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Here, Eat This

A beginner's guide to Argentine cuisine.

On the Menu

For this week's edition of Here, Eat This, we venture into South America, where hardy Houstonians possessed of a hearty appetite will find much to love in the pampas of Argentina.

Much like Korea, Argentina is yet another beef-obsessed nation, one where the cowboys routinely consume 150 to 200 pounds of beef per person each year. Much like Texas, however, the country's varied cultural influences have created an atmosphere that blends foods and influences seamlessly.

The morcilla is that plump black sausage in the center.
Troy Fields
The morcilla is that plump black sausage in the center.
Empanadas at Marini's.
Troy Fields
Empanadas at Marini's.
Royal Oak offers chicken and waffles at brunch.
Brooke Viggiano
Royal Oak offers chicken and waffles at brunch.
The Swaggy Dog roll from Muishii Makiritos.
Katharine Shilcutt
The Swaggy Dog roll from Muishii Makiritos.

Italian and German immigrants to the country brought their culture, architecture, music and food — especially to the capital city of Buenos Aires, which could pass as an old European city at first glance — and those cuisines have melded with Spanish and native Indian foods to create a national cuisine that's as much a melting pot as our own.

It's not unusual to find Italian dishes such as pizza and pasta, German dishes like schnitzel (repurposed here as milanesa) and Spanish dishes like empanadas all keeping company together on one menu. Argentines even have their own version of barbecue, called asado. Argentine restaurants offer food that's accessible to even the shyest eater — but there are still a few odd and interesting gems to be appreciated along the way.

Asado

As mentioned, this is the Argentine version of barbecue. Food writer and historian John T. Edge, speaking at the recent Foodways Texas symposium, noted that the word "barbacoa" (from which "barbecue" stems) originally referred only to the structure used to elevate and cook the meat over an open flame. Typical asados in Argentina are the precursor to a George Foreman grill: Foods are fastened to a large tilted grilling area that allows the fat to drip off while the meat cooks over hot coals. The result — as seen at restaurants such as Pampa Grill — is meat that's flavored with the rugged char of the grill instead of greasy smoke. Anything from chicken to beef can be cooked this way, although it's most common to find short ribs, flank steak, skirt steak and offal on the asado.

Morcilla and mollejas

I don't need to explain ribs or steak, but these two items are equally popular asado-style meats. If you order a parillada (a portable hibachi-style grill that's delivered to your table with the sizzling asado-cooked meat heaped on top), you'll probably find both among the piles of beef. Morcilla is the Argentine version of blood sausage — a delicacy found across the world, also called "black pudding" — served in giant, plump links that bear a creamy, nutmeg- and clove-laced interior once you cut through the tender skin. Mollejas are simply sweetbreads, those unctuous little offal rounds, crisped up on the grill and full of flavor.

Empanada

Every culture has a pocket food. In Argentina — as with its original colonial power, Spain — it's the empanada. But there are a few specialty flavors to look for when you're browsing Argentine delis like Manena's or Marini's: Empanadas de humita bring to mind corn casseroles with their filling of lightly creamed corn and red peppers, while the empanadas de carne are filled with juicy ground beef mixed with green peppers, onions and chile ­powder.

Milanesa

Milanesa, one of the national dishes of Argentina, is the most popular lunch item at Manena's in far west Houston. While in Argentina it's traditionally served alongside a heap of mashed potatoes, here the thinly pounded, breaded beef cutlet comes with a side of thick, crispy french fries. You can also have your milanesa on freshly baked French bread, laden with tomatoes, lettuce, white onions, mustard and homemade mayonnaise — a sandwich that I've often said is one of the best in Houston.

Sándwiches de miga

Another Argentinean specialty, sándwiches de migas are strongly reminiscent of the finger sandwiches you may have encountered at church potlucks and family picnics. Made with thin, crustless slices of white bread, the sandwiches are topped with an assortment of meats and cheeses such as prosciutto and provolone. More exciting varieties abound, though, like Roquefort with walnuts and celery or pimiento with red peppers, ham and eggs. In keeping with the dish's popularity as a cheap meal, a tray of sándwiches de migas costs $8 at places like Manena's and could feed four people.

Pizza

Italians first came to Argentina in 1857, arriving in huge waves throughout the next 100 years until the 1950s. People of Italian descent now make up a majority of Argentina's population at 60 percent, or 25 million Italian-Argentinians. Naturally, Italian foods like pizza and pasta are enormously popular. You can try Argentine (and Brazilian) pizza in Houston at places like Piola, where toppings include Argentine favorites like ham, olives, sweet red pepper and anchovies. For a really authentic experience, try the Portici; it comes without tomato sauce but with a topping of crushed cherry tomatoes, oregano, mozzarella fior di latte and fresh basil.

