Houston restaurant reviews, industry profiles and food culture

Restaurant Review,West Side Stories

October 24, 2010

Flor de Cuba’s Buffet: Cuban for the Masses

Quick Facts

Flor de Cuba
16233 Clay Road
Houston, TX 77084-5423
(281) 463-8611

Lunch buffet hours: 11 am to 2 pm

Price: $7.99 Monday – Thursday; $8.99 Friday

Thank you to @bitemehouston for recommending Flor de Cuba. I had no idea there was a Cuban restaurant that offered a lunchtime buffet, much less one in Northwest Houston. A few days later, I bounded off to try it out. I love authentic Cuban food. When I was a teenager, my mom and I were friends with a Cuban family that would sometimes invite lots of their friends over for a traditional meal. That was when I discovered how wonderful black beans are. Their recipe was seasoned but not spicy, and the mingled flavors were fantastic.

Flor de Cuba’s buffet, on the Friday we visited, was $8.99 (before tax and tip) and consisted of the following:

  • A basket of rolls
  • Black beans
  • White rice
  • Picadillo
  • Shrimp
  • Pigeon peas and rice
  • Roasted plantains
  • A salad bar with a basic iceberg mix
  • Chicken and vegetable soup with spaghetti noodles

If you speak “menu Spanish” and you don’t mind working at communicating a little bit, you’ll do just fine here. Our first waitress was very kind and tried hard to understand us. She got an “A” for effort. Towards the end of the meal, a younger, bilingual lady helped us.

The buffet was surprisingly small and had a limited selection. On the other hand, it’s only $8.99. I have paid $6.95 for a Cuban sandwich with no sides before. One thing that struck me as a little odd was that pigeon peas and rice were offered at the same time as black beans and rice. It reminded me of what financial talk show host Dave Ramsey tells people to serve for dinner to save money: “rice and beans, beans and rice.” Two legume and grain combos seem redundant on a buffet so small. I can’t recommend the uninteresting soup and didn’t bother with the run-of-the-mill salad.

A basket of rolls were brought to the table. It is possible they were baked at the restaurant, but they seemed a great deal like standard heat-and-eat pull apart rolls. They were basic, plain, white bread rolls, albeit pleasingly crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle.

dinner rolls at Flor de Cuba

On the good side, the black beans approached what I remembered from my teen years. These were full-flavored without being spicy, and I found a whole bay leaf in mine. Some people don’t like that, but I love finding whole spices in my food. I like seeing the evidence. It makes me feel like I am eating homestyle food.

The roasted plantain was perfect. These golden bites were tender and sweet, mostly from the caramelization. They rival those at Samba Grille, which I thought were outstanding for the same reasons.

plantains_flor_de_cuba

Deeply carmelized, ripe plantains were a high point of the meal

We ordered a delightful limonada, as well as a tamarind refresco. These alone were worth the trip, especially the limonada that had a creamy and cold topping that tasted like lime sherbet.

I was looking forward to some interesting picadillo, but that’s not what I got. Picadillo is traditionally given an extra kick of flavor and texture from the inclusion of green olives or raisins (sometimes both), and neither was present here. It was a low-rent version, and it came off like “Mom’s Desperation Ground Beef Recipe.” To make sure I wasn’t misjudging it, I made some at home from a traditional recipe and it was much more interesting. If you don’t like the idea of raisins in your meat, try @bitchincamero’s version.

As far as the lunch buffet goes, I hope they will consider turning up the volume on the flavors. Your personal taste will determine whether or not you like it. If you don’t like aggressively seasoned foods, you’ll probably love it. For me, the buffet at Flor de Cuba just wasn’t interesting enough for me to want to have it again.

However, I’m not done with this restaurant yet. I want to order off the menu next time to see if I’m happier with the results. They have an extremely promising breakfast menu, with items like Huevos Guajiros, or “Farmer Eggs” with steak, green plantains and bread, and they do roasted pig on the weekends. I also suspect something will be going home with me from the extensive and beautiful dessert case.

Flor de Cuba on Urbanspoon

Chef Stories,Food Culture

October 1, 2010

Dessert Xanadu: The Creations of Plinio Sandalio

by Phaedra Cook
Photos by Chuck Cook (@bitspitter). Gallery: http://www.flickr.com/bitspitter.

Chicken and Waffles. It's chicken ice cream. Don't freak out until you try it.

Picture 1 of 11

The Chef

Plinio the Dude

This unassuming-looking guy is one of the top pastry chefs in the country.

Chef Plinio Sandalio is a study in contrasts. In person, this young gentleman is quiet, polite and reserved. Once he’s known you for a while, he might open up a bit—if he likes you (or if he’s indulged in a few of the Red Bull “bombs” that he openly adores). A stranger would not know that Plinio, frequently garbed in a hoodie and T-shirt, is not just a typical hipster that frequents well-known bars.

On Twitter, as @psandalio, he was outspoken about Houston’s conservative restaurant scene and passionate about music, even popular hits from the 80s that are technically before his time.  Sadly, a few weeks ago he deleted his Twitter account. In a way, it had been the best way to know his thoughts on food, chefs, music, drinks and the restaurant industry.

After working at prestigious restaurants that included Noe and Soma, Chef Sandalio became the pastry chef at Scott Tycer’s Textile, and for a time was responsible not only for that location, but Tycer’s Gravitas as well. Textile was sufficiently upper-scale to retain someone of Chef Sandalio’s caliber, but the small space, high price point and conservative atmosphere may have been a barrier that prevented him from reaching a wider audience.

Textile closed in June 2010, freeing Plinio to pursue an opportunity in Austin with Chef David Bull. After hosting two wildly successful dessert tastings, he moved to Austin earlier this month.

The Desserts

The first time I had the opportunity to try one of Plinio’s creations was on Thanksgiving Day, 2009. Through Twitter, I caught an announcement that he was making buttermilk pecan pies as a fundraiser for his MS150 team, “Liverstrong.” I jumped at the opportunity to try something from this young legend, although the combination of buttermilk and pecan sounded a bit odd to me.

