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About will_5198

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  1. "The trend is clear: Most elite high school QBs think they’re going to beat out whoever is front of them."" If you're good enough to be considered one of, if not the best quarterback in HS, you don't think about losing a competition. Call it hubris or naivete or that alpha dog mentality so treasured in football, but these guys only see themselves as competition. If I grew up loving Clemson and Clemson loves me, and I've outperformed every other quarterback I've ever been put up against, I'm not going to my second choice because somebody else with a high star ranking is already there. Of course, as anyone who follows college football regularly can tell you, there are plenty of times that these highly ranked recruits turn out to be not that good. Especially at quarterback. So an abundance of riches ends up being one viable starter. That reminds me of USC's 2006-2007 recruiting classes, at the height of the Carroll dynasty. In 2006 they signed four of the top 13 running backs in the class. In 2007 they signed the top 1 and 2 running backs in the class, the former being the number one overall player in the country. None of them turned into an All-American, a few transferred out, only one was drafted by the NFL and at the end of their careers it just turned into the familiar recruiting tale that the next big thing may never come -- even if you have a bunch of them.
  2. Loved my visit here. A great taco stand is one of the best ratios of price-deliciousness-efficiency in the world of food. I especially appreciated the no-nonsense cashier to weed out gawkers asking irrelevant questions. Barbacoa was wetter than my favorite editions, as I live for those crispy bits (tripa dorada forever), but all the flavor was there. Pastor was indeed sweet, but I’ve got a forgiving range when it comes to pastor (no trompo here, though). Chicharron was ordered because it’s often done poorly, but passed the test as well. Homely and tasty corn tortillas for all. Salsa verde had that perfect balance between spice, cilantro and acid. Highly recommended anytime meal. These tacos would play well in Dallas, Austin or San Antonio.
  3. Yes. I took advantage of weekday happy hour (1/2 off wines by the glass) and was recommended a Pierre Henri Morel Laudun Blanc ($5!) that went over well with both my dishes. I have an infantile understanding of wine, but it was just what I asked for.
  4. Since opening five years ago, Chris Shepherd's Underbelly has been a self-appointed beacon for the evolution of Houston food. The menu has a half-page thesis on why Houston is the most interesting culinary city in the country, there are dozens of celebratory links to *other* Houston restaurants on their main webpage, and Bun B is quoted on the wine list. From afar I've found the chest-beating a little too much, but I can appreciate a chef who wants to represent his city -- especially in a time where many owners are happy to replicate restaurants from other cities. And being such a vocal proponent certainly helped Shepherd win the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. But hey, what about the food? Head-on Gulf shrimp with buttermilk dill panna cotta, pickled beans ($24). Plump and sweet, this was a great showing for Gulf seafood. The panna cotta was a nice compliment. Hand-torn cornbread pieces and pickled beans were both sort of throwaways. Seared soft-shell with eggplant curry ($24). Shepherd recently made a big PR announcement about getting away from beef and pork, which meant a larger focus on seafood. Soft-shells are among my personal favorite foods, and this was a very good one. The eggplant curry was nicely done with a touch of heat; Shepherd is a fan of moderate-to-significant spice (if you're not, be aware, as it permeates the entire menu). Vinegar pie with salt brittle ($9). Previous savory dishes were not coursed (nor labeled as appetizers or entrees; guess by price) so I was rather full after two. Still curious enough to try this dessert, which I believe has been on the menu since 2012. It's not scary at all; more key lime in flavor than sour or acidic. Overall, a quality showing by Shepherd and his team. I didn't fall in love with Underbelly, but it's worth visiting for anyone who appreciates loud flavors with global influences -- basically the "Houston creole" cuisine that the restaurants trumpets.
