Category Archives: Travels

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Pizza Rock, Las Vegas USA

A short visit to the “city of sin” which is such a silly term for the bleached and bland Vegas of plastic malls, outlets full of fake Chinese merchandise you don’t need and fountains of fake breasts bursting out of skimpy outfits in every direction, prompted the Critic to sample some new restaurants along with some perennial favorites.

One of the restaurants falling into the “new” category, at least for this Critic, was one of Vegas’ best pizza joints – Pizza Rock. They have a margherita pizza, Napolitano style and cooked in a 900 degree oven in seconds, approved by the folks in Naples, where it actually received a ‘best pizza’ recognition, no small feat. The Critic had one, luckily it was still available as they only make 73 per day. BetterHalf had a Sausage and Stout pizza with dough that incorporates stout beer (only 23 made each day) which to the Critics tastebuds was a little too sweet.  A Cuatro Carnes pizza for the MiniCritic and the Americano for the CanadianCritic.

The waiter informed the group that this was going to be a lot of food and was appropriately amazed when only two pieces of pizza were left after the feeding frenzy ended.

The pizzas are amazing. Don’t miss this place! There are no photos as the pizzas were devoured before the Critic had a chance to take a picture!

http://pizzarocklasvegas.com/_pages/pr-menu.html

 

Casual Restaurant Critic – Houston, Texas

Once again, it’s time for a visit to Houston which is becoming quite the culinary destination and the Critic has had the opportunity to visit and revisit some great restaurants. Here’s the latest:

Tiger Den
The Casual Restaurant Critic didn’t even know that such a sprawling “Chinatown” existed in Houston, or that is was stuffed with small and large eateries of all Asian types, from Korean BBQ to Hunan Chinese with Thai and of course Japanese thrown in the mix as well. It’s not really a “ChinaTown” but more like a large commercial area with several shopping centers, all Asian themed and with more foot massage places than you shake a set of toes at.

The destination was Tiger Den, on many lists of the best places to get ramen, the soul satisfying, mouthgasm-inducing broth that takes hours or days to get just right. The Critic and Better Half were joined by two other, younger and local diners, both male, who agreed to share a table of four and cut the waiting time by at least 10-15 minutes. Yes, there is a lineup every night and the owner, is not shy about warning smartphone-game-playing teens that there is to be no game playing once seated – you are there to eat. If not, “I throw you out!”

While the Critic, BH and friends talked about the latest news (guns, Texas, Dallas) everyone enjoyed a their ramen soup. BH and Critic had the tantan-men soup, with ground pork garnishing a hearty broth and with large, thick melt-in-your-mouth mini-slabs of slow cooked pork belly floating among the noodles. It was, according the Better Half, the best ramen ever, surpassing last years Momofuko which itself was outstanding.

There are other things on the menu like ribeye skewers and chicken hearts too, but stick to the soup and you will be one happy camper.

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Tantan men soup – courtesy Yelp

9889 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

The Critic had been to this award winning sushi destination alone, and so was eager to share the find with Better Half, who, to make a long story short, proclaimed the evenings meal as one of the top three… ever. High praise indeed from a lover of great food and exotic locales.

The thing to do here is the omakase tasting menu, where the chef decides what’s best for you and serves nine stunning and delectable courses that range from tiny to generously large and run the gamut from fresh oysters flown in from Prince Edward Island to fresh toro from Japan. Everything is sparkling fresh and your place at the bar (do sit at the bar, not a table) is a wonderful vantage point from which to enjoy the artist Hori-san at work with his largely latino team.

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When Better Half noticed some people nearby having a bone marrow dish, she asked the waiter if it would be possible to try that as well. Chef Manabu Horiuchi (above, right) was consulted and included it – a large bone sawed in half and the marrow baked with condiments and spices – in the tasting menu.

The crab, according to our excellent waiter, was so fresh that it had been alive when we walked in. This waiter, by the way, was probably the best waiter the Critic has ever had, at any restaurant, anywhere.

