Just because I didn't include Pappa Geno's wicked Philly on my recent list of Houston's Top 10 Sandwiches (which was reserved strictly for deli sandwiches) doesn't mean I don't lust after the thing. I do. I have terrible urges for Pappa Geno's at least once a week.
I crave the crunchy bread that's soft on the inside and somehow always manages to stand up against the flood of meat juices and melting cheese and slippery grilled onions and mayonnaise, and the spicy giardiniera that is normally found on a hot Italian beef but does the same neat trick on a wicked Philly of slicing through all that ooze with a sharp, bright heat. It's not a Philly cheesesteak (although you can get those here, too); it's so much more than that.
Athough I don't want to keep myself from the wicked Philly — or from any of Pappa Geno's sandwiches — I manage to restrain myself for the sake of my waistline and my cholesterol levels. This restraint makes the few Pappa Geno's sandwiches I indulge in that much sweeter. And now I have a second location in which to indulge in my Pappa Geno's favorites.
After the success of its first location in the Heights often meant lines out the door at peak hours, Pappa Geno's decided to open a second location — this one outside the Loop. The new Pappa Geno's in Bellaire was quiet on a recent Saturday afternoon around 2 p.m., but the interior tricked out in its signature color scheme of orange, blue and white was as raucous as always.
Behind the counter, owner Paul Mitchell took our order with a smile — again, just as always — and we sat down to await a wicked Philly along with a new menu item: Philly cheese fries, which takes Pappa Geno's twiggy fries and smothers them with Cheez Whiz, sliced steak and grilled onions. A few short minutes later, Mitchell walked over with the sandwich, a pile of cheese-covered fries and a recommendation.
"You should try the fries with gravy and hot peppers," he said. "It's a lot better that way." He wants to sell it on the menu that way, but many of his customers are wary of the heat in the giardiniera (which features jalapeño slices alongside the pickled carrots and other vegetables). "You'd think that in Texas..." Mitchell trailed off with a laugh.
At my request, he brought over a side of thick brown gravy and some additional giardiniera. I dumped them quickly atop the pile of seasoned fries and suddenly found myself looking at an odd but intriguing creation. Much the same as Robb Walsh called BB's Tex-Cajun Virgin "a Tex-Mex Cajun version of poutine," I saw in front of me the Philadelphia version of the Canadian dish.
The plate had the requisite fries and brown gravy, but in lieu of cheese curds was the oh-so-Philly Cheez Whiz. Along with the steak and giardiniera, the plate could have been a meal in and of itself — and I very nearly finished it all in one go. It was a major distraction from the wicked Philly that was cooling on the table, and I was finally able to tear myself away from the fries long enough to take a few bites while it was hot.
It was a carbon copy of the same wicked Philly I've always enjoyed in the Heights; Pappa Geno's gets high marks for consistency. It also gets high marks at this new location for a cute patio and a nice view of Bellaire's small-town vibe near the triangular intersection of Bellaire, Bissonnet and Rice. And although there's no counter seating at the new location (nor a view into the kitchen), you'll still be greeted with the same warm smiles and hot sandwiches on the same blue-and-white checked paper.
While I don't want Pappa Geno's to become a chain anytime soon, I'll admit it's very nice to have a second location of a Houston favorite (whether my waistline agrees or not).
The Taco Truck Gourmet
Ask a Mexican
Gustavo Arellano on the decline of Tex-Mex.
Gustavo Arellano isn't just any Mexican. Over the years, the writer has turned himself into almost the "official" Mexican of America thanks in large part to his syndicated column, "Ask a Mexican!" and books like Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
This is his most recent book and one in which Arellano tackles the question of how the food of a country that many Americans despise — thanks to issues such as drug cartel violence along the border and concerns over illegal immigration — has become one of the most popular cuisines in the United States. Arellano, also the editor at OC Weekly (one of our sister papers) is headed to Houston on November 15 to discuss this very topic at the University of Houston.
The free talk — which launches this year's Food for Thought Lecture Series at the university — starts at 5 p.m. and will explore everything from how salsa overtook ketchup as the country's favorite condiment in the 1990s to what's considered "authentic" Mexican food (and why does authenticity even matter?).
"It's always good to have that discussion, if only to see the reaction people will have about it," said Arellano over the phone last week. "They feel extremely passionate about Tex-Mex, whether defending it or reviling it." He'd just finished a talk in San Marcos, where the university had prepared a spread of breakfast tacos and brisket for his appearance. Arellano was still coming down off the hospitality high.
"That's Texas for you," he laughed. And although Arellano is from Southern California — home of Taco Bell, fish tacos and burritos — it's Tex-Mex food that he enjoys talking about, particularly because of people's strong reaction to the cuisine.
"No one ever has those conversations about Cal-Mex," he noted. "A big part of it is Texas — there's sometimes bad mojo associated with Texas — but also what's interesting is when it comes to Texas barbecue all of America loves it." People talk about enjoying brisket or sausages, but not cheese enchiladas. Tex-Mex, as Arellano sees it, is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal outside the state.
"In some ways, people feel cheated," he explained. "They feel that Tex-Mex masqueraded as Mexican food for all these years." And now that more of mainstream America is discovering what they perceive to be "authentic" Mexican food, the more they're turned off by the lard-and-cheese-laced plates that most Texans adore. Outside of Texas, says Arellano, the tide has turned against Tex-Mex despite its deep roots in our country.
"It's unfortunate because it's almost an attitude like, 'What have you done for me lately?'" Arellano sighed. And what many Americans can forget is that "dishes that were fads and phenomenons become assimilated into the American diet."
"At one point, chile con carne was considered to be Mexican food," he laughed. "And now it's American food — it's just chili from a can. Same thing with fajitas. They no longer have that cache value."
Arellano places much of the blame on people like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, chefs and cookbook authors who despise Tex-Mex as a bastard cuisine and who — in some people's perceptions — have raided Mexico's various states and towns to cobble together an American version of what "authentic" Mexican food should be.
"[T]his triangle [Bayless] speaks of in the South, the triangle of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City he has ceaselessly promoted for decades as the only regions of Mexico worthy of visiting for its food? Straight-up bullshit," wrote Bill Esparza in the OC Weekly this past June. "He has dismissed the North and had previously referred to Tijuana and Baja as a wasteland until LA bloggers...made folks in the U.S. reconsider the region."
Arellano isn't a fan either. "Bayless and Kennedy validate the suspicion that people have with regard to Mexican food," he said. The suspicion that it's an interloper, meant to confuse us and steer us away from the "real" thing.
On the other hand, says Arellano, Mexicans often aren't very fond of Tex-Mex either — especially Mexicans in other parts of North America. Although other ethnicities' cuisines have been mainstreamed by Americans over the years (Italian and Chinese, most notably), Arellano notes that Mexicans — by far — hold the most contempt for the Americanized version of their food. Arellano calls it a "socio-psychological issue."
"With the Mexican elite, they have just hated the fact that Americans love Mexican food and despise the fact that when Americans cook Mexican food they cook Tex-Mex. It's a psychic wound," he explained. "Not only did the gabachos steal half of our territory, now they're stealing our food." Katharine Shilcutt
Read more of our two-part interview with Arellano and why he thinks Houston has a problem with "inherent insecurity" at Eating...Our Words.
Openings & Closings
Block 7 on the chopping block.
The big news this week was word from Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse and Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill that the two are combining their magical meat skills to open CK's Steakhouse in the Heights. The new steakhouse serves, in a way, to replace the plans that Killen had to open an outpost of his popular Pearland restaurant — plans that fell through when negotiations with the landlords at the proposed location (the site of the former Bedford and Stella Sola) didn't work out.
CK's Steakhouse will be situated close to the Hubcap Grill on 19th Street and, according to Alison Cook at the Chronicle, will offer "more adventurous dishes that don't necessarily play well at the Pearland location."
Meanwhile in the Heights, Ken Bridge has closed his popular Asian fusion restaurant — Dragon Bowl — after seven years to make way for a new concept: Witchcraft Tavern and Provision Co. The "craft" in Witchcraft presumably refers to the craft beers that Bridge plans for the tap lineup (similar to what he's done at Shepherd Park Draught House) as well as a menu of "artisan, craft made sandwiches featuring our very own house made cheeses." Bridge also owns Lola and the Pink's Pizza mini-empire.
What's not quite clear about Witchcraft Tavern and Provision Co. is its so-called environment of "an exciting blend of Swag Chic with a comfortable relaxed vibe." I passed a clothing store on Veterans Memorial last weekend called Got Swagg? (with two g's). Will I need to stock up on Swag (with one g) before dining at Witchcraft? Important questions here.
In closures, Block 7 Wine Company has closed after only four short years in business. It was one of the first new-build restaurants to move into the Washington Avenue corridor and was equally lauded for its retail wine shop component (which allowed customers to purchase bottles of wine on premises for a nice discount) as well as its upscale comfort food, like the dry-aged beef burger topped with Gruyère and a smoky bacon relish. (We loved it so much we gave it Best Burger in our 2010 Best of Houston® issue.)
