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Pho to Ramen, Bulgogi to Bo 7 Mon

The top 10 restaurants in Chinatown.

Instead, I pathetically contemplated actually adding the extra McRib to my order. It's only one dollar, I reasoned. I deserve it.

I shook my head and snapped out of the disgusting food-as-reward mind-set I fall into far too often — a mind-set, I might add, that's once again encouraged by deals such as these at fast-food chains such as this one. (Besides, the brownie bites I'd added onto my 1 a.m. Jack in the Box order the night before had been woeful. And those were only $1, too.)

Back at the office after nearly an hour on the road, I actually tore into my McRib with a voracity that both appalled and astonished me. A growling stomach was making all of my decisions suddenly, but even after the first few hunger-blinded bites, I could tell it had been a mistake.

Beef chow fun at House of Bowls.
Troy Fields
Beef chow fun at House of Bowls.
We are not friends, you and I.
Katharine Shilcutt
We are not friends, you and I.

Here's the thing: The McRib does not taste terrible, except for the fiddly, fleshy little nubbins extruding from the sides that are meant to represent "ribs." In fact — full disclosure — I ate the entire thing.

I felt so hollow afterward that it was as if my stomach had shifted entirely outside my body, as though my abdominal cavity was rejecting it in shame. This was a terrible thing to have eaten and I had no real excuse doing so. It contained no nutritional value whatsoever, and unlike the questionable tacos and other junk food fare I occasionally consume, it didn't even have the benefit of being so delicious as to excuse its negligible health benefits.

The "pork" inside the McRib tastes quite obviously fake. It has a curious spongy texture that allows your teeth to slide into the meat with almost no give whatsoever. It's like you're not eating real meat at all but something materialized on the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise or a piece of food that's fast fading in some airport during the course of the Langoliers. It's just...weird.

The pickles and onions, with their very real and very appropriate crunch, absolved the meat somewhat of its off-putting texture. But the bread suffered the same fate as the meat, falling apart in my mouth like dust as if it had never been real in the first place. I spent the next hour trying and failing to understand how there can be any passion around such a dull, lifeless thing. How is there a clamor for the McRib? In what way is it "epic" or "legendary"?

I am left today with the disappointing knowledge that there is a huge segment of my fellow Americans who look forward to this creepy fake meat every year with a hunger that borders on the pathological. I am not judging their taste — taste, after all, is subjective — but rather judging the quality of the food that people have come to revere. This silly, false thing. This vague improvement over potted meat.

I cringe as much as the next person when I hear words like "organic," "artisan" or "craft" overused or, worse, misapplied. But I'd far rather suffer a surfeit of foods in our nation that are leaning toward the real end of the spectrum than the fake. Because there is really no excuse for the McRib, and my life is poorer for my having tasted it.
_____________________

For Your Health

Hold the Wheat
Houston's best gluten-free dining options.

Katharine Shilcutt

Along with the increasing number of gluten-free diners are those diners who are searching for restaurants that specialize in gluten-free menu items yet are still mainstream enough to accommodate their friends and family. Luckily for them, more and more restaurants are doing just that.

One of the easiest routes to take as a GF diner is, of course, to familiarize yourself with cuisines which are naturally free of gluten. This means getting cozy with South Asian ethnic foods like Indian (steer clear of naan and puri shells), Pakistani and Thai or learning more about sushi — just be sure to ask for (or bring your own) gluten-free soy sauce.

Ethiopian is another easy option for GF diners: Injera, which forms the base of most meals, is made of teff flour and is naturally gluten-free — but also extremely nutritious. You use injera like a utensil to scoop up your food, which can be anything from all-vegetarian (lentils, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, greens and more) to meat-heavy (doro wot — or spicy chicken stew — is a personal favorite as is the raw beef treatment called kitfo).

But back to the idea of being gluten-free and mainstream. Here is a list of options, grouped by category, to please every palate:

Chains

While chains aren't always known for the quality of their food, the spots below are notable for a few reasons: They're conveniently located throughout the city, they're relatively inexpensive and all offer entire gluten-free menus — not just a few paltry GF substitutions. Outback was one of the first chains to offer a separate GF menu, and P.F. Chang's currently offers one of the largest. (One more fun fact: Saint Arnold brews the beer locally for the BJ's spots in and around Houston.)

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