Category Archives: Houston

Songkran Thai

New job, new lunch crew. We had our first group outing last week to try a recent entry into the Thai arena, Songkran Thai.

Atmosphere
I wish I understood what’s happening in Songkran’s neighborhood, Uptown Park. On the one hand it offers high-brow venues catering to the wealthy Central American residents who buy up all the glossy, multi-million dollar condos. On the other hand it definitely tries to appeal to those who want sit-down fast food. Maybe the combination works.

Songkran Thai is in the newer section of Uptown Park. Its a small space inside and they do have limited outdoor seating, not that you’ll remotely consider that an option in Houston during the summer. Exposed brick, brightly colored Buddha art, modern music at conversation-level volume, polished but casual. For lunch they seemed to attract entry-level professionals in skinny suits and shiny, pointy shoes.

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Food
We’ll be returning for a Restaurant Weeks dinner this weekend but this time was lunch which was mostly good. Lunch offerings are ‘plates’; entree, salad and soup. The soup was hot but unfortunately it lacked any flavour and we all moved it aside rapidly. Salad was good but not notable; most of the enjoyment came from the creamy sesame-ginger dressing. Removing the dressing you’d have some torn lettuce, carrots shreds and a few fried wonton strips.

My main event was excellent; fish in tamarind sauce. Lightly floured and pan-fried but I couldn’t tell you what kind of fish was used, it was about the sauce – basil, ginger, tamarind, fish sauce and garlic was strong but enjoyable. Broccoli and rice were along for the ride, apparently more for visual appeal and texture.

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Service
We arrived at the very start of lunch, 1130, and it was clear they were in the middle of setting up for a lunch crowd coming much later. Given that, the service was pleasant and efficient but often distracted. Orders for our table of 8 arrived in 20 minutes.

Price
Acceptable for the Uptown Park area but a little higher than normal for Thai food. Lunch plates ranged from $10-15.

While we liked Songkran and I’ll be returning this weekend to try it again for dinner, it does not dethrone Thai Gourmet as best Thai in Houston.

Lunch: August 2016

Songkran Thai | 1101-08 Uptown Park Blvd. | HTX 77056

Cockrell Butterfly Center

New job has me traveling. And, oh no, I exceeded the WordPress limit on photos! $100 a year for a “premium” plan? I don’t think so. Good thing there is Flickr and now I’ve figured out to make them work together – mostly.

With younger niece coming to visit this summer, I’ve been on the lookout for things a teenage girl might want to do. She’s very active in music so we have some music-based events, like her first time to see Wicked. She’s also into vegetarian cooking and making desserts, so we’ll be off for tour of Houston’s largest farmers market followed by a chef-led cook-then-eat with whatever we buy at the market.

But what else?

Whilst walking about Hermann park during  Japan Festival I made note of this place, the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Its attached to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which I’ve been to loads of times, but the Butterfly Center just never appealed. Until now. I did a recon visit and I’m glad about that.

Upper floors are more of museum and introduction to butterfly biology; interesting exhibits which probably appeal to the teen and younger crowd. At the end of the “museum” you exit into the butterfly habitat which is loosely a 3-story glass terrarium filled with hundreds of butterflies. Surreal and otherworldly, definitely you feel as though you’ve left the greater Houston area for some serene storybook setting. The giant orange lizard baking under a heat lamp seemed a big lumpy contrast to the other inhabitants.

Check yourself on exiting for stowaways looking to break out.

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Japan Festival

JF-1Houston may have many faults but it certainly does not lack festivals. On any given weekend there will be one or more festivals, usually country themed. Greece, Lebanon, Jamaica, Germany – sure, you can visit all of those in a 2-week span.

The Japan Festival, which has been going on for decades, I always seem to miss. But not this year. While you can sample ‘Japanese food’, its really more food trucks with generally Asian offerings. The pulls here for me were the patrons themselves, dressed up as their favourite anime characters, and the Taiko drumming concert.  If you happen upon this mid-April festival in Hermann Park, definitely make time for the Taiko concert. The drummers with their wide stances, intense focus and intermittent yelling appear both as musicians and martial arts warriors. You have to love drumming you can feel in your teeth.

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Izakaya

After discovering a sensitivity to rice I cut back a little on my sushi outings. Sad but luckily there are rice-free options in sushi restaurants and there is a new crop of Japanese ‘farmhouse’ restaurants featuring even more rice-free options.

Izakaya is one of the new “farmhouse” entries and I’m happy to say, excellent across board.

