At Aji Peruvian Café, Dining Is a Battle Between Expectations and Reality

Categories: Cafe Reviews

Photos by Troy Fields
The causa limeña is like chicken salad, potato salad and deviled eggs all rolled into one casserole.
Aji Peruvian Café is a bit of a conundrum. Just when you're about to write the place off after a few deeply freezer-burned orders of empanadas, your waiter shows up with a glass of fresh mango juice so utterly brilliant that it takes your breath away. Bright and sunny, yet with a keen edge of turpentine and a lovely black-pepper bite, it's a simple and elemental thing, and completely arresting. Of course, those empanadas were arresting, too, but for far more felonious reasons.

Even setting aside the stale, musty taste of poorly frozen pastry, the empanadas were a grave disappointment. Small, scantily filled and under-seasoned, they felt like highway robbery at their $4-$5 price point. The pot roast filling tasted strongly of grease; the potato casserole version (the most interesting-sounding of the bunch, with its offer of iced Peruvian potatoes mixed with fried pork, peanuts, onions and garlic) was dry and mealy, with only punctuations of red bell pepper to perk it up a bit; ordered out of a sense of obligation, a sort of Peruvian picadillo version fared better on a subsequent visit, absent the freezer burn but still lacking in flavor and with an overly cake-like texture to the pastry. The empanadas make up an entire section of the menu here. I have no idea why.

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This Week in Food Blogs: A Fried Chicken Roundup

Categories: Leftovers

Photo by Mai Pham
The Korean-style fried chicken at Dak & Bop (1801 Binz) is among those featured in Zagat Houston's roundup.

Tag Sale Tastes wins the creativity prize for its pun-filled, divinely-inspired recipe for shepherd's pie. That's right: it's inspired by a poster of the most famous Shepherd of all. Is it sacrilege or sagacity? Only you can decide. Either way, the end result is likely to be tasty.

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Dish of the Week: Arroz con Pollo

Categories: Recipes

Photo by Flavio Lorenzo Sánchez
This simple dish can be elegant, too.
From classic comfort foods to regional standouts and desserts, we'll be sharing a new recipe with you each week. Find other dishes of the week here.

This week, we're sharing a recipe for arroz con pollo.

Literally meaning "rice with chicken," arroz con pollo is a traditional Spanish dish that is also common throughout Latin America. A variation on the Spanish paella -- which consists of seafood, chorizo, and chicken -- this simpler dish is made with only chicken.

Both paella and arroz con pollo and have their roots in 8th century Spain, when the Moorish occupation influenced Spanish imports, exports, and ultimately the way Spaniards ate. Most importantly, the Moors brought an irrigation system, which introduced rice -- a major staple in Spanish cuisine -- to the region. But traces of the Moorish culture can also be seen in the spices used in the rice dish, mainly saffron, cumin, and coriander, which were included for both color and flavor. The Moors also commonly ate communal dishes which were shared and passed around the table, as are arroz con pollo and paella.

Though some variations of arroz con pollo include chorizo as well, recipes generally call for chicken, rice, sofrito (a mix of garlic, peppers, and onions), chicken stock, and sometimes olives, capers, or spices and herbs like saffron, bay leaf, coriander and cumin.

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UPDATED: This Week in Food Events: Top-Notch BBQ and Beer Before Game Time

Categories: Edible Events

Photo by Michael Fulmer
Now THIS is what you call pre-gaming! An afternoon barbecue event precedes the Super Bowl this-coming Sunday.

Monday, January 26

Bon Vivant Houston

This over-the-top dinner for charity means that a table of 10 guests at the Royal Sonesta gets their very own noteworthy Houston chef for a night. Here are just a few of the ones participating: Danny Trace from Brennan's, Richard Knight of upcoming Hunky Dory (formerly of Feast) and Oliviere Ciesielski of L'Olivier. Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef will also be there and is an event chair as well. Each chef will create and prepare a five-course dinner tableside. This event benefits The Youth Development Center, an after school academic program that addresses literacy and math development for low-performing students grades 1-6 in the Greater Fifth Ward. Call 713.686.4845 to arrange this rare opportunity. Table sponsorships may still be available. 6:30 p.m. $1000 per person.

Andes Café Celebrates Its One Year Anniversary In a Charitable Way

Today is the first day of a two week celebration that is dotted throughout with special events. From now until February 8, for every $35 spent on dinner, Andes Café will donate $7 to El Centro de Corazon and $25 it will donate $5. Check out the rest of this calendar for other events at Andes Cafe.

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Pizza Is Good, Calzones Are Better at La Fresca Pizza

Categories: On the Menu

Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Chicken, Mushroom, and Spinach Calzone

There is a paucity of restaurants in Houston that serve calzones and even fewer establishments offer versions that match the quality of those found in Italian-American hubs along the east coast.

La Fresca Pizza is among these few, these happy few, and they have two locations. So, give thanks if you have been craving calzones over-stuffed with lots of cheese and any number of toppings.