Wine and sake accompanied the 9-10 dishes, including dessert. The experience lasted 2 and a half hours and was truly sublime. Extremely highly recommended.

Oyster

Oyster

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Rainbow carrots

Rainbow carrots

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Massive sashimi platter

Massive sashimi platter

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The object of desire, bone marrow

The object of desire, bone marrow

Nigiri trio

Nigiri trio

Crab, tempura style

Crab, tempura style

That is foie gras, really

That is foie gras, really

Sea urchin

Sea urchin

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Our one and only noodle dish

Our one and only noodle dish

Dessert too!

Dessert too!

3600 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098
(corner of Kirby and Richmond)
(713) 526-8858

Caracol
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Have you heard of chef Hugo Ortega? You might have as he has been around for a while, has visited the Yucatan (we visited the Santiago market together) and runs a very successful restaurant called … Hugo’s. More on that place a little later.

Caracol is a seafood restaurant with a definitely Mexican twist featuring a $29 dollar margarita which is quite delicious and packs a kick. The pescado zarandeado is amazing, as are the mejillones. Better Half and Houston Cookie Baker enjoyed, along with the Critic, an amazing meal in a crisp cool room, with attentive service and the location near the Galleria makes it an easy destination for those of the shopping mindset who need a relaxing and refreshing break from the madness of retail.

Service was prompt and friendly; however, for a restaurant of this caliber one expects a side plate for the mussel shells and wait staff to not barge into the middle of a conversation with their obligatory “so, how is everything?” question. Wait until there is a break in the conversation, people.

Mejillones, aka mussels

Mejillones, aka mussels

Poblano chile relleno

Poblano chile relleno

Scallops

Scallops

Pescado sarandeado

Pescado sarandeado

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

2200 Post Oak Blvd #160, Houston, TX 77056
(across from the shopping center w DSW, Container Store, etc)
713-622-9996

Hugo’s
Famous in Houston for years,  the Critic was searching for the best brunch on a Sunday and this place always came up, so off he went, with the ever accommodating Better Half in tow.

A buffet was set up and although the seating was at the very end of the brunch schedule, not one of the steam table trays showed any signs of neglect and were promptly refilled with a delicious selection of Mexican food items, all obviously made with quality ingredients (no skimping) and prepared authentically, with dishes ranging from huevos poblanos to pan de cazon.

The desserts are not only pretty to look at, they are actually very good. Which is not always the case in a Mexican restaurant. Service was top notch.

Absolutely amazing and a must-do on your next trip to Houston. Just plan on a siesta afterwards as you will not be able to move.

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1600 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(lots of restaurants in this area)
713-524-7744

Dolce Vita (TripAdvisor link – website domain name expired)
This Montrose-area pizza restaurant was recommended by chef Horiuchi at Kata Robata (above) as the best place for pizza. Thin crust and officially recognized by the pizza association from Napoli, Italia as the real thing, the pizza (margherita) was good but not overwhelmingly OMG good. The crust was indeed thin and a tad soggy, but the sauce and cheese and basil were right on. Service was very friendly, prices were reasonable and the place has signs outside prohibiting gun carriers, concealed or open, to abstain from entering the premises.

It was hard to fit in the pizza after the brunch that same day, but somehow the Critic managed.

Margherita

Margherita

500 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(if you were at Hugo’s previously, it’s in the same area, just a little further down Westheimer)
713-520-8222

Paying it Forward – the Houston InfoDesk Volunteers

PART ONE – I am stuck in Houston, thanks for a mental seniors moment that caused me to miss my flight back to Merida today. A couple of things stand out from today’s experience, which really doesn’t upset me that much as make me feel stupid and will help be a little less relaxed next time I travel.

Having arrived well after the airplane doors would have been closed, I was sent off to the side and after waiting an interminable amount of time in line at the United customer service desk I played it as humbly as I could with the unsmiling lady behind the counter. It’s hard to play the indignant customer when the fault was entirely mine. Having already  checked on line it was no surprise when she told me that tomorrow’s flight was booked solid with the exception of one business class seat at $1300 USD. Now that is pretty steep even if you do love leather and cutlery but I thought, what the hell, and told her to book it. Perhaps I could get some credit for the flight not taken and if not, well so be it.

