Archive for April, 2014

Whataburger

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014 by virginia

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I had figured that for any road trip, there would be a time when we would have to hit up a fast food restaurant for a meal. But my rule for eating “locally” while traveling applies to fast food as well, and so I prefer to go to chains that aren’t readily available back home. In Texas, this meant checking out Whataburger, which is primarily in Texas but also has locations in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

We stopped by for a quick lunch before exploring the Johnson Space Center, so we went to the location on NASA Rd. Josh and I both got the original Whataburger with the default toppings – mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and diced onions. Josh opted for double meat though while I stuck with a single patty.

Original Whataburger

Original Whataburger – double meat

At first glance, the Whataburger looked fairly standard with a squishy, seedless bun and lettuce and tomato poking out. It was a decent size in circumference, though I thought the beef patty was on the thinner side. Josh had the right idea in ordering a double, as the toppings to meat ratio was completely off on my single burger. I usually don’t order mustard on my burgers, but did so here because it was part of the standard package. I thought it overwhelmed the meat, which was pretty bland and nondescript. I did like that the bun had been buttered and toasted before assembly, but even that was more flavorful than the meat.

Autopsy shot

Autopsy shot – single patty Whataburger

We got an order of six chicken bites for J. She ate a few pieces but then started tossing them on the floor so we wound up eating the rest ourselves. They were heavily breaded but still had lots of meat inside. I thought they were pretty good for fast food nuggets, although the portion seemed small for the price. The bites were pretty tiny compared to the super large containers of dipping sauces they offered.

Chicken bites

Chicken bites

And of course, our meal wouldn’t have been complete without french fries. These were skinny fries, similar to McDonald’s, though with more potato flavor. They weren’t as crispy as I would have liked, but we enjoyed them nonetheless.

Thin french fries

Thin french fries

Overall, we thought Whataburger was just ok. Better than McDonalds and Burger King for sure, but no comparison to In N Out. The burger reminded me a bit of Wendy’s burger, which isn’t a bad thing, but also isn’t that impressive. The ingredients did seem fresher though, and the burger was constructed better. But maybe I just had higher expectations because of the hype around Whataburger. Would I eat here again? Sure. Would I go out of my way to eat here? Definitely not. What I did like, however, was the service. The staff was friendly and courteous, and rather than having you get your own condiments, someone walked around with a tray of ketchup/sauce containers, straws, and napkins and offered to replenish our supply whenever we ran low. That’s something you don’t see at other fast food places, and I appreciated the extra level of hospitality.

Whataburger (multiple locations)
100 East NASA Rd. 1
Webster, TX

Lupe Tortilla – Houston

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 by virginia

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Our first night in Texas was spent in downtown Houston, although it was really just a stopover for us to break up our drive into more manageable segments for J. Josh goes to Houston often for work, and he warned me that there wasn’t much to see in the city. However, he said that we could eat the best fajitas he’s ever had. That was a pretty bold statement in general, and while he does usually order fajitas whenever we’re at a Tex Mex restaurant, he’s not exactly a connoisseur. I, on the other hand, never eat fajitas, so I was pretty sure that no matter what, they would be the best fajitas I ever ate, but the skeptic in me wondered just how good any fajita could possibly be.

It was getting pretty late by the time we arrived in Houston so rather than going to the hotel first, we drove straight to the restaurant, Lupe Tortilla. I had googled it during our drive and saw that it was a chain restaurant with many branches throughout Texas, which made me even more skeptical. We went to the one closest to downtown Houston and the place was packed. That was a good sign, even though it meant we had to wait about 20 minutes for a table.

Since it was late and we technically had eaten two lunches in Lafayette before heading to Houston, we declined ordering any appetizers. In hindsight, I would have liked to try the queso flameado since I’ve never eaten it before, and we ended up never having it on the rest of our trip. Oh well, just another reason to go back to Texas. Instead, we zoned in on the fajitas and decided to share a mixed pound of beef and chicken.

While we waited for our food, we snacked on the complimentary basket of tortilla chips with salsa and a warm bean dip. The chips were terrific – thin and crispy with just the right amount of salt. The salsa was on the runny side but was packed with flavor and had a little kick to it. We made a pretty good dent in everything while we waited for our food to arrive.

