Houston restaurant reviews, industry profiles and food culture

Small Bites

December 27, 2013

Caracol: A Photo Gallery

As related in My Table SideDish, I loved Caracol. I even made a return trip on Christmas Eve. The interior is almost as pretty as the food, so here are some shots of each from my two visits.

All photos by Phaedra Cook, ©2013 Houston Food Adventures.

Small Bites

December 20, 2013

Triniti Hits the Two Year Mark… and in a sense, so do I

Image courtesy of Studio Communications

Image courtesy of Studio Communications

Triniti Restaurant & Bar is about to hit its two-year anniversary.

It also marks two years since I wrote my first article for My Table SideDish. Triniti’s anniversary has been an easy benchmark for me to use to mark time with SideDish. None of us show any signs of quitting anytime soon. I really cannot thank My Table Editor and Publisher Teresa Byrne-Dodge and SideDish editor Taylor Byrne-Dodge enough for generally just allowing me to do my thing and write about what I believe is notable or important. And, of course, no one would read my articles at all if they didn’t include Chuck Cook’s beautiful photos.

Sean Dougherty, in a handsome picture at the top of my “One Year In” post, is now an Assistant Manager at the newly-opened Caracol. But the next Hildebrande restaurant, “Brande” is now going to be “FM903” and it won’t be open until next year. Things constantly change and that’s part of why I love writing about Houston’s food scene. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s exciting, and it makes me proud to be here. I appreciate knowing these people of Houston’s restaurants, bars and coffee shops whose hearts are tied into the concept of service by some twist of fate.

This Sunday, December 22nd, Triniti is celebrating with a multi-course dinner with wine and champagne pairings and each guest will receive a parting gift. Will it be one of pastry chef Samantha Mendoza’s baked creations? A goody bag of delicate chocolates? The cost is $200 per person, so it’s a pretty deep dive into the piggy bank, but I’ve never been disappointed by one of Triniti’s special dinners. Details of the menu are below. Call 713.527.9090 for reservations.

Congratulations to Chef Ryan Hildebrand and his staff!

Trinit Two Year Anniversary Dinner

Small Bites

February 23, 2013

Small Bites: Dessert Judging at the Houston World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Competition


The judges’ room for the dessert portion of the Houston World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Competition

“Small Bites” = Phaedra’s random musings and Food-As-Life stories

Yesterday, thanks to an opportunity that came through the Houston Press’ “Eating… Our Words” blog, I was able to participate as a judge for the Dessert Competition portion of the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Competition that is hosted in conjunction with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. It was along with about 35 other people, including Greg Morago, Food Editor of the Houston Chronicle; John DeMers, freelance writer and host of the Delicious Mischief radio show; and Eric Sandler, editor of Eater Houston.


Having some photo fun with Eater Houston’s Eric Sandler

I used to compete with the team that my former employer, Phoenix Exploration, would send to the Halliburton BBQ Competitions. I was always the one to make dessert, so I understand how challenging cooking in cast iron with no real oven can be. With the right recipe and understanding the limitations of what you have to work with, though, you can make some really great desserts.

We were given a few guidelines, including not doing anything that would influence the other judges at the table, such as making comments or obvious facial expressions. It’s a bit like playing poker.

Of the nine desserts I tried, only three really impressed me. A few were cloyingly sweet, unattractive or downright messy. (When you receive a dessert, the first thought should not be “Wow, that looks like a mess. What is it?”) There was an acceptable strawberry cake, but I couldn’t tell whether or not it came from a boxed mix. A promising-looking carrot cake had a tragic flaw: it was burned on the bottom.

Two of the three that I really liked knocked my socks off. One was a bread pudding with lardons and thin strips of bacon. Maybe I’m a sucker for falling for such an obvious ploy for my affection, but I don’t care. Call me easy. I loved this dessert and the pork went oh-so-well with the sweetened bread and toasted pecans.

The other dessert that blew me away were cream-filled, baked donuts with a light, bready, puffy shell. The surface was dusted with a cinnamon and sugar mix that gave them a light sweetness and additional punch of flavor.

The third dessert that I really liked scared me at first. I opened the Styrofoam box to reveal something that looked like a brownie that had been burned so badly that the bottom looked like charcoal. Thankfully, that “charcoal” was actually Oreo cookie mix, so the cake ended up being brownie on top and Oreo on the bottom. It went wonderfully well with the school lunch-sized carton of milk that the judging committee provided to each of us judges.

