Food for Thought
Houston's hottest bread baskets and chip delights: The freebies that make meals& spoil appetites
Now here’s something I never thought I would write: If I eat one more tortilla chip with chili con queso I’m going to explode. That or turn into chips and cheese.
It’s an addiction. I’m pretty sure there is a 12-step program somewhere out there for folks who can’t stop eating chips and queso.
And when I find it I should probably mention it to Dad, because he’s the cause of my recent binge. I swear we ate Tex-Mex four times before his recent walkabout (the term I use to refer to his regular trips to Biloxi to gamble) and as soon as he got back we went straight to Maria Selma for more.
And what is it about some men who can’t remember the name of their favorite restaurants? I had a friend who always referred to Armadillo Palace as “that road kill place” and Dad calls Maria Selma by the name of Orange, which is the name of the sports bar next door. Actually, he once called it Gold, which really confused me for a moment. But I digress.
Anyway, when I took Dad to El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and co-owner Bill Floyd said he felt like he already knew him from this column, I realized an intervention maybe in our future. But of course, we ordered chips and queso and ate so much I could barely get down one of those divine San Antonio puffy tacos. And that was a cryin’ shame.
Which made me start to realize that those ubiquitous baskets of chips and cheese are just like bread baskets at other eateries. You know how you fill up on the pizza bread at La Griglia before the entrées arrive? (Oh yes you do, I’ve seen you ask for more.) And breadbaskets are everywhere.
Benjy’s chef Mike Potowski is offering a new trio of tasty bites on a bread plate, housemade flatbread and cheese crackers and pickles. Over at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge the in-house baker whips out 10 different kinds of bread daily, and chef James Cole’s rosemary sourdough loaves at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in River Oaks are as mouth-watering as his steaks.
Which brings us to a recent trip to Samba Grille in Bayou Place. Now you’d think a place that serves up all-you-can-eat meat wouldn’t want you to fill up on the bread. But you’d be wrong.
The scene: A very sleek South American churrascaria that’s been packed since it opened last year with the downtown power set. The menu: The traditional all-you-can-eat meats are for dinner only but ordering a la carte can fill you up at lunch just as easily.
We sipped pineapple fusion martinis made with sugar cane rum as we sampled a trio of soups that included a delicious and subtle Jade soup of spinach and broccoli cream with a dollop of crab meat before nibbling on a Boston wedge salad with a Manchego cream dressing. Samba also has a good crab cake topped with a maracuya beurre blanc. And there was a crispy pork belly bite with a tamarind glaze that was pretty darn good.
But the standout here was a South American center cut of Prime Certified Angus beef with chimichurri sauce. It is truly meat butter, no knife needed and practically no teeth required. Yes, it’s that tender.
Co-owner Nathan Ketchum is so in love with this meat that he has a photo of the beautifully marbled steak on his iPhone. I kid you not.
And may I add that this steak is just as good the next day. I know this because I could barely eat any at lunch and wound up taking it home.
I’ve learned by now that you have to pace yourself at a tasting. Just a bite or two of each dish, write some notes, take a snap with your iPhone, and repeat. You do not fill up on the bread. That’s a rookie mistake.
Call me a rookie.
Samba Grille’s breadbasket contains four warm little pan de queso biscuits made with yucca starch nestled inside. They’re gluten free, not that I’m a fan of gluten free but the products seem to be everywhere these days. There are even bakers at the farmers market selling gluten-free baked goods.
Now sure, if you have celiac disease or sensitivity to wheat and barley, going gluten free may help. But that’s something like, six percent of the population. Yet the gluten-free market is now something like a $2.6 billion industry these days.
So I’m looking at these little muffins wondering why a steakhouse, for heaven’s sake, has gluten-free breads. But I’m game, so I pull off a little bite, which seems more gummy than flaky, and pop it in.
Whoa. Hold the presses. Chewy, cheesy goodness. I don’t need gluten-free bread, but I ate two. Then we asked for another basket. Which is how I ended up filling up on the bread and having to take the steak home.
Chef handed over the recipe, which is pretty simple, and I tried these at home. Even though I’m not a big baker, they actually turned out pretty good. I love the Parmesan cheese flavor and the texture. I’ve included the recipe below. You can buy the yucca starch at Phoenicia Specialty Market.
Oh, and back to Dad. I finally found a place he likes that doesn’t serve chips or breadbaskets. I took him to Downing Street Pub for lunch recently, a place he instantly proclaimed as fabulous, like a private club. He loved the fact that they have ashtrays on every table, stiff drinks and roast beef that’s not pink. (He’s old school, what can I say?)
Frankly, I hadn’t been there in years, not since I worked in local politics and all the lobbyists and pols hung out there. But it’s really a cool lunch spot, the food’s not bad and they have Wi-Fi.
And stiff drinks.
And no chips or breadbaskets.
Samba Grille's pan de queso
This is a light, airy Brazilian cheese bread that’s gluten-free. It is made with yucca starch.
• 5 eggs
• 1 cup vegetable oil
• 2 cups milk
• 6 cups sweet yucca starch (yucca doce)
• 12 ounces Parmesan cheese
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees. Mix all ingredients together and whip for 20 minutes. Spray a small muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray. Scoop the pan de queso dough into the muffin pan. Bake for 15 minutes.