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Houston dives for Sandra Lee to poop on

Those on the Houston Chowhounds mailing list have recently been following the dramedy that has become the Food Network  search for locations to film an episode of Diners, Dive-ins and Dives in Houston. I’m not a fan of the show and Guy Fieri doesn’t seem to be the type of guy I’d share a meal with, but I can appreciate a good train wreck when I see one.

The “creative process” apparently goes something like this: a hapless Food Network scout does a Google search for Houston food blogs, picks one at random and asks for a list of recommendations. The blog owner enlists a few other natives to toss around ideas and together they generate a list. Not every recommendation is a great fit for the show, but you could do far worse with Yelp, so it’s not a bad way to narrow your search in a city as large and unfriendly to outsiders as Houston. This is where the whole thing comes off the rails.

Houston may not be an undiscovered country, but we have our own cultural barriers here. Some of the restaurant owners barely speak English, while others simply told the producers to take a hike. Not all were entirely convinced that providing photos to the scouts was worth the effort,  narrowing the list further and further. In the end the Red Lion Pub (a dive with a publicist!) and Himalaya made the list. That is, until the Food Network inexplicably cancelled on Himalaya, leaving  the Red Lion and maybe a couple of other places who’s clientele is mostly white and English speaking (rumored to be Taco’s a Go Go and Kenny’s & Ziggy’s).

If you’re wondering what makes someone pick Red Lion over Himalaya, you’re not alone. I’ve been to Red Lion a couple of times on various work functions and even forced myself to eat a few things. The menu reads like a lively collection of British pub staples, but it tastes… semi-homemade.

image The new face of Food Network
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Not sure I fault the owners. No one comes to Red Lion for the food -but they do come for the rowdy atmosphere. It’s the type of place where you wouldn’t be surprised to find a couple of “regular gals” like Sandra Lee and Rachel Ray pouncing on prey like a pair of drunken cougars. The grub is mediocre, but is what the new Food Network demographic expects these days.

There was a time when the channel had real chefs cooking real food and exploring interesting places around the world, but the Food Network has long ago ceded that sort of programming to the Travel Channel and Bravo. The new Food Network seems to target people who watch their television in giant blocks of morning shows, soaps, self improvement programs, feel good stories and “cooking”.

I can only assume that is the reason why the Food Network chose a faux-British pub, a faux-NY deli and a relatively good taco joint, but one where you’d rarely see an actual Hispanic person. These places generate business through their heavily stylized “character” as much as their food.

IMG_7995 Houston Chowhounds dinner at Himalaya

In contrast, the only things at Himalaya with real character are the food and Kaiser, the charismatic chef/owner who somehow finds the time to run the front of the house and turn out the best Pakistani food in the city. The restaurant seems to have gotten a splash of paint and a few pictures on the walls recently, but it still maintains it’s clinical feel with it’s metal chairs and glass topped tables.

 

IMG_7991Houston’s best samosa?

With glaring fluorescents and exposed windows that reveal a parking lot and a freeway, Himalaya is not a place where you’d find a gaggle of Sandra Lee types having a girl’s night out. What you do find are often definitive examples of Pakistani and Indian cuisine, along with a couple of Himalaya-only touches.

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The biryani is the best in town and somehow tastes even better the day after. I once brought a place of this stuff to work in retaliation for a meeting scheduled during the lunch hour (who does that?!) and filled the conference room with the aroma of stewed goat and exotic spices from faraway lands. That felt good.

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Hunter’s Beef, a indopac pot roast of sorts, is served with a hunk of tender meat that falls apart in thin shreds similar to corned beef.  This Pakistani dish is not something you’d find on the menus of dozens of Indian restaurants that dot Houston and it’s yet another reason why Himalaya is worth a visit. 

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The superbly smooth and dense flan is a great way to finish a dinner that packs far more heat than your typical Indian meal. I am not sure if this dessert is native to Pakistan. More than likely this is Kaiser’s homage to his new home in the state of Texico.

Here are my picks for other Houston diners and dives for Sandra Lee to poop on:

Burn’s BBQ

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For years I thought only truly great BBQ was in Central Texas, at places like Luling and Lockhart. I was wrong. Burn’s BBQ turns out mind-blowing brisket, along with great ribs and somewhat lame sausage. There is no air conditioning or tables, other than a few benches set up outside, yet people still line up all through the day to get the best smoked meat within city limits.

Gorditas Aguascalientes

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Many people know this place for their stellar Mexican breakfasts and antojitos, but the truth is that there are few things Gorditas Aguascalientes doesn’t do well. Gorditas Aguascalientes is as close to a truly functional neighborhood diner as I have seen in Houston. By day it’s packed with blue collar workers from Southwest Houston jamming Tejano on the jukebox. At night, you are just as likely to find it full of blue, with 4-5 police cars parked outside. Come in on Sunday and you’ll see families being serenaded by an albino with a washboard and an accordion wielding mariachi (I have photos).

Boiling Crab

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This one is a layup. Boiling Crab has become my regular weekend destination and the diversity of the crowd has me convinced that no place embodies the true soul of Houston quite like it. Food Network may have even called them, but with two hour wait at the door they hardly need the national exposure. This is the tail end of the crawfish season and place is mobbed on daily basis.

Noemi’s Tacos

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Another place uniquely representative of Houston: owned by a Korean war vet (military regalia covers the walls) and a Hispanic woman I can only assume is named Noemi, this sleepy place delivers some of the best homemade Mexican food in town. Best part is that it’s directly on the path to Hobby Airport, making it the most awesome pre-flight food stop ever.

Lankford Grocery

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I didn’t think Lankford had the most amazing burger, but it’s better than most and the place certainly deserves to be on any list of dives. Vinyl covered seats are full of sinkholes and yet somehow the heat, the noise and uncomfortable seating isn’t terribly annoying. That’s just the way things are at Lankford. The garage doors in the dining room pretty much seals the deal.

Guadalajara Bakery

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Houstonians with a clue have a well documented love affair with Guadalajara Bakery. Weekend crows can stretch out the door, as people line up for homey Mexican specialties served from a steam table on made-to-order tortillas. If you don’t think this place is a credible dive, check out the exposed foundation of a demolished house (curiously, a lone toilet remains) that doubles as a parking lot for the restaurant.

Trudi’s Birria de Chivo

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Just as Irma’s drifts into complacency, another hard working Mexican family is putting out some of the best birria di chivo (that’s goat stew for you gringos) in the city out of an old Bambolino’s shack. I wouldn’t impose a nOOb like Guy Fieri on these great people, but you should go. Soon.

Tornado Burger

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Houston’s answer to In-N-Out and twice as good. I have taken a number of people here as a science experiment and those with Texas in their bones become instantly addicted to their spicy burger. The combination of a beef, American cheese and jalapeno heat captures their taste memory and becomes a subject of  intense cravings people associate with home the moment they are more than three days removed from Houston. This one is destined to become a classic.

Chilososo Taco House

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Just as I was trying to wrap up this post I found myself at the Chilosos Taco House in the Heights for the first time and found yet another place for my list. The old house converted to a restaurant was packed with a diverse lunch crowd and the kitchen was putting out some of the best cheese enchiladas I’ve had outside of San Antonio.

Chilosos would have been a perfect location for a show like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, but I doubt it have made the cut either – Spanish was spoken far more frequently than English and the food was great.

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