The Great Food Spiel
Iím a big food personÖI like food a lot, you know? I mean, hey. Those of you who know me well know that I wrote restaurant reviews for the Cypress Creek Cougar Connection (my high school newspaper for those who donít know) during my senior yearÖand one my junior year, but that one barely counts. Granted, those reviews werenít my best work, but I enjoyed doing them. In fact, I loved doing them.
Anyway, there are a lot of survey-thingies that circulate every now and then on the e-mail circuit, and there are always certain questions that they ask. The first is ďWhat is your favorite foodĒ or some similar question, and the second is ďWhat is your favorite restaurant,Ē or some reasonable variation thereof. Iím tired of answering these questions, because they require a lot of typing on my part if I want to feel Iíve done them justice. Honestly, Iím tired of the surveys, but some strange masochistic part of me really enjoys them, so I continue filling them out and sending them to people like Lucas. But this missive, which I am saving to disk for future use, is an attempt to stop feeling the need to answer the two pesky food questions on any future surveys. (Note: my original plan was to send this to everyone on my email list...instead, I'm giving it to the world. Enjoy!) I plan to structure this a bit, dividing all food into various groups, mostly by ethnic origin (i.e., Italian, Greek, etc.), but not always. Within each group, I will state my favorites and my least favorites, as well as any standard dishes (if any) that I have for that group. At the end of each group, I will include a list of restaurants (most of which will be in Houston, TX) and brief (I promise) reviews of each. I will try to limit myself to extreme reviews; in other words, I will include the best and the worst, bypassing mediocrity whenever possible. Now, thenÖletís begin.
MY MOTHER'S FOOD
All I have to say is that my mother is quite possibly one of the greatest cooks in the world, even when she does overdo the chicken breast. None can receive higher praise in my mind. That is all.
The Italian food group is likely to be my most favorite of allÖit has everything you could wantÖcheese (which will be covered later), meat, starch, seafoodÖeverything. The Italians actually managed to create an eggplant dish that I like: eggplant parmesan. Itís a beautiful thing, and my mother (youíll be hearing about her a lot in this) makes it very well. There is also an Italian salad-thing that involves eggplant, Caprese, I think, that I really donít like muchÖit has eggplant. Blecchh. But the Italians do have pasta. Lasagna is a good thing, even the vegetable kind (although I have doubts that such is truly Italian). My standard dish for Italian food is Fettucine Alfredo; almost every Italian restaurant makes it, and it is a good gauge of how well they do things. Alfredo sauce is a creamy white sauce, rich and cheese-ladenÖlikely to clog arteries in a matter of seconds, but sooo good while it does so. Italian seafood is also a mustÖthey live on a peninsula in the Mediterranean; of course they do good fish.
As for restaurants: If you ever find yourself in Italy, go to as many ďPlate RestaurantsĒ as you can. These restaurants serve regional dishes as specialties, and if you buy the special dish at one such restaurant, you will also be able to get a hand-painted plate that commemorates your visit. Even if you think the souvenir plate is a cheesy idea, the food is positively divine, truly Italian indeed. In Houston, there are several good places to go. Napoliís, at Grant and Jones, is especially good. The dining area is a bit dark, but the food is wonderful. As an appetizer, I recommend the Mussels Marinara (shellfish in red sauceÖmolto buono!), and the Fettucine Alfredo (the FA here is the richest Iíve ever had) as a main course. Itís also the only place I know of in Houston that serves worthwhile Gnocchi (a thick potato pasta), which is well worth a visit. La Barmigiana, on F.M.1960, has very good food, although I donít know the menu as well as I would like. They use a traditional wood-burning oven, which lends a distinctive, authentic flavor to their dishes. Luigiís, on Jones Rd. (Note: they've moved, and my parents have told me the restaurant that took Luigi's place is not so good), is owned and operated by a genuinely Italian family, and Luigi himself is likely to greet you at the door. In my experience, the food there is very good, although I have heard declining reviews in recent years, and my last visit was more than two years ago.
Spaetzle. Bratwurst. Sauerkraut. Need I go on? My love for German food nearly parallels that I have for Italian. The difference between the two is plain; while both have a wide variety of flavors, Italian food generally has a more starchy and acidic flavor, and German dishes bear a sharper, more robust taste. The German noodle, Spaetzle, is a wonderful thing, especially when paired with a good roast. My mother does a wonderful job with this combination, though the Spaetzle is quite labor-intensive. Bratwurst and sharp, tangy brown mustard is a combination I will never get enough of, especially when real sauerkraut is thrown into the mix. While I donít know of any German restaurants in Houston, there are several in Fredericksburg, making the town worth at least a one-night stay. The best German restaurant I have visited in the States is, oddly enough, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Called La Bohemia, it is inside a small unassuming building, but has a wonderful atmosphere inside. There are many house specialties, including several duck dishes that are very good. If you call two days in advance, the chef, Adolf Blum (I think his name is Blum), will prepare any of a few larger dishes for you. The wine list involves many imported German wines, and more than a few German beers. Overall, this is one of the best restaurants I can think of. Its only drawback is the town in which it is located.
Now, these three regions donít really deserve to be lumped into one category, as there are subtleties that make each very unique, but there are many dishes that you can find versions of in any of these regions. Stuffed grape leaves are a favorite, as they are a wonderful finger-food that is perfect at any time of day. Like many of the foods in this category, grape leaves are typically drenched in olive oilÖvery very good, I say. I love olive oil. Also, olives by themselves are a common item in a Mid-Eastern spread. They have pits, usually, but they are beautifully salty. There are many good vegetable dishes here, including Tabouli, Cacik (ja-jick), and Couscous. Tabouli and Couscous are grain dishes; Tabouli is served cold, while Couscous is a warm dish, often one with raisins and pine nuts. Cacik is a yogurt, cucumber, and garlic mixture, used generally as a dip for oneís pide (pita bread). Kabobs are very common in these regions, most notably lamb kabobs. A kabob is a conglomeration of meat and vegetables (bell peppers and onions, most often) grilled on a long skewer. Dessert is also wonderful. Baklava is probably the best-known of all Mid-Eastern desserts, a pastry made of Filo dough (a paper-thin pastry dough), crushed pistachio, and honey. It is very sweet. Halva is a primarily hazelnut dessert that comes in many flavors. Halva has an odd sharpness behind its mellow sweetness, but I personally like it very much. My father loves it. In general, lamb, goatís cheese, various nuts, and olives characterize this type of food.
A Zorba The Greek is a very good Greek restaurant on Jones Rd in Houston. They offer a to go service as well as dine-in, and provided the baklava and grape leaves for my going-away party a few months ago. The Istanbul Cafť, somewhere near Rice Village, is a wonderful restaurant, though it has limited seating. Phonecia, a Lebanese restaurant across the street from my dorm hall here in Cape, is excellent, providing a large selection of kabobs and other dishes.
Most people will tell you that British food is terrible. I disagree. It is true that most traditional British fare is bland, but I say that is not always a bad thing. Granted, I believe my viewpoint may be skewed due to the fact that my first experience with fish and chips was in a London pub, but thatís ok. Itís still good. Youíll have to go to England to really believe me, I guess, as I donít know of any British restaurants in the States, but why should anyone have a problem with going to England? (With the exception of BJ, of course. Look at it this way, BJ: you can stop in London on your way to Dublin for some good Irish food...corned beef and colcannon! Woohoo! Howís that?) England, of course, is also good for tea.
Everything I ever ate in France was good. Even escargot. Pate is wonderful as well. If youíre really young, youíre likely to get a few odd looks from the locals if you order fish in a restaurant, but thatís OK. Itíll be worth it. Snails are chewy, but very good when dipped in lemon-butter sauce. Pate goes very well with crackers and cheese.
As an (unwilling) member of the Texas population, I know quite a few worthwhile "Mexican" restaurants. I really enjoy Mexican food, if for no other reason than the free tortilla chips you get when you go to a restaurant. Beef fajitas are my standard meal, as they are an excellent opportunity to mix and match whatever you want to eat...if you want beans, pile them on. If not, don't. But most restaurants have some incredible meals. El Palenque, in the shopping center at Louetta and 249, has some Fajitas Camarones (shrimp) that are absolutely incredible. El Palenque in general is great. Ninfa's is OK, but it's really at the low end of Tex-Mex...Del Pueblo, at Jones and Grant, is a great place for a large group of people to go. If you're ever in Acapulco, there are a number of spectacular seafood restaurants to choose from.
Again, I probably shouldnít lump all these together, but I figure nobody will shoot me over it. I donít like Chinese restaurants as a general rule. I love Chinese food, but buffets are no good at all. Even if theyíre good buffets. Iím just morally opposed to them. Japanese food is also very good. SUSHI IS GOD! I love sushi. I love chopsticks, I love soy sauce, I love wasabi. Sushi is god. I also like a lot of other Japanese foods, although Iím not a big fan of rice. I have to admit that I donít have enough experience with this genre to make big differences between Japanese and Vietnamese, for example, but I know I like all of it except for rice. And that weird freeze-dried chicken stuff Sarahís mom makes. I mean, I like that stuff, not that I donít. Saigon Palace is good, Matsuís is good (and has Super Lucky Kitty!), and Benihanaís is good.
As far as good American dining goes, there isnít much that hasnít been ripped off from another genre. BBQ, for example, is not good dining. It can, occasionally, be good food, but it does not make for good dining.
ďI am a great eater of beef; I believe that does harm to my wits.Ē (Sir Andrew, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare.)
