Friday, January 2, 2015

First Look Review: Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill

A recent conversation in a foodie discussion group bemoaned the lack of a good Southern California-style burrito in Houston. We have burritos, but they tend to be more of a Tex-Mex style, often with rice and/or refried beans among the ingredients; the Southern California-style is a lighter style, highlighting fresh ingredients with an eye towards more protein and veggies, and less carbs and fat.

Imagine our surprise when we stumbled across Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill, a new Mexican food establishment on Sawdust Road, in the space vacated by the recently closed (and greatly missed) Viva Itacate. The homey bakery feel of Viva has been completely renovated into a modern, fast casual space. The new restaurant is the first Texas branch of the original store, located in San Diego.

Could this San Diego import be a source for the kind of burrito that transplanted Californians rave about? We decided to find out.

First impressions were very good. The restaurant is spotlessly clean, and we were greeted by the friendly and helpful counter staff. The kitchen is at the rear of the restaurant, and a large glass window allows diners to look in and observe the cooks as they work. Clearly this is a restaurant with nothing to hide. 

Peering into the kitchen, we saw two staff members making fresh corn tortillas; although we've seen fresh flour tortillas at many of the area's better taquerias, fresh corn tortillas are few and far between.

Ordering from the counter staff was quick and efficient. Before long, my pager went off, and I picked up my burrito from the window.

Being fans of tacos al pastor, we started with the Pastor burrito. Fresh marinated pork (right off the trompo), pineapple, onion, cilantro, and a touch of creamy cilantro sauce are wrapped in a largish corn tortilla. The flavors are bright and tangy; the acid from the pineapple balances the slightly fatty pork flavor, with the onion and cilantro completing the flavor profile. It was very good.

Wanting to try something else, I asked the counter staff for suggestions. The cameron taco was their immediate answer, so I ordered one. In about five minutes this came out.

Beautifully grilled, largeish shrimp were perfectly cooked, and combined with grilled mozzarella, cabbage, tomato, avocado, and finished with chipotle sauce. The flavor profile was unusual to a Texan's palate; I don't recall encountering mozzarella in Mexican cuisine before. But it worked; the big flavors were very satisfying, yet the result was very light. Even after eating a burrito and a taco I did not feel very full, although I certainly had enough to eat.

All in all, I was very pleased with the food from this California import. While still being Mexican, the lighter combinations and bright flavors differ considerably from the Tex-Mex offerings typically found here. Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill is a nice addition to the Woodlands area; we look forward to returning and sampling more offerings from the menu.

Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill | 544 Sawdust 77380 | 281-465-8575

Cabo "Baja & Mexican Grill" on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cannoli Showdown: BBQ Godfather vs. Pallotta's Italian Grill

The scene: The waning days of Advent, Christmas coming up. I'm winding up the year for clients and getting ready for the holiday with family.

Out of the blue, a cryptic message from an Italian man that no one wants to cross. Tony Faour, the BBQ Godfather, master of smoked meats and sautéed mushrooms. Tony's reputation is known all up and down I-45: If you have a craving for excellent BBQ, Tony can hook you up, and you don't have to wait hours for the privilege. He is a gracious host. He may, in the future ask you for a favor. It may not be pleasant. Today his instructions were simple:

"Meet me at Phil's. I have cannoli."

Phil would be Phil Nicosia, proprietor of Pallotta's Italian Grill, and another Italian businessman you do not want to cross. Phil controls the world's supply of Dominick's Mud, la chac la bread, and an addictive substance he'll only identify as "Number 84". Get on Phil's naughty list, and these and other vital substances disappear from your life. No rehab facility in the world can help you when you can't get Number 84.

I arrive at Phil's place, festively decorated for the holidays, filled with local residents chowing down on Phil's great Italian food. These citizens had no idea what was about to go down, literally across the room from them.

I casually sauntered up to the bar, and noticed that Tony had brought his crew. His lovely bride was at his side. He'd also brought his consigliere, the saucy brunette known only as Brittany SoFly, the woman who'll present your BBQ with a smile... for a price. (Actually a very reasonable price, considering the quality of both the BBQ and the smile.)

Taking a spot at the bar, I noticed a mysterious blonde next to me. We made eye contact, and it was none other than Kim Bellini, foodie femme fatale, fantastic photographer, and renowned expert on ranch dressing and cream gravy. Kim's finely-tuned palate for all things creamy made her an obvious choice to judge these traditional Sicilian pastries.

Was I in over my head? Me, a simple boy who loves good food, sitting down with these dangerous characters, daring go toe-to-toe with them and declare my favorite?

Well, mom always liked me. Armed with that comforting thought, I kicked back the Coca-cola I ordered, my resolve steeled.

