Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.
I make a conscious effort not to go to restaurants, bars or cafes right after they open, especially if I'm planning to write about them. I like to give them time to get their bearings. No matter how much you prepare, that first wave of customers will always teach you a thing or two. It seems unfair to judge a place when it's not yet accustomed to the crowds.
And yet I found myself at Siphon Coffee on opening day, laptop in hand and starving. Amanda McGraw, the consulting chef at the new cafe, apparently recognized me immediately, and I felt bad.
"I'm not here to write about anything!" I wanted to tell the staff. "I'm just going to settle in a chair, eat a sandwich and get some work done. Carry on!"
But then I took a bite of the finocchiona sandwich, and I changed my tune.
"Crap," I thought to myself. "I'm definitely going to write about this."
McGraw has a great pedigree, so it's no surprise I fell instantly in love with her food at Siphon. She served as executive chef at Brasserie 19 and is also developing the menu for The Honeymoon, the upcoming bar/cafe from Brad Moore. At Siphon, she's developed a menu of breakfast baked goods and paninis and charcuterie boards to keep you full into the evening.
Of course, the main draw at Siphon is supposed to be the fancy coffee, but I was very taken with my finocchiona panini. Finocchiona is an Italian fennel salami made with ground pork and pork fat interspersed with fennel seeds. It's more often found on charcuterie platters than in sandwiches, but it lends itself surprisingly well to the melty, cheesy sandwich.
Oh yeah, the cheese. It's scamorza, an Italian cheese similar to mozzarella, but slightly tangier, which blends well with the intense flavor of the finocchiona and the acidic giardiniera tapenade and the smooth strips of roasted red bell pepper. It's all sandwiched between two thin panini buns, crisp and toasted on the outside and still soft in the middle.
When you bite into the sandwich, long strings of cheese stretch from your mouth back to the plate. The giardiniera takes a second to come forward, but when it does, the rush of vinegar and slightly spicy peppers is addictive.
The sandwich is served with regular old potato chips, something I've noticed other places too. At 13 Celsius, one of my favorite sandwiches, the mortadella on a pretzel is served with a side of potato chips. I don't know about you, but I like the juxtaposition of gourmet and junky.
Of course, if I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't have room for those chips anyway after I downed that sandwich in three minutes flat.
The list so far: No. 94, Combo Catracho at Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant No. 95, Tamal de Puerco at Andes Cafe No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette