SUMMER VACATION IN OREGON PART 2 — THE OREGON COAST

After spending the first few days of our vacation in Portland, we headed for the Oregon Coast.  Our route took us through the Willamette Valley, home to more than 500 wineries, and renowned as a premier pinot noir producing area.

We stopped for tastings at three very different wineries.  The first stop was at Evening Land’s tasting room, a modest, but very nice room in a commercial building:

Based on a recommendation from Kelly, our likeable tasting guide at Evening Land, our next stop was for a private tasting at small producer Ayoub Wines, in the home of Mo Ayoub.  I think this is what the term “garage wine” refers to.  Mo’s home is in the Dundee HIlls, and the view from his back porch was spectacular.  I definitely had a bad case of yard envy.

Our last tasting was a private tasting at Soter Vineyard’s Mineral Springs Ranch, “a 240-acre savanna-like oak woodland and grazing land.”  The biodiverse property provides natural predators and healthy microorganisms, allowing the production team to focus on sustainable farming.  The property is dry-farmed, no insecticides or herbicides are used, and sheep and goats help with mowing and weed control.  When the vineyard had a problem with birds eating the grapes, they enlisted a falconer to help with the problem.  Get the picture?  There is a biodynamic farm on the property, and a huge open kitchen where chefs prepare dishes for special “provisions tastings” using meats and produce from the farm.  I was enamored with the garden, kitchen, views, tasting room — pretty much everything.

Before leaving the valley we stopped at Red Hills Market in Dundee to pick up some provisions, and sat for a spell in these chairs made from pinot noir barrels:

We eventually made it to the little town of Yachats on the coast, where we spent the next 4 nights.  After the 100-degree weather in Portland, we appreciated the MUCH cooler weather (highs around 60, lows around 50).

We rented a cozy cottage with a view of the ocean at Overleaf Village (Overleaf Lodge, which manages the rental cottages, is next door, and also has comfortable rooms with ocean views).

Oh, how we loved this cottage and its proximity to the ocean.  We marveled at the tides, the fog, the sunsets, and the sounds and smells of the ocean.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport was fun for everyone.

We saw lots of interesting fish:

 

See if you can spot the fish and crab hiding in this picture

Touched a few tidepool inhabitants:

And learned about pelicans:

But our favorite attraction was the comical sea otters — we could have spent hours watching them:

After the aquarium, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Newport and the surrounding Yaquina Bay area.

One of the things that really intrigued us was watching teeny bay shrimp being processed at Pacific Seafood (haven’t you always wondered how they did it?):

We got up early one morning and went in search of tidepools during low tide.  We didn’t find any tidepools at Devil’s Churn, but still enjoyed the views:

We did, however, strike tidepool paydirt at Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint (actually, my husband found the tidepools, because there was no way I was going climbing on those rocks):

It was an incredible feeling being the first people to step on the pristine sand that morning:

Here’s something we’d never seen before — cool patterns created by different colored sands running off of the rocks, like sand art:

The Sea Lion Caves in Florence were a lot more fun than we expected (we thought it would be kind of hokey).

The Sea Lion Caves, America’s largest sea cave, is a privately-owned wildlife preserve, and home to the Steller sea lion.  The sea lions are free to move in and out as they please, and this time of year they mostly move out of the cave and onto the rock ledges in front of the cave, known as the rookery.  The cave, discovered in 1880, is roughly 12-stories tall, and access is via elevator.  On this day, there were about 100 sea lions on the rookery, and about a dozen in the cave.

Another surprise attraction in Florence was Darlingtonia State Natural Site, dedicated to the protection of Darlingtonia californica, commonly known as the cobra lily, a member of the carnivorous pitcher plant family (Sarraceniaceae).

A boardwalk trail leads to a marshy area where the plants flourish.  The cobra lily has yellowish-green hooded leaves that form erect, 10 to 20-inch-high hollow tubes.  On top, the leaves are mottled a purplish color with transparent areas.  “A hidden opening into the stalk is bordered by a large, green, mustache-shaped appendage beneath the curved hood of the leaf.  Nectar inside the plant’s hidden opening attracts the insects. Once inside, an insect becomes confused by the transparent areas that appear like exits.   The insect eventually drops into the lower part of the tube, where it’s trapped by downward-pointed hairs, and falls into a pool of water at the bottom of the stalk. Bacteria in the water decompose it into nitrogen, which is then absorbed by the plant.” We saw a few remaining flowers of the plant, which blooms in the spring.  This was quite a sight, and we stood there in stunned silence — I’ve never seen anything remotely similar, and it was simply fascinating.

 

We had a bit of excitement one day when my husband, an avid cyclist, rented a bike and took off for a ride in the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area.

