On the Menu
Nigerian food is some of the most accessible "ethnic" food out there — or at least it will be for anyone who grew up eating Cajun, Southern or soul food. I'm looking at you, Houston.
Nigerian cooking is the mother of many American cuisines. Tina Edebor — the friendly woman who runs Nigerian restaurant Finger Licking Bukateria with her husband, Eghosa — admits that despite this, Nigerian cooking can be a little daunting for newcomers. Especially the dishes spiked with Guinea peppers, alligator peppers and a whole host of spices that make Nigerian dishes ideal for heat-seeking diners.
"Our food is not mainstream," Edebor once explained. "So you have to be willing to come in and taste it."
The good news is that most Nigerian restaurants — Finger Licking included — are equally willing to help you. Indeed, I've gently argued with many a waiter who wanted to direct me to the "beginner's dishes" on Nigerian menus, but this same attribute is what makes dining out in Houston's West African restaurants so approachable for newcomers. And perhaps in a few years, as Little Nigeria continues expanding into its little triangle between Bissonnet, Highway 59 and Beltway 8, the cuisine will no longer be considered so eccentric.
"It would be wise to start out with something familiar," advises Edebor of your first Nigerian meal, "like rice with plantains and stew, because that's a familiar thing to the palate." Today, however, we're starting out with fufu.
Much like injera bread in Ethiopian cuisine, fufu — which is typically made from pounded yam flour — is used as both a starchy side dish and a utensil. It's served in a large, soft, white mound that looks and feels like raw dumpling dough. Fufu (also called tuwo in other West African restaurants) is used to scoop up the so-called "eating soups" in Nigerian cuisine, while "drinking soups" such as pepper soup are either eaten with a spoon or drunk straight from the bowl. Tear off a piece of fufu and fashion it into a small, edible spoon, then dunk it into your "eating soup" — like egusi — and swallow the entire bite whole.
Egusi is the classic example of an eating soup and my personal favorite. The thick stew is accessible in its basic flavors and comforting in its odd familiarity — yes, even if you've never eaten it before. The soft, fatty seeds of the egusi melon (a sort of wild African watermelon) thicken the tomato-based broth and add a sweetly nutty flavor to the greens and onions underneath. Another thickener — okra — is also found in egusi, and its spider-silk strands will stretch playfully as you scoop up bites with your fufu. Don't worry about making a mess; just lick it off your fingers (as Finger Licking Bukateria's name would imply) and keep eating.
If egusi doesn't appeal to you, try the spicy pepper soup — a typical drinking soup and the long-lost cousin to gumbo. Like the Creole version of gumbo, pepper soup is based on a meat and tomato broth flavored with thyme, onion and pepper. The traditional African utazi leaves used to flavor it further even taste a lot like filé, which is made from ground sassafras leaves. Goat is the standard protein for Nigerian pepper soup, but you can also choose from oxtail, catfish and tilapia. The goat will certainly be too gamy for most mainstream palates (especially since Nigerians tend to leave the rough hide intact on the chunks of goat cooked down in the soup), but the catfish is both highly approachable and highly delicious. Pepper soup is also named for the fact that it's saturated with ground chile pepper powder, so beware if you have a low tolerance for spicy food.
Meat pies and sausage rolls
An interesting aspect of Nigerian cuisine is the vestigial English influence left from colonial British occupation of the country that lasted for more than 100 years (or only 60, if you're being super technical about it). You'll find that influence in everything from oatmeal to beer and in the popular British snacks that are now as common in Nigeria as fufu. Meat pies, sausage rolls and Scotch eggs are standard lunchtime dishes, and your British friends may be surprised to find that while few "British pubs" in Houston make any of these three from scratch, almost all of the Nigerian restaurants do.
The mainstay dish of jollof rice is usually served alongside fried plantains and skewers of suya. Think of it as paella sans the seafood or as the West African version of fried rice: The rice is cooked down with tomatoes, tomato paste, onions and red peppers. From there, you can add nearly anything else — vegetables, meat, fish, spices — and make your jollof rice into a proper meal.
Do you like kebabs? Then you'll like suya. You'll like them even better if you like Thai food and/or peanut butter. Ground peanuts and spices coat the chicken and beef pieces that are skewered onto long wooden sticks and grilled. Just as the tomato was brought from the New World to the Old, so was the peanut brought from South America to Africa along the same routes that shipped slaves back and forth over the oceans. Peanuts grow incredibly well in West Africa and are a now popular ingredient in many Nigerian and Ghanaian dishes.