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Atmosphere
Casual anime chic, I suppose. Polished concrete floors and walls surrounding raised booths, big anime murals in the brightest of colours. We were late in the lunch cycle so it wasn’t busy, making conversation pleasant. However, I’ve seen this place mobbed beyond capacity on Saturday night.

Food
Wins.

Edamame. Use caution if you are hot pepper sensitive. I loved the super spicy version with soy-ginger-garlic sauce but my lunch partners were eating one or two, smile-turned-surprise, then gulping down a quart of water.

Scallop Banh Mi. Open faced scallop banh was good as well as creative. Nice sized scallops, lightly marinated in a fish sauce base then seared, placed atop a pillowy French bread round. Cilantro, julienned carrots, peppers and radish mixed and topped to finish the assembly. Good mix of salty and herbal which, surprisingly, did not detract from the flavour of the scallops.

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Snapper Crudo. Snapper sliced thinly, topped with extra virgin, ground pistachios and quartered grapes.  Simple flavours which work surprisingly well together without muddling the flavour of the snapper.

Wasabi Beef Skewers. You can’t go wrong with skirt steak strip marinated in a sweet soy then grilled to crispy-out, juicy-in texture topped sparingly with wasabi.

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Gelatinous Peach Sake. OK, this was not what I would call good, however I would still recommend you try it once as a rite of passage. Sake mixed with gelatin, peach flavouring and something carbonated. Its a chewy, bubbly, whirlwind on your tongue and just its plain weird. It comes in a can and our server tried to pour it out but it had to be coaxed out like ketchup from of a bottle.

Consider it a conversation piece.

 

Price
Its a little pricey. Three small ‘tapas’ plates and a weird sake drink – $45. The quality is excellent, however.

Service
Very friendly and efficient with good knowledge of the offerings but they lean a little towards overselling. Quick turnaround but we were on the late side of lunch with only three other tables in play.

I’ll definitely be back to try some of the other offerings, perhaps at a busier time to see how the crowd and atmosphere evolve.

The peach-gelatin sake will not be on the menu.

Lunch: April 2016

Izakaya| 318 Gray | HTX 77002

 

Sculpted In Steel

Another month of work interruption but things seem to be returning to somewhat normal.

I did have a chance to sneak away from my computer to see Sculpted In Steel, one of the newer exhibits at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I loved these cars and motorcycles all from the Deco Era, late 1920’s through early 1940’s. Sleek linearity and symmetry of the Deco style were a countermanding force to the ornate detail and asymmetry of the previous style, Art Nouveau. Its a shame Deco fell out of favor at the start of WW2 but at least its quite well preserved here, that is until 30 May when it moves on to another location.

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Buffalo Bayou Trail

I knew about Buffalo Bayou Trail but never took the time to explore until just recently. The Bayou itself runs from the notorious Houston Ship Channel around the north side of downtown to the west side before meandering westwards and paralleling Allen Parkway. The Bayou itself is not a sight, in fact, its probably better to not look directly into the Bayou. However, the trail is a pleasant walk easily integrated into whatever activities you have planned for downtown, near-town, Washington Corridor or Montrose.

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Access
You can get to to the trail from the west side of downtown via just about any of the east-west streets or anywhere along Allen Parkway; just look for a bridge and likely that bridge will have a set of stairs leading down to the trail. There places to pop up at Bell St for the density of oil and gas high-rises, another at Prairie for the Wortham and Buffalo Bayou Centers, one for the Aquarium and many that allow access to either Montrose or Rice Military.

It looks like they are building out the north side and east side trails, since the paths were closed with a “building in progress” look. There is a separate path that runs along the Bayou from EaDo out to the ship channel but it does not appear to be connected to the rest of the system. Yet.

Condition
In most spots parallel to Allen Parkway there are separate walking and biking paths which allows different transport modes to peacefully coexist, however they merge in downtown. The paths, bridges, benches and everything else are kept in immaculate condition. There’s nothing to watch out for save a few ducks, who apparently think the trail is for them.

The trail is lit up at night; its not great lighting but it will keep you from biking off the trail and into the Bayou.  Its particularly interesting to explore this path at sundown;  the highly reflective skyline of downtown slightly beyond the cobalt blue lights they installed under the freeways make the city look like an anime setting.

