Well, it appears I'm not Christine Ha's only
stalker huge fan here in Houston.
On June 11, the MasterChef Season 3 winner spoke to a full house at Brazos Bookstore, promoting and signing copies of her cookbook, Recipes from my Home Kitchen. By 6:30 p.m., most seats were full, and by the time Ha took the microphone at 7 p.m., the cookbook had sold out, the crowd was standing-room-only and the temperature in the store had definitely risen a few degrees.
Ha is the very reason I started watching MasterChef, and her combination of personality and skill made me an instant fan of both her and the show. She's just real, and that is a very appealing quality, especially in reality, television where it seems like so many participants/contestants exaggerate themselves in an attempt for more screen time. Last week, Ha's warm sense of humor and frank honesty were on full display as she talked about her cooking inspirations (her late mother), her future plans (a restaurant here in Houston) and — best of all — the behind-the-scenes secrets of MasterChef.
As a writer, Ha explained that cooking felt like an extension of her attempts to connect with people; through both words and food, she could share herself with others: "Being a storyteller, everything has to be a story!" Ha certainly knows how to tell a story, as a brief run through her cookbook reveals; her vignettes are short but revealing, and we learn about why she chose certain dishes for MasterChef challenges, as well as for the cookbook. She also mentions that several recipes were inspired by dishes she ate here in Houston, but she doesn't name names — maddening!
Among the best tidbits about her time in the MasterChef kitchen:
• They offer cooking classes to contestants on off days. The classes are optional, and with an exhausting shooting schedule, they force contestants to choose between rest/downtime and extra study time.
• When asked about contestant Becky (another heavily favored to win), Ha said that perhaps Becky's ambitious dishes and technical skills worked against her; Ha tried to think of the hourlong challenges in 50-minute increments in order to give herself a cushion in case something went wrong.
• On the now-famous sashimi challenge, where contestants were tasked with visually re-creating a dish, Ha revealed that the producers had a second plate ready for her that she was allowed to touch in order to visualize the plate. (Ha is legally blind, for those of you who live on the moon!)
Other great moments of the evening came when fans posed questions to Ha from the audience. When one man asked about Ha's favorite Houston restaurants, the crowd let out a loud "Ohhhhhh!" that was quickly followed by laughter. (She cited MF Sushi and Uchi as special-occasion favorites and Chinatown as a place to go for great, cheap food, "as long as you can look past some bad service," which prompted another big laugh.) In fact, Ha kept the crowd laughing with her answers to questions like:
• "What advice would you give to those who want to try out for MasterChef?" to which Ha replied, "Don't do it!" but then she followed up with advice on practicing techniques and eating a lot to develop the palate.
• After being asked, "What's your next adventure?" Ha paused and then deadpanned, "I'm going to become the president," before admitting that ultimately, "I would love to win a Pulitzer." (Ha is currently working on a memoir about her late mother and her own vision loss.)
When asked about her "final takeaway" from her MasterChef journey, Ha had two lessons to share. First, don't give up. "Life will suck, and it's okay to be upset about it," she said. "But you have to make the most of the hand you're dealt." Second, Ha advised, "Whatever you are given, you have to give back and use what you have been given to help others."
HOUSTON RESTAURANT WEEKS KICKS OFF AUGUST 1
What will be different from last year?
Houston Restaurant Weeks is less than two months away, and its organizers are gearing up to raise funds for the Houston Food Bank once again, beginning August 1 and running through Labor Day, September 2. This marks the tenth year for the monthlong event.
While the complete list of restaurants participating has not been formally released, we do know that Randy Evans of Haven, Michael Cordúa of Cordúa Restaurants, and Arthur Mooradian of Del Frisco's, Sullivan's and the new Del Frisco's Grille will be taking part once again. Cleverley Stone, founder of Houston Restaurant Weeks, predicts that these three groups of restaurants will make huge donations. In fact, Del Frisco's was the No. 1 donor last year.
Stone says a few adjustments are being made to this year's fundraiser, starting with a brand-new logo and a schedule change that has the formal dates running through Labor Day, as well as new pricing for specific meals.
"I have added a layer of pricing, so now we have a lunch at $20, dinner at $35 and dinner at $45," Stone says.
For every $20 lunch, $3 will be donated to the Houston Food Bank by the restaurants participating this year. For every $35 dinner, $5 will be donated, and for every $45 dinner, $7 will be contributed.
In 2012, Houston Restaurant Weeks collected more than $1.22 million to give completely to the Houston Food Bank. Out of funds from more than 253,000 meals served at all restaurants involved in the monthlong event, 3.66 million meals were provided to those suffering from food insecurity. In fact, Houston Restaurant Weeks 2012 became the largest single fundraising event for the Houston Food Bank, thanks to impressive participation by the Houston community.
"Last year we had 169 [restaurants]," Stone says. "The event is not about the quantity; it is about the quality. The prime objective is to invite restaurants who want to be in the event and restaurants who are involved.
"The Houston Food Bank now depends on the money that Houston Restaurant Weeks raises as far as their budget," Stone says. "I need a month to raise that kind of money."
