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Monday, June 29, 2009

It's about the ice

Our summer heat continues to beat down on Houston - actually it is a full bore heatwave at this point. We may be experiencing the hottest summer on record. Over at the Houston Press, John Seaborn Gray decided to review the collection of frozen fast food "treats" from such national chains as McDonald's and Jack in the Box after being forced out of air conditioned rooms - ostensibly focusing on ice cream based drinks. I'm sorry, but that is foolishness when trying to cool down from the heat; the calorie content of such items figure into heat generation and insulation far outstripping the temporary thermal decrease. Besides, these things are pretty pricey - and isn't particularly Houstonian...Houstonesque...local.

Well, not everyone has air conditioning, and I daresay some have truly learned to cope with the heat in the form of snacks. I speak of investigating the refresquerias - I guess technically translates to "refreshment stands" in Spanish. I don't see many references to refresquerias in Spain, but ample online resources pointing to them in Mexico and Puerto Rico; perhaps it is a concept born of the tropical environment.

Although refresquerias offer different foods and snacks (elotes, hot dogs, often fresh fruit cocktails with lime and chile), I went in search of the raspado (or raspa) - the Mexican snow cone. A quick stop at a truck called Refresqueria El Rancho on Harwin yielded a cup of chipped ice, and neon yellow sticky sweet artificially flavored syrup. It was terrible - so bad that I discarded it after three sips. Despite this, I must note the small group of girls sitting on the curb giggling and enjoying their raspas.

Visiting Tampico Refresqueria on N Main was entirely a different story. Although the same industrially colored, hypersweet syrups are available here, Tampico stocks a separate set of "natural" flavors. The chamoyado - a thick, reddish brown syrup of tamarind and chile, is sour, salty, and spicy - and refreshing. But definitely an acquired taste. The key difference was the ice itself: the shaved ice (raspado means scraped) was fluffy, rounded off, and quickly yields with the syrups to form a pleasurable slush. As for seating - Tampico has some ramshackle tables and chairs in a gray zone between seating and parking lot. Between the active construction on the street, and the close proximity to the unpaved parking area, cooling off in the breeze can also be an exercise in avoiding dust with your snow cone.

Over at Flamingo Chill, however, the seating is much better considered. Here, entire families come to gather inexpensive chilled treats, either sitting on the surrounding bar area, or the picnic tables, or, simply going through the drive through. The concept of a drive through refresqueria is such a fusion of cultures and technologies, I believe it could be something indigenous to the Gulf Coast.

Flamingo's raspados are shaped in tall conical structures before being covered in syrups. Here, too, the ice is shaved into fluff, and I am convinced that getting ice to this texture is key to a good raspado. Some have fanciful names - the angelito is a combination of panela syrup, condensed milk and cinnamon. Fruit cocktails here are very fresh, as they cut up the wonderfully sweet mango into manageable slivers for you, or combine them with watermelon and other available produce. It has the appeal of the sheer potential of a good cocktail bar, only healthy, family friendly, and inexpensive. On a hot summer afternoon, there are few things more welcome than that.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tart, cold and chewy

The weather prediction for the next few days (weeks?) is a daily high of 38-40° C weather - that's around 100° F. The unrelenting heat is what is stereotypically expected of Houston weather in the thick of summer, and spending time in a hot kitchen is not exactly inspiring. Instead, one is easily tempted to find some cool treat to have during the day.

