Next time you hear a waiter or waitress complain about his or her tips, remember that the United States and Canada are home to the biggest tippers in the world (but maybe don't tell them that fact, 'cause it probably won't help). In many other countries, service is included in the bill, and tipping is reserved for truly exceptional service. Also, people in the service industry in most other countries make higher wages than waiters in the United States, who rely on tips to bring their salaries up to minimum wage.
Lately, though, there's been a lot of talk about abolishing tipping in America altogether. A Slate article from last July called tipping an "abomination." The author, Brian Palmer, wrote: "Tipping is a repugnant custom. It's bad for consumers and terrible for workers. It perpetuates racism. Tipping isn't even good for restaurants, because the legal morass surrounding gratuities results in scores of expensive lawsuits."
He brings up some good points about the practice. So good, in fact, that others are starting to echo his concerns. In September, Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times, highlighted a number of restaurants that are moving away from tipping and toward surcharges or higher-priced menu items. The money made from these practices would then go toward paying servers a fair wage — as in, more than $2.13 an hour, the amount many servers make before their "tip credit."
But what about our right as consumers to let service staff know we're pissed by leaving a small tip? How are we supposed to express gratitude if not monetarily? And how are misguided teenagers going to elicit donations after they're stiffed for being gay (but not really)?
As tipping has risen to 20 percent in the past few decades, a greater income division has emerged between the front of the house and the kitchen staff. Some restaurants note that all tips are to be split among all employees, but in general, waiters are tipped, while line cooks, dishwashers and janitorial staff are not.
An issue arises, however, when restaurant managers ask servers to pool tips to share among the staff: Servers have been suing restaurants for sharing their hard-earned tips with ineligible staff (i.e., anyone who makes at least minimum wage before tips) and for being forced to clean bathrooms or fold napkins with their tip-able time (since obviously those toilets aren't congratulating their fine work). Most notably, 5,500 bartenders and servers sued Applebee's, claiming that they should be paid at least minimum wage for hours they spent performing non-tippable duties.
The only way around this is to charge a service fee up front, but this eliminates the tax credit on income from tips. Two weeks ago, the IRS added to the issue by enacting a ruling that an automatic gratuity for large parties must be considered as a service charge, not a tip. This went into effect January 1, which means that restaurants will either have to add the gratuities to servers' taxable wages or do away with them altogether. Neither option is great for the restaurant or the servers, but the group at your next birthday party will be pleased.
So why the recent re-examination of tipping, anyway? Well, tipping isn't a longstanding American custom. In fact, we picked it up from the Europeans when we started going on fancy vacations to Paris and Rome in the 1800s. Tipping in the United States initially faced a lot of backlash from patrons, who felt it was akin to bribing staff for decent service. Eventually, as we all know, Americans came around. And now we tip, on average, 20 percent of the post-tax total.
Recently, a push has been made to eliminate the tip credit, ensuring that all employees make at least minimum wage and freeing diners from the obligation to tip. Because when you think about it, do you most often tip for stellar service, or because you feel you have to? How often do you struggle to give your server a "fair" tip when you don't really want to?
The recent ruling by the IRS regarding gratuities aside, service charges seem to be the best route for many restaurants. Or, to eliminate any confusion regarding who's reaping the rewards of a service charge, an "administrative charge" or a "dining fee." Just as with tipping, diners would eventually become accustomed to seeing the charge on their receipts.
Service charges still don't protect restaurants from lawsuits, though, if servers continue to get tips and lose tips while they aren't actively waiting tables. Only a change in legislation regarding these murky charges can do that, and there hasn't been much headway in that department, in spite of encouragement from prominent restaurateurs, including David Chang and Alice Waters.
And here in Houston? Well, it's same-old, same-old. Many (though not all) servers are paid minimum wage, and service isn't included on tabs for small parties. We're expected to tip, though most of us don't even think about it anymore unless the service was truly terrible.
So how do you tip? And do you wish you didn't have to?
I know I'm just looking forward to the day when I no longer have to end my meal with a math problem.
Best of Houston
Rest of the Best 2013
Houston's top 10 pasta dishes.
Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners have been announced, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we're rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!
For me, as I suspect it is for many, pasta is the ultimate comfort food. My family isn't Italian, but I grew up eating a lot of pasta. On birthdays, it was fettuccine alfredo. For special events, it was linguine with shrimp scampi. On any given weeknight, it might be a mixture of roasted veggies and chicken with something imperfect from our pasta extruder, but it was always delicious and filling.