I appreciated how kindly we judges were treated. Greg and I were able to grab a drink and a snack in the adjacent room while we were waiting to enter the judging room. In there was a hunter’s stand.



We wondered what was inside.

It turned out to be what I look like in the mornings before my coffee.



Each judge received a certificate of appreciation, which will go into my scrapbook. The tables were preset with not only those little cartons of milk, but bottled water. There were plenty of disposable plates and utensils (although both Greg and I felt like we’d rather see biodegradable paper plates instead of guilt-inducing Styrofoam).

Experiences like these enable me to expand my own horizons as a writer. I am always grateful for these opportunities and still have a sense of wonder that anyone thinks that my opinion is worth something.

Restaurant Review,The Northwest Territories

June 27, 2012

Old World Flavors Shine Under Chef Alberto Baffoni at Mezzanotte


Picture 1 of 6

Beet, goat cheese and basil amuse bouche - a stunning starter

by Phaedra Cook; photos by Chuck Cook Photography

Gerry and Adriana Sarmiento left the information technology world to start an Italian restaurant. Gerry studied and took over the chef duties while Adriana handled the front of the house. Both became certified in wine.

Under their care, Mezzanotte Ristorante has established a fine reputation as one of the best restaurants in the Cypress area. It’s been so successful that they opened a Peruvian restauraunt, Piqueo, in the same shopping center. The two restaurants are connected by the kitchen, and on any given night, you can see Gerry walking around either one or the other. He stays in touch with the staff via a headset. No one ever said his IT background wouldn’t come handy!

Running two restaurants is hard work, so it was certainly welcome news when Alberto Baffoni came to work as the chef at Mezzanotte. Baffoni brings with him a long, mostly positive history of working at Italian restaurants. His runs at Simposio and Sappori were both well received, albeit the one at Sappori was depressingly short. “Where are you Chef Baffoni?” cried one commenter on Eater Houston.

The passing of the baton (actually, the tongs) from Gerry Sarmiento to Alberto Baffoni

Baffoni and Mezzanotte seem like a very good match. On this, Gerry commented “Alberto and I are happy campers: he does not have to worry about the business side of things and I don’t have to worry about the kitchen. Our match is close to perfect; our culinary visions are aligned. Whatever he does I like and whatever I suggest he executes flawlessly. We have a new line of home-made pastas and bi-weekly specials. The menu hasn’t changed tremendously but his contribution has been outstanding. I am really looking forward to the continuing evolution of our cuisine.”

I live about ten minutes from the restaurant and out here in the Northwest Territories, it can be a bit of a restaurant wasteland. Mezzanotte and its Peruvian sister, Piqueo, have been oases. I’m a proud neighbor when the inside-the-Loop media folk come out for an event out here in the boonies and discover that we really do have some great food out here.

Such was the case a few weeks ago when Mezzanotte hosted a media dinner to introduce Chef Baffoni and his cuisine. As my writing peers arrived, the evening started out great as martini glasses with lightly pickled beets, goat cheese and basil were passed out, along with a glass of Ruffino prosecco.

After the amuse bouche, the dinner was segregated into four phases: antipasto (starters), primi (first savory course, usually pasta or risotto), secondi (second savory course, usually meats) and dolce (dessert, as the word means “sweet” in Italian). Each phase had three small samples of something available as a full size appetizer or entrée on the menu.

Everywhere Chef Baffoni goes, his vitelo tonnato goes with him, and there’s a good reason why. It’s delicious. For those who have not had it before, it will sound bizarre, but you just have to try it. It’s thinly sliced, tender veal, topped with tuna that has been mixed in a mayonnaise sauce. Chef Baffoni’s version was garnished with basil, capers—which lent a nice touch of salt—and tomatoes. This dish was part of the antipasto course, along with tender, lightly breaded, skewered (in spiedino) calamari and Portobello périgourdine (interestingly, a French term that means “garnished with truffles or truffle sauce).

I was already very familiar with the Portobello appetizer, as it is usually one of the choices available on “Steak Night,” which is Thursdays. It’s a crispy, delightful treat and the rich sauce gives it a welcome complexity. The calamari was quite repectable, but it just didn’t get me excited like the other two.

