I was born in Dallas and my family has been in the Dallas area since the early 1800s. But when I was nine we moved to Houston so that’s what I consider my hometown. Sure, Dallas may be in my ancestral lineage but it’s Houston that makes my heart explode.
For some reason, however, as much as I adore Houston I feel that it doesn’t get the respect and love that it deserves. My friends at the Houston Press and the Chronicle , as well as a host of Houston-based food and chef bloggers, do an excellent job of sharing the bounty of this diverse city with the wide world. But I wanted to say a few things as well, so here are five reasons why I love Houston and why you should, too.
Gracious hospitality: When I mentioned on Twitter my plans to come to Houston, in less then five minutes my email box was chock full of invitations from people I had only conversed with online but had never met in person. I was floored. As I was coming home for Christmas, most of my time was occupied with family, but I was able to accept a couple of these generous offers to make new friends.
I had corresponded with Andrea Lazar and Monica Pope about eating at their restaurant T’afia, so the first night I was home Mom and I drove into the city from the suburbs for a night on the town. It was well worth the trip as we were served an exquisite meal comprised of in-season, local ingredients—we were blown away by how creative Monica was with root vegetables and citrus, not to mention the pairing of goat cheese with a beet brownie. But what made this meal extra special was Monica’s attention to us and every other diner—it made fine dining as comfortable as eating at home.
I also had the opportunity to have dinner at the excellent Hugo’s with Anvil proprietor and sustainable rancher Morgan F. Weber and his lovely wife Stacey, which we followed with a dessert tasting by genius pastry chef Plinio Sandalio of Textile. Because we’re all Texans, Plinio chose our great state as the theme of the tasting, with treats such as corny dogs with mustard ice cream, apple and cheddar hot pockets and Texas toast pain perdu with bacon ice cream, among other mind-blowingly brilliant sweets. And while the desserts made me happy, what I’ll remember most about the evening was the warmth that comes from good conversation and generosity of spirit. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay in town longer to meet more Houstonians.
Canino Market: Whenever I go home, a trip to Fiesta is a must with its ample supply of Mexican groceries and the vendors outside selling Mexican corn on the cob and bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs. But this trip I also trekked over to the Canino Market for the first time and I fell in love with this Mexican fresh-ingredient heaven. When you first enter, the space is airy and open but the produce isn’t very exciting. Don't worry, keep going and you'll soon find yourself in the outside back area where all the fun stuff lives. Stacked tall are a wide array of chiles—both dried and fresh—baby tomatillos the size of raspberries, cactus pads, hibiscus flowers, dried homily and mole pastes, to name just a few of the things I saw for sale. It’s also a great place to practice your Spanish. And if you love fresh Mexican pastries, head across the street to El Bolillo Bakery, where they sell the namesake bread as well as a huge selection of conchas, empanadas, bizcochos and other pan dulces.
Sweetbread tacos: Los Angeles may have that Korean taco truck and Portland may have a whole downtown block dedicated to street food, but neither one of those towns has what Houston has: a taco truck that sells sweetbread tacos. Unless you live on a ranch, your encounter with sweetbreads is usually in a rarefied environment such as a multi-star restaurant. So when several people told me I needed to check out the Taqueria Tacambaro cart in back of the Canino Market on Airline, I was expecting an upscale operation. Nope, Taqueria Tacambaro is just your regular taco truck, clean and white with salsas on the counter and a menu painted on the side. I walked up and ordered the mollejas (which is how you say sweetbread in Spanish). The woman working the griddle scooped a generous portion of the meat onto two corn tortillas and handed me my plate. Before drenching the taco in the available red and green salsas, I first lifted a piece of the meat and popped it into my mouth to see how it tasted unadorned. Crisp bits from the grill coated the silky meat and its flavor was creamy with a slight hint of earthiness. These mollejas were fine, if not among the finest I’d ever eaten. And you can only find them in Houston.
Jarro Cafe’s neon salsa: I had been warned that this neon-green salsa would rip apart my mouth. But what completely surprised me was the sheer inorganic nature of the color, which reminded me more of car paint than chile peppers. (Though I shouldn’t have been that surprised considering its name.) I hesitated before taking a dip, but after one bite I was sold. It was sassy and good. And not even all that hot. So now my mission is to recreate this salsa at home.
Amalia’s enchiladas verdes: I know I’ve said this before, but these are the best enchiladas verdes I’ve ever had. Juicy and crisp carnitas are stuffed into fresh corn tortillas, smothered in a tomatillo sauce and topped with avocado slices and onions. On the side is a pile of Mexican rice fragrant with cumin and chicken stock and a pool of refried beans rich with lard. Add a basket of homemade flour tortillas, thin, crisp chips and an endless bowl of green sauce and I know that I’m home. Mom tried to pull a fast one on me, asking me when I got off the plane if I'd prefer to go to her new favorite Tex-Mex joint instead. But just as I was about to agree she let it slip that her new joint had no green sauce. No green sauce? What was she thinking? And even though I ate well throughout my trip, I have to say that nothing compared to this plate of enchiladas. Why? They let me know I was home.
I realize this is just a small slice of why I love Houston; I could write for days. But I’m curious, what do you love about Houston? Let’s give this world-class town the respect it’s due!