Food for Thought
The British are coming! Oh. Wait. They’re already here
Who says British food is boring? I mean, the dishes have names like bangers and mash and spotted dick. No, I don’t want to know what that is. But how is that boring, when you can have hours of fun just reading the menu?
Of course the offal offerings at Feast are a true feast and there are some wonderful English chefs in town, but I want to talk about pub grub. Good, old-fashioned British pub food. And Houston has a plethora of pubs.
My first local British pub hangout was The Black Labrador, which everyone just calls The Black Lab. In a previous life I ran with a bunch of politicos and don’t ask me why, but Texas Republican pols and consultants used to love this place. Many a high time was had quaffing black and tans and tucking into plates of fish and chips — pass the vinegar, please — and delicious bowls of baked potato soup while dishing on city politics. Fun times.
The Red Lion Pub has good grub, too. British-born Craig Mallinson whipped up some shepherd’s pie, his spicy chicken tikka masala and a baked chicken tandoori quesadilla for Guy Fieri last year when his Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives rolled into town. Mallinson blends traditional Brit foods with Tex-Mex and Indian fare (like his artery-clogging cheese fries topped with Indian ground beef keema). Indian food in British pubs is, he says, is like Tex-Mex in our burger joints.
And there’s The Richmond Arms, The Bull & Bear Tavern, The Stag’s Head Pub (cornhole!) and a host of corporate pubs that aren’t very good (yeah, I’m talking to you Baker Street Pub & Grill). But now along comes The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen on Richmond Avenue. Richard Di Virgilio, chef/owner of Oporto food and wine bar, has created a cozy pub with plenty of drinks and some very interesting food. Di Virgilio is not British; he was born in New York of an Italian father and a Portuguese mother, go figure. But chef Shiva Patel knows her way around some Brit and Indian dishes.
If the Lab and Lion are typical of British pubs, than The Queen Vic is the upscale version. A British gastro pub, if you will.
We had a party of four for dinner the other night and I was starving when I sat down. The waitress suggested a Ploughman’s platter as being the fastest thing out of the kitchen and she was right. Quick as a rabbit, the plate of cheeses, sausages and condiments arrived on the table. A nice touch to this traditional pub plate is that The Queen uses Texas cheeses and cured meats.
No longer thinking of chewing off my own arm, we ordered more drinks (the bar here can give Anvil a run for its money, churning out creative cocktails with a kick, and the craft beer selection looks fairly good, too) and took a leisurely look at the menu.
We wound up with the hearty Mulligatawny soup with chicken, lentils, veggies, a little fruit, some spices, coconut milk and probably the kitchen sink. It was good. Also, The Queens Curry, a dish that takes the traditional Scotch egg (a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage and deep-fried) and smothers it in curry masala. That was very good. It was rodeo deep-fried good.
And there was the Madeiran Meat K-Bob. I’ve seen kabob spelled a lot of different ways, but this is the first time I’ve seen it spelled like B-B-Q. Whatever, the dish is 12-ounces of grass-fed beef basted with ghee (which the waitress kindly told our table of foodies was clarified butter, duh) sprinkled with Himalayan sea salt, peppercorns and laurel. The K-Bobs (!) are hung table side and served with some really delicious, fluffy naan.
I’m definitely going back, in particular to check out the weekday tea service that begins at 3 p.m. I might also add that at that hour the interior noise level should be better, as well as the parking situation. The lot is miniscule and the one next door at the animal clinic, where you can park after 6 p.m., isn’t a whole lot better.
Of course, real British pubs don’t even have parking lots; locals just walk to them. At least that’s what it says in the British cozies I read. And you believe everything you read in a mystery book, right?
Actually, I decided to ask an expert what makes a good pub. Parking or food?
“A good landlord,” my friend Jane Knapp says in her veddy British accent. Knapp knows, since she managed several pubs in her rural town back home in England.
“They have to be clean and tidy, lots of good whiskies, beer, real ale, wine and good food,” she says. “Since the smoking ban, more pubs are focusing on the food to bring back customers and tequila shots are big now.”
Tequila? What’s next? Tacos on British pub menus?
“Things are changing over there,” Knapp says. “But pubs, particularly rural ones, are still the center of the town’s social scene. They are where you gather to meet your mates, hear the local gossip, play in dart leagues. The food and drink are second to that. The only other place to socialize is the church and that’s for widows and old folks.”
Although I’ve seen plenty of old folks hanging in Houston pubs.
I like the ex-pats, the Texas Anglophiles and the plain ol’ thirsty and hungry folks who populate the British pubs here in town. People who hang in pubs seem to be nicer, more talkative and a lot less scary than people you encounter in other bars. And even though there isn’t one within walking distance of where I live, I’ll just suck it up and deal with parking so I can enjoy my pint and ploughman. Long live the queen!