Steak is a beautiful thing, as is all other red meat. Personally, I like nothing more than to curl up with a nice, nearly raw (but not cold) 20 oz slab of cow that has marinated in its own juices. That would be nice. Donít eat vegetables with large amounts of red meat. They will rot in your stomach. Literally. Thatís bad. So, just a nice big steak, hold the potato. Thank you.
Pork and other mammals are nice, too. My motherís friend Jeanieís husband Cal can make some incredible pork meals. My mom can, too, but my dad doesnít like pork, so she never does.
Chicken is boring. Itís possible to make really good chicken, but it doesnít happen often in my world. My mom does chicken breast a LOT. And it gets old FAST. So I have an aversion to chicken. But I like other birds.
OK, now youíre in for the big one. Those of you who know of my fetish for cheese may wish to skip this section, but who knows. You may learn something.
To begin with, I love cheese. I have never yet met a cheese I didnít like. Sharp, mild, yellow, white, hard, creamy, cowís, goatís, whatever.
Cheddar is probably the god of sharps. Iím sure you all know what cheddar is, so I wonít get into it. But I like cheddar. I am prone to eating large amounts of cheddar simply because. I binge on cheddar sometimes. Itís got a good texture, and a very nice flavor. Other sharps include Monterey Jack, which is a nice white soft cheese, and melts well. Itís nice on cheeseburgers, though I donít suggest eating too much of it by itself. It needs something to reduce the wild flavor. The only sharp that may actually rival Cheddar in popularity is Parmesan.
Sharp Sharps (AKA ďmoldyĒ):
These cheeses are my absolute favorites. They include Stilton, Bleu, and the like. These are often grainy in texture, easily crumbled (hence their popular use in salads), and infused with little veins of color. This color comes from mold. This mold is what provides the cheese with its incredible sharpness. These cheeses have highly distinctive flavors and are apt to overpower the tongue. Aside from use in salads, these are good appetizer cheeses if paired with crackers or other starches to temper their overwhelming natures. These cheeses also have very strong aromas.
These include many well-known cheeses, such as Mozzarella, Brie, and Provolone. Most of these are soft cheeses, and many are white. Mozzarella is best known for its use on pizzas, but is wonderful in salads and simple appetizers as well. Combining Mozzarella with tomato, basil, vinegar and olive oil creates a marvelous traditional Italian lunchtime meal. Muenster, my favorite cheese outside the moldies, is also quite mild, and has a pleasantly bland flavor. Actually, I have to admit that there is a cheese I don't like...I once ate some oddly mild Irish cheese, and it wasn't very good...felt like Parmesan, tasted like nothing I've ever tasted before, and was just generally not the best stuff in the world.
These include Gouda (how-da, not goo-da). Gouda has a very mild first impression, but there is a sharpness to it as well, making it difficult to classify. Smoked gouda is very good. Swiss, another beautiful cheese, is also in this category.
These include E-Z Cheeze, Kraft (and generic) singles, and Processed American Crap. These are NOT cheese. Even if they taste good (donít ever tell me if you think they do; I will scream at you for hours on end), they are NOT cheese. They are evil. Blecch.
Now we come to my favorite course of any meal. I have a HUGE affinity for anything chocolate. Cake, cookies, ice cream, whatever. If itís chocolate, I like it. Especially dark chocolate. I like white chocolate, but that technically isnít chocolate (itís a long drawn out story) in the truest sense of the word. As far as ice cream goes, I like (as I said) anything chocolate, be it Rocky Road, Double Fudge, or vanilla with syrup. Hot fudge is a beautiful thing. Vanilla by itself is quite likely one of my favorites as well. Now, thenÖ
Cobblers and Pies:
Blackberry cobbler is really nice, despite the problem one has with any blackberry dish: the little pit thingies that get stuck in your teeth. But those are OK, because it tastes good. Iím a huge fan of pecan pie, and I share my fatherís love for rhubarb pie and key lime pie. Go to the House of Pies (there are several in Houston; I prefer the one on Westheimer) for pie, because itís the single most wonderful place to go for them. My father, oddly enough, is the pie/cobbler maker in my house.
I wish I knew what itís called, but Iím convinced that my mother has the recipe for the best kind of cake on the face of the planet. Itís a yellow cake with chocolate chips and butterscotch and coconut, and itís incredibly moist and wonderful. Even people who hate coconut (my mother) have been known to drool over this cake. Itís a good thing, trust me. A lot of restaurants offer various kinds of cake, but most restaurant desserts arenít really the best thing, for some reason. I think desserts need to be made at home to be good.
Is beautiful. It isnít exactly cake, and it certainly isnít cheese, itís kinda both and neither at once, but whatever it is, itís good. No matter how you cut it. Strawberries, chocolate sauce, a sprig of mintÖput any or all over or near the cheesecake, and you have a good thing. Makes me happy.