We didn’t hear from him for a while because he was in and out of cellular range.  Unfortunately, he got two flats, only one of which he was able to repair.  Fortunately he had service briefly — long enough to let us know we needed to come pick him up and send us his location (this is a great feature on the iPhone — see instructions below for how to send your location).  Unfortunately, the single lane gravel road was a little too treacherous for my son and I in our rented SUV.  Fortunately, we found the camp managers — a couple named Tom and Cindy — and Tom agreed to drive me up the mountain to find my husband (I offered a “reward”).  Tom turned out to be a really interesting fellow — a retired Texas A&M oceanography professor, and a great storyteller.  We were all very relieved to find my husband and bring him and his bike back down the mountain.

He’s up there somewhere

Thank goodness for Tom and Cindy

Great iPhone feature — we never would have found him without it

We weren’t expecting much in the way of dining, but we had some really enjoyable meals along the coast.  Clearwater, an attractive waterfront restaurant in Newport, had wonderful views and great food, including clam chowder, crispy maple salmon salad, blackened bay shrimp tacos, and grilled ham and cheese on 3-cheese sourdough bread (so good!) with truffle garlic fries:

Homegrown Public House in Florence is a quirky little place that serves tasty pub food made from locally-produced organic ingredients, including clam chowder, Cajun fried oysters, and a cheeseburger with garlic parmesan fries (we really liked those long parmesan shavings on the fries):

At Ona, in Yachats, which offers an upscale menu, we enjoyed an Oregon Dungeness crab cake with caper remoulade, grilled Yaquina Bay oysters, clam chowder, housemade yakisoba with miso black cod, and strawberry pineapple cobbler with ginger ice cream (note that the restaurant states that it closes at 8:45-ish, which translates loosely to “whenever we feel like it”):

Our favorite restaurant, hands down, was Drift Inn Café in Yachats.  We ended up there after being turned away the first time we tried to eat at Ona (don’t say I didn’t warn you), and wound up eating three meals there.  The décor is a little unusual, with a curious mural that greets you, and umbrellas hanging from the ceiling:

The restaurant has a pretty extensive menu, and we enjoyed quite a few dishes, including clam chowder (yeah, we ate a lot of clam chowder on the coast), cheeseburger and fries, and a salad my husband loved called Rubbery Shrubbery with chicken and a housemade cranberry vinaigrette:

But the restaurant really excels at pizza.  This pizza, with olive oil, garlic, paper thin slices of Yukon gold potatoes, slivered onion, manchego cheese, and prosciutto, was a thing of beauty (so good that we had it twice), baked in an outdoor wood-fired oven:

We enjoyed our time on the Oregon coast, and would have loved to have been able to stay on longer.  I’m certain we’ll be back — there’s lots more to do and see.  (I’m a little envious of the 100,000 or so people expected to be there August 21 when it will fall under the path of the Great American Total Solar Eclipse.)

SUMMER VACATION IN OREGON PART 1 — PORTLAND

We just returned from the dreaded eagerly-anticipated family vacation.  This year our daughter has an internship that sadly prevented her from joining us (I don’t really think she was too broken up about  it).  Each summer we look to vacation somewhere that has significantly cooler temps than Houston, and this year we headed to Oregon, spending a few days in Portland before heading to the coast.  Unfortunately, Portland was in the grips of a heat wave with record-breaking highs, so that kind of sucked.

vacation fail

But this was vacation, and we weren’t going to let a little hot weather ruin our fun.  We stayed at the Hotel Vintage, where we enjoyed our reasonably-priced spacious suite, nightly wine tastings, and convenient downtown location (also Ryan, the concierge, was very friendly and helpful):

Our first stop was the Portland Japanese Garden, “a haven of serenity and tranquility” for more than 50 years.  It’s considered the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan.  It was beautiful:

I was especially enamored with these tiny-leaved maples, which looked like stars against the sky:

We spent quite a bit of time just looking at the Sand and Stone Garden, referred to as a karesansui garden, which translates to “dry landscape.”  The aesthetic principle underlying these dry landscapes is known as yohaku-no-bi, meaning “the beauty of blank space” (a principle I’d like to see some of my more wordy opposing counsel adopt).  This style of garden is intended for contemplation, not meditation, and so we sat and contemplated.  (My son informed us that every principal’s office he’s ever been in has one of these gardens on the desk, complete with itty bitty rake.)

Our favorite part of the garden was the Strolling Pond Garden.  The huge Japanese Iris were unlike any iris I’d ever seen before, and of course, now I must have some for my garden:

Directly across the street is the International Rose Test Garden.  The garden has been there for about a century, and features more than 10,000 roses (Portland’s nickname is the City of Roses).  The garden is stunning, with the biggest, most perfect, gorgeous roses I’ve ever seen, and although we were wilting in the heat, the roses were not.

