The deep-fried lake fish.
The deep-fried lake fish.
Minh T. Truong

Finally Visiting Cuchara

Local Spotlight

It's taken me a little while to visit Cuchara — although I had heard good things since it opened, it never sprang to mind to try. I looked online prior to my visit, and the menu had some interesting offerings. The mula de nopal, grilled cactus filet stuffed with panela cheese; the quesadillas de huitlacoche (corn with black mushroom); and the charalitos, deep-fried small lake fish, were certainly interesting enough. I went into Cuchara with an open mind and a curious palate but left rather disappointed. I also confirmed that one should never go to a Mexican restaurant with a Mexican friend who can throw down tamales, posole, mole and everything else in the kitchen like it's nobody's business, because nothing will compare.

The space that Cuchara occupies is prime real estate. The huge windows that open up into the lively streets of Montrose make it a perfect spot to linger over cocktails. And Cuchara really uses this open feel. The beautiful, colorful murals, created by the owner's sister, that adorn the walls, the bar and the ceiling truly add a sense of whimsy to the minimal, almost industrial aesthetics.

They do not take reservations, but our party of seven didn't need them, even though it was a Friday night. We got a coveted spot next to the window. We started with cocktails, most of them tequila-based, and ordered appetizers. The chicharrones ($8) were your standard fried pork rinds but were somehow extra crispy without being at all greasy. The mousse de aguacate ($8), avocado mousse, was light and creamy and just slightly sweet, the queso fresco sprinkled on top adding the perfect salt balance. I did note that the menu said the mousse came with tortilla fritters, but I'm pretty sure that what we got was just run-of-the-mill tortilla chips. And the deep-fried lake fish that I was anticipating were the best thing I had that night ($8). They, too, were perfectly fried, crispy but not greasy, a squeeze of lime and smoky (just enough heat) salsa helping to brighten them up. I popped those suckers whole one after another, enjoying every last crunchy bite. Those at the table who were at first hesitant to try them quickly became converts.

My entrée, however, wasn't nearly as satisfying — the mole verde ($16), green mole with pork tenderloin, was delivered to our table with each component — the mole, beans, rice and white corn puree — in its own miniature pot. The presentation was great, but it did make it very obvious that you weren't getting much for what you were paying. The pork was extremely tender and fell apart as you picked up the pieces, but the mole lacked flavor. I couldn't taste the cumin, and there were no herbal accents. It was just...creamy. The rice was also overcooked, and the beans were nothing special.

While everyone had raved about the appetizers, no one was jumping up and down about their entrées. Dessert was also hit-and-miss; the tres leches was dry, but the spicy chocolate-stuffed fritters with Papantla vanilla ice cream were inspired. The whole evening was a series of highs and lows.

I'm not sure if I would return to Cuchara. There are just far too many places to get amazing Mexican food — my friend's kitchen, for one. Lucy, you've ruined me for all Mexican ­restaurants.


Flat-Belly Breakfast
Make an avocado egg boat.

Molly Dunn

While flipping through the most recent Women's Health magazine, I came across recipes for a flat belly. Usually I disregard them because half the time they don't taste as good as they look, and they usually aren't as easy to prepare as the magazine makes them out to be.

However, my eye stopped on the breakfast recipe with an avocado and an egg — two ingredients I have never paired together. I absolutely love avocados and find every possible way to incorporate them into my meals.

Here's a great way to have a swimsuit-friendly breakfast that's full of healthy fats and tons of flavor.

First halve and pit a large avocado. Use one that's soft; hard avocados won't soften enough when you cook them on the stove. You want to make sure that the hole in the avocado is large enough to hold the egg yolk.

Next slice off the bottom of the fruit so that the hole is exposed to the skillet; you can keep a thin layer of avocado, just as long as it isn't too thick. I tried following the instructions from the magazine, but the egg doesn't cook properly if the avocado is too thick; it separates the egg from the heat too much.

Once you have your avocado prepared, heat your skillet to medium heat, coat the pan with cooking sprayand place the avocado into the pan. Crack an egg into a bowl, then pour it into the avocado hole.

Cover the pan and cook the egg and avocado for two to five minutes or until the egg is completely cooked.

If the egg whites don't stay inside the avocado, that's fine; just make sure they get cooked completely. It won't be the prettiest presentation, but trust me, it will taste great.

As soon as the egg is cooked, place it on a plate, season with salt and cracked black pepper, and enjoy. The creaminess of the runny egg yolk with the warm, soft avocado is simply a wonderful combination, and it's healthy, too. In fact, people who eat avocados are actually slimmer than those who don't.

A study published by Nutrition Journal earlier this year says avocados help individuals maintain a lower body weight, BMI and waist circumference. Avocados are full of healthy fats and several nutrients, like fiber and vitamin E. Those who eat them on a regular basis actually weigh on average 7.5 pounds less than those who don't.

So grab a couple of avocados from the grocery store, crack some eggs into them and start your day off right with a nutritious flat-belly breakfast.

