Recently, Marco Torres, a photographer for the Houston Press, announced that he was going to attempt to go a month without eating Mexican food.  We'd rather not even think about this, because Houston is home to some of the country's best Mexican food, and it makes up a regular part of our diet.  Folks in other parts of the nation aren't so lucky, having to make do with the offerings of national chains such as Taco Bell.

We'd been hearing good things about Texas Tamale Company, a Houston-based group that will make and send fresh tamales straight to your door, so we were excited when we were contacted by representatives of the company who generously dropped off a cooler full of their offerings for us to sample.  Is this the Mexican food solution for folks stuck far from Texas?  We were looking forward to finding out.
Our care package arrived before lunchtime, so the first order of business was to sample the breakfast tacos that they had included in our sampler.
Breakfast Tacos from Texas Tamale Co.
Included were a variety of tacos: Egg and potato, egg and chorizo, egg and ham, and our favorite, the egg and bacon.  The generous portion of scrambled egg and smoky thick cut bacon chunks was cradled on a fluffy, slightly chewy homemade tortilla - a tortilla we really like.  We enjoyed the breakfast tacos, and within a few minutes all that remained were the foil wrappers in which they arrived.
Later it was time to sample the tamales.  We heated up samples of their beef, chicken and the unusual spinach tamales, and plated them with the refried beans and spanish rice that TTC had included in our care package.
Tamales from Texas Tamale Co.
We started with the chicken tamale, which was very mild.  The chicken flavor was present, but unfortunately so were a few quarter-sized chicken bones.  Even without the bones these were our least-favorite tamales.
Next up were the beef tamales.  The fat content of the beef created a rich, smooth texture, offsetting the coarseness of the masa, and generating the characteristic sheen seen on fresh tamales when you remove them from the husks.  These tamales had a bit more bite, but it was more savory and spicy as opposed to any actual heat.  Those who wish a more caliente experience could certainly add some salsa or hot sauce, but we found these tamales to be very good.
Our favorites were a big surprise.  We'd never heard of spinach tamales before, but when we bit into one we were hooked.  Dense, herbal notes that really didn't scream spinach was our first take, and the counterpoint of this rich flavor and a light texture made this a delightful change from an ordinary tamale.  We'd order these again in a heartbeat.
According to the company, all these tamales are gluten-free.
Texas Tamale Company also offers their own special beef and pork sausage, chili, queso, and a variety of salsas, jellies, and mixers that can be delivered right alongside their homemade tamales.  This would make a great holiday gift for anyone unfortunate enough to be away from Texas for the holidays.
For those in Houston, "The Mexican Deli" is on Fountainview near the Galleria, serving tamales, fajitas, tacos, and a variety of other Mexican favorites.  Stop by for lunch, and you can take gift packs home with you.
Texas Tamale Company | 3340 Fountainview | Houston Texas 77057 | 800-T-TAMALE

AUSTIN — Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and the Texas Department of Agriculture are asking chefs and restaurant owners who buy and serve local ingredients to bring Texas to the table during the fourth annual GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up, presented by Farm Credit.

During the statewide dine-out week, July 25-31, GO TEXAN member restaurants are offering special Texas menu items or a Texas food and wine pairing. Restaurants also are encouraged to donate part of their proceeds to local food banks and will receive a special menu feature on the Round-Up website for doing so.

“Our farmers, ranchers, winemakers and fishermen make it easy for chefs to serve fresh Texas fare,” Commissioner Staples said. “The GO TEXAN Restaurant Round-Up celebrates that connection while Texans enjoy local products and support local food banks. Chefs can sign up today to be part of one of the nation’s largest statewide dine-out weeks as we encourage patrons to ‘Go Out. Go Eat. GO TEXAN.’”

GO TEXAN is providing posters, save-the-date cards and other marketing materials to participating restaurants to help inform consumers of this opportunity to enjoy the best of Texas. Establishments serving at least three Texas wines may also receive GO TEXAN wine glasses while supplies last.

Hundreds of Texas restaurants across the state are participating in this year’s Round-Up, including Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak House in Longview, Southwest Bistro at the Hyatt Regency Austin, Haven in Houston, Calesa in Harlingen, Canary by Gorji in Dallas and Glazed Honey Ham Co. in Lubbock.