The first dish I ever learned to make was pasta alla puttanesca, and it's still what I make the best and what I get requests for when I'm home. Trips to Italy opened my eyes to a whole new world of utterly simple but incredibly flavorful pasta dishes and unique ways to incorporate various vegetables and proteins into my pappardelle or conchigliette.
Of course, pasta isn't only Italian anymore. Pasta (not to be confused with Asian noodles) has found its way into Jewish, French, Cajun, American and numerous other cuisines. I'll argue that Italian is still the best, but there's no denying that pasta is perfect in just about any form. Here are some of the most perfect plates of pasta in Houston.
10. Kenny & Ziggy's
I know, I know. You're thinking I'm crazy. A list of the best pasta — arguably the national food of Italy — and the first place she mentions is a New York-style Jewish deli?! Yes, and here's why: Kasha varnishkes. At Kenny & Ziggy's, the traditional Ashkenazi Jewish dish is prepared just as it would be back in the old country. The ultimate soothing combination of buckwheat groats, bowtie pasta, eggs, chicken stock, onions and mushrooms was even featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network (for whatever that's worth). But if you don't trust Guy Fieri, trust me: This hearty, grain-heavy dish is geshmak!
9. Bayou City Seafood & Pasta
As a resident of the Bayou City, I would be remiss if I created a list of the best pastas without a tip of the hat to the bayou itself and all the fresh seafood that comes from it. At Bayou City Seafood & Pasta, the traditional Italian dish gets a Cajun makeover, thanks to some mudbugs and a bit of spice. During crawfish season, the best pasta on the menu is the Pasta Lafayette, a simple dish of fettuccine or angel hair with sautéed crawfish. Order it "Justice style," which will get you a thick topping of spicy diablo sauce and creamy alfredo sauce.
Paulie's is a Houston institution, and one dinner there will tell you why: consistent, reliable service; a large, unfussy menu; and handmade pasta in giant portions. Honestly, I can't pick a favorite pasta at Paulie's. Both the canestri alla funghi, with cremini and shiitake mushrooms in a light sage cream sauce, and the bucatini amatriciana, with smoked bacon (in lieu of the traditional guanciale), fire-roasted cherry tomatoes, garlic and chile flakes, are wonderful, and a large portion is more than enough for two people to share.
Of course the father of Italian food in Houston has a place on the list of best pasta. The handmade ribbons of pappardelle or fettuccine have the ideal elasticity, and the sauces are simple yet full of flavor. Though I'm a sucker for the pillowy pansoti filled with squash and bathed in a sage essence cream, the best pasta on the Tony's menu is so special that it's around for a limited time only every year. During burgundy truffle season (fall through early winter), Tony's offers tagliarini in a cream sauce with truffles gingerly shaved over the dish right at the table. It's almost otherworldly in its decadence.
6. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
Though I can seldom resist a good mushroom pasta (don't worry, there will be more later), the gnocchi di funghi at Giacomo's is the second-best pasta dish on the menu. The best is the tagliatelle alla bolognese, a traditional meat sauce that's often attempted and rarely done right. Giacomo's gets it, though: It should be more meaty than tomato-y, more ragù than marinara. At Giacomo's, the bolognese sauce still tastes of the long-simmered carrots, onions and tomato paste, but the beef is the true star of the show.
5. Da Marco
And in case the truffle pasta at Tony's wasn't enough truffle for you, try Da Marco's. It's quite similar, but at Da Marco you'll pay twice as much money and get twice as much pasta and truffle. In the winter, owner Marco Wiles goes to Alba himself to gather the white truffles that are later served at Da Marco (note: Tony's is currently serving burgundy truffles). The moment when the truffle is shaved over your pasta and the scent of earth and mushrooms and something almost garliclike in its piquancy fills your nostrils is something that, as former Press food writer Robb Walsh has noted, every lover of food should experience at least once in his or her life.
Ah, the cresta di gallo pasta. Named for its shape, which resembles a rooster comb, the cresta di gallo at Provisions is by far the best pasta dish on a menu of really good dishes. The curly pasta swims in a bowl of wild hen-of-the-woods mushroom cream sauce with roasted yeast, which makes it light and frothy rather than heavy. Parmesan brings out the crisp funk of the mushrooms, while red pepper flakes add a spicy punch that breaks through the cream sauce every few bites. This dish may just make you reconsider altogether what pasta should be.