Top Five

Top 5 Potato Salads in Houston
Try one of these tasty and creative twists on potato salad.

Joanna O'Leary

One of the first words I learned in German (and one I will probably never forget) was Kartoffelsalat (potato salad). The German people, especially the Bavarians, excel at making Kartoffelsalat, and that style of preparation was what I became accustomed to, especially growing up so near Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch) country. Living in H-town, however, has certainly expanded my potato salad purview, for our city's chefs are doing some pretty creative takes on this dish. Here are five types to try in Houston:

5. Mustard Potato Salad (Revival Market). Soft, slightly sweet red potatoes give this potato salad a comforting texture, while chopped red bell peppers and house-made mustard add spice and crunch. This bit of a twist on tradition proves that small alterations to a standard recipe can lead to substantial improvement.

4. Potato-Tomato Salad (Beaver's). Despite a generous coating of mayonnaise, many potato salads still end up tasting dry. Beaver's avoids this problem by speckling its potato salad with tomatoes, whose juice co-mingles with a liberal dose of chimichurri to create a terrific sweet, acidic dressing.

3. Dill Potato Salad (Baba Yega). Technically a side but never an aside, the potato salad at Baba Yega comes with all sandwiches but easily distracts diners from their reubens and veggie BLTs with its spritely garden flavor, thanks to a hearty handful of dill and chopped celery. As Houston Press blogger Matthew Dresden noted in 2011, the supple texture is more of mashed potatoes, and in combination with the mayonnaise, this makes for a very creamy potato salad.

2. Caribbean Potato Salad (Reggae Hut). Tired of pale, bland potato salad? Reggae Hut's version is a rainbow of red onions, sunny carrots and verdant legumes. Even the potatoes take on a pinkish hue due to the infusion of red wine vinegar and mayonnaise. This cornucopia of colorful ingredients translates into a more complicated but very appetizing collaboration of flavors.

1. La Rusa (Tango & Malbec). You probably did not plan on eating potato salad at Tango & Malbec, but next time you will if someone at your table happens to order the La Rusa, a potato salad with carrots and peas. Supposedly invented in Russia, ensalada rusa is usually served in small-plate or tapa format. Too bad, because you'll want a whole bowl to yourself.

On the Menu

Smashburger Unveils PB&J Shake
Get this not-so-secret menu item to celebrate National Ice Cream Month.

Molly Dunn

We seem to celebrate a lot of silly national food holidays, whether for the day or the entire month, but National Ice Cream Month isn't one you should push to the side. Cool yourself down with a bowl of your favorite ice cream, or head to Smashburger for the Peanut Butter & Jelly Shake.

Smashburger hand-spins Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream with Nutter Butter cookies and strawberry jelly to create its PB&J shake. What was once a secret menu item has now been placed on the regular menu as the featured shake at Smashburger during National Ice Cream Month.

I am a huge fan of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In fact, I ate one for lunch every single day during grade school, middle school and high school (for the most part); I even default to this classic sandwich today when I can't decide what to eat for lunch. So when I saw that Smashburger was offering the sandwich in milkshake form, I had to check it out.

After being blended with strawberry jelly, the once-white vanilla ice cream turns a pale shade of pink, making you think you're about to taste a plain strawberry milkshake, but you're in for a surprise. As you sip the shake through the straw, you're hit with little chunks of the crushed cookies, leaving you with the sweetest combination of peanut butter and jelly you've ever had.

The shake is like having a peanut butter sandwich with überly sweet strawberry jelly and a glass of creamy whole milk, except everything is blended together — well, minus the bread.

I have to admit I was a little skeptical after the first sip, but once I tasted the sweet Nutter Butter cookie chunks, I couldn't resist taking a few more sips. The only thing that stopped me from consuming the entire shake was the fact that it has more than 800 calories. But even if I'd tried to finish it, I wouldn't have been able to because it's super thick, creamy and surprisingly sweet.

You can get this $3.99 shake at any Smashburger location until September 30.

Fast Times

Jack in the Box Breakfast
The high/low experiment.

Christina Uticone

I'm not sure how I could live less than a mile from a Jack in the Box for almost four years and not know they serve breakfast 24 hours a day. HELLO! Not only do I love breakfast, I love breakfast for dinner or as a late-night snack. When I realized I could have been eating breakfast sandwiches at 2 a.m. any old time I wanted, I was pretty devastated and moved to remedy the situation as soon as possible.

Of course, I can barely stay up past midnight, so I put my neighborhood Jack in the Box to the test at noon. I'm a party animal like that.

Unable to decide between the sensible Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal (204 calories, 2 grams of fat, 4 grams each of protein and fiber) and the insane-sounding Big Waffle Stack sandwich (two fried eggs, crispy bacon, sausage, ham and American cheese between two lightly sweetened maple waffles), I did what anyone would do — I ordered them both.