Fortunately, the trend of cool, neo-chic frozen yogurt shops are making their way to town. The frozen yogurt went back to its health food roots when the Los Angeles based chain Pinkberry gained celebrity status for providing tart, minimal flavors, and fruit only toppings. People lined up for this odd expensive homage to deprivation. The nice thing to look for is the backlash to this trend, which I suspect emanated from, or caters to the pan-Asian population of LA. This converse is exemplified by the Yogurtland concept: in place of the limited tart flavors, the place is embraces an abundance of flavors, from sweet concoctions like Butterfinger, peanut butter, and cheesecake, to fruity flavors, to exotic mixes like taro and coconut. In addition, a bar of toppings is available, which again embraces diversity in offering items like mochi bits, gummy bears, and granola in addition to fresh fruit. The beauty of the system, of course, is that all of this is self-serve - an array of soft-serve machines form a wall next where one takes oversized cups and mixes and matches to ones heart's content. The final product is sold by weight - which in LA was a reasonable $0.33 an ounce. The target demographic appears to be the American Harajuku set, to these places are well lit, brightly colored, often with minimal seating, a large video screen of some sort, and thumping music.

The first such place I tried in Houston is called Flavors. It follows the basic formula in outlay, but the tired fruit in the toppings stand, and the cockroaches crawling over the machines pretty much torpedo any recommendations to have for the place.

I have also tried a second chain in Houston, Swirlls. Though they have several branches in the Houston area, I visited the one in the trendy River Oaks neighborhood, where it is situated conveniently near a large Kroger store and a gym. I witnessed a steady stream of patrons clad in work out clothes, some of them sweaty, although I am not sure if it was due to the blistering heat index, or an actual workout. Nonetheless, the clientele that a frozen yogurt store attracts is a big determinant of its image as a "healthy snack" - never mind the large cups and sugar laden candy toppings available.

The basic restaurant layout follows the formula - trendy thumping music, bright colors, exhortations of healthy dining. An array of 16 flavors on machines are available, divided into the "tart" side - original, pomegranate, blueberry - and the "sweet" side, which carry more desserty flavors like cake batter and peanut butter. The toppings bar looked well maintained, and frequently topped off. Aside from the now ubiquitous mochi bits, I found another nod to the pan Asian culture: kaong or syrup preserved sugar palm fruit. Given the neighborhood, this is pretty adventurous.

In a self serve establishment, the norm is to provide these miniature paper cups to sample some of the wares oneself; Swirlls provides a measly two such sample cups per person. Most of the flavors work fairly well - the original house formulation is tangy and light, and the cake batter was indulgent. Priced at $0.43 an ounce, Swirlls is significantly more expensive than what is available in L.A., but that could be because of the lowered competition. I can't help but compare it with Yogurtland, and must admit that the Yogurtland product is a bit better in flavor. However, with free Wifi access, fairly ample seating, and the current oppressive weather, this place invites lingering, and one may come to this area to work out, but end up snacking instead.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does it refer to any food served in general?

Tall cool glass of green

Probably stemming from the influence of Mexican food, Americans usually think of avocados as a savory ingredient. They encounter it in sushi, guacamole, maybe inserted in those vegetarian sandwiches. But, really, avocados shine as a sweet ingredient. The high lipid content in the fruit produces amazingly smooth and creamy purees. Avocado ice cream has that super-premium frozen custard texture, only without the use of eggs.

A simple application is making an avocado smoothie/shake. Basically, take an avocado, scoop the flesh into a blender, add some milk, a little sugar, and ice, and blend. I once decided to make some for a neighbor, and as I walked out with a pitcher of thick green liquid, a woman passing by stared at me. I gave her a knowing wink, and said simply, "frog shake".

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Member of the doughnut family

I was walking down a street in Santa Monica a month or two ago, and came across this street display:

Xooros Window Display

It's a local outpost of an LA chain called Xooro, which contends to sell gourmet Spanish fritters = churros. I had to give it a try. If you peruse their menu, the array of flavors were promising. When I went in, there was no one else in there but a rather bored young attendant. First of all, the store presentation is rather misleading - each churro they served is only about 60% the length of what the store display would have you believe. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

This is the regular churro, echoing the traditional dusting of cinnamon and sugar. I found the texture quite a bit crunchier than what I am accustomed to - to the point of being actually hard. But served hot, it was nice enough. Then again, why would one go to a fancy churros place to get what is pretty cheap street food in Mexico? I had to try the exotic flavors - notably, the one labeled bacon and maple:

And this is what I got. What coated this churro was not bacon, but unmistakably rou song, dried pork (or other meat) that has been flaked into a powder, usually served in Chinese cuisine to accompany congee. I objected to the sole attendant that perhaps there was a mistake - and she pointedly told me that that was bacon.