People who describe the calzone as simply an "inside-out pizza," or worse, a "pizza pocket" (which conjures horrific images of hot pockets) do this dish a gross disservice. The calzone, whose origins can be traced to Puglia, Italy, is made from thicker, saltier dough than that found in a typical pizza that is folded over in semi-circle fashion to enclose a filling of cheese, meats (chicken, pepperoni, Italian cold cuts are popular) and vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, spinach, etc. Note: Tomatoes are usually not included among this "etc." interior toppings because calzones are traditionally served with a side of marinara for dipping.

This story continues on the next page.

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The 5 Best Things to Eat or Drink This Weekend: A Texas Spirits Showdown

Categories: Edible Events

Photo by David Rozycki
Head to Harold's for a Texas-style cocktail throwdown.
Final Nights of Galveston Restaurant Week @ Galveston
Friday and Saturday

This is your last weekend to enjoy special prix-fixe menus at 35 of Galveston's most delectable restaurants. We love Farley Girls Cafe, Number 13 and Porch Cafe, to name a few.

Texas Spirits Throwdown @ Harold's Restaurant & Bar
Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
350 W 19th

Watch as your favorite local 'Mixologists' compete to create some tasty cocktails using spirits from the Lone Star state at this first annual Texas Spirits Showdown. As you taste and drink craft cocktails, enjoy a live DJ, raffle prizes, and complimentary appetizers.

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Upcoming Events: Hurricanes, Green Eggs and a Whiskey Dinner

Categories: Edible Events

Photo by Fumiaki Yoshimatsu
A five-course, whiskey-paired dinner could be in your near future.
On Tuesday, January 27 at 6:30 p.m., Brennan's of Houston will welcome esteemed vineyard manager and owner Jim Barbour of Napa Valley's Barbour Vineyards for an exclusive five-course wine-paired dinner ($255 per person). Enjoy Barbour selections from winemaker Celia Welch alongside lobster and caviar soufflé, sorghum roasted duck, and more. 3300 Smith

Also on Tuesday, January 27, Backstreet Cafe will be hosting a "Days Gone By Wine Dinner" featuring the wines of Australia. Rediscover Australian wines as you feast on five courses, including a cocktail reception featuring Gulf oysters and salmon rosette, a five-spiced pork loin, almond tea cake, and more. For reservations ($110 per person), email 1103 S. Shepherd

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Openings & Closings: No More False Alarms for Osteria Mazzantini

Categories: Restaurant News

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Osteria Mazzantini has announced it's closing for the last time.

Things took a decidedly odd turn when Osteria Mazzantini at 2200 Post Oak announced last July that it was closing. Just days later, it announced it is was not closing after all. Chef John Sheely planned to sign over the space last July to chef Bruce Molzan and the Ruggles Green group for a new concept called Ruggles Kitchen. The deal fell through and Osteria Mazzantini stayed open. Amid the uncertainty, the chef Paul Lewis, bartender Kimberly Paul and sommelier Samantha Porter all got jobs elsewhere and many customers were left confused about the situation. The death knell may have already been sounded.

Well, yesterday the Houston Chronicle broke the news that Osteria Mazzantini is closed for good this time. Fans can continue to visit chef Sheely at his original place, Mockingbird Bistro, at 1985 Welch.

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Chef Chat, Part 2: Mary Bass of Haak Vineyards & Winery

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Phaedra Cook
Chef Mary Bass of Haak Winery

When we left off in Part One of our chat with chef Mary Bass of Haak Vineyards, she'd recently gone back to being a stay-at-home mom after closing a very successful bakery. Haak Vineyards asked Bass to come evaluate the kitchen staff after their previous chef left and Bass warned them ahead of time she had no interest in getting another job yet. Sometimes plans change and different decisions are made. Here's how that conversation went:

MB: [The Haaks said] "No, just come see if the staff can run the kitchen"

EOW: That's how they get you.

MB: They got me! (laughs) So, I came in at the end of June 2013 and decided that I didn't think the staff that was here could run the kitchen full-time on their own. [Haak Winery] was like, "So, don't you want to work for us?" and I was like, "No, I don't want a job, like, I've been working nonstop." By this point I'd only had like eight months off.

They said, "Well you can do whatever you want. You can cook whatever you want. You can write your menus, you control your food costs, you control your labor, you can hire whoever you want."

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Kipper Club Test Kitchen to Host Pop-Up Dinner With Guest Chef Michael Gulotta of MoPho in New Orleans

Photo, left, by Eris Walsh; Photo, right, courtesy of Michael Gulotta
Michael Gulotta of MoPho will be the guest chef at tomorrow night's Kipper Club pop-up dinner; One of the courses will be a cured tuna from his tasting menu.

Thanks to Kipper Club Test Kitchen, tomorrow evening, Houstonians will have the chance to experience the cuisine that earned Michael Gulotta's MoPho in New Orleans a nod as one of the 50 Best New Restaurants in the United States by Bon Appetit magazine.

For those not familiar with MoPho, the restaurant offers a contemporary take on Vietnamese and New Orleans cuisine. "We have a really big Vietnamese population here. New Orleans is really good at assimilating cultures -- that's what creole food is. We've taken these elements from French and African cuisine and melded it into one. My food is not creole-cajun, but it's not Vietnamese, either. It's just a new evolution of how I view food -- where I take local products and Southeast Asian influences and create things that are fun to eat," says Gulotta.

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