HEB is the type of organization that we love. Founded in Kerrville, Texas, the chain of supermarkets brings a wonderful mix of products to neighborhoods all over Texas.
We won’t hide the fact that we’re unabashed HEB fans, and it’s the grocery store we visit first for all of our needs. (Truth be told, we feel a little dirty every time we walk into a Kroger or Randall’s… like we’re cheating on our favorite.) We’ve had great success with products that HEB puts their name on, since almost all products branded HEB are not only high value but also very high quality. Clearly this is an organization that stands behind what it sells.
We recently got word that the new HEB on 1488 in Magnolia had something interesting: An honest-to goodness BBQ joint inside the store.
Located right by the main entrance to the store, you can’t miss the Texas-themed facade or the smell of smoked meat. (These HEB guys are pretty darned smart.)
Right off the bat, we’re told that the beef used in HEB BBQ is 100% natural. “Natural” is a buzzword that doesn’t have an official meaning, so we’re glad HEB defined their take on it: No added hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.
We place our order with the friendly, efficient staff member, and search out a spot to devour our BBQ.
After ordering, we are directed to a side room that was easy to overlook at first. It’s bright, spacious, and comfortable. We appreciate the honesty of the space; it’s not trying to be a fake City Market in Small Town, Texas.
Plenty of seating is arranged throughout the room, and the wall graphics pull together this modern/rustic look that is comfortable and inviting.
We started with a quarter-pound chopped brisket sandwich. The brisket was coarsely chopped and shredded, and moistened with a tangy-sweet BBQ sauce. The flavor was unusual, in a good way; a bit sweet, a touch of tangy sourness, and noticeable peppery finish.
The chopped beef sandwich made a good first impression on us. It’s above-average BBQ; nicely tender and filled with unique flavor from the sauce; a great start to our BBQ lunch. But it was time to move on to the next course.
Next up was the beautifully arranged, loaded baked potato. The warm potato was topped with butter, sour cream, pre shredded mild cheddar (slightly dried out) and freshly cut chives, then finished with chunks of chopped turkey.
The turkey was tender, juicy, and gently smoked. It was better than average, but would have benefitted from a touch more perfume from the smoking wood.
The potato, however, needed some serious work. It arrived only slightly warm and undercooked; the butter wasn’t melted. When we alerted the manager, he quickly replaced it… with another slightly warm, undercooked potato. The manager on duty told us that he’d checked the internal temperature himself, and it was correct to HEB’s 140 degree specification. The manager (a very nice guy who was clearly interested in our feedback) even showed me a photograph of the inserted thermometer showing 140-145.
But the potato was undercooked.
I’d never researched this before, but upon returning to my desk, five minutes with Google revealed that an internal temperature of 210 degrees is considered ideal for baking potatoes (other sources confirmed this). Apparently HEB needs to update its specifications unless it wants to serve an undercooked potato. It is apparent that their kitchen isn’t staffed with experienced restaurant cooks; I can’t imagine that a professional cook wouldn’t know how to properly bake a potato.
Fortunately, this should be an easy fix.
As any Texan will tell you, the standard test for Texas BBQ is the brisket… preferably the fatty (or moist) brisket. Lean brisket can be good, but there’s flavor in the fat, and the fatty end is the part most BBQ connoisseurs crave.
Pit masters experiment for years to learn to select the perfect brisket, concoct the ideal rub, and perfect the smoking technique that brings the most out of each individual brisket.
So how does HEB, who’s new to this game, do? Let’s find out. At the counter HEB sets a pretty high bar: At $18.50 per pound, HEB's brisket is priced higher than Corkscrew BBQ, our benchmark for great brisket.
The brisket arrived thickly sliced, with a nice pink 3/8” smoke ring. Curiously, the smoke ring was only on one side of the brisket. The bark was dark, thin, and soft… and again, only on one side of the brisket.
As you can see, the fat wasn’t particularly well-rendered, leaving significant zones of creamy white fat intact in the midst of the beef.
Cutting into the brisket revealed an inconsistency of texture. Some regions were beautifully tender and soft; others were dense and far too firm, requiring a saw-like technique with the supplied plastic knife.
Tasting the brisket revealed a uniformly mild flavor. Clearly this was high-quality brisket, but the flavor was more like roast beef than BBQ. The flavor of smoke was somewhere in there, but was so far back in the flavorway as to be lost in the more dominant beefy and fatty flavors. The bark lacked an assertive kick of pepper; it mostly contributed a needed bit of saltiness.
In summary, I think the brisket has potential, but the potential hasn’t been realized. A more fragrant mix of wood, a bit more time in the smoker, and improved technique to even out the cook across the brisket could result in a greatly improved product. Learning to create top-quality BBQ takes time and experience; even a top notch organization like HEB isn’t going to perfect this craft right out of the box. Hiring an experienced pit master to oversee the preparation, smoking, and slicing of the brisket seems like a prudent course of action.