  5. Expansion is always a scary word for acolytes of a particular restaurant. Although it often results in financial stability, a new creative avenue, and the room to retain or promote staff -- as a selfish group, us diners demand our favorite chef to be chained to his or her one restaurant, serving us with the dedication of a lifelong host. For Hugo Ortega, who is the American dream personified (Mexican immigrant dishwasher to James Beard award winner), expansion is just another way to demonstrate why he’s one of the best chefs in Texas. Xochi is the newest of the four restaurants he runs in Houston, opened this year, and a no better argument for adding even more to his mini-empire. Occupying one corner of the brand-new and gorgeous Marriott Marquis downtown, Xochi is sleek and lively, keeping up the modern aesthetic that Mexican restaurants have finally been allowed to embrace nationwide. The food follows suit; progressive and rooted in history (mostly Oaxacan) at the same time, for an all-together exciting meal that deviates just enough from Ortega’s other restaurants. Infladita de conejo ($14) -- Ortega’s version of the Olvera-popularized street snack. A puffed black tortilla cradled a sizable portion of braised rabbit, the bitterness of the fried tortilla balancing out the sweet, tomato-braised conejo. Red and green sauces with raisins and almonds rounded out the dish. Something old, something new, but a complete success. Puerco en mole de chicatana ($15) -- The pork ribs are fine on their own; obviously distant in comparison to the smoked meats found at true barbecue pits. But the real magic is when you pull apart the meat and slather on the “ant” mole served underneath. Ortega has long welcomed the presence of insects in his cuisine, and ants are what I assume account for the acidic and sweet notes in the otherwise hearty mole. Add the mole-doused rib meat to the accompanying corn tortillas (which probably have an interesting heritage, as they were a pale gold color and flecked with blue), and you have one hell of a taco. Helado de maiz ($9) -- Two types of ice cream here: one sweet corn, the other queso fresco. The former is playfully represented as baby ears of corn. Crumbled corn cookie and a dab of cinnamon-y, atole-influenced corn cream acted as garnish. Very fun and just right for those who pass on cloying or heavy final courses. I expect Xochi to be better a year from now, as any weak points get discarded and the best dishes are fine-tuned into perfection. Right now it’s excellent, and I would urge anyone traveling to the city to make time for a meal there. Houston is lucky to have Hugo Ortega, and his followers are lucky to have so many different ways to enjoy his cooking.
  6. Is mole the most commonly misunderstood Mexican dish in the United States? I’ve had objectively bad mole, and what I presume is good mole, but coming from my own place of ignorance, I’m never sure the exact standard I should be looking for when I eat it. With no trip to Puebla or Oaxaca in the horizon, I guess I will let Daniela Soto-Innes and her team define mole for me. To that end, Cosme’s duck enmoladas with red mole ($25) was a brilliant display of layered flavors: rich, slightly sweet, and with a toe-tap of chili at the end of every bite. Dotted with crème fraiche and red onion to break up the indulgence, strained to a texture that reminds me why I eat out at restaurants, this was a sauce that took care to make and was finished with an attention to technique. The rest of my lunch never quite reached that height, but was nonetheless enjoyable. An arctic char tostada with elderberries, yuzu and avocado ($21) was introduced as a Mexican take on a bagel with lox -- a cute story that didn’t really make any sense. Huge ribbons of fish played nice with all the ingredients, but the appetizer was a reminder that even “modern Mexican” chefs cannot make eating a tostada any less clumsy. Of course, a proper meal here should end with their famous husk meringue with corn mousse ($16). Big punches of salt and restrained sweetness, balanced by the delicately broken meringue pieces. I loved it.
  7. I should make it to Houston before the end of the summer. I'll put it on my list -- currently hitting up Corkscrew, Tejas Chocolate and Killen's while I'm in the area.
  8. Tom Micklethwait puts more pride and knowledge of craft into his sausages than any other I've tasted in Texas. He can give you a perfect rendition of the classics -- their jalapeno cheddar link is a benchmark -- and as mentioned, his more creative takes are as good or better.
  9. I nearly missed the ticket dispenser when I first stepped into Russ & Daughters. Packed from end to end with me just barely fitting inside the door, and suddenly engulfed by all sorts of food curiosities I wanted to pursue, it took a moment before I realized to snag my number in line. Ticket 590. I looked down to the end of the store, where the sign flashed 557. It was 11 a.m. on a rainy Friday and I hunkered down for a wait, surrounded by like-minded tourists, locals, chefs, and an angry woman “who drove 45 minutes” and had “never waited an hour in all her years coming here.” One employee smiled and told her to come during the holidays, where she’ll wait for two hours instead of just one. After a few walkout casualties and little regard for the distracted (your number is called once, then promptly skipped after a beat or two), I finally made it to the counter with my order recited: everything bagel, toasted, with cream cheese and Scottish salmon loin. Nothing more. A few minutes later, on a street bench away from all the cellphone picture-taking, elbows and clatter of the 103-year-old institution, I unwrapped perfection. The ideal ratio of bagel, cream cheese and smoked fish. Hot, cold, crisp, tender, fatty, salty. I am not an expert on bagels or salmon or the heritage behind their combination, but for me this was a new personal benchmark. The best of its kind I’ve ever had. What’s the Michelin tagline for three stars? Worth a special journey. Over 1,500 miles from home, finishing my last bite of a Russ and Daughters Classic, and all I could think was -- absolutely.
