On dinosaurs and astronauts: Houston’s wonderful cultural resources

hello kitty astronautAbove: yesterday’s outing was to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where I couldn’t resist buying Georgia P a Hello Kitty astronaut. Georgia, who’s now 3, calls the space center “the real astronauts.”

It still happens all the time.

When I’m on the road and people learn that I live and am raising a family in Houston, many respond with a knee-jerk reaction like o, I’m so sorry or Houston? How’s that going? or even — and this came from a relative — how can you live around all those awful people?

There’s no getting around it: Houston, like Texas in general, has a horrible reputation beyond its city limits.

Sadly, the hard-line republicans from Texas have given their state a bad name in the American consciousness. And it’s a real tragedy for the rest of us because Houston is actually a very liberal and ethnically and culturally diverse city.
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Cult BBQ with J.C. Reid, leading ‘cue commentator & connoisseur

cork screw bbqAbove: BBQ waits for no one at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, Texas, where the line begins to form at 8 a.m. for an 11 a.m. open.

There was a time in Texas, I’ve been told, before citizens would begin lining up early in the morning to get a taste of limited-edition cult BBQ.

Some say that Snow’s in Lexington (about an hour east of Austin) was the first pit master to attract such an early morning crowd.

But it was Franklin’s in Austin (proper), opened in 2009, that irrevocably created a new BBQ vernacular: BBQ zealotry punctuated by early-morning commitment and/or long waits under the Texas sun to savor the coveted gelatinous beef fat or pork product of choice.

With Killen’s, which opened earlier this year, Houston got its first high-profile cult BBQ destination — including the long waits and disappointed customers who don’t make it to the front of the line in time for their favorite cut.

chris jc reid bbq texas writerAbove: J.C. Reid, left, travels across Texas and the United States writing about BBQ. Georgia P and cousin Marty sit to his left.

On Saturday morning, Georgia P, cousin Marty, and I joined J.C. Reid — the foremost authority on Texas BBQ in my view — and his beautiful wife Tamara for a meal at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, about forty minutes north of Houston.

“Chris,” as he is known to his friends, was the first in line when the cashier opened at 11 a.m.: he had been there since 7:30 holding his place (read the Cork Screw FAQ for queue etiquette [please excuse the pun on ‘cue]).

In his weekly BBQ column for the Houston Chronicle (launched in April 2014), Chris wrote that Cork Screw’s “smoked meats now rank with the city and state’s best, and the bar will likely keep getting raised higher.”

Click here for the article. It’s a great window into the commitment and unbridled passion that go into great BBQ (I love the line about the “thousand-yard stare”).

foldover sandwichAbove: a “fold over,” in southern parlance, when you make a sandwich using one slice of bread. The brisket — the sine qua non of BBQ in Texas — was outstanding, with melt-in-your-mouth texture, well balanced rub (seasoning), and integrated smokiness (a key factor in the best BBQ in my experience).

Chris has written about BBQ for a number of top mastheads (including the New York Times).

We became friends a few years after I moved to Austin in 2008 via social media thanks to our shared love of central Italian cookery (we’re planning a carbonara-fueled trip together to Rome in spring 2015).

The thing that sets him apart from the current and past generation of BBQ chroniclers in Texas (blowhards, for the most part) is that he sets his sites beyond the state’s borders.

He and his wife are world travelers and gourmets and he’s acutely aware (and self-aware) of BBQ’s role in the americana gastronomic canon (a grad of USC, he has also worked as an architect in New York and the chief of a web hosting company here in Houston).

When I thanked him for holding our place in line, he smiled and told me he was happy to do it.

“It’s my job,” he said.

The best place to follow Chris is his Twitter, where he posts a subscription-free link to his Houston Chronicle column each week. See also his article, published last week, on favorite BBQ destinations beyond Houston and the Texas tradition of the “BBQ run.”

An awesome Gavi and other grooviness @VinoVinoWine #ATX

best gavi cortese biodynamic

So much groovy wine is finding its way to Austin, Texas these days. And it seems that nearly every day, I get turned on to a label I’ve never come across before, like this stunning Gavi by Giordano Lombardo, which blew me away with its focus, its mineral and citrus flavors, and its gentle 12% alcohol. I really really love this wine.

