Monday, April 09, 2007

Home sweet (and savory) home!

There’s that old cliché—you can never go home again—which is partly true because what you once knew as home inevitably will change. Of course, some things stay the same, but on my recent trip to Houston I was pleasantly struck by the merging of the familiar with the new.

When I arrived in Houston late on a Friday night, I was certain that since all the restaurants were closed (save for Whataburger and Taco Cabana), I would be going straight to bed. But my magnificent mother had stopped by one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Amalia’s, and ordered my usual dish, enchiladas verdes (carnitas stuffed into corn tortillas, drowning in tomatillo sauce, sliced onions and avocados) to go. Plus she had thrown in a pint of green sauce and a batch of fresh flour tortillas—a wonderful welcome indeed! Even though it was after midnight and I had to wake up early on Saturday to drive to Austin, I stood at the kitchen counter devouring my meal, not even taking the time to heat it up. “Do you want to sit down?” Mom asked me. “No,” I replied, “I just want to eat!” I was very happy. She acknowledged the comfort of the familiar and in between stuffing my face I agreed.

I spent less than 24 hours in Austin at my friend’s catfish fry to celebrate her marriage, and that was a whirlwind of catching up with old, dear friends. And even though we’re all a few years short of 40, the lot of us piled up in two hotel rooms, sleeping in all sorts of crazy arrangements such as four in a king-sized bed. The slumber party took us back to our college years, even though I eventually decided that four to a bed was bit much and that the floor was probably a better option. I had to return to Houston very early on Sunday, so by nine o’clock in the morning I was on the road making a stop in Elgin, home of some of the best sausage in Texas. Even at that hour there was already a long queue at Southside Market, but it was worth the wait as I loaded up on fresh links to bring back to NYC.

In Giddings, I stopped for gas and next to the station was a combo Mexican meat market and taqueria. I ordered a breakfast taco comprised of a homemade flour tortilla, porky refried beans, scrambled eggs and spicy sausage—a perfect balance. And while I had not seen this sort of combination butcher/taqueria before, I was soon to learn that this is a new trend in Hispanic shopping—at least for me. When I returned to Houston, it seemed not a strip mall was complete without one of these stores—a delightful and flavorful addition to the state’s shopping bounty.

Sunday afternoon found me in south Houston, enjoying a tour of Houston’s exploding Asian Town under the expert guidance of the inimitable food writer Robb Walsh. As we made our way along Bellaire Boulevard, I was struck by the endless stream of strip malls filled with Asian shops and restaurants. After a quick pit stop for pork dumplings, we arrived at our destination: Hong Kong City Mall.

If you’re not familiar with Hong Kong City Mall, it is said to be the largest covered Asian mall in the south. We started our tour in the food court, and as it’s crawfish season, every table was piled high with those tasty red crustaceans. Robb noted that after Katrina, almost 15,000 displaced Vietnamese living in New Orleans were taken in by Houston’s Vietnamese community, making it the second-largest Vietnamese community in America. And bringing their seafood tradition with them, you can find food stands with names such as Crawfish & Beignets, which is a hybrid of classic Louisiana food married with Vietnamese spice.

The anchor of the mall is Hong Kong Food Market, a vast grocery store filled with every Asian ingredient imaginable—countless varieties of bok choy and bitter melons, mountains of the world’s stinkiest fruit—durian, fresh herbs such as fish mint and curry leaves, tank upon tank of live seafood and countless bins filled with fish sauces that were, shall we say, extremely pungent. Seeing so many exotic (to me) ingredients under one roof was mind-boggling. And you can find almost anything you want there, except, perhaps, cheese.

As the week wore on, I ate my way around the city, probably having at least six (small) meals a day. For instance, after downing a plate of Larry’s cheese enchiladas, I'd stop and nosh on bbq brisket and sausage at Galvan’s Sausage House. Or I’d order a cup of roasted corn topped with sour cream and salsa at a stand outside of Fiesta followed by a tamale from a Mexican butcher and a cheeseburger from Whataburger. Mom took me out for an early birthday lunch (because I was in town exactly two months from my upcoming birthday in June and she won’t see me on the actual day) to the gracious and lovely Ouisie’s Table, where I ordered its signature chicken-fried steak. We followed that with a trip to a farmer’s market set up in a parking lot at Rice University, where there was brisket, Monica Pope’s lavender bread and fresh strawberries to be sampled. Heck, even a trip to Mom’s church for a Holy Week service was a chance to eat, as I savored the homemade communion bread irreverently wondering what the recipe was instead of thinking about Jesus.