  10. This tactic is so diabolical and petty that I almost respect it. I'm sure they're concerned about their numerous salads, which could be labeled healthy to the unobservant. They aren't, though, and that's why they taste so good. I had a Thai Steak & Noodle salad ($20) in North Dallas last week that was everything I wanted in a little splurge of a business lunch. Above-average ingredients (filet, mango, avocado, arugula) that were well-cooked and well-dressed. Also, the service at the bar was everything Knowlton described. My iced tea never was more than half empty when it was replaced with a fresh glass and lemon automatically. When I clumsily dropped my lap napkin, the bartender had a new one ready to trade out as soon as I rose from picking it up.
  11. Austin, TX

    Barley Swine Four years ago I had one of the best meals of my life in a little 35-seat restaurant off South Lamar. Since then, Barley Swine has only gotten bigger and better. In January 2016 they moved into a brand new space at Burnet Road, which is on the other side of Austin, and were able to upgrade everything. Seating has doubled. There is a bar program now (no liquor was served at the original). The open kitchen is three times the size, with dedicated grill and pastry sections that barely existed before. Chef Bryce Gilmore remains front and center, however. I make a point to visit yearly, and each dinner has left me with a deeper appreciation for what he does. Despite running another successful restaurant at full steam (Odd Duck), Gilmore bucks most trends by relentlessly improving his flagship. Barley Swine 2.0 now has two-tops (the original was communal tables and bar seating only), a private patio, a la carte as well as a full tasting menu (previous versions were either or). Yet the place to be is still the chef's counter, a long row that looks directly into the open kitchen. You’re right in front of the garde manger, flanked by the busy grill and with a great view of the center island that constitutes the pass. That’s where Gilmore will be, and I’ve never seen him without a mechanical focus on every single process going on in his kitchen. Kooper Family Rye ($10) Austin-made rye. Very light, and smooth. Chef’s tasting ($90) There are several fantastic options a la carte, including a shiitake pasta and pig skin noodles (both are not as simple as they seem) that have remained on the menu since the restaurant’s relocation. Also make sure to order any fish entrees if they’re available; a filet of red snapper with koji butter eaten here remains one of the best dishes I’ve had in lifetime memory. The tasting menu is my preferred option, though. Sweet potato, goat cheese, smoked trout roe After a complimentary glass of sparkling, this amuse was more of a technique-exhibit than anything. A puffed sweet potato bite filled with goat cheese and topped with roe. Basically a loaded potato chip. Beet-cured mackerel, sugar snap pea Not sure how much beet flavor is imparted, but a beautiful slice of red-stained fish in a pea broth. I guess winter peas in Texas is a thing, due to the extremely hot temperatures in early spring and late fall combined with a lack of frosts. Delicate and delicious. Sunchoke custard, fried skins Anyone else tired of sunchokes yet? Gilmore uses them even more than most chefs, but I always find his versions enjoyable. This was a super-concentrated custard, served with fried sunchoke skins dabbed with devil egg topping. Starchy fried skins are something I've seen at other places, and I get why they’re popular. Here was a great example of every component being perfectly seasoned and delicious on its own, but even better and not overwrought when you put them in a single bite. Ember roasted squash, mesquite, toasted seeds A single slice of squash with its charred skin left on. The assertive roasted flavors were unabashed here, but what set this off were the bits of chocolate miso sauce on top. Sweet, smoky and bitter all in play and harmonious. Barley Swine pays attention to vegetables, and it shows. Red shrimp, cauliflower, tangerine Wow. A single exemplary shrimp, surrounded by a pool of cauliflower sauce that had been previously roasted and aerated just a bit at service. Gilmore has long used these slightly foamed sauces, giving them a lightness without verging on the abstract. The tangerine sauce was incredibly vivid, dotting the white cauliflower for a beautiful contrast in visuals and taste. Dry aged beef, broth, seeded loaf The best part of this dish was a separate cube of flax seed loaf. The outside was baked to an addicting golden brown crunch, with a moist crumb dotted with nuts. On top was a slab of extra cheesy arugula pesto. Combined it ate like an abstract steakhouse side; the heartiness of bread and butter mixed with a pesto mimicking a spinach gratin. Oh yeah, the steak was nice as well. Served in a bowl with oyster mushrooms and bone broth poured tableside. Pork belly, cabbage, gulf