Best Bites at Buc-ee's

Texas Traveler

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my ritual of stopping by mega-convenience store Buc-ee's on my way to visit family in the Hill Country. Because I visit my folks pretty regularly, I stop at Buc-ee's a lot. It's not really a road trip unless I do.

I listed the top 5 things to eat at Buc-ee's, including Beaver Nuggets, fudge and, of course, beef jerky. I thought it was a pretty good representation of the greatest things Buc-ee's has to offer.

But once the article was posted, comments started pouring in.

"I can't believe you didn't include the potato salad!"

"What, no roasted cashews?"

"This isn't even a list without the banana pudding!"

I hear you, folks. There's just too much awesome stuff at Buc-ee's to include it all. But in the spirit of thoroughness, I returned to Buc-ee's and tried out some of your suggestions. Here's the best of the rest.

5. Kolaches

The Buc-ee's bakery makes at least a dozen different kinds of kolaches, both sweet and savory. The jalapeño cheese ones are pretty dynamite (see below for some jalapeño cheese love), but I've got a soft spot for the pecan pie. Buc-ee's claims that its kolaches are some of the biggest around, and though I've seen bigger, they're pretty delish. Part of what makes the sweet kolaches so good is the buttery crumbs sprinkled around the edges that make them almost strudel- or coffee cake-like. The savory ones are plump and round and filled with sausage, ham or bacon. Grab one (or five) of those and a cup of coffee, and you've got yourself the breakfast of champions!

4. Roasted Nuts

Buc-ee's roasts nuts in-house, so not only does the nut/fudge look amazing, it smells amazing, too. There are roasted peanuts (not such a novelty) and roasted almonds (definitely delicious), but the roasted cashews are the star nuts in the Buc-ee's repertoire. Though oft overlooked, cashews are one of my personal favorite nuts, and I think many people would agree that they deserve at least as much credit for being awesome as peanuts. Buc-ee's treats cashews right, roasting them slowly until they're bursting with that warm, buttery cashew flavor. If you're feeling more like something sweet, Buc-ee's also makes honey-roasted cashews covered in sugar and honey. Not quite as fresh tasting as the ones roasted in-house and left under a heat lamp for warmth, but still a fine tribute to the cashew nut.

3. Apple Crumb Pie

Just look at those mini pies full of crumbly goodness! They look and taste homemade. Buc-ee's also makes buttermilk and pecan pies, but the apple ones are clearly the best. I mean, can you see how much crumb topping is on those babies? And beneath that, there are plenty of gooey, cinnamon-y, not-too-sweet apples. The best part is that they come in personal sizes that are just as good as the big ones. Okay, they aren't called "personal pies," but I'm pretty sure those mini ones aren't for sharing. Good luck getting me to fork over half my perfect little country pie. Ha!

2. Loco Cheese Dip

Unless you're a regular at Buc-ee's, you probably walk past all the stuff in jars in favor of fresher offerings that you can eat in the car and don't have to worry about refrigerating later. This, my friends, is a mistake. Buc-ee's puts all sorts of stuff in jars, from cherry cobbler to pickled quail eggs (both of which are also pretty darn good). The best jarred food is Buc-ee's Loco Cheese Dip, though. It's pretty much just queso, but it's also so much more. It's smooth, creamy cheese (or, rather, cheese product, but let's just ignore that fact) dotted with slightly spicy red and green peppers with a mildly smoky flavor. It won't solidify in your fridge or sear off your taste buds with too much spice. In conclusion, no chips are needed. Just grab a spoon.

1. Jalapeño Cheese Bread

The fact that this didn't make it onto the first list is just a gross oversight on my part, because I buy this heavenly bread nearly every time I go to Buc-ee's and end up eating the entire loaf (the mini ones, I swear) before I arrive at my destination. It's not wimpy jalapeño cheese bread; this stuff packs a punch! And unlike some cheese bread that only kind of tastes like cheese, this bread has visible ribbons of orange cheddar swirled throughout it. There are also slices of jalapeño and shredded cheese dotting the tops of the loaves, which get crispy when they're baked. The bread is doughy rather than crusty, which satisfies major baked-good cravings, and it has just a hint of sweetness to counter the spicy jalapeños and salty cheese. In all, it's a perfect loaf of bread. Trust me on this. Just buy five loaves and stick them in the freezer until you have guests over, then reheat them in the oven and tell your guests they're homemade. You can thank me later.