After some pleasant chit-chat where the competitors took measure of each other and exchanged friendly barbs, the cannoli appeared.

Both were beautiful examples of the pastry chef's art. Phil's were slightly thick, bursting with creamy filling, each end dotted with the oft-seen candied cherry. Tony's were lighter, more delicate, the ends festooned with crushed, salted pistachios.

It was the moment of truth. I tasted them both.

Cannoli from BBQ Godfather (Not on the menu. Yet.)
Tony's cannolo was an impressively authentic rendition of the best cannoli you'd find in New York City. The shell was light, delicate, and delicious, with a savory flavor reminiscent of a pie crust. The filling was mild and delicate, with zings of sweetness from small chunks of dried fruits. No flavors overpowered the others. The salty pistachios added another layer of complexity. The overall experience was a balance of semi-savory flavors with only a hint of sweetness. This is a very sophisticated cannolo, one that any Manhattan white tablecloth restaurant would be proud to offer.

Cannoli from Pallotta's Italian Grill
Phil's rendition of this classic pastry was very different. Biting into it gave a burst of flavor; cinnamon, sweetness from the cream filling, a bit of chocolate, the bright flavor of the candied cherries. Phil's shells were as solid and substantial as Tony's were light and delicate; they delivered a satisfying crunch when you bit into them. This cannoli was very sweet, with big flavors. I could see lines around the corner if a street vendor in Brooklyn offered them to the public.

Declaring a winner was difficult. The competitors couldn't have been more different, reflecting the totally different styles of the men who created them. I really enjoyed them both, and would gladly order either one. But for me personally, the brash, in-your-face flavors of Phil's creation tempted me to take that one last bite, and for that, I have to declare Phil the winner in a very close contest.

If you find me at the bottom of Lake Woodlands tomorrow, have a very Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Local Pizzeria Owner Helps Gino's East Solve a Big Problem

Gino's East, the renowned Chicago pizzeria, is in the process of opening it's first location outside of Illinois. They ran into a big problem, and RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza, an established pizzeria located near the new restaurant, stepped in to save the day.

Gino's East was in the process of training the staff for the grand opening when their huge Hobart mixer died. Almost every pizzeria has a Hobart; it's used to mix the pizza dough, and without one, you're not going to make dough in commercial qualities. Repairs for these big machines are neither fast nor cheap, and Gino's East was facing days of downtime, jeopardizing the opening.

A broken Hobart Mixer
Phil Nicosia, owner of Pallotta's Italian Grill, describes what happened:

"They (Gino's East) were having issues with their dough mixer and RC let them come over to his place a borrow his and prep their dough in his place. He also set them up with local vendors and repair guys to help with the issues they had. I gotta say, that is pretty awesome of him! Whether he serves deep dish pizza or not, they are direct competition and he stepped up and helped them out of a huge bind. THAT'S what supporting local and being a good business person is all about! Hats off to RC!"

To us at HTownChowDown, this is a great example of the type of act the world needs to hear about.

RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza

RC's Pizza is the type of business that is a valuable member of the community; if you've not been lately, go enjoy a great NYC-style pizza and thank RC for doing what he does. They have locations in Kingwood and the Woodlands area.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gino's East brings Chicago-style pizza to the Woodlands - Our First Look Review

Update: As of Dec 16, 2014, guests are reporting a two-hour wait for tables during the week. Combine that with 45 minutes to cook a deep-dish pizza, and you're not going to be eating in a hurry. Caveat diner.

- - - - -

One of the culinary world's eternal battles is between the cities of New York and Chicago, and the topic is pizza. In one corner you have the svelte New York-style pizza, thin and flexible, topped only with sauce and cheese, and perhaps a meat or two. In the other corner is the burlier Chicago-style, a thin, pastry crust piled high with cheese, lots of toppings, and finished with a chunky tomato sauce. It's a classic battle, the scrappy wisecracking dancer vs the heavy, no-nonsense bruiser, both fighting for bragging rights and a place in your belly.

Residents of New York and Chicago will debate endlessly about which is better, with their home town version typically getting the nod. Those of us in other cities often make do with substandard versions of these regional favorites, in many cases showing little resemblance to the original. (Pizza chain "deep dish" pizza, I'm looking at you. No self-respecting Chicago deep dish would have a crust that's thicker than the toppings.)

In this epic battle, there are established combatants who have upheld each town's banner, often for decades. New York has Grimaldi's, Patsy's, Totonno's, Lombardi's, Di Fara, and other classic joints. Chicago favorites include Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, Uno, Pizano's, and Giordano's.

Here in the Woodlands, New York-style pizza has been well represented. Straight from Brooklyn comes an outpost of the Grimaldi's empire. RC's Pizza brings NYC cred due to RC Gallegos's decade in the pizza business in Brooklyn. And local favorite Brother's also serves pizza with a strong New York accent.

