Friday, December 12, 2014

Tony Mandola's is still a Modern-Day Classic

“Dedicated to the preservation of the art of our Mama's Cooking"
- Tony Mandola
It was almost 35 years ago (1982) when Tony Mandola opened his restaurant, Tony Mandola’s Blue Oyster Bar, on the Gulf Freeway… and I remember it well. Later, he had one on Shepherd… and I remember it well, too. However, his location on West Gray became the go-to meeting place for those in the River Oaks area and beyond. I was a regular there for his Mama's Gumbo. He was always kind enough to me to make a plain old Oyster Gumbo (off the menu) by adding fresh raw oysters to steaming hot gumbo just before delivering it to my table… the edges of the oysters were just starting to curl and were at the perfect juncture of cooked and raw.
So now, Tony has a huge beautiful new restaurant on Waugh Drive and four of us dropped in to try old favorites, as well as sample newer items on his menu. Presentation has evolved in ALL restaurants over the past 35 years… but, in Tony’s case, whose standards on the menu taste the same and which are his mama’s recipes, are NOT his mama's presentation.

As there were four of us, we all shared and I have a lot of observations in this review!

Mama’s Gumbo

So, I started with Mama’s Gumbo.  Nice dark roux, as usual, and topped with shrimp, fried crawfish and fried okra. Looked good… tasted good… different, but the same. That’s good.
Oyster Trio
Appetizers started with his Oyster Trio. It included two Oysters Rockefeller, two Oysters Buccaneer and two Oysters Bienville. All of these were prepared traditionally and were made with large fresh oysters.


Spiedini followed. They are mini-roulades of mozzarella and Genoa Salami rolled in pork tenderloin, tossed in garlic and olive oil, then grilled. My first time to try this dish and they are now a go-to appetizer for me (in addition, of course, to the Oyster Trio).

Crab Salad

Next was a Crab Salad of seriously jumbo lump crabmeat, avocado, golden beets, mixed baby greens, sliced tomato and sliced boiled eggs. Vegetables were all crispy and fresh and this salad (although I ate plenty more) is a light lunch in its own and perfect for that choice.

Decadent Pizza
I’m almost embarrassed to admit ordering and eating anything with the word “decadent” in its name. However, I’m pretty proud that I bit on this item. The Decadent Pizza is everything that you might expect here in a specialty item… except that you can’t convince me that Tony’s Mama ever made it! If there was ever a take-out item for a party, this one, by itself, qualifies as a unique catering delicacy for an office luncheon or board meeting. The Decadent Pizza is loaded with a fried egg right in the center, bacon, lobster meat, truffle cheese, an Alfredo-type sauce and sprinkled with parsley. Can I have a “yum”?


Now to something that is one of my “hot buttons” in restaurants in Houston… and I guess, in restaurants all over the country outside of San Francisco. I ordered the Cioppino, which I order whenever I see it on a menu anywhere. Tony Mandola’s Cioppino is actually Cioppino! Well done… it even has the right type of crabs in it. Most I order and try elsewhere are served sans crab and those with crab don’t use the requisite Dungeness crabs as in San Francisco. So, what we have here is classic in that it has Dungeness crab, mussels, shrimp, fish (as in SF, the “fish” varies with the catch brought in by the fishermen that day), scallops, peppers, and potatoes in a rich broth. Loved it.

Gulf Red Snapper Martha

Another at the table ordered Gulf Red Snapper Martha. Fresh broccoli and tomatoes were topped with shrimp, crawfish tails, and crab meat basil a basil wine butter sauce… sprinkled with julienned fresh basil leaves. This Napoleonic presentation of veggies, fish, shrimp and sauce wowed the senses and was as beautiful as it tasted.
Salmon Burger
Bacon-wrapped Filet
I can only eat so much, but I dutifully photographed what others were raving about… with the exception of the monster/delicious Salmon Burger and the Bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon (both of which I took home to Sally, who wasn’t with me at lunch). For what it's worth... and it's worth a lot, she raved about both.