We spent the better part of the next day at the Portland Saturday Market, an arts and crafts open-air marketplace started in 1973, which is held every Saturday and Sunday from March through Christmas Eve.  All of the items sold at the market are made in and around Portland, and are sold by the people who make them.  We found so many interesting and unusual items there, including jewelry, purses, apparel, woodcrafts, paintings, and handpainted scarves:

Gotta have tie-dye!

Purses made from coffee bean sacks and vintage fabrics

Carnivorous plants

Beautiful soaps — eucalyptus mint was our favorite

Star Wars art

The next day we headed to Mt. Hood, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Portland.  First, a quick stop at Vista House at the Crown Point State Scenic Corridor, to take in the scenic (and very windy) views from 733 feet above the Columbia River.

Continuing on, we stopped to see several waterfalls.  First was the 249-foot Latourell Falls:

Next we stopped to see the 242-foot tiered Wahkeena Falls:

From the Wahkeena Falls we followed the short (unpaved and rocky) trail to hike to the Multnomah Falls, which took about 15 minutes (but seemed like an hour).  The Multnomah Falls are split into an upper falls of 542 feet and a lower falls of 69 feet.  There is a short but steep paved trail up to Benson Bridge, which spans the upper and lower falls.

In addition to being the tallest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah Falls is also the “most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest with more than 2 million stopping by each year to take in the views.”  Now, I’m not saying it was crowded . . .

Snow-capped Mt. Hood was a welcome sight on this hot day:

We threw a few obligatory snowballs at each other, and then went to poke around the historic Timberline Lodge, a Works Progress Administration project built in the late 1930s.  “The lodge’s design mirrors the lines of the mountain, and was constructed out of stone and wood from the surrounding forest.”

The lodge is filled with art and crafts, including wrought iron features:

Wood carvings:

And oil paintings and mosaics:

We enjoyed lunch at the lodge’s Ram’s Head Bar, centered around a huge stone column with giant beams, and which had a great view of Mt. Hood.

Highlights of our lunch were a grilled cheese sandwich made with fromage blanc, Tillamook cheddar, and Swiss cheese on sourdough with a cup of cream of smoked tomato soup, and cheese-stuffed kasekrainer sausage on a pretzel bun with beet sauerkraut, pickled mustard seeds, and potato salad:

The next day we left Portland and headed to the coast, which you can read about in Part 2.  But before leaving Portland, I have to say that we were excited to discover that Portland is a foodie town.  We had great meals in Portland, highlights of which were lunch at Grassa that included radiatore with beef and pork Bolognese, pancetta, and pecorino; and chicken cacciatore with rosemary pappardelle, pancetta, tomato, and nduja ricotta (seriously delicious):

Dinner at Nostrana that included antipasti di mare (ahi tuna crudo lettuce cups with avocado crema & crispy spring onions; pink shrimp fritters with green goddess mayo; and grilled octopus and potato salad with capers,  oregano and mama lil’s peppers); grilled copper river sockeye salmon with aioli, spring onion and green garlic risotto cake, sautéed spinach, fava greens, and morel mushrooms); and tagliata flat iron steak with arugula and garlic-rosemary oil:

Great Thai lunch at E-San Thai Cuisine (recommended by one of our Lyft drivers) — we had som tum (papaya salad); gaeng kiew wan (green curry with beef); and Mao special (rice noodles with red curry):

Dinner at Higgins, where we swooned over a beautifully composed salad of summer greens, toasted hazelnuts, and herb vinaigrette; charcuterie board; halibut over quinoa with lemon vinaigrette; summer vegetable fisherman’s stew with sauce vert; and cherry pie:

And an inventive and outstanding dinner at Irving St. Kitchen of meatballs over mashed yukon potatoes with green peppercorn sauce; black garlic butter steamed clams with chicken liver mousse toast; chicken fried oysters; pan-roasted porcini with ricotta blinis, zucchini, shaved porcini, and peas; carrot butter poached halibut with green garlic pure and pickled ramps; buttermilk fried chicken with collard greens, smashed potatoes, and tasso bacon gravy; and dessert of cherry sorbet gel,, almonde tarte, meringue, salted honey chiboust, and red wine syrup:

Before we left Portland, my husband went and stood in line for about an hour at the much-hyped Voodoo Doughnuts:

Although they were fun to try, I think we all agreed that they were too sweet for our tastes, as in make-your-teeth-hurt too sweet.  Reeling from our sugar high, we departed Portland, having thoroughly enjoyed the city and looking forward to returning again one day.