But Chicago-style pizza has been sadly missing from our community, and from the entire Houston area. Many years ago Pizzeria Uno opened a couple of stores in the Houston area, but they were disappointing, not coming close to the Chi-town originals.

But one of the big names in the Chicago pizza world has moved outside of Illinois, and their first location happens to be in Texas. Gino's East has opened in the Houston area, and the Woodlands is lucky enough to be the first stop. The brand new Woodlands store, located on I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Sawdust, will be the flagship of the Texas operation, also serving as a training base for future locations.

So how's the food?

We visited Gino's East as their guest at a friends and family preview, two days before the grand opening. As expected, they were still working out some kinks, but Gino's East has been operating since 1966, so they've got their processes down to a science. For the Woodlands location, they've installed six (!) classic Blodgett deck ovens, the gold standard for pizzerias around the world.

One big difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza is the volume. A hungry pizza lover can easily eat half of a large NY-style pizza, but a small Chicago-style deep dish feeds two people easily, and a large feeds 6 or 8.

So on our recent visit, we ordered a small deep-dish, and selected the Meaty Legend,

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Italian Beef and More at RC's Pizza

Back when I lived in Austin, I dined frequently with my good friend Bruce, a talented amateur chef who was very knowledgable about the restaurant industry. He had one rule he always recommended when dining: Order what the restaurant is known for.

It's a rule that has served me well throughout the years. But sometimes, it's a rule that begs to be broken.

Recently, I was contacted by RC Gallegos, owner of RC's Pizza. RC is a native Texan who moved to Brooklyn and spent a decade there learning the pizza business, and who brought his knowledge and experience back to the Lone Star state. What I heard from him was not what I was expecting.

"I've got a new Italian beef sandwich. You need to come try it." 

RC's is one of my favorite pizza places, and serves a very credible NYC-style pizza; perhaps the most authentic in the entire Houston area. But Italian beef is a Chicago thing. What does a guy specializing in New York pizza know about Italian beef?

It was time to find out. It was a cool, sunny fall day in Texas, so the brief drive was a pleasant one. Entering RC's, we grabbed a table, and noticed a good lunch crowd chowing down on his excellent pizzas. It's tough to come into RC's and not order a pizza, but we did it this once. "RC is expecting us" we told the staff member, who whisked back into the kitchen.

In a few minutes the Italian Beef sandwich arrived. Whoa... this is a big sandwich, with lots of beef (probably half a pound), smothered in provolone and bell peppers (an unusual choice). The de rigueur giardinara was served in a small container on the side.

Italian Beef at RC's Pizza
Biting into the sandwich, our initial concern that RC had gone a bit crazy with the peppers was put aside; the flavors melded perfectly. The slightly sharp bite of the peppers offset the creaminess of the high quality provolone, and the thick slices of beef were perfectly tender and richly flavorful. The bread was chewy without becoming too much work, and had a toasty crunch. The chunks of veggies in the giardinara didn't want to stay put in the sandwich, so they became a tasty, tangy side; we dribbled a bit of the juice on the sandwich, adding another layer of complexity to the flavor.

All in all, the sandwich was a success. We suggested to RC that he chop the veggies, and he agreed. This is a sandwich I will be ordering again. Soon.

But RC had one more surprise up his sleeve.

"Have you tried my calamari?"

Over the years, we've had a lot of fried calamari at Italian restaurants, and it ranges from rubbery and forgettable to very good. RC won't serve food that doesn't impress him personally, so we were game to check it out. What appeared was nothing like what we were anticipating.

Fried Calamari at RC's Pizza
To say that this isn't traditional fried calamari is an understatement. Instead of the traditional breaded rings, we were served strips sliced from a calamari steak, hand-breaded and lightly fried. The batter was light and the texture of the meat was perfect - nowhere near rubbery, and evoking the flavor of the sea. 

The sauce was another surprise. RC has a very good house marinara, but he's paired his calamari with a Thai-style sweet chili sauce he makes; the combination of gentle heat and controlled sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly briny flavor of the fried calamari. 

While we certainly wouldn't recommend that you ignore the excellent New York-style pizza, the surprisingly good Italian beef and the very clever fried calamari cement RC's reputation as being considerably more than a place to order great pizza.

RC's NYC Pizza & Pasta | 501 Sawdust Road | The Woodlands, 77380 | 281-298-4663 |

RC'S NYC Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why are you out of BBQ at 2pm?

It's frustrating to wait in line at our favorite BBQ spots, only to find out that they're run out of the meat you're craving. This happens to most BBQ lovers at some point, and many ask themselves the obvious question:

"Hey, BBQ guy! Why don't you just cook more BBQ when you run out?"

