THANKSGIVING DAY GIVING

It’s not that we don’t have seasons in Houston — it’s just that they tend to not be very dramatic.  It’s been unseasonably warm this fall — too warm for the leaves to turn color — and the signs that Thanksgiving was approaching were subtle.  One clue was the ripening pecans hanging in clusters, which made the squirrels very happy:

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Another clue was the appearance of acorns.  I pass some kind of oak tree on my way to work that had the BIGGEST acorns I’ve ever seen:

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There was an occasional colored leaf:

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Soon, turkeys started going on sale at the grocery store, along with canned pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and Pepperidge Farm stuffing, leaving no doubt that Thanksgiving was nearing.  And that meant it was time for my son’s Boy Scout Troop’s 2nd Annual Thanksgiving Day Luncheon for senior citizens living in and around our little community.

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When my son was working on his Eagle project (a fence around utility structures in a neighborhood park), a city employee suggested that the Troop might consider hosting this luncheon, which had been abandoned 5 or 6 years ago by the group that had previously hosted it.  Sure, why not?

Last year we had 19 guests, but this year word spread and we had close to 50.  Through donations of ingredients and dollars, we were able to provide a mostly home-cooked meal (meats and pies were purchased) of roast turkey with gravy, smoked ham, stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, Southern-style corn, green bean casserole, fresh cranberry relish, vanilla cranberry sauce, rolls and butter, and assorted pies with whipped cream.

We did most of the cooking two days before, using Senior Services’ well-equipped kitchen.

img_3821The day before, Troop volunteers set up the activity room.  Working within our budget and the fact that we had to use paper and plastic tableware, I think we managed to make the room look worthy of our guests.

Our guests started arriving about 30 minutes before the start of the meal, and it gave us an opportunity to visit with them.  They were excited to be joining us, and many came elegantly dressed.  The room was buzzy with happy chatter.

The scouts did a great job of serving up the meal and interacting with the guests:

We sent each guest home with leftovers, for later in the day (because really, it isn’t Thanksgiving without leftovers):

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Each guest also received a festively-wrapped loaf of homemade Pumpkin Ginger Bread or Cranberry Orange Bread, for snacking on later in the day:

I’ve previously posted the recipes for Pumpkin Ginger Bread and Cranberry Orange Quick Bread.  These are such great little loaves — fragrant and moist, not too sweet.

The luncheon was a great success, and I enjoyed it as much as our guests.  As one of our guests was leaving, he called me over and said “I only have one complaint — everything was so good that I have nothing to complain about.”  He gave a little chuckle and said “That’s my joke.”  That’s the kind of complaint I love to hear!  I hope you got lots of “complaints” this Thanksgiving as well.  🙂

(Note:  Although I didn’t get to cook for my family this year because of my involvement with the luncheon, my husband’s two sisters made a delicious Thanksgiving dinner that we enjoyed with the whole family later in the day.)

 

HOLIDAY ENTERTAINING WITH LA MADELEINE

This morning I attended a special holiday event at the original Houston location of La Madeleine County French Cafe, located at 10001 Wertheimer, in the Carillon shopping center, featuring some of the restaurant’s new offerings.  This bright and spacious location is one of my favorites.

La Madeleine’s first location opened in Dallas in 1983, and since then has grown to approximately 70 locations nationwide.  The restaurant’s casual atmosphere and French-inspired dishes make it a relaxing place for a leisurely meal, or to savor a cup of dark French roast coffee with a freshly-baked croissant or pastry.

We were ushered into a private room, where orange juice and champagne were waiting at each place setting for guests to make their own mimosas.

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What a great way to start the day!

We were told that we were going to be served three courses — breakfast, lunch, and dessert — in order to sample a variety of La Madeleine’s new holiday dishes.  The invite should have read “Dress — stretchy pants.”

First up was the new Country French Brunch from the catering menu, which included Egg & Cheese Croissant Bake, Cheesy Potato Gratin, an assortment of mini croissants (plain, almond, blackberry, and chocolate), and Fresh Cut Fruit Salade.  If you have it delivered, the restaurant will set it up like this:

You can also pick it up packaged and ready to bake at home (350 degrees for 20 minutes, I believe) (this is a more economical option, if you have an oven available):

The two hot dishes were rich and cheesy and just plain delicious.  Even though we all knew there was more coming, there were a lot of members of the Clean Plate Club.  If you need a dish to bring to a holiday potluck, or something special for a holiday weekend brunch, or just don’t feel like messing up the kitchen yet again this holiday season, the Country French Brunch is your answer.  The fruit salad, prepared fresh daily, was a nice complement to the rich dishes, and looked pretty on the plate.