Incredulous that they would attempt to pass off cheap flaked meat as bacon (not even close in taste or texture), I tasted it. It was definitely rou song...and the combination was terrible. If you decide to give it a try, stick with the classic. Which makes for a rather expensive churro - but hey, real estate in Santa Monica isn't cheap.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Meal stimulation

There's a website here in Houston,, which allegedly compiles dining bargains (shout out to HTownChowDown for pointing it out to me). Except, near as I can tell, these are almost all luxury fine dining restaurants. Which I found rather oxymoronic; if they were targeting the person on a budget, the discounts don't reach far enough. And people on a tight budget shouldn't be thinking of eating in such places, anyway, since they aren't exactly good value for the dollar compared to so many other places in town.

When I voiced that I found the concept self contradictory on Twitter, it set off a stream of comments, a bit of which stopped short of saying that I am biased against fine dining establishments. Amongst some of the lighthearted jabs and sprinkling of vitriol, there was one question which I took very much to heart: Is there a meal in Houston which I think is worth more than $20?

Intrigued by the thought, I did an informal set of interviews among people I encountered for the next few days, asking them if there was a meal they felt was worth at least $20 in Houston. The answers informed me as to what people considered in what is value for their dollar when dining out. Most people will gladly pay more than that just for good wine. Taking drinks out of the equation, most immediately mentioned steak or sushi as being worthy of the greater than $20 tab. A few mentioned being willing to pay for exceptional service, but not if the food was mediocre. Just a couple mentioned paying for the exceptional skill of the chef - and what better demonstration of skill is there than to take a really humble ingredient and make it transcendent in its final form - although put on the spot, the people who mentioned this couldn't specifically name a Houston area chef.

Truth be told, good seasonal ingredients are cheap and easy to come by in multicultural and prosperous Houston, and classic simple treatments of these ingredients result in fantastic meals without much effort. Which means that we have a fair population of local inexpensive restaurants with great food, and "fine dining" establishments (whatever that means) are hard pressed to provide additional value for the higher prices under most circumstances, moreso in the current economic climate.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Food can be dangerous

I have a few food allergies, notably to crustaceans, and one experience at our work cafeteria has taught me to avoid eating on the hot line again. I had come up to the "create your own stir fry" line, and informed the cook that I am allergic to shrimp - and she said that isn't a problem, as they have chicken. And then proceeded to cook my stir fry, using the exact same tongs and plate that was used to handle shrimp just seconds before. As I objected, it created a kerfuffle, as the kitchen didn't have spare tongs for this purpose, and the search for a clean pair just held up a busy lunch line.

I have quite a few anecdotes of the sort, together with others where I come back from dining out sick as a dog because of cross contamination of allergens. Many others who suffer sensitivity to even more ubiquitous allergens such as peanuts or wheat will have more horrifying experiences to share. Unfortunately, allergy-sufferers are often thought of more as a nuisance ("you should just carry some medicine with you"), probably because many picky eaters pretend to be allergic to certain foods to provide some medical credence to the pickiness. It's a matter of education, and that's the mission of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN).

And FAAN has a great advocate in their corner: Celebrity Chef Ming Tsai, who has a son with food allergies as well. As chef-owner of Blue Ginger, he implemented allergen-aware policies in his restaurant, and that resulted in an increase in clientele because people felt safer dining there. Through his own lobbying efforts, Massachussetts became the first state with state mandated food safety laws that requires inexpensive and simple awareness measures for the top 8 food allergens. Now FAAN is pushing the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act on the federal level - I encourage everyone to read up on the bills up for discussion for the new Congress, and to contact their representatives. Let's make dining safe for everyone.