The primi consisted of strozzapreti emiliana, gnocchi di patata al funghi bosco, and risotto al frutti di mari. Pasta names are perpetually amusing if you translate them. The Italians are very practical people and there is no romantic fluff that goes into naming pasta. Strozzapreti means “priest stranglers.” As you might guess, these are long, thick strings of pasta and, like much of the pasta at Mezzanotte, it’s made in-house.

I inhaled the gnocchi. OK, I didn’t really, but I ate them so fast I might as well have. If I hadn’t have been dining with companions I might have licked the sauce out of the dish, too, but I like being invited out occasionally. They were in a “forest mushroom” sauce. I’ve made gnocchi at home. It’s well worth the effort, but it takes a long time, and I always appreciate good gnocchi that I didn’t have to make myself.

The risotto made me rejoice. I’ve had a long, dry spell of “risotto” after “risotto” that was nothing more than a rice dish. To finally have real risotto made with Arborio rice was quite a treat.

Ossobuco, done well, is always special and Mezzanotte’s version here was no different. One night, I’m going to go back and get the full entrée. It was tender like pot roast, topped with gremolata and sitting on a bed of perfect polenta. The polenta was bathed in the herby and tart jus.

Rounding out the secondi was anatra al forno (“duck from the oven”) with raisins and costolette dagnello al pistachio (chop of lamb with pistachios). Both were very good and I would not be sad for either entrée to show up on my dinner plate. The osso bucco was still my favorite, though.

After all of those complex tastes, I was more than ready for something dolce. The basil sorbet that we were treated to hit the spot perfectly. It was simple, refreshing and classy. I left feeling like I’d just had a family meal… well, if I’d been adopted by an Italian family, that is.

Sometimes, media dinners have a “roll out the wagon” quality to them. I am fortunate that I’m already a regular at Mezzanotte, so I have the perspective to know there was nothing special going on at the media dinner. At least, nothing more than the “normal special” that goes on all the time.

Restaurateurs can take some notes from Gerry and Adriana on what it takes to build loyal clientele here in Houston. At Mezzanotte, it’s not just about the food. That’s just the gateway.

From the time I first started going there, the vivacious couple have always made it a point to greet and talk with everyone in my family, including my kids (who are mostly young adults now). They’re genuinely interested in their customers. Don’t be surprised if they call you by name after only a few visits.

People like Gerry and Adriana build fierce loyalty and that’s why, if you want to come here on a Saturday night, make reservations, because half of Cypress will be in there. After all, Mezzanotte is our neighborhood restaurant.


Houston Food Scene

December 11, 2011

Article Roundup for the Week of December 4th

It’s been an amazingly productive writing week and I feel great about it. The Houston Press graciously agreed to start considering articles from me for their “Eating Our Words” blog. I think this will allow me reach a wider audience. However, don’t think there won’t still be articles appearing here at Houston Food Adventures. Not everything I want to write about will be a good fit for the publication’s needs.

I wrote five articles this week. The four that have already published are listed here; look for the fifth one about a new, Northwest Houston establishment at “Eating Our Words” tomorrow morning.

5 Ridiculously Cute Kitchen Gifts

The Modular: Blowing Up Boundaries with Big Bones and Burgers

Adventure and Trust: Umami Dinner #3 at Kata Robata

Coffee and Cocktails at Double Trouble Are Double Delights

The “5 Gifts” article was totally different from what I normally write, so it was a good challenge. I made a rookie mistake in the Umami dinner article; I got a chef’s name wrong, so I’ve  learned that I can’t trust my ears; facts like that need to be written down or verbally spelled out. I think the Double Trouble article was the most fun for me to write. It’s gratifying both to see hardworking people make their dreams come true, and be able to tell the world that it’s a very worthwhile place to visit and enjoy.

As far as The Modular goes; well, I’m there at least one night a week, so obviously they’re doing something right.

Until next time, dear reader… have a wonderful week, and may your choices be adventurous.

Houston Food Scene,Restaurant Review,Southwestern Exposure,West Side Stories

November 14, 2011

Brunch of Champions: The Money Cat Brunch at Umai

by Phaedra Cook
Photos by Chuck Cook

The Money Cat Brunch at Umai
8400 Bellaire Boulevard  Houston, TX 77036
No reservations; waiting list available
9 am to 3 pm, Sundays only
Prices: $3 to $15 per item on the day visited

If you’ve kept up with the Houston food scene the last few years, you already know the names of the dream team behind The Money Cat Brunch at Umai: Ecky Prabanto (of Greenway Coffee & Tea and the forthcoming Blacksmith), David Buehrer (also of Greenway/Blacksmith), Justin Vann (Central Market), and Justin Yu (lately of the “Justin and Justin” dinners along with Vann). These young people are part of a terrific force that is relentlessly pushing Houston’s food culture forward.

