Mi Cocina

September 1, 2004 by  
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Dallas transplant serves up Tex Mex fare with a casually sophisticated flair

Mico Rodriguez of Dallas must have wondered, from time to time, why it meant so much to him to import his Mi Cocina Tex-Mex restaurant concept to Houston. It wasn’t as though we were dying here without any Tex-Mex, with the hundreds or even thousands of taquerias perched on almost every street corner, not to mention all those trucks and vans that deliver lunchtime tacos to construction sites like some salsa-crazed version of the ice-cream man.

We have plenty of entry-level Tex-Mex already in this town, not to mention at least two chains with major-league track records – the Pappas family’s Pappasito’s and the now-Serranos-owned Mama Ninfa’s. Heck, locals still treat grungy Ninfa’s on Navigation as a pilgrimage point equal to Santiago de Compostella, years after the beloved Mama Ninfa sold all her restaurants lock, stock and skirt steak and then passed away.

Surely, Rodriguez was aware of this, right along with the fact that Houston is home to the “Master of All Multiunits,” Tilman Fertitta, whose only foray into this cuisine thus far has been the acquisition of Cadillac Bar. To hear Rodriguez talk about Mi Cocina, Tex-Mex (also known simply as Mexican food) is the hottest brand going. He has success stories in Dallas and Fort Worth, not to mention Kansas City and now Houston – Houston twice, in fact, with openings in Tony Vallone’s former Grotto location at Woodway and Voss, and then in the finally-on-fire eatery location of The Woodlands.

What Mi Cocina brings to the table is, well, everything we expect plus some. Very little reinventing of the wheel goes on in “my kitchen” (that’s what the name means), giving way to a slow and deliberate perfecting of Tex-Mex dishes already shown to be crowd pleasers. Since Rodriguez grew up in his family’s Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas and later launched Mi Cocina with a single 12-table location, he can be expected to make quick work of tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and the like, not to mention the frozen margaritas that were actually invented in Dallas. The place is set apart from most other similar concepts by its insistence on style. It’s not for nothing (and not just a matter of location, location, location) that the typical Mi Cocina parking lot is full of BMWs, Lexuses and Acuras or that the crowd inside reflects a who’s who of the local social scene. The décor is modern enough barely to feel Mexican, which of course is what most restaurants in the real place called Mexico strive for. And the music is a hipper version of what we expect, the perfect accompaniment to a lunch and dinner daily serving of meet, eat and greet.

There are many wonderful dishes on this menu. Some best bets include appetizers like the flautitas de pollo with guacamole and crema and the sopa de tortilla, the tacos Habana from the specials list and the wonderful Bistec Tampiquena – cross-regioned with a mole sauce allegedly from Oaxaca. Hey, if Mexican food made it all over Texas, it surely is allowed to make it all over Mexico.

Beyond these and the oh-so-lovable Tex-Mex favorites, Mi Cocina does all the right things right for a future of solid business. It has an affordable lunch menu. It has a kids’ menu. It makes terrific margaritas, with a higher (and more traditional) percentage of tequila than has become the norm. Houstonians should welcome Mi Cocina of Dallas with open minds and open mouths. H

Mi Cocina
5401 Woodway Dr
(832) 255-6426

Pub Grub

September 1, 2004 by  
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No need to venture to London’s gritty East End to enjoy authentic pub fare; it’s all right here waiting for you, mate.

For me, the joys of authentic English pub grub are forever tied to fish and chips wrapped in the latest tabloid and drowning in brisk malt vinegar, the true meaning of Greenwich Mean Time. Is it any wonder that I’m something of a regular at the Red Lion?

My love of fish and chips (a pub specialty that our newest local pub on Shepherd tried to offer only on Fridays but failed by popular demand) came from a small place I got to know in Greenwich during the long dry summer of 1976. It was hot. There was no air conditioning. There was a drought in England and Europe that made food expensive. The heat and the drought conspired to live more fully in my throat than anywhere else, so I discovered this backstreet pub in Greenwich. The place doubled as a “chip shop,” I recall, meaning you could eat your fish and chips, roast beef or shepherd’s pie inside with a not-really-cold “lager and lime” or some other malt beverage – or you could order your meal wrapped in Fleet Street journalism at its finest. That’s what I usually did, being a journalist.

The food served in English pubs (short for “public houses”) is an evolved embodiment of a 2,000- or perhaps 3,000-year-old tradition. The Romans were the first to get the basic idea down, building tabernae serving food, wine and local ale everywhere across the Isles. When the Romans pulled back into Gaul – and finally, all the way back into Rome – the tabernae faded, leaving only a linguistic legacy in the sibling word tavern.