HEB should be applauded for bringing a legitimate BBQ operation to its new Magnolia store. This early visit showed promise, but there is work to be done. Based on the food that came out, it appears that the hard-working staff has experience in the grocery business, not the restaurant business. Adding a couple of pros in the restaurant field would go a long way to taking HEB True Texas BBQ from promising to outstanding.
There are hundreds of Mexican restaurants on Houston’s north side. How does a humble writer determine which ones are worth visiting? You can try them all, but that takes an incredible amount of time, even if you love Tex-Mex like we do. You can check Yelp, but its reviews simply aren’t that accurate. You can read blog and print reviews, but what if it’s a new place?
I’ve pondered this for quite a while, and I came up with a good shortcut. I created the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and it’s grown to over 9,000 members, many of whom are incredibly knowledgeable about food. One of the most knowledgeable is my friend Bob Frasier. Bob is an incredible cook, and very well versed in numerous cuisines.
Recently Bob posted about a new Tex-Mex restaurant not far from the Woodlands, calling it “My new favorite Mexican spot in my neck of the woods”. Trusting Bob’s palate, I headed out to Rita’s Cantina, located north of Tomball on Hwy 249, near Hardin Store Road.
Located in a nondescript strip center, the outside of Rita’s could be confused for dozens of Mexican spots in the area. But stepping inside revealed a neat, clean interior, with thoughtful little touches. Clearly, the management cares about the customer’s experience, always a good sign.
But how’s the food? Looking across the spacious dining room, I found Bob and his lovely bride Heidi. Joining them for lunch, we surveyed the menu and made some choices. Bob assured us they were good ones. We believe in Bob. Will this trust be misplaced?
First to come out was the ceviche. The presentation was impressive: A hefty goblet filled with fish, shrimp, onion, and tomato, garnished with cilantro and topped with artfully arranged avocado slices.
The marinade used for the fish was a deliciously zingy citrus-based juice, combining with the fresh tangy onions to create a classic Peruvian-style ceviche… which happens to be my favorite. And this was an excellent example, flavorful, generously portioned, and beautifully presented.
As we were finishing the ceviche, the hot plates started arriving.
First out were the beef quesadillas, a standard dish that’s popular with adults and children alike. The formula at Rita’s included sliced skirt steak (as found in fajitas), and plenty of melty white cheese, sandwiched between two thin housemade flour tortillas.
Accoutrements were plentiful: A slathering of sour cream, some beautiful pico de gallo, and a scoop of Rita’s guacamole. The quality of the ingredients shone through on this dish, making it one of the more flavorful quesadillas we’d tried in quite a while.
Next up is a combo plate - in this case Combo #7. Consisting of a pork tamale, a chicken enchilada and a beef enchilada, we felt that it gave us a good overview of what Rita’s chef can do with various proteins.
As an aside, Tex-Mex is often difficult to present. It may be delicious, but on the plate it can be yellowish brown and not incredibly appetizing. The presentation here was different and appealing.
Bright colors made the first impression. Beautifully fresh tomato, diced expertly. A sprig of green cilantro, draped over the green and white arrangement of tomatillo sauce and crema that blanketed the chicken enchilada. This burst of color was flanked by the red Colorado-style chile gravy on the beef enchilada, and the more earthy, dark pork tamale.
Looks are wonderful, but tackling this appealing plate proved that the beauty wasn’t just skin deep. From the pork tamale to the chicken enchilada and finishing with the beef enchilada, all of the components were nicely seasoned, distinctly flavored, and were each excellent renditions of their respective dishes. Together they created a very satisfying whole, one we’d order again. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky.
After finishing the last tasty bite of Combo #7, Bob smiled and with a twinkle in his eye, said one word: Dessert.
Bob, you’re an evil, evil man. That’s one reason why we’re friends. A quick consultation with our knowledgeable server resulted in our order of their Cuatro Leches cake. We’d had Tres Leches from numerous establishments, but Rita’s wasn’t going to be satisfied with tres.
Again, the plating tempted our eyes before the fork touched the cake. A rich, saturated slab of cake was laid upon an artful arrangement of strawberries and blueberries, adrift in the four milk solution that had saturated the cake. Atop this was a crown of strawberries and freshly whipped heavy cream, drizzled with caramel and dusted with cinnamon.
And yes, it tasted better than it looked. No small feat.
To say we were impressed with Rita’s Cantina would be an understatement. To find a gem like this in the far northern reaches of Tomball is amazing. The restaurant can hold its own with any hotspot you care to name in the Houston area.
We confirmed two important rules: Great food can be found all over the Houston Area. And when Bob says to try a place, try it. Now.
Rita’s Cantina Mexican Kitchen | 32015 State Highway 249 | Pinehurst, TX 77362 | (346) 248-5097