There's a very good reason.

BBQ takes hours to cook. Unlike just about every other food served in restaurants, there's simply no way to cook to order.

So pit masters at top pits prepare as much as they think they can sell, while keeping in mind the individual attention that each brisket requires. To execute at a high quality, a pit master can only manage so many briskets, no matter how much capacity his physical smoker can handle.

Lots of average BBQ places cook in larger quantities. The briskets don't get individual attention, and thus the quality varies from brisket to brisket. If the 'Q doesn't sell, it goes in the cooler, and gets reheated the next day. Again, quality suffers.

Rudy's is a great example. They produce very good commercial BBQ, but it's not consistent. Sometimes it's moist and juicy. Sometimes it's dry. Tenderness varies, too.

The best pit masters would never risk this. Franklin, La Barbecue, Killen's, Corkscrew, Pecan Lodge, Snow's and BBQ Godfather are examples. They cook the quantity of BBQ they can cook without sacrificing quality and based on anticipated demand, and when it's gone, it's gone. BBQ aficionados understand this. BBQ isn't like other dishes; it takes hours to smoke, so you can't just whip up more when you run out. Holding it until tomorrow kills quality, so if they smoke too much, it gets thrown out.

Pros like Will Buckman of Corkscrew BBQ even stage their briskets, so a certain number are ready at 11, more at 1pm, etc. This way the Q you get hasn't been sitting half a day in a warmer, drying out and losing flavor. It's also sliced right as you order it, again to maximize quality.

If you're less picky, places like Rudy's can provide tasty BBQ right up until closing. But if you crave world class BBQ, you've got to understand the realities of the business. They're not in a position to change how they create the BBQ; it's your choice whether or not you think the potential inconvenience is worth it or not.

I can't decide for you. While you're thinking, I'll be in line at Corkscrew BBQ.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Giving Pitmaster BBQ its Due

Out here in the Woodlands, we're fortunate enough to have some very good BBQ. Pits like Corkscrew BBQ and BBQ Godfather serve up excellent renditions of their respective styles; Corkscrew having been named amongst the Best in Texas (and thus the world) by many BBQ aficionados (us included).

But an older BBQ place repeatedly gets "Best BBQ" accolades from a local publication, even ahead of the much-honored Corkscrew. Its name is Pitmaster BBQ, and it's got a checkered reputation out in these parts, largely because of management's fetish for calling the health department out on its competitors, and after that failed, filing repeated complaints to other regulatory bodies trying to get them shut down.

If you've got "The Best BBQ in The Woodlands" why would you resort to such underhanded tactics to thwart your competition? Shouldn't you just let your superior brisket do the talking?

As a food writer who writes a lot about the Woodlands area, I have to admit that I'd not visited Pitmaster in years. My last visit was a dim memory of unremarkable BBQ served in an anachronistic setting... and not anachronistic in a good way.

But fair is fair. I needed to return to Pitmaster, and to determine firsthand if BBQ lovers were right about Pitmaster, or if those who voted in the no doubt scientific polls were right. So when some members of our local Woodlands Area Foodies group mentioned lunch at Pitmaster, I decided to join in.

Service was friendly, if a touch slow at first. On a Monday, with the top BBQ pits in town closed, Pitmaster had some business, but wasn't packed.

I ordered the Pitmaster special; brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, along with two sides. After a longer-than-expected wait, the 'Q came out.

Pitmaster Special

At the waiter's suggestion, I chose the spicy sausage. Texture was generic, heat was mainly black pepper with a touch of jalepeno. Flavor wasn't bad, but it wasn't memorable. You can get sausage like this at any number of exceedingly average BBQ places. 5/10

Next up were the pork ribs. They're the greyish mass in the middle of the photo. Nicely meaty, but with little or no rub, and little or no seasoning. Tender, but with plenty of unrendered fat. They tasted more like poorly trimmed pork roast than like BBQ pork ribs. Again, unmemorable. 4/10

Finally was the meat that defines Texas BBQ, the brisket. Pitmaster's was unlike any I've had in years. Dry, thinly sliced (as if by machine) and pre-slathered in sweet BBQ sauce, this may be the worst brisket I can remember. It had an odd, off-putting, slightly chemical flavor, no actual smokiness that we could discern, and any moisture present was from the overly sweet sauce, not the brisket. 0/10

Pitmaster has a reputation amongst foodies for being a place to avoid. Apparently that reputation is well deserved. Between the dreadful brisket and the questionable business tactics, this isn't a place we'd recommend visiting.

The fact that a local publication repeatedly names them "Best BBQ" has to be based on something other than the BBQ. I'd eat at Dickey's before I returned to Pitmaster. And I am not a fan of Dickey's.