Galerie du Cuisine

Stuffed Poblano Pepper
Salmon Sofia
Molten Chocolate Cake
Tony Mandolaʼs 1212 Waugh Drive
Houston, TX 77019


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hugo Caliente... Farm-to-Fork Quick Serve Concept is Open

When was the last time that the chef came to your table in a "quick serve" restaurant to check on your meal?

OK, full disclosure... I was with two other food/restaurant writers to check out Hugo Caliente, a new quick-serve "Tex-Mex/Mexican" restaurant in Town and Country Center. Also, he knew who we were. The real point here is the fact that there IS a chef. Furthermore, all of his offerings are scratch-made and from locally sourced fresh seasonal ingredients. So fresh and so seasonal that he doesn't even have a freezer. So, what what we have here is a true chef-driven quick-serve restaurant (called "fast food" a little over a decade ago). When I say "chef-driven", by the way, Chef Chris Smith is a veteran of over 25 years with Pappas Restaurant Group and was manager of their sous chef program.

Chef Chris Smith

If you care to have a glass of wine or a margarita with your meal, Hugo Caliente  (wine and beer license only) has a nice, yet medium-to-low-priced wine list and serves really tasty "margaritas" made from agave wine that (to people like me), smells and tastes much like Tequila.

A master of "mise en place" all food is prepped throughout the day and prepared by Chef/Owner Chris Smith's kitchen/line staff as ordered, in front of the customer right in the service line. As an example, outside skirt steaks (sourced from Cameron, Texas) are grilled to your order to build fajita plates, then accented with locally grown veggies, such as in a tangy Pico de Gallo.

Outside Skirt Steaks

Speaking of Pico de Gallo, Hugo Caliente  has an impressive array of salsas to complement the offerings and all are made in-house.

Hugo Caliente's Salsas

Galerie du Cuisine

Bacon-Wrapped Outside Skirt Steaks 
with Avocado Puree

Shrimp Cocktail

Chicken Quesadillas with Manchego Cheese

Tres Leches

709 West Sam Houston Parkway, Suite 112 
Houston, Texas

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sylvia Casares is Sharing Her Techniques at Sylvia's With a Tamalada

I'm a big believer in cooking lessons and grab knowledge wherever I can... especially of Mexican regional cuisines.
Sylvia Casares

Most of my limited cooking expertise in Mexican regional cuisines has been gathered around Mexico in cooking classes and in the kitchens of Mexican chefs who were generous with their time and knowledge with me. I learned to prepare Huachinango a la Veracruzana in Veracruz. I was taught the simple art of making Aguachile, as well as many grilled seafood specialties in Mazatlán. I've been mentored on the preparation of richer, more complicated ceviches and cocktails in Acapulco. I've lurked in the kitchens and learned the importance of lard in the unique spiny lobster dishes typical of the Pacific coast of Baja California Norte, such as Puerto Nuevo-Style Lobster.

Tamales with a Perfect Chili Gravy

Yet, I had shied away from learning what I had considered the more mundane typical Mexican dishes, such as tamales and enchiladas, as I always seemed to gravitate toward what I considered to be the more difficult and exciting regional dishes. I no longer feel that way... nor, do I consider tamales to be something casually thrown together by almost any Mexican wife/mother on a moment's notice. A couple of weeks ago, as part of Sylvia Casares' Fall Cooking Classes, I was a student in her class on making tamales (Tamales 101). That class was in the form of Sylvia's memories of her family's  "Tamaladas", with her dear recently departed mother at the helm... then a demonstration of making tamales as she was taught by her.

Sylvia demonstrating the choosing of corn husks.

A Tamalada is a family celebration.  It's a family tradition. In Mexican families, especially at Christmas time, ALL generations of the family gather to make tamales in a party that is led by the matriarch... and enjoyed by as many as three-four generations, as they come together to pass on the traditions and recipes that have existed in Mexico since pre-Columbian times.