It was poured for me last night by my Austin client Vino Vino, our go-to wine bar in town.

bisson glera

Last night, we also tasted the Bisson crown-cap reclassified Prosecco that the winery labels as Glera (thanks again to owner and friend Jeff, for celebrating the birth of our daughter with me!).

With so much banana-candy Prosecco in Texas these days, it’s wonderful to see a commercial Prosecco like this one that actually tastes like Prosecco. High acidity, the classic note of green bitterness, and citrus and white fruit aromas and flavors. (I imagine that Bisson reclassified because it wanted to use the crown cap — a much more intelligent closure in my view — which is not allowed by the Prosecco DOC).

Bisson’s been in the Texas market for some time now and we’re big fans of its Ligurian Ciliegiolo. But I had never had the chance to taste this one.

st magdalener schiava

A local sales rep tasted us on another wine that I’ve followed for some time but — I believe — is new to the Texas market, the St. Magdalener Classico Huck am Bach, bottled by the Cantina Bolzano cooperative.

The wine showed beautifully and I love how the Lagrein gives the more gentle Schiava some oom-pah-pah. Great wine and a great time to love Italian wine in Texas.

Buon weekend, yall!

Serious buttload of wine @Texsom preview @EatingOurWords @HoustonPress

courtney perry

Image by Courtney Perry.

This morning, the Houston Press posted my preview of Texsom, the annual Texas Sommelier Conference, held in Dallas, now in its ninth year.

Reviewing my notes and composing the post, I remembered the first time I learned about Texsom: five years ago, before I’d ever been to Texas, Alfonso suggested that I attend so that I could connect with him and Tracie P.

It was held in Austin that year (the only year, I believe). And I didn’t attend, although I did come that month to Texas to take Tracie P on a dinner and dancing honkytonking date (we went to Polvo’s for dinner and the Continental Club to see Redd Voelkaert and Hey Bale… and I never looked back).

It’s been remarkable to follow Texsom’s evolution.

In 2008, when I first came here, it was still a homegrown, locally focused event that gave young wine professionals the chance to attend seminars and tastings with top sommeliers.

Today, it’s a major, nationally-recognized event that attracts the best and the brightest from across the U.S.

It’s the “little sommelier conference that could” and I wrote about it today for the Houston Press.

Texas Frito Pie and Schiava brilliant pairing @stilesswitchbbq

texas frito pie

Houston, we have a problem…

The bbq at Stiles Switch in Austin (around the corner from our house) is just too damned good to resist.

And our daughter has become addicted to their chopped beef.

The folks at Stiles Switch use chopped beef and beans to finish their Frito pie: a pan-Southern dish typically made with Fritos topped with chili and shredded cheese (in Texas, it’s generally made with classic Texan “chili con carne,” which doesn’t claim beans as one of its ingredients).

When I chided the pit master this week about why Stiles Switch adds the designation “Texas” to its “Frito pie,” he noted that it’s “Texas” because of the fact that they use chopped beef (instead of chili).

Well, I’m not one to split hairs about such things… ;)

laimburg schiava

We paired the Texas Frito pie (yes, there are Fritos underneath that mess of beans, chopped beef, pickled jalapeños, and cheese) with bright, fresh, slightly chilled Schiava by Laimburg.

The wine is so focused and pure, so refreshing and its alcohol so well balanced by the brilliant fruit and acidity, that the next day, even Mrs. B aka “nanna” (who doesn’t care much for red wine) couldn’t stop talking about how good it was.

It’s such a great metric for the quality of wine, no? When you’re still talking about it the day after, it must have been outstanding.

don't mess with texas bbq

Don’t mess with Texas bbq! And don’t get between a girl and her chopped beef!

Frito pie would be a bit overwhelming for little Georgia P. But a heaping helping of Stiles Switch chopped beef with a side of mac and cheese was just right.

Buona domenica (happy Sunday), yall!

harsh times for disenfranchised women but good tortillas in Texas capital

herdez salsa

Those crazy-assed Texan republicans have nearly prevailed in delivering some of the the most restrictive reproductive policies in the U.S. And when they’re done, they will have closed all but a handful of Planned Parenthood clinics through out the state (one of the richest in the U.S., home to its fourth-largest city, and the fastest growing in the nation). The few remaining will nearly all be in major urban centers. As a result, financially challenged families living in rural areas will have virtually no access to affordable women’s health services. And services in the big cities will be more limited.