XO sauce Sous-vide then finished on the grill. Sausage filled with shrimp mousse -- or rather, shrimp mousse wrapped within a sausage. More technique exhibition, but tasty. Duck, broccoli, fried duck egg A stunning final savory course. Duck breast lacquered and rosy rare to the best anyone can do it. A single piece of grilled broccoli. Another foamed sauce, blank white but tasting exactly of fried egg. Perfect bites that’ll be remembered. Apple, lemongrass, koji rice pudding Approachable but still creative. Rice pudding was served cold, topped with a quenelle of ice cream and crunchy bits. Koji has been splattered over every tasting menu the last year, but I haven't found a reason to complain yet. Pastry chef Susana Querejazu has been with Gilmore since 2014, running desserts both here and at Odd Duck, and is extremely talented. Dark chocolate, winter nuts, milk jam Traditional dark chocolate tart done extremely well. A little sea salt, caramel corn, candied orange peel. I favor lots of cacao and small portions when it comes to chocolate, so this was speaking to me. Mignardises Macaron and a pate de fruit. Gilmore uses preparations and flavors seen at other trendsetting restaurants world-wide, but there’s a sincerity to every dish that you can’t get from copying technique. Each bite is perfectly seasoned on its own, but even better together and never overreaching. I have yet to taste anything here that's less than fabulous. Gilmore is long overdue for a James Beard award (this year will be his fifth straight nomination for Best Chef Southwest), and is still running Barley Swine with the utmost command and precision. If you visit Austin, you must go. This is the best restaurant in Texas.
  12. Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

    FT33 It’s been a few years since I’ve dined at Matt McCallister’s FT33, mainly due to an underwhelming first experience and prices that never seemed to match their value. I’ve kept an eye on their progress, however, and after a few months of menu-browsing I felt compelled to give the place another go. The restaurant has just recently switched to a prix fixe focus: four courses for $65, which I find much more appealing since you can choose all four courses. You can still order a la carte, but with appetizers at $15-19 and $38 mains, it seems less of a value. I found the portion sizes to be largely the same either way. Spanish G&T ($12) -- This was fine. A little too floral or vegetal for myself but I was fairly warned by the bartender. Sourdough, sweet potato focaccia, whipped butter -- Nice diversion but nothing too memorable otherwise. Beef heart tartare with blue barley, sour carrots, shallot jam and horseradish panade -- What kept me interested in FT33 this whole time were dishes such as this. Raw beef heart is still a pretty risky offering in Dallas, so I respect McCallister for putting it on his menu. I thought the horseradish and fresh parsley were a little strong, making the tartare fade on several bites, but this was overall enjoyable. Pork and squab pate en croute with mustard and mushroom salad -- This would’ve never been on the menu a year or two ago, but I love the fact there is still room for traditional techniques here. Pate was excellent, although the raw mushroom salad was my favorite part -- thin sliced and dressed with something vinegary. Great contrast. Belle Vie duck breast and cotechino, purple top turnips and hoshigaki in brown butter -- Belle Vie is an independent farm just outside Austin, and credit to them for raising such a delicious duck. It was rendered beautifully and just the right shade of rare (albeit a tad salty). A small round of duck sausage was the best thing on the plate, however. Turnip puree rounded out things nicely, and I’d never had hoshigaki before but I applaud the extra effort to not just tack on a compote. Buttermilk pie with shortbread crisp, charred grapefruit and candied fennel -- Maggie Huff, FT33’s pastry chef, was not onboard the last time I dined here. She seems talented, having worked with McCallister back at Stephan Pyles, and I enjoyed her take on a classic dessert: the custard filling had been blended into a freeform base, with a buttery crisp on top. Reminiscent but different. Only hitch was the garnish -- this is prime grapefruit season in Texas, but this marks three restaurants in a row where they were more sourer than usual. Odd coincidence. In summary, a very good meal. Creative, grounded in fundamental flavor, with just a few composition nitpicks that kept it from being a great one. A relative value, as well, considering I’ve wasted as much money buying frozen fish at Pappadeaux. Lastly, the service was trying extremely hard (in a good way) -- I’ve heard about and seen some inconsistencies in the FOH here over time, but everyone was going above and beyond this night. After several years of tepidness, I’m much more enthusiastic about FT33 now and in the future.