THE IMPOSSIBLE BURGER AT UNDERBELLY AND HAY MERCHANT

A burger that “looks, handles, smells, cooks and tastes” like ground beef, but is 100% plant-based?

Not unpossible — impossible.  Impossible Burger to be specific.

Last week I was invited to a media event debuting the Impossible Burger, available exclusively in Texas at Underbelly (lunch only) and Hay Merchant — nationwide it’s currently only offered at 13 other restaurants in a handful of cities.   The Impossible Burger was developed by Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley start up whose stated mission is to “transform the global system to support 9 billion humans by 2050.”  Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods’ founder and CEO, is a Professor Emeritus at Stanford University’s Biochemistry Department.  During an 18-month sabbatical in 2009, he set out to learn what makes beef “smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty,” and discovered it’s a single molecule called heme — “a basic building block of life on Earth, including plants, but it’s uniquely abundant in meat.”  Heme is what makes blood red, carries oxygen, and gives meat its bloody taste.  Brown and his team discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it through a fermentation process.

According to Impossible Foods, the ability to produce meat and dairy products from plants results in a significantly decreased environmental footprint.  Because the Impossible Burger is made entirely from plants, it uses less water and less land than that used to produce a beef burger, and emits fewer greenhouse gases.  As Chef Chris Shepherd describes it, “it’s an answer for the future.”

  Shepherd and the Impossible Burger

Although the Impossible Burger is a vegetarian and vegan (sans cheese) burger, it is intentionally not marketed as such.  Its target consumer is not vegetarians, but meat-eaters looking for a satisfying alternative.  In fact, company reps report that some vegetarians don’t like the Impossible Burger because it tastes too much like the meat they avoid.

So what’s in an Impossible Burger?  Here’s the ingredient list:  Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

And here’s the nutritional information for a 3-ounce patty:

I was surprised to learn that a 6-ounce Impossible Burger, which replicates 80% lean ground beef, is roughly 450 calories, and contains 26g of fat, 22g of which are saturated fat, and 760g of sodium.  In comparison, an 80% lean beef patty of the same size is roughly 425 calories, and contains 34g of fat, 13g of which are saturated fat, and 113g of sodium.  BUT — and this is a big but — the Impossible Burger contains zero cholesterol, compared to 119g of cholesterol in a comparable beef burger.  Additionally, the Impossible Burger is hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and contains no artificial ingredients.  As Shepherd explained,, “if I’m going to eat 2 burgers a week, one of them is going to be an Impossible Burger, because at some point my doctor is going to tell me to chill.”

The Impossible Burger, currently manufactured in New Jersey, arrives at Shepherd’s restaurants in 5-pound blocks, and looks like raw ground beef:

Shepherd is currently serving it in the style of his Cease and Desist Burger — two patties, double cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, accompanied by fries.  The price is $18, but as production capabilities increase, Impossible Foods anticipates that prices will come down.

Photo courtesy Impossible Foods

And here’s the Impossible Burger I actually sampled:

Naturally, I’ve received a lot of questions about what I thought of the Impossible Burger.  I liked it, and I would order it.  The flavor and aroma was, as represented, remarkably like that of a beef burger.  The burgers were served medium rare, which is the doneness at which they most resemble beef, and were well-seasoned with a nice sear.  The texture was softer than a beef patty, which kind of blew its cover, but it was not unpleasant (the company is continuing to work on making the texture like that of a beef burger).  I would have preferred a single patty (same for beef burgers too — I would never order a double patty), and I think the difference in texture would perhaps be less noticeable with a single patty.  (Update:  I saw on Hay Merchant’s Facebook page that they have already determined that a single patty works better.)  I asked Shepherd if he has any other plans for the Impossible Burger (Brown said his wife has served it tartare and it was “delicious”), and he said he’s going to play with it.  I would love to see it served as a dinner option in the style of a Salisbury steak smothered with mushroom gravy — I think it would lend itself nicely to that.

It was exciting to be invited to this media event, and I want to thank Impossible Foods for extending the invitation to me.  If you try the Impossible Burger, leave me a comment and let me know what you think of it!

PDQ

PDQ — which stands for “People Dedicated to Quality,” is a fast casual chain of chicken restaurants, with locations in 12 states, including 4 Houston-area locations.  Today I visited the location at 9440 Katy Freeway to learn more about the restaurant’s new menu items.

Recently my husband and I were at a champagne-tasting event, and someone brought a few platters of PDQ chicken tenders (you know fried chicken goes with champagne, right?).  This was the first time we had ever tasted PDQ chicken, and my husband would not stop talking about how much he liked it.  So when PDQ invited me to sample its new dishes, I readily accepted.