“I’m excited to show our local communities that we care about serving fresh local food and authentic Texas wines,” said Jim Baron, owner of Blue Mesa Grill and TNT / Tacos and Tequila in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. “Our customers, more and more, are interested in where their food comes from and appreciate fresh products from local farms and vendors. This is a great opportunity for Texas restaurants to partner with local food producers and give to local food banks.”

Source: Texas Dep't of Agriculture

Funnel Cake is the most popular food at the rodeo.
For the past three years, the best of the various foods offered at the Houston Livestock Show are honored with the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards.  Contrary to popular belief, rodeo food isn't just funnel cakes and BBQ, although you'll find plenty of examples of both.
Here are 2011's winners:

Best Breakfast Food:
1st: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ Big Stone Breakfast Sandwich
2nd: Yoakum Packing Company’s Bacon Blast
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s grilled breakfast burrito

Best Taco/Burrito:
1st Freebirds World Burrito’s carnitas burrito
2nd Tad’s Bodacious Burrito’s garlic chicken burrito
3rd Texas Pride Grill’s fajita taco

Best Seafood:
1st Berryhill Baja Grill’s crispy shrimp taco
2nd Sudie’s Catfish House’s duo of fried shrimp and oysters

Best Baked Potato:
1st: Harlon’s Bar-B-Que’s super baked potato
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork super potato
3rd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Just-Do-It Baked Potato

Best Burger:
1st: Holmes Smokehouse’s angus, bacon, cheese mushroom burger
2nd: Paradise Burger’s ½ lb bacon cheeseburger
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s cheesy burger bites

Best Food on a Stick:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate covered bananas and strawberries
2nd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s jalapeno & cheese sausage on a stick
3rd: Burton Sausage’s Rodeo K-bob

Best BBQ:
1st: Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ’s pork spare ribs (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Ranch House Pork Barn’s pulled pork bbq sandwich
3rd: Ranch House Burger Barn’s bar-b-que pork ribs

Best Fried Food:
1st: Sweet Cheeks’ deep fried moon pie (RCS Carnival Midway)
2nd: Bear Mountain Bison’s Buffalo chips with The Works
3rd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Tornado Potato Fries smothered and covered

Favorite Food:
1st: Granny’s Cheesecake & More’s chocolate dipped cheesecake
2nd: Sill’s Funnel Cake Hause’s funnel cake
3rd: Saltgrass Steakhouse’s ribs and chicken platter

Most Creative:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s fried Snickers
2nd: Texas Sized Pizza by the Slice’s Juicy Lucy Cheeseburger
3rd: Bum’s Blue Ribbon Grill’s pulled pork sundae

Best Dessert:
1st: Sills Funnel Cake Hause’s banana split funnel cake
2nd: Stubby’s Cinnamon Rolls’ cinnamon roll with “The Works”
3rd: Cobbler Café’s pecan cobbler with soft serve vanilla ice cream

Best New Flavor:
1st: Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Grub chicken, sausage and shrimp jambalaya
2nd: Crown Cinnamon Rolls’ Lava Flow Smoothie
3rd: Paradise Burger’s fried brownie bites

Best Gourmet:
1st: DGZ Chocolates & Fudge’s Toffarazzi (toffee)
2nd: The Caramel Candy Co.’s pecan caramel
3rd: Kettle Korn of Texas’s ribeye sandwich

(via Delicious Mischief)

We have no beef about being fans of Chick-fil-a.  Their chicken sandwiches set the standard in the fast food arena, and while some try to duplicate them, no one manages to pull it off.  (I'm looking at you, McDonald's Southern Chicken Sandwich.)

But even more than the food, the service at our local Chick-fil-a totally outclasses the competition.  We frequently find mistakes in our order at Taco Bell and McDonalds, but can't remember one at Chick-fil-a.

To give you an idea just how on the ball the service folks are, all you have to do is to look at the condiment bar.


The Woodlands area is becoming a respectable culinary destination, but we're often frustrated by the lack of independent restaurants in the Woodlands proper.  Bucking this trend is Caffe di Fiore, a small storefront cafe located at the far West end of Woodlands Parkway, and area that is badly in need of interesting places to eat.