Baklava is good. The Empress (fm 1960 at Champions Forest) restaurant has some really good desserts. I donít remember what Mary-Pat had before Prom, but I remember it had peanut buttery stuff and chocolate, and was sometimes cake and sometimes ice cream and sometimes neither, and it was really good, and presented beautifully. My dessert there was Lichi Fruit, called dragonís eggs or eyes or some such. Again, beautiful presentation and superb flavor. The Empress is indeed a wondrous restaurant. My mom has a lot of recipes for really good sauces to drizzle over ice cream or cake, and I think everyone should experience at least some of those things. Very good, they are.
I love milk. I drink it every day, because itís really, really good. I also like orange juice a lot. I enjoy tomato juice, but the only time I ever drink it is when Iím on an airplane. Iím odd that way, I guess.
Hot teas are absolutely beautiful. If youíve never heard me talk about Turkish tea, then itís clear youíve never spoken to me for more than maybe a half hour at a time. Turkish tea is maybe 95% caffeine, and if you drink it the way the Turks do, the other 115% is sugar. Can you say supersaturate? I like a lot of different hot teas, ranging from green to Earl Grey. I donít like Twinings Irish Breakfast tea (too harsh). Iced tea is a good thing as well, and itís what I always drink in restaurants. In fact, the iced tea is often a determining factor in the size of a waiterís tip. I donít mean that I stiff a waiter if the tea is bad; I mean I stiff the waiter if he doesnít know how to administer refills. All I ask is that you wait until Iím done to refill my glass. If it isnít empty, it doesnít need refilling; itís already full! But thatís a rant connected more to service than food, so Iíll save it for those who are interested (if any of you are).
Root Beer, Root Beer, Root Beer. And room-temp Dr. Pepper. And I like 7-up. Orange soda is a lot of fun, too. Enough fun, in fact, that I wrote another rant about just orange soda. Don't worry, it's brief. It even says so in the title.
I like winesÖred ones. And Tequila. I don't like being drunk. No, it doesnít make any sense. But thatís the way it is.
Tomato soup is really good; I like the salt. Campbellís is good for most any soup, but their Tomato is especially good. Cream of mushroom with cheddar melted into it is sublime, as is cream of broccoli (even if you donít like broccoli). Chicken and dumpling soup, the way my mother makes it, is a positively spectacular thing. Cafť Annieís once made a mussel soup that was really pale green and was one of the best soups I ever ate, but they werenít serving it the last time I was there. Of course, Cafť Annieís is one of those real high-class restaurants that rotates their menu a lot, so itís understandable. I just want the recipe for that soup.
Stews are not my favorite things in the worldÖI really never liked anything that turns beef grey. Beef should be red. So, stews, roasts, and the like are not exactly on my fave list.
Fast food is actually a very American thing, but it deserves it's own category...Most people think of hamburgers when they think of fast food, and that's not too far off the mark; fast food holds a monopoly on the hamburger market. McDonalds is likely the best known of the major chains, but is, in my humble opinion (humble...yeah...), one of the two worst. The worst, even more disgusting than McDonalds, is (and a lot of people are going to disagree with me here) Burger King. I like grease, and BK doesn't do grease. What's up with that? Anyway, I think Jack in the Box is THE best fast food burger joint this world has to offer, with Steak 'N Shake coming in a close second.
There are a few fast food non-burger chains, as well...most notable is Arby's. Arby's is a beautiful thing...the one in Willowbrook Mall in Houston is really great because the manager there, Elizabeth, is a wonderful woman. She's great...when I work regularly at Williams-Sonoma, she actually remembers me from day to day and has, on occasion, given me free stuff. I like that. Lion's Choice is an odd little Arby's knock-off, and has a whole lot of salt. Depending on my mood, that can be either good or bad; however, Lion's Choice is a bit dry any time. Taco Bell is certainly the best pseudo-Mexican fast food one can find, but that doesn't make it exceptionally good...they do have several things that I like, but I couldn't make a habit of eating there.
Sonic deserves a paragraph of its own...along with the other drive-up places, of course. I really love Sonic because it has really good tater tots and amazing drinks...fresh fruit slushes are the stuff of life. let me tell you. There is a place in Oklahoma City, called Coit's, that is even better than Sonic...Coit's serves real root beer in real frosty glass mugs. That's incredible.
To sum up the fast food: Steak 'N Shake good, White Castle bad.
(To be added to at a later date...for now, I say Huddle House and IHOP, with Huddle House being the better.)
My momís old meatloaf recipe was a beautiful thing. The thing is, she went and bought a grease-drip pan for meatloaf, and now she makes this dry, not good stuff. Itís technically the same recipe, but without the grease. Itís amazing what a difference that grease makes, you know?
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