Torchy's Tacos Challenges You to Earn the Burn

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Photo by Molly Dunn
Start with The Barn Burner, then work your way up the heat chart.
This month, Torchy's Tacos features four spicy tacos of the month. Each week, the fast-casual Tex-Mex spot releases a special taco, and as the weeks progress, each one gets spicier. And when we say spicier, we mean hot as hell.

The first week, Torchy's unveiled The Barn Burner. It's a simple taco filled with strips of grilled beef fajita, chunks of bacon, crumbled goat cheese, cilantro and manzano chile salad, plus a generous drizzle of Avocado and Diablo sauce. On the burn scale, it's ranked a "4."

The next week, things got a bit spicier with the Firecracker Shrimp. It's twice as hot as The Barn Burner with habanero-battered shrimp, cabbage slaw, candied jalapenos, small chunks of cotija cheese, cilantro and Diablo mayo.

We decided to try these two tacos to see if we could "Earn the Burn," and because we are a little fearful of the next two tacos featuring ghost peppers in the form of a sauce and stewed with pork - that's just craziness right there!

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Take a Vacation to Budapest With Summer Hungarian Dishes at Kenny & Ziggy's

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Photo by Paula Murphy
The most refreshing summer dish this side of the Danube River.
In all, I've probably spent close to five months of my life living in Hungary.

When I was a child, my family vacationed there several summers in a row, and upon graduating high school, I toured the country with my mother, taking a train from Budapest southwest into Croatia, stopping in small, quaint towns along the way. And everywhere, though I have always been a fairly adventuresome eater, there was one dish I could never pass up: Cold fruit soup.

It's an Eastern European dish also found in some Baltic and Middle Eastern countries, but largely absent from Asia and the Americas (unless you count gazpacho and a few Asian dessert soups) that's served as an appetizer, even though it's sweet like dessert. Across Hungary, the hot, humid summers are tempered by cold fruit soup in nearly every restaurant and nearly every seasonal flavor.

The most traditional version is meggyleves, cold sour cherry soup, but I also encountered peach, raspberry, strawberry and mixed fruit soups in cafes across Budapest. There was the creamy raspberry soup at Marcello Étterem, the tart cherry soup at Café Kor and the sweet, silky peach soup at Centrál Káveház.

And here in Houston, there's sour cherry soup at Kenny & Ziggy's, our own little outpost for Hungarian cuisine.

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The 5 Best Hidden Restaurant Gems in Galveston

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Photo by Allen Sheffield
Get off the beaten path and explore some lesser-known Galveston restaurants.
The time for the great exodus has arrived.

Every summer as the temperatures rise and the oppressively hot days stretch into muggy nights, Houstonians escape the confines of the city for tropical paradise Galveston. No, it's not the loveliest beach in the world (or even in Texas), but it's our beach and our charming seaside neighbor.

Fortunately for those who make the drive to relax on the sand or stroll the Strand, Galveston has a pretty great selection of eateries to choose from. Whether you're looking for upscale dining or a hole-in-the-wall beer and shrimp shack, Galveston has the restaurants to satisfy either desire.

Instead of doing a roundup of the best restaurants in Galveston, though, we thought we'd take a look at some of the great spots that aren't as popular. If you're a Galveston resident, you might already know these places because, well, the island just ain't that big. But if you're planning a day trip, consider checking out one of these great spots off the beaten path.

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Facundo Cafe Has Still Got It, and So Does the Car Wash

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Business is slow, but the food is consistently good.
Even on a rainy day, there's a line for the car wash and oil changes at Dr. Gleem, but it's surprisingly quiet inside. For a while, I'm the only person seated at the granite counter of tiny Facundo Cafe. Every now and then I hear the whirr of a razor from the barber shop that's connected to the cafe, and from behind me comes the gentle hum of the automatic car wash, visible through a panoramic window as it glides vehicles through the swinging, foamy blue mops that hang from the ceiling. Right now, as I wait for my car to be cleaned, I cannot be anywhere but here. The best thing to do is to relax and enjoy a meal.

Like most people, I thought the notion of a cafe inside a car wash/barber shop was...um...strange to say the least. Yes, I've been bored and hungry and disappointed with vending machine options while waiting for my car to be cleaned or my oil changed. But opening a full-fledged cafe serving breakfast and lunch seemed to be taking that to a whole other level.

One meal at Facundo Cafe and one car wash later, I'm convinced: All mechanic shops should have cafes.

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UPDATED: $10 (or so) Well Spent at Rice University Farmers' Market

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Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Not bad for farm-fresh eggs.

Update: True Blue Friends has closed its doors and no longer participates in the Rice University Farmers' Market.

I spent five years studying at Rice University and only once did I go to its farmers' market that assembles every Tuesday afternoon from 3:30pm to 6:30pm. That's pathetic. I remember my excuses being something like I didn't have time (lame) or that I didn't have cash on me (more reasonable but many vendors take credit cards).

365 days after I finished, I finally visited the market, which has grown considerably and now boasts more than 18 vendors. I was happy to find more than just produce (a girl can only eat so many vegetables) and fairly reasonable prices on most items.