Whole grilled fish
Whole grilled fish is pretty much what it sounds like. Nigerian restaurants in Houston typically serve tilapia or catfish, sometimes in a lovely curry sauce. This is standard stuff.
Wondering what Nigerians eat for breakfast? (Aside from scrambled eggs? Because: scrambled eggs, mostly.) This is one popular item, a fritter that's made with ground black-eyed peas. Akara puffs up when it's fried and has the same texture and consistency as falafel but with a very mild flavor. This breakfast pastry is fine on its own but is at its best when dipped in akamu.
If you've eaten grits, you've eaten akamu (a.k.a. ogi). The two breakfast porridges are virtually identical, save for the way that they're served. Whereas Texans and Southerners flavor their grits with salt and butter, akamu is sweetened ever so slightly with the addition of condensed milk. The resulting hot cereal is extra creamy and delicious when scooped up with fluffy bites of akara.
I hope you like lagers, because Heineken basically runs the beer game in Nigeria. Beer is a popular beverage in the country owing to Nigeria's colonial heritage and the fact that a cold pilsner tastes really fantastic on a hot, humid day. But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Houston?
The Eating Our Words 100
Staci Davis of Radical Eats on vegan diets and a meaty new restaurant.
Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds.
What she does:
"I own a vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant, which is sort of a little dive on the near north side that we like to think pumps out really great food. We sort of cater to people that are looking for a healthier alternative and also just people looking for something different," Staci Davis, owner of Radical Eats, explains.
"We like to have fun with it," Davis continues. She believes that vegetables are vastly underused. And she's not a fan of fake meat. So, rather than put out imitation meat products made from vegetables, Radical Eats' menu makes fresh, locally sourced vegetables the protagonists on the menu.
Prior to opening her storefront, which has now been going for "just under 20 months," Davis did farmers' markets, weddings and catering for about four years, as well as sold some food products at Antidote and Black Hole. She opened Radical Eats because she needed a new "home" in which to create all the products she was selling around town. Since opening the restaurant, Davis has been getting "busier and busier and busier," so she had to "let some of the other stuff go," but that's not to say that she wouldn't like to go back to her roots and sell all around Houston.
Why she enjoys it:
As far as why she got into and enjoys the food aspect of her business, Davis has been a chef since she was 17, and she's always loved it. Every time she goes to a party, she always ends up in the kitchen. She likes working in kitchens — "the camaraderie, the speed, the creativity. I've been doing it for a long time. I've always liked vegetarian food. I've always liked playing with vegetables. It's just something I was good at. Another thing is that I always wanted to get some products in the grocery store. All the fake meats never fit the categories that I wanted. I wanted specific things, and I wanted to fulfill what I thought was a need," Davis says. She created a large part of Radical Eats' Mexican-inspired menu.
Why she enjoys owning her own business:
"I like the people that I work with — they're all kind of nuts. And it's just fun solving problems and seeing it work. It also just makes me feel like a grown-up. I like the customers; I like telling them jokes. It's fun. It's just like family."
Thinking that Radical Eats would be one of those restaurants that cater to a super-small niche audience, I ask Davis what her customers are like, to which she responds enthusiastically: "They're all over the map. I have everything from Christian fundamentalists to anarchist punk rockers and all ages — even 12-year-old kids that come in by request to celebrate their birthdays because they are vegetarians and all live in Pasadena. You've also got old men that have been eating meat and dairy all their lives and have had some doctor or health professional tell them that they really need to start figuring out how to eat differently — they'll come in. Black, white, brown — everything. We maybe sway a little bit more toward some of the neighborhood people, but really, it's all over the map."
What inspires her:
Davis lists several different things: "The farmers' market. Vegetables. The farmers that grow it all. The weird stuff. Pictures of food. Food. The stuff that grows out of the ground. Politics inspires me, too. I try as much as I can to support local farmers and stay away from big agriculture, although a lot of it is unavoidable. To me, it's all about global warming and the way that we're polluting our environment. A vegetarian diet can sustain a lot more people than a meat-eating diet. It's important for me to convince people to eat more vegetables — it's better for their health. When people eat the regular American diet, they are broken down and unhealthy."
If not this, then what:
"I would probably be a reporter for Democracy Now! traveling all over the world to all of the hot spots and reporting from there. Or I would go back to doing radio. I used to do political satire — telling jokes on the radio."
"We just got our gluten-free tamales in the Katy and Sugar Land Whole Foods, which is really exciting. We're looking at packaging right now — something that is environmentally friendly."
