Move Over, Cupcakes

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Food Nation

Think back to a few years ago when cupcakes were introduced as glamorous desserts. You probably recall that cupcake shops such asSprinkles,Magnolia BakeryandGeorgetown Cupcakein Beverly Hills, NYC and DC, respectively, became household names. As the popularity of these (sometimes filled) personal cakes topped with colorful swirls of frosting, sprinkles, syrups and every other decoration under the sun grew, so did the number of shops, restaurants and stores specializing in them.

While many of us grew up eating the simple chocolate cupcake with butter cream frosting or a golden-vanilla cupcake topped with classic chocolate frosting, those two flavors began at some point to seem passé, overtaken by fancy bacon-topped versions.

But the cupcake craze is over, and the French macaron has taken its place.

Don't confuse the macaron with the macaroon (note the additional "o"), a sticky American cookie made with egg whites, sugar and coconut, sometimes topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup. The French macaron is so much more difficult to make. It's practically an art.

Despite being considered a French dessert now, the macaron cookie has Italian origins and was supposedly invented by the chef of Catherine de Medici, who was queen of France from 1547 until 1559; she was married to Henry II of France. It wasn't until the early 20th century that a filling was sandwiched between two macaron cookies. Pierre Desfontaines, the grandson of Louis Ernest Ladurée (founder of the famous Parisian patisserie Ladurée), was the mastermind behind filling two macaron cookies with a ganache.

Bakers spend years perfecting the technique of making a macaron. Each cookie must have a perfectly crisp crust, or shell, but the interior must be soft and chewy; the "feet," or the ruffle on the edge, of each cookie must be symmetrical and slightly extended off of the base; the filling (ganache, jam or butter cream) needs to be proportional to the size of the cookies and cannot overwhelm the two shells. Not only is the macaron an art, it's a science.

There's a place to buy a cupcake in just about every neighborhood or district in the Houston area, and the number of macaron shops has increased over the past few years, especially, it seems, in recent months. Bite Macarons opened on Buffalo Speedway during the summer of 2013 and Oui Desserts opened to the public in February. Other popular shops selling macarons are Maison Burdisso, The Pastry of Dreams, Fluff Bake Bar and Petite Sweets.

However, one of the first (and most popular) macaron shops in Houston is Macaron by Patisse, which was opened by Sukaina Rajani, co-owner.

Located in the River Oaks Shopping Center, it has built a name for itself with its offerings of more than 20 flavors ranging from classic French options like vanilla, pistachio and chocolate to exotic, more Americanized options like salted caramel, blueberry vanilla bean, and fig and goat cheese (a flavor the shop can't seem to keep enough of). Rajani opened her storefront in January 2013 and says macarons are more than just a trend. Houstonians are becoming more and more attracted to the classic French pastry desserts, she adds.

"Prior to opening, we put up a sign saying 'Macaron by Patisse Coming Soon,' and we were overwhelmed with the number of emails and Facebook likes, and just everyone's reception to it was amazing," Rajani says. "I mean, granted, I was also private catering prior to opening, so I was already private catering macarons to the point where I was doing 800 to 1,000 macarons a week out of my apartment kitchen, so I already knew that there was a need for them, or at least a market for them."

Just as cupcake bakeries sell a variety of exotic flavors topped with colorful frosting and pretty decorations, patisseries in Houston also offer fun, interesting types of macarons.

"Our macaron flavors range from the classic to a little bit more adventurous, and, of course, adding on the little American twist," Rajani says. "So for example, for Super Bowl we did a salted pretzel macaron with a white chocolate mustard ganache; for St. Paddy's Day we are going to do a Baileys Irish Cream again. We try and do things that are seasonal."

Vanessa O'Donnell, owner of Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, sells a variety of baked sweets and treats like cupcakes and cakes, but recently added macarons to the store's lineup.

"We didn't introduce macarons until about eight months ago, and we had a lot of customers that would come in and ask for them, and we would say, 'No, we don't have them, but we have 80 other desserts,' and they would just walk away and leave," O'Donnell says.

She explains that customers came into Ooh La La Dessert Boutique seeking macarons for personal sweet treats or for parties and baby showers.

"They'll ask to have them tied to whatever their theme is, and I think that might be something, too," O'Donnell says. "You know, it's something you can put out on a tray and they are just so pretty, or you can give them to people as a takeaway."

Ooh La La and Macaron by Patisse both sell the majority of their macarons to women. O'Donnell says her clientele ranges from women in college to those in their 40s. Rajani says 60 percent to 70 percent of her customers are women, but she is noticing an increase in male customers.

"They [men] don't know much about it, but once they try it, they definitely become regulars," Rajani says. "Our age demographic ranges. I mean, we have high school kids to the elderly who come in, so I think average age is probably in their 30s. We also have little kids, like right now [during the interview] we have a little two-year-old who comes in every week and asks for a cookie. So we have the toddlers, we have the elderly; it's a broad range."

O'Donnell and Rajani both credit the increase in the macaron's popularity over other treats (e.g., cupcakes) to consumers' lack of guilt when they eat one (or two) French cookies, compared to eating a whole cupcake.

