Mole and Kimchi and Beer, Oh My! Scenes from a Long Point Road Culinary Tour

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Long Point Road stretches east to west just north of I-10 between the 610 Loop and the Sam Houston Tollway. It's dotted with used-car lots, fast-food joints and small, rundown apartment complexes. From the driver's seat, the strip centers with signs in Spanish, Korean, Chinese and even Polish don't look like anything special. Unless you live in Spring Branch or regularly travel down that road, you might never know about the amazing cultural melting pot along the five-mile stretch.

On Sunday, I tagged along with Houston Culinary Tours, this month led by Bryan Caswell of Reef and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. The chefs took us to some of their favorite hole-in-the-wall joints in the vicinity of Long Point Road, a revelatory tour for me. Though I've been living in Houston for three weeks now, I'm often too tired after work to venture out of the comfort of the Loop in search of good food. Consider me converted. I'm no longer a prisoner to the Loop bubble.

The tour started with El Hidalguense, a tiny Mexican restaurant filled to the brim this Sunday afternoon with diners, a large waitstaff and a trio of mariachi musicians whose music was loud enough to cover up the sounds of the bustling kitchen. Actually, the music was so loud that conversation was nearly impossible, but the food was so good, no one was talking much anyway.

The staff had prepared a buffet for our tour group, and as we approached with our plates, a few servers filled them with various meats and tortillas, then sent us back to our tables overwhelmed and delighted by the multitude of options before us. There was guacamole and Mexican rice, of course, but there was also a hunk of chicken smothered in a divine brown mole sauce and a multifaceted pork and green pepper stew. I'm honestly not entirely sure what everything I tried was, or I'd attempt to be more descriptive. It was all so delicious, and it all happened so fast. Before our meal had time to digest, we were walking to our next destination, only two doors down.

According to Caswell, Vieng Thai produces some of the most authentic Thai food outside of Thailand. It's difficult to replicate it exactly, he explained, because some of the ingredients used in Thai cuisine, like fresh coconut milk and pulp or legit green papayas, just can't be found or aren't readily available in the U.S. Vieng Thai does a damn good job, though. I was disappointed that our tasting involved almost exclusively chicken dishes (can't a girl get some other protein just to mix things up?), but in spite of the poultry overload, it was clear that the chef knew his way around a sauce.

One particularly flavorful dish featured chicken in a red chile ginger sauce topped with sprigs of fresh cilantro, and another paired chicken with delicate Thai mushrooms that practically melted in your mouth. The green papaya salad topped with peanuts and tomato slices was refreshing, and I took the leftovers home in a to-go box to enjoy later. Though everything we sampled was indicative of an authentic Thai experience, I'm interested in heading back for some curry and some more papaya salad sometime very soon.

Our third stop was the most enjoyable for me. I spent a week last summer in Seoul, South Korea, and while I was there, I fell head over heels in love with the food. I could eat kimchi every day if I knew my friends and coworkers wouldn't complain about the fermented cabbage smell I'd leave in my wake.

So imagine my delight when I stepped through the doors of Super H Mart and into a produce section full of fruits and vegetables I had never seen before, even in Korea. There were jars of chile garlic sauce bigger than my head, whole refrigerated sections full of kimchi and a seafood counter that almost made me weep for joy (remember, I've been living in the Midwest for the past two years).

The whole place is like a food-lover's Disneyland, and if all the shopping makes you hungry, there's a Korean food court inside the store. It's like H-E-B's deli counter, only it's nothing like it because it's so much better. The tour group was treated to Korean fried chicken in garlic and chile varieties, both of which put regular old fried chicken to shame.

When it came time to leave, Shepherd and I realized we hadn't stumbled upon any of our coveted soju, a Korean rice liquor similar to vodka, but often smoother and slightly sweeter. A search for soju left us empty-handed (we think the alcohol content is too high to sell in a grocery store), but Shepherd took my disappointment and turned it into a teaching moment by introducing me to Makgeolli, a Korean rice wine that looks like old skim milk and is a favorite of his boys at Underbelly. It is not appetizing to look at, and it doesn't smell particularly good, but it's slightly fizzy and fermented and oddly refreshing. I decided I could easily get down on a bottle of Makgeolli while soaking up some sun on a boat. Our final stop took us first to Polish Food Store and Deli on Blalock, then to Polonia, the only true Polish restaurant in Houston. The pierogis, potato pancakes and Polish sausage were all appropriately heavy and, you know, something you'd gravitate to during a long, gray winter. The true treat of Polonia is the Szpak family, who kept us full of beer, vodka and laughs during our meal. I'm looking forward to heading back to Polonia to try more authentic Polish food -- especially all of the sausages -- at a later date, but I've been told not to go on Sunday right after church, when the joint is standing-room-only.

This tour was an incredible introduction to some of the ethnic food that's available in H-Town these days. GrubHub recently ranked Houston the tenth most "food-diverse" city in the U.S., with 28 different types of ethnic food represented in the greater Houston area.

So that's four down, 24 to go. Bring it, Houston.

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