Happy Chinese New Year!
What better way to add China to the blog than with a feast, celebrating
the Year of the Dragon! Lilian, (seated far right) hosts a gathering of friends and family each year to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This year Lilian picked Jasmine Asian Cafe on colorful Bellaire Blvd. for her feast. I've dined here before for Vietnamese food, but this was a distinctly Chinese spread of foods!
Food and Friends
This was a fun evening of food and friends, but in China we would celebrate much longer. The Chinese New Year marks the beginning of the 15- day " Spring Celebration".
Celebrating Goes On
You don't have to go to Houston's "Chinatown" to get Chinese food. This great little Hunan restaurant is a favorite on Eldridge. It's cozy for dining in, but we do carry outs frequently.
Pearls and Silk
And if you're going to have carry outs, then why not throw on some pearls and silk to enjoy your Spicy Szechwan Shrimp or Kung Pao Chicken?
The main reason for feasting during the Spring Festival is bringing families together.
Our American Thanksgiving encourages families to come together, but not for 15 days!
My family has always loved Chinese dining, especially with a round table and shared dishes. Even on a visit to China, my kids got over the scary fish who stared up at them from the plate and the unknown soup ingredients.
Chinese New Year makes me miss my kids.
My mother was the one who made my kids giddy fans of Shrimp Toast and Crab Rangoon! She took them to Hunan Garden in St. Louis, where the owner knew her by name. Sometimes she even followed the Chinese custom of giving children red envelopes with money tucked inside. So it's only fair that my mom would get to enjoy a little of her favorite food for the holiday!
A Great Thing I Learned...
Since I am no longer able to take my mom on outings, I decided to bring her a feast for the Chinese New Year. My mother's Alzheimer's may have affected her ability to walk and converse...but she can still eat a whole meal with chopsticks! Witnessing that was 15 days of FAMILY HAPPY rolled into one! Go Mom!
This looks like a spot in the Sugar Land, but it's really at the fun/funky end of Westheimer Blvd. in Houston. We arrived early enough that Belgian waffles and coffee would have been a treat...but not on this menu.
Mussels in Brussels
We did find mussels on the menu and that is another thing Belgium is known for. Lorrie was getting a bit of a mussel steam facial at this moment, but the photo doesn't capture it. I sampled one of Lorrie's mussels and was surprised at how tasty it was... since I'm not usually a fan. They were served with French fries and homemade mayonnaise, which I also sampled. Yum. FF&M could become addicting!
I ordered Waterzooi de Poulet, which is a Flemish creamy chicken stew with carrots and celery. It was good, but I had to add salt which I rarely do. Shari's, Carbonade Falmande (beef stew with Chimay beer, onions and carrots) was really much more flavorful. We had to thank our waiter Manuel, for pushing that one.
Flemish, Flanders, Belgium, Dutch?
Ordering "Flemish" food made me ponder a few words. Lorrie and Shari both have art history backgrounds and I've been to Belgium, but we were making ourselves confused. We all knew of many Flemish painters...
And I recalled a movie "Dog of Flanders" which takes place in Belgium and has something to do with Flemishness...which I'm sure is not a word. Flemish...Dutch? We put that discussion to rest, but I was later delighted to see a print of my favorite Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel displayed in the restroom!
Food and Talk
Manuel was happy to take our photo as we finished our food. And he was happy to leave us to ourselves as we talked for another hour at least!
We arrived before noon, hungry for waffles. But by the time we were leaving it was the time of day many start drinking beer. Come to think of it, we had a family friend named Al, who used to order waffles and beer frequently... wonder if that's a Belgian thing?
We'll have to come back to sample this huge selection another day!
I spoke with Manuel and owner, Jeannine as they were getting ready to close between the lunch and dinner hours. (siesta?) Manuel was friendly, but I could sense Jeannine was not up for one of my "People Encounters". Hey, she's not from Belgium so I'm going to assume there was nothing interesting to learn from her anyway.
What I learned? Our dining conversation lead me to a 1 minute research task. I am now reminded that Flanders is an area, which includes the north part of Belgium. Flemish and Dutch speaking inhabitants of Belgium. So I guess Flemish food must be from Flanders. I will sleep much better now.
Lots of Czech Texans
There are nearly 200,000 Texans with Czech Heritage.
So that's why I needed to get some Czech food on the blog... And Czech bakeries are in abundance, especially in the Hill Country of Texas... And since we pass Hruska's on Hwy 71 driving from Houston to Austin about 30 times a year, why not stop and choose from 16 varieties?