"When you eat a cupcake, you feel guilty because they are heavy and calorically dense," Rajani says. "Macarons — our macarons, at least, because I can only tell you the nutrition of ours — are 50 calories each, plus or minus size. About seven of those would equal a cupcake, like an average cupcake. And so people don't feel as guilty. So when they come by for their couple of macarons, they are like, 'Oh, this is my little 100-calorie treat for the day.'"

Rajani explains that traditional macarons are made with almond meal, pistachio meal or hazelnut meal, making them excellent treats for the gluten-intolerant.

"Ours are 100 percent gluten-free, and so we do have a lot of clients who come here specifically to get their celiac friends/family gifts," she says. "And we get that question all the time, like on a daily basis — 'Are these all 100 percent gluten free?' So those who are sensitive are definitely seeking them out."

But just because macarons are lighter dessert options doesn't mean they don't taste good. That's one of the main reasons these two bakers love macarons.

"I like the flavor because you use almond meal in it. So, to me, I love the flavor combination," O'Donnell says. "Like we have a cherry one that I love. So I guess for me it would be the almond meal because of the flavor, and then it has the perfect bite; so it is crunchy on the shell and then on the inside it is chewy."

Rajani makes macarons every day, eats quite a few every day and still enjoys them.

"I just love them. I love everything about them. I love that they are — at least ours are — all made with natural ingredients — it's almond meal; it's not heavy; it's not dense; the flavors are light," she says. "I've been working here for a while and making macarons for a while, and I probably still eat like ten a day, so I'm still not sick of them, which is kind of hard to say about things you are around so much."

Keep on Truckin'

The Modular Food Truck Is Back
And it's better than ever.

Kaitlin Steinberg

Though incredibly popular and well received by critics,The Modularfood truck (actually a trailer) had a surprisingly short run. It opened in 2011, helmed by Joshua Martinez and Lyle Bento. At the time, Martinez was fresh off a stint as general manager of Kata Robata, and Bento was an up-and-coming chef who'd recently left Feast. Bento eventually moved to Underbelly, and Martinez made the slow transition from food-truck owner to restaurant owner when he openedGoro & Gunin early 2013. The move was gradual, with the truck still coming out to play at events every now and then, though Martinez was focusing most of his attention on Goro & Gun. Then one day The Modular returned to the commissary, where it remained for far longer than anyone would have liked.

Now that Goro & Gun is thriving, Martinez doesn't need to be there as frequently, so he's brought The Modular back to life, along with help from Mark Parmley and a motley crew of guest chefs. The trailer, which was previously referred to as the "Tin Can" due to some unfortunate metal siding, has been replaced with a truck that's been completely revamped and now features a bright new paint job by Houston graffiti artist Daniel Anguilu. And it's now called the "Goro & Gun Modular Unit," since it incorporates menu items from both eateries.

It's a vibrant addition to Houston roads and food parks, and the food, so enticing and unusual it was once featured on the Cooking Channel's show Eat St., is as wonderful as ever, too. A few old favorites are back (lobster risotto, anyone?), and a few new inventions are sure to keep Houstonians on the hook.

And in March the food truck will be serving more than just Houston.

Martinez has told us that The Modular has been invited to serve the South by Southwest music festival as one of the trucks curated by Austin celebrity chef Paul Qui. The Modular will be in Austin for a few weeks serving up lobster risotto, General Tso sweetbreads and Goro & Gun's famous Hustle Sprouts to crowds of hungry music fans.

The sweetbreads are unusual in that Martinez says they purposefully don't trim them completely in order to keep a little bit of that tell-tale offal chew to them — but in a good way. They're rolled in flour, fried and glazed with a General Tso's sauce that Martinez spent weeks perfecting.

They're served on a bed of miso-butter rice dotted with black sesame seeds, and though I usually consider rice an afterthought, this stuff is good enough to make a meal of.

The menu will continue to evolve, and hopefully Martinez and Parmley will bring back some of the classics that made The Modular so popular back in the day (please do the bone marrow again, please!). To find The Modular before it takes off for Austin, and to see if they start cooking up kimchi shrimp and grits again, follow the truck on Twitter.

Where Are We Eating?

Craving Peruvian?
Head south to Chuyos.

James Brock

About 40 minutes south of Houston there's a small restaurant in a strip mall whose owners are from Lima, and they are making some very good and authentic Peruvian food. Ana Cecilia and Oscar Dasso opened the place in 2008, and it has since become a favorite of Peruvians and others looking forlomo saltado, ceviche or beef seco.

I spend a good deal of time in the Clear Lake area, and during the past several months a number of people have men­tioned Chuyos to me, so on a recent weekend I took a trip to League City, straight down 45 South, pork on my mind.

A clean, well-lighted place is Chuyos, and at 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon it was host to a few families and several couples. The occupants of my table were the only ones not speaking Spanish, which I took as a good sign.