But it’s hard to find a bad tortilla in this town, capital of the Lone Star State.

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how Cajuns fry

cajun frying oil

As soon as I typed the title for this post, I realized it was an amphiboly.

It could be construed as how Cajuns fry their food or how does one fry a Cajun.

Tracie P sent me to the store last week to get some peanut oil to fry up this year’s first batch of fried green tomatoes.

I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of this jug of Cajun Injector Cottonseed “Premium” Frying Oil.

Food shopping in Texas is as commercialized and homogenized as anywhere else in the U.S. But “regional” brands still appear in mainstream supermarkets.

Another one that gets a lot of mileage at our house is Boudreaux’s Butt Paste.

Upcoming dinners with @TonyVallone @CiaoBelloHou & @DonkeyAndGoat @SottoLA

barolo villero brovia

Above: I paid less than $100 “on premise” for this 2003 Barolo Villero by Brovia at a restaurant in Houston. Unbelievable.

The Houston food and wine scene continues to amaze me. In part because of how disappointing, uninformed, and naive it can be at times. In part because of the unbridled talent and the extreme value that you find there in the most unlikely places.

A few weeks ago, I had a superb bottle of wine from one of my favorite producers, the 2003 Barolo Villero by Brovia, one of the few growers who released their crus from the 2003 vintage. The wine was simply stunning.

But the most incredible thing about the experience was that I paid less than retail for it. Even more more unbelievable was how difficult it was to navigate the restaurant’s tablet-based wine list, out of date and poorly organized.

I wrote about the frustrating but rewarding experience today for the Houston Press.

There are some Houston restaurateurs and wine professionals who never seem to leave the Houston bubble and they sadly remain unaware of what’s going on in the world beyond.

And then there’s my friend and client Tony.

tony vallone houston

Above: Tony Vallone is one of the most dynamic Italian restaurateurs in the country imho. I’m so proud to call him my friend and client.

In the words of one Houston food critic, he’s the dude who “virtually defined” fine dining in Houston over the last four decades (his first Tony’s opened in 1965).

I’ve enjoyed some amazing meals in his restaurants and I’m excited to share the news that he and I will be speaking at a Sicilian Regional Cuisine dinner on June 26 at his Tony’s casual restaurant Ciao Bello.

Tony’s half Sicilian and half Neapolitan and he travels to Italy every year (he just got back from a trip to Chicago for the Fancy Food festival, Sicily, and Paris).

I’ve spoken about Italian wine at a number of dinners in Tony’s restaurants but we’ve never presented together. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

tracey brandt donkey goat

Above: Tracey Brandt of Donkey & Goat recently came to Austin to present her family’s wines.

Another event I’d like to bring to your attention is a wine dinner at Sotto in Los Angeles where I co-curate the wine list.

On June 25, Tracey Brandt (above) of the Donkey & Goat winery will be presenting her family’s wines.

I’m super bummed that I won’t be able to be there (I’m grounded until Baby P 2013 gets here in mid-July).

But I highly recommend the dinner and the wines to you. Donkey & Goat is one of the Parzen family’s official wines: we drink them regularly at home, mamma Judy (my mom) drinks them in La Jolla (the rosé is her favorite), and Rev. B (my father-in-law) loves him some Donkey & Goat Helluva Pinot Noir.

I’m very proud that we feature the wines at Sotto.

That’s all the news that fits today… Have a great weekend, yall! Buon weekend!

Grignolino & bbq tomorrow @StilesSwitchBBQ @VinoVinoWine & please read @EricAsimov

stiles switch

Above: Barbecue from Stiles Switch in Austin. Image via Fed Man Walking, a blog authored by former Austin American-Statesman folklore and food columnist Mike Sutter. Click here for his review of the restaurant.

When I first moved to Austin at the end of 2008, there really weren’t a lot of great bbq options in town. You had to drive out to Driftwood (Salt Lick), down to Lockhart (Kreutz et alia), or up to Llano (the original Cooper’s) for the real deal (although Sam’s on East 12th was always good in a pinch).