Next up was the Holiday Cafe Sampler, which included the new Turkey and Cranberry Puff Pastry (also referred to as a friand), with a side of the restaurant’s famous Caesar Salade and a cup of the equally-famous Tomato Basil Soup:

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The sandwich, which also had gruyere inside, was accompanied with a side of gruyere cheese sauce, just in case there was a button on your pants that hadn’t popped open yet.  The sandwich, with everything it had going on, was a meal in itself, although that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the soup and salad.  The cranberries in the sandwich provided a nice tart contrast and a bit of color, and definitely felt Thanksgiving-ish (or maybe day after Thanksgiving-ish).

As you might guess, at this point, there wasn’t much room for dessert, so we were invited to pack a to-go box to enjoy later.  The desserts, in true La Madeleine style, were beautiful and worth every calorie.  There were 3 creme brulee creations — caramel creme brulee, creme brulee cheesecake (cheesecake with a layer of creme brulee on top), and a gingerbread creme brulee tart.  There was also pumpkin pie, pecan tart, sacher torte parfait, and a fruit and cheese danish.

You can check out pricing and order online here.

Before we left, we were given a gift bundle, prettily packaged for holiday giving, which included a 12-pack of k-cups of La Madeleine’s french roast coffee, a cheerful coffee cup that said “joie de vivre,” a giant heart-shaped linzer cookie, a jar of La Madeleine’s tomato basil soup, and a soup bowl decorated with tomatoes that said “Bon Appetit.”

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I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be as thrilled as I was to receive one of these great bundles for a gift.  For that person who is difficult to buy for, or maybe just for someone you really like, keep this in mind.

I get invited to events like this from time to time.  Sometimes, if I’ve previously been to the establishment and was not impressed, I decline.  Sometimes it conflicts with my day job.  And sometimes I go and end up not writing about it because if I can’t, in good conscience, enthusiastically recommend an establishment, I won’t post about it — too many other places to find negative content on the internet.  This was one of the nicest events I’ve been invited to.  The staff was warm and welcoming, the food was wonderful, and everyone had a good time.  My family has been going to La Madeleine for decades — the sachertorte and strawberry napoleon have been desserts at many a special dinner here, I craved their blueberry scones when I was pregnant, and we always have a bag of their croutons in the refrigerator for Caesar salad.  I expect that the Country French Brunch is about to become a new holiday tradition for my family.

 

WEEKEND IN AUSTIN

Last weekend I went to Austin with my husband, son, and son’s girlfriend for Austin City Limits, a music festival stretching over two weekends.  I just went along for the ride and to keep the peace, if necessary, because I’m pretty much done with music festivals.  The last one I went to was Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid when I first started law school. The concert was in an open field in the middle of July, which is the second worst month for an outdoor activity in Texas, August being the worst.  My nursing friends came up for the concert, and without going into detail, I’ll just say they behaved very badly.  I haven’t seen them or been to a music festival since.

We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Austin, located on the shores of Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake), which was the closest hotel to the festival.  We usually stay downtown when in Austin, but I have to say, the Hyatt worked out great — comfortable rooms, pretty lakeside views, and easy self-parking.

The festival was, of course, the highlight of the weekend.  But we also had a great time dining in Austin.  There has been an explosion of restaurants in recent years, and we hit some old favorites and what are certain to become new favorites.

First stop was Chuy’s, en route to the festival.  The Mexican restaurant hasn’t changed since my law school days, and was as tasty and gut-busting as I remembered:

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Another old favorite (of more recent vintage) that we visited, at my son’s request, was Hopdoddy, which I’ve written about before.  Not much more to say, other than that we love Hopdoddy.

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Looking for a place to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee, we stumbled upon Cenote, in East Austin, an area that has been undergoing an exciting revitalization.  Cenote is located in a historic house, built in 1887.  We were charmed by its patio, friendly service, and excellent coffee.

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While the kids were chowing down on food truck fare at the festival, my husband and I enjoyed a fantastic meal at Emmer & Rye, located on Rainey Street, an area described by Texas Monthly as being filled with “hot bars and restaurants, a massive amount of construction, and a whole lot of hip young people.”