We started with mussel ceviche, which came to the table on a round platter, each "serving" nestled in a tasting spoon. Corn, chiles, onion, tomato, cilantro and slightly too much lime juice surrounded the mussels, and each spoonful was the perfect amount. The mussels had been transformed perfectly by the acid; they were done al dente, as I like mussels to be.

We then shared two empanadas, a fairly bland spinach version and one filled with beef, beef that tasted as if it had been braised in tomatoes and onions, deliciously so. The husband-and-wife team at Chuyos makes the dough for the empanadas, and one bite makes that evident: flaky, a proper chewy-to-crisp ratio and the perfect foil to the fillings. (One word of advice: Be sure to ask that your emapanadas be sufficiently heated; ours were lukewarm at best.)

Next came a sandwich, my favorite plate of the meal. It was a roll not dissimilar to Cuban bread stuffed with tender, almost juicy pork and crisp cabbage, plus fried sweet potatoes, both in the sandwich and served on the side. A bit of mayonnaise was the ideal condiment. Something magical happens when all the ingredients on a sandwich meld to create nearly perfect bites. This one is worth a drive to League City.

We finished with pionono, a traditional South American dessert that would make you think of angel food or strawberry shortcake, only this one is rolled around layers of dulce de leche neither too sweet nor thick.

We had come on that afternoon for lomo saltado, that mainstay of Peruvian cuisine, but were distracted — agreeably, it turned out — by other items on the menu. A return visit is on the calendar.

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
El Gran Malo announces move and Killen's BBQ finally opens.

Molly Dunn

The popular tequila bar and gastrocantina El Gran Malo held its final day of food service on February 23 after its National Margarita Day celebration the day before. However, according to Houstonia's food blog, Gastronaut, El Gran Malo is not gone for good. It's just moving. Kevin Naderi of Roost has purchased the El Gran Malo building and plans to open another restaurant there. A Facebook event created for the move reads: "We are currently searching for a new home so remember, 'this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.'" We'll just have to wait and see what the future holds for El Gran Malo and for Naderi's new restaurant.

Another "closing, but looking for a new place" announcement was made last week, this one by The Usual. Amy Chien of CultureMap reports that the lesbian pub and bar has closed after unsuccessful attempts to remodel. The owners are currently seeking another location in which to reopen.

Thanks to a comment from last week's openings and closings report, we know that Denis' Seafood House has closed, but only for construction, as stated on the home page of the restaurant's website.

If you haven't heard, Killen's Barbecue in Pearland is finally open. After months of getting to taste chef Ronnie Killen's beef ribs and brisket only during his Saturday pop-ups outside the restaurant under construction, customers can now sit down inside the Pearland destination. The Houston Press's Mai Pham broke the news that Killen's Barbecue would officially open on February 22. She reminisced about the previous weekend's pop-up, where she enjoyed tender, juicy brisket and crispy, crusted beef ribs. Word to the wise: Get to Pearland early — service starts at 11 a.m. — because once the last piece of barbecue is served, there won't be any more until the next day.

Eater reports that Lei Low Bar opened on February 28. You'll feel as if you're in the tropics at this Tiki bar, where everyone will get to sip on rum cocktails in coconut cups. Lei Low Bar is brought to you by Elizabeth and Russell Thoede of Down House and Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore of Goro & Gun, Grand Prize Bar and Big Star Bar. They tell Eater that they'd like to bring the "Tiki culture" to Houston as it is being revived in places like New York and California.

Soon you won't be able to get a burrito at Mission Burrito anymore. But before you freak out, Mission Burrito isn't closing. It just has to change its name. CultureMap's Eric Sandler reports that the change is due to a trademark infringement debate between Gruma Corp.'s line of Mexican food products and Mexican Restaurants Inc., owner of Mission Burrito. An announcement will be made soon about the restaurant's new name.

Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill opened in West Oaks Mall on February 21. According to a press release, the restaurant is 27,500 square feet in size and includes not only a restaurant and a bar but also a stage for live music performances and a dance floor. The menu consists of typical Southern grill items like chicken-fried steak, platters of potato skins, nachos, quesadillas and wings as well as a multitude of burgers, sandwiches and steaks.

Taco Milagro's giant sign may still be up on the building, but the smaller sign listing the restaurants and businesses in the shopping center now reads "Local Foods." Taco Milagro, which closed last summer, is being transformed into a new Local Foods by Benjy Levit, owner of both benjy's locations and the original Local Foods. The newest location, at 2555 Kirby, is set to open soon, and Eater has photos of the interior of the restaurant revealing its transformation.

Salata has opened its second location in Memorial City. The new restaurant is in the CityCentre shopping center at 840 West Sam Houston Parkway, Suite 101.

Chick-fil-A will open on El Dorado Boulevard in Webster on March 6, and as with every Chick-fil-A grand opening, customers are invited to set up camp outside the restaurant in hope of being among the first 100 customers. Those fortunate few will be awarded 52 Chick-fil-A meal tickets, good for a year's worth of food! (If more than 100 customers are lined up outside, a drawing will be held to determine the 100 winners.) Everyone is invited to wait outside Webster's new Chick-fil-A 24 hours before the 6 a.m. grand opening on March 6.

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