The Big Waffle Stack sounds terrifying, so the nutrition stats shouldn't surprise you: 655 calories, 46 grams of fat, 1,717 milligrams of sodium — the usual stuff, right? At least if you eat the sandwich early, you've got all day to burn it off. Breakfast math!

You probably think that by pitting a bowl of oatmeal against the Big Waffle Stack, I set the Blueberry Muffin Oatmeal up for failure. You're a little bit right and a little bit wrong. You see, the oatmeal is independently bad; it would have scored poorly in my book regardless of competition. Slimy, mushy oatmeal is not enhanced by the add-your-own crumble or dried blueberries that come on the side. The crumble adds crunch of indeterminate origin — sugar? sweetened bread crumbs? both? — and the dried blueberries are more like chewy gummy candies than dried fruit. McDonald's has oatmeal that is far better than the JITB version.

Speaking of McDonald's, it's hard not to make the McGriddle comparison here. Instead of pancakes, JITB uses waffles in place of a bun or muffin and then ups the ante with lots of egg, bacon, sausage and ham. I must have eaten a hundred McGriddles my senior year of high school. I miss that metabolism.

The Big Waffle Stack has it all: oozing cheese, three types of breakfast meats (why choose?!) and all the artificial, maple-infused flavor one could hope for. I turned down the offer of additional maple syrup for my sandwich, and I'm glad I did because honestly, there is enough in the sandwich all on its own — adding syrup would, I think, upset the salty-sweet balance that makes the sandwich work in the first place. Yeah, I said it — it works.

This isn't my usual thing — for breakfast or any other meal. But something about the way the ham, sausage and bacon wrestle with the sweet waffle "bun" had me taking one bite after another. And even though I'm not entirely crazy about fast-food egg product, there was nothing overtly offensive about it — we can probably attribute that to the melting cheese and the sheer number of other flavors and textures, but the end result is the same. The Big Waffle Stack is an offensive but delicious calorie bomb that you should add to your guilty-pleasure fast-food lineup.

Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
1252 Tapas Bar in Vintage Park Shutters While Camerata at Paulie's Opens.

Molly Dunn

The Fourth of July weekend was filled with exciting openings and a surprising closing. Let's start with the closing of one of the 1252 Tapas Bar locations.

The Vintage Park location of 1252 Tapas Bar closed July 6, but don't worry, the other locations — in Uptown and The Woodlands — are still open. In fact, 1252 has updated its menu, and Urban Swank says several must-try dishes and drinks have been added to the restaurant's lineup, including the Montadito and blueberry lemondrop. The small-plates restaurant announced its closure via Facebook July 9 but didn't reveal the reason behind the closing.

In exciting openings news, Camerata at Paulie's opened July 3, just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. Eater Houston took a look inside the new wine bar on Westheimer from Paul Petronella, owner of Paulie's, noting its "sleek, industrial space that's dominated by the U-shaped concrete bar and a long community table." Order a variety of meat and cheese plates and choose from a list of nearly 100 wine bottles for an enjoyable time at the bar, or just eat at Paulie's next door, then head on over to Camerata afterward.

Katsuya shuttered over the Fourth of July weekend, but another Korean restaurant is on its way, according to Eater Houston. Donald Chang, owner of Uptown Sushi, Bluefin and Nara, plans to replace Katsuya with Nara, a Korean restaurant he started in the '90s. A press release notes that Nara will be the first Korean restaurant inside the 610 Loop. Chang spoke with CultureMap, saying that Nara will take up only 6,800 square feet of the available 8,000 and will feature a fusion menu, as well as traditional Korean food to be reserved for a private banquet room.

Tierra del Fuego, based in Puerto Rico, is opening its first stateside location in Sugar Land's Town Square this fall. The restaurant will serve Argentine-style meats like beef, pork, chicken and fish along with a multitude of salads, pasta, appetizers and desserts and will have a full-service bar. Customers will also have the opportunity to cook their own meats over a charcoal grill, as noted by Houston Business Journal. While Houston is full of Brazilian restaurants, it will be nice to have a change in cuisine styles with Tierra del Fuego.

B4-U-Eat's newsletter tells us that Portugalia is being replaced by the bar and grill Wild Alaska Tavern, opening July 22. The location is being renovated to include a section for live music and a dance floor.

B4-U-Eat's newsletter also notes that the family-owned Ichiban Sushi & Tapioca opened its second location in Houston Chinatown on July 3. Frey's Backyard Cafe opened in Tomball on July 9, serving simple, classic meals and a giant burger named the "Big Jack."

Stick It Truck announced on Twitter that its food truck would be no more, but the owners have decided to open a new concept, Third Coast. The new food truck will serve steak sandwiches inspired by Houston. Get ready for the revamped food truck and check out the Twitter account for sneak peeks at the new menu.

Another TopGolf location is coming next year in the Spring area on I-45. Swamplot reports that the second site will be across the freeway from the new Exxon building. Talk about the best lunch break ever.


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