First a Store
Hruska's today, is part gas station and part food/gift shop. But the family biz began as a store.
The Hruska family has been in the business since 1912. This is a mural in the newly remodeled (3,000 sq ft larger) shop that sits next to the gas station. I wish it still looked like it did in the 1930's or 60's. In the 1960's kolaches were made in the home of Adolphine Krenek who used her Czech family recipe as well as dairy from her livestock and poppy seeds from her garden. (the "old timers" still love the poppy seed kolaches best!)
Today Hruska's is a busy place! It seems every car on hwy 71 stops for gas or food or to browse at the ever growing gift shop...filled with everything from Texas doodads to scrapbooking materials. The gift shop is in fact so spread out that people browse themselves right into the large welcoming restrooms (also filled with sale items) It is a bizarre setup and more than once a man has wandered into the ladies room in a confused state!
Visiting with Mary
This is Mary. She has worked at Hruska's for 20 years. There have been lots of changes in this 100 year business, but even in 20 years Mary has seen quite a few. She used to help make the kolaches when they were hand scooped. She helped make them across the road in a big house, but regulations changed that. She used to help grind the seeds in the popular poppy seed kolaches. Those seeds came from Adolphine's garden, and were much tastier than the seeds they purchase for baking today.
Here are just some of the 16 varieties! Mary likes the cream cheese best. Of course the meat and cheese filled kolaches are a big hit.
The Kolache House?
Right across Hwy 71 is this old house. I'm guessing this is the home Mary was pointing towards when she mentioned making kolaches. It's kind of fun to imagine this old farm with dairy cows and poppies in the garden. Even Teri, who owns Hruska's now, started helping make kolaches when she was 11. It was her great grandfather who opened up the first Hruska's in 1912.
These are not tiny bugs nibbling at the corner of my kolache. This is gooey poppy seed paste, oozing out of the center of my kolache.
That's a lot of poppy seed! And evidently eating poppy seeds can lead to a positive drug test. Hmmm. That got me wondering about the poppies that grow in neighborhood gardens...
And I learned?
And since I now try to make some kind of discovery from every dining adventure, I took this whole poppy thing a bit too far. Since I was in the passenger seat as we traveled Hwy 71, I spent 90 minutes googling on the iphone to find out why we can grow poppies in our yards if they can create opium. Well I won't go into the details of all I learned, but there is a ridiculously long article about poppies and opium and... "One Gardener's Encounter with the War on Drugs"
Venezuelan Food Truck
Sabor Venezolano is a food truck. The restaurant I wanted to try was closed, so this seemed to be the only choice for Venezuelan food in Houston.
I have nothing against food trucks. They have blocks of trendy food trailers in Austin, TX and Portland, OR. But this is the real deal. This truck is plastered in posters and colorful, spray painted words in Spanish. It sits in the corner of a gas station lot on Westheimer Blvd., next to what appears to be a Gentleman's Club. So what lured me here? The internet of course. Write-ups by Venezuelans as well as newcomers all gave 4 out of 5 stars. Plus I had my interpreter, Don. I heard they don't speak English.
Not Just a Taco Truck
There is nothing wrong with a taco truck, but this is much more! However, seeing Don standing in front of this truck reminded me of the first time I heard the term "taco truck".
14 years ago when our kids were 8 and 11 and dreading our impending move to Texas from Oklahoma, Don did his best to encourage them with wonderful images... "We'll actually have palm trees in our neighborhood and who knows maybe we'll get a pool. And you know how the ice cream truck comes in Tulsa? They have taco trucks in our neighborhood! They serve tacos and burritos!" And yes, when we moved in, we heard the funny musical honk of the taco truck driving down our street each day. But we never actually joined the roofers and construction crews who gathered at the truck for lunch break.
We knew from reading "Yelp", which items were best. There are 10 different kinds of arepas, with a variety of fillings. The Cachapa is the most authentic Venezuelan choice. And if you order the Patacone (with crispy fried plantain) eat if first! Nothing will compare after. And as you can see prices are listed...for .99 to $7.00!
Taking Our Order
This is Alicia, who peeked out of her tiny window to answer our questions. That's a mighty tiny serving window. No room to peek inside and snoop. That could worry some, but I choose to just find it kind of cute, like the window Dorothy speaks through before entering the door to OZ!