(As an aside, we don't make it a habit of reviewing substandard mom & pop restaurants; we just ignore them. But Pitmaster's constant promoting as "Best BBQ" and their unseemly actions towards competitors made them fair game.)

UPDATE: Other writers who are members of WAF were in attendance, and shared their reviews. Worth reading.

I Chew and Review

Brisket Bastard

Pitmaster BBQ | 343 Sawdust Rd., The Woodlands, TX | 281-419-3644

Pit Master BBQ & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 19, 2014

Surviving a Crisis in Style - Learn How at the Ready Houston Preparedness Kit Chef's Challenge

Are you ready for a disaster? The next hurricane to hit the Houston area, or some other event?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, many parts of our area were without power for days. It could happen again. Learn how to prepare for a disaster, and how to make the most of the non-perishable foods to keep on hand in your emergency kit.

Celebrity chefs, including David Grossman (Fusion Taco), Jonathan Jones (El Big Bad), Travis Lenig (Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette), Kate McLean (Tony's), and Kevin Naderi (Roost, Lilo & Ella) will be on hand to compete to create the best dish from the non-perishable foods typically found in a disaster preparedness kit.

Media judges (including yours truly) will select a winner based on taste, creativity, and presentation.

But this event offers even more than the cook-off: Examples of emergency response equipment, disaster preparedness information, and exciting giveaways, including free picnic blankets for the first 50 attendees.

Saturday, September 20, 2014
11am - 12:30pm
Market Square Park (Downtown Houston)
301 Milam St.

Come join us. What you learn may save your life, or at least help you survive in style.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Guest Review: The Mighty Riblet at Corkscrew BBQ... and Brisket, Too

Today we have a review from a guest reviewer, Hirotoshi Mugen. Hiro is a BBQ enthusiast and member of Woodlands Area Foodies, and he recently took the plunge and tried the new, smaller beef ribs (and other meats) at Corkscrew BBQ. He also makes an interesting discovery about the brisket Will Buckman is creating in his new Oyler pit.

Update: Corkscrew BBQ reports that the Dino Rib is back.

In Hiro's words:

Corkscrew BBQ (Woodlands). Review of the mighty riblet. Everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas.

 I was absolutely dismayed when I heard about the shrinking beef ribs here. Killen's used to offer the smaller beef ribs . They wisely upgraded to the dino rib. Between the Mueller brothers, Wayne at Louie Mueller BBQ uses the dino-rib and John at John Mueller Meat Co uses the smaller beef ribs. 

While the best beef rib I've encountered was from John, that instance was an anomaly as every other time the riblets pale in comparison to the dino rib at Louie Mueller. Many of the little ribs I've had simply lacked meat for one.

Between Killen's and Corkscrew, the beef ribs are both on par with each other even though there's different rubs. Both are well rendered and superb. Second only to Louie Mueller. Better than heavyweights Pecan Lodge, Black's, and La Barbecue.

With the new riblet at Corkscrew, I breathed a sigh of relief to find that the meat ratio was still excellent unlike others I've had before. My riblet was well-rendered, but not quite as rich as it's dino rib predecessor. Has a great crusty peppery bark. Very tender and moist although not quite as pot-roast tender as the dino rib. Still an excellent tasty beef rib overall, but I can't help but yearn for the dino rib.

Yes, beef prices are through the roof. Considering I paid nearly $40 for ONE beef rib at Louie Mueller BBQ a few weeks ago, I would gladly pay a premium for a Corkscrew dino rib.

Since the new Oyler pit went in, something magical happened to the meats there. Before, the brisket has always been great. But it was never on the same tier as Franklin's, Pecan Lodge, or La Barbecue. I usually don't eat much of it when ordered with the dino rib. But this time (actually 2 days in a row here), it was tender, moist, smoky, flavored, and expertly well-rendered.

Reminds me of La Barbecue.

Better than Killen's.

I ate more of it than the beef rib. This was not the same brisket I had a month ago before the hiatus. Sausage has been a bit weak in the past, but there's so much more flavor and spices now. It's still a little dense and would be nice if it was a bit more coarse. I almost never order sausages. Now it's must here (ask for a whole unsliced link).

Does Corkscrew have what it takes to be Top 5 BBQ in Texas? I laughed at that seemingly impossible notion in the past. Dunno if Daniel Vaughn would see it that way, but they're definitely in the same league as the heavy hitters. Bring back the dino rib!

Corkscrew BBQ on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chef Jay Stone Delivers - We Review the Chingu Popup Event

The Woodlands has a reputation for chain restaurants. And while that reputation isn't totally deserved, it does have some merit. For every great independent out here, like Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Republic Grill, Pallotta's, or Fielding's, there are five restaurants owned and managed from afar.