With the Romans and their grapes gone, surviving Brits could focus on what they really loved to drink: ale. Most brewers made ale in their homes at first, selling it to passersby. The better brewers were recognized as such, opening small rooms or building small outbuildings in which to serve their golden treasure. The English alehouse was born, a memory that lives on at the Red Lion and other local pubs.

Yet another river of history flowed into the British pub tradition, that of the overnight roadside inn. Beginning with pilgrimages to the Canterbury cathedral in which St. Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, the dusty roads of England were filled with travelers – weary, hungry and especially thirsty. These inns on the roads to Canterbury were gossip centers, specifically for the swapping of bawdy tales. You can’t really blame Geoffrey Chaucer for grabbing his notebook. The tavern propelled the old alehouse and roadside inn toward the modern world. Though usually stepping up a notch socially from its predecessors, the tavern was by no means a place of decorum. In many instances, it was a place gentlemen disappeared into to escape their everyday wives – I mean lives. Yes, there were a few prostitutes, perhaps. And some drinking. As one historian puts it, in a happy turn of phrase: “There was much drunkenness, but drunkenness was not disapproved of as it is today.”

All of these story lines come together in a true pub, whether in Hartford, Hereford or Houston. The beers are many and varied, from the lightest lagers to the nearly black Irish sludge now universally known as Guinness. The foods served in pubs have to nourish folks between one long, hard day of physical labor and the next. It’s good, solid, hearty food – full of flavor, butter and cream.

I love to go to the Red Lion when it’s hot or cold, when it’s dark or light, when it’s early or late. There’s sure to be one or more tables of people speaking with British accents, sometimes even the northern twang of Yorkshire echoing that of owner Craig Mallinson. Sit at this bar long enough, and somebody just might buy you a Boddingtons. Then, naturally, you’ll buy your new friend one right back. Common decency, you know. Hands across the water. All that.

When you can’t spot me at the Red Lion, I might be at Sherlock’s Baker Street Pub & Grill, probably the oldest surviving pub tradition in Houston – and named after one of my all-time favorite things that will be forever England, the Sherlock Holmes detective stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You might run into me at Kenneally’s, which has the nerve to be an Irish pub serving some of the best pizza in town. These days, you might catch me downing a cold one with some nibbles at O’Rourke’s – the new, charmingly faux-Irish offshoot of O’Rourke’s Steakhouse on Montrose. This is a real-feeling pub for the museum district crowd, with vastly upgraded “pub grub” from the steakhouse to prove it.

For the record, I still love few things better than fish and chips doused with malt vinegar, though I heard a rumor recently that in England the stuff now comes in Styrofoam. I love roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. I love shepherd’s pie, since whoever decided ground beef needed to get intimate with mashed potatoes is some kind of genius. And I love those crazy little fatty sausages baked inside buttery pastry. H

Fish and Chips
1 1/2 pounds sole fillet, skinned
Lemon juice
Salt and white pepper
1/4 cup flour
Oil for frying
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon oil
3/4 cup beer
1 egg white
Kosher salt
1 pinch granulated sugar
4 large russet potatoes

Wash fish fillets in lemon and water. Season with salt and pepper. Chill while you prepare the batter.

Sprinkle yeast over warm water. Let stand until dissolved. Place flour in a bowl with the salt and sugar and make a well in the center. Add the dissolved yeast, oil and 2/3 of the beer and stir with a wooden spoon just to combine. Stir in remaining beer. Let the batter stand, covered, in a warm place 30 to 35 minutes, until it has thickened and becomes frothy.

Dry fish with paper towels and cut each fillet diagonally in two pieces. Slice the potatoes with the skin on. Place in a large bowl with cold water.

Heat the oven to warm. Stir together remaining flour, pepper and salt in a plate. Heat the oil. Whip egg white until it forms soft peaks and fold it into the batter.

Coat fish with seasoned flour, patting so they are evenly coated. Shake off excess flour. Using a two-pronged fork, dip the fish in the batter. Lift it out and hold it over the bowl five seconds to drip off excess batter. Carefully lower the piece of fish into the hot oil and deep fry, turning once, until golden brown and crisp.

Fry one or two pieces at a time, transferring to paper towels as you go. Keep warm in the oven until all fish is done, or until you finish frying the potatoes.

Drain potatoes thoroughly, removing any excess water. When oil reaches 320 degrees, submerge the potatoes in the oil. Working in small batches, fry for two to three minutes until they are pale and floppy. Remove from oil, drain and cool to room temperature.

Increase the temperature of the oil to 375 degrees. Reimmerse fries and cook until crisp and golden brown, about two to three minutes. Remove and drain on roasting rack. Season with kosher salt and serve with fish, lemons and tartar sauce – and plenty of malt vinegar for sprinkling. Serves six.