The restaurant’s interior is spacious, clean, and bright.  There’s an open kitchen, where you can see everything being made fresh to order.  They encourage you to “wave hi” to the kitchen staff, and promise “they’ll wave back.”  Try it — I dare you.  😉

PDQ was founded in 2009 by Bob Basham and Nick Reader.  According to information on the company’s website, they found a down-home neighborhood joint in North Carolina called Tenders, that had the “tastiest, freshest, made-from-scratch chicken tenders.”  They struck a deal on the spot with the owners, and in 2011 opened the first PDQ in Florida.

And here they are — the star of the menu, the glorious hand-breaded chicken tenders.  Crispy and juicy, with your choice of 8 homemade sauces (ranch, buffalo bleu, creamy garlic, honey bbq, sweet sriracha, chipotle bbq, honey mustard, and bleu cheese):

But PDQ is more than just fried chicken and French fries.  Operating Director Frank Wallace excitedly guided us through the new menu items, which debuted 2 weeks ago.

Among the new items are several salads, including Kale Caesar Salad with grilled chicken, shredded kale, and shaved Brussels sprouts, and this pretty Fruit Harvest Salad (for those desiring lighter fare) with grilled chicken, mixed greens, Granny Smith apples, tomatoes, edamame, candied almonds, and craisins with a blueberry-ginger vinaigrette:

They’ve also introduced three bowls:

 Thai Peanut Bowl (honey marinated nuggets, roasted garlic broccoli, mango salsa, peanuts, and toasted coconut over basmati rice, with Thai peanut sauce)

Smokehouse BBQ (crispy tenders dipped in honey BBQ sauce, bacon, fried pickles, smoked Gouda, succotash, roasted sweet potatoes, and scallions over basmati rice with BBQ ranch sauce)

Southern Buffalo (crispy tenders dipped in Buffalo bleu sauce, succotash, broccoli, bleu cheese, and scallions over basmati rice with Buffalo sauce)

I chose the Southern Buffalo to try, and I really liked all the textures the vegetables added.  The chicken was tangy and just spicy enough.  It was a generous bowl, very filling.

PDQ also introduced 3 new side dishes, all of which are a nice change of pace from French fries.  I especially liked the roasted garlic broccoli, but the beans and rice (edamame, black-eyed peas, corn, and rice), and the roasted sweet potatoes (with marshmallow fluff and pecans) were very good too.

Last but not least, PDQ added three new sandwiches to its lineup, for those with hearty appetites:

Southern Pimento Crunch (crispy chicken, homemade pimento cheese, lettuce, potato chips, and bacon) — stretchy pants mandatory

BBQ Bacon Ranch (crispy chicken dipped in BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese, bacon, and ranch slaw)

 

Grilled Hawaiian Chicken (teriyaki glazed grilled chicken, pepper jack cheese, bacon, grilled pineapple, and sweet sriracha slaw)

Everything I sampled was fresh and attractively presented.  I was impressed with all the choices PDQ offers, and look forward to taking my family there soon.  I noticed on the website that on Father’s Day, dads receive a free combo meal with the purchase of any meal — lucky dad!  And through July 7, it’s BOGO Tender and Nugget Platters, which is a great deal.  Next time you’re looking for a quick, tasty, budget-friendly meal, think of PDQ.

RETRO DINING: MOLINA’S CANTINA

Molina’s Cantina is Houston’s oldest family-owned and -operated Tex-Mex restaurant.

Recently I was invited to learn more about Molina’s, and came away with a greater understanding of the history of the restaurant, its impact on the Houston restaurant scene, and the origins of some of its most popular dishes.

In the 1920s, Raul Molina moved to Houston from Mexico, in search of a better life.  He worked in small restaurants, working his way up from dishwasher, to busser, to eventually opening the Old Monterrey Inn in 1941 with his wife Mary, which was one of only a handful of Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time.  Eventually, the restaurant evolved to become Molina’s.  Today there are three locations in Houston —  3801 Bellaire Blvd. (or as we call it, “our Molina’s,” where we have been dining for almost a quarter of a century, although it was originally located nearby on Buffalo Speedway), 7901 Westheimer, and 4720 Washington Ave.

A sampling of menus over the years

Molina’s is currently owned and operated by brothers Raul III, Ricardo, and Roberto Molina, Raul Molina’s grandchildren.  In 2009, Raul Molina Jr. was inducted into the Texas Restaurant Association’s Hall of Honor, followed by Ricardo Molina in 2013, in recognition of their significant contribution to Texas’s restaurant industry.