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The restaurant has an attractive patio, which was packed on this pleasant evening:

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The interior space was equally inviting:

Emmer & Rye focuses on seasonal and local cuisine, and boasts that it mills “heritage grains” for its pastas, breads, and desserts.  Along with the menu items, there are dim sum style rolling carts with daily specials to choose from.  Here’s Tom, our “dim sum guy”:

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We selected a few dishes from the cart (and believe me, it was really hard to pass up every other dish that rolled by), including the excellent beef tartare:

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From the menu, we had the very rich cacio e pepe:

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Confited short rib carnitas with corn, kohlrabi, chilis, salsa rosada, and flaky roti to tuck it into:

And the dish I cannot get out of my head, grilled butternut squash with deliciously creamy and pungent ome camembert, mesquite vinegar, pecans, and puffed sorghum.  This dish was so much more than the sum of its parts:

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We ended with a simple-looking but complex-sounding and tasting cocoa bean ice cream sandwich with white sonoran koji cookie and mesquite caramel:

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But wait, there’s more!

The next morning, before we headed home, we had brunch at Jacoby’s, a “transparent, value driven, vertically integrated, ranch-to-table dining experience located in East Austin on the Colorado River.”  That’s a mouthful!

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Come hungry for the hearty brunch offerings.  My gang chowed down on Duck Confit Migas:img_8468 3 Little Pigs Sandwich, piled with crispy schnitzel, shaved ham, bacon, and a fried egg:

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And Chicken Fried Steak & Waffles with Sausage Gravy and Maple Syrup:
img_8471We waddled out of Jacoby’s, stuffed ourselves into the car, and made one last non-food stop before getting on the road — East Austin Succulents, a sort of magical, if kinda prickly, plant nursery my husband discovered on a recent visit.

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If you are into plants, and really, even someone with a brown thumb should be able to grow a succulent or cactus, then you’ll love this place.

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You’ll find whimsical arrangements:

Beautiful rocks sold by the pound, for your garden and containers:

And, of course, tons of cacti and succulents:

They even had a few of my favorite spineless totem pole cactus (although the child in us refers to them by another name):

img_8491We headed home, our trunk filled with plants, and our hearts filled with memories of a wonderful — make that, really wonderful — fall weekend getaway.

HALLOWEEN DEVILED EGGS — MERRY TO MACABRE

Who says deviled eggs are just for Easter?  They’re also fun to dress up for Halloween — cute or creepy, your pick!  Get inspired by this updated annual roundup of Halloween deviled eggs, from the merry to the macabre.

Who could resist a cute little pumpkin deviled egg, like these from Tadka Pasta?

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Too generic?  How about a grinning Jack O’ Lantern, like these from Ochikeron’s You Tube channel:

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Or these from Happier Than A Pig In Mud:

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Who wouldn’t get a kick out of these owl deviled eggs from Maker, Baker, Glitter Shaker?  Hoo?  Hoo?

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Spider deviled eggs are cute without being too creepy, like these black olive ones from The World According To Eggface:

halloween1And these green olive ones from Momtastic:

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Of course, you CAN make them creepy, like this albino black widow spider deviled egg found on Hairpin:

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If you’re going to have spiders, you might as well have spider webs, like these from health-actually.com:halloween7

Food Planet kicks spider web eggs up a notch with a bright green filling;

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Devil horns are an easy way to dress up deviled eggs for Halloween, like these from Cookin’ Canuck:

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You can have lots of fun coming up with devilish little faces on your deviled eggs, like these from So Lovely Sweet Tables:

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Or these amusing little devils from Kraft:

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Skeleton deviled eggs from Thrifty Fun are a scream:

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It wouldn’t be Halloween without some eyeballs, like these from Kath’s Kitchen Sync:

halloween4  Or these zombie eyeballs from Happier Than A Pig In Mud:

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Or next level creepy with piped on capillaries from Mom Foodie:

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These black and orange eggs from aol.com/food might be too scary for some people:

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These red ones found on Homemade Recipes puts the devil in deviled eggs:

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Deviled eggs make cute ghosts in a graveyard, from Chef Morgan:

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These green goblin eggs from Betty Crocker are pretty scary:

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But nothing could possibly be creepier (or less likely to be eaten) than these Satan’s Spawn deviled eggs from Kravings.blog.  Nothing.  Ever.

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Happy Halloween!

P.S.  Do you know why ghosts don’t like it to rain on Halloween?  It dampens their spirits!