A cryptic message and an address led me and my partner Chuck to Umai, a respected restaurant owned by Justin Yu’s father. Umai closed a few months ago (temporarily, according to the Houston Press). Today, however, it was open for a “friends and family” preview of The Money Cat Brunch.

Like many other Houston foodies, we have made the pilgrimage to Foreign & Domestic in Austin on multiple occasions. (Conversely, Ned Elliot of Foreign & Domestic recently made a pilgrimage to cook for Houstonians at one of the last Les Sauvages dinners.) The fare at The Money Cat brunch reminds me of the hearty, accessible, yet sophisticated fare at Foreign & Domestic, but with prominent Asian influences.

Money Cat with a lucky Cinnamon Twist and an Iced Mocha

If someone asked me what my idea of a perfect brunch is, I might point to Xuco Xicana‘s excellent offerings of orange-scented pancakes, hot wings, crisp tortilla chips, excellent salsa and fried eggs that one can order on top of anything.

The Money Cat’s brunch is like someone reached into my subconscious and found desires I would never dare speak aloud.

Truthfully, The Money Cat had me at the menu, brilliantly marking non-spicy items with a frowny face. I could already tell this would be my kind of place.

Any fantasy meal should start with a Greenway Coffee offering, and The Money Cat played along nicely. I was soon enjoying an iced mocha made with Way Back When chocolate milk as the base.

Moments later, the charismatic Justin Vann was working his magic on us as well, suggesting Austin-based Eastciders Gold Top Cider (there’s that Houston/Austin connection again). It had fermented, darker notes that made other hard ciders that I’ve had seem simplistic. While that was appealing, there was no way I was turning down the opportunity to try a Michelada made with a base crafted by Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge. (In 2009, Bobby won a Michelada throwdown that he hosted at Anvil. Regrettably, it was before I started going there and I missed out.)

Just as I was pondering the ludicrousness of me having three beverages concurrently at the table, plates started arriving. First, there was David’s Cinnamon Twist glazed with smoked panela sugar. Yes, that’s David as in David Buehrer, the Greenway Coffee guy. He used to work in a donut shop. Who knew?

Scallion Biscuits with Sriracha Honey Butter

Up next was a plate of two rather large scallion biscuits. Somehow, they managed to both be flaky and slightly sticky on the outside, with a basting of Sriracha honey and accompanied by butter infused by the same.


Maenamean Oxtail Soup

I’m not sure my subconscious, even in its best moments, could have come up with some of the items that we ordered. A case in point: falling-off-the-bone oxtail in an unctuous broth imbued with lime juice. Fresh bean spouts cut any trace of fattiness nicely. Pho, meet Tom Yum.

I found myself using my hands a great deal during this meal, at one point picking up oxtail bones from the broth to suck off every tender morsel of beef. It struck me that I was using the same approach that I use during an Indian meal, where using one’s hands and scooping up food with naan instead of utensils adds to the sensuous experience of eating.


Deep-Fried Butterfish

Tiny butterfish were deep fried whole and transformed into art. Served with seasoned coconut rice, half of a hard boiled egg and chili sauce, it was an inventive, hearty take on nasi lemak, a traditional Malaysian dish. While Chuck ate the whole darn thing, except the tail, I chose to use my hands to pull off delicate filets and dunk them into the chili sauce. I even ate the crunchy little fins.

With the mochas long gone, glasses of iced Yergacheffe were as refreshing and satisfying as any iced tea. In fact, Chuck mentioned that it would easily be a gateway coffee for iced tea drinkers that swore off the dark brew.

The one dish that told me this was real and not the diner’s version of Fantasy Football was the chickpea and eggplant stew, which fell flat for me. Even a hearty addition of harissa couldn’t save it. Perhaps it was just a matter of having to follow up all those other bold flavors. Those were some tough acts to follow for a comparatively mild dish.