Davis is also close to opening a new restaurant, though she's not ready to share many details other than the fact that she'll be serving meat there (all locally sourced) and the restaurant will have a bar. She says that she'll really have to grow up as a restaurateur, since Radical Eats is very small and has been like "kindergarten."
Are You Being Served
Ten Houston restaurants where service is king.
It's hard to find good help, or so the saying goes. Indeed, many of the chefs and restaurant owners I've spoken with over the years privately admit that finding good waitstaff in Houston can be a Sisyphean task: You manage to find a truly great server or two, they dazzle your diners and then — because this is a very marketable skill we're talking about — they're lured away to another restaurant, and your search begins anew.
But at the restaurants we're spotlighting today, the service remains consistently spectacular from visit to visit — whether the same employees are retained or not. These restaurants run the gamut from fine dining to mom-and-pop joints and all manner of cuisines.
They have one thing in common, however: service that makes every meal memorable. The kind of service that encourages you to return again and again just to see a favorite waiter or catch up with restaurant owners who treat you like family.
Honorable mention: Brennan's, The Oceanaire and Vic & Anthony's
The Oceanaire doesn't get much play as a foodie favorite, and that's a shame. The Galleria-housed seafood palace offers the same attentive, traditional service as Creole grande dame Brennan's or downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's — all of which are usually my first picks when my parents or other beloved elders want a dignfied, pleasant, upscale dinner. Service par excellence is the standard at these spots, and they can always be relied upon to make you feel welcomed and pampered for an evening.
10. LA Crawfish
A common complaint at many Viet-Cajun crawfish places is that service is either rude or nonexistent. LA Crawfish is an exception, however, to this anecdotal rule. The young kids who run it are unfailingly friendly to each and every patron as well as helpful to crawfish neophytes. But most importantly, they get the food out lightning fast, which ensures that even if there's a long line (which there usually is), you'll get your food posthaste.
9. King's Biergarten
I've rarely seen young servers as engaged and happy as they seem to be at King's Biergarten in Pearland. And they aren't just sporting lederhosen and dirndls for show: Every one of them can explain the German menu top to bottom, although owner Johann Sitter is always on hand should you require a description of his homeland's food directly from the man whose family recipes are used to make the restaurant's goulash, zwiebelrostbraten and more. The effect of so many nattily attired, cheerful servers delivering enormous, heavy trays of beer and brats can make evenings here seem like a vacation to Munich.
Although any one of the four Barnaby's locations will offer you terrific service, the original — tucked away in a residential area in Montrose on Fairview — still sets the bar. Despite long waits on weekends and occasionally cramped quarters inside (especially when you're dining at Baby Barnaby's next door), the waitstaff are never anything short of charming and gracious. Besides complimenting your hairstyle, telling your grandmother how glorious she looks today, recommending their favorite dishes and always getting your order exactly right, the staff always offer excellent service. Employees appear to love the place just as much; anecdotes have flown for years of high-end maître d's attempting to lure Barnaby's crew members to "greener pastures" and failing every time.
7. Taqueria La Macro
I've never had anything but cheerful and industrious service at Taqueria La Macro, the little northside taqueria that could teach a thing or two to many fine-dining restaurants around town. You're always greeted with a big, genuine smile. If anything is running a bit behind in the kitchen, the waitstaff is quick to apologize and keep you abreast of what's going on. The moment trash hits your table — whether it's a discarded sugar packet or a straw wrapper — it's scooped up by a server. Drinks are kept constantly refilled, and plates are delivered with a genuine smile. And owner Saul Obregon is always there to keep a watchful eye on his little restaurant, greeting customers by name and often sitting down to chat.
I look forward to meals at Charivari in a way that is wholly different from other nights out. There's a lovely, considerate quality to the elegant service that's rarely found in modern dining rooms. Some may find silver domes removed with a flourish from dishes to be anachronistic; I consider it a treat. I love the ballet of watching plates set down in unison or the civility of being offered a palate-cleansing sorbet between courses and a silver tray with gingersnaps alongside my espresso at the end of an utterly relaxing meal. But for all this pomp and circumstance, Charivari remains warm and accessible. The service never seems outmoded but simply chivalrous, anticipating your every need before you've even realized it.
5. Cafe TH
This revamped banh mi shop in EaDo is home to Houston's best front-of-house man, who also happens to be the owner and chef: Minh Nguyen. All you need to do to become a regular at Cafe TH is come for one meal; Nguyen will remember you ever after and greet you with a beaming smile every time thereafter. The man remembers to ask about your mother, your job, your car, your workout progress — anything that's important to you is important to him. He also has a habit of allowing customers to create dishes, then naming those dishes after their creators (see: Hala's Fried Chicken, Ironman Jay or Abby's Uncommon Combo).