Hispanic Cultural & Education Center

September 1, 2004 by  
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the video

An exhibit at the downtown JPMorganChase building previews the Houston Hispanic Forum’s campaign to transform the historic Light Guard Armory into the Hispanic Cultural and Educational Center. One of the ultimate goals for the Cultural Center is to provide art gallery space and attract talented, international established artists.

Latin Christian Rock Band

September 1, 2004 by  
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the video

The name of the band is Cronos. They are a Christian, Latin, British, alternative rock band. They’ve been performing at a church in Southwest Houston for two years. Their first CD has just been released. You can purchase it at www.cronosweb.org.

Trends in Housing

September 1, 2004 by  
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Experts predict that by the year 2010, Hispanics will be the largest segment of the Houston population. One realtor, who’s been helping Houstonians find homes for 28 years says over 50% of her clients are of Hispanic decent. No matter your nationality, Cordova says consider your family, location to schools and price range when selecting a home.

Artistically Challenged

September 1, 2004 by  
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Houston – like the rest of Texas – does a great job building stadiums and arenas, but a lousy job supporting the arts.

It has been observed that in Texas an “intellectual” is anyone who can listen to the “William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. By the same token, in Houston a “patron of the arts” is anyone who has matching mud flaps or spells “theater” as “theatre.” Hey, what can you expect of a city whose biggest social event is the rodeo and livestock show? Our one commercial classical radio music station, KRTS, has been sold to a group specializing in urban and rap music. Actually, the arts scene in Houston hasn’t been the same since Gilley’s burned.

Much of the scenic art we have is out in public – beautiful pictures, towering sculptures, fantastic lighting. Of course, in other cities these are called “billboards.” But we are not total bumpkins. Houston is one of only four cities in the United States that has full-time professional symphony, opera, ballet and theater companies. Our theater district reputedly is second only to New York City in the number of theater seats, but this is impossible to prove since many cities have theaters and seats scattered all over the place, just not in a group. But such a claim sounds good, and who can prove it wrong?

As a city and county, we are not heavy into public support of the arts. The HOT (Hotel Occupancy Tax) is 17 percent of what is collected, the highest such tax in the nation. Of this amount, 6 percent goes to the city for several purposes including the arts, 2 percent goes to the county, 2 percent goes to the Sports Authority and 7 percent goes to the state. Houston does not just fork over cash to worthy, or Wortham, arts organizations. By statute, the city directs 19 percent of its total hotel occupancy tax receipts to the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, or CACHH, which in turn redirects the money to various artists and arts organizations.

Not to bog you down in numbers, but it’s your money, and you may want to know where it’s going, so pay attention. For the fiscal year which ended June 30, CACHH received from the city $8,087,872.12 for the arts. This amount exceeds the amount estimated for the budget a year ago by $202,872.12 – because the hotel tax rebounded – but it still breaks down to just $4.01 per person. After a 10.5 percent handling fee and other costs, CACHH distributed $6,926,471.36 to more than 150 different local organizations varying from $500 for Houston Community Services to $1.9 million for the Theater District Improvement Inc.

The county also helps out to an embarrassingly small degree. It took in $28.7 million last year from the HOT tax, most of which went to pay off the debt of Reliant Stadium. Like the city, the county also gave some of that tax take to CACHH – exactly $75,000 or about $0.02 per person per year. This cheapskate situation is traditional in the Lone Star State. Texas ranks dead last, in 50th place, in the nation in per capita state spending on state arts agencies: 23 cents a Texan. The local couth scene has been hard hit, not just by the slower economy, but by lower corporate giving, especially in the energy field. For example, the Houston Ballet contributions from oil and gas producers declined 42 percent in the 12 months ending in June compared to a year earlier. The Alley Theatre sued Enron just to get in line for whatever the theater – excuse me, theatre – could get from its promised $30,000 donation.

Of course, it has been argued that if any of the arts, from museums to opera, truly have an audience, then these organizations would support themselves and wouldn’t need taxpayer money but would sell a service and turn a buck just like any other business. I agree wholeheartedly. So does the Sports Authority. Not! The taxpayers of Houston and Harris County have doled out far more of their hard-earned dollars for pro sports facilities than has been spent on the arts. You probably don’t know this – you are not supposed to – but if the city of Houston spent as much public funds on the symphony, theater, museums, etc. as we do on Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center, we would have the finest arts on Earth. It’s all a matter of priorities.

The Changing Face of the Houston Art World

September 1, 2004 by  
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In mid-July, along Colquitt Street near River Oaks, several galleries participated in ArtHouston, a celebration of art ultimately spanning 38 galleries over two days.

