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!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

KUU Restaurant… Tasty Pictures at an Exhibition

We’ve all heard the saying “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” For me, it’s the same with sushi!
I eat Japanese cooking (mostly sushi) 3-4 times a month. I do that not because of health or fitness reasons, but because I just love it. So, I’m elated when I find a new Japanese restaurant. Well, KUU isn’t, in the truest sense of the term, a Japanese restaurant. It’s more like a contemporary Asian restaurant on a visual steroid trip. It’s a restaurant in which a foodie says “I’m glad my smart phone has a camera!”

First of all, Chef Adison Lee learned at the feet of the master, Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu fame. He has honed his skills at Nobu in New York and London. Now in Houston, Chef labels his specialty as “modern cooking” paired with traditional Japanese techniques.

So, let’s walk through the exhibition in the art gallery that is KUU Restaurant (pronounced “koo”) with very little commentary from me (Chinese proverb, “One picture is worth ten thousand words”).
New Style Soft Shell Crab Tempura
We mixed “starters” with entrees, as all dishes at KUU are served tapas-style and in the manner of the old Chinese restaurants, are meant for sharing. SO, let’s start with the New Style Soft Shell Crab Tempura. Served with guacamole and a sweet roasted tomato, the crab stands on its hind legs majestically like the Lone Ranger’s steed, Silver. It is large for commonly served soft-shell crabs, so it's very juicy and surrounded by a very crisp tempura.

Crispy Duck

The Crispy Duck (That’s more Chinese, isn’t it?) was served with “compressed apple”, scallop chip and a unique wasabi beef reduction. In addition to the perfectly crisped skin, this was a real “looker”. Loved it.

Grilled Chicken with Wasabi Pepper Jus

Grilled chicken crept unapologetically onto the menu and our table in the form of Grilled Chicken with Wasabi Pepper Jus. Served with watercress and a wasabi pepper jus, we commented that if grilled chicken were served like this in other restaurants, it would be a more common addition to most restaurant menus… really juicy (In my experience, it’s hard to find juicy grilled chicken!). I attend a lot of nonprofit fundraisers where we look askance at the “rubber chicken” served to save money. It’s certainly not THIS chicken.

Hot Rock
Dining should be fun, shouldn’t it? This is the fun interactive dish. Named simply Hot Rock, VERY tender and heavily marbled Akaushi beef was served with a very hot rock for diners to sear their own beef on. Served with ponzu and garlic butter, this is one of those beef dishes that, if the beef isn’t cooked to your liking, you have only yourself to blame. Note to chef, the rock is perfectly heated when delivered to the table, and is best at the temperature it is initially heated to… but as one might expect, it is bound to cool and if a foodie fools around with a camera or conversation, the seared beef at the beginning is not as spectacular as in the end of the serving of raw beef. The server might warn dawdlers to move along, or maybe, as with refilling iced tea… if there is beef left in a few minutes, a new hot rock might be dropped off? I will still order this on my next visit, but since I already have a pic, I’ll not waste any time annoying others with my obligatory photography and eat hot food like everyone else.

Last, but in no way least, was the signature roll, KUU. This spectacular and fulfilling roll included Asian pear, yuzu kosho (a citrusy rough-chopped chutney), avocado, tuna, LOBSTER claw meat and an edamame paste was rich and extravagant. Lobster AND tuna? It was well-worth the $18.00 for a sushi roll. If you go there, this needs to be one of your choices.
947 Gessner Road #A180
Houston, TX 77024


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Laurenzo's Introduces New Menu Items

 A media tasting dinner at Laurenzo's netted mostly hits (and a slight miss).

Here's my usual "full disclosure" when a review is based upon a "media dinner". Some members of Houston's food blogging and magazine publishing media (including Sally and me) were treated to some new menu items in the Laurenzo family's serious prime meat outlet in Houston's Heights. 

The Laurenzos are one of the best-known restaurant families in Houston (Ninfa's, El Tiempo, y mas). As most who read my scrawls are well aware of Laurenzo's, I'm only dealing with the items introduced at the dinner (it's been one of my go-to spots for nice rare Prime Rib for years). In the words of someone I don't know, talking about a Chicago restaurant that I don't remember, Laurenzo's provides "Rare beef well done".

