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Here, Eat This

A beginner's guide to Indian cuisine.

On the Menu

Say you've decided to be spontaneous and embark on a new culinary adventure, sampling a brand new cuisine for the very first time. Good for you! You deserve a virtual high five.

But what do you order? This is a common concern among people who either decide to try something new or are outright afraid of trying something new. You don't want your first foray into a confusing new cuisine to be inedible. I didn't know menudo was filled with cow stomachs! you may cry, or How was I supposed to know that five chile peppers on the menu meant that I was going to turn inside out from pain?

The thali — India's version of a sampler platter — is a great way to try several items at once, as with the Yogi thali seen here from Pondicheri.
Katharine Shilcutt
The thali — India's version of a sampler platter — is a great way to try several items at once, as with the Yogi thali seen here from Pondicheri.
Bánh cuon at Banh Cuon Hoa.
Robb Walsh
Bánh cuon at Banh Cuon Hoa.
Fried shrimp po-boy at Cajun Town Cafe.
Benjamin Chan
Fried shrimp po-boy at Cajun Town Cafe.
Chef Ryan Savoie will have a new three-course prix-fixe lunch every weekday at the brewery.
Courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewery
Chef Ryan Savoie will have a new three-course prix-fixe lunch every weekday at the brewery.

That's where our beginner's guides come in. When I'm showing a friend a new cuisine for the first time, I try to order the most straightforward yet representative dishes possible for them. I want them to have a good first experience but also sample food that's just different enough to pique their interest for future dinners.

If you want to jump in head-first — again, good for you! Otherwise, give the dishes below a try if you're venturing out for your first Indian meal.

Note: For ease of explanation, the dishes that follow are sketched out in broad, accessible language. This is not a dissertation. And with so many regions in India — and South Asia, for that matter — this is by no means comprehensive, nor should you expect to find every dish here listed on every Indian menu.

Samosa

Every cuisine worth its stuff has a pocket food. Empanadas, pierogie, Cornish pasties, bao — you name it. The samosa is the Indian version of these portable treats, and it's popular throughout South Asia. The pastries can be baked or fried but are notable for their triangular shape. Inside the crispy, flaky flour shell you'll typically find an assortment of vegetables: Peas, potatoes and onions are most common. Samosas aren't always spicy but can be — just ask your server if you're concerned about heat levels. In my opinion, they're among the most accessible of Indian dishes thanks to their finger-food-friendly size and tasty, simple filling. I tend to think of samosas as an appetizer before a meal — little snacky bites of lightly spiced vegetables inside pastry pockets — although they can be eaten at any time.

Chutney and raita

Here's what you'll dip your samosas in, although these dressings/sauces have a variety of applications. "Chutney" is basically a word for any sauce featuring spice, fruit and/or vegetables. You'll most frequently find two kinds: red and green. The red is tamarind, which is both sweet and sour. The green is typically either mint or coriander. Think of them as the Indian version of salsas. Raita is a yogurt-based sauce with a blend of spices that can include cilantro, cumin, mint and other herbs. I like having raita on hand to cool off spicier dishes.

Naan

Do you like fat, fluffy rounds of bread a million times fluffier than the fluffiest piece of pita bread? Then you'll like naan. Everyone likes naan. It's amazing. Dip it into chutneys or some raita or into the sauce for your butter chicken or rogan josh. Do whatever you want with it. It's versatile and meant to be enjoyed throughout your meal.

Pakora

If you like vegetable tempura or fried okra or any other iteration of fried veggies you can think of, you'll probably like pakora. Although pakora can have chicken inside, most often you'll find battered vegetables. Look for eggplant, potato, onion, spinach and cauliflower as standards.

Saag paneer

This is the dish that first turned me on to Indian food, mostly because of my very white-person love for creamed spinach. Saag paneer is very similar but has cubes of soft cheese (like panela) bobbing in the creamed vegetable mixture. It's not just spinach in there, though; the bright green color of saag paneer comes from a blend of all kinds of greens, from collard greens to broccoli. It's one of the dishes you'll find most often on menus and buffets and one I can never pass up.

Tandoori chicken

A tandoor is simply an oven, and tandoori chicken is — to put it even more simply — just roasted chicken with a few spices. The bright reddish-­orange color of the chicken comes from that spice blend: Turmeric, cayenne pepper, chile powder and paprika can all be used. Despite this, the tandoori chicken you'll encounter over here is rarely very spicy. Instead, it's generally savory with a hint of smoky sweetness from the paprika and the oven itself.

