Archive for the ‘Houston’ Category

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca: The Lone Star of Texas Pizza

May 31, 2007

When you live in a box, or more precisely a box-like apartment, you should think and eat outside it. In a city like New York, this an easily implemented and often rewarded policy. When visiting relatives in the heart of Texas’ big-box land, you should also deliberate and dine far from where you sleep. Unfortunately, it’s a riskier proposition in Houston’s suburbs and one that carries far less likelihood of a good return.

This is not to suggest a lack of hidden and not so hidden pleasures outside the 610 Loop. Hundreds of tantalizing and tenuously regulated taquerías and donut shops beckon in every strip mall, gas station and garden center parking lot.  For instance, given my druthers, I could definitely spend a few days working my way up and down Spring, TX’s 1960 Road.

Unfortunately, sometimes one man’s druthers aren’t the deciding factor. Sometimes, even the most self-absorbed foodie must recognize that not everyone wants to sample goat tacos in a driving rainstorm while propping up a floppy tarp with his horchata glass. Sometimes he must concede that many people would not deem it advisable to rise at dawn to Frogger across a sidewalk-less thoroughfare in order to reach the day’s first strawberry-frosted crullers. Yes, sometimes, friends and family come before foodie adventures. Sometimes you need to go with the consensus choice, even at the expense of strip mall bacon cheese kolaches for lunch or intersection vended calf tongue taquitos for dinner.

So on my most recent visit to Houston, I abandoned Mexico and the Czech Republic for the pleasures of Italy, heading into the Loop to the critically acclaimed Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca. After a long drive and a short wait, I headed up the creaky staircase to a well-spaced comfortably lit room built with all the logic, or lack thereof, of Pippy Longstocking’s upside down house. Fortunately, clean-flavored unoaked Sicilian white set me straight and reminded me that I wasn’t there to suss out the building’s structural integrity. I was there to eat.

Food soon arrived, and the wine turned out to be an apt selection. With beets and horseradish and walnuts, it tamed the burn. With Brussels sprouts and pecorino it brought out the slightly muted flavor of a vegetable I used to loathe and now can live with. Finally and most surprisingly, it pulled even more piggy taste out of fat flecks on a plate of speck.

After finishing this lovely meal of small plates we decided it would be quite reasonable to order a second dinner. No surprise, I ordered pizza. Taleggio, arugula and pear slice toppings made for a fresh, earthy and light combo, just savory enough to feel like a main plate without any heaviness on the palate. It’s the kind of juxtaposition of ingredients that at first seems strange and quickly comes to seem inevitable. I particularly liked the long finish of the taleggio, perhaps the most complex cheese taste I’ve ever had on pizza. Only the crust disappointed. Leather’s fine as a backnote in wine, but not as a texture for crust. It resisted all but the firmest entreaties from knife and fork. Perhaps the humidity affected the dough that night; it just wasn’t right. Fortunately, most everything else was.

A bottle of Valpolicella washed down samples of a friend’s margherita pizza and washed away any crusty quibbles I still had. With one seltzer drinker and one slow-sipper in the crowd, I ended up enjoying more than my share of the night’s wine special. It was probably the most profound taste of the meal, alongside the beets perhaps, and left me confident that good Italian wine lists need not be limited to the coasts nor to the wealthy.

Dessert was inexpensive and impossible to refuse. Gelato came in interesting flavors but didn’t strike me as particularly memorable. The texture lacked the signature creaminess of good Italian ice cream and the flavors the intensity and commitment of both artisanal American and traditional Italian ice cream. Nonetheless, nothing reproachable, just not up to Laborotorio di Gelato standards. Little is.

I would have stayed for grappa but those who won’t eat tacos in the rain are also disinclined to watch me slug back hootch while they contemplate the drive back. Sometimes and in some places—Texas being one of them— restraint can be an act of foodie heroism. Besides, there’s no better place for a digestif than snugly back inside the box, or in this case, back in big-box land.

No Soy Marinero, Soy Captain Tom: Best Oysters Between the Coasts

January 17, 2007

Captain Tom’s Seafood & Oyster Bar (Houston area)

I’ve never paid so little to eat so well, nor felt so good about doing it. Captain Tom’s shucks all the pretense away from the overwrought oyster house and gets you back to its origins as working man’s tavern food. Even better, Tom’s tone and taste profile isn’t Maine, Massachusetts or Manhattan, but rather coastal Mexico. And thanks to immigration patterns, it’s unlikely to go Anglo anytime soon.

Outside and inside, Captain Tom’s is shaped like a snubnosed Gulf shrimp boat. Listing gently starboard on a sea of concrete, it also rises steeply upwards towards the bow, making for some tenuously anchored seats at the bar. If you go off hours and have a choice, grab a seat on the bow or lower stern, the two flattest parts of the boat.

That said, there are few off hours in this always packed pearl, so be ready for some crowding. Still, you’ll eat quickly and well, even if the few minutes of waiting feel like an eternity once you see what everyone else is eating or find out how little they’re paying.

Once you’re strapped in, signal your intentions to the oyster shuckers. These guys all work within the confines of the horseshoe shaped center area, taking and making orders for the raw stuff as well as shucking beer bottles. A dozen oysters will run about four dollars and take a minute or two to prepare. Beers are two bucks or so and arrive with much faster.

Once the first plate is set before you, simply spray a bit of lime, limón verde, on each bivalve then down them. Order a second dozen when you hit the eighth or ninth oyster to minimize downtime. I know some people like lemon juice, horse radish and cocktail sauce on their oysters, and Nixon liked ketchup on his cottage cheese. Both choices are impeachable offenses, especially at Tom’s.

Once you’ve warmed up with a lime spritzed dozen, order your first Michelada. Salt on the rim, spice in the glass, this beer cocktail makes and slakes your thirst. While versions vary, here it consists of Bloody Mary ingredients plus an iced blonde beer (chela helada). I find one per dozen to be a good ratio.

With a little food and beer in your belly, you can further spice up the next round. Add a squiggle of hot sauce, preferably the thick vaguely smoky Guadalajaran number in the large plastic bottle, to half your oysters. The spiced burn will carry you through the plain ones and leave your lips and face pleasantly numb. In short, the hot sauce is MSG for a beer buzz. If you’re unsure which sauce to use, follow your neighbor’s lead, particularly if he’s alone, has construction dirt on him and chats up the shuckers in Spanish.

With a few dozen oysters wriggling in your gut, you might want to venture out to the rest of the menu: No need. No point. The non-oyster menu items are really only here for children and the childish. That said, fried catfish and shrimp are perfectly adequate, especially in the house’s good light cornmeal batter. Frog legs-overpriced chicken on the tongue though thrilling to order for some-are adequate but unnecessary. Have a dessert beer instead and call it quits. You can always grab ice cream on the way home. Better yet, stop by one of the local donut shops, or grab an horchata across the street at the taquería.

When the meal comes to an end, head to the cashier to pay. Everything is on the honor system. Texans and Texicans aren’t as entitled or suspicious as New Yorkers, so no one will press you to tip or about the details of your order. Then again, this is a place to reward excellence and expedience with an extra dollar or two and to show that some people born East of the Mississippi aren’t selfish, self-absorbed godless heathens.