She stabbed at the keyboard for a while and told me that she had to check with someone to see if in fact that seat was still available. She was put on hold and told me that it would be at least 10-20 minutes. By this time she and I were on good terms and I suggested maybe Cancun would be an option. Cradling her phone between her shoulder and cheek, she hit a few more keys and a morning flight appeared for $500 and then, miracle of miracles, she announced an 11:30 flight that could be had – at no charge at all.

I was so happy I almost jumped over the counter to give her a hug but that would have been inappropriate and so I settled on a hearty and thankful handshake. When I then asked about a hotel recommendation she actually gave me a coupon for a discounted hotel stay, the kind you get when THEY screw up. I was most grateful and again thanked her enthusiastically.

PART TWO – I am at the info desk at terminal E, the United terminal where two elderly folks in red uniforms are helping people with questions related to all manner of things. They wear tags that have their names on them and the fact that they are volunteers. The lady whom I will call Lady helps me with a phone to call the number on the United coupon to set up the hotel, offering to let me use her cell phone in case their courtesy phone didn’t work for what was obviously a non-local number.

Meanwhile the man whom I will call… Man, is dealing with a sloppily-attired individual who demands to know the flight schedule of ANA from Tokyo to Houston. They are obviously flummoxed and can not pull up any information on their computer, which seems to be not working. Mr. ANA is very rude and sarcastic with them, telling them that any Google search would display the information – oblivious to the fact that these are senior citizens and probably not the most tech-savvy people in the world. It is obvious from their expressions that they don’t even know what ANA is. I wonder why he doesn’t check it himself on his own computer or a rental somewhere.

As I complete my hotel booking over the phone, I can hear a lady in the wheelchair behind me loudly ask if there is a time limit on the use of the phone, to which Lady answers ‘no’ which is met with ‘well there should be’ which I choose to ignore since she is already in a wheelchair and I don’t want to further complicate her existence with a smack on the head with the telephone receiver.

The Man has now consulted with the Lady about Mr. ANA and they both are now trying to find some info on the computer and at the same time apologizing to Mr. ANA who remains unfazed and continues his eye-rolling and relentless questioning.

An elderly lady of the oriental persuasion appears and demands attention in that impatient and oh so charming way that some older folks have developed. Lady points her in the direction she needs to be moving.

Throughout all this, both Lady and Man are smiling, patient and while frustrated, they do not take it out on their ‘clients’.

I pull up the FlightTrack app on my iPhone and find the ANA information and tell the guy what he needs to know and finally, to the relief of Lady and Man, he walks away. What possible satisfaction this man gained from knowing that ANA’s flight from Houston landed at 3:55 PM at Narita airport is beyond me.

Wondering what motivates them to be there in the first place, I ask if every day they had difficult people like this guy. Their features relax and they smile a tired smile.

Lady answers first. “Some days, yes.”

But they both shrug it off.

“I just wish that coffee line wasn’t so long” says Man, pointing at the Starbucks outlet in the corner, where a long line of people waiting to order coffee stretched into the terminal, almost blocking the children’s Christmas choir doing their best to sing Jingle Bells in tune.

“I’m going to buy you a coffee” I tell him.

He comes back with an energetic “No, you are not!”

But I go stand in that line anyway, which takes forever as this is the one Starbucks in all of the great state of Texas that has the winner of the Slow-as-Molasses Ass-Dragging Contest working the till. Her companion, whom I will briefly refer to as Scruffy Mexican, looks out at the line with dead fish eyes, bored beyond belief and chewing his gum with a gusto reserved for recently rescued shipwreck survivors when fed their first meal.

I buy a couple of coffees; black – who knows if Lady and Man have milk allergies, high blood sugar or whatever – and a couple of packages of biscotti. I then head back and set them on their counter. “Merry Christmas” I say.