We parked, and entered the establishment, and were seated promptly.  Our visit was during a World Cup match, and the restaurant was filled with patrons dining while watching the match on the flat panel TVs.  We're not huge fans of soccer, but we got caught up in the excitement; the enthusiasm of the crowd was infectious.

We browsed the menu, and were surprised and pleased by the eclectic offerings.  Part Italian, part Mediterranean, part Mexican, and part new-age Californian, the menu was filled with the sort of light dishes that seemed well suited for a hot Texas summer afternoon.
Scanning down the list, my eyes were drawn to one of my all-time favorite Mexican dishes: Tacos al pastor.  It's rare to find this dish outside of taquerias and taco trucks, so it was an easy decision for me.  (It was also an easy decision to avoid ordering it "Gringo style", with cheese added.)
What arrived was a plate lined with five smallish tacos filled with lushly marinated grilled pork.  The coarsely chopped onion and cilantro were very fresh and served on the side, allowing me to add just the right amount.  The juicy lime slices were appreciated as always, and there was a mysterious green sauce as well.  Avocado?  Not even close - a quick taste revealed a muy caliente green chili sauce, which handily overpowered the more delicate flavors of the marinated pork.  After sparingly applying the sauce to one taco, we concluded that the sauce was best left in its dish.

The pork was nicely marinated and moist, but not too juicy.  These are some of the best tacos al pastor we've had, and certainly the best we've found in the Woodlands area.  They're nearly up to our gold standard, Guero's in Austin.
The second dish we sampled was a ham and cheese wrap, served with a light summer salad.  The wrap that came out looked gigantic, but it turned out that the wrap was almost entirely filled with lettuce; there was one skimpy slice of ham, and a lonely slice of unidentifiable cheese thrown into the mix.  If you're on a diet or you really love lettuce, this may be a great wrap for you, but we were a bit underwhelmed.
As with most restaurants in the Woodlands proper, prices are slightly high, but not objectionably so.
All in all, we like the concept at Caffe di Fiore, and if they will be a bit less strict in rationing the non-vegetable fillings for the wraps, we think they've got a winning concept.

Caffe di Fiore - 10110 Woodlands Parkway - 281-298-1228 -

Caffe Di Fiore on Urbanspoon

Perhaps the best thing a foodie can do is to discover a new restaurant, and explore its menu. But how many can we sample each week? The short answer - fewer than we'd like.

The Houston Press has a solution - its Menu of Menus Extravaganza. This annual event (now going on its 8th year) showcases over thirty restaurants, and also features wine, beer, and liquor tastings.

Participating restaurants include Laurenzo’s, Fins Seafood, Sushi & Grill, Tinto’s Spanish Restaurant & Wine Bar, Italiano’s Restaurant, Textile, Kahn’s Deli, Ooh La La Dessert Bakery, Bodegas, Taco Shop, Rice Thai Kitchen, Ritter’s Frozen Custard, Harry’s Restaurant, Shipley Do-Nuts, Auntie Chang’s Dumpling House, Kaneyama Japanese, Tampico Seafood & Cocina Mexicana, Thai Bistro Restaurant, Lucky’s Pub, Cork Soakers, The Teahouse Tapioca & Tea, My Dee Dee’s Pie Shoppe & Deli, tasti D-Lite, Alamo Drafthouse Theater, Sushi King, Anothai Cuisine, Last Concert Café, Nelore Churrascaria, Danton’s Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen, Hearsay Gastro Lounge, Rudyard’s Pub, Two Saints Restaurant, Tila’s Restaurante & Bar, Georgia’s Farm to Market, Mumbai Spice, Dosey Doe Coffee House, Fruituzy, Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill, Simply Splendid, Kim Son, Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine and House of Blues.

As you'd expect, there will be entertainment. It turns out that it's one of our favorite local bands, Faye Robinson & The Mid City Players. We've seen 'em several times at Sammy's, and they put on a wonderful show, always to a packed house.

Where? West Ave, at 2920 Kirby.

The event is Tuesday, April 13th, 2010, from 7pm to 10pm for general admission guests. VIPs get in an hour earlier.

UPDATE: Presale tickets are no longer available. You've got to buy 'em at the door now. I hope our readers were able to get in on the great deals.

Get your tickets direct from the Houston Press. All proceeds benefit Discovery Green and The Center for Hearing and Speech.