James Nelson Talks MasterChef & Bravado Spice Co.
The final-five contestant shares his future culinary plans.

Molly Dunn

James Nelson's run on FOX's MasterChef is over, but this top 5 finalist's cooking career isn't. The chef and co-owner of Bravado Spice Co. in Houston spoke with Eating...Our Words about his experience on the show and his future culinary endeavors.

In the final episode Nelson competed on, he started off with a bang by winning the mystery box challenge, in which the judges' children filled a box with the most random ingredients for the contestants. You can only imagine what young boys would choose from the MasterChef pantry.

Nelson steered away from desserts the majority of the time in the MasterChef kitchen, but ironically, during this challenge, he made a dessert and was selected the winner. Unfortunately, another dessert was his demise in the pressure test challenge, where his panna cotta, despite being full of flavor, according to the judges, did not firm up like a true panna cotta.

Now that two Houstonians have made it to at least the final five in the past two seasons of MasterChef — Christine Ha won season 3 — America can see just how talented cooks from Houston are.

Originally, Nelson didn't want to audition for MasterChef; he says reality television shows really weren't his thing.

"I never saw myself as a reality TV star, but the lure of MasterChef was different — the premise is about cooking," Nelson says. "I look back on it, and it's one of those experiences you couldn't pay for. I am really glad I did it. I grew so much as a chef and as a person. It prioritized the reality of food."

Nelson says that competing on the series has given him the courage to take more chances in the kitchen, as seen in his risky move to make a dessert in his last mystery box challenge.

"The most beneficial thing is having faith in yourself and having the courage to take huge risks," Nelson says. "I gave so much. It opens your eyes — 'Why don't I try this, or do this?' Be willing to give anything a shot."

While Nelson loved all the challenges, the toughest one was the restaurant takeover, in which teams of three had to create 30 perfect dishes requiring highly evolved skills at using a wok and various ingredients. Oh, and Gordon Ramsay was the expeditor. Yikes!

"That was grueling. I barely had a team — pretty much had to do that by myself — compared to all of the challenges before," Nelson says. "But being able to pull that off, I have learned so much."

Anyone who watched Nelson compete knows that he kept his focus on the challenges so he could make the best dish every time, while some other contestants spent more time antagonizing and arguing with one another.

"It wasn't pleasant having negative energy; [with] something that is so demanding, you don't want negativity," Nelson says. "I disregard that stuff, [so] for me I didn't really give a shit."

Nelson continues to keep in touch with several of the contestants, including Bri, Johnny and Luca, who Nelson predicted would be the winner of MasterChef Season 4 as he walked out of the kitchen.

"Out of all the contestants on the show, Luca was the guy who learned the most. He never acted like he knew everything," Nelson says. "Luca has the most drastic swing in getting better — he absorbed everything."

It's no secret that Nelson looks up to last season's winner, native Houstonian Ha, so the challenge during her guest appearance on the show was Nelson's favorite competition.

"I got to play to the regional strengths," Nelson says. "What's so badass about the part of the world we live in."

And Nelson gets to continue to play to the culinary strengths of the great city of Houston at Bravado Spice, where he has shifted his focus now that he is not competing on MasterChef anymore. Aren't we so lucky?

"It's all about Bravado Spice," he says. "We are going to do these pop-ups; me and the guys get to make awesome food. That is just so much fun."

Nelson says the Web site for Bravado Spice relaunches on September 14 and the company will be able to ship products internationally.

"We have moved forward 100 percent with Bravado Spice," Nelson says. "From the moment I got home, it has been every day, 'How can I take this local company and expand it?'"

Right now, Nelson says, he and the guys at Bravado Spice are taking a bit of a breather for the month of September, but will have their next pop-up dinner in October; it will also be the last one at Royal Oak. He says the menu is about 75 percent complete and will be the most decadent one thus far.

If you can't wait until October, head over to the Bravado Spice Relaunch & Official Product Launch Party this Saturday. You'll get to see the new product line of hot sauces and the new label design.