Man makes a move to reach into his back pocket. “How much do I owe you for those?”

“Absolutely nothing. Just want you to know that you are appreciated. Thank you for what you do and the way you do it” I tell them.

I shake their hands, grab my bags and head outside to wait for my hotel shuttle feeling like I have returned a little of the goodwill I received from the United lady earlier.

Casual Restaurant Critic at Scoozis – Vancouver, Canada

Scoozis

Scoozis

 

It’s 2014 and the Critic hasn’t written anything about Vancouver in a long time so here are some new great places to stop at if you have cruise ship reservations to go to Alaska which seems to be the main reason Mexicans at least get to Vancouver. That, and to study English for a few months and get out of the house and from under the thumb of the catholic household and cut loose. But the Critic digresses.

Here are some new favourite spots. Yes, that’s a Canadian spelling on ‘favourite’.  Once Stephen Harper – along with his army of evil Cheney-like minions – takes over the world you will all be spelling it this way.

Another digression: will be EVER get to the restaurants.

Yes.

Scoozis was recommended by the nice young man at the front desk (does this sound like an old lady talking or what) when Better Half and Señor Critic asked for someplace where they served real fruit juice for breakfast, not that crap from concentrate. By the way, the word ‘crap’ was not used in the query so no need to worry – in case you were – about offending the locals and besmirching the reputations of Mexicans abroad, as if that needed any more besmirching (think World Cup and “eeeeehhh puuuto!!”). Not only did they have fresh squeezed fruit juices, but also the best eggs benedict anywhere.

Mr. and Mrs. Critic fell for this suggestion like over-ripe guayas and were at Scoozis in just under 2 minutes, as it was located right around the corner from the hotel.

Service was fantastically friendly, not a grumpy face in sight. The food was lovely and reasonably priced. The Critic had the ‘bennies’ but not in their ham version; it was the British Columbia version with smoked salmon. Unbelievably great and it is their justifiably famous hollandaise sauce that makes this signature breakfast dish pop. This was the first time that the Critic didn’t have to add salt to the baked breakfast potatoes to make the bland tuber taste like something – they were perfect just as they were.

Better Half, insistent on eating a healthy breakfast, opted for a fruit and yoghurt combination. This being Vancouver where ethnic authenticity, along with political correctness, is all the rage, the fruit was local and the yoghurt was Greek. Coffee was strong and fresh.

A great way to wake up the day. Or to wake up to the day. Or to wake up and then start the day. Whatever the phrase is, Scoozis is a great place for a real breakfast in downtown Vancouver.

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Casual Restaurant Critic in Campeche

If you like seafood, and who doesn’t, then Campeche is the place for you. The Critic has been told also, that the fine Yucatecan traditions originate in Campeche, which was where the best cooks came from. The person that told me had relatives in Campeche so they might have been somewhat biased.

Campeche was once of course part of the Yucatan, even though they hate to admit it now. It was the main port of entry to the entire area and much wealth concentrated there before being either loaded onto ships or distributed into the countryside. So in a nutshell you have great cooking talent plus an abundance (up to recently anyway what with all the oil rigs out there) of fresh and varied seafood; all of this adds up to some pretty fine eating.

La Pigua

The best-known of the seafood places in Campeche also has a branch in Merida; called, believe or not, La Pigua. Known for it’s excellent dishes it became THE place to go for anyone of any importance visiting Campeche and in it’s former location/presentation it had many signed photographs on the wall from dignitaries real and imagined that had eaten there. The Pigua has been renovated and renewed. The look is sleek, minimalist and upscale and the food is as delicious as ever. The service, however, remains firmly rooted in the lackadaisical 1970’s, completely at odds with the modern and upmarket rest of the restaurant. The Critic was there before, and a recent visit confirms that the review stands as is.

Marganzo’s

The new CRC’s favorite, the restaurant is down by the wall in the old section of town and features all-women servers, dressed in traditional Campeche garb (think hipiles, Campeche style) and a terrific seafood menu from which anything you order will be delicious. The Critic always ends up ordering the Marganzo fish fillet and is never disappointed; but their coconut shrimp are a mouthwatering appetizer that should not be overlooked.