Word from my sources is that Block 7's ownership had been in talks to revamp the warehouse-like space, as the retail wine side of the business eventually faltered and closed and the restaurant needed new direction. A big-name chef was hired to redo the menu and relaunch the concept, but sources say that too much lag time left Block 7 in the lurch and the owners finally closed its doors this past week.
In other news along Washington Avenue, chef Tommy Birdwell left TQLA — this past June — although I just found out about his departure this week. No word on where Birdwell has landed.
Our friends at B4-U-Eat have the scoop on the brand-new Cafe Pita+ that's opening this weekend, marking the second location of the Bosnian restaurant that's a foodie favorite. "It's not at 5500 Richmond as announced but at 5506 Richmond, formerly Casablanca Couscous and Grill (and no, we don't know when that one closed)," read this week's B4-U-Eat newsletter.
And one more great tidbit of news from B4-U-Eat: Westside favorite Hollister Grill will soon have a location inside the Loop. Owner Chuck Pritchett is opening a second location in the recently vacated Cova space at 5555 Washington. Look for it to open within the next month or two. Katharine Shilcutt
Our picks for the best restaurants in the Galleria area.
Long the bastion of boring chain restaurants and overly expensive hot spots, the Galleria has seen a resurgence in the past few years when it comes to food. Chef-owned-and-driven restaurants are upping the ante along Post Oak Boulevard, while places like E-Tao and White Oak Kitchen + Drinks are showing shoppers that it's possible to have a great meal inside the massive mall itself without splashing out or trudging through the subterranean food court.
And in the surrounding blocks around the Galleria, brand-new eateries like family-owned Adair Kitchen and low-key French bistro Etoile Cuisine et Bar are drawing new fans to the area each day. And while there are still plenty of terrific, inexpensive options to stretch your dining dollar — Zabak's, Jenni's Noodle House, Cafe Mawal and Jake's Philly Steaks spring to mind as just a few — today's list of Top 10 restaurants in the Galleria has changed quite a bit since the last time we tackled this part of town...in 2010.
And considering that holiday shopping season is right around the corner, getting reacquainted with some good places to fuel your shopping spree isn't a bad idea.
10. 1252 Tapas
The new Uptown Park location of this suburban import (the other two 1252 Tapas locations are in Cypress and The Woodlands) features a sleek, modern menu of traditional Spanish tapas and a much more urban vibe than its far-flung counterparts. Get the tabla alfonso x if you go with a group so that you can taste 1252's array of excellent Spanish cheeses and cured meats or get experimental if you go on your own: Morcilla (blood sausage) with apple and Dijon mustard sauce and pulpitos en su tinta (baby octopus sautéed in its own ink) are two favorites.
9. Tango & Malbec
Yes, the Galleria is full of steakhouses — but none of them are quite like Tango & Malbec. The large, well-appointed restaurant features the cuisine and wines of Argentina and its neighboring South American countries, which means lots of meats grilled on a wood-burning fire. The extensive menu has some Italian influences — items like the carpaccio, provoleta (grilled provolone), and various pizzas and pasta dishes are all expertly prepared. Meat lovers will adore the bife de lomo (filet steak) and the bife de chorizo (rib eye) as well as the Wagyu beef short ribs. Whatever you do, leave room for the magnificent desserts, such as the torta rogel (dulce de leche cake with meringue), the chocolate soufflé and the profiteroles.
In a shopping center saturated with middling fast food and ultra-expensive chains, E-Tao is a welcome happy medium: a low-key, low-cost restaurant with great food. Situated near Nordstrom in the Galleria IV, the newest of the expansions to the gigantic mall, E-Tao serves traditional Sichuan favorites that are far more authentic than one would expect for mall food. While it's gaining a following for its soup dumplings (xiaolongbao), the rice-and-pork-stuffed chicken wings are equally excellent. And if you can't deal with the drive out to Chinatown, E-Tao makes a surprisingly good replacement for the Bellaire Boulevard dumpling houses.
7. The Oceanaire
The Oceanaire — a sleek seafood palace that anchors "restaurant row" in the Galleria — is designed to resemble an art deco ocean liner, and the pampering service fits right into the theme. The staff is extremely well-trained, with spot-on knowledge of every oyster and fish variety on the menu and the attention to detail that means getting a white or black napkin based on the color of your clothing. Tell them it's your birthday or anniversary when you make your reservation and you'll get a specially printed menu and a congratulatory card when you sit down at your table. And that's really where the Oceanaire shines; it's a special-occasion sort of place that really does make the occasion feel special. The Oceanaire was also one of the first places in Houston to carry so-called Gulf appellation oysters — so you know it's on-trend with its dishes — but it also carries old standbys that most places have done away with, like Baked Alaska.