But while most of the food I ate was at restaurants, taquerias or stands, I also spent some time in the kitchen. Mom kept me full at home with her sublime baking skills. She made ginger scones, no-knead bread (a shocker for me since she was the one who had taught me how to knead and bake bread, but after finally trying it, I now understand its appeal) and her famous raspberry bars. I also had the opportunity to learn how to cook rabbit with Robb Walsh (which I will write about in more detail in a few days).

So while the ubiquitous taco trucks, Hispanic markets and endless Asian strip malls were not as prominent when I was growing up in Houston, their presence today adds a fresh layer of delicious delight to a trip home. I can not only get my old standbys of enchiladas and green sauce but I can also eat elote con crema and Vietnamese crawfish, too. Home may not be exactly what it once was, but it’s refreshing that not only are the old comforts still around but there are endless new food adventures to be had in my hometown as well. What a wonderful way to spend a week, savoring both the old and the new!

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51 comments:

Luisa said...

Oh my goodness, Lisa, what an amazing trip you had! I love the slumber party with four to a bed, and all the amazing food you described. I've never been to Texas, and I don't know when I'll have the chance to go, but when I do, I'm coming back here for some tips! Yum yum yum.

christine (myplateoryours) said...

What a great, delicious sounding trip! I'll have to reread slowly so I can savor it properly. Your mom sounds like one terrific lady, by the way.

Kristen said...

Hi Lisa! I just found your blog recently. I am also a native Texan living in NYC and it's rough. I am originally from Port Arthur (arguably the best crawfish in Texas), then lived in Houston for awhile (Amalia's was my favorite too! So glad to hear it's still going strong), and then my mom and I made our homebase in Austin.

I go home as often as I can and hope to move back to Austin in the next few years. I just have to say thanks for this blog! I can't wait to try the gingerbread pancakes (although I can't imagine them being better than Kerbey Lane at 3am!), and making my own tortillas.

Lydia said...

My goodness, my mouth is watering! I love the juxtaposition of Texan food and Asian food. Makes me want to hop on a plane and fly south.

Lauren said...

You're making me homesick too :(

One of these days I'll be able to afford to go back home to Austin.

Lesley said...

Sounds you hit all the best foods while you were there. I always eat my way around the state of Texas when I go home. I tend to plan my trip more around where/what I'm eating that who I'm seeing ;) My two must-haves are Kerby Lane (queso, pancakes, and sometimes migas)and Ninfas (green sauce, and either crawfish enchilladas or Fajitas Durango, a secret special in College Station).

class factotum said...

Hey! How come they didn't have the farmers' market when I was a student at Rice? Rice was known for the *horrible* food it served when I was an undergrad. The only good thing was Blue Bell ice cream -- Blue Bell test-marketed new flavors at Rice. But everything else pretty much stank, which explained our frequent trips to Neal's, Marini's Empanadas, and the Gyro Gyro place on Westheimer.

Inane said...

Walsh Rabbit eh?

Buaahahahahah...

Garrett said...

delicious pictures!

Homesick Texan said...

Luisa--It was amazing! I thought of you when Robb took me on the tour of the Asian market--it reminded me of your tour of the LA Farmer's Market w/ Russ Parsons and Amy Scattergood.

Christine--Yes, Mom's very cool!

Kristen--Welcome! Nothing beats gingerbread pancakes at 3 AM, I agree, but that recipe is pretty darn close!

Lydia--I've really been getting into Asian flavors recently so it was a blast seeing such a bustling community in Houston.

Lauren--I hope you can get back home soon!

Lesley--Ha! I tend to do that as well, and then feel guilty because I'm not visiting more people. I've never been to Fajitas Durango, I'll have to check it out next time I'm in that part of the state.

Class Factotum--There are a few farmer's markets around Houston now. My mom is even getting one set up in her church's parking lot. How cool that Blue Bell test marketed new flavors at Rice. I had no idea! Was the Cultured Cow still around when you went to Rice?

Inane--Very clever!

Homesick Texan said...

Garrett--Thank you! The food tasted as good as it looks!