Sylvia mixing dry ingredients

For ME to try to teach you how to make tamales would be an insult to all Mexican women throughout North America (including Sylvia)... that's why there are lessons by experts such as Sylvia "Enchilada Queen" Casares, (owner and executive chef of Sylvia's, on Eldridge in western Memorial of Houston). Suffice it to say that Sylvia's recipe is four pages long and it takes hours to prepare them properly. Yet, Sylvia imparted an ability to her students to follow her recipe, as well as imparting a deeper cultural awareness of what that Mexican dish and its preparation means to Mexican families generally... and to Mexico specifically!

Students get hands-on preparation.

Kim and Jason Bellini having fun

So, this isn't going to have a recipe for making tamales. I am making you aware of the fact that Sylvia has been teaching cooking classes for 4-5 years and that I strongly recommend that for a deeper understanding of Mexico... Mexicans... and the foods... you might want to look into her schedule of cooking classes.

Those classes remaining in her 2014 fall schedule are below:

November 1 - Chiles Rellenos - Hands on class for beef, chicken and cheese chiles rellenos. This is a really fun class and you will learn to make fabulous rellenos. $65

November 15 - Tamales 101 - Learn the ancient art of tamale making in a fun hands on class! Class will be on pork and chicken tamales. $65

December 2 (Tuesday) - Tamales 101 - Learn the ancient art of tamale making with Sylvia! This is a hands-on class on pork, chicken tamales. $65

December 6 - Tamales 101 - Learn the ancient art of tamale making with Sylvia. This is a hands-on action packed class with recipes of pork and chicken tamales. $65

December 13 - Tamales 101 - Learn the ancient art of tamale making with Sylvia. Class instruction on pork and chicken tamales with hands on participation. $65

For more information, go to:

6401 Woodway Dr
HoustonTX 77057

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Iconic Tex-Mex Restaurant, Los Tios, Turns 44!

Gary Adair... owner of Los Tios, showing off the Tamales
from their "Tamale Time Gift Boxes" they are offering as
Christmas and hostess gifts.

Tamale Time Gift Box 
with a dozen tamales and pralines for $12.95

In mid-September, 2014, a group of Tex-Mex lovers gathered (Official Notice of a Comped Meal) at the Los Tios on Beechnut (across from Meyerland Mall) at the invitation of Gary Adair... owner of Los Tios. We were helping the Adairs celebrate the 44th anniversary of the multi-location restaurant. But moreover, Adair was using the 44th anniversary to honor and thank his extended family... his employees.

Executive Chef Roberto Ozaeta

Gary Adair spent his Summers in Beeville,Texas. His family had been there since the War-Between-The-States, but due to a quirk of fate (like mine), his father was stationed in Louisiana, and Gary was born there. You know Beeville, don't you? Well, it's a small town down sorta close to Corpus Christi. Its particular location puts it far enough from Mexico to not be a hotbed of JUST Mexican food and far enough from Houston to not be a hotbed of "designer" Tex-Mex food. YET, it was close enough to Mexico that Gary and his family enjoyed the foods of the region as he grew up. 

People around Beeville always knew what "puffy tacos" and "puffy quesos" were.  They always knew about chili gravy and (very importantly), yellow cheese grated generously on a combination plate. The contrast of the bright yellow cheese and the rich dark chili gravy grated on a cheese tortilla and topped with finely chopped white Rio Grande Valley onions was a taste of heaven to Gary, growing up. So, when Gary moved to Houston, it didn't take him long to fall in love with Rosemary Garbett's Los Tios Mexican Restaurants at age 16. It was a taste of his Summer home and the "Valley." Little did he imagine that it would become such an obsession that it would surprise no one that he bought Los Tios in 2000. 

