RETRO DINING: SHANGHAI RIVER

Shanghai River, located at 2407 Westheimer, has been serving Szechuan and Hunan cuisine since 1970.

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Located in a strip shopping center, the unassuming building doesn’t hint at the retro glamour inside.

The restaurant’s cool, dark dining room, with its glossy redwood finishes, lacquered artwork,  buddhas, and giant foo dogs brings back childhood memories of many meals at Chinese restaurants n New York.  There’s a hint of mystery in the air.  My son and I visited Shanghai River on a whim, and have been back many times since.  The recipes are what I think of as old school American Chinese food–tamed to suit what are perceived to be American tastes.

We first tried Shanghai River for lunch.  With 40 choices on the special luncheon menu, we had no trouble finding dishes we liked.  Each luncheon special comes with soup (hot and sour or egg drop corn) and choice of appetizer (spring roll, crab puff, or egg foo young).  We chose the hot and sour soup, which was thick and suitably hot and sour, and came with fried wonton crisps and mustard and duck sauce for dipping:

Among the lunch specials we enjoyed were Shrimp in Hot Garlic Sauce, with a generous number of plump shrimp (although I would not call this dish spicy by any stretch of the imagination):

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Chicken with Peanuts (made with all white meat on request):

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Hunan Shrimp:

Shredded Pork in Hot Garlic Sauce (again, not spicy):

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And Chicken with Cashew Nut:

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You’ll notice that the unifying characteristic of all of these specials is that they are varying shades of brown.  It would be nice to throw in a veggie or two just to break up the monotony of the plate, but the lack of color didn’t distract from our enjoyment of the food.

There are many more choices on the expansive dinner menu.  Just for fun, on one occasion I ordered the Pu Pu Platter with my son, which I hadn’t had, or even seen on a menu, since I was a kid.  The Pu Pu Platter came with spring roll, bar-b-q rib, shrimp toast, crab puff, skewer beef, and tempura shrimp, one of each for each person.  With its blue flame from the mini hibachi grill and giggle-inducing name (according to Wikipedia, the name has its origins in the Hawaiian language, where pū-pū signifies an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre), the Pu Pu Platter was a fun trip down memory lane.

At dinner, a complimentary dish of pickled vegetables is offered:

Dinner is served family style, accompanied by rice.  Some of the dishes we liked were Chicken with Cashew Nuts (the veggie flower garnish was a nice touch):

Beef with Snow Peas:

And Mu Shu Pork

Neither the dining room nor the bar were ever crowded on any of the occasions we visited, although there was almost always something going on in the private room.  If you’re looking for a quiet place to enjoy a meal, Shanghai River fits the bill.  I believe its longevity is likely attributable to its reasonably-priced menus, generous portions, satisfying–if not exciting–food, and brisk service.

 

 

 

 

 

RETRO DINING: MOELLER’S BAKERY

Moeller’s Bakery, located at 4201 Bellaire Blvd., has been serving up delectable baked goods since 1930.

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The bakery is located in a modest, nondescript building, next to a popular bowling alley.  What the building lacks in design, however, is made up for with the vivid seasonal murals painted on the windows, such as this Easter one:

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And this tribute to the armed forces for Memorial Day:

004 (2)Inside, the bakery cases are filled with temptations of all kinds. There’s mouth-watering kolaches, rolls, and breakfast pastries:

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For a special treat, there’s beautifully iced cookies:

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The themed cakes waiting to be picked up will make you want to have a party of your own:

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Forgot to plan ahead?  There’s always a choice of cakes waiting to be decorated just for you (of course, they taste just as good unadorned):

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But the thing for which Moeller’s is known throughout the city–maybe throughout the state–is its petit fours:

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You can choose from white petit fours:

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Or chocolate petit fours:

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Moeller’s petit fours consist of a rectangle of airy cake — two or three bites’ worth — enrobed in a glaze that has the slightest crackle when you bite into it, topped with a little icing flower.  I’ve seen them at parties with custom monograms, although personally, I think the flowers are prettier.  (Monogrammed food can be kind of pretentious, don’t you think?)  The petit fours are $1.95 apiece for white, $2.35 for chocolate.  (The staff was not sure why the difference in price, just that it’s always been that way — let’s just assume it’s because they use high-quality cocoa powder.)  The bakery sells 40 to 50 dozen of these per day during the week, and 200 dozen per day on the weekends.  200 DOZEN!  Forget cupcakes and macarons — I think if anyone was paying attention, the next baking trend would be petit fours.