Cole said...

Sorry you had settle for sausage at Southside. ;-) Next time through you should really stop at Meyer's or Crosstown. They both beat the heck out of Southside. And both are so much less greasy...

Too bad you couldn't stay in Austin longer, but I'm glad to hear you had fun while you were here!

(By the way, I recently discovered your blog via your Flickr pictures [was searching tags for CFS]. I must say I have really enjoyed it so far! And I hope to try your recipe for flour tortillas soon. Take care!)

Kalyn said...

It sounds like you had some amazing food. I think I might have gained a pound or two just reading about it. The first dinner your mom picked up for you sounds like the ultimate comfort food to me.

scribbit said...

On a recent business trip my husband surprised me by bringing home six steak and cheese sandwiches from the sandwich shop we haunted 15 years ago when we lived there.

I may not be able to go home again but they were just as good as I'd remembered. Even a day old.

Christina said...

Fast food though it may be, I love the tortillas at Taco C.

diane said...

Lisa,
I have lived in the Houston area for 30 years, and must agree that it has some of the most delicious food to be found - from our wonderful seafood - shrimp, crab & crawfish - to some of the tastiest and REAL Mexican food found north of the Rio Grande. I enjoy reading your Blog. Check mine out when you can...www.rosajosies.com

rob said...

Lisa, thanks for the tour of Houston. That pile of crawfish has me green with envy. I've searched for crawfish in Toronto, and I can only ever find them frozen. That pile in your photo makes it look as if you have a plague of them in Texas. I'm most intrigued by the crawfish and beignets for another reason: are you starting to see or taste other examples of immigrant communities adapting Texas-style dishes to their traditional flavours?

Meeta said...

Lisa, this looks so amazing. What a lovely trip and tantalizing food. I am green with envy. But I know when I finally get around to visiting my family in Houston I will be contacting you!

class-factotum said...

Class Factotum--There are a few farmer's markets around Houston now. My mom is even getting one set up in her church's parking lot. How cool that Blue Bell test marketed new flavors at Rice. I had no idea! Was the Cultured Cow still around when you went to Rice?

I have never heard of the Cultured Cow, but my culinary horizons were limited back then, as I was a poor college student with limited transportation and even more limited funds. I was there '81-'87 (class of '85), when Goode Company BBQ and the Village Cheese Shop started (and was all and only about cheese and would give sample after sample to students). The bagel place on N. Shepherd opened, along with the first Whole Foods on Alabama. Our big Saturday night adventure was always House of Pies. My friends and I even went there a year and a half ago at our 20-year reunion. I still annoy non-Houston people when I see a Chili's by saying, "I used to eat at the original Chili's when I was in college." I wish Fiesta Mart would go on a similar expansion extravaganza.

Homesick Texan said...

Cole--Yes, my time there was too short, but fortunately I will be traveling there two more times this year--once for the Hot Sauce Festival and another for a wedding. And I've never been to Meyer's, and would have tried it but it was closed!

Kalyn--You would definitely love it--cilantro, tomatillos, avocados and lime--some of your favorite flavors!

Scribbit--Yum! What a terrific husband! Did y'all eat all six at once or freeze them?

Christina--I love them too, so delicious!

Diane--I may be biased as well, but Houston is definitely my favorite food town in Texas--it has almost anything you could ever want.

Rob--You can find fresh ones here in Chinatown, does Toronto's Chinatown not get them? And that's a good question--I'll have to think about that.

Meeta--You will eat very well when you're in Houston!

Class-Factotum--The Cultured Cow was next door to the British Market in Rice Village (can't remember exactly what street). We used to alternate going there and Dolce & Freddo for cold, creamy treats. That Whole Foods is now a Pets Mart. Actually, that center is in danger of being torn down as well as the River Oaks Cinema. It would be very sad to lose that and the Bookstop in the old Alabama theater. And I have fond memories of House of Pies though we used to call it House of Guys!

Purl said...

Thanks so much for the great list of Houston food. I live here again after being away for 20 years. It's hilarious that my favorite Texas food blog is written in NY.

Kristofer said...

This is the weirdest thing...I was just back in Houston for a long weekend, and this entire blog entry reads like a play by play of my weekend (except of course carousing with a food writer). Larry's has been my favorite since early childhood, and given the amount of time I spent there in the last 5 days I wouldn't be surprised at all if we were in there at the same time!

vlb5757 said...

