Waiting in Line

Recently, several new restaurants have cropped up that feature counter service - ordering at the counter, instead of having a server take your order. While this style of service has been a hallmark of fast food for years, it's now creeping into more upscale restaurants.

Is this a bad thing?

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Watch as Chef David Guerrero prepares his superb ceviche mixto.

One of my first great restaurant experiences was a trip to the legendary San Jacinto Inn.  Located in the shadow of the Battleship Texas, it was an all-you-can-eat extravaganza.  The building we visited was built in 1927, and sadly closed its doors in 1987.

This video fondly recalls the restaurant, the staff, and the food.  I'll never forget those amazing biscuits.

If you have trouble identifying a specific pasta, our friends at CharmingItaly.com have a handy guide that will help identify it for you. (You can click on the image to zoom in)
What kind of pasta is on my plate?
What kind of pasta is on your plate? by Charming Italy

OK, I feel better.  It's not just me.

Hubbell & Hudson's Bleu Cheese Burger

A new report released by food industry consultants Technomic revealed that Americans are eating more burgers, and better ones.  Nearly half of the Americans surveyed now eat burgers at least once a week.

(I think that they're all in line at Hubcap Grill when I stop by.)  That's up from 38% in 2009.

Another encouraging trend - consumers are willing to spend more for better burgers.  Taste and convenience were ranked ahead of price when choosing which burger to enjoy.  This bodes well for Houston's wide variety of better burger joints, from burger boutiques like Burger Guys to local success story / superlative burger chain Beck's Prime.

A fact that surprises some but doesn't surprise us: 99% of Americans surveyed say that they eat some kind of burger, even if only occasionally.

Source: Huffington Post.

Summer is in full swing, and for many of us that means it's time to get outside and cook some meat.  There's nothing more American than standing outside by the fire, breathing in the aroma and anticipating a delicious meal.

We're fans of grilled meat, but we're even bigger fans of real BBQ.  And yes, there is a difference, as any pitmaster will tell you.  Grilling is done fast, with the meat directly over a high heat source.  Bar-b-cuing is done slowly, with the fire away from the meat, and the meat spending quality time in a relatively low-heat, smoky atmosphere, slowly cooking and absorbing the flavor from the smoke.

Meat like this comes from a BBQ smoker, not a grill

(To us, grilling is like a good song, but real smoked BBQ is like a symphony.  The great smokehouses of Texas become legendary, with people driving hundreds of miles and waiting in long lines to sample their delicacies.)

So you want to BBQ at home.  The first step is to determine what you want to cook.  We think the place to start is with beef brisket, and we're fond of the selection at HEB.

You also need the right equipment.  You need a real smoker, not just a regular grill.  A quick perusal of the local big-box retailers (Lowe's, Home Depot, and Walmart) turned up plenty of outdoor grills but not a single BBQ smoker.  So we did what any smart food geek would do - we asked around, and everyone suggested that we search online.

We ran across a great source for BBQ equipment (and regular grills, too.)  Called csgrills.com, they're a one-stop shop for grills, BBQ smokers, and accessories.  Their prices are very competitive.  And for novices, they've got some handy guides including this one telling how to choose the right smoker.

Browsing the website, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  They have a vast selection of grills and smokers at a wide variety of price points.  They offer free shipping, too.

And if you're looking for a great gift for your favorite Houston food blogger, these guys can help.

From all of us at H-Town Chow Down, we'd like to wish all of our readers a happy and safe Independence Day.  A special thanks goes out to everyone in our armed forces, both at home and abroad, who have made tremendous sacrifices to keep our nation free and safe.

Have fun out there!

Conventional wisdom tells us that eating too much saturated fat is bad for cardiovascular health.  Millions of people have given up the joys of eating delicious, flavorful food in favor of something that's considered to be more "heart healthy".

But now, a breakthrough meta-study turns this conventional wisdom on its ear.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute have concluded a meta analysis of twenty-one different studies.  Ranging from five to 23 years, these studies followed over 340,000 subjects, and analyzed their dietary habits, incidence of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

The meta analysis of these epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease, inclusive of stroke.
Fellow burger lovers, rejoice.