The secret to Moeller’s longevity is obvious to me.  Every time I enter the bakery, I become a kid again.  I want one of every cookie in the shop, and a birthday cake with my name (not my age) spelled out in bright pink icing.  I  can never decide between white or chocolate petit fours, or how many to buy, so I buy half of each and always too many, which turns out to be never enough.  I love that the ladies behind the counter call me “Honey” or “Sweetie” and are infinitely patient as I vacillate between which goodies to buy.  It’s glass display cases and white cake boxes and linoleum and baker’s twine all rolled up into a timeless Houston treasure.

 

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Moeller's Bakery on Foodio54

RETRO DINING: NINO’S

Nino’s, located at 2817 W. Dallas, has been serving “down-home Italian” food since 1977.

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It’s the anchor of a compound of Italian restaurants owned by the Mandola family that also includes Vincent’s, Grappino di Nino, and the newest addition, La Gelateria.

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The restaurants are grouped around a charming terrace that manages to feel European without being hokey.

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The interior, with its dark wood, terrazzo floors, antique pots and pans, and hanging herbs and garlic braids, is attractive and comfortable — no plastic cheeses and prosciutto hanging from the rafters here.

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Crusty bread flecked with olives, accompanied with garlicky olive oil, arrived quickly after we were seated (and disappeared almost as quickly).

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The service was attentive without being fussy.  We started with an antipasto platter, which had a nice assortment of meats, cheeses, and vegetables — something for everyone.

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Our family ordered four entrees:

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 Pollo Arrosto

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 Veal Vincent, a house favorite

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 Snapper Nino, another house favorite

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 Chicken Scallopini Parmigiano

The entrees were nice, although underseasoned for our tastes.  Although the portions were ample, the restaurant could have been a little more generous with ingredients — the two artichokes on the Veal Vincent, for example, definitely could have used some company.

So what’s the secret to Nino’s longevity?  I think one of the reasons the restaurant remains a favorite for many people is that it has a familiar and safe menu.  Nothing intimidating or too challenging.  A place where you can go on a date, or take your kids, or grandma and grandpa, or a business colleague, and everyone has a good time.  My daughter perfectly described the restaurant as “happy.”

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Nino's on Foodio54

RETRO DINING: ANTONIO’S ITALIAN RESTAURANT AND FLYING PIZZA

In our excited rush to try the buzzy new restaurants that seem to open every week in Houston, we sometimes forget about some of the city’s culinary institutions — the restaurants that have endured through decades of booms and busts.  These restaurants are as much a part of Houston’s culinary landscape as those appearing on the “top ten must try now” lists.  We’re going to visit some of these long-lived restaurants (the only criteria being that they must have been in business at least 35 years, and not be a chain), to see what the secret to their longevity is.

First up is Antonio’s Italian Restaurant and Flying Pizza.

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Housed in a modest building at 2920 Hillcroft, this restaurant has been in business since 1971.

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Stepping inside is about as close to time travel as I am ever likely to come. The spotless restaurant has a retro charm, filled with polished wood, wrought iron, hanging baskets of silk plants, and cheery tablecloths.  Very 1970s.

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After placing our orders, warm crusty bread arrived, complete with foil-wrapped butter pats.

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We started with an order of stuffed mushrooms.  I used to make these back in the 1980s and 1990s, but haven’t had them in years.  Meaty, piping hot, and with a crunchy herbed  topping, they were as good as I remember.  I made a mental note to make stuffed mushrooms at home soon.

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My husband ordered the Veal Cacciatore.  Although it was not quite what he expected (he was thinking it would be a veal cutlet), it was an interesting dish with tender strips of veal, and a lot of flavor from kalamata olives, onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms.

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I ordered the Eggplant Parmigiana, because our waiter told me it was the best in Houston, which is pretty much a throwdown.  It’s hard for me to ever declare something “the best,” but this was really good.  The eggplant was thankfully not breaded and fried before being covered in sauce and cheese.  Instead, it was baked or sauteed (not sure which), and then layered, which allowed the flavor and texture of the eggplant to come through without the breading that so often ends up being gummy.  (I didn’t miss the calories from the fried breading either.)

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Both of our entrees were generously sized (enough left over for lunch the next day). The sauces were not too sweet — one of our biggest complaints with some of the Italian chain restaurants.  I liked that on each table there was salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and grated parmesan cheese, to use as you desired — that’s something you hardly see any more.  Is it just me, or does anyone else hate having the waiter come over with a yard-long pepper mill or a bowl of grated cheese and ask if you want any?  And forget about asking for salt!

So what is the secret to Antonio’s longevity?  This was Italian comfort food — tasty, unpretentious, with a definite “made from scratch” quality.  It was not cheap, although I believe the prices were fair.  Sitting there among the silk plants, enjoying our meal with a good bottle of wine, it was a relaxed evening.  It’s a perfect place to take a family, and we look forward to returning with the kids for some “flying pizza.”

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Antonios Flying Pizza and Italian Restaurant on Foodio54