It's been a year since I have been home and I don't see a trip in my future. Thanks for going home and letting me savor your trips to the markets! Thank goodness for Texans who make trips home for the rest of us who aren't always able to! The bluebonnets in the last post are killer and made tears come to my eyes. One of these springs I will be there to see the whole splendor!!

Ladygrande said...

Those Elgin "hot guts" are the best. We always stop and pick up a sack of them when travelling through that way. Back in the olden days, we ate them in-house on brown paper - always served with onions, sauce, and white bread. Very unhealthy but Fabulous!

gilly said...

Wow, Lisa, what an adventure - it sounds like such an amazing culinary journey! I just had to laugh at your communion bread preoccupation!

class factotum said...

We called it "House of Guys," too! :) Quite an education for a 17-year-old who had grown up abroad on Air Force bases!

chikimama said...

i'm the opposite of you! living in houston but homesick for NJ ;) i must say, the food scene in houston is pretty good (and cheap) but where's a girl to go for bagels, croissants & pizza (REAL pizza)?!?

Helene said...

Great writing and recollection of your trip. I feel the same way everytime I go home. Nothing beats markets, eating late at the kitchen counter with mom's loving eyes on you and meeting up with old friends.
Thanks for a great post!

Aaron said...

Those photos nearly had me in tears....

So jealous.

Thanks for sharing.

Homesick Texan said...

Purl--You're very welcome. I'm happy you're enjoying the blog!

Kristofer--We might have been--I was the woman at Larry's with a camera and an overflowing plate of cheese enchiladas. So decadent and delicious!

Vickie--I hope you get can get back home soon! I hadn't seen bluebonnets in years, and trust me, seeing them in person really puts a smile on your face and warms your soul.

Ladygrande--Yes, bbq is best served on paper, plates and cutlery are superfluous.

Gilly--It was amazing. I'm hoping I can get the recipe for the communion bread so I can share it, it's very tasty!

Class Factotum--Ha!

Chikimama--I feel your pain. I had some pizza in Austin and let's just say it was not very good. I hear there's a decent bagel place in Houston now, though, of course, they probably don't taste as good as what you can get here.

Helene--You're welcome! I'd say eating at the kitchen counter with my mom was probably the highlight of the trip!

Homesick Texan said...

Aaron--You're very welcome. Hopefully you can get to Texas soon!

Linda said...

i'm so glad you were able to go home for a bit! and that floral photography below here is absolutely stunning -- you are a phenomenal shot!

Susan said...

Cherishing the old and welcoming the new sounds like the best of both worlds to me. While all of the dishes you described sound delicious, I must say I'm drawn to your mom's ginger scones!

Anita said...

ohh, that combo-plate photo brought tears to my eyes. (I'm a not-homesick former Southern Californian who misses "platos" with a terror.)

My mom once stopped at my favorite Mexican haunt and bought two combo plates (enchilada + chile relleno) for me, froze them, and drove them from LA to San Francisco in a cooler. Now THAT is love. :D

Julie said...

Oh, man, that was a trip of serious eating! I now find myself hungry for every meal you detailed.

And I loved the story about your mom having your favorite meal ready for you when you got home. That's a pretty great late-night welcome home.

Terry B said...

If you don't weigh 500 pounds and seriously need a triple bypass, there is no justice. Sounds like you had a wonderful, delicious weekend.

In Chicago, I've just moved into a neighborhood where the dominant culture is Mexican. So suddenly, even our fast food options are way more interesting. As an example, the side salad that came with our grilled chicken last night at one place had spicy bits of jalapeño and crunchy strips of blue corn tortillas.

Homesick Texan said...

Linda--Thank you, it was good to go home!

Susan--I'm on it! I've asked my mom for the recipe and will do a post on ginger scones soon.

Anita--The Mexican combo plate is indeed a beautiful thing! And you have a super cool mom!

Julie--It was definitely a pleasant suprise having my favorite enchiladas waiting for me. And hopefully I ate enough to satisfy my cravings for at least a few weeks.

Terry B--I did indeed. And yes, there is justice--my jeans are now a wee bit snug! Your new neighborhood sounds excellent--I keep hearing great things about Mexican food in Chicago.

