Blog of an aspiring foodie

Archive for June, 2009

A return to The Italian Cafe (crosspost with HouCH Yahoo! Group)

Posted by beer_chris on 13-June-2009

A few months ago I absolutely skewered The Italian Cafe on this board. It’s a really popular BYOB spot out here in Clear Lake, in Pasadena at NASA Road 1 and Kirby. I’ve felt a little guilty about that ever since, as my wife thinks maybe I was putting too much weight on one visit and not giving the place enough credit for the atmosphere, which really is grand. Needless to say, we had a bottle of Nickel and Nickel 2006 Suscol Ranch Merlot and wanted a place to take it – and decided close to home was better than in town.

I actually suggested The Italian Cafe, wanting to give it another chance after thinking about it a little more. We had a resonably nice visit – and I don’t think the place is on my ‘never’ list anymore, but it’s not a recommendation for someone to drive all the way out here to get to.

PROS

The space: It is tucked into a little strip center slot, narrow and deep. The open kitchen is tight, clean and run very efficiently – it’s actually quite entertaining just to watch them work. Specials are laid out on a front table – in my case I ordered a roast pork loin, turned around to the kitchen and I saw the entire loin that had just come out of the oven. Ingredients are stacked on shelves that face the dining room. Things are a little tight, but the place ‘buzzes’ without being overwhelming. Big boisterous groups, couples and families all get along well without getting in one another’s way. Pretty well the definition of ‘casual bistro’.

The family-owned atmosphere: The owner sits on a chair in the front and greets everyone, and his wife wanders through the restaurant, fixing this or that. The walls are covered with pictures of the owner’s travels, and a big LCD screen rotates through digital shots. At the cashier stand is a set of flyers announcing the next trip to Italy, and inviting whomever to join in. Pretty cool. The expediter announces your number (you pick up your own food) and does last minute plating (ubiquitous chopped parsley goes on every plate)

The corkage fee: Only $5. A steal.

CON

The food: It’s not bad, as I previously harped on. It’s just not good either. My previous visits where I had tinny tomato sauce and limp bread were probably an anomaly. The place turns out pretty freshly cooked plates most of the time with reasonably good ingredients. However, I described it to my wife when we left as ‘Perfectly Acceptable Italian Food’. There are just some clumsy touches that keep the good ingredients and homey recipes from being really great. The boxed penne (DeCecco – a solid brand I’ve used before at home) that comes with everything is cooked to order – so its not mushy or anything terrible like that, but it adds a serious amount of water to everything it touches (is it impossible to drain this stuff?). My pork was seasoned really nicely, but overcooked and a bit dry. The gorgonzola salad I had was fine – lots of cheese – but way too much vinegar in the dressing. The cream sauce served with my pork was actually well balanced – but my plate had easily 1+ tablespoons of capers in it. The salty, briny caper flavor completely overwhelmed everything else. The wife had meat lasagna – and it came out looking really nice – a huge portion. However, the piece she had was all ricotta – I like ricotta, but I tasted almost no sausage or the flavor of the delicate and quite good marinara.

BOTTOM LINE

Sigh. I really want to like this place, and the atmosphere is *almost* worth it, but the food leaves something to be desired. If you’re ever looking for a place in Clear Lake with a low corkage, a good atmosphere and unimpressive yet Perfectly Acceptable Italian Food, ‘The Italian Cafe’ is your spot – but not worth a special trip out here. Stick with Collinas ITL.

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When men were men and queso was tasty

Posted by beer_chris on 11-June-2009

Last week a post on the Eating Our Words blog at the Houston Press documented the news that the fellows over at El Patio have licensed a number of recipes from the Tijerina family’s now defunct Felix Mexican Restaurant and have hired a former cook from the old place on Westheimer and Montrose.  I’m pretty excited about this news, as Felix is one of the places I grew up eating at with my family. I still remember going there as a kid, eating cheese enchiladas and getting my cheeks pinched by Mrs. Tijerina at every visit.

However, the post inspired some vitriol. Included was a picture of the famous Felix queso. Admittedly, it looks gross. It’s made with lots of grease (rumor has it they used drippings from the chile gravy), and has a runny, red tinge to it. Comments on the blog post ranged from ‘unappetizing’ to ‘sucks ass’ to ‘fucking nasty’.

I felt I had to intervene, and so I posted a defense of Felix queso.