Chana masala

Chana masala is a dish that reminds me strongly of chili, if chili were made with chickpeas instead of beef. The little garbanzo beans ("chana") are stewed down in a blend of chopped tomatoes, onions and spices including garlic, chile peppers and garam masala (a curry blend that features pepper, cloves, cinnamon, cumin and cardamom). It makes a hearty main dish despite being vegetarian and also makes for great leftovers heated up the next day.

Chicken korma

Both chicken korma and butter chicken are among the most approachable Indian dishes: They're creamy, stew-like concoctions in which chicken is braised in a velvety sauce made with butter, coconut milk, cream, or yogurt plus some mild spices. In the case of korma, the sauce is slightly sweet, slightly nutty (it's not odd to find cashews in here), and slightly smoky from cumin and other spices. You'll even find a few vegetables floating around in the thick stew, which you can sop up with pieces of naan.

Dahi puri

These little snacks are one to two bites each (depending on how dainty an eater you are) and packed with flavor. This is perhaps the most "advanced" item on this easygoing beginner's list, solely because of the blend of flavors and ingredients found in each puffy puri shell. But it's also my favorite. It's not just about the brightly bouncing flavors inside shells — sour-sweet tamarind chutney, tangy yogurt, spicy mint chutney, stiff red onions, herbal cilantro — but about the contrasts in textures and temperatures. The chickpeas inside are soft and tender under the boisterous crunch of the puri shells and shreds of sev, the yogurt cold and bracing against the warmer chutneys.

Gulab jamun and kheer

What's a meal without dessert? Think of gulab jamun as Indian donut holes, the little balls of dough fried and then coated with a glaze of simple syrup laced with rose water. The dough soaks up that sweet, sugary syrup, which oozes out as you take a bite. And kheer is simply the rice pudding that's featured as a dessert across dozens of different cuisines. Here it's jazzed up with a variety of ingredients: You'll find it plain or topped with items such as pistachios, raisins, cardamom pods and more.

Mango lassi

Ah, mango lassi. Think about the best mango smoothie you've ever had. This is better.
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Garden Fresh

When Life Hands You Lemons
Houston-grown citrus is everywhere this year.

Catherine Arnold

The first thing I noticed upon returning to Houston after 14 years away? Flipping citrus is everywhere.

In December, when I arrived, a laden grapefruit tree was around every corner, satsumas fell and gathered beneath their bushes, bright lemons winked from boughs, and kumquats — those pellets of pure Vitamin C — were just getting started.

Growing up here in the 1970s, I recall only the occasional banana tree, the kumquats and the loquats on their sharp-leafed dusky trees. They were all a mystery — and the loquats were relegated to the birds.

Now I'm officially an Overeager Citrus ­Person.

This can lead to mistakes. For instance, not long ago, I had juice from a lemon in a Clear Lake backyard. Shockingly, it was sweet. I was amazed by its frothy, forgiving flavor.

We gathered bags of the lemons, took them home and rejoiced when juice at home tasted just as good as from the bush.

The lemon's identity remained a mystery. My friend in Clear Lake had gotten permission to pick an out-of-town neighbor's fruit, and she didn't know the tree's name. After a flurry of online research and asking around, I found a piece in the Los Angeles Times about Persian lemons.

Wow, I thought: sweet lemons with a pleasing history. In the LA Times article, a child had planted a Persian lemon seed, and it became a thriving shrub. This was unusual in the citrus world, where most trees must be grafted.

At my next stop, Central Market, I stood before a bin of fragrant citrus that looked like those in the article on Persian lemons. Each was headily perfumed in the way that rose water wafts a scent.

At home, I compared my newly acquired citrus with those from Clear Lake and realized: Ouch, no dice.

My Clear Lake lemons were thick-skinned and bumpy and had knobs of citrus flesh at each stem end. They lacked the Persian fruit's perfume.

It was humbling. Maybe this type of mistake isn't so unusual, though, considering that the Houston area now has more than 70 varieties of citrus, according to Buchanan's Native Plants, and that gardener John Panzarella now grows nearly 200 types of citrus in his yard along Lake Jackson's Oyster Creek, 50 miles southwest of Houston.

Why the sudden explosion of citrus? It's about advances in grafting techniques, says Buchanan's David Haynes.

"Advances...have made a wide variety of frost-tender citrus available to Texans, and especially Houstonians, that previously were unheard of," Haynes says. "Gone are the days when we were able only to grow kumquats and satsumas."

