I can admit it: I am a packaging whore to some extent. A nice label is bound to catch my eye, be it laundry detergent, gin, beer, heroin...By the same token, bad marketing can turn me off of what may very well be a great product.
Beer is a notorious offender in the bad-packaging arena. Across the country, bad labels stalk liquor-store shelves. People who make beer aren't always the most visually stimulated folks around, and some of these beer labels are lasting proof that most of these guys may very well be blind.
As anyone who has been to the far reaches of the Northeast can attest, fashion and visual aesthetic are not paramount to these people, and their beer labels show it. Apparently, when you spend six months out of the year being accosted by blinding snowstorms, making things pretty takes a backseat to more important tasks, like not dying of hypothermia in a snowdrift.
That's not to say the breweries farther west fare any better. Apparently getting stoned and busting out your kids' crayons is what amounts to label art for a lot of beer makers out west. Colorado breweries alone could fill a third-grade classroom with groan-worthy labels and still not win an art ribbon.
Since there really is so much bad beer-label artwork to choose from, we limited it to bottles with which you could personally assault your eyes at your local grocery or liquor store.
We put the ten ugliest beer labels in Texas on the Houston Press Eating...Our Words blog, so go there if you want to see them all. Here's our top five:
5. Tommyknocker Anything
I couldn't pick one. Not only have I never had any of their beers — largely because of their horrible labels — I simply couldn't pick one that was any worse than another. They all suck that badly. Labels feature a '70s-era stylized gnome of some sort engaged in various "humorous" (read: creepy as fuck) activities vaguely related to the beer's name. Every time I am tempted to try a Tommyknocker, I lock eyes with that creepy fuckin' dwarf on the bottle and all bets are off.
4. Real Ale Devil's Backbone
Real Ale labels for the most part are not very good. The year-round beers like Full Moon and Rio Blanco are boring holdovers from the '90s. This year their Devil's Backbone Trippel Ale saw a recipe tweak and a bump to year-round status, and saw its label go from bad to "Holy shit, my eyes!" The new artwork resembles that third-grade art project, the kind where you would color a piece of paper wildly in a myriad of crayon colors, then go over it in black crayon. This left you a blank palette to scratch a design into, which then revealed a rainbow of color underneath. Yeah, it's stupid, and so is this label.
3. Santa Fe Pale Ale
If you have ever flown into conspiracy theory-ridden Denver International Airport, you may have noticed the bizarre murals and oddly placed Masonic references. Santa Fe labels are the Denver airport of beer: largely innocuous, probably harmless, still really creepy. Sporting art that looks lifted straight from a box of Broderbund software circa 1989 and printed on a laser jet printer of the same era, the whole mess is framed in an unnecessary triangle, which we all know is the favorite two-dimensional shape of cults everywhere. The labels were outdated when Santa Fe Brewing pulled out of Texas back in 2009. Santa Fe has returned and has begun updating packaging, but Pale Ale can still be found on shelves.
2. Laughing Dog CSB
Another really solid beer plagued by horrible labeling. Every single one of Laughing Dog Brewing's labels — with the exception of maybe Alpha Dog — looks like it was drawn by a drunken seven-year-old. Don't get me wrong, Alpha Dog still sucks...it just sucks a little less. Maybe the seven-year-old sobered up, who knows. CSB noses out a win here among equally shitty peers because of its name. CSB stands for Crotch Sniffing Bastard. And as luck would have it, the dog on the label, who appears to have contracted a severe case of "derp," is about to jam his wet nose up the skirt of some unwitting yet thankfully faceless woman. Classy. As. Fuck.
1. Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Ale
Rogue's ode to the world-famous Oregon dough slingers, this beer is almost universally reviled for being, in technical terms, absolutely gross. Like most Rogue bottles, Voodoo Doughnut doesn't have a traditional label, but rather is painted. The Pepto-Bismol-pink bottle is emblazoned with what I assume is supposed to be a caricature of a voodoo practitioner, but it looks an awful lot like a drunk alien in a top hat.
Craft Beer & Crepes
First Look at Guru Burgers and Crepes in Sugar Land Town Square.
Out of all the "town square" developments that have cropped up in Houston suburbs over the last few years, Sugar Land's Town Square has been one of the most successful. Along with Market Street in The Woodlands and CityCentre in Memorial, these neo-urban centers in traditionally suburban communities bring a small, manageable dose of the close-knit city into areas where restaurants, bars and other businesses would normally be spread out over miles of asphalt.