Tortilla chips, salsa, bean dip

Tortilla chips, salsa, bean dip

Shortly thereafter, a large sizzling platter arrived with our beef and chicken, plus grilled onions and an array of accoutrement – guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded cheddar cheese, rice, and beans. We asked for a mix of flour tortillas and corn tortillas. I prefer flour, whereas Josh is usually a fan of corn. I constructed my first fajita with a few slices of beef, some grilled onions, a little guacamole, and a sprinkle of pico de gallo. I used a flour tortilla, which was large in size but super thin, unlike the commercial flour tortillas we get from most places at home or at the supermarket. I took one bite of my fajita and my eyes opened wide – I was believer. These were definitely the best fajitas I’ve ever had, by a long shot. The steak was beautifully cooked and incredibly tender. The meat was well seasoned and had a great grilled flavor to it that helped it stand up to the rest of the accompaniments.

Chicken and steak fajitas with various accompaniments

Chicken and steak fajitas with various accompaniments

I tried a chicken fajita next with a corn tortilla, and while I definitely preferred the flour tortillas, the chicken was outstanding. Moist and flavorful, I couldn’t decide which protein I liked more, the chicken or the beef. Even J, who was on a bit of a meat strike by this point in our trip, devoured piece after piece of both the steak and chicken.

Overall, Lupe Tortilla really did have the best fajitas I’ve ever eaten. And not just by a little. It completely blows any fajita I’ve ever had out of the water. There’s just no comparison. In fact, when Josh ordered fajitas just the other day, I took one nibble on a piece of steak and turned up my nose. I didn’t even ask for a full bite. I think Lupe may have ruined me for other fajitas. In addition to their fantastically flavorful and tender meats, their flour tortilla is outstanding. It’s thin and chewy, yet with a delicately flaky texture, and is more similar to a peking duck crepe than to any other flour tortilla I’ve tasted. The website says they are hand-rolled, and I can believe it. I’d even enjoy eating them plain, without any fillings. Admittedly, our experience with Tex Mex food has mostly been limited to chain restaurants, but I know when my taste buds are happy. And I could not be happier going back to Lupe at any time. Too bad it’s all the way in Texas! I would definitely be going there often if it was close by. Oh well, until next time!

Lupe Tortilla (multiple locations)
2414 Southwest Freeway
Houston, TX ‎

Two Fat Bellies Hit the Road – Texas

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by virginia

This was my first official trip to Texas, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I had driven through it before on a cross country trip with my family, but we didn’t stop anywhere except a rest area somewhere along the highway. I don’t even remember which highway, or which towns/cities we went through. So I was kind of excited yet kind of nervous – most peoples’ reactions when we told them we were going to Texas was, “Why?”

Why indeed. For the food, duh. I wanted to taste Tex Mex cuisine, Texas barbecue, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on that I wouldn’t be able to have back home. Texas seemed like a good place to be able to consume massive quantities of food and not be judged for it.

We did some sightseeing as well, of course. We had to kill some time in between all the eating so that we could make space in our stomachs for more food. There wasn’t much to see in Houston proper, our first stop, but we did spend a great day exploring the Johnson Space Center. We even got to touch moon rock!

The former Mission Control (a la Apollo 13)

The historic Mission Control (should look familiar if you watched the Apollo 13 movie)

The building where they do training for International Space Center missions

The building where they do training for International Space Center missions

Saturn V rocket display (you can see how big it was compared to J in the background!)

The ginormous Saturn V rocket display

The massive thrusters on the Saturn V rocket

The thrusters on the Saturn V rocket

Shuttlecraft Galileo from Star Trek

Shuttlecraft Galileo from Star Trek

We spent an epic afternoon eating in Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas.

Caldwell County Courthouse

Caldwell County Courthouse

We remembered the Alamo in San Antonio, plus a few other less well-known missions that were pretty beautiful.

The Alamo

The Alamo

Mission Concepcion

Mission Concepcion

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan

Mission Espada

Mission Espada

We also strolled along the famed River Walk, underneath a twinkly canopy of Christmas lights. We were there during the day as well, but it’s much more magical at night.

