KEEP ON TRUCKIN'
Austin King is a nervous ball of energy. He hops around the small kitchen at the rear of Grand Prize Bar like a character in Super Mario Brothers, head down and face fixed in a grimace of determined concentration. He pulls dumplings from a fryer with one hand, sprinkles Tabasco-infused scallions onto deviled egg custard tarts with another.
"Breathe, man. Breathe," coaches a friend who's watching King cook. King has an audience here, something he's unaccustomed to. There are people watching him keenly over the line in the kitchen, waiting for the orders of Southern-style dim sum that King and chef Justin Turner are cooking.
Unlike Turner, a trained chef and owner of several successful food trucks — he just added a third Bernie's Burger Bus to his fleet, in fact — King is very new to all of this. He didn't learn to cook at culinary school and has never worked the line at a professional kitchen. He taught himself how to cook by watching YouTube videos. But King has skills.
His Southern-style dim sum features a wholly Houston twist on the typically Chinese brunch: There is livery boudin tucked into lotus leaves, a lo mai gai-style package complete with glutinous rice that bridges the gap between the Cajun delicacy and the Chinese dish that normally features chicken and smoky Chinese sausage.
Shrimp and grits have been refashioned into rectangular taro cakes, served with a Creole barbecue sauce and pickled okra. The creamy grits blend with the similarly textured taro effortlessly, backed by the sweet smack of shrimp that's familiar to anyone who's eaten even a handful of dim sum dishes. Deviled eggs have been baked into dan tat, egg custard tarts that are topped with those Tabasco scallions King has been dishing up like crazy. The tarts were the first thing that he and Turner ran out of this night, much to their surprise.
They came close to running out of everything else, too, including duck rillette-stuffed siu mai dumplings and ice cream made with buttery, briny uni — sea urchin roe — that was topped with a firecracker of habanero-infused masago. Ice cream made with not one but two kinds of roe? Why not; it worked beautifully, coming across with a briny sweetness akin to salted caramel.
All of the amped-up energy in the kitchen, all of the long lines of people clustered in the kitchen to watch the chefs cook, all of the mashed-up and remixed dishes coming across the line — all of this is normal for a weeknight at Grand Prize. The only unusual thing about tonight is the timed trials going on upstairs for a bartender who's on her way to compete at a national cocktail competition in Las Vegas. People are taking their little red plates full of King's dim sum upstairs to watch Lindsay Heffron make drinks Iron Chef-style out of surprise items like candied ginger and Hooters wing sauce.
Chef collaborations take place here every night of the week, when food-truck chefs such as Turner come in to cook things they can't make on board their mobile kitchens. In fact, Turner is in residence here every Wednesday night. It's also the time when fledgling chefs such as King, who's trying to start his own truck — Yaki Snack Attack — can be mentored by more experienced chefs and try out their creations on willing guinea pigs.
For attendees, it's a chance to try some of the city's most creative cooking in the most relaxed of environments (a woman had her cat on a leash at the dark, amber-lit bar) and for the cheapest of prices. My four friends and I paid $50 total for enough food to cover a table on Wednesday night and left moaning over how full we were.
I've even stopped thinking of Grand Prize as just a bar. Instead, it's become an unexpected incubator for bartenders and chefs alike. While bartender Alex Gregg coached Heffron upstairs that night, Turner coached King downstairs. It takes a village to raise a child, and Houston's culinary community is more devoted to raising up talented service-industry people every day. King is just its latest student.
And we raise our chefs well: Just this week, King — who'll still be starting up his food truck, too, if all goes well — interviewed with chef Justin Yu for a bottom-of-the-rung position at Oxheart, the restaurant of his dreams, and got the job.
THE SAVORY SIDE OF SPORTS
Texans Tailgate Thursdays
The Raging Bulls and Battle Red Kool-Aid.
I's well known that the Houston Texans have one of the greatest tailgating traditions in the country — a fact made more impressive by the team's relative youth. On the Houston Press Eating...Our Words blog each week during football season, we're spotlighting one of the groups that make Texans tailgating the pride of Houston.
The Raging Bulls crew was born out of friendships forged years ago at Jersey Village High School. After 11 years of tailgating together, the nine-person crew is still going strong — and it's picked up plenty of honorary members along the way. It's no coincidence that the Raging Bulls are as old as the Texans franchise itself, either.
"The day that Bob McNair won the right to bring the Texans to Houston and announced that there would be tailgating," says member Glen Miller, "the Raging Bulls tailgaters were born."
Since that time, the Raging Bulls have won countless awards for their Texans pride and game-day spirit and have been called "the thoroughbreds of tailgating" by Tailgater Monthly magazine. Their massive game-day celebrations now cover 30 parking spaces in the Platinum lot at Reliant Stadium, so it makes sense to kick off the weekly series by spotlighting one of the loudest and proudest Texans tailgating crews.