A lot going on in my reply, but it inspired some additional negative comments in response. What’s been rattling around in the old noggin is a response to a remark made in one of the following posts. I’ll quote it here because I think it’s a bold statement:

… Felix’s might represent Houston Tex Mex from the 1950’s, but Houston has changed a bit since then. There is much better Tex Mex around now …

I really, really question this, and I think it gets to the heart of my point. One of my issues with Tex-Mex restaurants ‘nowadays’ is that the queso (and other dishes – another blog post there)  is downright boring – and I’m not entirely sure anything else is better either. One thing I can be sure of – most menus are all the same. Sticking to queso, I’m no Velveetist, but paying $5 for a small bowl of Velveeta/EasyMelt and Ro-tel tomatoes is **NOT OK**. Maybe some of these more ‘modern’ Tex-Mex places have got some new dishes right – but good, unique restaurant specific queso has been lost to history. In my opinion, when queso had recipes, it was better. When queso had character and secret ingredients, it was better. Like it or not, these original Tex-Mex places had really tasty queso because they worked at it. Nobody does that anymore. It’s all the same stuff.

As we all try so hard to find the next little hole in the wall place that has great tacos or tamales or whatever, I worry that our Houston Tex-Mex heritage is dying a little bit. Is Houston’s Tex-Mex to be forever relegated to books and old school restaurants that everybody disdains simply because they are old? Are we destined for a future when every Tex-Mex place in Houston is a clone of Gringos or Lupe Tortilla? Thank goodness for El Patio, Thank goodness for the recipes from Felix and thank God there’s finally a queso to argue about.

We’ve all been missing it for a while, whether we knew it or not. The 50’s were a long time ago – but it was indeed a time when men were men and queso was tasty.

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Crab Fest 2009 – Bolivar’s Back!

Posted by beer_chris on 2-June-2009

Not but a few short months ago I wrote a sad rambling post about how much I missed Bolivar and about my undying love for the  Texas Crab Festival – so when I heard that the crab fest was back on and was going to be held jointly with Hayes Carll’s Stingaree Music Festival this year, I was ectstatic.

Bolivar’s Back indeed!

Crystal Beach and the entire Bolivar peninsula is obviously still struggling under the heavy weight of recovery. Homemade signs at the cut off to High Island implore you to call a 409 area code number to ‘save our pass’ – referencing Rollover Pass, the man-made cut at the thinnest point in the peninsula that some say helped the waters wash completely over and obliterate the community of Gilchrist and nearby Caplen Shores. Flat beach and tidal pools now abut highway 87 where 15 foot dunes used to be. Debris has for the most part been piled up everywhere, and mountains of sand  ‘dumps’ are along the side of the road every few miles – the tailings of the huge operation to move what mother nature washed ashore. 

In Crystal Beach and farther towards Point Bolivar, much of the first two rows of homes were pretty well damaged or destroyed, and about 50% of everything else behind it was too. Trees, grass, and most vegetation was either poisoned with salt water or covered in sand. Roadside signs are all that remain of a number of former landmarks – the True Value hardware store, Mama Rosa’s pizzeria, Sharkeys, Rancho Carribe golf course.

However, just underneath the facade of all that damage and destruction is a strong spirit of survival. The beaches at the High Island turnoff, now clearer and more accessible, are packed with campers and people having a great time. The landmark yellow house in Gilchrist – the only structure still standing on the Gulf side of the road – is being rebuilt, and the land around it reclaimed. Fisherman have put up a bait camp at Rollover and crowd the pilings on either side of the pass – just like they always have. Builders are advertising everywhere, promising to do their part to bring back Bolivar with ‘fair prices’. New construction is evident in every development, and restaurants are reopened. The ‘Big Store’, (the Gulf Coast Market) is open again, with a Texas General Land Office truck parked out front to help with recovery. The Bolivar Community Cemetery at loop 108 and 87 has been cleaned up and looks freshly mowed. The ferry landings have been dredged out and easily handled the traffic on crab fest weekend.

So, even with the devastation recovery is evident. The crab fest this past weekend served as the most poignant reminder of this combination of  superficial damage over a deep survivors spirit.  Gregory Park, the home of the festival was completely covered in sand by Ike. The baseball field is no more – backstops completely gone. The old 18-wheeler trailer that served as a combination crab fest storage trailer and stage was tossed aside and destroyed. However, somehow Ike spared the metal roof over the basketball court, and the steel legs holding it up amazingly didn’t get taken out by a house floating by. The park is probably 12 rows off the beach. It survived, and the crab fest did too.