Alicia warmed up after a bit and Don did a pretty incredible job of conversing, for someone who has only been learning Spanish on his own for a year. After asking about the food, Don asked where all the customers were. Alicia explained that we had missed the daytime rush hour, but night is a different story! On Fridays they are open until 4:30 in the morning! I gathered from her raised eyebrows that this might have been a whole different blog write up had I decided to visit at that hour! I speak no English, but pantomimed that I hoped she was home in bed during those hours! "Si!!" she smiled.
Cachupa and Alicia
I finally convinced Alicia to come out of the truck to pose before I devoured my cachapa. I've never tasted anything like it! The sweet corn pancake is doubled over a filling of handmade soft white cheese. Both cheese and pancake are imported from Venezuela and that is why it costs $7, (which is a lot for a food truck dish) but very worth it for such a different flavor experience! The rich, sweet, buttery corn pancake worked well with the salty cheese! Online comments from Venezuelans say this doesn't compare to tasting a cachapa freshly made in their county, but they also agree this is as delicious as you could ever hope for with imported ingredients!
An arepa is a dough patty (pita-like) filled with meat and/or cheese. Don chose the "Reina Pepiada" arepa, filled with shredded chicken, avocado and mayonnaise. This was a cold sandwhich, very much like chicken salad. Perfect for lunch. We actually shared half and half. There is no way I could have eaten that whole rich cachupa by myself!
Where Did We Dine?
Right in the gas station lot of course! We had a nice little plywood wood bench and lots of posters to view!
What I learned? I no longer end the blog with a number rating. Instead I mention one thing I learned from my dining adventure. Today I learned there are little treasures hidden in every nook and cranny of every city. All the worn out houses, buildings and even trucks we drive by every day, might just have some kind of surprise inside. If I'd ever even noticed this truck as I drove by this cluttered section of Westheimer, I would never have guessed there was imported cheese and corn pancakes waiting inside... to create dishes you can find nowhere else in Houston!
With my Trainers
Here I am with owner, Bola-O and his partner Oghosha, being treated like a V.I.P! I honestly said nothing about writing a blog, I just asked for a carry out menu. Next thing you know, I was being seated at a table with a huge plate of food.
I'm not one of those people who likes to eat by myself, but as it turns out, I didn't spend much time alone. One host, one waiter and two from the kitchen, kept stopping by begging to know what I thought. Then, Oghosha took on the role of personal trainer as he described how I must be introduced gradually to Nigerian food. "Ahhhh!" he laughed when he saw my plate. "You have not even stepped onto the continent of Africa! We will do this slowly, with many visits."
There are quite a few African shops and restaurants on this section of Bissonet, so what made me stop here? No it was not the name. (I should have asked why they gave this Nigerian restaurant such a Colonel Sanders type name) And no it was not the welcoming building... which you may recognize as a very worn looking Bennigan's.
I give credit to a sweet caregiver at my mother's nursing home, who argued one day, that this was the best African food in town. She wasn't arguing with me, but with another caregiver from Ghana, who clearly believed "Ghana House" was better! Another day...
Here is Shaddy, showing me a case with meat pies and sausage rolls and some packaged bean dishes. I really planned on just taking a menu and coming another time, but Shaddy's enthusiasm made me consider at least taking home a sample from the heated display.
Before long Shaddy and another young woman from the kitchen were eagerly discussing which foods they thought I would like. Shaddy wanted me to sit down and try FUFU, which I still am not clear on. There was a lot of debating between the two, but I was getting more caught up in their accents. It made me want to know more about the languages in Nigeria. I know English is their National language, but I believe hundreds of others are spoken.
Shaddy finally said, "If only you would sit down and eat, we could give you the best!" So I sat at a nearby table and let them serve me.
So Much Food!
Shaddy handed me a complimentary meat pie while the main dish of "Jollof Ri" was being prepared. That would have been enough. This gigantic serving of rice, chicken, beef and plantain became a whole new meal the next day as leftovers! There is no way I could finish this dish.
I was pleased to discover the meats were not too spicy, but later learned from Oghosha that this was the mildest beginning to experiencing Nigerian food. He explained the progression of meals I should have, to build myself up to the complicated spices in the more authentic dishes with curious names like "Amala, Eba Tuwo, Lafun..." Goat, snail...lots of goat!
Here I am thanking my two friends from the kitchen who talked me into staying so I could experience some of their foods. I have never been so surrounded by such eager servers and staff.
Two Things I Learned
(besides what I learned about yummy Nigerian food)
1- Dining alone actually allows for more interaction.
2-When a restaurant is welcoming, customers give more in praise and tips. (so is the economy making restaurants friendlier these days?)
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.