The buttermilk pecan pie was not the most delicious dessert I’ve ever had, but it was quite good. The sweetness was well-balanced, and the toasted pecans contrasted nicely with the consistency of the buttermilk filling. If a pie could talk, this one would speak of family reunions and comfort.

Breakfast for Dessert

Plinio's "Breakfast for Dessert" creation is my all-time favorite

The second time I tried Plinio’s desserts was breathtaking. The offerings this time were mini-desserts for another MS 150 fundraiser. Some were the diameter of a quarter; others were a little larger. For a reasonable donation, you could pick what you wanted. All of the delectable mini-treats were packed with flavor and melted in your mouth. The one I remember the most was like the most ethereal sand tart you have ever imagined.

When I heard that Plinio was doing 10-course dessert tastings at Textile, it sounded like every kid’s ultimate fantasy: a dinner made entirely of desserts. My inner child rejoiced. I made a reservation for my family of five. Regrettably, the person who accepted the reservation failed to inform Plinio that we were coming. Plinio came to our table and explained that since he had no warning that he would only be able to pull together four desserts. The balance of the courses would be made up from Textile’s prix fixe menu. I felt terrible about the unexpected burden that had been placed on Plinio’s shoulders and readily agreed.

As it turned out, he pulled together not four, but six creations. It all worked out for the best. We had an opportunity to sample not only Plinio’s courses, but those of Chef Ryan Hildebrandt as well.

Since it didn’t work out as planned, I was determined to try the dessert tasting again. We returned to Textile in early June of 2010, before we knew it was destined to close. We probably had one of the last dessert tastings offered at that location.

On our first visit, one of the customers complained about Chuck’s flash photography, so we had to turn it off before the desserts really even got started. The second time around was totally different. Chuck was able to go into the kitchen and take photos as Plinio worked on his desserts. Catching the master in action was a wonderful opportunity.

Walking into Plinio’s world through his food feels like strolling into Xanadu—and you can either use the Coleridge reference or the rollerskating 80s movie reference. I was 13 when that movie came out, and believe me, that 13-year-old girl loves Mr. Sandalio’s work. Chef Sandalio’s desserts speak of passion, strong opinions and rare creative genius.

Corn N Oil dessert

Chef Sandalio's take on the cocktail "Corn N Oil": delicate pastry with falernum inside

My favorite creation is a fun riff on breakfast, where almond cake topped with a pool of egg cream mimics the classic “egg in a basket.” Candied bacon bits and jalapeno merrily dance alongside. When you cut into the almond cake, the cream runs like a real egg. It is absolutely delightful to watch.

Plinio has also been a bartender at Anvil, and started creating dessert concepts based on cocktails. For his take on a Negroni, he made Campari “pop rocks,” which were as bitter as they were sweet. While this was impressive, his take on Corn N’ Oil was completely unforgettable with its tender pastry shell and liquid filling flavored with falernum.

Moving On

It’s Houston’s loss when Plinio leaves for Austin. I’m sure it will be an adventure, a growth opportunity and a good career move for him. I’ll always hope that he finds his way back here to Houston. I believe that, in time, Houston’s burgeoning food community will be able to support and appreciate this young wonder in the manner he deserves.  I will fondly remember the fantasies he put on plates while he was here in Houston, and be grateful to be one of the few people in the world who had a chance to try them.

Epilogue

There was no way I was not going to go to one of the two dessert dinners Plinio hosted before preparing to leave Houston.

If you can judge the quality of an individual by the people he surrounds himself with, he proved again he’s simply one of the best. The place was full of friends; fellow pastry chefs Rebecca Masson and Jody Stevens (of Jodycakes fame); Matt Tanner, Mindy Kucan and Yao Lu of Anvil; and Claire Sprouse, the award-winning bartendress from Beaver’s. The friends brought enthusiasm and joy into the room. Textile had a tendency to be restrained and stilted, but this felt more like a big party hosted for friends and family.

At one point, Plinio shuffled out of the kitchen and a wild round of applause ensued. He seemed a little taken aback and, in typical fashion, kept it short and sweet. “Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoy what we did tonight.” Then he went back to the kitchen.

Yes, Plinio. We did enjoy it. See you again soon, I hope.

Plinio Sandalio and Rebecca Mason

Chef Sandalio, and that's... uh.. that's accomplished pastry chef Rebecca Masson with the Fists of Rock

Restaurant Review,The Woodlands

September 18, 2010

Happy Hour at Jasper’s

Our Adventure in The Woodlands Continues…

After having some great food at 1252 Tapas Bar a few weeks ago, we wandered over to Jasper’s across the street. I had noticed their nice bar setting on a previous visit and wanted to see what the scene there was like.

We were happy to find a respectable and reasonable $5 bar menu with upper-scale, fusion-inspired snacks and drinks. We treated ourselves to the Bourbon Pulled Pork Sliders and the Prime Rib Carne Guisada Flautas. I ordered “The Dirty Blue” to drink, and Chuck ordered an “Orange Dream.”

I’d love to say that the food was as good as the names sound, but it fell a little short. The pork sliders were respectable and the cilantro lime pickle slaw was crunchy and fresh. But the pork wasn’t particularly saucy and I didn’t pick up any significant bourbon flavor.

Food and drinks from Jasper's Happy Hour

From left to right: The Dirty Blue, Bourbon Pork Sliders, Carne Guisada Flautas and an Orange Dream

The flautas had a similar issue—they were good, but had none of the homey sass of real carne guisada (although the accompanying slaw—this time a jicama version—was once again crunchy and pleasing.)

The drinks, on the other hand, were spot-on. The Dirty Blue was a dirty martini modernized a bit with the inclusion of two salty and pungent blue cheese-stuffed olives. I hate it when I get a green olive that is supposedly stuffed with something that can’t stand up for itself. Not the case here; the blue cheese was present and accounted for. I love dirty martinis that don’t hold back on the olive juice, and this didn’t. It cut the astringent vodka nicely.