6. The Tasting Room
This is not your typical wine bar food, between small bites like miniature grilled cheese sandwiches on Slow Dough pretzel baguettes with chèvre and sweet tomato jam and entrées like a pizza topped with house-made Broken Arrow Ranch venison sausage, Gruyère, caramelized onions and roasted red peppers. Sunday brunches with a distinctly Southern twist are hugely popular events, as are the occasional crawfish boils thrown on the patio in the summer. And while you normally wouldn't consider a weekday lunch at a wine bar, the menu of gourmet sandwiches and dishes is so alluring that you'll even forget they serve wine.
5. Kenny & Ziggy's
Homesick New Yorkers make lunch and weekend breakfasts a standing-room-only affair at Kenny & Ziggy's, widely hailed as the best New York deli in the country — despite being located in Houston. Local customers scarf down the fluffy, delicious matzo balls, the legendary three-inch-thick deli sandwiches, the Hungarian-style stuffed cabbage, the Hungarian goulash or big bowls of barley-based kasha varnishkas — total Jewish comfort food. A bowl of delightfully crisp and tangy pickles is delivered to the table as soon as you sit down, and they're almost as much of a draw as the knishes and blintzes. The slices of New York cheesecake are nearly as big as the sandwiches, with a dense exterior that gives way to a fluffy inside. Jovial owner and chef Ziggy Gruber was recently featured in a documentary, Deli Man, as he's "the only third-generation Jewish deli man who is still actively running a restaurant," according to former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh.
4. RDG Bar + Annie
This contemporary, multi-space restaurant sits in the newly built two-story mall on Post Oak near San Felipe that also houses fancy French restaurant Philippe and retail boutiques such as Hermès. The restaurant is broken up into three main sections: the Grill Room (upstairs), Bar Annie (also upstairs) and Blvd Lounge (downstairs). The Grill Room is the most upscale of the three, serving the same gourmet, French-influenced Southwestern cuisine that first made owner and chef Robert del Grande famous. Bar Annie is a step down from the Grill Room, price-wise, and Blvd Lounge is the most casual of the three, serving bar food and cocktails. Thanks to chef del Grande's celebrity status, this is a destination restaurant. Most diners come in with high expectations, and those expectations are usually met or even exceeded.
3. Ciao Bello
Sitting on the more casual end of the Tony Vallone empire, Ciao Bello plays up Italian classics under California transplant Bobby Matos, who took over as executive chef two years ago. Having worked under farm-to-table pioneers like Trey Foshee back in California, Matos has made Ciao Bello into one of the can't-miss restaurants of the area with dishes such as a rich, buttery Bolognese over handmade pappardelle, corn pansoti with black truffles, Gulf flounder amatriciana and porchetta glazed with saba.
The eponymous Philippe belongs to one of Houston's most enduringly popular chefs, the French-born Philippe Schmit, who chose the glitzy area for his upscale French-esque brasserie. Schmit is fond of both his French roots and his adopted home in Texas, which shows in the menu: It ranges between the French and the Texan, with frequent layovers around the Mediterranean basin. The two-story restaurant itself is similarly tumultuous, a charmingly jumbled mix of old-world glamour and steely industrial flare. Try Schmit's twists on old favorites like "pigs in a blanket" and drunken foie gras to see the restaurant really shine, or indulge in a Cowboy burger during the extremely affordable weekday lunches. Downstairs, sommelier extraordinaire Vanessa Treviño Boyd has turned the casual lounge space into one of the better wine bars in town, with a staggering 80 selections by the glass.
1. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
Impress your clients with massive USDA Prime, dry-aged steaks, a plush atmosphere and a special cigar lounge where you can enjoy expensive cognacs and big fat stogies after dinner. There is really very little else in town that can compare when it comes to smooth, old-school charm and elegance than Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. The steakhouse prides itself on a wine list loaded with rare old wines, such as an 1811 Château d'Yquem listed for $30,000, but you can find a decent vintage of Bordeaux or Burgundy for a couple hundred dollars thanks to talented sommelier Steven McDonald (whose top pick for a bargain wine is an $80 bottle of La Pialade Côtes-du-Rhône 2007 by Chateau Rayas). Bring a big appetite and an even bigger expense account — the cheapest steak on the menu is $43. Katharine Shilcutt
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