Thursday, April 06, 2006

Latest Robb Walsh

Adventures in seafood dining - Joyce's Pacific Ocean Grill. Delicious, older 60's atmosphere, will close soon.

Vietnamese cafes and sandwich shops - Alpha Bakery and Lee's.

Lee's Sandwiches
Cuisines: Vietnamese
Details: Hours: 24 hours a day, daily.
Asian sandwich: $1.85
Iced coffee: $1.85
European sandwich: $3.45
Baguette: $1
Ice cream, double scoop: $1.99

11210 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-933-9988.

Alpha Bakery is across the street in Hong Kong City Mall and slightly cheaper but more limited selection. On the other hand it has better meat quality and gives you more of it.
Alpha Bakery is a cramped little retail space with a few tables that bakes fresh banh mi rolls and sells excellent sandwiches for $1.50 each. Lee's Sandwiches is a three-ring Vietnamese fast-food circus with ice cream, hot Vietnamese Twinkies and enough space for a couple hundred people to hang out. The new guys from California may not offer quite as good a deal as their neighbor in Hong Kong City Mall. And if you're picky about lunch meat, you have to be careful what you order. But the scene is what makes Lee's Sandwiches worth the trip -- it's the Venice Beach of Vietnamese sandwich shops.

Pho Dung
Cuisines: Vietnamese
Details: Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Pho: $5.25
Mi: $5.40
Crushed rice with chicken: $5.95
Imperial rolls: $5.50
Spring rolls: $5.29

Where: 11201 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-568-1305.

I love pho.
Asians slurp noodles with a certain amount of decorum, but according to my frequent dining companion, I see a noodle-house visit as an excuse to stick my face in the bowl and go hog wild. Her concern wasn't limited to my bad manners – she was also miffed because I was so busy eating that I wasn't responding to her conversational prompts.

Noodles are probably not a great idea for a first date. Or a 101st date, for that matter.

Matamoros Meat Market No. 4
Cuisines: Mexican Tex-Mex
Details: Hours: 4:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.
Plate lunch: $3.99
Tacos: $1.69
Coffee with cinnamon: 79 cents
Carnitas (per pound): $5.99
Barbacoa regular (per pound): $5.99
Barbacoa cheek meat (per pound): $6.39
Barbacoa sesos (brains) per pound: $5.99

Where: 5526 Washington Avenue, 713-862-7792.
It's a meat market first and a taqueria second. They do have excellent fajita meat; in fact, they advertise it as the best in the country. But it's the kind you buy raw at the meat counter.

Browsing the raw meats, I saw a sign above the fajitas that read "USDA Choice or better." The only thing better than Choice is USDA Prime, I mused. And I was so taken with the idea of grilling up some high-quality fajita meat that I bought some to take home. There was also an excellent selection of charcoal. While I was at it, I got a half-pound of chorizo, too.

But I didn't see any grilled fajita meat at Matamoros Meat Market No. 4's taqueria the day I visited. All the meats were stewed and served from the steam table, except for the tripe and carnitas, which were in a warmer on the side. My stew of fajita meat and sausage came with two sides – I got refried beans and nopalitos – and it cost a whopping $3.99.

The stew had a pleasant enough flavor, and it was extremely filling. The beans were creamy; the tortillas were tough but warm; and the sausage, I think, was Eckridge Farms. The tart and tender nopalitos were probably the best thing on the plate.

I much preferred the carnitas taco that I had on another visit. The hot flour tortilla was smeared with refried beans and dotted with a little rice. The carnitas, which are pork chunks boiled in lard, were crispy on the edges and falling-apart tender in the middle. I slathered it all with brick-red salsa that proved quite hot. The taco cost $1.69, and the tortilla was so overstuffed, half of the filling fell out onto the foil. Luckily, plastic forks were provided.

The food at Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 can be quite good, if you stick with specialties like carnitas and barbacoa. And you can't beat the prices.
Last week I was sitting at the wine bar of Cova [highly recommended, expensive], directly across Washington Avenue from Matamoros Meat Market No. 4, drinking a $21 glass of red wine and eating a $9 tapas plate of duck and foie gras.

The newly painted exterior of the meat market caught my eye, particularly the lettering above the door that read "Award Winnig [sic] Meats." I asked the bartender if he ever ate over there.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "I eat there all the time." He went on to say that it was a much better deal than the $20 fajitas at El Tiempo. Six dollars' worth of carnitas from Matamoros Meat Market will feed a family for days, he said with a chuckle.

As we sat there comparing the three restaurants at the corner of Asbury and Washington, I began to realize what a broad range they represented. I don't think a cutting-edge wine bar for advanced cork dorks, a Tex-Mex patio restaurant for marg enthusiasts, and a bargain taqueria, meat market and cold beer convenience store catering to Spanish speakers could end up on the same corner in just any American city. Is Houston great or what?

I paid $1.69 for a carnitas taco at lunch at Matamoros Meat Market. Then two of us spent $46 on two glasses of rare red wine, a cheese plate and one of Monsterville Horton's oxtails at Cova for an appetizer. And finally we dropped $42 on an order of fajitas and two margaritas apiece over at El Tiempo. It was an amazing study in cultural contrasts.

I've had breakfast tacos with cinnamon coffee at 6:30 a.m., drunk potent frozen margaritas by a burbling fountain late at night, and sampled some of the world's hardest-to-find wines by the glass at happy hour at the corner of Asbury and Washington. Don't ask me to recommend one of the restaurants there over the others. I love all three.

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