The Orange Dream, a combination of all things orange—vodka, liqueur, and juice—was lightened and softened with a bit of whipped cream. It was pleasantly sweet without being cloying.

So, while the food needed a little more kick to live up to the names, each dish was still a tremendous value for $5. I mean, can one even get a McDonald’s Value Meal for $5 these days?

Jasper’s Happy Hour times are the most generous I’ve ever seen; from opening until 7 pm Monday through Saturday and all day on Sunday. People who want to eat nice food at reasonable prices, couples on a budget date (or who aren’t real hungry) and folks in a hurry will all be pleased with Jasper’s offerings and wonderful bar service.

My recommendation, ultimately, is that to get the full Jasper’s experience, you really need to have a full lunch or dinner there. The previous time we went there to eat, they blew my socks off with their ribs and the appetizers on the dinner menu. I could not help but stuff myself. I walked out like a happy little piggy, and so I encourage you to blow some cash here for a real, quality meal.

Jasper's on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Review,West Side Stories

September 8, 2010

West Side Stories: The New Burger Guys In Town

by Phaedra Cook. Photos by Chuck Cook

Quick Facts

The Burger Guys
12225 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX (near Kirkwood)
Grand Opening: September 9, 2010
Hours: 10:30 am to 8:30 pm

*****

The onion strings at The Burger Guys

The strangely-compelling onion strings at The Burger Guys

Last night, Chuck and I had the opportunity to attend the “soft opening” for a new burger joint on Houston’s West side. The inside has a pop art feel, with 1950’s diner curves and dark purple walls.

Behind the counter were two gentlemen who are clearly driven to make their stamp on the gourmet burger market. It’s impossible to meet co-owner/chef Jake Mazzuand and sous chef Brandon Fisch and not feel the excitement and passion for this new endeavor. (Co-owner and chef Steve Marques was not present during my visit.)

There’s a strong emphasis on doing things “right” which is evident in everything from the drinks to the ice cream. The soda fountains are not typical. They boast old-fashioned drinks, the labels of which proudly state “made with Imperial Sugar.” Root beer, Dublin Dr. Pepper, lemonade and my childhood favorite, Big Red, were all on-tap. There is something about drinking a soda made with real sugar that makes me feel nostalgic and less guilty about it. As far as ice creams go, don’t miss the phenomenal Captain Crunch shake, as well as whatever over-the-top ice cream concoction they have for the day. Last night was basil and vanilla wafer, and the basil merrily reminded me that Houston’s summer is not quite over yet.

The Sydney burger at The Burger Guys

The Sydney burger at The Burger Guys with golden beets and a local egg

The group I was with was first treated to “onion strings” which were sprinkled with sea salt and served with a blue cheese sauce. I found them a tad greasy, but remarkably addictive. I finished a small platter of them all by myself. The fries are more substantial but no less righteous, served the Belgian way with a choice of seven aiolis, which includes tarragon caper, Tabasco mash, cilantro blue cheese and Sriracha. (The Burger Guys plan to shake up their aioli selection from time to time, so these are subject to change.)

Then, there are the burgers. I am sure you can order a regular burger or cheeseburger if you wish, but with the flavor combinations these guys have put together, I don’t know why you would. My favorite was the Sydney burger. This creative concoction is topped with beets, pineapple and a fried egg. Now, that might sound bizarre, but you’re just going to have to trust that it works. The sweet tang of the pineapple and the beets play very well with the meat, which warms them. Then, the crowning glory of the soft egg yolk cascades down to sauce it all. It’s a delightful mess that had me using my brioche bun remnant to swipe the spilled yolk from the platter.

One can request a fried egg—chicken or duck—on any burger here. The Burger Guys are sourcing these locally from Hatterman Farms, and top-notch cheese, such as Redneck Cheddar, comes from Houston Dairymaids.

Speaking of the buns, the ones I had were made of soft, yellow, eggy brioche. I’d be happy to toast one of these babies for breakfast in the morning and slather it with jam. That’s how good they are.

The Saigon burger at The Burger Guys

The Saigon burger pays careful homage to Vietnamese Banh Mi with its inclusion of pickled vegetables and pâté

My second-favorite offering (by a slim margin) was the creative Saigon, The Burger Guys’ homage to traditional Bánh mì. The traditional toppings of pickled carrot and daikon were present, and—to my delight—a good slathering of pâté. These guys pay attention to detail. Premium hot dogs are available as well.

The only thing that I wasn’t wild about was their veggie burger offering. Eggplant is being used as the main binder, and although the flavor and the crust were good, texture was lacking. I hope that in the future brown rice or something similar will be added to give this burger some more texture and heft.

It didn’t surprise me to hear murmurs around me of “a little salty.” I love salt, but there were a few times that it was a little overkill. With The Burger Guys using prime Akaushi meat, there is no need to overseason. The meat is too good to not let the flavor of the beef come through.

After the disappointment I recently suffered at Sam’s Deli Diner (see my comments at the HTownChowDown blog), The Burger Guys are an extremely welcome addition to West Houston.

Akaushi burgers at The Burger Guys

Gorgeous Akaushi burgers on the flat top grill at The Burger Guys

I’m a lucky gal. Hubcap Grill is downtown for my lunchtime needs, and The Burger Guys are near home for dinner.

Next up:  Chuck and Phaedra buy bigger pants. Just kidding, I hope.

Burger Guys on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: This was for a special event and food was provided free of charge. I have done my utmost to use the same impartiality that I would use for a paid meal, and plan on returning for regular service and buying meals for myself and my family on Thursday, September 9th.
Want another point-of-view? Check out my friend Joanne Witt’s preview over at 29-95.com.

Restaurant Review,The Woodlands

September 7, 2010

Date Night at 1252 Tapas Bar

Quick Facts

1252 Tapas Bar 9595 Six Pines Drive, Suite 670 Market Street The Woodlands, TX 77380 281-419-1260

Would we go back?

Absolutely.