The full report is available online from PubMed.  (link)

When we visited Jax Burgers shortly after they opened last summer, we enjoyed the restaurant and its signature burger, but felt that it just missed the mark. The hamburger patty was a bit bland and unseasoned.  But we generally liked the place, and on a sunny late June afternoon we decided to visit again.

The restaurant was just as we remembered it - sparklingly clean and full of the aroma of grilled beef.  The Jax logo was prominently displayed all over the restaurant, and two flat-screen TVs were displaying a couple of different sporting events.

It was time to check and see how the burger had fared after Jax settled in.  We ordered at the counter, and our burger promptly arrived.  We bit in, and had a surprise...

A very pleasant surprise.

We're happy to report that the previous problem we had with the burger has been addressed, and addressed well.  The beef patty is still a half-pound of never frozen beef, but it's now sporting a lively seasoning of black pepper and just the right amount of salt.  The bite of the pepper is front and center, and it plays a nice counterpoint to the rich flavor of the high fat content beef.  There's a new swagger, and a bold, beefy flavor that is worthy of the lovingly hand-formed patty.  The difference is like night and day.

The patty was griddled to a nice medium - hints of pink were still present in the center.  The thickish slice of good quality American cheese was nicely melted, and the eggy bun also spent some quality time on the flat top, and the result was a gloriously oozy burger.  Veggies were fresh, but not terribly crisp.

Interestingly, the burger arrived upside-down - something we can't recall ever seeing before.

We're glad to find that the staff at Jax have improved this burger, and we welcome Jax into the upper echelon of Houston burger joints.

Keep up the good work, guys!

JAX Burgers, Fries, & Shakes on Urbanspoon

by Chuck Pena
Houston is doing pretty well in what we all seem to be
calling "this economy." However, even the best-run luxury lifestyle
establishments, particularly those in fitness, food, and furniture, have
suffered recent reductions-in-force or closures, even in the upscale Galleria
and in the trendy, aggressively marketed and re-gentrified Houston Heights.
Given that status quo, one might question the wisdom of
Whole Foods opening their brand of a high-end, self-described "ultimate"
shopping experience, located between Montrose and the Heights at this particular time. The land in Houston
hasn't really suffered, so it can't be an opportunity that they can't refuse on
the lot.
Also, Houston and surrounding areas already offer three Whole Foods, Central Market,
Hubble and Hudson, a  handful of Rice
Epicureans, and HEB's latest crown jewel, Buffalo Market. All of these
groceries/restaurants play in the epicurean/green/organic market  space.
I arrived at the preview tour truly curious about why they
were here, and why right now. Years ago, I'd been a customer of Whole Foods in
Austin, both at the North Lamar location and at Westgate, and found them to be
largely venues for a slacker/yuppie mix of posers with attitudes about what
makes a good kiwi or pomegranate.  I
guess that no matter how right I was at that time, what I neglected to register
that they did, indeed, have kiwis and pomegranates, fresh ones.
As a Texan, I'm obliged to be man enough to reconsider my
opinions given new data, and surely enough, as the tour progressed, I had no
choice but to readjust those old stereotypes of Whole Foods. This place, or at
least our great town's latest incarnation of it, is a lot more than a
"luxury shopping experience"—that is, a place that simply stocks the
better or rarer items. Whole Foods represents  a comprehensive commitment to genuinely
implement "green" in every aspect of their business.
The green commitment includes not only the meat and produce,
but every packaged item, every bulk item, every fresh-made item, every prep
facility, and every sourcing practice. It also includes the architecture of the
building and even the physical plant, right down to the water reclamation
subsystem that provides the water for drinking, washing, cooling (even the meat
lockers) and landscaping.
Water reclamation system at Whole Foods
Local growers are
used whenever available, and items are offered strictly when they are
available, on a seasonal basis. Local sourcing and seasonal offering
significantly reduces the business' carbon footprint in trucking transit and
long-term storage.
Of course, the name Whole Foods pervades the merchandizing
philosophy. This is the only place I know of that I could buy anything from a
box of cookies to a fresh-made deli sandwich from one of the many fresh-food
counters and not have to worry about consuming one gram of color additives, trans-fatty
acids, artificial sweetener, endangered animal, unsustainably-farmed grain,
stripped grain, or bleached grain.
What makes it better, all this tasty-yet-guilt-free bounty is
offered  in a beautiful, bright,
comfortable facility with an near-zero carbon footprint. Downside: no
double-stuff Oreos...
That's when you realize that this is not a business playing in the luxury grocery space at all, but indeed have invented their own product: they're not selling you truffled spinach pesto from Sicily; they're selling you a sustainable lifestyle—or at least as much of the part of one as they can that relates to food.
So I recommend that your first stop be the coffee stand.
Similar in size to a Starbucks in other grocers, this is a separate business,
similar to how Panera bread shares space with Schlotzky's in Austin. The
Starbuck's-killing features here are the local roaster, and the availability of
some of the rarest coffees in the world. Now, these top-shelf brews are not
cheap, but they are appropriate and creative 21st-centruy alternatives to
bringing a bottle of wine to every holiday. Be forewarned however; the
"Dom Perignon" of coffees can run you $75/lb of roasted beans.
Beyond the coffee stand is the front porch, which blends in
with the coffee shop seating. Both areas are equipped with wi-fi and feature
works by local artists. I didn't get any good shots of the art, sorry. One of
the more interesting interactive pieces is the "art vending" machine:
 a converted 1960s cigarette machine that
makes original art placards, suitable for a coaster, for $5 apiece. It's all
similarly-appealing, non-threatening -but-still-occasionally-provoking, urban
Which, by the way, is a great description of the
freshly-prepared food area; I'm loathe to call it a "food court"
simply because of the images that that phrase recalls to me. The Whole Foods
version as the deli, Italian, pizzas, bistro, olive bar, extreme dry-rub
barbecue with ready-to-go, all-organic briskets, and then the perfunctory salad
bar and premade cold fare. This area is so huge you might even be able to
navigate your cart through on a Sunday, which believe me, is going to be
We've covered a lot, but several major points of interest