As for my bumpy Clear Lake lemons, Diana Riga from Urban Harvest thought they might be Ujukitsu, a Japanese varietal brought to the United States in the 1960s.

With all this local-fruit abundance, chefs are snapping up Houston-grown citrus.

"Houston grows great citrus varietals," says Sparrow owner and chef Monica Pope. "Using them has been one of our givens, as common to us as using greens and shell beans, peas and okra."

Sparrow uses Meyer lemons in a cocktail with spiced rum, maple syrup, dark rum and baked-apple bitters.

Ever tried making a decent cocktail from peas and okra? Houston-grown citrus, it's here to stay.
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Top 10

First-Class Fare
Top 10 restaurants NEAR Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Katharine Shilcutt

I'm not gonna lie: Finding good eats around Intercontinental Airport (or, if you must, Bush Intercontinental Airport — true Houstonians still say "The Summit," "Transco Tower" and "Intercontinental Airport") is tough. This isn't like eating around Hobby Airport, where you're smack in the middle of the city and interesting dining neighborhoods like south Houston abound.

No. Greenspoint and the areas near Intercontinental are mostly a wasteland of chain restaurants, mediocre hotels filled with exhausted business travelers and one of the city's saddest malls.

That said, it is still possible to eke out some good food in the area. This is Houston, after all. If you can't find at least ten decent restaurants within a ten-mile radius, you're not trying hard enough.

Even more promising is the fact that many of those good, decent restaurants serve some of the city's most iconic cuisines — Tex-Mex, seafood, Vietnamese, Cajun and Southern — so you can direct those sad-sack business travelers to experience a little of Houston while they're in the area. I know from experience: Room service gets real old after a few trips.

10. Waffle House

Go on ahead and hate. I don't care. Waffle House is a beacon of sanity after a long plane ride into an unfamiliar city. Cheese grits and syrup-drenched waffles from this diner chain are one of my favorite indulgences — especially on the road, where the familiarity of the food can afford the same relaxation as a hot bath or a fluffy hotel robe.

9. Pappasito's

Again, keep on hating. Sure, this is a chain restaurant. But it's a Houston chain and a successful one at that. Successful because the Tex-Mex dishes are good and the service is friendly — even if the food itself is overpriced. Your out-of-town guests won't care, though. Pappasito's gives the people what they want: strong margaritas, tender fajitas on fresh flour tortillas, crunchy chips and gooey queso.

8. Super Chicken

Still not supporting Chick-fil-A? Super Chicken has you covered. This homegrown restaurant (with only one location, up in Greenspoint) boasts a mostly chicken menu featuring the fowl in numerous applications: chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches, chicken salads and chicken soup. Instead of waffle fries, Super Chicken has sweet potato waffle fries. Instead of carrot salad, broccoli salad. And thin-sliced roast beef that's roasted in house.

7. Banh Cuon Hoa

Banh Cuon Hoa is the first of two Vietnamese restaurants in the area that are so good, you'll forget about driving down to Chinatown. Like its sister restaurant on Beechnut, Banh Cuon Hoa specializes in banh cuon. These little "rolled cakes" look like softer, looser spring rolls and are wrapped in thick, chewy rice sheets. The snowy sheets can contain shrimp, pork, beef and/or vegetables — depending on what you order — and are best dipped in the sweetly tart nuoc cham sauce that comes with them. Banh Cuon Hoa was recently renovated, too, so it shouldn't startle non-Houstonians nearly as much now.

6. Super Tacos Lucy

If you just can't stomach the idea of eating at a Pappasito's, this cute pink truck is where you can score some legit Mexican food. For a taco truck, the food at Super Tacos Lucy is actually presented quite nicely, and there's even a shaded seating area (shhhhhh). Burritos are a favorite due to sheer size, but I prefer the more delicate pleasures of two hot, griddled corn tortillas filled with juicy fajita beef and topped with a scatter of raw white onions.

5. Pho Hu Tieu Nam Vang

As with Banh Cuon Hoa, the idea at Pho Hu Tieu Nam Vang is to stick with the pho. (This is generally the rule at all Vietnamese restaurants, you've probably learned by now; order what's in the name.) But you'll also want to give the hu tieu Nam Vang a try — yes, that's the name of a dish, too! Think of it as the Khmer version of pho. It's made with pork stock and originally featured only pork (along with garlic and other spices) until Cambodians took the noodle soup with them to Vietnam. There the southern Vietnamese adapted the dish to include shrimp, squid and other Viet ingredients. The result is a hybrid soup that's named for Phnom Penh (Nam Vang means Phnom Penh in Vietnamese) but now has a distinctly Vietnamese flavor ­profile.