Item Prices

red sangria at 1252 Tapas Bar

1252's red sangria has substantial body from a Cabernet/ Burgundy blend

$9.50 – Jamón ibérico
$7.25 – patatas bravas
$7.50 – boquerones
$5.75 – pincho de anchoa con guindilla y patata

I remember when Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion opened in 1990. I also recall lamenting the dearth of nearby restaurants for a quick pre-concert bite. Those days, we usually ended up at one of the chain restaurants that line the feeder road of I-45. That all changed when the land around the Pavilion started being developed. The Woodlands Mall opened in 1994. Later, the area was augmented by, the Waterway, The Woodlands Town Center and Market Street. Multiple friends recommended 1252 Tapas Bar and Jasper’s to us; both are in the Market Street area. We’d dined at Jasper’s before and thought it was fantastic. We aren’t in The Woodlands often though, so we decided that we needed to try something different, and 1252 Tapas Bar sounded like it fit the bill. The inside seems rather small, but there is a generous patio. It will be an ideal spot when Houston’s temperatures aren’t so brutal. It was mid-August when we visited, so we sat at the modern-looking bar.

A Moment with Bread and Wine

Our bartender was a gentleman who provided helpful but unobtrusive service. We started with the red sangria, and it was a fine one, with enough body from the Cabernet and Burgundy blend to support the fruity apple, orange and strawberry flavors. Their regular wine list appropriately features selections from Spain, as well as Argentina, Chile and Portugal. A bread basket with dipping oil arrived, and included a black olive bread. My standard complaint about black olive bread is that I usually can’t taste the olive in it. I had no complaint with this one. It was one of my favorite parts of the meal.

Tapas

1252 doesn’t have a huge selection of tapas, but it does have well-considered choices. We selected boquerones (white, marinated anchovies)—a cold dish—along with one of my favorite hot tapas, patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy sauce, usually tomato-based). Our helpful bartender said that if we like boquerones, we should try their pincho de anchoa con guindilla y patata (which literally means “spike of anchovy with guindilla pepper and potato”).

My First Taste of Iberico

Iberico ham, guadillo skewers and potatoes in aioli at 1252 Tapas Bar

Our selection of tapas goodies at 1252 Tapas Bar

Our final selection was a platter of Jamón ibérico (Spanish cured ham), one of the specials. (According to a manager I spoke with today, 1252 Tapas Bar does intend to offer this for some time to come.) I’d never had Iberico ham before, as the per-pound price at Central Market’s deli counter usually turns my concerns towards financing my kids’ college educations. The price for the platter of it at 1252 seemed reasonable, though, and the thin slices were soft, tender, and at a slightly cool temperature that optimized the flavors. It tasted similar to prosciutto and yet a little deeper and spicier. The sauces served on the side were completely extraneous and masked, rather than enhanced, the flavor. We skipped them after the first taste.

A Tale of Two Anchovies

Small skewers at 1252 Tapas Bar with potato, guindilla and anchovy

Skewers (or "spikes") at 1252 Tapas Bar with potato, guindilla and anchovy

The boquerones were the other big hit. They were fresh, firm and had bright lemon and parsley notes. Less successful was the recommended skewer of the anchovy, guindilla and potato. Alas, I was not coached to eat the skewer’s entire contents in one bite as Alison Cook was on her visit. (Regrettably, I just read her review as I was writing this one. Serves me right for waiting so long.) So, I ate the potato chunk first, and it was boring. Then, I tried to chew through the bottom half of the long pepper. Once I got to the oil-cured anchovy with the top part of the guindilla, I discovered the payoff, but it seemed like a lot of work to get there.

Spanish Potatoes

The final dish, the patatas bravas, was much more like a similar Spanish dish, patatas aioli. My favorite version of patatas bravas used to be at Mi Luna, with a spicy tomato sauce that would leave me begging for more. Unfortunately, Mi Luna changed ownership several years back, and the quality suffered greatly on my final two visits. I haven’t returned since and won’t unless I hear something has changed. The patatas bravas at 1252 Tapas Bar was more of a tossed mixture of potatoes and aioli. I liked the old Mi Luna version better—it was spicier and not creamy—but that’s unavailable and 1252’s take on the dish is pleasing, if not exactly what I expected. I don’t think I’d order it again though, as there are other things they do much better.

Great for a Date

It wasn’t crowded when we went there at 6 pm on a Sunday, although I am sure that Friday and Saturday nights are much busier. With a clean, modern atmosphere, big patio, attractive bar selection and great service, 1252 Tapas Bar is a perfect date night place that will excite gastronomes as well. I wouldn’t hesitate to bring older kids there, either. (Per a manager I spoke with, younger kids are welcome, too.)

1252 Tapa's Bar on Urbanspoon

Next Up

I still had some room and was ready for a second beverage, so we wandered across the way to our old favorite, Jasper’s. How did the “gourmet, backyard cuisine” place fare at happy hour? Stay tuned for another post in the near future.

Food Culture

August 31, 2010

“Foochebag” Has Wings: A Timeline

Nancy Nichols of D Magazine suggested in an article today that I either knowingly or unknowingly plagiarized the term “foochebag.” After tossing a few Retweets at her, as well as some dates, she retracted the statement and also apologized for calling me a psycho-foodie. It was corrected to the more accurate “highly caffeinated Twitterholic.” Yep, that’s me.

I’m OK with not being the first to make up the word “foochebag.” It’s not something I’d use in polite conversation, but it was an entirely independent thought. I’d never seen or heard the term before, and to the best of my knowledge, the word is my creation. I’m open to other suggestions, but I’d appreciate some proof that precedes my first use.

My first use of “foochebag” was in a conversation with John Seaborn Gray of the Houston Press on the afternoon of August 16, 2010. I was actually both bemused at and annoyed with John’s constant picking on “foodies”, which had been going on for at least a week. It led to this Tweet:

first foochebag

As far as I can figure out, this is the first usage of "foochebag"

My goal was to distinguish foodies from people who use what they ate, where they ate and how much they paid for it as some kind of ego-booster.

The Houston Press picked up the word and mentioned it in an article on August 18. This is the first use in a professionally-produced publication.

