CARACOL AND HOUSTON RESTAURANT WEEKS

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By this time, most Houstonians know that August 1 through September 7, 2015 is Houston Restaurant Weeks — a month-long celebration of food and charitable giving benefiting the Houston Food Bank.  The 200+ participating restaurants listed on the Houston Restaurant Weeks website offer special Houston Restaurant Weeks prix fixe menus — lunch menus are priced at $20, and dinner menus are $35 or $45 — with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Houston Food Bank, the nation’s largest food bank.

ABOUT THE HOUSTON FOOD BANK

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Each year the Houston Food Bank feeds 800,000 people, distributing food to nearly 600 hunger relief organizations in 18 southeast Texas counties.  Through the Backpack Buddy program, the Houston Food Bank provides weekend food sacks to more than 10,000 children in 500 schools.  The organization’s Keegan Kitchen prepares meals for school-aged children that are served at after-school and summer program locations. Additional community services include nutrition education, school-based programs, food stamp applications, and hands-on job training.

ABOUT HOUSTON RESTAURANT WEEKS

Houston Restaurant Weeks (“HRW”) was established in 2003 by radio and television personality Cleverley Stone.  (Cleverley hosts “The Cleverley Show,” a food talk radio program on CBS Sports Radio 650/KIKK-AM, and is a food segment contributor to Houston’s Fox 26 Morning News.  She is also the administrator of the active Facebook group “Houston Foodie Friends.”).  HRW is the largest annual fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank, and to date has raised nearly $6 million, enabling the Houston Food Bank to provide almost 18 million meals to those in need.  HRW volunteers donate their time and resources so that all of the donations raised go directly to the Houston Food Bank.

My family has been participating in HRW since its inception.  In the beginning, there were only a handful of participating restaurants, and the menus were often not terribly interesting.  As the event has grown, so has Houston diners’ interest in it, to the point where it is practically sport, combing through the mouth-watering menus and trying to secure reservations for a month of delicious and charitable dining.  I believe the participating restaurants benefit from the extensive publicity and increased sales during a month that can be slow for Houston restaurants.  It’s a great time to try a new restaurant or visit one of your favorites — in the name of charity, of course.  In the words of the organizers, “Dine Out and Do Good.”

CARACOL’S HRW MENU

We were out of town the first week in August, and I felt really left out as my Facebook newsfeed blew up with photos of HRW meals and raves for the creative menus.  Now that we’re back, we’ve got some catching up to do, and our first much-anticipated HRW meal was last night at Caracol — the Mexican Coastal Kitchen from 4-time James Beard Best Chef Southwest Nominee Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, located at 2200 Post Oak Blvd. #160.  If you don’t know the story of Hugo and Tracy, take a minute to read it.  It is one of my favorite success/love stories.

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We brought our daughter, who was as enamored with the beautiful restaurant and the art of Charley Harper gracing the walls as we are.

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We started off with an agave cocktail and a mock blackberry mojito:

For HRW, the restaurant offered a choice of 4 menus.  (It’s a little confusing if you view the menus on the HRW website.  You choose one of the 4 menus — not mix and match.)

We each chose a different menu — Vegetarian, On Dry Land, and Our Style.  The meal began with colorful amuse:

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Coctel de Fruta (Vegetarian and On Dry Land menu)

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Ceviche Tropical — tuna, avocado, mango, papaya, roasted pineapple (Our Style menu)

We thoroughly enjoyed the appetizers that followed:

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 Tostada de Aguacate Frito — fried avocado, pico de gallo, cabbage, radish, crema (Vegetarian menu)

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Garnacha de Pato con Mole de Higo — duck confit in fig mole on masa pancake and mixed green salad (On Dry Land menu)

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 Pozole de Almeja — clam soup with hominy, tomatillo, hoja santa (Our Style menu)

Everyone declared their main course the best:

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 Canita de Puerco con Mole Manchamanteles — pork shank, Mexican sweet potato puree, tropical mole with chiles, plantains, and pineapple (Our Style Menu)

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 Birria Mascota — bone-in short rib, roasted tomato salsa, cocoa nib, roasted potatoes (On Dry Land menu)

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 Coliflor a la Talla — oven-roasted ancho and guajillo pepper rubbed cauliflower and cauliflower puree (Vegetarian menu)

Although at this point we didn’t have room for dessert, we nevertheless managed to polish them off, and declared it a three-way tie as to which was the favorite:

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 Flan de Coco — coconut flan, toasted coconut flakes, mango crema (Our Style menu)

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 Churros Rellenos — stone fruit filled crullers, pistachio ice cream (On Dry Land menu)

 El Coco — chocolate coconut shell, coconut buttercream, coconut ganache, coconut streusel, whipped coconut (Vegetarian menu)

Caracol, under the direction of Sean Beck, Sommelier and Beverage Director for Caracol, Backstreet Café, and Hugo’s, earned the Wine Spectator 2015 Best of Award of Excellence, and we enjoyed a great wine with our meal:

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If you haven’t been to Caracol — and even if you have — consider visiting it during HRW.  We can enthusiastically recommend any of the three menus we had, and in fact, my husband wants to go back for the Between the Waves menu.  :)

A NOTE OF CAUTION

Not every restaurant can or wants to participate in HRW.  For some, particularly those that focus on family-style or sharing meals (which includes some of my favorite restaurants), the HRW structure of a prix fixe meal just doesn’t work.  Others may have their own reasons, financial or otherwise, for not participating.  I don’t question their decision not to participate.  But a slight controversy has arisen over some non-participating restaurants offering their own prix fixe menus during the month of August, with proceeds going to charities other than the Houston Food Bank.  Although I personally disagree with this practice, which takes advantage of the millions of dollars of publicity that HRW has received over the years, there is a prevailing sentiment that getting diners and restaurants together to “Dine Out and Do Good” is meritorious, regardless of the charity.  Unfortunately, there have been reports of confusion — diners thinking they were supporting the Houston Food Bank, only to belatedly discover the restaurant was supporting a different charity.  If it’s your intent to support the Houston Food Bank this month, be sure to check the HRW website to make sure the restaurant is, in fact, participating and donating to the Houston Food Bank.