ArtHouston, annually held on the weekend following July Fourth, usually doesn’t have much competition for attendance. This year was different, however: Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities were capturing the city’s attention just two miles away.

A weekend of open houses and artist conversations would seemingly attract an older demographic regardless, especially for galleries aiming to sell works during the weekend.

Yet, in each gallery, young professionals gazed at works alongside an older, more traditional age group. Even with the All-Star Game, art was garnering an audience, and a diverse one at that.

“A Period of Stress and Malaise”
David Gockley is one of the most respected men in the Houston cultural world. As the general director of Houston Grand Opera for more than three decades, he has overseen its rise from a regional company into an organization attracting international praise.

Sitting in his office atop Wortham Center, you can’t help but notice the countless awards hanging on his walls, or the numerous pictures with celebrities and Houston luminaries. You can’t help but listen to his articulate and reflective words, either.

“Culturally, the city underwent a three-year period of stress and malaise,” says Gockley, “following three major events: Tropical Storm Allison, 9/11 and the fall of Enron.” Indeed, facilities citywide – especially in the Hermann Circle museum district area – were submerged because of Allison. Ann Lancaster, director of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, suffered through Enron as well.

“In our first year, we had this big party,” recalls Lancaster. “I just remember about one-half of that party being tied with Enron. Some things certainly changed after that.” Joel Bartsch, the new president of Houston Museum of Natural Science, is a jovial man who is proud to say he “grew up in the museum,” attending their programs since his childhood. Bartsch looks as if he might be more comfortable playing football than running a museum, but his tone conveys a complete love and understanding of the city’s art world.

“With 9/11, I don’t know if we suffered specifically from a financial standpoint,” notes Bartsch, referring to HMNS. “Nonprofits in general suffered because people were channeling their money into relief efforts, and businesses became more conservative with their donations.”

Bartsch pauses in front of the entrance to the popular Mars show before adding:

“One thing those events did was to make museums rethink their business plan. You can either be all things to all people, or you can try to attract one core audience.”

A New Core Audience
“I think we all get the feeling that the worst is over, and the dark time is past us,” said Gockley, of HGO.

With the addition of the light rail system this past winter, Houston residents have easier access to the museum district and downtown – both artistic centers. Construction on U.S. 59 has created an offramp into the museum district, and the city has gained international recognition for its cultural programs. The Financial Times of London recently referred to America’s fourth-largest city as “culturally driven,”? while The New York Times has run several articles in the past four years about the Houston arts culture.

It’s understandable that Bartsch would speak of museums attempting to attract “one core audience” because HMNS – while still appealing to all age groups – did just that last year, beginning the Mixers and Elixirs program. On weekend nights, a live band and IMAX shows awaited the city’s young professionals, who turned out in droves.

“It speaks to the idea of “Museum as Plaza,” which makes the experience of coming here more social, in turn creating a dialogue and interaction between people,” explains Bartsch.

“We were pretty overwhelmed with it the first year,” he continues, admitting that Mixers and Elixirs may return, albeit in a slightly different form, sometime in 2005. “It was earlier in the evening, but I think it was a good alternative to bars and a chance to meet people for that age group.”

Arts organizations around the city have been catering to this young professional audience for the past several years. At Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, membership director Kristina Bergeron oversees The Art Crowd, a nearly three-year-old project targeting audiences in their mid-20s to early 40s, with an average age of “about 30.” The Art Crowd hosts five or six annual cocktail functions related to exhibition openings, as well as a large-scale Members Dance.

“I think in the last five years, arts groups have been targeting younger people,” says Bergeron. “For us, it’s a chance to cultivate leadership and donors at an early age, and for them, it’s a sophisticated, nice way to meet people. Almost everyone has a young professional group now.”

The Alley Theatre established 1st Act almost five years ago, and it attracted 220 members in its original year. This year, they hope to surpass 250, according to Kristen Loden, Alley’s director of development. 1st Act members attend pre-performance cocktail receptions and post-performance “talkbacks” with actors and artists, as well as numerous other social events during the year. Perhaps more importantly, 1st Act members are given leadership opportunities within the steering, marketing and development committees of the Alley. This year, 1st Act members organized a Progressive Dinner on their own, which netted $7,000 for one of Alley’s young playwright programs. “We are really, really pleased with the work of 1st Act,” says Loden. “It enhances everyone’s experience by having our board integrate with 1st Act members in committees. It has helped us to cultivate new audiences and leadership.”

The Menil Collection, dubbed a “mandatory stop on the art-world circuit” by Art in America in 2003, offers a similar group in The Menil Contemporaries. The Contemporaries, founded in 1996 by Dominique de Menil, recently returned from Site Santa Fe, a nationally-renowned contemporary arts festival. They have conducted several private visits with curators, held receptions at members’ homes and helped to underwrite an exhibition this past season.