Gelateria Tigela 

There is, along the gorgeous malecón, a shopping center that advertises itself as the place to buy artesanias or crafts from Campeche artists. Inside, you will find several stalls featuring all kinds of cheesy trinkets made from shells as well as other pirate or ocean related items that will end up in your basement (if you are from up north) much like that purple-sequinned sombrero you got from your parents when they went to Tijuana in the ’70’s.

However, right around the corner on a side street leading back into the city is a terrific and authentic Italian gelato place with real, smooth and refreshing gelato, from limoncello to nocciola. Absolutely worth finding and enjoying after a seafood lunch at one of other places mentioned. Service is lackadaisical at best but the gelato more than makes up for the employee’s indifference and the pirated movie on the television screen which they are far more interested in watching than helping you, the inconsiderate interruption of their shift.

More info on it here.

Casual Hotel Critic in Houston – Indigo at the Galleria

In the ongoing interest of commenting on all things Yucatan, it is useful to include information on the those points of entry into the Yucatan, of which Houston is an important one as the United (formerly Continental) flight into and out of Merida is the only American airline covering that route.

And for Yucatecans, Houston is an important and attractive destination for all sorts of reasons; medical, financial and of course touristic.

The Casual Hotel Critic doesn’t appear often on this blog, but he is back and this time he comments on a recent stay at the Indigo Hotel at the Galleria.

This is a funky hotel with friendly staff, especially the Mexican ladies working the breakfast shift in the café/restaurant/bar just off the lobby. Funky because the colors and feel of the hotel will almost convince you that you are in Miami Beach and not Texas. The rooms are all handicapped accessible, if that is a term that can still be used and remain politically correct (not that the Critic is particularly concerned about such matters) which makes for an interesting closet situation, where the bar that you hang your shirts on is at waist level and the longer items of clothing will reach the bottom of the closet furniture mueble.

An important point to note for those with noise vs sleep issues: the air conditioning is loud. Very loud. It is a constant loud so it wouldn’t be bad – at least for the Hotel Critic – as it masks out outside and hallway noises, but unfortunately the a/c clunks off when the room hits the temperature set on thermostat and the switch from buzzing hum to silence will wake you. Every. Single. Time. The only way to ensure that the air conditioner does not go off is to set the temperature at the beef-aging meat locker setting and tuck yourself in very well.

The location though can’t be beat and is just behind the Galleria mall, at the Nordstroms entrance, so it is perfect for those who come to Houston to shop. The parking is free, another nice touch and right outside the hotel, something that definitely does not happen for example at the Westin Galleria where gigantic corner room 1906 is a personal favorite of the Hotel Critic.

Plenty of restaurants nearby both on Westheimer and up on Richmond, ranging from Starbucks to Pappas luxe steakhouse to Mexican and a gazillion Asian places that range from Vietnamese to Japanese to Thai.

Good place to stay? Yes. But the sleep vs noise issue is one that needs to be considered.

 

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic in Toronto (Part II)

Along with the great restaurants mentioned in the previous Toronto post, there was a disappointment or two. One of these was the Chinese (Cantonese) restaurant Lai Wah Heen (http://www.laiwahheen.com/) supposedly one of the better Cantonese restaurants this side of the orient. Um, no. The service was almost Yucatecan and there was really nothing seriously wonderful about the food which was tasty of course, but it was not the gourmet experience the Critic was hoping for and had experienced at upscale Chinese restaurants in Vancouver.

 

Another restaurant with a great reputation which left the Critic cold was the Quanto Basta restaurant on Yonge Street (http://www.quantobasta.ca/home). The service was fine, actually very good but not quite at the level of Splendido but this was probably because Quanto Basta is a little more casual. The food was good but nothing really stood out. There are no photos of this place as a) it was very dark inside; b) the Critic didn’t bring his camera and c) a lot of wine was being drunk, so you will have to visit their website, dear reader!