When I think pasta, I don't usually think French restaurant, but chef Philippe Verpiand at Étoile makes one of the most divine, melt-in-your-mouth pasta dishes in town. The raviolis de champignon (told you I love mushrooms) are filled with the smoothest mushroom purée and bathed in a lightly whipped sauce of port wine, truffle oil and aged Parmesan, then topped with thin wisps of cheese and finely sliced chives. The frothy sauce is almost impossibly light, and the handmade pasta perfectly chewy.
2. Ciao Bello
I consider Ciao Bello to be the king of pasta in Houston. All the pasta is handmade from the same imported flour and Italian water that makes the pasta at Tony's so delectable, but it's the slightly less formal atmosphere at Ciao Bello that makes me feel like I'm eating at an Italian trattoria. The doppio ravioli is one of the most creative pastas that (sometimes) finds its way to the menu here. The double-pocketed ravioli filled with puréed red and yellow beets and topped with olive oil, fried sage, roasted chestnuts and a light pan sauce is just a special for now. But I'd be surprised if it doesn't soon become a regular menu item.
1. Coppa Ristorante Italiano
If pasta is your thing, chef Brandi Key should be your new best friend. Under her watch, the kitchens at both Coppa Ristorante and Coppa Osteria turn out incredible upscale takes on Italian classics with flair — like the porcini-flavored pappardelle with slightly sweet braised brisket sugo or the supremely delicate house-made gnocchi, swimming in a rich broth with notes of fresh sage and dollops of ricotta. It's the bright, yolk-topped spaghetti carbonara with wisps of pink salami scattered throughout that brings crowds to each restaurant, though. It's by no means traditional carbonara, but the mixture of salami, Parmesan, parsley, pepper and a single egg topped with pour-it-yourself Parmesan cream sauce is so good that I bet the Romans wish they'd thought of it.
Off the Wall
State Representative Has a Message for Sriracha CEO
Relocate to Texas, please.
By now we've all heard about the ongoing saga of the Huy Fong Sriracha plant, which was forced to temporarily shut down part of its production due to complaints from nearby residents about fumes emanating from the plant. We've moaned and groaned and wrung our hands, fearful that we might be deprived of the spicy red sauce on which we've grown so dependent. And we've whined a lot. Could California be losing a great thing?
The Texas state representative for House District 114, which encompasses part of northern Dallas, isn't content to sit back and wait for the Sriracha shortage to grip the nation. Instead, he's gotten proactive, inviting David Tran, chief executive officer of Huy Fong Foods, Inc., to move the plant to Texas.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Villalba sent a letter to Tran in which he wrote, "As a public official and a corporate attorney for small businesses, I am extremely troubled by excessive government interference in the operations of private, job-creating businesses like Huy Fong Foods. You have worked too hard and have helped too many people to let government bureaucrats shut down your thriving business."
Amen to that!
In the letter, Villalba listed the following as good reasons for Huy Fong Foods to come to the Lone Star State:
"There is no personal or corporate state income tax — this means you would keep more of your hard earned profits;
"Texas has the finest distribution channels in North America — based in the center of the United States, and nearly equidistant between Mexico and Canada;
"According to Forbes magazine, Texas has the best climate in the country to run and grow a business because of its low regulations and limited government interference;
"Texas is a right-to-work state with a sophisticated and plentiful labor pool — ensuring that companies have access to good, well-trained employees to grow their business;
"Texas appreciates and supports business owners. We do NOT believe in interfering in the internal operations of private businesses."
When reached by phone, Villalba admitted that his request may sound a little silly, but, he says, "We believe strongly in free enterprise, and that is something we take very seriously. We thought that this is a problem caused by California's overregulation and a litigious climate that stifles businesses from doing what they do best. What better place to do business than an open or free market like in Texas?"
Villalba has long been a fan of Sriracha, which he enjoys on much more than just Asian food.
"I'm a huge fan of pho," he says. "I've become a bit of a connoisseur. Anytime you have pho, you have Sriracha and hoisin sauce, and I eat a lot of Asian cuisine, so Sriracha is a staple of my diet. I have it on my eggs, I put it on burritos...anything that needs a little kick to it."
Villalba acknowledges that a key part of what makes Sriracha great is the peppers that go into the sauce. The chiles are grown in a specific region in California and harvested only once a year. He points to the Pace picante sauce plant in San Antonio as proof that chiles can be grown in our Texas climate but also says that even if the Huy Fong plant moves here, they can still grow their peppers in California.