“There’s a hands-on, close interaction with the curators,” explains Marta Galicki, Menil’s director of membership for the past six years. “The Contemporaries learn a lot and have a lot of fun – and they are very good at promoting the museum and its programs.”

Houston Grand Opera, one of the most established arts organization in the city, offers Opera Fusion, a program geared toward young singles. The Houston Symphony, another long-standing cultural institution, established Classical Encounters for Singles. While a spokesperson for the symphony did note the average age of participants is closer to 45, the pre-concert parties – which, during the summer, feature live jazz at downtown restaurants and frequently draw upward of 400 people – also are attended by a host of late 20-somethings.

Some groups have emerged specifically for a younger audience, notably OrchestraX – a Generation X approach to classical music – and Infernal Bridegroom – a theater troupe that recently celebrated its 11th anniversary.

“Our society has become so much more immediate,” says Peter Jacoby, the new director of OrchestraX. “There are so many more options out there for young people in terms of arts entertainment. It’s important to provide a casual experience they can relate to and be drawn to.”

OrchestraX sometimes offers “surprise concerts,” announced at the 11th hour. “Young people tend to like that spontaneity,” remarks Jacoby.

Much as other arts groups use young membership groups as a bridge to the future, Jacoby views OrchestraX as a long-term musical building project, incorporating exciting young musicians into a symphony to provide them experience. “Ultimately, the players are what captivates the audience.”

Infernal Bridegroom doesn’t have a formal membership option catered to a younger set, but has talked about creating one. Their board of directors, however, is one of the youngest of any arts group in the city, and Managing Director Lisa Haymes admits, “We want to be as accessible as possible to those who might be afraid of the traditional theater.” Infernal Bridegroom shows feature a BYOB policy and casual dress while typically presenting original, nonlinear work by younger playwrights. In addition, the troupe hosts three or four preview parties each year.

Still, Haymes is quick to point out the give-and-take associated with cultivating a younger crowd. “If we had an older, more established board, we might be bringing in more money,” she concedes. “But we make up for it with sheer energy.”

A Disconnect?
As arts groups have reached out to a younger crowd in the past few years, has this alienated their traditional, older fund-raising base? “I saw quite the opposite of a disconnect,” says Sanford Dow, a Greenway Plaza area lawyer who was a founding board member of OrchestraX. “A more traditional audience was pretty receptive to what we were trying to do.”

HGO?s Gockley explains it as well. “I think our older, longer-tenured members are thrilled that these newer audiences will someday be taking their places.”

Lancaster, at Center for Contemporary Crafts, understands both sides of the question. In mid-September, the Center hosts a third birthday party featuring “etch your own martini glass” materials and a live DJ. Two months later, they will offer a more formal ball for patrons. “There’s a food chain associated with a healthy arts scene,” notes Lancaster. “The whole scene attracts a wide range of people. Younger people who get involved with the arts later emerge as leadership and a collecting and donating base, and they have that experience when they do so. There’s a natural progression of membership, and people understand that.”

The Future of Houston Arts
Susan Young, the administrator of the Houston Museum District, is positively ecstatic about future prospects for culture in the city. Recently, she notes, museums have undergone huge campus additions, and the museum district itself draws six million visitors a year – more than all the city’s pro sports teams.

“There’s something to do in Houston virtually all the time now,” boasts Young, “and a lot of that has to do with cultural opportunities. I think, in the future, you’re going to see Houston increasingly recognized as a city of amazing cultural resources.”

“People are stretching their budgets and going out more,” Gockley adds. “There’s a growth and a flowering of arts here. People are finding stimulating entertainment everywhere.”

It makes sense, then, that as the city rights itself from incidents during the past several years, arts organizations look toward a bright, promising future. And a workable plan has emerged for getting there: Cultivation of a younger membership base now, who will later provide fiscal means and leadership.

There’s no doubt, when considering current young professional outreach, that the future of arts in our city is spectacular. But don’t forget about the present.

“Houston needs to understand: Art is happening all over town, every day, all year,” proudly declares Lancaster.

Que Sabroso!

September 1, 2004 by  
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the video

Three generations ago, most Hispanics in Houston were likely to be of Mexican descent, but today’s immigrants are more likely to come from a variety of countries including Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. With them they bring the traditional flavors of their native lands that add to Houston’s already bubbling, multiethnic culinary stew. An enterprising few have even parlayed barrio cafés into thriving businesses.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, H Texas celebrates restaurants that take taste buds on a culinary tour of Central and South America. So many Latin eateries dot the city’s landscape that even non-natives know that there’s more to Houston’s palate-pleasing restaurant scene than simply Mexican food.