100% blue agave tequila margaritas

Slowly, he made a few operational changes, He improved the quality of ingredients, adding freshly made tortillas, and premium, fresh squeezed lime juice to 100% blue agave tequila margaritas.  Previous owner, Rosemary Garbett claimed that Los Tios served the first frozen margaritas in Houston. The menu still features its signature mesquite-grilled fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, nachos, tamales, burritos, quesadillas and the world famous puffy queso (a hallmark identifier of a true Tex-Mex restaurant).

Tortilla Soup

Presentation of the Tortilla Soup has changed over the years... but not the ingredients, nor the taste.

And LARD! Lardy, lardy... a genuine Tex-Mex restaurant, like Los Tios, can also be identified by the unique flavor imparted by lard in many of its offerings.

Anniversary Nachos

We all expected to be in at 7:00 and out at 8:30... but the focus of our group became a discussion of the Tex-Mex dining genre, with constant illustrations provided by plates ("hot plate... don't touch!") of familiar old Tex-Mex standards and we didn't break out until around 10:00 p.m.!

Los Tios long-time employees

We were introduced to those who Adair feels are responsible for the success of Los Tios... such as long-time loyal employee-family members like Juanita (35 years), Jose (26 years), Johnny (24 years), Martha (23 years), Tino (21 years) and Veronica (16 years) and the consistency they bring to the kitchen and the "front of the house".

Gloriously updated Sopapillas

Creamy Flan

Desserts are colorful and authentic. Sopapillas and Flan and Tres Leches are offered as the finale!

Los Tios' signature house-made pralines

As one who has eaten at Tex-Mex restaurants since his childhood, I always looked forward to the bill being handed to my father when we were in Raymondville, Harlingen or Brownsville. That was where the main course was handed to us... the Tex-Mex pralines! By the way, here in Texas, they are pronounced "pray-leens"... NOT "prah-leens". Los Tios makes them in-house and they don't disappoint at meal's-end.

·         Memorial: 14006 Memorial; Houston, TX 77079; Phone: (281) 493-4700
·         Beechnut: 4840 Beechnut: Houston, TX 77096; Phone: (713) 660-6244
·         Sugar Land: 3308 Highway 6 South; Sugar Land, TX 77478; Phone: (281) 980-1313
·         Westheimer: 9527 Westheimer; Houston, TX 77063; Phone: (713) 784-0380

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Here Are the Ten Most-Common Examples of Poor Table Manners!

Poor table manners are the rule... not the exception!

As one who dines out at least 5-6 times a week, as well as one whose parents knocked him on the head with the handle of a butter knife for any infraction at the table (That's poor manners in itself, isn’t it?), I have observed that poor table manners are the RULE… not the exception in Houston (and everywhere else, for that matter). If you don’t care about these things, then skip this article, as you probably hit 10 wrong out of 10 anyway. Who am I to point out your poor table manners? Well, someone needed to, (if you care) unless you do 10 out of 10 correctly.

Here are the infractions that occur the most often in restaurants (as well as at $1000/plate galas):

The knife blade should never face outward! This is the 
most common infraction of proper table manners.

The knife blade should always face the center of the plate.

1.      The most common faux pas at the table is the way the knife blade is faced when placed on the plate between bites. The knife blade ALWAYS faces toward the center of the plate. The knife should be placed across the top of the plate with the blade facing toward you. It is permissible to place the knife across the top right of the plate... but the key to its placement is that the knife blade is always to be toward you or toward the center of the plate. At least eight out of ten were taught that a knife blade should point outward when placed on the plate. Sometimes when I'm at table with several people, I feel like they are looking at my "innie" wondering why a guy like me never learned how to eat in public like all of them were taught. Face it, your mommy taught you the wrong placement of your knife.

Once a utensil has been used, NO PART of it should touch
 the table again, including the handle!

A utensil, once used, should be placed completely on the plate.

2.      Once one has used a knife, fork, or spoon, NO part of either of them should ever touch the table again.  Between courses, leave the knife and fork on your plate.  The waitperson should take the plate and used utensils and bring fresh ones with the next course. Between bites, the knife and fork are always placed completely on the plate.

A soup spoon should never be pulled toward you.