Wine Time

Wine-Friendly Menu at Camerata
Camerata ups the bar for Houston bars.

Jeremy Parzen

There's an old adage often uttered by the great wine lovers of Europe: No wine without food and no food without wine. To those who truly love wine, no glass is complete without the complement of food.

In America, the utterance of the binomial wine bar seems to elide wine's natural companion. Wine bars are places you go to drink wine, whether paired with food or not. After all, that's the American way, isn't it? In America, the proverbial wine is not for culling the nuance of flavors from a given dish and aiding the digestion by means of balanced alcohol and acidity. No, in our country, it's for gettin' yer drink on. As Merle Haggard sang it, wine take me away / where I can lose myself.

Without naming any names, it's not a stretch to say that the overwhelming majority of "wine bars" in Houston are simply glorified bars — and often singles bars.

But today a new bar has been set for the Houston wine bar scene by classically trained opera singer David Keck's extraordinary Camerata on West­heimer (adjacent to Paulie's), named after the celebrated Camerata de' Bardi of Renaissance Florence, a music salon cited by many as the birthplace of lyric opera.

The by-the-glass program at Camerata changes daily, and it offers guests an ample selection of European and domestic wines in half and full pours. Wines that have been opened from the previous day are discounted with no strings attached.

Bottles are organized by weight (in other words, light-, medium-bodied or rich) and among other categories, the program includes wines that are "potentially funky," where funk is a gauge of a bottle's low added sulfur content.

Most of the wines are organically or biodynamically farmed and many are "natural" wines (grown without the use of chemicals and fermented with naturally occurring yeast).

But the thing that really sets the enogastronomic experience at Camerata apart from the rest of Houston's "wine bars" is the simple but extremely thoughtful wine-friendly food options.

No, no stinky, petroleum-based truffle oil here.

Keck, a Master Sommelier candidate who lived in New York City while studying at the Juilliard School and who has traveled the world as an opera singer, brings a new and fresh sensibility to the wine bar concept here in Houston.

Absent are the shock-and-awe menu items that pepper the menus of the majority of Houston wine bars.

Instead, his staff delivers intelligently selected cheeses, expertly sliced prosciutto di Parma (not an easy task nor one regularly performed competently in Houston) and other artisanal charcuterie (La Quercia from Iowa and Fra' Mani from California) — classical wine bar fare intended to accentuate the nuances of the wine selections.

It's the type of wine bar where any wine professional or true gourmet — from anywhere in the world — would find her/himself at home: A great selection of wines by the glass and a focused wine-friendly menu that actually allows the guest to enjoy the wine.

Chapeau bas, David and team! It was high time someone raised the (wine) bar.

Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Failed concepts & a mega burger bus expansion.

Molly Dunn

We're just a few days into the month of September, and several highly anticipated restaurants have finally opened for business and a multitude of future concepts have been announced.

But among all of this exciting news, several restaurants suddenly closed their doors last week. So let's get the bad news out of the way first.

It seems like Scott Gertner and Alberto Alfonzo have both hit a rough patch when it comes to their restaurant concepts. Just a few months ago, Scott Gertner's at Houston Pavilions closed and now it appears that Scott Gertner's Sports Bar Live, at 3100 Fountain View in the Galleria area, has closed as well. B4-U-Eat reports that the restaurant's phone is disconnected and no one has responded by e-mail to requests for info.

Alfonzo's newest concept, Pesca World Seafood, also has closed after being open for only eight months. CultureMap reminds us about Alfonzo's previous failed concept, Tintos, which closed in December. Several online reviews of Pesca say that overpriced small portions were a turnoff. But Alfonzo announced that he isn't giving up; Pesca will open in a different location at a later date, according to B4-U-Eat.

The Town & Country location of Skeeter's Mesquite Grill also closed over the Labor Day weekend. The Houston Chronicle reports that the restaurant closed because a new commercial development is being built at the restaurant's site. Skeeter's also plans to reopen in a different location.

After one of our commenters in last week's report informed us about a sign on the door of the Memorial Drive location of Candelari's Pizzeria that said, "Sorry," we did some digging to find out what the deal was. According to one of the employees at the Washington Avenue location, Candelari's on Memorial Drive closed about four weeks ago due to a lack of business.