So – enough pontificating – onto the food. I walked in on Saturday and made a beeline for my favorite crab fest starter – the pistollete. Some years a few vendors have them, sometimes only one, sometimes none. In this case, there was a small trailer selling crawfish pistolletes, and they also had a sign advertising ‘Real Natchitoches Meat Pies’. As one with roots in west LA and a fan of Lasyone’s in Natchitoches (their motto – “You haven’t been to Natchitoches until you’ve been to Lasyone’s” – is emblazoned on a tumbler I got there) I had to try that as well.

The pistolletes were not as right out of the fryer as I like them – this means the bread gets a little dry but it also provides for safer eating, as the filling is not hot as molten lava. Although the crawfish filling inside was a little doughy, they were spiced really nicely. The meat pies were much smaller than I remembered from Lasyone’s, and looked frighteningly like the $1.00 meat pie a friend of mine from school used to eat for lunch at our HISD school cafeteria – but one bite proved my fears misplaced. The meat was a really nicely seasoned ground beef, mixed with fresh onions and peppers, and the crust/shell was flaky and held together. It was a pretty darn good meat pie, and I ate a few of those over the course of the day.

Next, I headed over to the crab vendors in search of the legendary softshell crab sandwich. At La Playita’s booth I found what I was looking for. They fried mine up to order, and served it whole on a sesame seed hamburger bun with a not-so-generous smear of tartar sauce. I’ve had better softshell crab sandwiches. I find these are tastier on Mrs. Baird’s Texas Toast and with a lot more tartar sauce. I didn’t have too much time to piddle and ask for more sauce though because I had to wolf down the sandwich and go pick up the wife, who was waiting for me at the ferry landing.

When I returned it was back to La Playita for BBQ crabs. These were not cajun style BBQ crabs – rather, they were boiled crabs put on a smoker for a bit and slathered in BBQ sauce. I got a dozen.

Even sharing with Houston Foodie these babies took me nearly 90 minutes to finish off, and were probably the messiest food I have ever eaten. I think I still have BBQ sauce under my fingernails! However, the crab was cooked just right, and was exceptionally fresh – not a mushy part to be found. Although the BBQ sauce was nothing special, the combo of sweet tangy sauce, a little bit of smoke and fresh lump crab was excellent.

I took a little break after this – wait, who am I kidding – I went straight back to the festival food, finding a little trailer advertising it was from Woodville TX – another place I am quite familiar with in my trips into west LA. I noticed they had Frito pie and so put my order in. The older woman behind the counter told me the chili was her secret recipe – and it was pretty good, nice and meaty and lacking that anathema of Texas chili – beans.  I ate it a little too quick and didn’t let the Fritos get too mushy, but it was pretty good.

Back to La Playita for crab nachos. These are an old crab festival fave of mine – basically ballpark-style nachos with a can of jumbo lump crab meat dumped on top. The canned crabmeat tastes a little fishy but you really can’t beat it as a trashy-tasty dish.

Houston Foodie had picked up some gumbo from the Lighthouse Krewe – a multiple time winner of best gumbo at the crab fest. Although I am not a fan of a dark, roasty roux, this one was pretty good. However, the cup he got was absolutely chock full of chicken bones. He joked he was ‘getting his calcium’, but it seemed like they made chicken stock and just added a roux to it without taking out the carcass. I later got some gumbo from Howard’s, and it was dark and alright – nothing special.

Unfortunately with only one day at the fest I couldn’t get crabs at every place. I missed the boiled crabs at Howard’s, which a local told me were his faves because Howard was just a crab man and didn’t even run a restaurant. The crabs from his booth were clearly the biggest ones. I also did not try the ‘cajun spicy’ crabs from coconuts, even though I think those were authentic cajun BBQ crabs.

Maybe next year.

I did get to take a little side trip over to Stingaree with Houston Foodie and have some wonderful Muggaritas and chat up the owner (Mr. Brad Vratis) regarding an upcoming Houston Chowhounds visit to his restaurant.

The music was absolutely fantastic. I was able to catch Jesse Dayton, the John Evans Band, Hayes Carll and Sisters Morales. With the sun setting over the stage, a cold beer in my hand and that music playing I really couldn’t have asked for more.

The crowds were a little smaller. There weren’t quite as many crab vendors. The carnival was scaled down – just a few moonwalks. But the big sign over the main stage proclaiming that ‘BOLIVAR’S BACK!’ said it all. A great return to the beach, and as usual some darn good eatin’!

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