Check back with us for more information about participating restaurants and menus during this year's Houston Restaurant Weeks.
SUNBEAM WHOLESALE STORE
Highlight of the Heights.
When I first spotted the Sunbeam Wholesale Store (also known as Schott's Bakery) en route to Beaver's, I nearly drove into oncoming traffic. It's not just the idea of cheap carbohydrates that sent me reeling, but specifically Sunbeam white sliced bread, the forbidden fruit of my childhood. (The irony of my love for "white bread" does not escape me.)
Because my mom gave a rat's ass about our health, she didn't buy Sunbeam and insisted we eat whole wheat and/or less processed varieties. Sunbeam was the bread I ate in secret at the houses of friends whose parents were less concerned about Type II diabetes. To this day, I find its aroma intoxicating, and every single time I see the logo with that blond lass digging into a slice, I really want to drop everything and go make toast.
Well, alas, that particular night I had to settle for the buttery roll of my shrimp po-boy, but I vowed I would return to this magical bakery that I was sure would fulfill all my hopes and dreams of white bread.
And I was right. The unassuming storefront of the Sunbeam bakery belies the terribly exciting bargains inside: loaves, rolls, English muffins, Tastykakes, donuts and buns all heavily discounted due to imminent expiration dates. But who takes more than three days to start and finish a loaf of bread? Not this girl.
Not all the products are explicitly Sunbeam, so I had to spend a few minutes scanning to find my beloved white bread, which was located, appropriately, under a large sign labeled "WHITE BREAD." Then, for the first and only time in my life, I walked past a display of snack cakes, without stopping, in favor of heading first for plain bread.
A "Texas Giant" loaf (approximately 30 slices) was $1.29. Um, can I take ten?
I was able to show a modicum of restraint and buy just three loaves, vowing to put one in the freezer to consume at a later date. Which would most likely be the day I ran out of loaves No. 1 and No. 2.
Make the croissant-donut hybrid at home.
For those of you who do not know what a cronut is, it's a hybrid of a croissant and a donut. Rather than frying the ordinary batter to make a donut, croissant pastry dough is fried instead. This creates thin, crispy and buttery layers instead of a fluffy donut. To make things even better, the cronut has a light vanilla cream filling.
Chef Dominique Ansel is the mastermind behind this culinary creation and has made everyone go crazy for his tedious-to-make but delicious breakfast treat.
These hybrid pastries are found only in New York City; in fact, Ansel makes only 200-250 of them each day. But because the world is going crazy over these things, a multitude of cronut copycats, like the "doissant," have emerged.
Hopefully this pastry will make its way down to Houston, but until then, here's a recipe using Pillsbury crescent dinner rolls.
While this doesn't come anywhere close to requiring the tedious and time-consuming skills it takes to make the cronut, the result is pretty tasty.
First, unroll the dinner rolls from the package and create four rectangles. You will basically seal two triangles together and press the inside edges together to create a cohesive rectangle.
Next, stack one rectangle on top of the other so you have two stacks. Fold the rectangles in half to create a square. Now you have "layers" as with a croissant.
Use a three-inch biscuit cutter to cut circles out of the squares, then cut a one-inch circle out of each donut. I used a melon baller and scooped out the hole in each donut. Roll the leftover dough together and make a third donut.
Once you have your donuts ready to go, heat two cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a deep pot or deep-fryer. As soon as the oil is hot enough, place them into the oil and fry until golden. The recipe calls for frying each side for a minute and a half; however, at 350 degrees, the donuts will turn very brown very fast, so I recommend frying at a slightly lower temperature to ensure that they're cooked through completely but are not too brown.
Place each donut on a paper towel to drain the oil and cool for five minutes. While the donuts cool, scoop a cup of prepared vanilla pudding into a plastic bag or piping bag, and prepare the powdered sugar-milk glaze to go on top of each pastry.
Once the donuts have cooled, slice them in half, pipe a good amount of pudding onto one side of each and seal them shut. Drizzle caramel syrup on top, sprinkle with kosher salt and finish with the glaze. These cronut copycats are truly delicious and don't take that much effort. You'll definitely love the crunchiness — in fact, they taste like they have layers, like a croissant — and the sweet-salty combination of caramel, sea salt and vanilla pudding.
This is a great base recipe for creating other flavors of copycat cronuts. Fill each donut with chocolate pudding, banana pudding or lemon pudding, and top with coconut or miniature chocolate chips, or cover completely with a sugar glaze. If these taste great, I can't even imagine how wonderful a real cronut tastes.
When the standard side-by-side pie and ice cream just isn't enough.
A slice of pie is best accompanied by a scoop of ice cream or, as some argue, a slice of cheese. And apparently, a milkshake is best accompanied by a slice of pie.
Given that we live in a country in which we deep-fry Oreos and manufacture two-pound Snickers bars, I am not terribly shocked that someone somewhere has tried putting some deep-dish apple goodness into a blender with ice cream and milk. I mean, there really are no limits to drunken creations/cravings.