Peanut butter grinding.  This is a station where you can grind and jar
your own peanut, almond, or cashew butter.
Bulk area includes barbecue rubs and seasonings,
including a tethering system that discourages "scooper-sharing" from
container-to-container, a big pet-peeve of mine.
 Wine bar, conveniently located right by the
cheese counter, that opens at 8am, which, oh, BTW, offers 24 beer taps. I'm
thinkin', if you take advantage of this amenity, you may want to bring a designated
driver AND shopper.

Finally, I must mention the attitude of the Whole Foods team
associates. Any specialist in any area is always happy to tell you about how
they achieve their quality and how they're doing things differently, and their
sense of ownership and pride is obvious. This point perhaps illustrates the
difference in the Whole Foods experience that I realized that day: Everyone,
every facility, every practice, spoke with one voice, one message—and that is
the hallmark of the most successful ventures in the world.
Of course, this store shall attract its share of tiresome,
iPad-addicted, Croc-clad hipster clones, but if you're someone who takes your
green commitment beyond the purchase of a Prius, beyond whining on political
blogs, into actual practices in your life, then this is your store. You are why
Whole Foods is expanding; you are the niche I didn't see before.
I thought we may have had too many Whole Foods, but now,
maybe we don't have enough. They're not a player in the luxury grocery space at
all: their product is a slice of a relevant, green lifestyle, from the food
itself (no additives, organic) to how they get it there (local, seasonal
growers) to how they offer it (green outlet architecture and engineering).
Get this as well—if you do drive a Nissan Leaf or other electric vehicle, you can charge it up right outside by the rainwater reclamation tank.
I gotta say, it's truly impressive to see a corporation that
doesn't just talk the talk.
Best of luck, Whole Foods.  Welcome to the neighborhood.
Copyright 2023 Nurick + Associates