Hop On Board: Houston Culinary Tours Embarking Soon

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Have you ever wanted to cruise around with one of your favorite chefs, picking their brains as you hit his favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the city? Your chance to do just that is coming soon.

Whole Foods Market and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau have put together an intimate series of Houston Culinary Tours, featuring some of the city's best -- and perhaps least well-known -- restaurants. And guiding these tours? Monica Pope of t'afia, Bryan Caswell of Reef, Randy Evans of Haven and Chris Shepherd of Catalan. Beginning in March 2010, each tour will see two of the four chefs showing 15 passengers around the city on a luxury bus, hitting at least four different restaurants and noshing at each stop throughout the afternoon.

Eating Our Words went on a media preview of the Houston Culinary Tour on Wednesday afternoon and found out firsthand just how excited the chefs and the restaurants are to show off for hungry guests.

The idea behind the Houston Culinary Tours is to get Houstonians more interested in the amazing local restaurants that have influenced some of our city's top chefs. People who dine at upscale restaurants may not realize that their food has been inspired by small, ethnic eateries or homey dives. And others simply may have not had a chance to experience the vast culinary tapestry that Houston possesses.

The four stops that we hit on our tour were representative of the four tours that are scheduled for 2010: Les Givral's Khave, London Sizzler, Polonia and My Dee Dee's Pie Shop & Deli. At each stop, the chef who had chosen the restaurant explained his choice and why it was important or influential to him. Afterwards, each restaurant's owner came out and told the crowd a little about his history before launching directly into the best part: the food.

At Les Givral's (801 Congress), we munched happily on various spring rolls and bahn mi while Bryan Caswell explained that the original Les Givral's on Milam -- which is now under different ownership -- was an old stomping ground for him growing up near what is now Midtown. Southeast Asian food and Vietnamese cuisine in particular was the first truly "ethnic" food that Caswell ate growing up, and influenced him far more than the typical Tex-Mex or BBQ that one would associate with Houston.

At our next stop, the cheerful London Sizzler (6690 Southwest Freeway), a vast spread of Indian food and snacks greeted us as we walked in the door. Chris Shepherd introduced the London-born Indian chef as his "brother from another mother," before we embarked upon a journey through savory samosas, buttery chicken korma, fruity mango chutney, spicy Indian peppers and a sizzling platter of masala fish that tasted utterly dreamlike.

One would think that after such two filling meals, we couldn't possibly put anything else in our bellies. But that thought fled when a meat-laden platter hit the table in front of us at Polonia (1900 Blalock). The only Polish restaurant in town -- and staffed entirely by Polish waitstaff -- it specializes in hearty comfort foods like bigos (hunter's stew), pierogie, golabki (cabbage rolls) and delicious meats like roasted duck legs, kielbasa and pork shanks. As is tradition in Poland, our meal was served with a delicate glass of vodka and lots of laughter.

We ended the day at My Dee Dee's Pie Shoppe (301 W. Gulfbank) , the only spot on the list to which we'd never been before. It was a sheer treat -- both because of the exquisite buffet of pies and cakes and because of the kindness that the owner and her mother (the eponymous Dee Dee) radiated. Randy Evans chose My Dee Dee's for these very reasons, and the homemade pies he promised didn't disappoint. Our favorite was a My Dee Dee's special: Celestial Pie made with cream cheese, blueberries and bananas. We left with dozens of doggie bags filled with slices of pie and cake and promises to return soon.

It's difficult to say which was the more enjoyable aspect of the afternoon: the four restaurants and their delicious spreads or the friendly, relaxed manner in which the chefs chatted and laughed with the passengers throughout the day. It's rare for people to get a chance to mingle with their favorite chefs in such an intimate setting, let alone hear about their embarrassing childhood stories, family recipes, off-duty hangouts and the general shop talk about the inner workings of a restaurant.

Although there are only four tours planned for next year so far, if they're as successful as the media preview was, we anticipate Whole Foods and the HCVB adding more to the itinerary as the year goes on.

The first public tour takes place on March 14. Tours are $180 per person -- a steep price up front, but a bargain when you consider the sheer amount of food consumed during the trip (not to mention the wine and beer provided along the way). The entire schedule -- including dates and restaurants -- for the upcoming Houston Culinary Tours can be viewed on the next page.

A Taste of Southeast Asia Sunday, March 14, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Featuring: Kasra Persian Grill, Balaji Bawan, Sin Sin and Kim Tai Monica Pope & Bryan Caswell

Grocery Stores and Ethnic Markets Sunday, April 18, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Featuring: Asia Market, Lankford Grocery, Hong Kong Market and Polonia Randy Evans & Chris Shepherd

Long Point Road Sunday, September 12, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Featuring a diverse selection of the most authentic ethnic restaurants in the city Bryan Caswell & Chris Shepherd

Fair Food Sunday, October 10, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Featuring Ray's Franks, MAM's House of Ice Snoballs, Frenchy's Chicken and My Dee Dee's Pie Shop and Deli Monica Pope & Randy Evans

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