I have found that there are some things that can make a meal transcendent that have nothing to do with the food. One of those things is having happy people around you. Our hosts were in their element and having an adventure. The joy in the air was almost palpable, and that made for the best spice of all.

I suggest you go sooner rather than later. If The Money Cat’s namesake bestows good fortune upon these hard working people, it will only be a few weeks before all the seats will be taken.

Food Culture,Houston Food Scene

April 4, 2011

Fundraising Auction for Linda Salinas

Thanks to all of the donors, volunteers and bidders for helping Linda! The final totals and bidder numbers are below.

Item #
Donor Retail Min. Bid Final Bid Bidder
Mystery Sommelier Package: Drink the contents of Justin Vann’s refrigerator. Who is he? Oh, only an Advanced Sommelier… but be warned. He’s really into fantastic beer right now!
Justin Vann

(NOT factoring in rarity!)

$75 $450 #32
A Cook’s Tour Package: A working dinner for you and a guest with the famous Houston Chronicle/2995 Magazine restaurant critic, Alison Cook! Blog about your experience later with a free year of Typepad Pro!
Alison Cook  @alisoncook 

Kymberlie McGuire (Typepad Pro) @kymberlie

Priceless $100 $750 2

Watch, Eat, Discuss: Up close and personal, enjoy a SPA translation of a graphic novel-with $200 worth of edibles available at Hugos, Prego or Backstreet Café to use either on the same date, or a different one.

Nick and Lori Hall 


Hugo’s/Backstreet Café/Prego via Tracey Vaught and Paula Murphy


$262 $100 $275 20
Ethical Eater: Enjoy a basket of all of your favorite local vendors, signed sealed and delivered from Urban Harvest.
Urban Harvest via Paula Murphy
$175 $50 $150 21
Rich in Coffee: Get on the fast track to Baristaville with 12 pounds of coffee and a 12-month coffee subscription (2 bags a month) from Fusion Beans!
Sean Marshall
$360 $50 $220 65
Art Appreciator: Love interior aesthetics? Bring your house, office or restaurant to life with a combination of ten SIGNED art books and a printed, 20″ x 30″ matted piece of original photography.
Catherine Couturier of Cleary Gallery

Chuck Cook Photography


$1000 $100 $360 60
Grow With Me: Made with love by Linda’s sister-in-law Julia (baby clothes and car seat cover… Julia will put your baby’s name on the carseat cover!!) as well as a personally designed hula-hoop by Houston Derby alumni Tilly Timebomb!—give a little girl a rock-a-billy, sparkly future!
Julia Salinas
(Linda’s sister-in-law)
of Quick Stitch 

and Tilly Sherwood of Tillahoops

$500 $25 $75 1
Taste the Latin Flavor: A one-of-a-kind dinner for you and five friends from Samba Grille with wine pairings!
Samba Grille via Nathan Ketchum
$750 $100 $600 55
Sharp Dressed Man: Catapult yourself into the fast lane with three hours of conceirge service/errand running, some new threads by Caravelli, and 10 hours of conference room time that includes conference rooms, telephones, white boards and new office furniture. The grand finale: make a business blog with TypePad Pro—brings new meaning to “at your service”!
Al’s Formal Wear via Brad Barber @hedrives 

Alex Feigelson @alexthedriver

Leslie Farnsworth of Twin Flames Properties

(conference room time)

Kymberlie McGuire (Typepad Pro) @kymberlie

$965 $100 $375 8
Derby Queen (or King): Kick ass and take names roller derby-style with season tickets provided by the Houston Roller Derby and a hand decorated hula hoop by Derby alumni Tilly Timebomb!
Houston Roller Derby 

(via Misty Moody)

and Tilly Sherwood of Tillahoops

$300 $50 $325 68
Master Mixologist: Learn about all the different spirits and cocktails like a pro with monthly cocktail classes at Anvil Bar and Refuge through April, 2012!
Zachary Pearson, Phaedra Cook 

and Chuck Cook

Winners of the Anvil Cocktail Enthusiasts Competition

$715 $100 $500 45

Texas Forever! A framed and matted photograph of Willie Nelson, signed by the photographer, accompanied by two tickets to the Texas Beer Festival and a six pack of legendary St. Arnold’s Brewery Divine Reserve #11 Beer.

