Dinner with Friends
To see more of Friends Pizzeria's big, beautiful burgers and pizzas, check out our slideshow.
Nothing could have prepared me for my first X-Tudo burger. I'd read about them before. Seen a few grainy pictures on the Internet, but never expected to find it here in Houston. And yet here it was, sitting in front of me at Friends Pizzeria in all its glory.
Vegetables poured out of the burger on all sides: tomatoes here, corn there, potato sticks askance, peas slipping out from under a blanket of ham. And the meat — so much meat. That slice of ham was joined by several thick, blistery slices of bacon and the actual burger itself: a huge, handformed patty that was roughhewn and rustic. Its craggy surface had been filled in on one side with a slice of American cheese. An unusually thin yet sturdy bun held the thing together. Its sweetness was the first thing I noticed as I took an initial, exploratory bite.
Yes, the patty was too well-done for my tastes. So was the fried egg on top, rendering its presence moot. But every other aspect of the X-Tudo burger was so interesting that I didn't care. The corn and peas were sweet and crunchy, the potato sticks adding an additional pleasant shatter. Ham and bacon and mayonnaise and cheese all melted together to form a sort of tug-of-war in each bite: savory and fatty against sweet and crisp.
The burger was gone within minutes.
X-Tudo, which means "everything with cheese" (more or less) in Portuguese and is pronounced "shees TOO-do," is the classic style of burger back in Brazil. Friends Pizzeria owner Ronaldo Gomes comes from a tiny town in Brazil. So small, he laughs, that they "don't have McDonald's or Burger King."
"That's what we used to eat all the time," says Gomes. "It's more like in small towns. It's the same thing with the hot dogs. In Brazil you can find the hot dogs and burgers like street food."
"But," he says, "I don't know who came up with this idea. I know they been eating these type of burgers for many years." No one seems to really know the exact origin behind the X-Tudo burger and its offshoots, many of which are served at Friends Pizzeria: X-Galinha (with chicken), X-Guloso (with potato skins) and X-Picanha (with chopped sirloin steak), among others.
"A lot of people order the X-Tudo," says Gomes. "They're thinking in their head that the corn and peas are mixed into the ground beef," he laughs. They're relieved to learn that corn and peas are just a topping, two of many that Brazilians are known to throw madly onto any street food that will stay still long enough.
"You'd think this would just be straightforward stuff," says my coworker Mandy over lunch one day at Friends. "Hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza. But it's not." We laugh and look at the spread in front of us: a Brazilian hot dog strewn with marinara sauce and potato sticks; a Mixta pizza with more corn and peas as well as that Brazilian specialty, catupiry cheese; and a X-Picanha burger with glistening strips of sirloin smeared in mayonnaise, bits of corn dangling crazily off the sides.
"The catupiry cheese," Gomes told me, "a lot of Brazilians eat for breakfast: Just put some on bread with milk and coffee." That catupiry cheese is a rare find in Houston. Only one other pizza place in town — Piola, which also has restaurants in Brazil — carries it. And although I love Piola, they can be a bit stingy with the stuff. After tasting it just once, I craved it like mad until my next fix at Friends: It's downy and creamy in texture and taste, with just the slightest hint of earthy, mushroomy funk — like Brie blended with butter.
Here, it's best on the Mixta and the Four Cheese pizzas. Brazilian pizza is thinner and softer than your typical American or Italian-style pizzas. There's no tug in the crust; it's low-gluten stuff that Gomes and his partner — Houston native Asif Lodhi — make fresh every day using a recipe that Gomes perfected a decade ago. There's very little tomato sauce, either. It's almost charred on the bottom, like a piece of fresh pita bread.
Gomes tells me that the Four Cheese and the Mixta — again, with its topping of peas, corn, onions, olives and green peppers — are the favorites among his ex-pat clientele. "They say it tastes just like Brazil," he says.
But I'm equally happy with a Gaucha pizza here, with soft ribbons of shaved sirloin steak cloaked in melty provolone and barely caramelized onions. Taken with the texture of the unusual pizza dough, it's almost like eating a pizza-shaped flatbread.
Mandy ate half of her Mixta pizza quickly — a small will easily feed two people — but not nearly as quickly as our other coworker, Steve, had demolished his X-Picanha burger. Although the steak was a bit gristly in places, I ended up liking it more than my original X-Tudo burger, to my great surprise. While the handformed patties are admirable, the X-Picanha is the way to go if you're looking for a lot of ooze in your burger — or steak, as it were.
Meanwhile, I was simply excited to finally try a Brazilian-style hot dog; Friends had been out of the dogs and buns on my last two visits. And with the monstrous thing finally in front of me, the anticipation was finally over.
The bun was the size of two bolillos put together. Inside was a long, fat, all-beef frank, covered in thick marinara sauce and topped with corn, peas, potato sticks and a wild drizzle of mayonnaise. This is dragged through the garden, Brazilian-style. And like a classic Chicago hot dog, it tastes far better than it sounds: fresh, vibrant and vitally connected to its homeland. There's no mistaking this hot dog for anything else, and that's how Gomes likes it.
Ronaldo Gomes and Asif Lodhi originally started Friends Pizzeria ten years ago in Somerville, a small town in Massachusetts that was Lodhi's wife's hometown. In the predominantly Portuguese and Brazilian neighborhood, Friends was a hit. But when Lodhi decided to move back to Houston, Gomes was game to try opening a similar restaurant here despite our rather small Brazilian population.
"It was very, very hard," says Lodhi. Finding a space that didn't charge $7,000 or $8,000 a month was a struggle. "We can't afford to have those fancy-dancy things," he said. They just wanted a little shop with low overhead, and they finally found it next to Genji — the Japanese karaoke bar — on Westheimer near Hillcroft and opened three months ago.
Like Genji, Friends stays open late into the night: 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. A perfect one-two punch of international festivities is to get howling mad on sake at Genji and work your lungs out singing karaoke, then toddle next door to Friends afterward for some recuperative pizza and burgers. Wings and pasta and even regular pepperoni pizzas are also on the menu for those not interested in a temporary trip to Rio. And although it doesn't currently serve alcohol, Friends should receive its liquor license soon.
On the weekends, you'll find more Brazilians in the small space than Americans. Lodhi tends to everyone who comes in as if he were hosting people in his own home; the dining room is sparsely decorated for now but feels cozy nevertheless, due largely to Lodhi's bright smile and welcoming presence. He's happy to walk newcomers through the menu, too: "Lot of people come in here, open the door and say, 'What is this?' They're used to Fogo de Chão down the street," he laughs. He is quick to point them to his favorites: that gloriously greasy X-Picanha burger, and the Four Cheese pizza with delicate ovals of catupiry cheese on top.
On our last visit, we ordered another of Lodhi's favorites: strawberry cream. Along with papaya cream, it's one of the most popular desserts in Brazil. Right now, papayas are largely unavailable because of a salmonella contamination, but the strawberries are in season, uncontaminated and ideal for this summer dessert. In its simplest incarnation, strawberry cream is just strawberries blended with vanilla ice cream into a kind of shake-in-a-bowl, garnished with more strawberries on top.
Here at Friends Pizzeria, it was almost a combination of frozen yogurt and strawberry shake, sweet and cool and soft. We ate it like children. And as we finished, Mandy looked at the bowl — and at the rest of the empty plates on our table — and gave a happy sigh.
"I don't really understand what this is, but I like it."
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