Sweet Thang said...

I just love your blog. How I ran across it, I can't seem to remember. I am in Houston, actually just up the street from your Mom's Church. I am betting that she went to the Amalia's that we frequent. I love their food, especially their salsa.

I will have to tryout the Sausage place in Elgin. My Father In Law loves some good links, as well as I. He swears by the place in Schulenberg, stating that they are excellent.

Look forward to reading your blog!

Melissa said...

Lisa, I can't tell you how hungry this post made me. And nostalgic! Enchiladas, breakfast tacos, crawfish boils... *sigh*. It all looks too good.

And I can't wait to hear about your tete-a-tete with Rob Walsh! His Nuevo Tex-Mex is one of my favorite cookbooks.

Glad you had such a great time at home!

Melissa said...

I just found your blog and I'm so glad I did! I'm a homesick Texan too and grew up in the Houston area. My husband is stationed in South Carolina for a only a few months, but it's a few months too many. Reading your blog made me smile and brought back many of my own memories. We'll be moving to back to Houston in June! :)

mae said...

Wow. What a fantastic trip. Everything sounds amazing. I had to chuckle about the sacred bread. Yeah, i too wonder where, how they are made.

Your mum sounds wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I will be making my yearly trip back to Abilene, Texas for Mother's Day and Western Heritage Ranch Rodeo. They have covered wagons and camp fire cooking three days in a row. One could founder while there from so much great food. Living in Minnesota since 2002, people up here just don't know how to cook good mexican food. I've been looking for the recipe for the green sauce that we used to get from Casa Ole', but haven't found it as yet.
Thanks for sharing recipes from the south, it just doesn't get much better.

Have a fun and safe weekend, Chris

Ken Wheaton said...

Thanks for my links from Southside. I ate one right out of the package when I got it home.

Cilantro said...

Lisa, do you have Robb Walsh's Tex-Mex Cookbook? He has the recipe for Larry's Enchiladas in there, if I remember correctly. The book is a good read, too.

Culinary Cowgirl said...

Thanks for this post. I am happy to get the conejo recipe (it's easy to get rabbit over here)...plus, I am happy to get the heads up on Walsh's new cookbook! Will have to add it to my collection.

Sprittibee said...

:) Loving this post. I wrote you today on another post, but wanted to browse your blog some. :) Had to laugh about the thinking about food instead of communion thing. hahaha. Some of my family lives in Houston and we have spent a great many years there. I can relate to all the stops on your trip as well. Do I know you????

Sprittibee said...

WHY ARE YOU IN NEW YORK????

Homesick Texan said...

Sweet Thang--I bet it's the same Amalia's as well. Love that place! The Elgin sausage is great, but I'll have to check out the place in Schulenberg.

Melissa--Why thank you! It is all good.

Melissa--Lucky you to be going back to Houston. Glad my blog made you smile!

Mae--I'm glad I'm not alone. I'm trying to get the recipe from my mom so I can post it--trust me, it's outstanding!

Chris--That sounds super cool--I'm sorry I missed that. Perhaps I'll be able go next year!

Ken--You're very welcome, I'm glad you enjoyed them.

Cilantro--Yes, I do have that cookbook--an excellent one at that!

Culinary Cowgirl--Conejo is amazing as is Robb's new book!

Sprittibee--I don't know if we know each other or not, but I'm in New York because that's where the work is for me. I'm in media and NYC is still the media capitol of America. If someone wanted to give me an appropriate job in Texas, however, I'd probably take it.

Jenn said...

I found your blog in a google search for squash blossoms of all things, and this post called to me.

We lived in Rosenberg for a while, and I still think that Larry's enchiladas are just near perfect! We went there many a Friday night for dinner.

I'm in San Antonio and we have plenty of yummy Mexican food here . . . it's time for a lazy, late Sunday lunch!

Your blog is a delight!

PattyT said...

Ahhh, Larry's! We've been eating there for 20 years and we're only 10 minutes from Richmond.

Paula said...

Lisa,
I love reading your blog. It's hard for me to get home from Pensacola, FL right now....(parents in New Braunfels, in-laws in Fort Worth, and kids in McAllen) needless to say our family is spread out!! BUT, your trips are so cool and touch so many places. I just like to "know" someone is going home! XOXOXO Keep up the great work and never stop going home!

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