Sunday, April 04, 2004

Reid's BBQ

She hands me the ribs wrapped to go, and I give one a try. In my opinion, James Reid's spectacular ribs are even better without sauce. The crust is crunchier and the flavor of the smoke is unmasked. Later that day, I bring the ribs to the office and hand them over to two colleagues who haven't had lunch. Both rave about them. One likes them better with the sauce, and one prefers them without.

The brisket is delicious, though it's not served in neat slices. Barbecue cook-off judges look for deep smoke rings and uniform slices in brisket cooking contests. And that's the culinary aesthetic taught in barbecue seminars and cook-off judging classes -- which is one reason so few blacks participate in barbecue cook-offs.

"That's the difference between white and black barbecue," says Houston artist and Fifth Ward barbecue fan Bert Long. "Blacks cook everything to death." At Goode Co., every piece of meat is served in a perfect slice, he says. At black barbecue joints, they don't mind serving you a messy pile of tender meat.

The brisket and ribs are smoked in the classic East Texas African-American style, so that the meats are very moist and tender with a powerful smoky aroma. And in keeping with the style, everything is drenched in a barbecue sauce that's a tad sweet for Anglo palates such as ours.

The mashed potato salad is homemade and seasoned with a little pickle juice. The pinto beans are plain. The "sandwich" is actually a generous pile of falling-apart brisket and a couple of slices of white bread. Pickles and onions are 50 cents extra. You assemble your own sandwiches. That way they don't get all soggy.

My lunchmate has devoured four ribs with uncharacteristic abandon. I reach over and grab a couple "tender bones" before she eats them all.

"Sorry if I got carried away," she says. "These are really good."

I have to agree. The meat is so tender it falls easily away from the bone. The ribs have been spiced with a dry rub, which gives them a nice salt and red pepper tang. On the outside, the meat has a crunchy black crust. They are truly world-class ribs, except for the sauce.

"What do you think of the barbecue sauce?" I ask my lunchmate.

"I think it makes an excellent face cream," she says with an orange smile.

Reid's Barbecue
Details: Order of ribs: $7.50
Pound of ribs: $12.50
Sliced beef sandwich: $3.75
Link sandwich: $3.50
Onion and pickles: 50 cents
Where: 4101 Clover, 713-734-9326. Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays.

Excellent article on Houston Oysters

Sex, Death and Oysters

Beneath the muddy waters of Galveston Bay lies one of the greatest seafood treasure troves on earth

Eating raw oysters is exquisitely perverse. If they're freshly shucked, as they ought to be, you're putting the mollusk into your mouth while it's still alive. The wonderfully slick texture, delicate briny flavor and beachfront aroma make it easy to understand how oysters came to be associated with the tenderest portion of the female anatomy and thus considered an aphrodisiac.

The local oysters are incredibly sweet this year -- so sweet that such famous Louisiana oyster restaurants as Drago's Seafood in Metairie are serving Texas oysters alongside the Louisiana shellfish. "Texas oysters are the best right now," Croatian-American oysterman Drago Cvitanovich told me when I stopped by his Louisiana restaurant last December.

The perfect scenario for oyster growth, Ray tells me, is a dry spring, which gives the oyster larvae the slightly elevated salinity they need, followed by a wet summer and fall, which drops the salinity and keeps the oyster's predators away. And that's part of the reason for Galveston Bay's remarkable oyster harvest this year. Not only have the oyster reefs benefited from years of recovery and better water quality, but last year we had the ideal weather pattern.

We all had to agree that the cultivated oysters really have more concentrated flavors than Gulf oysters. But a dozen tiny oysters at McCormick & Schmick's sell for $21.65. A dozen fat Gulf oysters at Joyce's go for $6.95.

"I have to admit, quantity does count," the lady from Cleveland said. "It's one thing to eat oysters as a delicacy, but it's another thing to chow down on them."

"I think there's gourmet oyster eaters and then there's oyster eaters," said the Texan.

Fantastic Baklava

"What are the odds of running into a Serbo-Croatian-speaking Afghani at a Persian restaurant in an Indian neighborhood?" I joke with my tablemates. I'm about to begin my "wonders of Hillcroft" speech when I'm interrupted by Loreta's baklava.

Loreta, an "eat dessert first" kind of girl, started scarfing the pastry the second we sat down. Now she's gripped by a spiritual fervor and a need to testify.

"This baklava is incredible. Look at all these nuts!" she says, shoving the paper plate toward me. Loreta is a highly regarded classical pianist whose style is so powerful, she once broke a key off her instrument while performing in competition. When she says you must try the baklava, you literally have no choice.

I loathe sweets before dinner, but I must admit this is an exceptional baklava. The average specimen has a lot of layers of phyllo dough interspersed here and there with a few chopped nuts and a lot of honey. But this version has a little phyllo on the top, a little on the bottom, and a good three quarters of an inch of honey-sweetened, cinnamon-flavored ground walnuts in the middle. Instead of the usual sticky texture, the nuts form a rich paste that still has a subtle crunchiness. "Somebody's grandmother has to be making this," Loreta says.

As the server delivers our grilled meats to the patio, a manager walks by. "Hey, mister!" Loreta yells. "Where do you get this baklava?"

"We make it here," he says. "Do you like it?"

I've tried the roasted eggplant, the ground pickles and just about everything else on Bijan's menu, but flatbreads with grilled kabobs are really the best thing to get -- besides the desserts.

Thanks to Loreta, I eat baklava every time I come to Bijan. I never really knew what great baklava was supposed to taste like. But now that I do, I feel compelled to order it when I can get it. I've also grown quite fond of the stuffed dates, which have a whole nut where the pit used to be and are covered with a sort of dry, baked cookie dough.

"What does that taste like?" my daughter asks quizzically after taking a bite. Having considered the coating on the dates before, I'm quick with a response.

"It tastes like cinnamon toast."

I called her several days after our dinner and asked if she liked Bijan enough to go back. Loreta lives a good way from Hillcroft.

"Are you kidding? I was there yesterday trying to get some baklava for breakfast," she said, laughing. Unfortunately, she discovered that Bijan doesn't open until 11. But stopping by Bijan for a pot of tea and some dessert is a good idea. Especially while the weather is still cool and you can sit outside on the patio looking out over the Hillcroft Bazaar.

Bijan Persian Grill
Details: No. 23: $8.99
Baklava: 99 cents
Beef koobideh: $5.50
Chicken combo: $8.99
Stuffed dates (two): $1.50
Where: 5922 Hillcroft, 832-242-5959. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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