Part of the charm is that global influences mingle into a cuisine that’s uniquely Texan. First it was Houston-based Mama Ninfa’s that fused traditional Mexican recipes with American tastes into a remarkable hybrid. Tex-Mex cuisine has become famous in its own right around the world. One of the latest additions to Houston’s international restaurant scene is Pollo Campero, a Guatemalan fast-food chain that has expatriates flocking to its fried chicken and providing a connection to their far away homelands. Indeed, nothing brings people together quite like a good meal.

Bossa (Cuban)
Bossa’s masculine décor harkens to the heyday of Ernest Hemingway. The flavors of Havana fuse a Cuban menu with touches of South American, Caribbean and Asian flair. A perennial favorite entrée is the erepas, a griddled corn cake dressed in ropa vieja, which means “old clothes,” consisting of shredded skirt steak, queso blanco (white cheese) and charred corn salsa. Complement your experience by sipping a cool drink straight from the tropics – a minty mojito, a must-sip Cuban cocktail that refreshes diners like a cool breeze during Houston’s balmy summer. 610 Main St., (713) 223-2622

Mama Ninfa’s (Mexican)
Mama Ninfa’s on Navigation is a local as well as a national landmark. It’s where the national fajita craze started when Ninfa Laurenzo stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla. In 1973, Laurenzo opened a tiny taco stand in Houston’s East End, serving no-frills food – but flavorful nonetheless – based on her own recipes. Today, those famous fajitas are still the house specialty, but the trademark green salsa, fried ice cream and the parilla mixta – a mixed grill offering served with all the fixings – are also popular with hungry diners. A model of entrepreneurial spirit, Mama Ninfa’s gave birth to 40 restaurants that popped up across the United States and as far away as Leipzig, Germany. The chain grew far beyond its Houston roots and was purchased by Serranos Café and Cantina in 1998, but the original flavor of Mama Ninfa’s remains intact. Now, there are 15 outposts in the Houston area, but nothing beats the original. 2704 Navigation Blvd., (713) 228-1175, www.mamaninfas.com

Fogo de Chão (Brazilian)
Vegetarians will do well to steer clear of this Brazilian churrascaria, where meat is the main attraction. Churrasco-style cooking originated with the plains-riding cowboys of southern Brazil who pierced large pieces of meat and slowly roasted them over open-flamed pits. Fogo de Chão introduces this tradition to Houstonians. Brazilian-trained and costumed “gaucho” chefs bearing skewers of meat roam the dining room as their predecessors once roamed the northern Pampas, eager to slice and serve hunks of meat to diners. Choices include leg of lamb, pork loin, pork ribs, chicken and various cuts of beef, from filet mignon to bottom sirloin. It’s a low carb dieter’s dream. 8250 Westheimer, (713) 978-6500, www.fogodechao.com

Bongo’s Latin Grill (Latin fusion)
Come for the food, stay for the dancing. Bongo’s Latin Grill melds entertainment, festive décor and an affordable menu that blends Mexican, Cuban and Caribbean flavors. The express lunch menu includes great deals including ceviche – a lime-marinated seafood blend – with crispy plantains for $6. On Fridays and Saturdays, this downtown eatery morphs into a Latin club with the beats of salsa, merengue and Spanish rock pulsating into the street. Like its sister club, Latin hotspot Elvia’s, Bongo’s rotates live bands from week to week. 818 Travis, (713) 222-2254, www.bongoslatin.com

Tex Chick (Puerto Rican)
Though the name of this restaurant sounds like Tex-Mex, the food is unmistakably Puerto Rican. Unlike some other Hispanic cuisines, Puerto Rican food is more about mellow flavor than tongue-inflaming spice. Adventurous palates will delight in unexpected flavor combinations in traditional dishes like mofongo, a mélange of mashed plantains, bacon and pungent garlic. Little has changed about this Montrose alcove since the mom-and-pop Gonzalez duo commandeered its kitchen 21 years ago, including the name – it’s a lasting vestige of an eatery that previously occupied this space. Be sure to get here early to snag a seat at one of the four tiny tables – despite her restaurant’s popularity, Carmen Gonzalez has no plans to expand the kitchen. 712 1/2 Fairview St., (713) 528-4708

Pollo Campero (Guatemalan)
Customers at Pollo Campero regularly – and willingly – wait an hour plus in the drive-thru lane for a taste of the Guatemalan franchise’s famous fried chicken. For local Guatemalans and Salvadorans, it’s soul food from their homeland. A self-serve salsa bar, pinto beans, Spanish rice and warm corn tortillas set Pollo Campero apart from American institutions like KFC. The impressively non-greasy chicken has the same remarkable power to keep people lining up around the block at its four Houston locations. 5620 Bellaire Blvd., (713) 395-0990, www.campero.com