Ravioles and ñoquis

Along with pizza, pasta is extremely popular. Ravioles like the classic sorrentinos — shaped like sombreros and filled with ham, mozzarella and ricotta — were invented in Argentina, not Italy. And ñoquis (Spanish for "gnocchis") are eaten for good luck on the 29th day of every month in honor of Saint Pantaleon, the patron saint of Venice, whose feast day falls on the 29th. Leaving a dollar or two under your empty bowl is said to bring more financial luck, which is further enhanced at the all-you-can-eat gnocchi days Piola hosts on the 29th of each month.

Alfajores and medialunas

These are just two of the baked goods Argentine bakeries are known for, among others like the fanciful cañoncitos topped with a thick swirl of caramel cream and the dulce de leche-filled colaciones that look like cornucopia horns. Alfajores are simply shortbread cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche (or sometimes chocolate), while medialunas are flaky, buttery croissant-based pastries often eaten for breakfast, dipped in milky cafe con leche.

Gelato

Argentines are crazy for cold treats, so it should come as no surprise that the best gelato maker in Houston is from Argentina. Marcelo Kreindel makes the same cool, creamy desserts at Trentino Gelato that are popular back in his hometown of Buenos Aires. Trentino doesn't have a storefront, but it does supply most of the city's best restaurants and coffee shops with their gelato. You can also purchase pints of it at grocery stores like Spec's and Phoenicia, in typically Argentine flavors like dulce de leche and lúcuma.
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Breakfast

A Royal Affair
Brunch and $7 pitchers of mimosas at Royal Oak Bar & Grill.

Brooke Viggiano

Sundays are made for mimosas. The weekend is nearly over and you can feel your freedom fading faster than a Houston winter. It all seems to be going downhill. That is, until you remember you have the holy grail of weekend activities summoning you from the cocoon of blankets you've so delicately wrapped yourself in: the forever-sacred Sunday brunch.

Recently, still feeling the remnants of a particularly fun Saturday night, I tried Royal Oak Bar & Grill for the first time...and even with a wee bit of a hangover, I was pleasantly surprised.

After parking around the corner (you can also deal with the lot across the street or valet), we sat ourselves on the patio out front, where the fans were humming and the music was cooing just loud enough to bury the sounds of the Westheimer traffic. The relaxing atmosphere and promise of $7 pitchers of mimosas were enough for me to let go of my post-Saturday anxiety.

The bar and restaurant sports an eclectic interior that's half swanky speakeasy and half hunting lodge, and it offers a brunch menu filled with omelets, breakfast pizzas and tacos, $4 Bloody Marys and more from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Rumor has it the front patio can get packed with a high-energy Sunday crowd once the live DJ comes on, but on my visit it was quite tame.We ordered a mimosa pitcher to start as we pondered the menu, but because it was just before noon, we couldn't be served alcohol until there was food at the table. No matter — our waitress, saint that she was, brought out our pitcher and two tall glasses of water at 12 p.m. on the dot.

By then, we had decided on our breakfast: a split between the fried chicken and waffles and a breakfast pizza. While both entrées were rather large and certainly enough that we could have split just one, I was more than happy to taste a little of each.

The vanilla-laced waffle was doughy and fluffy on the inside but had enough crisp to hold up a slathering of syrup and chicken. It came in wedges next to two battered and fried chicken thighs — one of which, despite my departing appetite, I picked at until its demise. The chicken was done just right: juicy and tender meat enveloped in a thick, crunchy coating with a hint of spice. Heat lovers may want to splash on some more hot sauce, but we had our pizza for that.

Our square pie came layered with tiny crumbles of spicy chorizo, scrambled eggs, stringy mozzarella, fresh green onions and a healthy dose of hot sauce — all of which, surprisingly, the ultra-thin crust held up to with ease.

The pizza is kind of everything I'd ever want in a breakfast thrown onto a thin, charred flatbread and baked until gooey and golden. With each loaded bite, I wished I had room for more — but alas, the button on my shorts was beginning to pop.

We thanked our kind server and left with warm hearts and heavy stomachs. Next time, we'll bring more friends to share with.
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Top 10

Gourmet to Go
Houston's 10 best "fancy" food trucks.

Katharine Shilcutt

Houston food trucks have never been more clever, more inventive or more consistently enjoyable than they are right now. (The most recent sold-out Haute Wheels food truck festival can surely attest to that.) A few years of winnowing out dilettantes since the first "fancy" food trucks started hitting the streets in 2010 has distilled the selection into the best and brightest mobile food units we've ever had to offer.