4. Maine-ly Sandwiches

All that stuff I wrote about ra-ra-Houston? Forget that for one moment, because you're going to be all ra-ra-Maine and ra-ra-lobster after eating at Maine-ly Sandwiches. Houston doesn't really have lobster rolls because we don't have lobster in abundance. (We do, however, have crawfish rolls.) We also have a dearth of people from Maine to show us how a proper lobster roll is made. Enter the Maine-owned Maine-ly Sandwiches, which offers a full and proper lobster roll...for $18. (Don't worry; you can get a half for $9.) There are other sandwiches on the menu, too, but ­LOBSTER. ­Seriously.

3. Cajun Town Cafe

Don't judge this book by its cover. Cajun Town Cafe may look grim, but it's well known for having some of the best Cajun (and Salvadoran) food in the city. Founded by former ­Pappadeaux employee Moises Marquez, a Salvadoran who worked his way up from busboy to head cook at the chain's location on the South Loop, this is the second location of Cajun Town and one of my favorite spots for gumbo and fried shrimp po-boys.

2. Captain Benny's

Captain Benny's has its own fleet of shrimping vessels and other fishing boats, which is the best way to ensure the seafood a restaurant is receiving is fresh, local and un-messed-around-with. This also means the seafood is far cheaper than at restaurants that deal with middlemen. The little boat-shaped Captain Benny's restaurants are a reliable source of beautiful Gulf ­oysters (in season) as well as any other Gulf seafood you can think of.

1. Resie's Chicken and Waffles

Guess what? You don't need to stand in line at the breakfast klub for excellent chicken and waffles. Instead you can head to Resie's, where Resie herself uses her grandmothers' recipes for fried chicken and golden waffles to great acclaim. You can even get them all day long, but you'll want to explore the other sections of Resie's menu: Baked mac 'n' cheese and fried okra don't pair well with waffles, but they're great on the Fat Mac Combo with four Southern-style chicken wings.
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Coltivare tries to cultivate community support.

Katharine Shilcutt

The wait is over: Goro & Gun — the hotly awaited downtown ramen shop at 306Main — officially opened for business last Friday at 4 p.m. Goro & Gun is only serving dinner for now, but lunch looks to be in its future.

Saint Arnold Brewery also started serving its new lunch program last week, with last Friday as its third day in operation. "Getting hungry for today's @SaintArnold lunch," wrote founder Brock Wagner on Twitter last week. "Come eat the noble swine cooked with root beer. Claim you only drank root beer too." Chef Ryan Savoie will be serving a new three-course prix-fixe menu every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.

A reader wrote in last week worried that Cafe Rita — the much loved Armenian-Lebanese mom-and-pop restaurant on Dairy Ashford — had closed. Don't worry, foul fans: Cafe Rita has simply moved. Its new address is 2352 Dairy Ashford, which westsiders will know as the old Steak It Easy spot.

Now for the sad news: Houston is losing a legend. Marfreless is closing after 40 years of being known as the city's pre-eminent makeout bar and one of its hidden treasures. (See "Last Kiss" in Music, page 39.) The bar behind the blue door in the River Oaks Shopping Center never had a sign, but its fans always found their way.

"Marfreless's owners have been trying to do whatever they could to keep the bar operational, but other entities involved weren't budging in regards to the rising cost of doing business, making it impossible to keep the business at this location," the bar stated on its Web site. "To save this distinguished community establishment, Marfreless is currently looking at other locations."

Meanwhile, Montrose juice bar Roots Juice closed after less than a year in business. Whitney Radley reports in CultureMap that "while the details following former general manager Becki O'Brien's late-February departure are unclear, we're happy to report that the juices are still on the menu and back to normal — except that they're now on the menu next door at Roots Bistro."

In other noteworthy closures, Les Givral Kahve on Market Square has served its last banh mi. Owner Qui Ly was tight-lipped as to why the shop was closing — especially in the wake of all the new openings around a reinvigorated Market Square — but told the Houston Chronicle's Syd Kearney that there "is a slight chance that [Les Givral] will come back with [its] BanhMieria concept."

Lastly, two Houston locations of nationwide chain Seasons 52 Fresh Grill are scheduled to open soon. One at 4410 Westheimer, which is the location of a silly-sounding development called High Street (this isn't England; we don't have High Streets in our towns or cities) and one in Memorial at CityCentre. At least Seasons 52 Fresh Grill's incredibly silly name matches its silly new spot on Westheimer.

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