Friday, June 5, 2009

You think it would work

I had the breakfast panini at Saxy's Cafe in Boulder, CO. On paper, it reads well enough - egg, smoked salmon, tomatoes and mascarpone cheese. Problem is, it shouldn't be made into a pressed panini sandwich.

Tomatoes are disintegrated, the eggs were rubbery because of being cooked twice, the mascarpone is undetectible as it is melted away, and there are few things less appetizing than overcooked smoked salmon.

Shame - at the least the place looks pretty snazzy, has free WiFi, and seems have to good coffee.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Single Serve with straws?

Not that it matters, but apparently, wine in boxes are now tasting better. Go figure.

Now that I own a shaker, I am interested in making non-alcoholic cocktails (aka, mocktails). Unfortunately, most recipes for mocktails that I find online seem to be overly sweet. And I think I understand part of the appeal for cocktails, as the main ingredients are shelf stable, and microbially inert - most ingredients in making mocktails will spoil rather soon, and it's tough to make just one or two drinks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Working in the Medical Center in Houston, the options for dealing with a mid-afternoon attack of peckishness is pretty limited. I stood in front of the only open purveyor in the Commons (this enormous structure in the middle of the Med Center that houses a parking garage, a food court, and Trevisio, a fine dining establishment) - Starbuck's - and openly commented that every food item they carried (as well as most drinks) were sweetened. Cakes, cookes, muffins, brownies. No savory options whatsoever.

The poor girl behind the counter apologized, and said that people just didn't buy things that weren't sweet.

That got me thinking that I really miss the meal called merienda. Or, in the proper Spanish, la merienda. Although loosely translated to mean snack, merienda cuisine is markedly different from what Americans consider snacks (which appear to me as extended desserts). They aren't simply sweet items meant to provide a quick spike of blood sugar - merienda foods are proper filling small versions of regular meals, more often savory than sweet. In Spain, such foods as churros are eaten, as well as open faced ham sandwiches, or maybe a hot chocolate, or even potatoes and eggs. I am more familiar with Filipino merienda, which demonstrates the multicultural influences on the cuisine, from noodles in the form of pansit and palabok, to filled rolls (lumpia) or filled steamed buns (siopao), to stews (puto at dinuguan) even to hamburgers, although not the gigantic things found in American restaurants. I think these burgers have more in common with sliders. There are indeed sweet things found in merienda as well, although these items tend to be based off of complex starches such as glutinous rice (ie, tikoy, biko, sapin-sapin, kuchinta) or fruits (turon).

I think this whole concept that huge meals need to tide people over long periods of artificially enforced fasts is likely quite unhealthy, but it culturally stems from a lower respect for eating beyond simply an obstacle to get around a day. I have met people who consider meals nuisances, and simply wolf things down so they can get on with the rest of their lives. I try to sympathize, but I can't see things their way. Plus, just about all of them seem to be battling a weight problem.

Monday, June 1, 2009


What gadgets do you like to have in your kitchen? Although some may dismiss them as single taskers, but if you use them often enough, they're justifiable for the trouble and the counter space. Stand mixers are a wonderful luxury for some, as are food processors, but they don't figure into my regular cooking regimen (I have a small food processor, and by the time it takes me to assemble, I would have sliced up the vegetables with a knife - and modified the recipe to accept irregular pieces :).

Ice cream makers are great - I have one of the regular ones with a core that needs to be frozen in the freezer for a while before being used with a single speed dasher. Problem with these things is cleaning them out - they have to be thawed out, and then cleaned, before being refrozen - restricting flavor creation to one at a time :(. Perhaps some day, I'll find one with an independent compressor.

I can talk about the uses for a rice cooker, a toaster oven or a bread machine, but what I really want this year is a Candyfab 6000.