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Duration
You can customize this walk to your liking. I did an 8-mile return from the north side of downtown at Prairie St, across the Aquarium, under the Sabine St. Bridge, past Montrose and coming close to River Oaks. Then back. It was a 3 hour walk, stops included

Gear
You could do this with flip flops and water bottle; its that easy.

Activities, Sights

Wortham Center for cultural. Bayou Center for entertainment including Sundance Theatre. Main St. for craft cocktails. Aquarium. Volleyball, soccer, dog park, exercise courses and picnic areas are along the Allen Parkway segment.

The views of downtown are second only to those from the north side; you’ll see the city from a very different perspective. You’ll see some funky art installations, which frankly I did not know existed before walking the trail. I was fascinated by the metal Buddha-ish figures welded together from various alphabets.

This is a very heavily traveled path at all times; if you’re looking for solitude, keep looking, however if you like knowing other people are always around, you’re in luck.

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Dak and Bop

Ironically it was a friend who lives in the burbs who told me about this restaurant which just recently opened in my neighbourhood. Dak and Bop is a Korean fried chicken house. Its interesting that I had just tried Korean fried chicken for the first time recently and thought it was good but rather a novelty, now there is restaurant focusing on just that.

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Atmosphere
Its located in one of the new concentric box buildings on Binz St. near the museums; glass front, lots of concrete, steel and generally has a vertical loft feeling. For lunch its an absolute madhouse with a 15-30 minute wait. Its a little off-putting to think of waiting for what is basically fried chicken in sauce but its likely due the newness of the restaurant combined with the fact that there aren’t many options for lunch in this part of town. Go ahead and wait, its definitely worth a few extra minutes.

Food
There are other items on the menu, like truffle fries and kimchi empanadas but I’d recommend going straight for the main event, the chicken. The chicken has options, here’s what you need to consider: the size of your meal in pieces, what kind of pieces and which sauce. The sauces vary in spicy level from the innocuous garlic soy to the warning-included, super-hot Korean pepper.

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I went 5-piece, the smallest, with 4 ‘strips’ and a drum with the middle-of-the-road sriracha lime and honey sauce. Incredible! I didn’t have high expectations but the crispy-out, juicy-in chicken was prepared extremely well. The sriracha was as expected, pleasantly warm, the lime adding a good acidic depth and the honey rounding out the lot with a little sweetness.

Price
$8 seemed reasonable, however I can get the comparable non-Korean version from any other of the grillion fried chicken places for a few bucks less.

Service
Its a small space, cramped and very busy. Despite that,  service here is excellent, turnaround times are quick – 10-15 minutes and everyone is very friendly as the warp 9 from table to kitchen and back.

Lunch: September 2015

Dak and Bop| 1801 Binz | HTX 77004

Honeymoon Cafe

Honeymoon Cafe is one of several craft cocktail bars recently opening in the Market Square area of downtown. I hadn’t noticed before last month but almost all of the spaces on Main St in this part of town are now bars focusing on anything but off-the-rack cocktails. Good on them.

Honeymoon is a little different from the rest of the craft cocktail bars since they also have  breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner menus. I liked that their breakfast menu was available all day which makes possible the almost irresistible breakfast for dinner option.

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Atmosphere
Houston considers ‘old buildings’ anything built more than 50 years ago. Its also prone to yanking those buildings down in favour of shiny glass and steel boxes. Shame, but at least in downtown you’ll find the last remnants of buildings originally built before 1900. Honeymoon is smack in the middle of one cluster.

Historical context and old-world architectural detail aside, you’ll find Honeymoon to be very casual with mixed bag patronage. Early hours usually pulls in post-work suits umbilically attached to laptops, later hours pulls the pre-party crowd getting in some meaningful conversation before the night spins out of control.

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Drink
Yep, there is food and I’ve been happy with my food orders here on previous trips, however  this round was about drinks. And actually I just tried the one, Peter Cottontail,  but with different preparations.

The base layer of the Peter Cottontail is carrot juice. Ginger and lemon are added and then there is the variable; either Green Chili vodka or Mandarin Orange vodka. I tried both but my preference was for the Green Chili version. A little amusing heat from the chili, inherent sweetness of the carrot, a little acidity from the lemon and the zing of ginger all in one glass. Its health drink! I can rationalize with the best of them.

Service
Like most ‘craft cocktail’ venues, each drink is prepared with almost ceremonial process so it will take a bit longer. Food orders are typically a 20-30 minute turnaround. Staff here are mostly friendly and knowledgeable however I did get some impatience from one bartender when I asked some questions about preparation. Who knows, maybe dude was having a bad day but this seems an anomaly rather than the standard.

