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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Houston Food Review

So if you recall, when I wrote my last blog a ways back I was in Houston visiting my girlfriend Eden. I had a wonderful time, and it was very hard to say goodbye to her at the airport—she’s really quite incredible. Since I got back I’ve been completely absorbed in the stress of getting the reading of my new play put together, but, with that finished (it went pretty well I think), I can finally return my attention to the blog—and I’ll start with a Houston food review.

Houston is a great town in all sorts of ways, and I certainly had some really excellent food, though I suspect it would take months if not years to get to all the excellent places in town. The only place I had food from twice was The New York Coffee Shop (though all the regulars seem to just call it Eddy’s, after its boisterous, friendly owner). There just aren’t any real Jewish delis in Tucson (a fact which increasingly depresses me), so having the chance here was a real treat. My first taste of their food was a takeout Reuben, which really blew me away—I love Reubens when done right, but it’s an easy sandwich to be slapdash with. Here, the rye bread was soft but not soggy and tasted freshly baked (there’s a bakery attached to the restaurant), the cheese was nicely gooey and thankfully not too abundant (too much cheese can really ruin a Reuben in my opinion), the Russian dressing was tangy, the sauerkraut was crisp and potent, and the pastrami was perfectly juicy and full of all the complex, peppery flavor that only a real deli can get right. The second time we ate there, and I had some very good potato pancakes—well seasoned, crisped at the edges, and potato-ey in the best way—although these were the large square kind, fluffy in the middle, rather than the thin crisp latkes that I like best. I also had a great garlic bagel—very fresh, chewy but airy and light, well toasted and studded with garlic, and topped with house-made scallion cream cheese, it was a great reminder that even good bagel chains like Brugger’s can’t stand up to the real thing.

Over the two weeks, we had a wide variety of cuisines done quite well. The omnipresent Taqueria Arandas (their slogan is “There Is One Near You,”) was quite nice- I got a combo that included some amazingly tender, well-seasoned carne asada and a big pile of pleasantly sour grilled nopales (prickly pear cactus). I had my first beignet at Crescent City Beignets, as well as a quite refreshing frozen café au lait, though I missed out on what Eden tells me are some truly excellent sandwiches. I also didn’t sample the food options at the way-cool café/coffeeshop Brazil (though they looked tasty from the menu), but my cubano (done espresso shot-style, rather than with milk as I’d had before) and Eden's hot chai latte were both quite on the money, and it was nice to listen to the live music. While nothing exactly blew me away at middle-eastern restaurant Aladdin, everything was at least pretty good, my entrée snapper was very flaky and nicely seasoned with spices and tomatoes, and they do have a great concept going—they lay out a huge variety of options for you to choose from, and you pay for a certain number.

On Galveston (about 40 minutes by car from Houston), we enjoyed the beach, saw dolphins on a harbor tour, and took in the spectacular (if rather pricey) rainforest and aquarium glass pyramids of Moody Gardens [though be forewarned, the rainforest pyramid is undergoing some renovations, and many of the animals won’t be back until May of 2011). On the food front, we went to local Cajun seafood stalwart Benno’s, where I finally got to have a real po'boy, in this case loaded down with some very fresh fried shrimp and juicy, powerfully flavorful fried oysters—it was great to cross one more classic off the “Sandwiches That You Will Like” list.

The best meal we had, though, was back in Houston, at a wonderful place called Patrenella’s. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it’s to my mind the very definition of what a traditional Italian restaurant should be. Atmosphere-wise, it was pleasant to dine in, a little romantic, with just the details to make dining there feel like a special occasion, but without any of the stifling formality that can kill the experience—and reasonably priced as well (appetizers 7-12, pasta 10-19, entrees 16-22). The food, meanwhile, consisted of traditional dishes done exceedingly well, heavily featuring the herbs and vegetables grown in the large on-site garden.
We started with the appetizer special of the night—artichoke with butter and breadcrumbs. Now, at most places this dish is really sort of depressing—fibrous paddles of artichoke used mainly for shoveling down over-buttered, flat-tasting breadcrumbs. Here, though, it was a revelation—the breadcrumbs were perfectly seasoned with fresh herbs, the butter came in the form of a light, tangy sauce with plenty of garlic and lemon, and the artichoke itself was cooked perfectly, so that every bite was juicy and tender, with plenty of artichoke flavor, and the heart had taken on a perfect, almost custard-like consistency.

For our entrees, I ordered the Chicken Milanese, while Eden had the Spaghetti Pomodoro. Now, it is somewhat ironic that I would go to Houston, a city with a fairly strong southern food tradition, and have some of the best fried chicken of my life in an Italian restaurant, but that is in fact what happened. The dish consisted of a large chicken breast, hammered to perhaps index-finger thickness, coated (presumably after being dipped in egg) in breadcrumbs well seasoned with black pepper, and then quickly shallow fried. It was crunchy on the outside and almost unbelievably moist on the inside, and the fresh tomato and homemade mozzarella salad served on top as a relish was delicious and incredibly fresh-tasting, though in the absence of a sauce I would have liked more of the balsamic vinegar it was dressed in. As for Eden’s spaghetti, it was the perfect rejoinder to the skepticism I expressed in my last blog about this omnipresent variety of pasta. Here, the thick strands of pasta were flavorful and perfectly al dente, and the rest was a study in elegant simplicity: incredibly fresh, probably house-grown tomatoes, cooked with fresh seasonings until they became a thick, chunky sauce, with plenty of garlic and a handful of excellent cheese. What more could you possibly need?

Coming soon: A review of Tucson's only Bosnian restaurant, and my attempt to improve on a dissapointing sandwich from a local institution. Also, I will be fixing my profile tonight, so it will no longer say I'm 18 and will (hopefully) include a picture.

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1 comment:

  1. Maybe I actually do want to go to Texas! I had no clue about these delicious sounding restaurants in Houston.


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