HOT: H-Town Chow Down readers can receive a discount of $10 on general admission tickets by using the promo code friendsandfamily, or a $15 discount on VIP tickets (while they last) with promo code VIPCHEAP.

The event is sponsored by LikeMe.Net, Momentum Audi, Momentum Volkswagen, Georgia’s Farm to Market, West Ave, Flowers by Nino, Admiral Linen, Nauset Concepts and 104.1 KRBE.

See y'all there!

Russell Ybarra, the founder and owner of Gringo's, the successful local group of Tex-Mex restaurants, has opened his new fast casual concept. Bullritos. The menu features custom-made burritos, bowls, and tacos. Margaritas and beer are available as well.

The first store is located in LaPorte, a bit off the beaten path for many Houston foodies, but our sources say it's worth a visit. More locations in the Houston area are planned.

Our friends at Men's Health offer suggestions of healthier fast food choices for those who have to eat on the go.

Topping their list was a favorite of ours, Chick-fil-A. Surprisingly, almost all items on the Chick-fil-A menu are less than 500 calories. (Avoid the large cole slaw; it's the bad guy on the menu, with 600 calories.)

The next choice is an obvious one: Subway, offering a half-dozen sandwiches under 300 calories.

Other recommended spots include Jamba Juice, Au Bon Pain, Boston Market, Cici's Pizza, and surprisingly McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Wendy's.

America's 10 Best Fast-Food Restaurants on MSN Health and Fitness

Houston is a great city for Mexican food. From the humble taco truck to elegant fine dining establishments, Houston has the entire spectrum of Mexican food experiences covered. And everyone has their favorites.

We've been hearing buzz about a little place way out Westheimer, Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. So we made the trek out to see what all the fuss is about.

Sylvia's has an unassuming strip center location, in an older strip center well beyond the Beltway. But don't be fooled by the modest exterior; open the door and you're transported to the border, where the nights are hot and the food is hotter.

Sylvia Casares is the name behind Sylvia's, and she was recognized as one of the top Latino chefs working in the United States by the Spanish-language magazine Siempre Mujer. She's brought the food from her native Lower Rio Grande Valley to Houston, and created dishes that span Anglo and Mexican culture. Those who view Tex-Mex cuisine as some sort of inferior stepchild to other Mexican cuisines need only to sample Sylvia's cooking to have the attitudes adjusted.

As with most Mexican establishments, you start with chips and salsa. Sylvia's chips are fresh and warm, and the salsa is a thin, housemade and savory. We had to remind ourselves to save room for the enchiladas.

As one would guess from the name, Sylvia's specialty is enchiladas, and there is a wide range to choose from -- no less than 18 different styles.

Sylvia helpfully offers two different sampler platters, each with four different petite enchiladas. For this first visit, we selected her North of the Border sampler.

First we sampled the Refugio - a basic cheese enchilada made with blended cheddar cheeses and topped with chili gravy. It was a good enchilada; smooth and spicy with a moderate amount of heat from the gravy.

Next came the Lubbock - a ground beef enchilada with Sylvia's Signature Gravy, a meatier take on regular chili gravy. Carnivores will love this enchilada; there is plenty of beef both inside and out, and the seasonings are masterfully balanced to provide heat that does not overpower.

Cheese enchiladas and beef enchiladas are Tex-Mex staples. After this things get creative.

We dove into the Laguna Madre - fresh crab enchiladas topped with a creamy seafood sauce. This delicious enchilada was stuffed with plenty of juicy lump crab meat, and the creamy sauce had a bit of a kick to it. If you're a seafood lover, this enchilada is one you can't miss.

Finally came the most unusual enchilada - the Sarita. A vegetarian enchilada filled with a combination of calabacita (summer squash) corn, and mild cheese, topped with a light cream sauce. The fresh flavor of the vegetables combined with the rich, savory cream sauce and the result was one of the best enchiladas we can remember tasting.

Sylvia's was busy on the night we visited, but service was professional, prompt and friendly. Prices are a touch higher than one might expect for Tex-Mex dishes, but we feel that the quality more than makes up for the extra $2-3 per plate.

All in all, we think that Sylvia's is one of Houston's best Mexican restaurants, and if you've not visited, you're missing out on a meal that any lover of Mexican food will enjoy.

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen: 12637 Westheimer Road, Houston, 77077, 281-679-8300

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