Sabor! (Salvadoran)
The Central American menu at Sabor! is an Anglo-friendly, gourmet rendition of ancient Salvadoran cuisine. Colonial oil paintings, granite tables and wooden chairs create an old-world aura in this restaurant that opened in December 2003. Owner Mauricio Funes says that imported fresh ingredients make his dishes truly unique. One of the most popular entrees is the pupusa, a thick corn tortilla stuffed with everything from ground pork and cheese to pumpkin. Be sure to try the fresh juices squeezed from cashew fruit, pomegranate or chia seeds (yes, the same plants that made Chia Pets famous). Diners also rave about the orcheta, a chocolate drink made from cocoa, rice and morro, a coconut-like fruit. 5712 Bellaire Blvd., (713) 667-6001

Taco Keto (taco truck)
Taco trucks are an urban phenomenon where one will find office workers and construction workers standing shoulder to shoulder at stainless steel counters at lunchtime. Gourmets might scoff at these mobile taquerias, but those in the know appreciate the low-cost, high-flavor lunch fare that taco trucks serve around the city. Cullen and Leeland

Fiesta Mart
For do-it-yourself kitchen mavens, Fiesta Mart is the spot to pick up all the ingredients for a fine Tex-Mex dinner. A stroll through the produce section of one of Fiesta’s 34 Houston locations reminds shoppers more of an adventure in a farmer’s market than a typical grocery run. This local grocery chain regularly offers some of the freshest tomatillos, papayas and poblanos in town. Various locations also feature taquerias and salchichonerias, Mexican-style hot delis, that are perfect places for the less culinary inclined to pick up a quick and tasty dinner on the way home from work. Multiple locations, www.fiestamart.com

Culture Club

September 1, 2004 by  
Filed under Edit

Luxury and history are a short journey away in Mexico City

Do you enjoy distinct architecture, fine upscale dining, thousands of years of history, mingling with the people and adventure? Then put Mexico City in your travel plans.

Mexico City, the capital of Mexico and the largest city in the world, is a modern, cosmopolitan area situated in an old lake basin and surrounded by volcanic mountains. Founded in 1325, Mexico City is known as “The City of Palaces.” Some of the natives like to call it “little New York.”

I flew into Mexico City from Houston aboard AeroMexico. In two short hours, I was in another country (same time zone and no jet lag), in a city resplendent with its different cultures and historical sites. Houston is one of the 17 U.S. gateways served by AeroMexico, connecting leisure, family and business travelers to more than 40 destinations throughout Mexico.

Mexico City is known for being the longest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere. I stayed at the Presidente InterContinental Mexico City, located in the heart of the city. The hotel’s location is very convenient for the tourist who is interested in exploring the museums, cathedrals and historic buildings. The internationally renowned Anthropology and Tamayo museums are located within walking distance as well as upscale shopping areas comparable to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif.

I decided to take advantage of the world-famous spa at the Marquis Reforma Hotel. The facilities were extremely clean, and I was treated to the wonderful smells of lingering aromatherapy throughout the spa. The 16,000-square-foot spa has massage rooms; facial treatment rooms; aromatherapy; multiple purpose rooms with hydro-therapy tubs and Swiss showers; separate ladies’ and gentlemen’s areas, each with its own Jacuzzi, steam and sauna. The Fitness Center, equipped with state-of-the-art cardio and weight training equipment, is in an enclosed area with high windows that give stunning views of the surrounding city. That evening I went to the Hacienda de los Morales with a companion for dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, the host asked us to enjoy the bar in the beautiful open courtyard. We thought we were being seated there until our table was ready. We were enjoying the lovely courtyard for about an hour and a half and thought that the restaurant must be really crowded because we hadn’t been called to our table. When we inquired about our table, the host said that our table had been ready when we arrived. It is Mexican custom to invite the guests to the bar first and let them relax and take as much time as they want. It is up to the guest to tell the host when they are ready to be seated.

This restaurant is truly spectacular, the cuisine outstanding and the service impeccable. They pride themselves on giving that “extra special” attention to their guests, creating a relaxing atmosphere. There was a small group of musicians playing violins, cello and piano. The music was soft and mellow and allowed for conversation as we were treated to Broadway musicals and Mexican favorites.

The next day we took a “Turibus” city tour. This is a red, double-decker bus with an open top, giving a magnificent view of the sights. At first, I was very disappointed that it was an audio tour, because I prefer a live guide with whom I can talk. However, I began to like the audio because of its practicality – a guide could never be heard above the noise of the traffic.

