The Woodlands has a reputation for chain restaurants. And while that reputation isn't totally deserved, it does have some merit. For every great independent out here, like Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Republic Grill, Pallotta's, or Fielding's, there are five restaurants owned and managed from afar.

So we were particularly excited to attend the recent Chingu Preview Popup, hosted by Chef Jay Stone. Jay is an incredibly talented chef, and we've been fans of his cooking ever since he convinced us that peanut butter and jalapeño jam make sense on a burger, at the late, lamented Wicked Whisk food truck.

The event is a preview for the Chingu restaurant concept that Stone has been developing to bring to the Woodlands area. It's being funded via Kickstarter, and I encourage all foodies to support this talented chef. And the pledges represent very good values; anything from $20 worth of food and a t-shirt for $20 to an entire catered meal for a large group.

For this event, Jay prepared several of his Korean-influenced American comfort food dishes that will appear at Chingu. First up was one that has become legendary around here: Korean fried chicken.

Served with sides of Korean vegetables (including a superb kimchi and excellent spicy housemade pickles) this chicken was perfectly prepared; moist, tender and encrusted with a mildly spicy, beautifully crispy breading. Everyone raved about the chicken; it was a real crowd pleaser.

Next up was another dish that we were anticipating with great interest; Jay's spicy short ribs.

Nicely balanced between beefy, tangy, slightly sweet, and moderately spicy, this was perhaps my favorite dish of the night.

Next up is the old Korean favorite, poutine. OK, poutine is Canadian, not Korean, but Jay puts a distinctively Eastern spin on this north-of-the-border cult favorite.

Poutine is rarely spicy, but this version is, and it adds a new dimension to the dish. Normally we don't think of poutine as an entree, but this one was hearty and filling.

Being a pop-up event at a venue without a liquor license, several enterprising foodies improvised. Growlers of craft beer were brought over from the new local favorite Hop Scholar, and the beer nerds present seemed very pleased with the pairing.

Other foodies brought bottles of wine, and very stylish disposable aperitif glasses. We are in the Woodlands, after all.

Want to check out this unique and delicious Korean-influenced comfort food? Right now, you can't. But if you support Jay Stone's Kickstarter project, you'll help him open up Chingu as a venue where this food can be devoured on a daily basis.

C'mon, foodies. You say you want more non-chain, chef-driven restaurants. It's time to put up, or shut up.

A few days ago my phone rang. Caller unknown. I answered. "Lake Conroe. I know a guy out there. He makes great hero. Like in the old neighborhood" the caller said, in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. Then he hung up. Could this lead be worth following up? 
I've always been a fan of what I think of as Houston-style po boy sandwiches. A long, slightly crusty baguette filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and some sort of spread. The iconic version was created by Antone's, the late, lamented Houston chain of imported food shops. But Antone's sold out a long time ago; the family-owned locations now a memory, and the remaining franchised stores a sad shadow of what the original locations used to be. Worthy competitors like Andros' are gone, too. And while I enjoy the Louisiana-style seafood or roast beef po boys, they're a totally different sandwich.
A sunny Saturday morning found us cruising out to Highway 105, in the convertible with the top down, in search of this elusive deli. Almost to Montgomery, across from the entrance to April Sound in a small strip center, we noticed a sign that resembled the Italian flag. A quick left turn brought us to the parking lot for Tony's Deli, a charming little delicatessen that looks like it might belong on a side street in Brooklyn.

Stepping inside, we were immediately impressed by the busy yet cozy feel of the deli. Items were piled up, fresh food was on the counter for sale, and meats and cheeses were proudly displayed in the refrigerated case.
Craving a traditional Italian po boy, we browsed the menu. Sandwiches are named after prominent Italian-Americans: Sinatra, Pacino, Deniro, Danza, and many others were in attendance. We zeroed in on the Stallone, featuring capocolla, salami, ham, provolone and house made pesto. After a quick wait, it appeared.
This sandwich is substantial. Approximately a foot long, and stuffed with generous portions of the meats, cheeses, and veggies selected, slathered with a schmear of tart pesto. Biting into it was like a quick trip to NYC; the bread was chewy but not tough, and the meats had a bright, fresh flavor. (We later learned that Tony's uses Dietz & Watson meats exclusively, a decision we applaud.)
This, my friends, is a taste of Brooklyn in Montgomery county. A New York City Italian-style po boy from a small shop west of Conroe near the lake. How is this possible?
The answer is Tony Nicoletta, the transplanted New Yorker who could be straight from central casting for a Sopranos episode. But Nicoletta's business dealings are far more aboveboard. Born in Brooklyn, this ex-Marine attended culinary school in Hyde Park, and has owned a number of restaurants in the New York area. His years of experience are obvious in the food he hand crafts; this isn't a sandwich thrown together by a teenaged "sandwich artist" - it is the work of a chef whose chosen palette is the Italian po boy.
Tony Nicoletta is the real deal, and his sandwiches are both authentic and outstanding. We've often bemoaned the lack of good food near Lake Conroe, but we're happy to report that our new favorite Italian sandwich shop is open for business. Think you're gonna find a better Italian po boy anywhere near here?

As Tony would say, "Fuggedaboutit."

Yes sir. We'll be back. Often. 
Tony's Deli | 16283 Texas 105 | Montgomery, Texas | 507-743-0535

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