So we were particularly excited to attend the recent Chingu Preview Popup, hosted by Chef Jay Stone. Jay is an incredibly talented chef, and we've been fans of his cooking ever since he convinced us that peanut butter and jalapeño jam make sense on a burger, at the late, lamented Wicked Whisk food truck.

The event is a preview for the Chingu restaurant concept that Stone has been developing to bring to the Woodlands area. It's being funded via Kickstarter, and I encourage all foodies to support this talented chef. And the pledges represent very good values; anything from $20 worth of food and a t-shirt for $20 to an entire catered meal for a large group.

For this event, Jay prepared several of his Korean-influenced American comfort food dishes that will appear at Chingu. First up was one that has become legendary around here: Korean fried chicken.

Served with sides of Korean vegetables (including a superb kimchi and excellent spicy housemade pickles) this chicken was perfectly prepared; moist, tender and encrusted with a mildly spicy, beautifully crispy breading. Everyone raved about the chicken; it was a real crowd pleaser.

Next up was another dish that we were anticipating with great interest; Jay's spicy short ribs.

Nicely balanced between beefy, tangy, slightly sweet, and moderately spicy, this was perhaps my favorite dish of the night.

Next up is the old Korean favorite, poutine. OK, poutine is Canadian, not Korean, but Jay puts a distinctively Eastern spin on this north-of-the-border cult favorite.

Poutine is rarely spicy, but this version is, and it adds a new dimension to the dish. Normally we don't think of poutine as an entree, but this one was hearty and filling.

Being a pop-up event at a venue without a liquor license, several enterprising foodies improvised. Growlers of craft beer were brought over from the new local favorite Hop Scholar, and the beer nerds present seemed very pleased with the pairing.

Other foodies brought bottles of wine, and very stylish disposable aperitif glasses. We are in the Woodlands, after all.

Want to check out this unique and delicious Korean-influenced comfort food? Right now, you can't. But if you support Jay Stone's Kickstarter project, you'll help him open up Chingu as a venue where this food can be devoured on a daily basis.

C'mon, foodies. You say you want more non-chain, chef-driven restaurants. It's time to put up, or shut up.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tony's Italian Deli brings a little Brooklyn to Lake Conroe - Our First Look Review

A few days ago my phone rang. Caller unknown. I answered. "Lake Conroe. I know a guy out there. He makes great hero. Like in the old neighborhood" the caller said, in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. Then he hung up. Could this lead be worth following up? 

I've always been a fan of what I think of as Houston-style po boy sandwiches. A long, slightly crusty baguette filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and some sort of spread. The iconic version was created by Antone's, the late, lamented Houston chain of imported food shops. But Antone's sold out a long time ago; the family-owned locations now a memory, and the remaining franchised stores a sad shadow of what the original locations used to be. Worthy competitors like Andros' are gone, too. And while I enjoy the Louisiana-style seafood or roast beef po boys, they're a totally different sandwich.

A sunny Saturday morning found us cruising out to Highway 105, in the convertible with the top down, in search of this elusive deli. Almost to Montgomery, across from the entrance to April Sound in a small strip center, we noticed a sign that resembled the Italian flag. A quick left turn brought us to the parking lot for Tony's Deli, a charming little delicatessen that looks like it might belong on a side street in Brooklyn.

Stepping inside, we were immediately impressed by the busy yet cozy feel of the deli. Items were piled up, fresh food was on the counter for sale, and meats and cheeses were proudly displayed in the refrigerated case.

Craving a traditional Italian po boy, we browsed the menu. Sandwiches are named after prominent Italian-Americans: Sinatra, Pacino, Deniro, Danza, and many others were in attendance. We zeroed in on the Stallone, featuring capocolla, salami, ham, provolone and house made pesto. After a quick wait, it appeared.

This sandwich is substantial. Approximately a foot long, and stuffed with generous portions of the meats, cheeses, and veggies selected, slathered with a schmear of tart pesto. Biting into it was like a quick trip to NYC; the bread was chewy but not tough, and the meats had a bright, fresh flavor. (We later learned that Tony's uses Dietz & Watson meats exclusively, a decision we applaud.)

This, my friends, is a taste of Brooklyn in Montgomery county. A New York City Italian-style po boy from a small shop west of Conroe near the lake. How is this possible?

The answer is Tony Nicoletta, the transplanted New Yorker who could be straight from central casting for a Sopranos episode. But Nicoletta's business dealings are far more aboveboard. Born in Brooklyn, this ex-Marine attended culinary school in Hyde Park, and has owned a number of restaurants in the New York area. His years of experience are obvious in the food he hand crafts; this isn't a sandwich thrown together by a teenaged "sandwich artist" - it is the work of a chef whose chosen palette is the Italian po boy.