Some of the "old-timers" are still around, albeit in different iterations: Oh My! Pocket Pies, for example, concentrates more on catering and direct sales to spots like Inversion Coffee House these days. Zilla Street Eats is defunct, but you can find very similar dishes at chef Jason Kerr's new restaurant, Hollister Grill. The Modular has been transformed into Goro & Gun, a downtown ramen shop drawing lots of local attention. And The Eatsie Boys have gone full brick-and-mortar, opening a full-service restaurant of the same name in Montrose.

But the big guns like H-Town StrEATs, Phamily Bites and Bernie's Burger Bus have never left the road, and are still trucking today. Bernie's has done so well for itself, in fact, that owner Justin Turner now has a fleet of bright yellow school buses roaming the city.

Meanwhile, promising new faces are cropping up every day: Look for trucks such as Craft Infusion, Miso Yummy and Fraiche to dominate this list next year, if their food stays as fun and fresh as it is right now. And while we have far, far, far more than ten terrific food trucks in this city, here are the ten best (give or take a few) on the streets today.

10. Breakfast Burritos Anonymous

A breakfast food truck was exactly what we needed. And in a city dominated by breakfast tacos, it's kind of refreshing to see a breakfast burrito place step in to fill that vacuum. The BBA Mobile, as it's often referred to, is usually parked outside Inversion Coffee House bright and early in the mornings. Besides just burritos — which you can customize with a huge list of ingredients, including healthy options such as turkey sausage and egg whites — the BBA Mobile offers other breakfast dishes, too. Try the Flapstick, which is essentially a breakfast corn dog: a sausage wrapped in pancake and dipped in syrup. Good thing you've got all day to work that off...

9. Muishii Makirritos

Muishii Makirritos is the newest food truck on this list, debuting late last year. But like the BBA Mobile, it filled a niche no other truck yet had: sushi. This isn't serious sushi but the sort of fun, silly, Americanized rolls with names like Swaggy Dog and fillings like crunchy fried shrimp, crab meat and spicy mayo. The truck also offers terrific Japanese-style karaage fried chicken and — wait for it — egg rolls filled with macaroni and cheese.

8. Good Dog Food Truck / Happy Endings

These are the two trucks I turn to when I'm in search of a top-notch hot dog, although each truck boasts very distinct offerings. At Good Dog, it's twists on standards like Chicago or Sonoran hot dogs, along with dogs of their own invention. My favorite is the Sunshine Dog, topped with pickled red onions, fresh dill relish, cream cheese and mayonnaise. Happy Endings is run by husband-and-wife team Emily Ng and Ryan Javier. Ng is Chinese and Javier Filipino, and their fusion marriage carries over into fusion cuisine, where the menu careens cheerfully between American, Korean and Japanese ingredients and flavors. Here, hot dogs are topped with bonito, kimchi, cream cheese, scallions and more, such as the Tsunami dog with seaweed and mayonnaise.

7. Flip 'n Patties / Koagie Hots

The second (and last, I promise) tie on the list is between my two favorite Asian fusion trucks. Flip 'n Patties features Filipino street food, burgers, the most amazing french fries slathered in mayonnaise and sesame seeds, and karaoke, courtesy of a TV screen and sound system embedded in the truck. Koagie Hots offers hot dogs, just like Good Dog and Happy Endings, and more — with a Korean twist. The kimchi here is homemade, and is absolutely stunning atop a mound of cheese fries, plus you haven't lived until you've tried a Philly cheesesteak filled with bulgogi.

6. Ladybird

The truck housed in a bright yellow school bus describes itself best: "Ladybird offers tasty, creative food inspired by familiar favorites." This means dishes that range from a chicken tikka taco on homemade flour tortillas topped with pickled red onions, diced radishes and mint chutney to a grilled cheese sandwich with Cheddar and goat cheese sandwiching sour slices of green tomatoes. And being a beet lover, I'm particularly intrigued by a current side of fried beets that I hope will turn more people onto the sweet, earthy root vegetable.

5. The Rice Box

Would you believe me if I told you that some of the best fried chicken in town comes from a Chinese food truck? Well, believe it — because the Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck rivals Frenchy's and the breakfast klub with its golden, crunchy, lightly battered drumsticks. That's not all this truck — usually found outside Poison Girl or Anvil — does best. Expect old-school Chinese-American cuisine done with attention to quality ingredients and classic flavors, all wrapped up in a cute Chinese take-out box.

4. Phamily Bites

Chef and owner Van Pham is practically the godfather of the current food truck scene, having started Phamily Bites in the spring of 2011 after moving back to Houston from San Fransciso. It was the first Vietnamese food truck in the city and is still the best, serving signature items like "The Vandalizer" banh mi filled with bo luc lac (garlic-marinated cubes of filet mignon) and cups of pho out of the bright yellow truck garnished with Pham's sly slogan: "Let's get pho cup'd."