The Raging Bulls on having goals:
"[Tailgating is] our way to build a fan base for a team that had no history and to promote what Houston does best, which is give and share. In some small way, to try and repay Mr. McNair for the commitment he made to the football fans of Houston, with a goal of making Houston the best tailgate city in America."
The Raging Bulls on extra Christmases:
"Game day is like Christmas morning, so to have ten Christmases a season — and now potentially more because our team is awesome and gives us hope for playoff games."
The Raging Bulls on their biggest challenges and maintaining enthusiasm:
"Trying to keep improving, making each tailgate better than the last, working hard to be the best, and keeping the home crowd enthusiastic — even in the years when the team is maybe not the best. Football is a privilege, and I want everyone to realize that. Be as enthusiastic as we are."
The Raging Bulls on the best part of game days:
"The tons of people who give us praise for what we do. We have hosted people from all around the league — all around the world, for that matter — and hearing them say what they do about our group being the best and so giving is very humbling. Seeing fans, young and old, bonding over a piece of sausage and a cold beverage or six makes it all worthwhile."
The Raging Bulls on prepping for tailgate days:
"It is really a weeklong endeavor for some of us, just gathering stuff, getting stuff prepared, etc. Game day starts early, around 4:30 or 5 a.m., getting prepped and ready to go. Once they let us in at 7 a.m., we hit the ground running. Everyone has a job — setting up tents, prepping food, firing up the grill — and then we party, doing our best to get people pumped about the Texans."
The Raging Bulls on their signature items, including their "world famous" Battle Red Kool-Aid:
"Since day one, one of our signature items is our Cajun-smoked boudin. But people love it all: brisket, ribs, pork tenderloins, sausage, rib-eye steaks, shrimp done every way you can imagine, fried wings, fish, Cajun fries, bacon-wrapped scallops and anything else you can wrap in bacon.
"Our most popular item has to be the Battle Red Kool-Aid. Drink it and you will believe:
• 1 part cherry vodka
• 1 part regular vodka
• 1 part cranberry, pomegranate and lime juice"
The Raging Bulls on the importance of the five F's:
"The Raging Bulls are all about the 5 F's: family, friends, football, food and fun." Katharine Shilcutt
A brewery makes its mark on Texas.
"It was very planned out," said Sixpoint founder Shane Welch of his brewery's recent move into the Texas market. The Brooklyn, New York-based brewery hit Texas last week with an initial offering of five different beers, a number Welch promised would grow in the near future.
We had a chance to check in on Welch's visit to Houston recently during his stop in to Rockwell Tavern in Cypress. Given Rockwell's far-flung location, any excuse to get out to the craft beer and burger hotspot is always welcome. After we pounded down our burgers and finished sharing the various Sixpoint beers available on draft at Rockwell, Welch sat down and offered some insight into his brewery's latest sales expansion.
From the get-go, it was apparent Welch has very happily done his homework on the Texas market. Boasting that this was his tenth trip to the Lone Star State, he was capable of speaking to hometown favorites Karbach and Saint Arnold just as easily as he was his own beers. This was especially impressive, given the relatively low profile of Texas beers on the national stage.
"The culture here...the culture is good," said Welch. "There are certain states across this country that aren't beer drinkers. Texas has a beer-drinking culture in spades...from top to bottom.
"And," Welch added, "now there's a vibrant craft beer culture, too."
In fact, the more he spoke, the more it became clear that the Sixpoint tagline — "Beer Is Culture" — isn't a passing marketing concept but a life philosophy for Welch. The guy is literally a sponge of information, and not just information about beer, either.
Throughout our hour-long discussion, he discussed his world travels prior to opening the brewery and then effortlessly engaged the Fashion Institute of Technology grad student at the table, aptly discussing fashion production as it relates to the brewing industry. For Welch, it seems, everything he engages can be logically pinned back to brewing. And conversely, beer relates to the world around him — his is a life of true beer culture, if you will.
In talking beer with Welch, one of the more interesting discussions revolved around where brewing trends are heading. Lager styles have not been fleshed out, Welch posited — an ironic fact given lager styles' overall dominance worldwide. He hopes that Sixpoint's recent expansion efforts will help address this.
"I feel lager is incredibly underdeveloped," Welch said. "With ales, innovation comes through formulation. But with lager, innovation comes through technique and different brewing methods."
We talked with Shane well into closing time at Rockwell, continuing to broach a wide array of topics, including Live Oak Brewing, barbacoa at Tacos Tierra Caliente and his discovery of the six-pointed brewer's star that now stands as his company's logo.