A boat on the River Walk

A boat on the River Walk

Endless strands of Christmas lights

Endless strands of Christmas lights

And we saw the Texas State Capitol in Austin and the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Oh, and a graffiti park. Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot to see in Austin. But at least the food was good!

State capitol

State Capitol

Stevie Ray Vaughn statue

Stevie Ray Vaughan statue

Walls of graffiti

Walls of graffiti

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised – we had a great time, ate way more food than we should have, and I would happily go back to eat some more; there was still lots that we didn’t get to. All in all, our mini road trip from Louisiana to Texas was a huge success, and we look forward to our next adventure with J.

Apiary

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by virginia

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Just wanted to take a break in between the Louisiana and Texas trip to talk about a semi-recent meal we had at Aviary in NYC in February to celebrate our 16th anniversary as a couple. It was a notable anniversary for us because we were both 16 years old when we started dating, so sometime in between this anniversary and the next, we’ll have been together for more than half our lives. I think that’s a pretty cool milestone.

Since J came into the picture, it’s rare for us to have a dinner on our own. We either bring her along with us, or if we can get someone to watch her, we’re usually meeting friends for dinner or going to a party. So when Josh’s parents graciously agreed to watch her for our anniversary, we knew we wanted to have a nice meal out in the city, which is a rare luxury for us these days. After doing a bit of research, we settled on Apiary, a fairly under the radar restaurant with a chef we were both curious about – Scott Bryan.

We had both read about Scott Bryan in Kitchen Confidential, where author/chef Anthony Bourdain sings his praises. After leaving Veritas in 2007, however, we hadn’t really heard much about Chef Bryan since then. He seems like such a talented, passionate cook who is really just focused on the food, not all the PR and other hype surrounding chefs these days, and so we were eager to sample his offerings.

As a side bonus, we went on a Monday, when the restaurant offers no corkage fees. We stopped at Astor Wines nearby and picked up a bottle of white from Tuscany and a bottle of red Chateauneuf du Pape to go with our meal. I had researched the menu online beforehand so I had a good idea of what I wanted to order, but of course I needed Josh to agree with me. Our waiter also came up with a long list of recommendations when asked what dishes he preferred. Rather than going for the 5 course tasting menu, we decided to come up with our own tasting with four appetizers and two entrees, so that we could try more dishes.

While we waited for our food to come out, we noshed on the bread, slices of sourdough with a hearty yet crispy crust. It was delicious with the fruity olive oil that came on the side for dipping.

Sourdough bread and olive oil

Sourdough bread and olive oil

We told our waiter that we planned to share all the dishes, so the kitchen thoughtfully split some of them into two plates for us. For the first course, we were each presented with our own plates of hamachi crudo, and our order of grilled quail was placed in the middle of the table. The hamachi, which is yellowtail fish, was sliced thin and served raw with slices of avocado, hearts of palm, chopped chives, finely diced jalapenos, and a microgreen salad on top. The dish was dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette, and while I loved the pop of the acid and the freshness of the fish and vegetables, Josh thought there was a bit too much citrus on the fish that overwhelmed its delicate flavors. Overall though, we both thought it was a bright dish that woke up our taste buds and was a great start to the meal.

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

We were more mixed about the grilled quail dish, as we thought that was a bit odd for them to have presented us with individual crudos while the quail just sort of sat on the table and got cold while we ate our fish. Maybe they expected us to finish our crudo quickly, and then move on to the quail immediately? Logistically, it was also kind of hard to eat the quail while reaching over our crudo plates. I think our waiter saw us struggling a bit and quickly removed the empty plates and provided us with clean small plates to transfer the quail onto, which was a slightly  messy affair. The quail itself was well seasoned, but the meat was pretty chewy. Josh picked up his half with his hands and ate the meat off the bone, while I tried a more delicate approach with my knife and fork, which wasn’t very successful. It came with lentils on the side, curried spiced yogurt, and drizzle of paprika oil that added a bit more smoke to the dish. The flavors were intense and exotic, which we enjoyed, but it was hard to get past the chewiness of the quail.

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

For our second course, the kitchen split our order of swiss chard and ricotta ravioli. There were two plump raviolis in each bowl that were topped with a piece of fried sage, brown butter, and poppy seeds. The pasta itself was perfectly cooked and gorgeously delicate, both in texture and flavor. The brown butter was a tad greasy but otherwise appropriately rich, and worked well with the sage. The surprise element of the dish was the poppy seeds sprinkled on top, which added a nice dainty crunch to each bite.