"The value proposition for Texas is our distribution channels," he says. "It's easier to get to the east coast, Canada and Mexico from Texas than it is from California."
Of course, he hopes that if Huy Fong Foods takes him up on the offer to move to Texas, the new plant will be built somewhere near him in north Dallas, though he admits Houston would be a decent spot as well.
Ideally, Villalba says, he hopes that Tran will take his request seriously and allow him and "a delegation of Texas dignitaries" to travel to Rosemead, California, and present their arguments to Huy Fong Foods.
So, Mr. Tran, consider the Houston Press on board with that idea as well. You get nicer neighbors who like spicier food, and we'll get a thriving company in our local economy. It's a win-win. And if you do settle on Texas, we'd like to cordially invite you to move the plant to Houston. Because let's face it: We're way cooler than Dallas.
On the Menu
Top 5 Mozzarella Sticks in Houston
Try these deep-fried cheesy snacks.
I have trouble seeing how anyone could not want to embrace breading and deep-frying a stick of cheese (especially in Texas), yet strangely I've found my all-time favorite appetizer is not as popular in Houston as I would expect. I know we have our loyalties to chips and queso, but there's room in our hearts and bellies for additional forms of fatty fromage. Visit these five restaurants if you haven't yet learned to love that ooey-gooey cylinder of goodness so often simply known as the cheese stick.
5. Fried Mozzarella Sticks (Little Napoli Ristorante).With a thinner, lighter bread coating, the cheese sticks at Little Napoli can be a bit flimsier than other restaurants' versions. Then again, who the hell cares about being neat while you're eating fried cheese? Bust out a fork and chow down on those suckers. Slightly soggy but delicious.
4. Cheese Stick (Lucky Burger). Skip the fries at Lucky Burger and pair that double mushroom Swiss burger with a side of "cheese stick," medium logs of mozzarella coated in seasoned bread crumbs. Lucky Burger may cook its patties medium, but its cheese sticks are well done, resulting in a crunchy exterior that contrasts pleasantly with the soft inside.
3. Store Brand Frozen Mozzarella Sticks (H-E-B). I bought these on a whim one Friday night when I had promised myself I would "cook" instead of ordering takeout. Needless to say, I had rock-bottom expectations for generic frozen cheese sticks that cost just over a buck. Though smaller in length than most restaurant varieties, H-E-B's version is decent, containing rich but not greasy mozzarella and ample breading. Plus, if you oven-toast rather than deep-fry, you produce a more tender stick...and reduce your chances of getting a third-degree burn in the process.
2. Mozzarella Fritti (Papa Mio Italian Cafe).Despite some shaky beginnings, Papa Mio Italian Cafe has evolved to become a bustling island on otherwise sleepy Lexington Street. This success can at least in part be due to its reliable red sauce cuisine, including the mozzarella fritti (that's fried cheese, boys). A generous serving and a side of tomato gravy is just $5 — the perfect antipasto for a bowl of tortellini.
1. Mozzarella Sticks With Marinara (Gotham Pizza). It may be sacrilegious to go to a joint that serves great pizza and just order a large Greek salad and mozzarella sticks, but that's what I'm inclined to do at Gotham Pizza. The side of sweet basil tomato sauce combined with the insanely rich mini-logs of cheese and bread coating represents all the basic taste notes of cheese pizza taken to the nth power. Which is probably why no matter how much I'm craving a slice, I so often yield to the siren call of these sticks.
Openings & Closings
Philippe to become Table & Brian O'Neill's isn't closed.
After chef Philippe Schmit left his namesake restaurant, Philippe, back in September, the chef de cuisine at the time, Manuel Pucha, took the reins as executive chef. Now, Philippe's name will change to Table; the restaurant closed on January 11 to prepare for its reopening, which is scheduled for March. The Houston Chronicle's Greg Morago explains that the restaurant will be completely remodeled — decor and menu. The bar downstairs will be twice as big as it is now and will offer a special menu from 3 to 5 p.m. Table's bar will focus more on cocktails and craft beers. Pucha will create a menu filled with dishes that reflect his culinary style of contemporary and updated American dishes. The Chronicle previews a few possible menu items, such as tuna tartare with citrus-infused olive oil and cilantro, baked oysters, brick chicken and vegetable "flights." Morago's article also notes that Schmit is still in Houston and might open a new restaurant. More to come about that possibility.