Tony Nicoletta is the real deal, and his sandwiches are both authentic and outstanding. We've often bemoaned the lack of good food near Lake Conroe, but we're happy to report that our new favorite Italian sandwich shop is open for business. Think you're gonna find a better Italian po boy anywhere near here?

As Tony would say, "Fuggedaboutit."

Yes sir. We'll be back. Often. 

Tony's Deli | 16283 Texas 105 | Montgomery, Texas | 507-743-0535

Tony’s Italian Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Texas Land & Cattle to Raise Funds for Cassidy Stay Fund

Houston’s Texas Land & Cattle Restaurants to Host
Dine-In Day on Sunday, July 20, for Cassidy Stay Fund
Premium steakhouse will donate 15% of net sales to family of Spring shooting victim

HOUSTON (July 16, 2014) – Texas Land & Cattle's four Houston-area restaurants will donate 15 percent of their net sales on Sunday, July 20, to the Cassidy Stay Fund ( The fund was established after six members of Stay’s family were shot and killed in their Spring home on July 9.

“The Stays were regular visitors to our Willowbrook Mall location on holidays, so this senseless tragedy really hit home for us,” said Chris Jones, executive general manager of three of the four local TXLC restaurants. “All of us in the Houston area are determined to do whatever we can to honor their memory and support Cassidy.”

What: Texas Land & Cattle Dine-In Day for Cassidy Stay

When: Sunday, July 20, 2014; 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Where: Texas Land & Cattle – Houston Restaurants
·      12313 Katy Freeway (I-10 & Dairy Ashford)
·      11900 Dickinson Rd. (I-45S & Beltway 8, exit Fuqua, next to Home Depot)
·      8015 W. FM 1960 (FM 1960 & 249, across from Willowbrook Mall)
·      12710 US 59 South (Stafford - Hwy 59 South & Kirkwood, in the Fountains Shopping Center)

Plano-based Texas Land & Cattle is a popular restaurant chain noted for its unique “Texas Craft Dining” experience. Renowned for its premium steaks sourced exclusively from Hartley Ranch in Stephenville, TX, as well as a Texas-inspired menu of traditional favorites, the brand offers premium dining quality and service at casual dining prices.  The company also owns and operates the Lone Star Steakhouse chain, America’s trusted brand for quality Texas-style dining delivered with a Texas-sized value. For the location nearest you, visit

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: Pre-Concert Dinner at Mia's Table

We were excited to hear about new restaurant projects from Johnny Carrabba, a scion of the famed Mandola restaurant family, and founder of one of Houston's great Italian spots, Carrabba's.

So on a recent weeknight, we met friends before a concert for a meal at Mia's Table, the new fast casual comfort food concept from Carrabba. Mia's is named after his daughter, a charming tradition that continues with his other new spot, Grace's, named after his grandmother.

Mia's is a casual, inviting space, reminiscent of an older (but meticulously maintained) Hill Country home. Patrons order at the counter, and are presented with an eclectic menu of Texas comfort food: Sandwiches, tacos, burgers, and an assortment of fried entrees, from chicken to chicken-fried steak to fried shrimp and snapper. We ordered at the counter from a helpful and friendly teenaged staff member, and were off to find our seats.

The sprawling dining room was filled with families and small groups enjoying an early dinner; the organizer of our gathering had reserved a semi-private space in the rear, away from the hustle and bustle. The room had a distinct energy; patrons were enjoying their meals, laughing, and seemed to be in a boisterous mood. Mia's is not the spot for a quiet, intimate dinner, but it's a great place to hang out with friends and family.

Our food arrived shortly.

No one will be surprised that we had to sample Mia's cheeseburger, an interesting architectural diversion from this classic American staple. The de rigeur beef patty, slightly melted cheese, and fresh veggies were placed on a distinctly oval bun - the two patties were essentially side-by-side, instead of stacked. This is an unusual arrangement, and resulted in a lot more bun than we prefer; we were essentially eating two smallish burgers instead of one big one. The patty was cooked medium well and was slightly dry; the veggies were fresh, and the bun had a nice texture but very little flavor.

All in all, a solid burger, but not one we'd go out of our way to order again.

Next up was the Chicken Fried Chicken, a generous chicken breast breaded in the style of a chicken fried steak (the more traditional Southern Fried Chicken is also available) and topped with cream gravy seasoned with bits of jalapeño.

This dish was a winner - moist, juicy, well-breaded chicken, with a nice peppery kick, accented by just enough cream gravy and a mild jalapeño burn. Balance was the word that came to mind with the chicken; good balance between the meat and the crust, good balance between the fresh chicken flavor, the creamy gravy, and the spicy counterpoints.

Sides were a mixed bag. Mashed potatoes were very good; creamy, smooth, with just enough pepper to be interesting. Green beans were uninspired, limp, and lacking in flavor.