Price
Pretty fair. $9-12 per cocktail. $8-15 per food main.

Drinks: August2015

Honeymoon Cafe| 300 Main | HTX 770902

Karbach Brewery

I knew about Karbach beer, however not being a huge beer consumer I was surprised it was brewed right here in Houston. I was also surprised when Karbach Brewery Restaurant popped up for restaurant week, so I felt compelled to investigate their 3-course dinner with beer pairings.

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Atmosphere
Disneyland for adults.  Its a modern structure, sporting the ubiquitous soft-loft feel; floor to ceiling windows, lots of steel and polished concrete. The interior is filled with upbeat music, brick walls, wood tables and chairs and people who are arguably the happiest in Houston. From the interior you can see the squeaky clean inner workings of the brewery through large glass windows. You can also see the outdoor seating area which is about as large as the indoors. Its a loud space but not so bad you’ll need to scream. If you were thinking about getting dressed up, there’s really no need, almost everyone was in shorts and flops; I felt over dressed in jeans and boat shoes.

Food
Surprisingly, for a brewery, the food here was great. One of our crew explained that they hired a chef away from another restaurant to create a menu pairing well with their beer offerings. He nailed it.

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Korean Fried Chicken: What’s not to like? Crunchy on the out, juicy on the in, a very spicy glaze of hot pepper, garlic, soy and honey. That they added a bit of chopped kimchi and green onion created a fermented and herbal note that peeked through the glaze momentarily. Very tasty and satisfying in a comfort food way.

Weekend Warrior Chicken: Roasted chicken is uninteresting on its own but here they create a layered approach to the dish both for your eyes and your taste buds.The roasted 1/4 chicken, brined in their Weekend Warrior Pale Ale, sits atop crispy polenta rectangles which sits atop a spicy tomato sauce; a tangle of grilled green onion which, in turn, creates a nest for a grilled lemon. I might have to try it again to confirm that I really liked.

BBH Chocolate Cake: Not a dessert person but who can resist taking at least one bite of chocolate cake made with BBH, Bourbon Barrel Hell-raiser, which is Karbach’s much lighter version of a Chocolate Stout. Still too sweet for me but people with more normal taste buds appreciated, particularly when paired with cinnamon vanilla ice cream and, of course, a 4 ounce pour of BBH itself.

Price
Hard to say about their usual menu since this was restaurant week and the 3-course lot was $35. My guess is the everyday menu is fairly priced.

Service
This is part of the atmosphere. While shorts-clad and very young, the wait staff here know everything about the food and beer offerings. Restaurant week meals come with pre-selected beers (4 ounce pours), however that did not stop us from ordering more beer and our server was spot on aligning particular tastes with what was on tap.

While the brewery is a little out of the way for us inner-loopers who don’t normally travel too far north of the 610 and the parking was a little odd, we all agreed we’ll be back. An interesting note, just in case you like to throw large parties, the entire upstairs is rentable.

Dinner: August 2015

Karbach Brewery | 2032 Karbach St | HTX 77092

 

Mandala

I walk through the Museum District daily. The first year I watched the banners for coming attractions and was at some exhibit every weekend. After a time though they started to fade into the background as the novelty wore off and the day to day details took over. Friends visiting from out of town started to be my source of exhibit information.

But last week I happened to look up at the Asia Society banner and noticed Tibetan Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery were coming to Houston to create a mandala live. A must see and definitely noted.

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I don’t know much about Tibetan sand art other than that it typically takes weeks and weeks of effort laying down one grain of sand at a time. And that it is, symbolically, healing and repairing for the surroundings; I suppose it more depends on whether you subscribe to Buddhism or Hinduism. I saw an already assembled mandala once in California. There I watched the closing destruction ceremony which seemed much more important to the monks and the onlookers than the art itself. In the destruction ceremony they removed, in a very specific order, all of the components of the mandala, placed the sand in a jar, wrapped it cloth, then deposited the lot into the Pacific Ocean.

The act was meant to symbolize the ephemeral nature of life. Those kooky monks, they really get it.

Locally I watched the construction. Its fascinating to see if only for the patience these men have to load the sand tubes (chakpur) with one colored sand, scrape the side so the sand comes out almost one grain at a time into an intricate pattern. Then they unload the tube, load up another color then the process repeats until done. Luckily there were 5-6 monks working otherwise it would have taken weeks.

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