As far as I can tell, from there it was mentioned by Chuck Sudo of The Chicagoist and later used in his review of a place called Girl & the Goat. Carly Fisher also used it for NBC Chicago on August 27th, and the same article was cross-posted to NBC New York later the same day.

On August 28th, an intern for ABC 7 in Chicago, Brandon Smith, changed his Twitter handle to “foochebag” after seeing the NBC Chicago article.

That brings us to today, August 31st, 2010. Ms. Nichols’ article was published at D Magazine’s Sidedish blog and brought to my attention by Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom BBQ Gospel. Mr. Smith, obviously a good, honest guy, clarified that he is not the inventor of the term, and that he picked it up from the NBC posts.


brandon_clarification_foochebag

I’m frankly amazed that a word I made up on-the-fly has traveled so far. I really thought my 15-minutes of fame might be because of a best-selling novel, or for pushing a little old lady out of the way of a Mack truck. But no, it’s apparently going to be for a word closely related to a feminine hygiene product. Rats.

Chef Stories,Houston Food Scene

August 29, 2010

Chef Carlos Rodriguez: Fire In the Kitchen

Chef Carlos Rodriguez

Concept Chef Carlos Rodriguez, Vic & Anthony's

by Phaedra Cook
Photos and editing by Chuck Cook

 

Vic & Anthony’s is known in Houston (and now, Las Vegas) as one of the most prestigious American steakhouses. But it’s far from being a staid meat-and-potatoes place—the menu is kept fresh via periodic introductions from Concept Chef Carlos Rodriguez, who has been with the restaurant for more than eight years. Vic & Anthony’s is known amongst Houston’s foodies as much for its legendary crab cake as much as for its wet-aged beef.

The chef took some time out of his busy six-day workweek to talk with me about how one lands the top spot in a world-famous kitchen.

Why did you become a chef?

My dad was great about taking us out to new restaurants and making me try different kinds of dishes. I started working in restaurants when I was at the University of Texas, and the plan was for me to go to law school. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was sitting in class one day listening to a professor drone on, and I dropped out and drove across town to sign up for culinary school.

What was the first restaurant you worked in?

When I was 18, I started as a dough roller at Mr. Gatti’s [now called Gatti’s Pizza]. I’d get up at 6 am and roll out pizza crust for three or four hours. Every now and then, the chef would use the dough and make calzones. He’d reinvent it using the same ingredient, and that’s how I got the bug in my ear about culinary school.

How does one go from being dough roller at Mr. Gatti’s to Concept Chef at Vic & Anthony’s?

It was a long road! I got out of school and worked at a 24-hour café in Austin and that helped me learn how to be fast. As far as line cooking goes, I did an internship at the Omni for a year and a half, so I got classical cooking experience there. Also, I worked for a country club for a few years and we’d do “theme nights,” like “Barbeque Night” or “Asian Night.”

Later, I moved to Houston to work for Chef Robert del Grande at Rio Ranch and later with San Hemwattakit who was Sous Chef at the Café Annie and later Executive Chef at Rio Ranch. Culinary school taught me about flavors but Chef Hemwattakit taught me about creativity. He’d send me to the cooler and say, “Grab eight things and let’s make something.” He taught me about adjusting flavors and why certain things worked together.

Then, I went to Pappas, and I learned not only about being a “free spirit,” but about how to systematize my creations—how to replicate something hundreds of times a day.

Finally, I got my shot to kind of do my own thing with Landry’s Restaurants at Vic & Anthony’s. I started eight months before it opened, and after all the recipes I developed, I probably ended up with enough that didn’t get used to open two more restaurants.

Every time a door has closed for me, the exact right one has opened up to allow me to do what I want to do.

Chef Rodriguez, the "fire" behind Vic & Anthony's menu items

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?

In May 2005, we had a banquet for 200 people, and a fire broke out in the kitchen. A “hot box” blew up in my face and a sheet pan caught on fire. The sprinklers came on and a big bladder of water hit me on the head. I thought that one of my crew had doused me with a bucket of water and I started yelling at them. I was convinced that I had a dining room of 200 of the most influential people in Houston being soaked, but it turned out that the sprinklers didn’t go off in there and they were fine.

The kitchen crew looked horrified and I started laughing, “OK, we can still do this. It can’t get any worse from here.” The fire marshal showed up demanding to talk with me and I said, “I can’t talk to you right now. We have 200 plates to do and then we’re OK.” We made it through the banquet. You can’t quit; you’ve got to keep going.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Opening the Houston location and then being able to succeed in Las Vegas were both huge accomplishments, but I am probably most grateful to have been successful for this long. I have 37 people in the kitchen. What we do keeps them employed and allows them to take care of their families.

Let’s talk about something fun. What does the term “foodie” mean to you?

Foodies are people who appreciate food and want to talk about it, perhaps to the point of over-analysis. There are good foodies who appreciate your work, and then there are bad ones who just want to tear you apart and be frustrated food critics. Overall, foodies have been good for restaurants and the food scene. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of cool people because of it.

What’s your favorite dish that you serve?

The maple-glazed quail. It’s just a perfect dish. It’s sweet, spicy, smoky, juicy, crispy, meaty and a little acidic. There’s hot and cold in the same dish and there’s really good balance. It was the first dish I developed for Vic & Anthony’s menu, and the last that was approved because there was a question about whether it would be viable.

What’s the next big thing in food?

It’s hard to tell since it changes so quickly. Regional and local has been a big deal. When I started in the industry, it was all about global cuisine. You could bring in anything from anywhere. Now it’s all what’s local and in-season. Here at Vic & Anthony’s, I can take advantage of both. I also have to consider that I’m sourcing for two locations. There’s not much that grows around Las Vegas.

If you source the best stuff you can make the best food. Everything is local to somebody.

Name a chef that you think is doing important work here in Houston.

Randy Rucker [of Bootsie’s and connate] and those guys out in Tomball have got some exciting things going on.

What testing process does a dish have to undergo to make it to the menu?