ROOSTAR VIETNAMESE GRILL

I’ve heard a lot about Roostar Vietnamese Grill lately, and after visiting the restaurant recently, I can see what all the fuss is about.roostar

Roostar is located at 1411 Gessner Road — a part of Spring Branch sometimes referred to as Koreatown — in a small retail center that also houses Flower Piggy Korean BBQ and La Michoacana Meat Market.  (Roostar is opening a second location soon, near the Galleria area.)

Roostar’s logo was designed to reflect the French influence on Vietnam, and the owners’ love for Texas — the rooster is the unofficial symbol of France, and the star that is the rooster’s comb is a nod to the Lone Star State.  The rooster “is drawn in flame-like strokes and colored with burning reds, symbolizing the passion and energy” that goes into each of Roostar’s dishes.

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The first thing you will notice upon entering the tidy little restaurant is Linda, who owns and operates Roostar with her husband Ronnie.  And the next thing you will notice is how pretty Linda is, like movie-star pretty:

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And the next thing you’ll notice is how hard Linda works to make sure that each customer is treated respectfully and thoughtfully — whether explaining the menu, offering a sample, filling glasses, or rearranging chairs to accomodate diners.  You’ll also see a lot of activity going on behind her, as employees hustle to fill orders:

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The menu is simple, with lots of options to customize your meal:

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One of Roostar’s most popular offerings is its banh mi, frequently referred to as the best in Houston (Roostar won the 2015 People’s Choice Award during Houston’s The Great Banh Mi Cook-Off, and will be defending its title this fall).  The sandwich, which is on a French baguette, has its origins in the  period when France occupied Vietnam,  There are several grilled meats to choose from, along with smoked ham, avocado, fried egg, and smoked salmon.  They’re made with traditional ingredients that include house-made garlic aioli, pickled carrots, cilantro, jalapenos, cucumbers, and soy sauce.  You can add avocado, egg, pate, or extra meat to any sandwich for a modest charge.  We tried a grilled pork banh mi.  The quality of the meat (not too fatty, smoky, slightly sweet) and the homemade aioli really made this sandwich a standout:

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We also tried a box.  The concept of the boxes reminded me of Chipotle’s ordering system, and is very user-friendly, especially for people not familiar with Vietnamese noodle and rice bowls.  First you select a meat (grilled pork, grilled chicken, tofu, chopped ribeye, or wings).  Next, choose your base (noodles, salad, white or fried rice).  All boxes come with a spring roll, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, green onions, cilantro, fried garlic, and vinaigrette dressing.  You can add avocado, egg, extra meat, or additional eggrolls for a modest charge.  We went with the vermicelli with grilled pork:

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The vermicelli box was fresh and filling, a delicious and satisfying lunch, particularly on a hot day like we’ve been having here.

Last, but not least, we tried the Beef Alphabet soup.  This was unlike any soup I’ve ever had before, and it’s garnered raves from everyone who has tried it.  It’s a salty, savory, umami-loaded bowl with finely chopped beef, alphabet pasta, cilantro, and secret spices. It’s served with house-made chili oil — be sure to add some.  This soup was out of this world.  If Roostar was closer to my home, I’d probably be having this soup at least 3 times a week.

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Photo courtesy of Cuc Lam

While you’re there, treat yourself to a thai tea, milk tea, or iced coffee — they’re all great, rich with sweetened condensed milk, but so worth the calories.

We all loved Roostar Vietnamese Grill.  I have no doubt you will too!

HIMALAYA RESTAURANT AND SUBHLAXMI GROCERS

At the intersection of Hillcroft Ave and U.S. 59, is a small shopping center housing several of Houston’s ethnic treasures.  This center is located at the edge of the Mahatma Gandhi District, officially named in 2010.  The area is filled with Indian and Pakistani establishments — mainly clothing and jewelry stores, restaurants and bakeries, and grocers.

Recently, we’ve made several visits to Himalaya Restaurant, which features some of the best Indian and Pakistani cuisine in Houston (Anthony Bourdain dined there on his visit to Houston this month).