Beef Carpaccio

So, the dinner started with Beef Carpaccio ($15.99). The thin slices of Hereford beef tenderloin were drizzled with olive oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with baby arugula and shaved parmesan. Slices are slightly thicker than most around town, but tender and (I believe) twice the quantity of most. Very nice. I usually order this wherever it is offered. This was a hit. 

Grilled Artichoke

Grilled Artichoke ($12.99) Hardwood grilled and seasoned with only salt and pepper and basted with butter, giving these a flavor far richer and tasty than could possibly have been attained by simple steaming. Served with house-made remoulade, these (while tasty) are kind of difficult to deal with and while I cook them at home, dealing with these requires a combo of knife, fork and fingers. The menu warns that there are limited quantities available, and while some at our table considered these a hit... due to the fact that they were very flavorful, they were only a slight miss for me, due only to the difficulty of dealing with them.

Maryland-Style Colossal Lump Crab Cake

Maryland-Style Colossal Lump Crab Cake ($18.99) Now, we're talking...we're lucky here in the Texas Gulf coast, to have Blue Crabs equal to those anywhere around the U.S., including Maryland. In fact during the late 80's and early 90's, Chesapeake Bay was so polluted and screwed up that many "crab houses" in the Baltimore/Annapolis area were serving crabs from Texas and Louisiana. These cakes were molded from "Colossal" lump crab meat and seasoned with Maryland spices (I recognize Old Bay when I taste it... and that's fine with me), lightly breaded and pan fried. Key, in MY opinion is that Laurenzo's follows the inviolable rule that crab meat should be handled only once! That's when it is added to spices and the very smallest amount of breading needed to bind it. Served with house-made remoulade,  these crab cakes are among the very best I've found in Houston. A big hit!

Jumbo Prawn Cocktail 
(Here's Looking at You, Babe)

While we're on the subject of giant seafood, here are more of them. Jumbo Prawn Cocktail ($17.00) is jumbo saltwater prawns boiled in citrus and southern spices (I still think it's Old Bay and I still don't mind). It was served with a slightly spicy and tangy house-made remoulade and as well as a definitely spicy cocktail sauce. These were peel-um-yourself creatures that really were worth the effort.

Double Cut Lamb Chops

Big "hits" are the Double Cut Lamb Chops ($37.99). These four savory ribs were lightly breaded and pan-seared and finished in a mint demi-glace and a side of mint jelly. As it should be for nearly $40.00, these were MY stars of the evening. I make 'em at home and I still order them medium-rare in restaurants that know how to serve them. That's the case here. Served with garlicky mashed potatoes, I repeat that these were a hit for all who tried them, especially me.

Veal Parmesan

As Veal Parmesan ($21.99) goes, so went these. Tender and tasty, they were nicely presented and exactly what you would hope them to be. They were breaded in savory house-made Italian-style bread crumbs and topped with a flavorful marinara and melted provolone. They were served with Linguini Aglio e Olio (garlic and olive oil) and crispy garlic bread. They followed the wonderful lamb chops so I felt sorry for them. Still... they were a hit.

Veggie Burger

Sorry, Roland and Dominec,  I was off taking a photo of your prime rib being carved when your chef announced to everyone else that this was a Veggie Burger ($13.99). It's not like I ate it totally fooled and thinking that it was prime beef. I ended up deconstructing it right down to the patty trying to figure out what kind of meat it was and still couldn't get it. I'm a carnivore and, frankly, love the mouth feel and flavor of a really good beef patty on a burger. BUT... vegetarians would LOVE this thing. But not me though, regardless of its great overall flavor (and its presentation's eligibility for Burger Porn sites). The house-made patty was made from brown rice and black beans and finished in a barbecue molasses glaze. As with any Texas-style burger, it was piled high with tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, mayo and brown mustard. That's a Texas-style burger "all the way", isn't it? It was served with a kale salad. If you are a vegetarian, it's a hit.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

First dessert was a beautiful Strawberry Pie ($8.99). Piled high with fresh strawberries and topped with a white chocolate ganache.  Fellow diners swarmed it like hungry sharks and I only had a strawberry carcass to photograph. The second dessert offered was my favorite, ranked by creativity. Pumpkin Bread Pudding ($8.99) was topped with ice cream dribbling down the side and I loved it. Both desserts were hits.

4412 Washington
Houston, TX 77007