There are different phases. You have to look at the menu that you have and see where you want to go with it. I sit down and write 30 ideas on a legal pad, then do rewrites on and off for days or weeks. We’ll focus on 10 to 12 things that we want to work on. Sometimes when working on stuff, something else will occur to me and I’ll make little changes along the way.

Then, I have to look at the functionality of the dish. For example, how many stations are needed to make the dish? What is the cost of ingredients? We had a fantastic appetizer dish that used $18 in ingredients. Not many people are going to pay $40 for an appetizer.

We might use a concept as a special to get some feedback or use it on a fixed-price dinner to see how it plays. Obviously, Mr. Ferttita [President and CEO of Landry’s Restaurants] has the last word.

What dish took the most testing to perfect?

The crab cake on our menu is version number 37. I have a box called “The Crab Cake File.” I put 65 pounds on Tim [Kohler, Director of Operations for Vic & Anthony’s]. He ate all of everything I produced from the first bite to the last bite. He said, “I have to know what it’s like for the customers.”

How do you feel about where you are at these days?

It took a lot of hard work and tribulations, but I’m happy to be here. Houston has been good to me. It’s home.

Restaurant Review

August 24, 2010

Vibrant Samba Grille Brightens Downtown Houston

Samba Grille in Pictures

Photos by Chuck Cook (@bitspitter). Full gallery at http://www.flickr.com/bitspitter.

Calamari at Samba Grille

Picture 1 of 12

Quick Facts

Location: 530 Texas at the Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza
Chef: Cesar Rodriguez

Item Pricing (lunchtime):

Samba Crab Cakes: $14
Calamari Strips: $8
Jade Soup: $6 cup / $10 bowl
Gaucho (South American-style steak): $22
Samba Sunfish: $17
Tres Leches: $9
Apple Pie Empanadas: $9

A Preview of Samba Grille

by Phaedra Cook

Yesterday, Chuck and I had the honor of attending a special “Friends and Family” test run at Samba Grille. I expected there would be a few things to iron out along the way. After all, the signs weren’t even up yet, one of which sat in a cart in front of Verizon Wireless Theater Plaza, waiting patiently for someone to come hoist it into the metal framework on the building.
What we encountered instead was a place that is fully ready to start delighting customers with its South American offerings. From the details of the food—which partner/manager Nathan Ketchum has been closely involved with—to the training of the staff (everyone I spoke with had tried several of the dishes already), this place is ready for prime-time.
Indeed, prime-time theatergoers will likely be one of its biggest customer contingents, along with executives and office workers who have been wishing for a new place downtown for a nice lunch. Samba Grille will provide rodizio service in the evening for those looking for a fine dinner date and a timely à la carte lunch to rushed workers during the day.
I’ve been to two downtown restaurants in the past two weeks that could not provide me with an entrée within 45 minutes. Samba Grille served our beverages immediately, an appetizer six minutes later and an entrée about 10 minutes after that. It is a refreshing change.
Nathan Ketcham is not just a restaurateur; he loves the details of food. He was personally involved in developing their custom passion fruit iced tea—a blend of fruit with black and green teas. I drank it with no sugar and could not detect a trace of bitterness.

samba_grille_staff

The staff at Samba Grille

Sommelier Marc Borel had already proven himself to be a pairing genius at his previous gig with 13 Celsius, especially when selecting complements to the work of Jody Stevens of jodycakes. (Cupcakes and wine? Yes, please!) Samba Grille’s broad menu gives Marc a lot to play with, and he has already developed his wine list. I look forward to a return visit to try his suggestions.
To keep me coming back, a restaurant must have a dish that I crave. Samba Grille has two of these: their calamari strips and their amazing, creamy, substantial tres leches cake. Even though I just had these yesterday, I could happily have them again today.

calamari_samba

The calamari strips at Samba Grill. Tender and delicious!

Unlike typical rings-and-tentacles calamari, Samba Grille’s are cut into strips from thicker, flat pieces of squid, before being breaded with herbed, fine panko crumbs and deep-fried. On the menu, the calamari includes a side of romesco sauce, but it was not available on our visit. Instead, we had it with the house aioli, which was delightful—creamy and slightly spicy with peppadew pepper bits. I think it could be addictive, and Nathan said it was his favorite sauce. If you order the calamari, you might want to request the aioli on the side in addition to the romesco.
The house aioli normally accompanies the crab cakes. The three little cakes acquire a spicy, earthy South American flair from aji (Peruvian hot pepper) and a unique yucca flour binding.
The tres leches is as fine as I have ever had, and the perfect portion for two to share. The sweet combination of milks gently seeps from the cake to your plate, daring you to swipe them up with every bite. The cake is pleasingly dense, but lighter than typical bread puddings, and is topped with whipped cream.
If you aren’t looking for a substantial dessert like the Tres Leches, try the surprisingly-light apple empanadas.
The Jade Soup is a verdant concoction of cream with pureed spinach and broccoli, topped with nice chunks of crabmeat. We found it to be very rich and flavorful, but there was a little too much salt, which overpowered the delicate seafood. We mentioned this to the staff and hope to find a less-salted version there in the future, as it is well worth trying again.
I wanted to try the Gaucho steak with chimichurri sauce, as it is the stereotypical dish I think of when I consider South American food. We ordered it medium rare, and it was cooked perfectly. It was a tender, moist piece of tenderloin (pounded to be flatter and wider), topped with some chimichurri with additional on the side. Samba seems to do sides exceptionally well, with garlic mashed potatoes that made me actually say “Wow!” aloud, and beautifully caramelized baked plantains that were slightly crisp and sweet on the outside—creamy and pleasantly tangy on the inside. If you get the plantains as a side, and your dining companion doesn’t, consider ordering extras or your friend might demand that you share.