Raul Molina

One of the things we admire about Molina’s is the loyal and cheerful staff.  Two of our favorite waiters are Art and Joaquin, both of whom have been there 26 years:

A frosty margarita — frozen or on the rocks — is always a great start to a Tex-Mex meal, especially this time of year, and Molina’s makes one with a nice sweet/tart balance:

Frozen or on the rocks (photos courtesy of Kimberly Park)

Before you can whip out your phone and check in on Facebook, a complimentary basket of crispy tortilla chips, several salsas, and carrot escabeche will appear on your table.  Molina’s was the first restaurant in Houston to offer escabeche, a zesty carrot relish Raul discovered in Mexico City.

When my kids were little, they used to order Chicken Dinosaurs from the kids menu, which were dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets (I’m not sure if they’re still on the menu, and really chips and queso are so much better).  One day, my then-5-year-old daughter asked me “what’s Mexican about Chicken Dinosaurs,” which was pretty hilarious, and to which I had to reply, “nothing.”  I think that killed it for her, and thankfully, the kids have graduated from the kids menu to the regular menu, which has many dishes they love.

A number of Molina’s signature dishes are named after staff and guests.  Nancy Ames Nachos, for example, are named after Nancy Ames, a folk singer/songwriter/entertainer who had a morning TV show in Houston in the 70s.  Raul Molina, Jr. was a guest on her show demonstrating how to make nachos.  Nancy shared her favorite nacho toppings — each chip layered with refried beans, spicy beef, cheese, guacamole, diced tomatoes, and jalapenos — and Nancy Ames Nachos were born.  They remain a top seller, and we’ve enjoyed them many times over the years.  They’re colorful, delicious, and filling — it’s easy to make a meal out of them.

Nancy Ames Nachos (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Then there’s the famous Jose’s Dip.  Decades ago, a former waiter named Jose began adding spicy taco meat to his guests’ queso.  Soon, customers began requesting “Jose’s Dip.”  I don’t know anyone that doesn’t love Jose’s Dip, which remains a staple on the menu.  In fact, it’s the password for Molina’s complimentary Wi-Fi.  Tip:  If you sign up for Molina’s E-News Club, you’ll receive a complimentary bowl of Jose’s Dip  (you’ll also receive an email coupon for a complimentary bowl each year for your birthday — Happy Birthday to ME!).

 

Jose’s Dip

Another popular item is Berly’s Burrito, named after long-time guest Jim Berly.  One night he came in wanting something different, and requested a burrito filled with fajita meat, smothered with chili con carne and topped with queso.  I assume Mr. Berly was wearing stretchy pants at the time.

Berly’s Burrito (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Williams Special and C.W. Special are two of my family’s favorite entrees.  Williams Special gets its name from William Lyons, a cook who worked for the Molina family for more than 40 years.  One day, Raul Jr. asked William to surprise him with something different, and William brought him a plate filled with carne asada, grilled onions, and 2 cheese enchiladas, all topped with “William’s sauce” and Chihuahua cheese — the rest is Molina’s history.  The C.W. Special was created by Chris Wilson, a childhood friend of Roberto’s, after the two spent a night out on the town.  It includes a taco al carbon, cheese enchilada, rice, beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole.

William’s Special (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

C.W. Special (photo courtesy of Kimberly Park)

Enchiladas a la Michael are named after Michael Garay, a former manager who created a delicious salsa verde that he served on top of the restaurant’s chicken enchiladas, followed by Chihuahua cheese, cilantro, and avocado slices.

Enchiladas a la Michael (photo courtesy of Dragana Harris)

Of course there’s a variety of enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, and other Tex-Mex favorites to choose from.  One dish that I particularly enjoy, which I like to think is on the lighter side, is Raulito’s Shrimp — jumbo shrimp sautéed in garlic butter, served with frijoles a la charra, guacamole, and mango pico de gallo, accompanied by tortillas:

Raulito’s Shrimp (photo courtesy of Kimberly Park)

If you dine at Molina’s on a Saturday night, you may be lucky enough to be serenaded:

At the end of the meal, look forward to a sweet ending of complimentary pralines:

It’s not hard to figure out how Molina’s has stayed in business for over 75 years.  The cheerful staff, the family atmosphere, and the restaurant’s heritage certainly contribute to its longevity.  The food is always fresh, made from scratch in small batches, and is delicious and satisfying, with items to appeal to all ages.  I can’t speak for the other locations, but the Bellaire location has a comfortable neighborhood feel, and it’s a rare occasion when we do not run into friends and acquaintances there.