For a few bucks, you can get monstrous bunches of kale, bright orange bundles of carrots, and, various species of robust squash. More exotic botanical goods are also on offer at the Lavande. Their lavender soaps, oils, and (my favorite) teas ($10-12) permeate the surroundings with a sweet summertime scent I would love to replicate in my home.

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Finding a Scotch Egg in Houston for (Almost) Every Day of the Week

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Get a Scotch egg with Indian flair at The Queen Vic.
It's not the most appetizing-looking dish. The hard boiled egg in the center is usually possessed of a runny yolk that oozes a bit when you cut through the crisp brown outer layer and the crumbly pink or brown middle. Before you cut it, it looks like an oversized meatball, but it's the stuff on the inside that makes it special.

The Scotch egg was supposedly invented at Fortnum's department store in London in 1738, and the recipe hasn't varied much since then. You can still buy them at Fortnum's and order them online from the store (though eating a hard boiled egg wrapped in pork and sent through the mail sounds like a bad idea).

Today, Scotch eggs are popular pub fare in England, and you can get them at a handful of places here in Houston as well. With the World Cup and "football" on my mind, I started craving Scotch eggs something fierce. So I set out to find all the sausage-wrapped eggs Houston has to offer.

One of the best I've had locally was part of a ramen dish prepared by Jordan Economy of Boheme for IKEA's Great Ramen Challenge last year. Unfortunately, that's not a regular item at Boheme (ahem...maybe it should be), but there are six other spots in H-town that bring a bit of the British Isles to the table with their authentic Scotch eggs.

Here's where to find 'em.

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Taco Bell's New Quesarito Makes Me Reconsider Fast-Food Loyalties

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Photo courtesy Taco Bell
My Quesarito did not look like that.
I have distinct loyalties where fast food is concerned.

I grew up in Corpus Christi, birthplace of Whataburger. The first Texas-based fast food chain opened on Ayers Street in 1950 and quickly spread like an orange and white wildfire across the city. When I was in high school, I'd walk to Whataburger with my friends every day after class, and we'd spend the next couple of hours crammed in a booth eating french fries and burgers and downing chocolate milkshakes.

I attended Trinity University in San Antonio for college, and I quickly discovered that the original Taco Cabana was just a few blocks away from campus. After nights out drinking too much Lone Star at local bars, we'd end up at Taco Cabana, ordering half the menu and several large cups of water in an effort to ward off hangovers. To this day, I swear that a large queso and half a dozen tortillas consumed before bed will have you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning, no matter how much you imbibed the previous night.

Taco Bell, however, I have always hated.

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Korean Al-Bap: A Party in a Hot Stone Bowl

Categories: Here, Eat This

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
The brightly colored al-bap at Il Me Jung is a decadent treat.
A few years ago I spent some time in Korea, and I absolutely fell in love with the food. Things I thought I wouldn't enjoy--kimchi with fish for breakfast, noodles made of mung bean jelly, fried squid on a skewer--are dishes I now crave when I'm feeling nostalgic for my time in that beautiful country.

Many more popular dishes like bulgogi beef and kimchi pancakes are easy to find in Houston, and they're definitely good enough at many places to satisfy my cravings. Korean food has even started going more mainstream with the addition of Korean braised goat and dumplings (a play on traditional ddukbokki) at Underbelly and the upscale Korean and Japanese restaurant Nara in West Ave. But there were a few more obscure dishes--and one in particular that I hadn't been able to locate among the hole-in-the-wall Korean joints up and down Long Point Road where most of them are congregated.

Until now.

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The Ultimate Hot Sauce Taste Test

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Behold, all the glorious sauces from aisle 13 at H-E-B.
There's evidence that people in the Amazon basin were eating chili peppers as much as 6,100 years ago. Shortly thereafter, from what we can tell, native South Americans began domesticating the plant with the fiery hot fruit. They weren't content to simply forage for it. They needed it at all times.

Many thousands of years later, we can still relate. The first thing we do upon getting a bowl of gumbo, a basket of wings or a plate of tacos is reach for the hot sauce. We've come to expect--and crave--both the heat and the acidity in each bottle of vinegar-soaked pepper purée.

But as anyone who's ever been to a Bloody Mary bar can attest, there are a lot of sauces out there on the market. Tabasco is the oldest recognizable one, tracing its roots back to 1868. In areas of the country not so saturated with hot sauce, Tabasco and hot sauce are synonymous.

Here, though, where Mexican and Cajun food abound, we have much more than just Tabasco to choose from at most grocery stores and even most restaurants. How is one to decide which is the best?

Armed with crackers and a pint of milk, I set out to determine that for you.

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Food With Soul at Soul Cat Cuisine

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Robert Stokes takes an order from inside his truck, The Mothership.
"It's the oldest food in Houston," Robert Stokes told me, without any hint of sarcasm in his voice.

I laughed anyway.

"She thinks I'm kidding," he said, seemingly flabbergasted. "This gumbo and red beans and rice got my people through slavery! You better believe me! It's the real deal."

Stokes, the chef and owner of Soul Cat Cuisine food truck, is more than happy to tell you about the authenticity of his food. He's proud of the recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother, and he's confident that you'll taste the history in his gumbo, croquettes and rémoulades.

"This is your ticket to flavortown," he says, handing loaded fries through the window. "You're gonna be looking for me with a flashlight in the daytime."

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