Gaucho

The gaucho at Samba Grill is a lovely piece of tenderloin

We also ordered the Samba sunfish filets. I figured that any dish that a restaurant was willing to put its name on must be pretty good. If someone had told me that this dish was called “butter fish,” I would have totally believed them. There’s apparently a darn good saucier in-house, as these were coated with a made-in-the-pan velouté that was delicately flavored with maracuyá (yellow passionfruit). I’m not often a fan of white fish, but these made a believer out of me. Slightly smoky, grilled asparagus politely accompanied the fish, with their thicker ends pared to ensure no toughness.
Samba Grille is also doing something that I find very exciting: paella. This is a risky dish that I don’t usually order when I’m out, for two reasons. Either the restaurant requires advance notice (which I never think to give, since I never specifically go out for paella), or the word-of-mouth on the quality of the dish is uniformly negative. Samba Grille has developed a way to make paella de marisco that not only ensures that the rice picks up the flavor of the seafood, but that they can also finish and present in 20 minutes. Rice in this dish was generally a bit al dente, which Nathan explained is traditional for the texture. It is NOT paella with a crispy bottom (known as “socarrat”); Nathan said it is modeled after the Northern Spain version of the dish. The fish, mussels and large scallop included all looked and tasted very fresh, and there was a sear mark all along the outside edge of the scallop, proving it had kissed a pan or flat-top before its inclusion.
If Samba Grille is not a wild success, it certainly won’t be because of lack of hard work and preparation. The staff of Samba Grille has demonstrably worked hard. I wish the place a fabulous opening and a long lifespan.
Samba Grille’s “soft opening” is Thursday, August 24th and its grand opening is on September 7th, which is Brazilian Independence Day.

For a review of the rodizio dinner, check out Albert Nurick’s review at H-Town Chow Down!

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

Disclaimer: This was a special, no-charge event as the restaurant was not officially open yet at the time I visited. I have done my utmost to use the same impartiality I’d use when considering any meal and believe that Samba did an outstanding job. I will not hesitate to return as a paying customer. Pricing was provided for regular service and is included here.

Restaurant Review,West Side Stories

August 22, 2010

West Side Stories: Tuscany Italian Bakery

by Phaedra Cook

We live on the far West side of Houston. Restaurants on the West side don’t get nearly as much “buzz” as those inside the 610 Loop. There might be a reason for that. There aren’t as many upper-scale places here, although there are some. Bistro Le Cep, Le Mistral, Piatto and Pradaria spring immediately to my mind. There aren’t many well-known chefs who work in this area, either.
Still, there are several jewels that are worth driving a bit for if you don’t live out here. These “West Side Stories” are about being in search of the gems, while identifying the ones that aren’t worth the time.

The Original Destination

Phở One (11148  Westheimer Rd) received the Houston Press Best Phở award in 2009 and has been my family’s default phở place since it opened. It’s a family-owned business, and these are friendly folks that make it a point to get to know their regular customers. The patriarch knows where we like to sit and can make a good guess as to what we’re likely to order. (He’s getting used to the idea that I’m unpredictable.)

The phở is consistently good. Is it the best phở ever? Having made phở myself at home a few times now, I am still looking for a place that dishes out darker stock than the chicken-colored one that we normally see. If you know of a place with a homestyle broth, let me know so I can check it out. Regardless, Phở One is not likely to lose their status of trusted neighborhood spot anytime soon.

A New Neighbor

Tuscany Italian Bakery sign

Tuscany Italian Bakery opened on August 16, 2010

My daughter and I are both in braces, so soup is generally all we can handle after getting them adjusted. Yesterday, we went for our phở fix at and saw that a brand new place called Tuscany Italian Bakery had opened up next door at 11150 Westheimer. Intrigued, we stepped inside to check it out.
Tuscany Italian Bakery is a combination bakery and café. They offer bread, cookies and pastries, and a small selection of sandwiches, pizzas, soup and lasagna. They had just opened this past Monday, and were definitely still getting their legs under them.

It’s a Cookie, Stupid

I pointed to a small cookie and asked the young man behind the counter, “What is this?”
“It’s a cookie,” he replied.
“Yes, I can see that. What kind of cookie?”
He became a little flustered at that point. “It’s like a sugar cookie,” he said.
“Oh, okay. What about that cookie?” I pointed to the next one over, a sandwich cookie with dark filling.
He noticeably brightened. “That one is filled with Nutella.” I brightened also.
“Would you like a sample of soup?” he asked.
“Sure!” I replied, and he handed me a small plastic cup with a little plastic spoon. The soup was very tasty, with a flavorful chicken stock and an assortment of vegetables, including some hearty chunks of potato. “What kind of soup is this?” I asked.
“Minestrone.” Ah ha. This one he knew.

Short In Supply

I asked my daughter if she’d like to lunch here or if she still had her heart set on phở. She still wanted phở, so we went to our mainstay next door. I promised the young man we’d return for dessert. We did, and ordered a tiramisu, a cappuccino, and a piece of lasagna to go.

“I’m sorry, we just sold the last two pieces of lasagna,” he said. He seemed appropriately sad about this.

A lady behind us asked him, “Is that your last tiramisu?” pointing at the one remaining plastic cup—the one I’d just ordered.

“Yes ma’am. I’m sorry! We’ll have more at 4 pm.”

I told the lady she could take the last tiramisu and selected a small coconut cake instead. Since the lasagna was sold out, I asked if there was any other entree I could take to-go other than sandwiches.

No, there wasn’t. Well, what about the pizzas? I asked, pointing to the menu board. Those were still available. I ordered the “Napoli,” a 10-inch pizza with ham, mozzarella, and red bell pepper strips.

Tuscany Italian Bakery cappuccino

This was my favorite part of my visit; a very decent cappuccino

My daughter and I had the coconut cake and cappuccino while we waited on the pizza. The coconut cake was interesting, with a few bits of cherry strewn through. It had a nice balance of sweetness and was not cloying. The layer of coconut along the outside provided nice texture. The one odd thing was the creamy layer at the bottom. This cake seemed more like a tres leches than a traditional coconut. The manager spied me taking a photo, I think, and came over to talk with us. She brought with her two small slices of a different cake to sample. This cake was also spongy and milky, with a dark layer running down the center. “This one is my favorite, she said. “Is that caramel in the middle?” I asked. “No, it’s Nutella,” she said. Well, there would be no shortage of chocolate hazelnut spread in this place. Both cakes were equally good.