Then, in 2011, the Austin bbq war happened. A number of new and highly competitive places opened, including the highly praised Franklin’s. The not-so-collegial conflict was punctuated by thieves stealing raw brisket from the local supermarket chain H-E-B by stuffing them in their pants.

Although Franklin’s remains the darling of the national media, Stiles Switch (on the north side of town) emerged as one of the winners of the conflagration and was recently voted one of the top 50 bbq destinations in Texas by Texas Monthly.

It’s where Tracie P and I get our bbq and it’s also where my client Vino Vino will be hosting a dinner tomorrow night with the wines of Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta — Grignolino and Barbera. $35 for bbq and Grignolino sounds pretty good to me

Tomorrow afternoon, Vino Vino will also be hosting its annual rosé wine festival, Pink Fest, one of the best wine events in town.

I’ll be at both happenings. Come out and taste with me if you’re in town!

In other news…

Please read Eric the Red’s EXCELLENT article today in the Times, “If Only the Grapes Were the Whole Story.”

“Think of wine as food,” he writes. “Concerns about where food comes from and how it’s grown, processed or raised ought to be extended to wine. If we ourselves don’t set standards for quality and authenticity, who will?”

Buon weekend e buona lettura, yall!

Confessions of a Natural wine addict (all is fair in love)

“A writer takes his pen and writes the words again/all is fair in love.”
—Stevie Wonder

dettori bianco

Above: Four of six bottles of Dettori 2010 Romangia Bianco have been fizzy and slightly sweet.

Dettori Romangia Bianco, a skin-contact wine from Sardinia made from 100% Vermentino grapes, is one of our all-time favorite wines.

Tracie P and I have a mini-vertical of the wine in our cellar and we buy a case of every new vintage to put down each year.

That’s just one of the reasons that I was so thrilled to see the wine finally make it to the Texas market (until now, I’ve bought the wine in California where I keep my cellar).

But the number-one reason was that we love drinking it.

dettori back label

Above: The Dettori back label with a note on the winery’s approach to vinfication. Click image for high-resolution version.

I can’t imagine that anyone, even the greatest Natural wine skeptic or detractor, would deny that Dettori’s wines are Natural wines.

As Alessandro Dettori writes on the back of each bottle, the only ingredients are grapes and sulfur. And no enzymes or additives (he calls them adjuvants) are used in vinification.

In my experience, the wines can be radically different from vintage to vintage. But their intense tannic component seems to keep the wines relatively stable although never homogenous.

dettori vineyard

Above: Alessandro Dettori in his “oldest vineyard.” I’ve never been to the winery but my friend Georgios Hadjistylianou graciously let me use these photos from his recent visit there. Here’s the photo album. Thanks again Georgios!

I won’t conceal my disappointment when four (so far) of six bottles turned out to be fizzy and slightly sweet.

When the importer came through town and tasted the wine with me earlier this month, the 2010 seemed to align with my previous experience. It was tannic and rich, very youthful in its evolution. I couldn’t wait to buy some.

And when my local wine merchant told me he was holding the last six bottles for me, I hurried to the shop to pick them up.

But I’m sad to report that somewhere along the way — probably due to the extreme and often capricious Texas heat — the wine underwent a secondary fermentation in bottle.

dettori cellar

Above: Cement vats at Dettori.

As Tracie P noted, they taste like vino paesano, the “country wine” that is often sold in demijohns in proletarian Italian wine shops. It’s fresh and bright, the alcohol and tannin are tame, the acidity is zinging, and the gentle spritz makes it even more food-friendly.

I’m a wine professional and am well aware that a flawed or corked bottle here and there are variables in the vinous equation. But four out of six bottles and counting could be grounds to ask for my money back.

But, no, I would never do that.

I’m a Natural wine addict and if nature — including the moody temperatures of my adoptive state — has delivered the wine in this condition, it’s my bitter sweet pill to swallow.

“We are artisans of the earth,” writes Alessandro on the back of his bottles. The wines are “what they have to be and not what you want them to be.”

We’ve been drinking the flawed but wholesome wine as an apertif and pairing it with early summer pesto and pasta al pomodoro. Not as cheap as a vino paesano but equally enjoyable.

It’s a wine that reminds us that all is fair in nature and in love…