Mark C. Austin Photography 

Clif Wigington

Nick and Lori Hall


$500 $50 $300 32
Might Be the Last Meal You’ll Ever Need: Four tickets to Chris Shepherd’s friends and family final dinner at Catalan. Additionally, read up on what you’d like to eat next with two cookbooks, including Dessert Circus signed by Jacques Torres.
Chris Shepherd, Catalan 

Dr. Ricky @drricky

$200 $50 $480 2
Coffee Lover’s Dream: All the accoutrements needed to brew coffee at home like the pros. Includes grinder, kettle, scales, AeroPress, and more! Win this at or above retail and get a class at Catalina Coffee to learn how to use all your new stuff!
Catalina Coffee 


$575 $100 $525 42
Cognac for a Crowd: Sip and share Cognac with a class and tasting for you and up to twenty-four guests provided by Cognac Ferrand, USA.
Cognac Ferrand USA 

via Hugo Chambon-Rothlisberger

$600 $100 $500 5
Sports Sensation: Watch the Houston Dynamos in action against England Revolution with two tickets, parking pass included. Afterwards celebrate victory with a trip to Pub Fiction, dinner at Cyclone Anaya’s and seats on the Washington Wave. Late night? Send your thoughts into the world wide web, with a professional, customizable blog!
Culturemap via Fayza A. Elmostehi 

– tickets

Pub Fiction

Washington Wave

Cyclone Anaya’s

(via Misty Moody!)

Kymberlie McGuire (Typepad Pro) @kymberlie

$370 $25 $160 4
Keepin’ It Classy: Enjoy an epic evening on the town! Two orchestra row tickets to the Houston Symphony’s Alexander Nevsky with a dinner for two provided by legendary steak house Vic and Anthony’sEXCLUDING alcohol, tax and gratuity. (There was a typo before — Our apologies to the winner and Vic & Anthony’s.)
Culturemap via Fayza A. Elmostehi 


Chef Carlos Rodriguez and Staci Chambers

Vic & Anthony’s—Houston

$160 $75 $345 56
Java Beach: $50 gift certificate to Judge Roy Bean’s Coffee Saloon in Galveston!
Alison Rabinovitz  of Judge Roy Bean’s Coffee $50 $10 $35 48
Calling All Beer Nerds: Drink to your hearts delight with three beer tubes from TAPS-House of Beer and a six-pack vertical tasting of Sierra Nevada Barleywine-two bottles from each year: 2003, 2004 and 2005.
Taps House of Beer 

Diane Adams


Priceless to 

beer nerds

$25 $200 20

Ladies Who Lunch: Nourish yourself for power shopping in Rice Village with dinner for six, valued at $450, provided by Benjy’s and a $100 gift certificate to trendy Langford Market

The Staff of Benji’s 

Langford Market

via Yana Maryanovsky

$550 $100 $475 55
Latin Roots: Discover authentic Mexican cuisine at Xuco Xicana, the latest concept from Jonathan Jones and John Deal.
Xuco Xicana via Jonathan Jones 


$100 $25 $175 69

Gin and Tea and Rum, Oh My! Be the first to try two bottles of new Waterloo #9 Lavender Gin—the first in Texas—as well as four signed bottles of Treaty Oak Rum and Grahams Texas Tea

Graham Barnes Distillery 

via David Smith

$400 $50 $275 20

If Only All Mistakes Could Be Erased Sometimes, we don’t always make the best decision. Fortunately, some things are fixable. Take advantage of this donation of $1000 worth of laser tattoo removal from Medispa Institute and make a clean start!

Medispa Institute via Mai Pham 


$1000 $50 $250 64

A Grand Time: Two GRAND PASSES to the Grand Wine & Food Affair. These get you and a guest into The Grand Tasting on April 29th, the Sienna Sip & Stroll & Shuttle on April 30 and the Bistro Brunch on May 1st. Now, that’s a Grand prize! (BREAKING NEWS: David and FBC just added 10 tickets to the Bartending Competiton worth $350!)

Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce via David Crowl $750 $100 $400 62




April 3, 2011

I’m Not Dead

As you might have noticed, this blog has lain fallow for a few months. I didn’t stop thinking about, eating or buying food, nor did I become destitute. (I’m very pleased about the latter, as I’ve been there and it’s no fun at all.)