So what are you waiting for?  Check the website, make reservations, and “Dine Out and Do Good” this month!

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WEST TEXAS TRAVELS

Earlier this summer I got to travel with my boss to west Texas for oral argument in an appeal that I worked on.  I was especially excited for this trip because I’d never been to that part of the state.  The court we were appearing before usually sits in El Paso, but on this occasion, the justices apparently decided that they might enjoy a trip too, and argument was held in one of the counties they serve.

The journey began with a flight to Midland, which is located in the oil-rich Permian Basin, and is home to Texas’s top oil and gas producers.  As we approached Midland, the view out the airplane window was different than anything I’d seen before:

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As my boss explained to me, the tan squares are well pads, and the blue rectangles are fracking fluid and retention ponds.

From Midland we had to drive 170 miles to our hotel in Marathon, Texas.  Leaving Midland we passed a sobering sign of the times — oil rigs sitting idly, waiting to be put into service:

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It wasn’t too long before the scenery started to change, and Interstate 20 got infinitely more interesting the closer we got to Big Bend:

Yucca were in bloom everywhere, and rose up like candle flames across the landscape:

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Although I thought the drive might be tedious, it wasn’t.  We drove along, chatting, slightly hypnotized by the landscape.  At one point we realized that we had probably passed our exit.  Sure enough, we had overshot it — by 80 miles!   This meant, of course, that we had to turn around and drive another 80 miles back to where we were supposed to turn off. And so our 170-mile road trip turned into 300-something miles.  If I had been traveling with one of the partners from my last job (which I hated), I would have considered jumping out the window at this point.  But my boss and I thought it was kind of hilarious.  Driving 100 mph, it didn’t take us too long to get back to where we were supposed to be.

There were two things I learned about survival on this stretch of highway.  First — fill up your tank, use the restroom, and buy a drink before you get on it,  because there are no rest stops, no signs screaming to hold it because there’s a Buc-ee’s ahead, no gas stations, no nothing. Just miles and miles of desert highway with very few cars traveling it. Second, slow down for buzzards.  In and around Houston, I’ve seen plenty of buzzards — turkey vultures, to be precise — circling overhead and in fields, but never sitting on the roadways due to the amount of traffic.  On the wide open and not heavily traveled road, however, buzzards feasting on roadkill was a common sight.  But buzzards are either stupid, fearless, or sneaky, and these big birds will wait until you are almost upon them before they take off — often right smack into your car — and have been known to shatter windshields and dent vehicles.  They will also scare the crap out of you when they do this.

We stayed at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon.

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The main building, designed by famed El Paso architect Henry Trost, was built in 1927.

The newer Los Portales area, where we stayed, is made up of 20 pueblo-style rooms surrounding a courtyard.

The hotel was charming, with lots of areas to sit for a spell:

And a few reminders that you’re in west Texas:

The White Buffalo Bar at the hotel serves some great cocktails:

People come from all over to eat at the hotel’s upscale 12 Gage restaurant:

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As I’ve mentioned before, the biggest perk of business travel, for me, is having a room to myself:

Can you spot what’s missing in the picture of my room?  Here’s a clue:

Jasper and Maisy

The next morning we headed out bright and early to Alpine for oral argument.  Alpine is located in Brewster County, population approximately 9,200, which is the largest county by area in Texas, and is more than three times the size of Delaware.

The Brewster County Courthouse, built in 1887, is a beautiful historic courthouse in the American Second Empire style.

There was a WWII Howitzer on the front lawn.  It was obtained by the Brewster County Commissioners Court, all the members of which at the time were WWII veterans, to serve as a monument to American heroes:

The courtroom was not paneled in the dark mahogany-stained wood I’m so used to, but was done in a lighter, brighter, more friendly shade:

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The proceedings were very different from those I’ve been to in other courts.  Usually, the justices don’t come out until it’s time for argument and then it’s all business, after which they quickly retreat to chambers.  Here, however, in this quaint small town in west Texas, the justices were milling about before arguments began, without their robes, visiting with the lawyers and courtroom personnel.  It was really nice.  The courtroom only had seating for a single judge, but this did not faze the justices — they just pulled up three chairs and happily squished together behind the bench.  Someone ran downstairs and hauled up a podium for the lawyers to use as they addressed the court.  I guess it was a treat for the Brewster County court personnel to have the court of appeals visiting, as many of them came to watch the three arguments taking place that morning.

Oral argument went well, and as usual, my boss did great, expertly fielding the justices’ questions, and arguing in his typically animated style.  The panel listened attentively, and we left hopeful — as we always do — that  we would prevail.  We won’t know the outcome, however, for quite some time.  (UPDATE 7/24/15:  We won!)

The trip was a fun and interesting break from my usual routine, and I very much appreciated that I got to go along, although I doubt my boss will ever trust my navigation skills again. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more Texas business travels. 😊