UNDERBELLY “OFF THE WALL” DINNER

This weekend we attended an “Off the Wall” Vietnamese Family-Style Dinner at Underbelly, featuring Ryan Pera (Revival Market, Coltivare) and Saigon Pagolac.  Chris Shepherd (James Beard Best Chef Southwest 2014) aims to tell the story of Houston food at Underbelly, “showcasing the city’s cultural diversity that inspires his menu and the trifecta of farming, ranching and fishing that offers a bounty of local ingredients.”  Photographs of those that have inspired Chef Shepherd are mounted on the wall as you enter the restaurant.  The “Off the Wall” dinner series features some of the people in the photographs — they’re invited to collaborate on a dinner at Underbelly.  They prepare dishes representative of their food, and Chris Shepherd prepares dishes that are his interpretation of their food.  Proceeds from the dinner series go towards an Underbelly Scholarship at The Art Institute of Houston, which is where Chris Shepherd earned his culinary arts degree.  At each dinner he recounts what it was like to work in a kitchen while attending school full-time, as well as the burden of paying off student loans, and the scholarship was created to offer financial assistance to culinary students similarly working and attending school.

We sat down for the family-style meal at tables with large plates of lettuce and herbs to use as we desired, as well as red and white wines from Duchman Family Winery.  The meal began with a light Vietnamese Seafood Delight Salad (goi sua do bien) from Saigon Pagolac, a perfect summer salad:

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Next was a colorful and unusual salad that we loved from Ryan Pera, consisting of pickled butternut squash, Revival Market beef jerky, crispy shrimp, candied Louisiana pecans, basil, agave, and lime.

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Although Chef Pera is not Vietnamese and does not own a Vietnamese restaurant, he told the crowd that he simply loves Vietnamese food.  His dishes were among our favorites.  By the way, Chef Pera was looking incredibly trim!  (I’m always in awe of a chef who can lose weight while being around food all the time.)

The next two dishes were also from Ryan Pera, a crispy Vietnamese crepe filled with smoked pork, rock shrimp, summer tomatoes, and corn, seasoned with garum (a type of fish sauce):

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And one of our favorite dishes of the evening, deep-friedTexas quail with clams, wild rice, tamarind, Revival Market chicharron, and lime:

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The Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf (bo la lot) from Saigon Pagolac was another winner at our table:

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The next dish, which was the least favorite at our table, was Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane (chao tom) from Saigon Pagolac, which although interesting had a rubbery texture and was quite bland:

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Lemongrass Beef from Underbelly, on the other hand, was loaded with flavor and disappeared quickly:

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The final dish from Ryan Pera was a whole roasted gulf fish with Vietnamese herbs, spicy sautéed greens, and soft garlic.  Keeping in mind that beauty is only skin deep, the fish was delicate and flaky and delicious:

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The last savory dish, Crispy Green Beans with Caramelized Fish Sauce, was from Underbelly.  In the words of my friend Tracy, I wanted to marry those green beans.  Everyone was looking forward to them, and pounced on them as soon as they hit the table:

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Dessert, provided by Cloud 10 Creamery (check out the flavors on their website), was a Pandan and Matcha Push-Up Pop, a dish that is best described not with words, but with soft moans:

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The meal ended with an Asian Fruit Cocktail (che thai) from Saigon Pagolac, an intriguing pale pink beverage/dessert/soup made with (I think) various kinds of tropical fruits (jackfruit? longan?), rectangles of flavored gelatin, and coconut milk.  As much as I enjoyed it, I would have liked it even more if I’d known what exactly was in it:

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Everyone at our table had a great time and a great meal.  For us, half the fun of going to these kinds of events is the interesting people we meet at them.  We went with another couple, and met two more couples at our table.  The gentleman seated next to me invented the Corkcicle — imagine that!  It was selected as a one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2012.  Oprah!  Oprah Winfrey!  How cool (and, I would guess, lucrative) is that?  And the woman seated next to my friend is an antiques dealer who sold Chris Shepherd the cleaver that is permanently imbedded in the wall at Underbelly.  He has since bought several others from her, and came by the table to show one off:

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There’s only one dinner left in the current series (hopefully there will be more in the future).  It’s on August 3, and will feature barbecue from Gatlin’s, Blood Brothers, Feges BBQ, and of course, Underbelly.  There’ll be 4 pits set up in the parking lot, and I am sure it will be a barbecue meal to remember.  If you hurry, there’s still time to reserve a seat . . . .