Due to the inaccessibility of parking and getting into the yogurt shop, as well as increases in rent, Sweet Lola Yogurt Bar will be closing at the end of the month. The Midtown yogurt shop plans to open in a different location sometime next year.

Now for the good news of the week!

Eater sat down with Bernie's Burger Bus owner Justin Turner, who revealed plans to open three brick-and-mortar locations of his burger food truck over the next five years. The first permanent location should open next spring somewhere on Bellaire west of 610. During the interview with Eater, Turner explained what the menu will be like at the new locations.

"We'll expand the menu and do a few more burgers, throw in some different types of proteins. So I might have some wild game burgers, a chicken burger as far as the patties, but the burger and theme will stay the same," Turner says.

Turner currently has three trucks working a total of 28 shifts throughout the week, and the BBB pickles should hit grocery store shelves in October. The second permanent location is expected to open in fall 2014 in Katy.

In more coming-soon news, the guys behind Hunky Dory have announced plans for another concept that will share the lot with the future restaurant. Foreign Correspondents will be a "farm-to-table Thai" restaurant seating nearly 200 in the bar, main dining area and covered outdoor area, as well as a 40-seat private dining room that will be shared with Hunky Dory. Treadsack spoke with the owner, Chris Cusack, the culinary director, Benjy Mason, and the head chef, PJ Stoops, about Foreign Correspondents' concept.

Asked about the meaning of "farm-to-table Thai," PJ Stoops says, "Houston is not tropical, but it's not so far away from it, either. Northern parts of Thailand are tropical, but really not that far from the Tropic of Cancer. Both areas are ridiculously hot (though we do have a winter that sometimes lasts a whole week). In other words, agricultural products, cooking methods and preservation techniques from over there tend to be quite successful here...These gardeners and farmers grow everything there is to grow in our climate. We intend to utilize this network...While some items (like pla daek and soy sauce) will be imported, our goal is to source 100 percent of fresh ingredients locally."

Foreign Correspondents and Hunky Dory will be located at 1819 North Shepherd.

The highly anticipated Osteria Mazzantini opened at 2200 Post Oak Boulevard on Labor Day, as did Coppa Osteria.

In bar news, CultureMap reported that Worhals Midtown, an Andy Warhol tribute craft beer bar, opened September 5. The bar offers more than 150 craft beer selections and typical bar food, like burgers and wings, as well as healthier options, like salads, grilled chicken and fish, and paninis.

Voodoo Queen also opened at 322 Milby last week. The owners of Moon Tower Inn bring this newest New Orleans-style bar where you can expect a large stock of premium liquor. Eater reports that the drinks will come big and small; expect shareable bowls or smaller (and quite strong) cocktails finished with a neon fleur-de-lis skewer. Co-owner Brandon Young tells Eater that the East End bar will offer a variety of things to do, like pinball machines, dartboards and a pool table. Voodoo Queen will also serve its customers whatever they want to drink, even if it isn't on the menu.

Swamplot reports that the former Blockbuster location at 8001 South Main will open as a Filipino fast-food restaurant named Jollibee Chicken & Burgers. The next Trader Joe's will open in Cinco Ranch some time next year, according to Swamplot, making that the fourth Trader Joe's location in the Houston area.

In other news, Morton's Grille opened September 10 in The Woodlands as the first Morton's spin-off concept. The restaurant is directly across the street from Hubbell & Hudson, and is offering menu items similar to those at Morton's, like the steaks and chops, oysters on the half shell, prime rib French dip sandwich and the Morton's prime burger, according to the Chronicle. What sets this spin-off apart from Morton's are the shareable appetizers, such as buffalo chicken meatballs, and several dishes incorporating Texas flavors, like blackened Texas redfish with dirty rice and bacon fat braised baby back ribs with matchstick fries. Prices should also be lower than those at Morton's. Morton's Grille is serving only dinner for now, and will offer lunch at a later date.

B4-U-Eat's weekly newsletter noted that Coltivare Pizza & Garden looks to be gearing up for an opening judging from the progress in the garden outside. The soon-to-be 3200 White Oak restaurant appears to have fruit trees and tomato plants growing outside.

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Kaitlin Steinberg