superb though the crust is a little on the dry side. We added some decent honey garlic wings to the order as well.
Also impressive are frozen daiquiris and a full bar. But bring plenty of $$$—this place is pricey! Our pizza was $27.00, and 6 tiny wings were $10.99. Throw on a couple daiquiris, and you’re well north of $50.00, even before a tip for the hard-working staff. "