La Guadalupana did not reopen after the holidays, but have no fear, Mexican-pastry lovers, because the quaint bakery and cafe is not permanently closed. Eater reports that La Guadalupana was scheduled to reopen on Saturday, January 11, and it did. While the reason for the temporary closure has yet to be determined, Eater explains that owner Trancito Diaz has plans to open a shopping center in Pasadena, where he would likely open his second cafe.
Although Brian O'Neill's had a "Farewell Brian O'Neill's New Year's Eve Party," the Irish bar and pub is not closed and won't be closing anytime soon. On January 2, Brian O'Neill's posted on Facebook, "Despite all the rumors Brian O'Neill's is still open and is not closing soon, so come in tonight for $3 Irish Car Bombs, $2 red snappers, and $2 buttery nipples all night long! Specials on all Texas drafts and liquors as well."
We received word that LOLA Catering + Events, LLC has opened a new storefront, at 2280 West Holcombe. The catering and events service moved there in the fall and is now serving takeout lunch and dinner; LOLA will still offer catering services from that location. Chef Richard Hendry will serve staple LOLA dishes, such as the apple gorgonzola salad and the LOLA burger, as well as a variety of new sides, soups and desserts.
B4-U-Eat's newsletter cleared up some confusion with the Fish & The Knife last week. According to the owner, the restaurant will open in about three weeks. Rumors had spread that it might be far from opening, based on the disappearance of its Facebook page and because its opening had been delayed for quite some time. However, the Facebook page was removed because a former employee had created the page.
Remember that makeout bar with the blue door? Well, it's coming back — for real this time. Swamplot reports that Marfreless should reopen on Friday, January 17. From the looks of the renovation photos on Facebook, it will still be dimly lit, so you can...you know...
Anyway...Help out a good cause and get a free meal at Another Broken Egg Cafe, opening in Vintage Park on January 20. On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday leading up to the grand opening, the cafe will offer a free meal to every customer, as well as an opportunity to make donations to a specific charity and nonprofit. On Thursday, January 16, diners may donate to the Houston Food Bank from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m.; on Friday, January 17, from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., donations may be made to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital; and on Saturday, January 18, customers can make donations to the Houston SPCA from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. During each of these times, the cafe will serve a variety of Southern brunch dishes, including biscuit beignets, French toast, burgers, sandwiches and omelettes. Try out Houston's first Another Broken Egg Cafe and decide for yourself if you want to visit again for a not-free meal.
The Chronicle's Morago reports that the space in Midtown where El Patio used to be has been redesigned and remodeled for its new occupant, Cook & Collins, which will open on Monday, January 20. The bar will be upstairs and the restaurant downstairs. The menu will include American comfort-food dishes. Cook & Collins will initially be open for dinner only, but brunch and lunch service will soon be added.
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SHOW ME HOW
Another bar is joining the downtown nightlife scene. The Chronicle's Morago reports that Snake Oil Company will open at 410 Main, Suite B, between Preston and Prairie, by the end of January. The cocktail bar will resemble a speakeasy with a "secret" staircase entrance. It's headed by K.C. Gifford, owner of a residential and commercial construction company, Double G, and Robby Cook, who will be the bar consultant. Morago writes that Cook worked at El Big Bad.
Eater reports that a new bakery is coming to the East End part of town. Tout Suite is the sister bakery to CityCentre bakery Sweet and is set to open at 2001 Commerce. Owners Thuy-my Luong and Sandy Tran will open Tout Suite some time near the end of February; the bakery will not only serve the same macarons and cupcakes sold at Sweet, but will also offer soups, salads, sandwiches made with bread from Slow Dough, and coffee from Greenway Coffee.
According to Amber Ambrose of Zagat Houston, Hubcap Grill will open a third location, this one in Kemah, off Highway 146. Owner Ricky Craig announced the expansion via Twitter, stating, "Hubcap Breaking News: Hubcap #3 coming soon. Hello 146 Kemah." Ambrose reports that the third restaurant location might open in March or April of this year — beer garden, jukebox and those insanely great burgers included.
Punk's Simple Southern Food will open by the middle or end of February next door to another Clark Cooper Concept, Coppa Osteria. Chef Brandi Key will head the kitchen at Punk's, serving true Southern classic dishes with a twist, such as fried green tomatoes with a crab salad, sweet corn hush puppies and buttermilk fried chicken.