We got off at the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square. Don’t miss this exhilarating adventure of walking around the traditional merchants’ arcade. It’s a grand open-air market that stretches for miles on the sidewalks with some of the booths spilling out onto the streets. The market was jammed with crowds of local people walking down narrow streets crowded with vendors, merchandise and traffic. The sights, sounds and smells were like something out of a movie or your imagination. If you love hordes of people buying and selling all kinds of merchandise and foods, you will love this market.

Here people were lined up to see the curandero and curandera. These are people who practice folk medicine using folk remedies, herbal medicine and religious blessings. The curandero and curandera were dressed like Indians and used a container shaped like a chalice with incense smoke pouring out. They blessed the people with this chalice and sprinkled them with water and chanted prayers.

We ended the day with “dining around” in the restaurants at the InterContinental Hotel. We had French, Italian and American cuisine in three of the hotel’s five fabulous restaurants. The Presidente InterContinental boasts some of the finest cuisine choices in all of Mexico City as well as the best in comfort and range of personalized services.

Come to Mexico City and experience the unhesitating hospitality, world-class accommodations and spectacular cuisine that is the vibrant Mexican culture.


September 1, 2004 by  
Filed under Edit

They have done it to a trucker. They have done it to a chef. They have done it to mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, waitresses, entrepreneurs and even a radio personality. It was only a matter of time before fashion insiders Todd Ramos and Mario Romero turned their powers of fab and fashion on to one of their own.

Freelance photographer Debbie Porter had been happily snapping away during all the H Texas makeovers. She had witnessed the transformation each time and captured every before ?shame? and after ?fame? picture. She was doing her job and just minding her own business. That is, until Ramos and Romero decided to pluck her out from behind the camera and pop her in front of it for a change ? a real change.

Convincing her was not an easy task, but the duo was dying to make her over and relentless in their pursuit. Porter has been a self-employed freelance photographer for 20 years. She has been working with H Texas and Ramos for a few of those years and on the makeovers presented in the magazine recently. Over the years, she has snapped everything from sweaters for the Lands End catalog to the wedding of Houston Astro Jeff Bagwell and wife Ericka in the Hamptons. She even snapped a wedding at the foot of an erupting volcano in Mexico.

When she?s not immortalizing makeovers or dodging molten lava, she is raising two teenage boys. ?They are good boys,? she says, ?but they?re still teenagers ? gotta keep a grip on ?em.? And even Porter?s firm grip couldn?t keep one of them from totaling her car just a few days after she had paid it off. The same son had to be taken to the doctor the day of the photo shoot because he cracked two ribs in a dirt bike accident.

On that note, Porter is a self-described ?girl on the go,? confessing that she doesn?t spend a whole lot of her time primping and preening. She stresses that a ?real? makeover starts in the inside. ?I might make a good ?before? picture,? she admits, ?but I know how to clean up pretty darn well.? She confesses that her workout most of the time is not at the gym but rather lugging around her heavy camera equipment. What the guys might not have counted on was that this little ol? makeover talks back. The trio are friends, and friends don?t have to politely sit there while being coiffed, clipped and groomed. Although she agrees that during a makeover, ?Todd is the boss,? Porter is a lady with an opinion. She said that although she ?totally trusts Todd,? she wanted to make sure that she still looked like herself. She was not disappointed. As usual, the groundwork began at Romero?s Avant Garde Spa Hair and Makeup Studio. The first thing on the agenda was a hair color change. The team wanted to make Porter?s highlighted brown hair all one color.

?Her whole head was like a color wheel,? muses Romero. Ramos is less philosophical about it. ?It drove me crazy,? he says flatly. ?My mission was to get that head all one color.? Porter admits she was not sold on the idea but ?figured I could just go out the next day and get it highlighted again if I didn?t like it.? She confirms that they got it just right. ?I really like it. I am kinda surprised.?

Porter even hopped over to Dr. Franklin Rose?s office for a quick, yet substantial fix of Restylane. This in-office procedure helped Porter to reflect the youth and energy she feels.

With right-on hair, freshly-facialized face and newly tipped nails, it was time for new and improved duds to go with the new and improved self.

As the gal who is usually behind the camera, Porter gets to wear basically whatever the heck she wants. This usually consists of her tank top and jeans and her ever-present flip-flops. As a photographer, her job is physical, and she needs to dress to move.

Ramos decided to put Porter in touch with her inner girly-girl while maintaining a professional edge. Her new look did just that. Combining an Anne Klein pantsuit with a layered Armani dress shirt and an AZI T-shirt, all from Foley?s in the Galleria, Porter presents herself as the contemporary and artistic professional that she is. The pointy-toed Dolce & Gabbana pumps may not be flip-flops, but they do the trick.