3. Pi Pizza

You'd never know Pi Pizza chef and owner Anthony Calleo used to work in commercial real estate, so inventive and intricately balanced are his wildly creative pies. (The head-to-toe tattoos make it tough to believe his former career, too.) You'll typically find Pi Pizza's truck — named Pythagoras — parked outside Catbird's in Montrose, but Calleo delivers, too. The pizzas he makes fall into two categories: drunk food of the highest order (see the Cheeto-topped 420 slice) or impeccably crafted gourmet pizzas like arugula, Maytag blue cheese and cherries in port wine syrup.

2. Bernie's Burger Bus

Looking for the platonic ideal of a hamburger? Look no further than Justin Turner's fleet of buses, named for his beloved grandfather. Winner of the 2012 Houston Press Burger Bracket, Bernie's Burger Bus is the true definition of a gourmet food truck, utilizing the freshest ingredients — fresh-ground Black Angus beef, freshly made baked buns and homemade condiments — to make one of the juiciest, tastiest burgers you'll ever have the pleasure of eating. The school-themed menu features a traditional burger called "The Principal"; the double-patty Texas-cheddar topped "The Bully"; and the "Study Hall" burger, topped with barbecue sauce and crispy-seared, slow-braised pork belly. Only the truly brave will want to tackle "The Detention"; just ask for it and you'll see why.

1. H-Town StrEATs

On any given day, you'll find the personable Jason Hill and/or Matt Opaleski manning the "ugliest food truck" in Houston, serving dishes like crawfish tacos with Tabasco aioli that taste like they should be much more expensive than $3. In fact, whether it's H-Town's infamous boudin balls with creole mustard, its fried avocado taco with cilantro slaw, its burger with sautéed mushrooms and cheese, or its watermelon agua fresca, pretty much everything that you try at this truly gourmet food truck is going to be a winner. The menu changes often, too, so no need to worry about eating the same old, same old. Even if you followed the truck around like a die-hard disciple, the menu is extensive enough that you'd still be able to enjoy a different meal every day. Food sells out quickly, so try to visit at the beginning of service.
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Woodrow's taking over Washington.

Katharine Shilcutt

Last week was full of good news, bad news, blind items and idle speculation. In other words, buckle up for a bumpy ride of a round-up.

First is news from B4-U-Eat that Portugallia — the city's only Portuguese and Angolan restaurant — closed quietly a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant we reviewed in February 2012 offered great Portuguese fare but suffered from unsteady service and an odd location along Westheimer. Its outdoor waterfall will certainly be missed, but we hope another restaurant is able to make use of the pretty little spot.

Palm Restaurant is also closed, but as Greg Morago at the Houston Chronicle reported last week, it's only temporary. The Galleria-area steakhouse, which originally opened in 1978, is remodeling and will unveil its new design sometime this summer.

In other steak-y news, Texas de Brazil Churrascaria is now open at CityCentre. This is the first Houston location for the Dallas-based steakhouse, and it's celebrating by offering a free dessert to every paying diner through April 30 and caipirinha cocktails on the house — even if you're not eating — through April 15.

In other opening news, La Madeleine announced in a press release last week that it would add between eight and ten new stores to the Houston market over the next few years. Like Texas de Brazil, the French chain is also based in Dallas. In addition to giving a few of its older restaurants facelifts, La Madeleine has also added a few new dishes for spring like its mini croque trio (turkey, bacon and tomato, chicken pesto, and traditional croque monsieur) and an orange dream cake with toasted almonds.

Looking ahead into future openings, Eater Houston reports that yet another Woodrow's is taking over yet another Washington Avenue space. The old Mardi Gras Grill on Dunham became Woodrow's Heights last year, and now the old Block 7 Wine Company is transforming into a Little Woodrow's. It will be the sixth Little Woodrow's location in Houston. The other Woodrow's — both Big Woodrow's and Woodrow's Heights — are owned and operated independently. This time next year, look for half the empty bar and restaurant spaces in Houston to also become Woodrow's of some kind. It's inevitable at this point.

Eater Houston also reports that chef David Grossman of the now-closed Branch Water Tavern and girlfriend/partner Julia Sharaby are close to signing a lease that would move Sharaby's former food truck, Fusion Tacos, into the recently vacated Les Givrals space on Market Square. The new location for Fusion Tacos would mark the latest in a string of high-profile downtown openings along Main Street and Market Square, although it's a bit of an odd choice. Fusion Tacos was one of the first food trucks in Houston but one of the least successful, and hasn't been on the streets in more than a year. The truck was notoriously unreliable (and we're not talking about its engine) and offered fairly poor customer service when it was out and about. Perhaps a brick-and-mortar location will suit the taco-slingers better, though.

In happier news, Ramen Tatsu-ya is encouraging rumors that it's considering a second location in Houston. The Austin-based ramen shop even Tweeted last week: "This is NOT set in stone, but keeping eyes open..."

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