A few months ago, I got the best job of my career (short of being in business for myself, which I loved, but it was no cakewalk). I now have bosses that appreciate me and talk me up at every social gathering. I’ve actually been offered more jobs and projects in the last three months (that I’ve had to turn down) than in the prior two years. It’s amazing what nice people and positive thoughts can bring into one’s life. Being valued is worth more than money; at least, it is to me. There are things that no dollar amount would make me do.

As the song goes, though, I work hard for the money and I am the service staff in my dual role as IT and Office Manager. Now that the company is out of the startup phase though, I feel like I have some time to spend on the blog again. There is so much I want to explore and write about! Now that I’m working in the Cypress/Spring/Northwest Houston area, I’m seeing a bunch of little places that I’d never heard of. I want to dig up what’s great and unique in that part of Houston.

Additionally, I’ll be starting a “Why I Love…” series that covers the familiar haunts that I find myself at over and over again. There are reasons why these joints are getting national attention, and I’d like to discuss that from a patron’s perspective. First up in the series will be “Why I Love Anvil Bar and Refuge”.

Before that, though, will be some unfinished business. I’ll discuss my repeat visit to Tuscany Italian Bakery. Regrettably, it’s not good news. I think it’s odd that so many places get an initial review when they first open and they’re “hot,” but there’s no follow-up to see if the place got better or worse after the inception period (and room for excuses) passes.

Additionally, I’ll be finishing and posting an article that’s been simmering since the big job change. Thank goodness my interviewee is a supremely kind, patient and understanding human being. It was an honor to spend a morning with him. He’s one of my favorite people in the world and I think the resulting article on customer service will have value to those working in the industry.

Houston Food Adventures should not just be a bunch of writing and photos about my experiences. Adventures should be shared, so I am envisioning some regular “group adventures.” Let me know if you’d like to help coordinate these, and I’m always open to suggestions on where to visit.

Thank you to everyone who’s told me how much they’ve missed the Houston Food Adventures blog, especially Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, who (nicely) called me on the carpet for neglecting it. Like with my new job, knowing that my work is appreciated is worth more than money.

Onward and upward!

Chocolate Bars,Product Reviews

December 10, 2010

Chocolate Notes: Dark Espresso Bars

I adore premium chocolate bars. I have a bit of chocolate every single day, and that makes me a pretty happy gal. There are so many premium brands on the market now, though, that it can get a bit overwhelming. Hopefully, I’ll be able to save you a few bucks or at least steer you in some new, exciting directions.
Everyone has preferences for chocolate. None of the tasters in our household are overly fond of very sweet chocolate, although one will eat just about anything you stick in front of her if you tell her there’s chocolate in it. I tend to like dark, but not overly bitter chocolates. I don’t want to feel like I’m eating a baking square. On the other hand, my husband likes his chocolate like he likes his women: simple and mean. I’m sorry, I meant mysterious and sophisticated. In general, our Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar days are behind us, so if you think that Special Dark is the best thing ever, consider trying some of these bars! I used to think that, too.
During a recent trip to Central Market, I encountered two different bars with chocolate AND espresso. What could be better? I brought them home and pit them against each other for my affections. Here are the contenders:

Newman's vs Vivani

Vivani 100% Organic Dark Chocolate with Espresso

Cocoa Content: 68%


A beauty of a bar, but looks
only count for so much.

It’s a shame that production of a bar isn’t worth more than flavor, because the technical aspects of the Vivani bar are excellent. The Vivani bar has excellent snap and a firm texture that turns quite silky and seductive when it hits the warmth of the tongue. It seems to evaporate, leaving behind bitter chocolate liquor notes. Once we got past the technical aspects, we started finding flaws in the flavor. There may be espresso in it, but two blind tasters did not notice that it had coffee at all. One taster described a “burnt” note. While the chocolate is of good quality, any noticeable espresso notes are either lacking or, if present, are the bitter notes that are not indicative of a quality ingredient. The bar starts out sweet and finishes bitter. Dark chocolate lovers will find this bar to be pretty good, but probably not the best they’ve ever had.

Newman’s Own Organics Espresso Dark Chocolate

Cocoa Content: 54%

Newman's Espresso Bar

The Newman's bar has the crunchy texture of ground coffee beans.

A bar that hovers around the 50% cocoa content mark is like someone trying too hard to please everyone. It’s risky. Milk chocolate lovers might find it too dark, and dark chocolate lovers could find it too puny. The Newman’s Own Espresso bar, however, succeeds in being an all-around people-pleaser. This bar is sweeter than the Vivani, but the crunchy espresso grounds not only provide texture, but an interesting depth, too.
The Newman’s Own bar was the clear taste test winner for us. If you like your chocolate and coffee together, give it a try.