A soup spoon should always be pushed away from you.

3.      A soup spoon is never drawn toward the diner… ever. The proper way to eat soup is to push the spoon away from you. Also, the soup should be scooped from the side of the bowl farther away from you.

A soup bowl may be tilted away from you to get the very last bit.

4.      May you tilt a soup bowl to get the small amount of remaining soup on the spoon?  Yes, you may. However, the soup bowl, if tilted, should always be tilted away from you.

NEVER hold your hand over a glass to indicate that you want no more.

5.      You are through with your wine, tea, or water. The waitperson approaches you to refill your glass. Please do not hold your hand over your glass indicating “no more"! The proper way to stop the waitperson from refilling your glass is to open your mouth and say “No, thank you.”  NEVER wave away service. By the same token, don't hold your hand up in the air and insult your server by clicking your fingers to get his/her attention, or summon your server as if hailing a cab. It's an insult to the waitperson. It's also distracting (and offensive to other diners in the restaurant and to others at your table). 

6.      Never fold your napkin neatly after use. That includes when you are going to the restroom… loosely fold your napkin and place it to the left of your plate. When you are through with your meal, your napkin may be loosely folded and placed, again, to the left of your plate... not ON the plate. In the past, it was common to place the napkin on your seat when excusing yourself to leave the table temporarily.  It is more common today to LOOSELY fold the napkin and place it to the left of your plate. A well-trained waitperson should replace it for you. If not, you at least left it where it should have been placed.

To pick up or not to pick up?

7.      OOOOPS! You've dropped your napkin or your fork on the floor. What do you do? Well, whatever you do, do it without drawing any attention to yourself and what you are doing. If that is impossible, you may leave it on the floor. Yes, it IS one of the things that your server does as part of his/her job. Emily Post says to leave it on the floor and the server will get it for you.  Yes, the server has a lot to do, but, after all, it IS one of those things that is part of his/her job. Here's the problem for you consider.  If you pick up the fork or napkin, what are you going to do with the thing? Of course, you must NOT put either one back on the table after it's been on the floor. So, you've picked it up and now you have nowhere to put it, except to hold it in your hand until the server shows up to take it and replace it. I suggest that you follow Emily Post's recommendation. The server must be involved either way, so worrying about the fact that the server is very busy is a moot point and you still won't be able to resume dining until you involve the server to get another napkin or fork, anyway. So, discreetly ask your server to replace it.

Never butter (or dip) more than one bite at a time of a roll!

Tear off a single bite and butter it or dip in dipping oil.

8.      Butter bread or rolls only one bite at a time… and only place one bite at a time in your “dipping oil.” Also, only cut one bite of food at a time. If you have only one piece of food on your plate and it's too big to put into your mouth, then, of course, you may cut it into two bites. This one's a no-brainer, but I still see diners buttering an entire roll or piece of bread... and still remember my father preaching for me to NOT do it, yet remember him (after my mother died and wasn't there to monitor him) buttering and holding an entire piece of bread in the air and taking a bite of bread with every single bite of food before he swallowed it. 

9.      In a buffet, remember that you may waddle back to the buffet as many times as you care to. Never stack your food so that any item covers another. When you return from the buffet table, your plate should have the equivalent of an entrée and two or three “sides”, unless you are too lazy to go back again. No picture of this as it's disgusting.  

Your elbow may only be on the table between courses and
during conversation... as long as you have put your fork down.

10.  Elbows on the table? I don't even need to talk about this one, do I? Well, surprise! It is OK to place your elbows on the table between courses and during conversation. Also, sit up straight, bring the food up to your mouth and don't go down on your food. There's no left hand showing here, as it is (correctly) in her lap.

       If you got 10 out of 10 right, I'd enjoy having dinner with you sometime. If you got over half wrong, I think I've eaten with you every time I'm in a restaurant or event. Again... if you don't care about table manners, then thank me for giving you 10 ways to prove it. Bon appetit!