But the fact that this is not the passing fancy of a few lone adventurous potheads and seems to be a trend with some staying power online and in restaurants does amaze me, if only because there are easier and less expensive ways to make milkshakes that taste like pies. Having never done a side-by-side comparison of a "blueberry pie" milkshake and a blueberry pie-milkshake, I can't speak of their respective merits and failings.
I could do some research via at-home experimentation, though I'd much prefer to take a road trip to San Francisco's Chile Pies (& Ice Cream), where one of my dessert options is a slice of green chile apple pie with cheddar cheese crust blended with vanilla ice cream into a sweet-savory shake. From SF I would then head to Long Beach for a chocolate "banberry" pie milkshake (banana cream pie topped with strawberries) at Polly's Pies.
Options also abound on the other side of the Mississippi. Next time I visit my home state of Pennyslvania, I will stop in Philly en route to Harrisburg because this summer, chef Holly Ricciardi is jumping on the bandwagon and offering pie-milkshakes at her beloved dessert boutique Magpie. As long as I'm on the East Coast, maybe I should swing by Hill Country Chicken for its pie shake. Because there's nothing like going all the way to New York for a taste of Texas.
Here in Houston, Katz's has long afforded me the opportunity to have a piece of cheesecake thrown in my milkshake. The thought, however, of that much dairy passing through my system at once gives me shivers.
Any other H-town establishments mixing pie, milk and ice cream into a beverage? Notice I'm resisting the urge to make up some bad portmanteau.
OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
Sad Farewells & Exciting Expansions.
Let's just get to the sad news first. Feast closed last Friday. The wonderful and beloved restaurant, however, had a yard sale to get rid of, well, everything — including the pig signs — on Saturday.
The Chick-fil-A on Webster also closed last Friday. Swamplot reports that franchise operator Charles Gibson left a note on the restaurant's window stating that "TxDOT has purchased the property with plans to expand I-45."
In other closings news, Roots Bistro has shut its doors. According to CultureMap, a "source hints that a 'disengaged investor' pulled the rug out from under the enterprise...and has plans to go a different direction." Eater Houston Editor Eric Sandler notes that Roots is the "fourth high-profile" restaurant to close on Westheimer over the past few months.
On the plus side, Houston Business Journal lets us know that Happy's Pizza, based in Michigan, opened in north Houston on June 12, and another location is set to open in southwest Houston in about seven weeks. Johnny's Pizza House also has opened in Atascocita, as noted by the B4-U-Eat newsletter. You can't complain about getting another pizza place or two.
Smashburger is opening June 26 off the Katy Freeway in Katy, and there are plans for two more locations, one opening this fall and the other in 2014. LongHorn Steakhouse, another franchise, was set to open in Humble June 17, according to a press release.
When you head down to Galveston this summer, be sure to check out Galvez Bar & Grill inside the Wyndham Grand Hotel on Seawall Boulevard, which just opened last week. The new restaurant and bar features seafood items freshly caught from the Gulf, along with bar bites for you to munch on while sipping Prohibition era-inspired cocktails like the Ghost Bride Martini or Seawall Sidecar.
Although Burns Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Q closed this week, don't be sad, because Gary Burns made this decision so he could return to the family business at Burns Bar-B-Q on North Shepherd, as reported by J.C. Reid. There's more barbecue to come from Burns.
In expansion news, Eater's Sandler reports The Tasting Room in Uptown Park is going to take over the Lady L Clothing space and will expand by 9,000 square feet. The restaurant has decided to grow after signing a new lease that runs through 2023. The newly remodeled space will enlarge the patio and garden area for more seating outside. According to a press release, the project begins in July and should be finished by Labor Day.
Tandoory Taco opened June 16 in The Woodlands. This new restaurant on Sawdust serves up Indian-flavored and spiced food where the "tacos" are wrapped in paratha. You can also enjoy other classic Indian dishes, such as dosa and curries, according to the new profile on B4-U-Eat.
According to Jamaica House's Web site, the restaurant on Westheimer is currently closed for remodeling, so it isn't gone for good. Scott Gertner's At Houston Pavilions won't be gone for good, either. Houston Business Journal says the downtown club is looking to relocate and will announce its new location soon.
In Baytown, The Red Fox, known for Texas coastal cuisine, closed shop because, as owner Linda Stewart stated, "We're not at a place where we can continue."
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Submarina California Subs in Missouri City also shut its doors this week, as reported by B4-U-Eat. However, Missouri City added Chocolate Drop Cafe, which serves up coffee and pastries as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Although Morningside Thai Restaurant has been closed since April, the restaurant reopened June 17 at its new location at 2473 South Braeswood in Suite A.
Cinco Ranch is also getting the third location of D'Amico's Italian Market Cafe later this summer. According to a press release, the new restaurant will be located in the Phase II portion of LaCenterra town center and will serve lunch and dinner each day of the week.
B4-U-Eat's newsletter also let us know that Mandi Halal, a Middle Eastern restaurant, recently opened on Hillcroft off the Southwest Freeway.