A TRIO OF PERUVIAN RESTAURANTS

It wasn’t that long ago that I knew nothing about Peruvian cuisine.  But thanks to three Peruvian restaurants in Houston at various points on the dining spectrum that we’ve visited, I’m no longer in the dark about this interesting cuisine, and my whole family enjoys going out for their own favorite Peruvian dish.

Peruvian cuisine has been described as “the single most important cuisine in Latin America, with a repertoire of dishes maybe bigger than France.”  It’s considered to be the original fusion food, with worldwide influences shaping the cuisine over the past centuries.  An overview of Peruvian cuisine, including its history, key ingredients, and traditional dishes, can be found here.  Another useful food guide to Peruvian dishes and ingredients can be found here.

Our first introduction to Peruvian food was Latin Bites, on a Houston Culinary Tour led by Hugo Ortega and Robb Walsh.  At the time, the restaurant was located in the tiny space in the warehouse district that is now home to Oxheart, but the family-owned and operated restaurant has since moved to a more upscale space in a retail center at 5709  Woodway. Latin Bites describes its menu as “made-from-scratch” with “bold Peruvian flavors, Asian culinary techniques and worldwide fresh ingredients.”

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The restaurant is bright, attractive, and comfortable:

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We began with refreshing, fruit-laden sangrias, red and white:

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One of our favorite starters is Quinoa Salad Wraps, which consists of dehydrated and poached quinoa, caramelized cashews, fava beans, mint, choclo (giant Peruvian white corn), cubes of fresh mozzarella, avocados, and tomato confit, with a tart/sweet passion fruit dressing, which diners scoop into a circle of iceberg lettuce:

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Another of our “must have” starters is the Causitas, an “award-winning dish” consisting of a trio of “citrus-infused potatoes” artfully topped with shrimp escabeche, chicken salad, and piquillo peppers.  Each little mound of potatoes looks like it is wearing a fascinator:

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My husband almost always gets one of the restaurant’s impeccable ceviches, loaded with precisely cut seafood, chewy corn, red onions, and enough citrus to pucker anyone up:

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My son enjoys the Volcano Rice, a spin on fried rice, loaded with pork, Chinese sausage, chicken, and vegetables.  It arrives in a sizzling hot stone bowl, with an egg on top.  The waiter mixes in the ingredients tableside, and then diners help themselves — carefully, so as not to touch the hot bowl.  Be sure to leave some rice in the bowl to continue to cook, and you’ll be rewarded with deliciously crunchy rice that the whole family will fight over.

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I had the Stir Fry Quinoa, which consisted of sauteed quinoa, choclo, egg, carrots, snow peas, red bell peppers, red onions, mushrooms, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and black bean sauce.  I may never use rice in my fried rice again!

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Stir Fry Quinoa

My daughter always gets the Lomo Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish and staff favorite of beef tenderloin, onions, and tomatoes, sauteed with red wine, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and garlic, and served with white rice and french fries:

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Latin Bites is a great place for an introduction to Peruvian cuisine.  The food is excellent and beautifully plated, the surroundings attractive, and the service friendly and attentive.

Our next stop on the Peruvian cuisine dining spectrum was the recently-opened Andes Cafe, located in a nondescript center at 2311 Canal Street.

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There’s a few modest tables for patio dining . . .