4. Mandola's Deli
The 38-year-old Mandola's Deli is a more personal choice than any other on this list. Gregarious owner Frank Mandola reminds me so much of my grandfather in his heyday that I often go to the deli for dinner simply to listen to Frank greet every customer by name in his wonderfully thick Texas accent, tell a silly joke or two, and catch up with them as he works the cash register at this wholly family business. Wife Debbie mans the restaurant when Frank and son Joseph aren't on hand (as with a recent father-and-son trip to Italy for Joseph's 30th birthday, which Frank proudly boasted about one night to anyone who'd listen), and Frank's sister plates the deli's signature Wop Salad and spaghetti with meatballs. Keeping it in the family — and treating their customers like family, too — is par for the course with the Mandolas, whose cousins run many of Houston's most familiar and beloved restaurants.
"Do you notice how you can't even make eye contact with the waiters without them coming over to check on you?" I once asked my dining companion during a review dinner at Triniti. "That's amazing." And yet the service never comes across as obsequious, stuffy or patronizing — a triumph in and of itself. You always feel welcome at Ryan Hildebrand's ambitious tribute to modern American cuisine, regardless of whether you're wearing shorts or the entire contents of the Versace store at the Galleria (I've seen both here). Hildebrand stocks his place with the best managers, bartenders and servers assembled from the best, most pedigreed restaurants across the city — and it shows in every service.
This Washington Avenue steakhouse is better known by now for a waiter who refused to serve a table after he heard them caustically remark on a fellow diner's child with Down syndrome: "Special-needs kids should be kept in special places." Although that waiter's moral code is admirable, I hope that it's not the only thing Laurenzo's is remembered for. Because all the service here is excellent. The clubhouse-y restaurant is a visual throwback to joints like the Houston's of yore, complete with the smart, friendly, expeditious service that typified those semi-upscale spots. In short, it's the service you'd ideally expect to accompany a really good prime rib and a bottle of wine. And if there were any questions about how seriously the Laurenzo family takes its service, check out the placard on each table that allows you to text the manager directly.
The massive multisensory menu at Uchi can be intimidating — even to hard-core food lovers. Machi cure with yucca crisp and garlic brittle? Walu walu with yuzupon and myoga? It could all be a bit much if it weren't for Uchi's impeccable service, which is what netted it a Best of Houston® award for Best Service in 2012. With a waitstaff that knows the menu inside-out and blindfolded, you can allow your server to be your friendly sherpa while you navigate Houston's Mount Everest of restaurants. They'll even custom-design a dinner for you, allowing you to relax and enjoy the food. Not only is your server ready, willing and able to do all this — you'll come out of your dinner there with a wealth of knowledge and new experiences that far surpass the monetary value of just a plain old meal of sushi.
Openings and Closings
Manly cupcakes can't cut it.
How many Malaysian restaurants does it take to feed Houston? If you guessed two, you're correct. Proving that Houstonians like their Malaysian food in one single flavor — Banana Leaf flavor — newcomer Asam Laksa Malaysian closed last week in Chinatown. The closure could also have had something to do with the fact that Asam Laksa positioned itself directly in between the two virtually identical Banana Leafs that face each other on Bellaire Boulevard, but we'll never know for certain.
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In other disappointing news, B4-U-Eat reports that Ranch Bakery has closed less than a year after opening. May 4 would have been Ranch Bakery's first birthday, which could have been celebrated with one of its signature "manly" baked goods made by an owner who was "fed up with girly cupcakes." With the Cypress bakery's closure, men will once again have to resort to demeaning their digestive systems with deplorably feminine cakes.
Elsewhere in manly news, patio bar The Dogwood is now open in Midtown. It's co-owned by brothers Brad and Chad Womack — you'll recognize Brad as a former "star" of "reality" TV show The Bachelor — and partner Jason Carrier, who assures Eater Houston that the bar will enforce a dubious-sounding "no douchebags" policy. One person's hipster is another person's street urchin; one person's douchebag is another person's dudebro.
In happier news, Eater Houston also reports that Shine's Car Care in the Heights has been torn down, making way for the eventual home of CK's Steakhouse — the joint venture between Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse and Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill.
And finally open as of last week is the much-anticipated Batanga, a tapas bar and Latin restaurant on Market Square. Our own Carla Soriano had a first look at the place last week, remarking that due in part to new bars and restaurants like Batanga, it's "evident that downtown is quite alive and well."