The cappuccino pleased me the most, with a thick layer of foam generously sprinkled with a mixture of cinnamon and fine sugar.

The Pizza Quandary

Napoli pizza from Tuscany Italian Bakery

This was the pizza that took 30 to 45 minutes. There were some nice red bell peppers on it.

There would be one last bobble before our visit was done. My daughter and I finished our dessert and coffee and I went to the counter to pay and get our to-go pizza. The same young man we visited with before said “It’s going to be another 15 minutes before the pizza is ready. I hope that’s OK?”

Uh-oh. I had to be someplace before 4:30, so no, it really wasn’t. I told him that I had to leave and would come back to pick up the pizza. It seemed to me that the pizza should have been baked while we were having our dessert and coffee, so I’m not sure what the hold-up was.
About 30 minutes later, we returned, and I sent my daughter inside to retrieve the pizza. She came back, bearing not only the pizza but also the $10 I’d paid for it. “They said they were really sorry,” she said. “They said they’re still figuring out the baking time and it should not have taken so long to make it. I told them they didn’t have to give us a refund, but they insisted.”
The pizza was pretty tasty. The toppings were flavorful and seemed to be of good quality. The crust, which was somewhere between thin and medium, was a little boring, but serviceable.
I also took home a loaf of Italian wheat bread. It’s sufficient to make sandwiches with, but nothing special.

Bread Shelves at Tuscany Italian Bakery

Tuscany Italian Bakery has an assortment of breads baked on-site

I’ll Be Back

I am a fan of small, friendly businesses that are trying to treat their customers right. For that, I am prepared to forgive mistakes and give second and even third chances. The manager said that no one comes in the evening, but the place is open until 8 pm.
I recommend that you visit Tuscany Italian Bakery and show your support. People who live in the area have not discovered them yet. Go next door to Phở One for your entrée, and then drop by Tuscany for one of their frothy, cinnamon-y cappuccinos. Accompany that with a dessert or two. A few weeks from now, they’ll probably have the kinks worked out. I’m hoping to get some lasagna next time.

Tuscany Italian Bakery on Urbanspoon

Food Culture

August 18, 2010

Foodie Etiquette

by Phaedra Cook

Photos by Chuck Cook

My last post was in defense of foodies and the good we do. This post, however, is about the dark side of foodies.

Some writers have deemed foodies a rude, selfish group. Lumping us all together in this way lacks accuracy and fairness. As I highlighted in my previous post, everyone loves food to some extent or another, and the line that divides “human that needs to eat” from “foodie” is gray and wiggly.

It would be equally unfair to not recognize that the critics have a point. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras coupled with the accessibility of other people via the Internet (especially through Twitter) has enabled thoughtless people to behave poorly. Even nice foodies can go overboard in their passions.

My husband and I try hard to be considerate, but we’re just as capable of screwing up as anyone else. One night, we were at a dessert tasting. My husband’s camera has a big, bright flash. It doesn’t bother me when he takes photos of the dishes. I’m pretty much immune to it now. It never occurred to either of us that other diners might be offended by it until the maître d’ informed us that someone had complained. Now, we at least consider the setting and the size of the room before taking our food’s glamour shots.

Many hobbies have rules or standards to abide by. If you consider the pursuit of culinary adventure to be a big part of your life, you may want to think about how to engage in the activity without being inconsiderate. Consider adopting these rules:

  1. Recognize when you are not dining or conversing with a fellow foodie, and save your in-depth information for someone who will appreciate it. Try to be empathetic. I know it’s sad, but some people really don’t care that regular brown sugar is just granulated sugar with the molasses added back in. Talk about something else—and I do hope you have something else to talk about.
  2. Don’t Tweet your entire meal. Alas, I am guilty of that, but I’m a reformed Bumble. I now just take photos of the noteworthy dishes and make a note or two (or a Tweet or two). I write or Tweet about it further after the meal is over if warranted. The exception to this is when you’re dining with a group of known foodies who will not only understand, but will probably be doing the same thing.


Remember the other photo from this meal in my previous post? This might look crazy to you, but these are all foodies and we're OK with it. We call it "bloggers' grace."


  1. It is rude to talk about how much you paid for a meal, a dish, or anything food-related unless you are asked. (However, it’s needed and expected information if you are writing about it.)
  2. It is rude to ask someone how much he or she paid for something if you’re going to resent the answer. Some folks have more money than you. You’ve had your whole life to get used to this idea and do something about it. It’s your problem, not theirs.
  3. If you use your “foodie cred” to get special attention, discounts or to threaten restaurant staff, you’re going straight to Hell.
  4. If you are offered anything special by anyone who knows that you love food, it is your duty to be grateful and appreciative, even if you don’t like what is offered.
  5. Don’t try to one-up someone who knows more than you about a particular type of food. Listen and learn.
  6. Give respect to the food professionals who stay on their feet for 8+ hour shifts and put up with more bullshit in a night than you do in a week. Most of these people are not rich. The work they do is vocational and they do it because they have a passion for feeding people. Even if the restaurant isn’t very good, most people in the food industry are still doing the best they can under the circumstances.
  7. If you write restaurant reviews (for a blog, a paper, etc.) and are given something complimentary, I don’t think it is ethical to write about the free item or let it affect your review. At the least, the freebie must be disclosed so readers can consider your opinion with some skepticism. It’s safer to simply say “thank you” and write about what you ordered and paid for. There are integrity issues to consider.

If these “rules” all sounded like simple common courtesy to you, you’re probably the kind of person I’d like to have a meal with sometime. What this all comes down to is having some empathy for your fellow humans. I don’t know if that’s a skill one can learn, but if you don’t have it, I hope you will look into ways of developing it.

hard_working_food_pros

These people are hard-working food professionals. I respect them. I hope you do, too.

Don’t be a foochebag.

Further reading:
Stop Broadcasting Your Social Life by Helena Echlin
Money Manners Faux Pas by Kelii B. Grant
CEOs say how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about character by Del Jones