All in all, Mia's is a nice addition to the Kirby restaurant scene. It's a great spot for families and groups looking for a quick bit of Texas-style comfort food in an upscale but casual setting.

We'll be back.

Mia's Kitchen | 3131 Argonne Street | Houston, Texas 77098 | 713-522-6427 |

Mia's Table on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 7, 2014

12 Ways to Tell that You're a Woodlands Area Foodie

Out here in the Woodlands we've got more than our share of foodies. No matter where you go, you overhear people talking about food: What's the new hot place, what's about to open, where's the best place for a steak. Some even take photos of their food.

Not a Woodlands Area Foodie

But folks who say these things could be anyone... not necessarily a real foodie. As a public service, we'd like to humbly offer the following list to help identify real Woodlands Area Foodies:

  1. Your friends message you when they can't decide where to eat. They may or may not invite you to come along.
  2. Cary Attar greets you by name when you walk into Fielding's. You don't expect him to feed you for free.
  3. Your iPhone's camera roll contains more photos of your meals than of your kids.
  4. You first noticed Chef Austin Simmons when he was the sous at Tesar's. And you happily devour whatever he's offering as a special that night at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. You don't expect him to feed you for free.
  5. You belong to three different Facebook foodie groups, but only admit to two of them.
  6. You find yourself at 11pm driving across Houston to a restaurant where you won't speak the language just because Tom Nguyen said that the food was superb. As always, Tom was right.
  7. You know whether Phil Nicosia is in the house at Pallotta's before you walk in the door. You don't expect him to feed you for free.
  8. You get sad thinking about Jay Stone's late, lamented Wicked Whisk food truck. But you cheer up after you pledge your support for his Chingu project.
  9. You have no problem having lunch at Twin Peaks, but you wouldn't set foot in Hooter's or Bikini's.
  10. You see nothing wrong with having a second lunch when friends message you from Hello Taco. Or a third when they've ventured down the street to Viva Itacate.
  11. You get excited to find a great new place for chicken fried steak in the Woodlands. But you hold off visiting until Kim Bellini states whether the cream gravy meets with her approval.
  12. You run into at least four friends on Saturday morning waiting in line for Corkscrew BBQ to open. You don't expect them to feed you for free... but you enjoy the free beer they're providing.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Woodlands Chef turns to Kickstarter to Launch his New American / Korean Concept - Chingu

Starting a restaurant is a risky venture. Even proven concepts from established operators carry a great deal of risk. 60% of all restaurants fail in the first five years. So getting investors can be tricky, and restaurateurs often give up a great deal of control to the money guys in order to gain financing.

So what is a talented young chef with a vision to do? If it's 2014, and the chef is Jay Stone (of Wicked Whisk, Vallone's, and Jasper's fame) you take your idea to Kickstarter, the on-line marketplace that funds hot new ideas.

Kickstarter is a successful online phenomenon that's funded everything from the Pebble smart watch to the new Veronica Mars move. If you've got a great idea and you can present it well, Kickstarter is a good way to raise capital.

Chef Stone brings serious talent to the table. His cuisine has always drawn both popular and critical acclaim. Ever since we first sampled his cooking at the Wicked Whisk food truck, we were unabashed fans.

Houston mayor Annise Parker called Jay's Wicked Whisk her favorite food truck, and it's one that we miss very much. At a recent wine dinner at Jasper's, Chef Stone's dishes were the hits of the evening, and the popup events he's hosted with Will Buckman at Corkscrew BBQ all sell out within hours of being announced.

Chef Stone has the skills. We believe that the concept of New American comfort food with a Korean twist is one that will resonate well with Texans. So what is Chingu? In his words:

"Chingu has been my brainchild for quite some time and has evolved as I grew as a professional cook. After hosting pop-up dinners, food truck stops and collaborating with other local industry folk it came to me that this is what cooking is all about. Having fun, doing what you love and meeting great people along the way. Chingu means "Friend" in the Korean language and it represents my project perfectly.

"The Korean inspired fare will touch on American and Southern classics and be approachable by a wide audience. Korean Fried Chicken and Biscuits, Braised Beef Cheeks with Gochujang Mashed Potatoes and several varieties of In-House Fermented Kimchi will be menu staples. "Redefining Comfort Food" as I like to say."

Chef Stone has a clever strategy for his physical facility: He plans to start with a food truck, keeping his costs low and his location flexible. He'll then transition to a brick-and-mortar building when the time is right.

We're excited about Chingu, and urge our followers to support this exciting project. You can get onboard for as little as $5, but check out the larger pledges. They include generous rewards, up to a catered lunch or dinner for 15 guests at a bargain price.

Chingu on Kickstarter.