IMG_7463Inside, the restaurant is modest and tidy, its walls filled with glowing articles about the restaurant:

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Chef/owner Kaiser Lashkari is usually visible, chatting with diners, offering menu suggestions, and boasting (rightfully) about his food:

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Our favorite dishes at Himalaya are rich and complex, full of spice and heat.  Among those we enjoyed are Aloo Chana Masala (chickpeas and potatoes simmered in curry sauce):

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Paneer Hara Masala (the restaurant’s “signature vegetarian dish”):

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The Chicken Kabab Platter, which has 2 skewers of Chicken Seekh Kebab and 4 pieces of Chicken Tikka Boti Kebab (our favorite of the two):

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And the Spicy Rocket Nan (be prepared to fight over the last piece of this):

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Other dishes we liked included Chicken Tikka Masala (my son’s favorite):

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Chicken Biryani:

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An appetizer of Vegetable Samosas:

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And Baigan Bharta, a vegetarian dish made with eggplant:

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We also tried the popular Hunter’s Beef, a Pakistani-style beef pastrami, which was chopped, sauteed in butter and spices, and served with chopped tomatoes and magic mustard sauce, which was interesting:

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In addition to the great food, another plus is that the restaurant is BYOB (provided each diner orders an entree and a nan).

On a recent visit, we waddled out of the restaurant, bellies full and mouths on fire, over to Subhlaxmi Grocers, located in the same center.

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I’d been wanting to go there for some time to see if they had the Indian or Persian basmati rice I’ve been searching for, which of course, they did:

This is unlike the basmati rice commonly available at grocery stores.  Indian and Pakistani basmati rice, I’ve learned, is aged at least a year.  The aging process dehydrates the rice, and when the rice is cooked, it expands much more than rice that hasn’t been aged.  If you’ve eaten in Persian or Indian restaurants, you’ve no doubt noticed the extra-long rice (like in the Chicken Biryani pictured above).

The store was filled with all kinds of things — produce, spices, beans, condiments, sweets — many of which I’d never seen before, such as:

I came home with lots of bottles and packages of new things to try — white poppy seeds, dried limes, pickled cut mango — and stocked up on spices, and that aged Basmati rice.  My mind is racing thinking of the Indian and Pakistani specialties I can try my hand at, although I’m pretty sure I don’t have to worry about Anthony Bourdain dropping in for dinner.  I’m looking forward to exploring other establishments in the Mahatma Gandhi District, especially some of the bakeries.

EXPRESS ROLLS

Express Rolls, a fast, casual dining concept new to the Houston area, invited me to visit and try some of their items, providing me with a $50 gift card as an incentive to accept their invitation.  I hadn’t previously heard of Express Rolls, and was curious, so I gladly accepted.

Express Rolls currently has 7 locations (with 3 more slated to open by September) — 5 in Houston, 1 in Pearland, and 1 in Katy.  I visited the newly-opened one in Shepherd Square, at 2055 Westheimer Rd.

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The modest interior was colorful, clean, and bright:

Express Rolls offers a variety of prepackaged Japanese and Vietnamese items, with an emphasis on fresh and healthy.  The items are prepared and packaged at a central location, and delivered twice daily to each location to ensure freshness.  Whether dining in, or grabbing a few items to take for lunch, Express Rolls provides a lighter, healthier alternative to most of the fast food options around.

Towards the back of the restaurant are refrigerated shelves, where you’ll pick out your items.  If you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time choosing from the many options:

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Although some of the items may look like what you can find at your local grocery store, the difference in freshness is noticeable.  For example, Express Rolls’ sushi has soft sticky rice, unlike the rice in the grocery store version, which is usually drier and harder.  Same thing for the dumplings — Express Rolls’ gyoza wrappers are soft and pliable, unlike the drier, leather-like ones of the grocery store version.

Among the offerings are sushi assortments:

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Individually-wrapped sushi items:

Fresh salads with miso, wasabi, or sesame vinegar dressing (no slimy lettuce found!)

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Gyoza (pork or vegetarian) with a soy dipping sauce:

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Traditional or spicy garlic edamame:

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A variety of summer rolls — I loved the Perfect Pair combo, which came with two grilled pork rolls and two Hawaiian beef rolls (the grilled pineapple was something different, and went really well with the beef):

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And several different vermicelli bowls and rice bowls.  You select the bowl from the case, and when you check out you’re given a separate package of vegetables to add to your bowl:

IMG_3490This is just a sampling of what you’ll find — there are also soups (miso, wonton, Vietnamese chicken noodle), kids’ meals, bento boxes, and more.

At the register, you’ll be given any sauces that go with your items, and if you’d like, they’ll heat your soups, dumplings, etc.

I was happy to have discovered Express Rolls, and in fact, grabbed a few things for lunch on my way to work today.  Express Rolls is a welcome (and healthier) option for a quick, fresh meal.