They have also brought in some of the most interesting eateries: places such as 1252 Tapas and Jasper's in The Woodlands; Flora & Muse and Straits in CityCentre; and Japaneiro's and Guru Burgers & Crepes in Sugar Land.
These last two are owned by the same local Sugar Land residents, but that's not the only common thread between the restaurants. Both are fusion restaurants of varieties rarely seen anywhere else: Japaneiro's is a Latin sushi restaurant — complete with mango, plantain and sweet potato-topped rolls — while Guru Burgers & Crepes is just that, a restaurant that serves both American burgers and French crepes.
It's a combination you wouldn't expect to work, but it does...and with aplomb.
When I visited with a group of friends last Friday night, Guru Burgers was already packed — at less than two months old. We waited for a short ten minutes, during which my boyfriend eagerly checked out the craft beer selection at Guru Burgers' crisp-and-clean-looking bar, decorated with white subway tiles and chocolate-brown growlers as shades for the pendant lamps above.
You can purchase those same growlers — which are emblazoned with Guru Burger's logo — and take any of the draft beers home should you find one you like. And with the selection of local craft beers, you ought to find at least one. We inhaled a Mint IPA from Katy's No Label Brewing and then moved on to the 1836 Copper Ale from Buffalo Bayou Brewing, which is quickly becoming my go-to beer at places where it's on draft.
The menu here isn't unwieldy, but it is large. I like the option to turn any burger into a slider or a double (two patty) burger, the option to get any salad in a large or small size, the option to customize your french fries (or sweet potato fries or yucca fries or beet chips) with a variety of seasonings — but these things can definitely bog you down while you're trying to decide what to order. I recommend looking at the menu before you go, or you'll end up like us: staring at the menus for a good 20 minutes while our beers grew sweaty and warm.
We finally decided on two appetizers: Karbach Weisse Versa beer-battered green beans and spinach topped with lump crab meat in a lemon aioli and a plate of wonton-wrapped-and-fried queso fresco. I did not realize it was possible to fry whole leaves of spinach, but Guru Burgers has shown me the light. You couldn't taste the banana bread flavor of the Weisse Versa, thankfully, and we gobbled down the entire plate of fried greenery. Ditto the fried queso fresco, which is Guru Burgers' clever twist on fried marinara sticks. My friend Kelly immediately ordered another plate of them upon finishing, which we polished off just as quickly.
She was also the only one among us to order a traditional burger — the "Royale with Cheese" — which came out with a cherry tomato-topped bun and a well-seasoned patty under a melty blanket of sharp Cheddar cheese. Guru Burgers cooks your burgers to order, a big plus here, but it didn't occur to me that my own burger would be cooked well-done.
That's because I ordered the burger-in-a-crepe (the "Aka-Burger") in an attempt to bridge both ends of the menu. Inside the thin crepe was a chopped mess of meat, both beef and bacon (although I didn't see bacon listed on the menu), along with spinach leaves, Swiss cheese and diced tomatoes. A drizzle of avocado ranch was spread along the top of the crepe, and although I was a bit disappointed at the crumbled, well-done burger meat inside, the entire crepe taken as a whole was a hit. I found myself not minding the well-done beef at all.
I didn't get to try a single bite of my boyfriend's salmon-and-crab crepe with Sriracha sauce and cabbage, nor a bite of my friend's bunless "Longboard" burger with ginger-honey-glazed salmon — but only because they both cleaned their plates so quickly. Our fries went almost as quickly: sweet potato strips came glistening with a sweet-and-salty sugar mix on top, regular french fries were well-salted and crispy, and yucca fries had a fun, crispy exterior that gave way to a soft, starchy inside.
The dessert crepes beckoned, but we were too full to even contemplate eating further. And although we'd had several beers and soft drinks among us, four entrées, three appetizers and four orders of fries, the bill came to barely $100 — which left us a little money to spend at Flying Saucer across the street afterward.
What? I said we were too full for dessert, not too full for beer. Katharine Shilcutt
KEEP ON TRUCKIN'
Korea Meets Mexico
Bulgogi tacos and a Seoul burrito at Chi'Lantro BBQ.