Ratings: Dark Espresso Bars

Temper/Snap Mouthfeel/Melt Texture Flavor* Average Score
Vivani 7 8 5 4 5.6
Newman’s Own 5 5 8 7 6.4

*Flavor score is weighted twice due to its importance.

Chef Stories,Houston Food Scene

October 26, 2010

The Burger King of Houston:
Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill

by Phaedra Cook

Photos by Chuck Cook

A glorious bacon cheeseburger with a side of sweet potato fries

Picture 1 of 5

Ricky Craig, owner and operator of Hubcap Grill, is a very, very busy guy. Albert Nurick of the H-Town Chow Down blog recently referred to him as “the hardest working man in burgers,” and that is an apt description.

Ricky Craig Sitting For Once

See? He really is capable of sitting down occasionally.

Not only does Ricky run the original Hubcap Grill location downtown, which is open from 11 to 3 pm Monday through Saturday, but recently he also started manning a shiny, red, burger truck that resides at Liberty Station in the evenings. Sometimes, the truck stays there until the wee hours.

Ricky took time out of his busy schedule to actually sit down (a rare occurrence) and talk with me about the burger business, and what life is like after receiving accolades from Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook as making the best burgers in Texas. (Since this interview, Hubcap Grill also received the Houston Press “Best Cheeseburger of 2010” award for its Philly Cheesesteak Burger.)

Since Alison Cook’s review, what have things been like around here?

It’s been pretty crazy! We’ve had lines down the block. People have come here from different states—even other countries—to try my burgers! The truck has broken down twice. First, some employees clogged the truck’s drainage system by throwing paper towels in it, and then the engine blew. I had to have the truck towed to Liberty Station so we could keep serving people.

I’ve had some opportunities placed in front of me as well. People have offered to buy the business and others have talked with me about franchising. Some of it has been tempting, but I’d have to ensure that the quality stays high. I’m still thinking about things.

How did you get started in the restaurant industry?

My folks have been in the industry a long time, so I grew up in it. I started out as a waiter at age 15, and later I went to culinary school at San Jacinto College. I could have gone after a four-year degree, but after two years I was ready to get to start a business. I started Craiganale’s, a downtown deli shortly afterwards and ran it for a few years before I decided to sell it.

Ricky Craig with one of his burger creations

Ricky Craig with one of his burger creations

Why did you decide to sell a successful business?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t play games. The landlord saw that we were successful and decided to raise the rent. I wasn’t playing that. It would have seriously reduced our profit margin and I would have had to raise prices, so I decided it was best to sell it rather than go down that path.

Your meat patties have a perfect texture. How long did it take you to achieve that?

We tested that over and over again and it took a few weeks. There are variables that can be adjusted, like how the meat is ground, its composition and how firmly or loosely it is packed.

Hubcap Grill has been open for a few years now. Suddenly, Houston is seeing an upsurge in “gourmet” burgers. How do you feel about the newcomers?

After we opened, it did seem like suddenly several restaurants started having gourmet burgers that they didn’t have before. I’m in favor of places that are boosting the burger game in Houston, though. When we started, there really wasn’t much in the way of burgers out there that was as good as what we’re doing now. I hear The Burger Guys on the West end are doing some good stuff, so more power to them.

What restaurants do you enjoy eating at?

I am really enjoying Stella Sola. That is a classy place that is putting out some amazing food. Catalan always does a great job, too.

Mr. Craig, Ricky's Dad

On most days, the elder Mr. Craig mans the front counter. He's a lot of fun to talk with too, when he has time.

What is next for you?

I would LOVE to do a high-end burger restaurant with white linen tablecloths, wine pairings… the works! I think Houston would support the concept. We’re also getting ready to open a new location in the Heights on 19th Street.

One last question: both your mom and your dad have worked with you, first at Deli and now at Hubcap Grill. I know your dad often takes the truck to the commissary for inspection and he’s been working some late nights. What does having your family’s help mean to you?

The bottom line: without my mom and dad, there would be no Hubcap Grill. They mean everything to me.

Anything else?

Yes. Tell all the ladies that I am single and looking. There is no ring on this finger!

OK, Chef. I’ll let them know.