Clad in an Open the Taps T-shirt, Rockwell Tavern owner Tiffanie Richie joined the table as we wrapped up the night. Ever the gracious host, Richie was quick to thank Shane, challenge me to shotgun a pint with her and remind me exactly why one of the hottest breweries in the country chose her little out-of-the-way bar to visit when entering such an important market.
Here's a quick look at the first five beers from Sixpoint Brewery:
An American IPA with Belgian ester notes and mouth feel. Also packing a strong, concise floral hop character, Bengali was my favorite all-around beer of the night. This may be the best East Coast IPA in Texas right now.
Along with beers like Russian River Pliny the Elder and The Alchemist Heady Topper, Resin Double IPA is a nationwide buzz name among craft beer lovers. I can tell you firsthand, the buzz here is deserved. This is a top-notch Double IPA. Look for this to be one of the best-selling beers in Sixpoint's lineup.
Sweet Action Cream Ale
The surprise of the night went to Sweet Action, which combined a light, easy-drinking character with sweet malt and sucrose notes on its finish. Watch for Sweet Action to become a cult favorite among lighter-beer drinkers, much like Live Oak Hef and 512 Wit have been at Hay Merchant.
The Crisp Pilsner
The Crisp was again a surprising favorite. Light and succinctly sweet, this lager has a crisp hop bite finish that makes it approachable yet complex. In keeping with Welch's previous comments regarding lager-style beers, I look forward to more lagers from Sixpoint going forward.
Righteous Rye IPA
Despite enjoying the booming rye style quite a bit, I find many fall short of the bar set by everyday favorites like Ruthless Rye from Sierra Nevada. Sixpoint's rye IPA is no exception. Lacking the distinct hop character present in the other four Sixpoint beers, Righteous is left relying on its rye malt backbone, which — despite being plenty sweet — comes off like day-old burnt bread, ashy and harshly acidic.
All five styles are now available in four-packs of 16-ounce cans and on draft at local craft beer spots throughout the city.
Personal tip from the author: If you do find yourself at Rockwell Tavern and Richie challenges you to chug a pint of beer, feel free, but do not expect to win. If you foolishly engage in this challenge after polishing off one of the joint's awesome half-pound burgers and a plate of wings like I did, expect to be thoroughly embarrassed. Joshua Justice
Openings & Closings
Lucille's lands in the Museum District, and Dunkin Donuts hits Houston hard.
Lucille's (5512 La Branch) had its soft opening last week, and plans to host its grand opening on Monday, September 10. The restaurant is the latest addition to the food-starved Museum District, which recently saw the well-received Jade Stone Café open inside the Asia Society. Unlike the pan-Asian menu at Jade Stone, however, Lucille's is all Southern, all the time. Chef Chris Williams opened therestaurant as a tribute to his great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, who was a culinary pioneer in Texas. Says Williams:
"Growing up, I heard bits and pieces about my great-grandmother. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I found out that she and her family owned U.S. Smith's Famous BBQ and Lucille's Fine Foods General Store in Fort Worth, Texas. As a home economist, she established one of the first college-level commercial foods and technology departments in the U.S., at Prairie View A&M University. She also published sets of recipes for home cooks, sold the first All Purpose Hot Roll Mix in grocery stores and served her famous chili biscuits on American Airlines, and to such notables as Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt."
In keeping with Lucille herself, the restaurant will serve items such as her "claim to fame" chili biscuits, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, watermelon salad and braised oxtails. While in its soft opening phase, Lucille's will only be open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 until 10 p.m. After September 10, Lucille's plans to be open for lunch seven days a week and dinner on Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Although it's barely been open a week, I'm already predicting Cuchara (214 Fairview) to win an award for a category I'm making up right now: Best Use of Illustration in a Restaurant. Take a look at the fanciful drawings that artist Cecilia Beaven created for the Mexican restaurant's menu over at Cuchara's Facebook page. Beaven is also responsible for the mural that's a focal point of the beautiful dining room as well as the mural above the bar.
Good news for fans of Dunkin Donuts' cult-favorite coffee: The Houston Business Journal reports that 24 more locations are coming to Houston within the next few years. Three different franchise groups are responsible for the locations. Wrote Olivia Pulsinelli of the upcoming donut shops: "Daily Grind LLC plans to develop eight restaurants in southeast Houston by 2018, according to the statement. MM Donuts LLC expects to develop five restaurants in northeast Houston by 2019. Yes Partners LLC has agreed to develop five restaurants in west Houston by 2017."
Food trucks are no longer limited to taco trucks or renegade chefs. Brick-and-mortar restaurants such as Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen were smart to get into the game early, and now even fast-food joints — yes, McDonald's and Taco Bell included — have their very own mobile units. Joining the fray is Berryhill Baja Grill, with a food truck that's "fresh off the assembly line," according to its PR firm. Look for the truck to hit the streets starting this month.
