Food for Thought

Houston restaurants fall in love with a special bird: The best places to try it before it's too late

Houston restaurants fall in love with a special bird: The best places to try it before it's too late

Marene, quail, Hawthorn, December 2012
Stuffed and roasted at Hawthorn Photo by Debora Smail/
Marene, quail, Sorrel Urban Bistro, December 2012
Sorrel Urban Bistro's quail  Photo courtesy of Sorrel Urban Bistro
Marene, quail, grilled quail, El Real, December 2012
The quail is grilled at El Real. Photo by Marene Gustin
Marene, quail, Hawthorn, December 2012
Marene, quail, Sorrel Urban Bistro, December 2012
Marene, quail, grilled quail, El Real, December 2012

We’re in the midst of Texas quail season, which runs through Feb. 24.

But you don’t have to shoot your own to enjoy this delicious bird. You can go quail hunting at area restaurants and grocers for some delicious birds. And no picking buckshot out of them!

I first started eating quail when I found that Central Market had the tiny fowls stuffed with Hatch chile stuffing during the Hatch festival. Here’s the recipe, but during Hatch season they have them ready to cook. Just baste and roast and voila, an entrée to wow guests with.

What I like about Texas quail is the delicate flavor and the fact that I’m not a big eater so I can eat a whole bird and some sides and not feel stuffed (pardon the pun, birdies). They’re basically just teeny chickens with a slightly gameier flavor.

And luckily, I’m seeing them turn up more and more on restaurant menus around town so I don’t even have to cook my own.

 They’re basically just teeny chickens with a slightly gameier flavor. 

Over at the wonderful Hawthorn, chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio does a plump Texas quail stuffed with farro, toasted pine nuts and dried cranberries, plated with baby kale and quail juices.

I asked Palazoo-Giorgio where he got them.

“They come from Randalls,” he jokes. Everybody’s a comedian.

“No, actually they come from Broken Arrow Ranch outside Bandera. I decided on the farro, pine nuts and cranberries as stuffing for the winter. It was a no brainer.

"I like quail because it’s simple, small — you can eat the whole bird — and it’s comfort food.”

The skin is just gorgeous, thanks to lots of butter, and very crispy.

“I roast them on high heat, 425 degrees, so they crisp up but stay juicy,” Palazoo-Giorgio explains.

More Bird Fanatics

Texas quail isn’t always on the daily changing menu at Sorrel Urban Bistro, but when it is, go for it.

“We are general very lucky in Texas, there are plenty of farmers and ranchers that are involved with quail,” says chef Soren Pedersen. “We have our contacts, but with all the farmers markets around town you can easily pick up local poultry most any day of the week.”

As far as preparation goes, Pedersen always either brines of marinates the little birds because there’s so little fat on them they can be tough if you don’t.

“For marinade you could use a nice olive oil flavored with fresh herbs, garlic and sea salt,” he says. “For a brine use apple cider with juniper berries, bay leaves and sea salt. It is an excellent choice to flavor the quail.”

 It’s no surprise they show up on a lot of Tex-Mex menus. Quail are important game birds in Mexico. 

Cold smoking is also a great option for Pedersen but his favorite is to grill the bird until the breast is pink and serve it with local root vegetables, a nice savory risotto and fruit chutney to add a touch of sweetness to the dish.

While quail can be an elegant dish, as Palazzo-Giorgio says it’s also great comfort food and it can be delicious in a simple dish, say, tacos.

It’s no surprise they show up on a lot of Tex-Mex menus. Quail are important game birds in Mexico. Hugo’s has semi-boneless birds grilled, with served with arroz a la Mexicana, frijoles de olla, tomatillo salsa and tortillas.

Over at El Real Tex-Mex you can get two mesquite-grilled quail with fajitas. The birds have just a touch of spice to them and are dripping with a white wine, butter, garlic sauce. It can be a bit messy, but I love to pull the meat off the tiny bones and make quail tacos with the fresh tortillas and a little pico.

Whether you like your quails Mexican style or stuffed and served as classic American dishes, or come up with your own at-home recipes (barbecued with sour cream sauce anyone?), this is the best time of year to eat it. So enjoy.