LAWYERING IN LA GRANGE, ARGUING IN AUSTIN


Last year on my birthday I spent the day in urgent care, and was sent to the hospital by ambulance, where I spent 6 miserable days.  This year my birthday was significantly better, and involved a trip to Austin for oral argument in the appeal of a case we tried in October 2015 in La Grange.

lagrangesign

La Grange, population approximately 4,600, is located about 100 miles from Houston. Established in the 1830s, the town is rich in history, although it’s best known as the location of the Chicken Ranch — “the Oldest Continually Operating Non-Floating Whorehouse in the United States,” and the subject of the Broadway musical and movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  (Don’t get too excited — the Chicken Ranch closed in 1973.)  Kinda  makes you wonder how many floating whorehouses are out there, doesn’t it?

As is usually the case, my role was towards the end of trial, when I was summoned to assist with the jury charge.  And as is also usually the case, opposing counsel did not appreciate my sudden appearance in the case.  At one point, as we were attempting to draft an agreement and opposing counsel would not tell us what he would agree to, he emailed me and copied everyone in the case (oh, grow up): “I don’t understand this.  I think we have had a good working relationship with the attorneys of the firm of which you are of counsel.”  And his point was??  Was he telling on me?  He never did share what it was he would agree to.  Yeah, we won’t be exchanging Christmas cards.

Once outside the big city, I really enjoyed the drive, past fields of purple grasses and ranch lands (and an occasional smoke stack):lagrange1

The trial took place in the Fayette County Courthouse, which is the most stunning Texas historic courthouse I have been in yet.  Built in 1891, the Fayette County Courthouse is a “prime example of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture with its arched openings along with the use of different stone types and  colors.”  It’s built of red and blue sandstone, pink granite, and white limestone.  Thanks to a $4 million grant from the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program of the Texas Historical Commission, the courthouse was beautifully restored in 2003.

courthouse4

veteransmemorial

In the center of the courthouse is a 30′ x 30′ courtyard, around which the courtroom and offices are arranged:

I think opposing counsel got excited believing there were “hot chicks” in the courthouse:

Ready to see the beautiful courtroom?

Note the star of Texas on each seat:

The all-important jury box:

Here’s the star witness from the trial — steel casing used in an oil well:

casing

I won’t bore you with the details of the trial (we saved that for the jury), but we won.  🙂

Before we leave La Grange, a few highlights of the courtyard square.  Lukas Bakery is across from the courthouse at 135 N. Main St.  I saw the A/V guy in the courtroom munching on oatmeal cookies from there throughout the trial.  I brought home a bag of their Cherry Slice cookies, which everyone went crazy for (I have had no luck reproducing them at home).

IMG_7007

Prause’s Meat Market, at 253 W. Travis St., is a popular lunch destination, but you better get there early before the barbecue sells out.  The day I visited, there was a line out the door of women waiting to buy meat:

There are a number of retail establishments in the courtyard square, including this one that caught my eye:

Heading back to Houston, I stopped at the La Grange Smokehouse, 4315 E. State Highway 71, to pick up some smoked beef sticks.  Not much to look at inside, but those beef sticks are really tasty:

Usually when I see a Buc-ee’s billboard I pay attention and start counting down the miles (Yes!  Yes!  I CAN hold it!):

lagrange3

But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that right after the Buc-ee’s sign is Hruska’s, 109 W. Highway 71, in Ellinger, established more than a century ago, and well known to travelers for its famous kolaches.  So, sorry Buc-ee’s, but history won out this time.

hruskas1

 

Hruska’s menu lists 16 varieties of kolaches, a dozen different klobanskys (savory filled pastries, what we call sausage kolaches), 8 different cookies, breads, rolls, and filled cookies they call “skrumptions.”  My family was pretty happy to see me when I got back home, but was even happier to see the pastries, beef sticks, barbecue, and cookies I brought them.

Our opponent was not happy with the outcome of the trial, and appealed.  And so a year and a half later we traveled to Austin for oral argument of the appeal — on my birthday.  We got in around noon the day before, and headed over to the Texas Chili Parlor, established in 1976, for lunch.

We used to eat there occasionally when I was in law school, so it was a little bit of a side trip down Memory Lane.  The chili was just as I remembered — hot, spicy, and chunky:

My hotel room had a view of the beautiful Capitol:

The rest of my group bailed on me for dinner, so I strolled over to The Clay Pit, an Indian restaurant down the street from the hotel.

Dining alone I was only able to sample a few things, but I really enjoyed my meal and  recommend this reasonably-priced restaurant.  Being the party girl that I am, I started with a glass of hibiscus iced tea and an order of papadum, which came with red and green chutneys:

For my main course I ordered channa saag, which was made with spinach, garbanzo beans, and herbs, and was served with rice:

Bright and early the next morning — my birthday — we headed over to the Third Court of Appeals for argument, located in the Price Daniel, Sr. Building.  According to the historical marker outside the building, Price Daniel held more offices of public trust than any other individual in Texas history.  Learn something new every day!