Graduates of the Cordúa Restaurants group tend to do pretty well for themselves, having been trained well under Michael Cordúa's guidance. So expect good things from Costa Brava Bistro (5115 Bellaire), which B4-U-Eat reports is being opened by "Angeles Dueñas, formerly of Cordúa Restaurants." Says B4-U-Eat's weekly newsletter, Costa Brava is "a French and Spanish/Basque restaurant" that plans to be open for lunch Mondays through Fridays and dinner Mondays through Saturdays.
Last but not least, it's true: Pie in the Sky's location in the Heights has closed. Sort of. In its place is Table 19 (632 West 19th), which — according to its Facebook page a few days ago — won't be too dissimilar: "Pie in the Sky is re-opening as Table 19!" A few new menu items and a paint job have been added, and Table 19 has since opened for business. Katharine Shilcutt
We're Down with Down House
An invigorating brunch at a reinvigorated spot.
"I can't believe this was only $14," I marveled as I left $20 on the table at Down House after occupying one of its booths for several hours over brunch on a recent Sunday morning. We'd just eaten two huge plates of excellent food — much of it from local producers — accompanied by a carafe of French press coffee and a fresh-squeezed glass of orange juice.
"I know. Can you believe it?" echoed my best friend. "Remember when you used to pay $20 a plate for next to nothing here?" I do indeed. When I reviewed Down House one year ago, I was impressed with the food and the atmosphere — but not the prices, nor the surly service. And I wasn't sure that Down House itself even knew what it wanted to be: a full-service restaurant? A casual cafe? A coffee shop? A bar? All I knew was that it was confusing, and that the staff seemed to be confused, too:
"Where Down House goes wrong is by having table service, believe it or not. You'd think this would be a bonus — people waiting on you at a coffee shop/bar? Sure! — but not when it's the only way of getting menus, silverware, drinks, food. Because the table service waxes and wanes from superbly attentive to blitheringly oblivious, you're never quite sure how long you're going to wait for your meal or even the best way to get your waiter's attention."
Thankfully, all this has changed. Like Plonk — which I also visited a year after its initial review to find that the kitchen had happily found its footing — Down House has become the confident, competent neighborhood spot I'd always hoped it could become.
Before I had brunch this weekend, I'd dropped into Down House very quickly a couple of weeks ago to get a pint of Wealth & Taste. Down House was one of the few bars in town to get the Deep Ellum limited-edition brew, and I only expected to stay long enough for the pint before moving on. But I found myself drawn in by the greatly expanded cocktail menu and the on-point service.
"I've got to come back here for food," I told my drinking buddy that night as I perused the rest of the menu. The prices had dropped considerably, and the plates looked good. There was even an option to "build your own breakfast," with a little from Columns A, B and C at $2, $3 and $4 a selection. Of course, that can get a tad expensive. But the option itself is indicative of Down House's intrinsically useful nature: The restaurant is open every single day from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., it offers both breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day, and you can get coffee and/or cocktails at nearly any time of the day or night.
It was coffee that we grabbed on Sunday morning as we waited for our table to be ready. At peak brunch time — 11 a.m. — we only waited 20 minutes. It was astonishing. And the newly built patio wasn't even full, which meant that we could have been seated even sooner if we'd decided to sit under one of Down House's colorful umbrellas.
Just a few minutes after receiving two cortados across the bar from a friendly barista, our table was ready. We ordered another round of coffee — this time in a French press — and settled on splitting the Vermonter and a plate of breakfast tacos.
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At $10 for the two tacos, it would be easy to think that Down House's prices haven't gone down at all — but you'd be wrong. The tacos are nearly burrito size and come with a side of black beans or home fries. Even better: You get to pick and choose between an assortment of different tacos for your plate. We chose the venison sausage (which — sorry, Goode Company Taqueria — is now my favorite venison sausage breakfast item in town) and the roasted red pepper taco with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese.
The Vermonter ($8) came with just as much food: A fried egg sandwich on an English muffin from local baker Bread & Batter along with Grafton Cheddar cheese and a jade-colored slice of tart green tomato. Roughly diced hunks of fatty bacon hid under the blanket of cheese, and the dark yellow yolk proved an excellent dipping sauce for the side of well-seasoned home fries. Newly installed chef Benjy Mason, who had no culinary training at all only two short years ago, has proven that he has the chops to keep the food coming out of Down House's kitchen as reliably excellent as its cocktails and coffee.
And throughout our entire long brunch — catching up and slowly sipping the excellent coffee that Down House buys from Cuvee in Austin — our waitress was a gem. She never rushed us out of our seats despite the wait at the front door, and she was never more than a whisper away when we needed something.
Although it's a rare thing to revisit a restaurant a year later and find it as drastically improved as Down House, it's a heartening thing when it does happen. Katharine Shilcutt