Houston: Try Out These Foods in August

Flex these mussels.
Flex these mussels. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

click to enlarge Flex these mussels. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Flex these mussels.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Despite triple digit temperatures and hellish humidity, we Houstonians still like to eat well and we're not sticking to salads. While there are some great cold dishes to be had, you'll still see Bayou City foodies tucking into pho, ramen, or ghost pepper wings despite the heat. We're crazy like that. We compensate for spicy salsa by drinking frozen margaritas. Sichuan food gets balanced with a bubble tea or a chilled Reisling.. And a straight-off the-grill three meat barbecue plate gets washed down with one of our many local craft beers. We aren't wimps when it comes to enjoying our favorite foods, even in the dog days of summer.

Here's a list of tasty things we have eaten recently. Some will numb your tongue, others will refresh your innards. They can all be enjoyed in the expensively air conditioned city we call home.

Around Town:
click to enlarge Blue Onyx Bistro is stylin'. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Blue Onyx Bistro is stylin'.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Blue Onyx Bistro
4720 Richmond

Redfish Seafood Grill
19550 State Highway 249

David Chang's stylish Blue Onyx Bistro opened in late March this year and he's brought some of the creative sauces and eye-catching dishes that he was known for at his original Northwest Houston restaurant, Redfish Seafood Grill, which he opened in 2003. The Taiwanese-born chef is a bit of a saucier, with his experience in Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine evident in the unique sauces that accompany the fresh seafood. The fish dishes are standout items and sushi lovers will love the large, colorful rolls, but two appetizers, strangely enough, stuck in our minds long after enjoying them.

Seeing fried clams on a Houston menu nowadays is a rare thing. We have had to make do with the frozen strips available at the grocery store, in between trips to visit relatives in New England. When we sat down in the lovely Blue Onyx dining room and saw fried clams on the menu, we knew that we had to try them.
Fried clams and crafted cocktails are a treat. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Fried clams and crafted cocktails are a treat.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

They were served with a sriracha ranch sauce, which was good, but unnecessary once we tried the clams strips themselves. They were lightly fried and out of this world good. When Chang stopped by our table, we told him they were the best clams we had ever had (don't tell my husband's relatives in Connecticut). He then recommended that we try the Spicy Maine Mussels that are flown in from Maine.

Not everyone is a fan of mussels, but if you like this bivalve, you will be blown away by Chang's version. These babies were huge, with a slight smokiness from the bacon. When we stopped Chang, who was engaging with a number of tables in the restaurant, and told him that we had never eaten mussels like these, he explained that he pureed clam strips into the white wine sauce. The mussels were very meaty and not chewy at all. That's no easy feat, but starting off with a quality product helps. For $16.95, it's a dish you will remember.

For my daughter's graduation, we celebrated at Chang's other restaurant, the Redfish Seafood Grill, which is on our side of town. While, the ambiance is not quite the same, (it's an older restaurant housed in a former boat-shaped seafood restaurant), many of the same menu items can be had at Chang's original restaurant, including the fried clams and mussels, which we were thrilled to see. We didn't prejudice anyone beforehand and everyone exclaimed the clams were the best they ever had. The mussels were a little smokier and spicier at the Redfish location, but still meaty and delicious.

While the Blue Onyx Bistro offers a more elegant setting, the Redfish Seafood Grill is an alternative for folks on the Northside wanting to taste chef Chang's food. They also have a beautifully kept aquarium. However, if you can make the drive to the Galleria area, do so and try the clams and mussels. Plus, Howie the bartender makes some great tikki drinks to accompany Chang's spectacular sauces.

click to enlarge Hopping jalapenos, this salsa is spicy! - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Hopping jalapenos, this salsa is spicy!
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Las Flores
14243 Stuebner Airline

We saw this Mexican restaurant for years on our bi-weekly trips to Half-Price Books. It didn't look like much on the outside, so we never stopped.  A couple of months ago, we finally gave it a shot and now, it's in our Mexican restaurant rotation.

The decor is a bit dated, as are so many small Mexican restaurants around town, but we Houstonians have almost come to expect the sexy senorita velvet paintings and the serape wall hangings as a sign of authenticity.
Las Flores has reasonably priced combo meals and platters that you typically find everywhere else, but it's the green salsa that will feed jalapeno lovers' addictions.

Ask Houstonians how they choose their favorite Mexican restaurants and they will list in order: chips and salsa, margaritas, queso. For non-drinkers, fajitas might be in the top three, but the list always includes salsa. And when we find a restaurant that serves both red and green salsa, we are happy as pigs in mud. Or salsa.