Chi'Lantro BBQ is a Korean Mexican fusion truck — the name is the combination of two of the most important ingredients in the two cuisines, kimchi and cilantro, respectively. The truck started in Austin and came to Houston at the beginning of this year. My first encounter with Chi'Lantro was in Austin about two years ago. As I stumbled out of a bar at closing time, I somehow ended up among a crowd of people waiting in line.
It's not hard to find a food truck in Austin; in fact, there were two others on that particular block in downtown Austin that night, but neither had the line Chi'Lantro had, and as I ate everything with reckless abandon, I knew I would wait in line regularly if I were a local. I had dreams of the bulgogi tacos and giant burritos after that trip, and I've often visited the Oh My Gogi! truck for my Korean Mexican fix. But the memory of that night stayed with me, so when I heard Chi'Lantro was coming to Houston, I had to see if reality matched my memory.
I tracked the truck down the day it was parked on Washington and Moy. Unlike my first experience, there was no mob of people. I ordered the same items I did that first time — the bulgogi tacos and a Seoul burrito with chicken.
The tacos ($5) come two to an order. Served on corn tortillas, they are filled with meat topped with lettuce, shredded cabbage, onions and cilantro, what they call Chi'Lantro salsa and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The meat was flavorful and the lettuce and cabbage crisp, but the salsa wasn't what I had remembered. It wasn't the sweetness that my palate recalled; there was more of a smoky heat. There wasn't anything bad to say about it; I just expected more and better.
Where the tacos didn't quite live up to my heightened expectations, the burrito brought me back to that night. The burritos here are huge, and at $5 are quite a deal. A flour tortilla is filled with meat, the requisite cilantro, onions, lettuce and cabbage, Chi'lantro salsa, lime buttered rice, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses and a fried egg — and yes, the egg comes standard. The cheese melts into the rice, which mixes in with the egg yolk, which meshes with the salsa, into a pile of ooey-gooey goodness. This is what I had been waiting for. The only thing that would have made this better would have been kimchi. You have to add it to all the items except for the fries for an additional 50 cents, but I didn't know that until after the fact.
Other menu offerings include quesadillas, rice bowls and a bulgogi burger. Chi'Lantro's Web site also boasts that they are original creators of kimchi fries. I have to say I've been enjoying Oh My Gogi's quite a bit, so this is the next item I'll be trying — perhaps this calls for a food battle?
Look for Chi'Lantro's schedule at www.chilantrobbq.com or follow them on Twitter @chilantrobbq. Minh T. Truong
Breaking It Down
Does Dallas-Fort Worth Have the Worst Tippers in the State?
Recently, Eater alerted the great foodie masses to a Web site called Lousy Tippers that contains a pretty scary database of the nation's worst tippers.
"There is a consequence," the site preaches ominously from its header. Call it the ultimate form of societal pressure to make sure you leave a gratuity for your server, because if you don't...you may just see yourself listed among the "asshole who owns a bar" and "regulars who tip lousy" in the great database of stiffers. Or, worse, called out as an entire corporation: The list even accuses the Sherman office of Texas Instruments of ordering "over a grand in pizza" with "no tip for either driver."
Eater noted, rightfully, that the database itself is incredibly shitty for a number of reasons: It lists customers' names, phone numbers and home addresses in many cases, and the comments left by servers on the non-tippers range from racist to xenophobic. The servers even include details on how they screwed with customers' food:
"Your tea is 1/4 my piss." "Another customer that deserves the shit we do to his food." "You must love my spit because you eat it all the time."
Waiting was right, as always, about the cardinal rule of eating in a restaurant: Don't fuck with people who handle your food.
And while it's true that the database is pretty scummy for listing full names and addresses, it's also an interesting tool with which to gauge diners' propensity for failing to leave propinas. So which city in Texas ranks the worst according to Lousy Tippers' database?
Red Oak, a suburb of about 4,300 people just south of Dallas, racked up the highest number of non-tippers in the database at a staggering 32. That may not seem like a lot, but the second-highest ranking city in the database was Dallas itself — a city of more than a million people — which had only 27 offenders in the database.
Dallas was also the highest ranking major city in Texas with the worst tippers: Houston was the lowest with only five offenders listed, San Antonio had eight and Austin had 15.