  13. Austin, TX

    Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ When chefs in New York clamor to open their own barbecue restaurant ("Brooklyn-style BBQ"…and people say Texans are arrogant), and 30-somethings plan vacations around Pujol instead of Noma, it’s a wonder why smoked meats and Mexican cuisine haven't developed a deeper relationship within Texas itself. Sure, there are brisket enchiladas and tacos, but those are filled with pot roast, not true ‘cue (delicious as it is regardless). Smoked barbacoa is also found in a few places around the state, but that’s another rarity. Enter Miguel Vidal. The San Antonio native opened Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ (his daughter’s name) in 2013, a food truck that would meld the state’s favorite two cuisines. And that he’s done, to amazing results. The first great aspect of Valentina’s smoked brisket taco ($5) is that you can order one at 8 am. Real barbecue before lunch hour is a minor miracle, and that alone would make a visit compulsory (shout-out to Snow's). Aside from making mornings a better place for everyone, the taco itself is perfect fusion: a friendly portion of chopped moist brisket, smashed avocado, hint of lime, and a large, handmade flour tortilla that dutifully cradles it all. Salsa roja that’s heavy on cilantro and serranos comes on the side, and a necessary addition. Taken together, and a number of swirling questions enter the mind between every incredible bite: Why hadn’t we thought to put guacamole and salsa on a fatty slab of smoked brisket yet? Why have we confined beautiful brisket to boring sandwich rolls, when a warm, griddle-kissed tortilla can do the same job? Why haven’t I visited this trailer until now? If that masterpiece doesn’t do it for you, breakfast hours (until 11 am) offer The Real Deal Holyfield ($6.50) as a dare. For this version the brisket is sliced regularly, laid atop a combination of beans and potatoes, then topped with a fried egg and slice of crisp bacon. Yes, that’s all correct. To me it’s almost too much, but I support the fact it exists. As stunning as both those tacos are, my personal winner is the carnitas taco ($4.50). Another heaping portion of meat, this time the juiciest smoked pork you can imagine, resting over sautéed onions and topped with fresh cilantro. Don’t forget to liberally apply the tomatillo salsa and you have one of the best tacos in Austin city limits (or anywhere, for that matter). Brisket by the pound, beef ribs, and the usual barbecue sandwiches are also available if so inclined. One note: although Austin is a post-oak world, Vidal goes mesquite in his pit -- despite the traditional naysayers, I never tasted an errant bitter bite. Plus it adds another layer of uniqueness to the entire operation. The real reason to be at Valentina’s is the tacos, though. They are a simple idea executed brilliantly, and provoke an urge to return the very next day, order another round, then try everything else you haven’t had yet. Which is the best endorsement anyone can give to a restaurant.
  14. Austin, TX

    Summer is probably a little worse, but I just ate at Micklethwait last Saturday at 11:30 am and there was about 20 of us total. Took about a half hour from getting in line to receiving my food (a few sausages, jalapeno cheese grits, a divine version of Frito pie with brisket on top, and a noteworthy slice of pecan pie). It was also only 30 degrees, so there's that. Stiles Switch is about six miles north, and is a full sit-down restaurant I've had good experiences at. It’s not the best barbecue in Austin, but it’s very good -- and tastes even better when considering the ample indoor seating, friendlier hours (open until 9 p.m.) and a lack of line-waiting endurance training. If you drive up right when they open you'll be among the first served, and immediately.