Las Flores has both a red and green salsa, but the green salsa isn't your typical avocado/tomatillo blend. This sucker is made up almost solely of pureed jalapenos and it will kick your ass, in a good way. The waiter told us that there was a little vinegar in it, but nothing else. Now, he could have been holding back on the secret, because I don't see how it could be so creamy without something else, but it truly is the essence of jalapeno and you can smell it way before you actually taste it. My husband's endorphins were fired up with pleasure. If only I still had the same effect.

The red salsa is a cooked, warm, tomato- onion salsa which I prefer. I was served a dish of chile con queso on the side of my taco salad which I have never seen done before. The queso was thicker than most places and didn't have the chalky powder taste that some restaurants don't mind charging seven bucks for. It was really good. So, if you just want to gorge on chips, salsa, and queso while sipping a decent frozen margarita, Las Flores could be what you are looking for this weekend.

It might get something going with your significant other beyond pepper-induced endorphins. Or you might just want to take a well-deserved nap.

click to enlarge Get some street corn cred at Ambriza. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Get some street corn cred at Ambriza.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
10115 Louetta

This Mexican restaurant is decorated in " Day of the Dead" decor and is a little on the hipper side. It has a good happy hour and won the People's Choice Award at the Houston Press Menu of Menus this year.

Many of the dishes feature chili-lime salt and the elote, or street corn, is a favorite of my teenage daughter's. You can order them as an appetizer for $6, or on happy hour, $2 per cob. The lightly-charred corn is covered with queso fresco, garlic aioli and chili lime salt. The second time we visited they did not include the mini-bottles of Tajin. I think the restraint with the chili-lime salt is a good thing.

The flan is fabulous. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The flan is fabulous.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

However, the must-have item here is the cheese flan. I am not big on desserts at restaurants, because I am usually full by the end of a meal, but my daughter and I split an order of the flan and it was ethereal. It has the classic flavors of vanilla custard and caramel, but is much lighter in texture with the mascarpone. You might think your mama makes the best flan ever, but you will want to give this one a try just to make sure. If it changes your mind, we won't tell your mama.

click to enlarge Avocado ranch salad - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Avocado ranch salad
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Grocery Stores:

Taylor Farms Avocado Ranch Salad

I am not one to laud bagged salads normally. I like to make my own dressings to avoid some of the junk that many commercial dressings have in them. Lately, though, I have gotten into chopped salads and Taylor Farms Avocado Ranch chopped kit is on my weekly shopping list.

Personally, I didn't get the "ranch" flavor at all. In fact, it tastes very similar to the avocado/tomatillo salsa that I make at home, except creamier. There are cilantro, cabbage, romaine, carrots and green onions in the bagged mix. The dried corn that comes with it is sweet and adds a perfect crunch to the salad. This salad will be your go-to on the weekend when you need a meal just for two. Add some grilled chicken or steak and you're done. Or, use it as a side salad on Taco Tuesday. And if it's Friday Fish tacos, this chopped salad makes a brilliant replacement for the cabbage slaw and avocado crema. It's so easy and tasty, you should add this to your grocery list as well. It will come in handy when you are done with a day's work.

click to enlarge Texas peaches are sweet and juicy. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Texas peaches are sweet and juicy.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Texas Peaches

Hurry, hurry, hurry! Peach season is going by fast. The beginning of the season usually brings the gargantuan-sized peaches from California. Personally, we don't think peaches should be the size of a softball,or with the same texture and flavor. If you are attacked, though, you could probably knock someone out with one.

Last year's Texas crop was sad. There are always certain variables in Texas, like hurricanes, drought, unexpected late freezes, or no freezes at all that make growing peaches in Texas an unknown from year to year. Peaches need a certain amount of chill hours, so the Texas Hill Country usually fits the bill, but not always. This year's a pretty good year.

In comparison, Texas peaches are rarely the size of California peaches. In fact, Southern peaches seem to be smaller in general. It's the concentrated flavor and the juice running down your arm that makes peaches special. If it's like biting into an apple, it's not a proper peach.

Pretty as a picture, hard as a rock - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Pretty as a picture, hard as a rock
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
It's not to say that California peaches aren't good. Perhaps they are absolutely wonderful when they haven't been picked too early and driven across the country. Unfortunately, ripe peaches do not transport well and are easily bruised, so commercial peaches are often picked before they are ready. You might get away with using the old paper bag trick to ripen them, but it's not optimum.

H-E-B and Walmart both have Fredericksburg peaches right now and if you're making a trip to San Antonio or Austin, you are likely to find some great roadside stands. My husband's co-worker brought in some from Teague, Texas one year and I still dream about them. That area of Texas is in Freestone County. Most Texas summertime peaches are freestone. Coinkidink? I don't think so.

Peaches are not an all-year-fruit. That's a good thing, because it makes the anticipation of them even sweeter. Peach out, y'all.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.