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But the interior space is so much more interesting, especially given the limited budget the restaurant had to work with.  One wall is covered with a brightly-colored mural of the Andes mountains:

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And another wall is covered in painted plywood panels:

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The hanging lamps covered in Peruvian coffee sacks were a clever touch:

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Owner/chef David Guerrero is originally from Ecuador, but aims to “provide exposure to the culinary beauties of South America.”  According to the restaurant’s website, the name “Andes Cafe” is “special in that it is named after a natural wonder that unites Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.”

We began our meal at Andes Cafe with ceviche.  The cuts of fish were not as precise as at Latin Bites, and it could have used a little more citrus, but it was fresh and bright and loaded with seafood and corn:

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The Solterito Salad, with choclo, aji amarillo, red onions, tomatoes, potatoes, chopped fresh parsley, queso fresco, and lemon vinaigrette was refreshing, and substantial enough for a light lunch:

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We tried several of the restaurant’s banana leaf-wrapped tamals, including Tamal de Paiche (steamed yellow corn dough stuffed with fish, eggs, and olives, served with a salsa criolla of red onion, lime, aji amarillo, and cilantro):

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Tamal de Puerco (steamed yellow corn dough stuffed with pork, eggs, and olives, served with salsa criolla):

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And our favorite, the unusual Tamal de Mi Abuelita (steamed rice and potato dough stuffed with chicken, egg, raisins, and olives, served with tomatillo aji sauce):

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We all loved the Tequenos, bread dough sticks stuffed with queso palmita, and served with a tangy avocado relish:

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My daughter was happy with her Lomo Saltado:

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Other dishes we enjoyed were Pabellon Criollo, a Venezuelan dish of shredded beef, black beans, white rice, and fried plantains (my son chose to have a fried egg added on top of his):

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And Entrana (grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, served with french fries and a salad):

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The service on our visits was slow, due to the fact that the little restaurant and its enthusiastic staff were overwhelmed by the response to the recent favorable review in the Houston Chronicle.  To reward us for our patience, however, the restaurant sent over a complimentary dessert of Pionono, a delicious Peruvian jelly-roll type dessert with homemade dulce de leche:

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The restaurant lacked the polish of Latin Bites, and the food was, I imagine, much more like the home cooking and street foods of the various Latin countries represented — but it was flavorful and satisfying, and easier on the wallet.

Recently friends told us about another Peruvian restaurant — even farther down on the dining spectrum — that had opened up practically around the corner from us.  Peru Cafe Express is located in a tiny space in a strip shopping center at 3833 Southwest Freeway.

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Although there are a few tables, it is really a take-out restaurant.  

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Our “to go” order consisted of mixed seafood ceviche, which had a nice mix of seafood, but was a little “sloppy” compared to the other two Peruvian restaurants:

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We shared a delicious empanada, filled with ground beef, raisins, green olives, and eggs, with a crispy deep-fried crust, and a surprise sprinkling of powdered sugar, accompanied by a lime to squeeze over it:

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We had to try the Lomo Saltado, of course, which was very good (and at $10.99, quite a deal), although we like the fries served on the side, rather than under the dish:

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We also tried the Seafood Rice, a mix of rice, cilantro, peas, and seafood — shrimp, crab claws, mussels, and calamari.  This dish, although slightly oilier than I prefer, was very flavorful, abundant with seafood, and an enormous portion — enough to feed 2-3 people — which at $11.99, is an incredible bargain:

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If you’re looking for some satisfying, rib-sticking, budget-stretching Peruvian food in a hurry, Andes Cafe is worth a try.  The owner is genuinely nice and aims to please.

Incidentally, if you’re inclined to try your hand at Peruvian cooking and are looking for a source for Peruvian ingredients such as choclo and aji amarillo, I haven’t found a comprehensive one in Houston — yet — but Amigo Foods is an online source that carries ingredients for every Latin cuisine.

Latin Bites on Urbanspoon

Andes Cafe on Urbanspoon

Peru Cafe Express on Urbanspoon