The building’s exterior was plain, but inside the courtroom was elegant, with comfortable upholstered benches.  Usually the benches are wooden and it feels like being in church; this felt more like being at the movies:

My boss expertly argued the appeal in his typically animated manner, and we felt like it went well.  We left, as always, cautiously optimistic.  It’ll be a few months before we find out which side won.

On the way home, my boss steered us towards Meyer’s Smokehouse in Elgin.  That was some good barbecue — so good I forgot to take any photos before everyone scarfed down their lunch.

Back at home, my family was waiting to take me out for birthday dinner at Provisions, one of my favorite restaurants.  We enjoyed everything we ordered, including:

White asparagus vichyssoise

Ham ‘O Day (a family favorite)

Bread service of Rye Berry Pumpernickel with Bay Blue and Beer Jelly

Cresta Di Gallo (a permanent fixture on the menu)

Fish Taco (from The Pass menu) — kombu/snapper/uni/avocado

King crab, watermelon, and tomato gazpacho (from The Pass menu)

All in all, it was a great birthday, full of fun surprises, and a million times better than last year’s!

SEIWA MARKET

Seiwa Market is a Japanese grocery that opened in September 2016.  It’s located at 1801 S. Dairy Ashford, #116, in a large strip center, flanked by numerous Asian businesses.  I’ve been to a number of Chinese and Korean groceries in Houston, and was curious to see what this Japanese market offered.  It has an unusual business philosophy, which is stated on its website as “What is the right thing to do as a human being?”  (Wouldn’t it be nice if we all stopped to think that from time to time?)  Seiwa Market advertises that it offers “affordable Japanese quality products at affordable price through partnership with GYOUMU Supermarket Japan.”

This little market is packed full of interesting things.  The produce department, which is the first area you’ll see when you enter, although small, offers plenty of fresh items, including a variety of fruits (biggest apples I’ve ever seen), herbs, potatoes and yams, shishito and other peppers, and citrus.

Beautiful red yams 

One produce item that intrigued me was gobo, which I was unfamiliar with:

I’ve since learned that gobo is burdock, a thin root vegetable that grows to be more than two feet long.  It’s often added to stews and stir fries, and pickled gobo is sometimes sold to accompany sushi or rice dishes.  It’s crunchy and has a sweet flavor similar to lotus root.  I wish I’d bought some when I saw it.  Next trip.

If you’re a green tea aficianado, you’ll be ecstatic at the many green tea and matcha items available.  In addition to dozens of excellent green teas (sold loose or in bags) and matcha powders, there were a bunch of green tea confections — a whole end cap display full of them

img_8633How about some matcha Oreo bits sandwiches, for example?

img_8677

Or matcha Oreo soft cookies?

img_8675

Matcha Pocky, anyone?

On weekends, the market has soft, sticky sweets flown in from Japan.  These were very popular with shoppers–there was a line to buy them, and they sold out by lunchtime:

There’s lots of interesting grocery items on the shelves, including a wide variety of sweet and savory snack foods and condiments.

Of particular interest to me was the many rice cookers for sale (I’ll be purchasing one for each of my kids soon).  They range in price from around $50 to several hundred dollars.

There was also a nice little assortment of Zojirushi thermoses, as well as tiffins, and lunch kits.  Zojirushi thermoses are incredible, and will keep your liquids hot or cold for at least 24 hours — they are reportedly popular with chefs for keeping sauces warm.

Seiwa Market also offers prepared foods and sushi, and although I did not try any on this visit, they appeared to be fresh and nicely prepared.

On my way to check out I passed a freezer case full of Mushi Cake.  I don’t know what Mushi Cake is, but I am guessing it is a popular treat.  Maybe next time — to go with the gobo.

There are some unusual recipes on the market’s website, none of which looked terribly appealing to me, but are worth checking out for the unintentionally awkward translations, like this description of Mixed Rice of Ginger:  “A little ginger and soy sauce are accented. Because ginger is not too tight, I will eat many cups! It is an easy recipe that can be even surplus rice.  If you keep the mixed rice with a rice cooker etc. for 1 ~ 2 hours, the taste becomes familiar and it becomes even more delicious.  Well, maybe ginger is “not too tight,” but I’m pretty sure that if you eat “many cups” of this mixed rice, soon your pants will be.  🙂

My daughter and I enjoyed our visits to Seiwa Market.  It’s quite out of the way for us, so we won’t be going regularly, but when we’re in the area, we will be sure to stop by.