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage brown butter, poppy

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage, brown
butter, poppy

The last of our appetizer courses was the grilled octopus, which they also split for us. Each portion of tentacle came with romesco sauce, chorizo oil, and arugula dressed with lemon. I took a bite and commented to Josh about how it was probably the most tender octopus I’ve ever eaten, and he looked back at me in surprise and said the texture was only ok. We traded bites and indeed, his octopus was much chewier, with a sort of bounciness to it, while I could have cut my portion with just the side of my fork. Coincidentally, this has happened to us before, where we each had two completely different tentacle textures from the same serving. I thoroughly enjoyed this particular preparation, especially the smokiness from the grill and from the chorizo oil. The arugula salad lightened up the dish and prevented it from feeling too heavy.

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Grilled octopus, romesco, baby arugula, lemon

For our entree course, the kitchen did that thing again where they split one of our dishes (the duck breast) and served the other one (the pork chop) whole at the same time, where it also sat in the middle of the table until we were ready for it. Nevertheless, the duck was simply fabulous – medium rare, beautifully pink, rendered skin, and perfectly seasoned. There were whole green peppercorns in the jus drizzled on top, which had gave each bite a little peppery pop and a slight floral hint. I wasn’t a big fan of the glazed turnips on the side (I found them to be slightly too bitter and acidic, although Josh didn’t mind them), but I enjoyed the pureed parsnips and chewy farro underneath. The duck was the real star of the plate though, and it was our favorite dish of the night.

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Josh finished his duck first and dug into the pork chop, still having to reach awkwardly across his duck plate. The pork chop was massive, probably the thickest pork chop we’ve ever gotten at a restaurant, and was cooked through to medium as the chef recommended. It was served on top of a bed of black bean tinga, which is a Mexican style sauce made with chipotles. I thought the beans were just slightly too al dente for my taste, but Josh disagreed and liked that they had texture to them. There was a spiced avocado mash on top of the pork, but I didn’t taste any of the orange ginger glaze that was mentioned on the menu. I thought the pork was seasoned well and the dish had a lot of flavor to it, but it didn’t really wow us. We felt like it was something we can make at home, and Josh’s mom has a similar dish in her repertoire that involves simmering pork chops and black beans in a combination of salsa and tomato sauce. Obviously this was a much more refined dish than the one she makes, and the quality of the pork was vastly superior, but the flavors were almost identical.

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

I was stuffed to the gills by this point and didn’t even finish my half of the gigantic pork chop, so we were prepared to pass on dessert. Plus we heard from Josh’s mom that J was getting a little fussy and was probably going to be ready for bed soon, and we wanted to see her before she went down for the night since we had left for work before she had gotten up for the day. The waiter surprised us by bringing a vanilla panna cotta with our check, in honor of our anniversary. It was an incredibly nice gesture, and helped to cap off a lovely evening. The panna cotta was smooth and creamy, and we could see real vanilla bean seeds on top. It was served with raspberry coulis that was just slightly tart, which helped cut through the richness of the cream.

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Overall, we really enjoyed our anniversary meal at Apiary. The meal hit some really high highs (the duck, the raviolis), and didn’t really have any misses. While the quail and the pork chop weren’t our favorites of the evening, they still had great flavor and would probably appeal to a lot of other people. I loved the hamachi and the octopus courses, but the kitchen showed a bit of inconsistency in those dishes as Josh’s octopus was far from the tender specimen I received, and his crudo had too much acid on the plate. As a side note, Josh later confessed that he’s actually not a big fan of octopus in general, because he feels it has no flavor, while I vehemently disagreed. See, even after 16 years together, there are still surprises in our relationship! But in general, we had a great dinner, and service was fabulous. Our waiter was knowledgeable, enthusiastic about the food, and came by to check on us often. With BYO Mondays, Apiary is a great place to go out for a nice, upscale meal without blowing your budget. They also offer a three course prix fixe menu on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for $38, with items from the regular menu. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Apiary
60 Third Ave.
New York, NY