Taken as a whole, the entire DFW metroplex seems to be a wretched hive of of non-tipping scum and villainy. Out of the entire database, most towns and cities with offenders were suburbs of the greater metroplex, for a total of 69 non-tippers in Dallas suburbs:
Glenn Heights: 3
Pecan Hill: 1
Red Oak: 32
If you take into account towns and cities close to the metroplex, the number of non-tippers is even higher at 83:
But Houston's suburbs didn't get off scot-free, either. We racked up 15 non-tippers of our own outside the city limits:
The Woodlands: 1
In the rest of the state, Wichita Falls led the pack of non-tippers with ten offenders in the database. Marshall, in deep East Texas, had four on the list as did El Paso. Amarillo only racked up two. Lubbock, Laredo, College Station, San Marcos, Athens and Portland all did well with only one entry apiece.
Of course, the data in the database is only as good as the people who entered it. It's highly plausible that the Lousy Tipper database is more popular for servers to use in places like the DFW metroplex than it is in other places throughout the state, which would serve to heavily skew the data. However, it's just as difficult to tell if this is true or if customers in Dallas simply tip far less than the rest of us.
Or it could just be that Houston diners know how to treat their servers right. That's a pleasant thought, isn't it? Katharine Shilcutt
Openings & Closings
t'afia becomes Sparrow Bar & Cookshop and The Broken Spoke breaks down.
After being closed for only two short weeks, Monica Pope's t'afia has already been transformed and reopened as Sparrow Bar & Cookshop. The new concept opened its doors Tuesday, August 14, with what's being described as "a free-flowing and easily shareable menu."
That menu is somewhat interactive: You practically build your own burger out of a short array of ingredients and toppings, for example, and the sides menu lets you combine three into one plate for $18 — which seems pricey, but choices like milled potatoes with beet chutney or mac 'n' cheese with speck and peas may just bear that cost out. Entrées include dishes such as venison noisettes and king mackerel in lemon butter, while shareable plates feature items like cumin-grilled quail.
"At Sparrow, I am going to be cooking the things I would make at home for my family and friends — fresh, unpretentious and full of flavor," said Pope in a press release. "I want people to stop by without a reason or reservation, but we'll certainly accommodate that, too." The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays, with a brunch service on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.
In its weekly e-mail, B4-U-Eat noted that there had recently been an ominous post on the Facebook wall of The Broken Spoke, the little restaurant on Washington Avenue which had become well-known for its Belgian cuisine and excellent Belgian beer list. Wrote owner Roy de la Garza:
Sadly, here I sit about to eat the last meal I will eat in this building still known as the Broken Spoke Cafe. As I thought about what I should eat, I got to thinking about all of you. Over the last three and a half years the customers of this place have been a sincere source of joy for me. When I first went back to working for the school district, it was difficult not seeing all of you regulars that I had grown to know. You formed the heart and soul of the place and I feel honored to have gotten the chance to know all of you. Thanks for your support over the years.
Another group to whom I owe a lot would be the staff. They stuck it out through thick and thin. They are without a doubt some of the most dedicated and talented people I know. I thank you for all that you've done for me and the cafe.
In the beginning of this venture I was sure it wouldn't make it six months. It's all of you that made it work while it did. Always remember that you were the most important part of the Broken Spoke Cafe. Take care.
Although B4-U-Eat indicated that the restaurant was still open for now, my own phone calls to The Broken Spoke were not answered nor was there an answering machine on the other end of all those rings.
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In better news, 1252 Tapas Bar is officially open at its new Uptown Park location. Local blogger Hank On Food went to the media preview party for the Spanish restaurant and came away impressed with both the small bites and the specialty concoctions like a "margatini," which is exactly what it sounds like.
Finally, Eater Houston alerts us to an interview with homebuilder Miguel Facundo — who is also known for his restaurant-in-a-car-wash Facundo Cafe, a personal favorite — in which he discusses plans for his upcoming full-service restaurant.
Soon, writes Betsy Denson in The Leader, "Facundo will open Facundo Restauranté on Alba Road across from the American Legion Hall." Facundo's plans for the space include "more continental" cuisine, a Saturday brunch, a small bar and a wine room. "The wine room will be more intimate," he tells Denson, "but the rest of the structure will have more of an open concept feel."
Facundo Restauranté is aiming to open in late 2012 or early 2013. Katharine Shilcutt