The Casual Restaurant Critic and some Tips for Toronto

On a recent trip to eastern Canada; specifically Toronto, the Critic was able to sample some of the city’s restaurants. Here are some mini-reviews for your enjoyment.

Cora’s

Apparently this is a popular place for breakfast, according to some websites that know about such things. A lineup was waiting for Better Half and the Critic on sunny Toronto morning but the wait (about 5 minutes) was well worth it. Quick service, great food and big portions will ensure you are not starving when out and about (said in a Canadian accent) in the city during the rest of the day. The eggs benny are varied and fantastic. Critic and Half visited the downtown location on Wellington street in the “entertainment district” but they are all over the place.

 

 

The BierMarkt 

There are several locations of the BierMarkt restaurants (http://www.thebiermarkt.com/index.php) and beer lovers

will love the ability to try several beers from around the world. In the photos, a selection of Belgian beers that one can order. Again, great place, and the Smoked Meat Poutine (the meat is smoked in house or so one is told) is To Die For. Honest. The Critic has tried just a few poutines but this one is a winner!

(it's a German thing)

to die for

Splendido

It’s espléndido just like the name says. This was probably the highlight of the trip, restaurant-wise (http://splendido.ca/welcome/) Amazing room, unbelievably delicious and inventive food and the service was top-notch. Look at this fried egg appetizer with greens, garlic and your very own hen egg to prepare.

The result is scumptious and the smell of the sauteeing garlic is sublime. Almost as sublime as the main dish ordered by the Critic; Yorkshire Pig aka Pork Belly, Pancetta Wrapped Tenderloin & Boudin Noir Smoked Shoulder Baked Beans, Sweet Potato & Cranberry (copy pasted directly from their menu). Look at the photos!

Traveling to Chetumal? The Restaurant Critic Recommends…

There’s not a whole lot to motivate you to want to go to Chetumal, the capital city of the neighboring state of Quintana Roo unless you have business with the state government there or are enroute to points further south via Belize. As a city, it has a somewhat provincial feel completely unbecoming a state capital. Everything there revolves around government jobs, real and imagined and the economy is based on the circulation of  government money. Also, as part of the now historic so-called zona libre, exempt from taxes levied against consumers back in the day, Chetumal became synonymous with cheap imported stuff that folks from Merida would drive hours for to buy and smuggle back into the Yucatan. Smuggle, because there was an actual border checkpoint on the Chetumal and Cancun highways where these entered the state of Yucatan. Cheeses from Holland, candies from all over, cookies from Denmark and butter in blue cans from New Zealand all became staples in the Yucatecan diet in the 60’s and 70’s, long before Costco, Sams and Walmart. Or Pacsadeli.

Enough with the history already!

Nowadays Chetumal will remind those who have lived here for some time, of a late 70’s, early 80’s Merida. There is nothing historical to look at really, except for the occasional wooden house, a tradition that made the place charming but wiped out by a hurricane in the 1950’s and never rebuilt. Everything is modern, square, unimaginative concrete with garish paint and horrific signage everywhere. There seems to be a problem with providing folks with garbage containers and so garbage can be seen most everywhere, including among the mangroves at waters edge. Chetumal is a popular place for folks from Merida to go when they head over the border into Belize to buy inexpensive Chinese junk and for Beliceños who want to step up and out from their border area to see something more modern. Granted, the state of Quintana Roo is one of the newest states in the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico did you know) but still, and for the same reason, you would think a somewhat more dignified city would carry the label of state capital.

On that 70’s-80’s theme, the fancy restaurant described a continuacion, is very much like what the Critic recalls from fancy restaurant experiences in Merida 30 years ago. The formal service, the elegant table-side dessert and salad preparation, the hygiene-challenged, poorly lit and charmless bathrooms completely at odds with what is happening out front, is a throwback to an earlier, less sophisticated time at least in terms of restaurants.

El Faro

El Faro, which means The Lighthouse, is undoubtedly one of Chetumals’ better restaurants. Ask a local which place is the best and the name will come up. Featuring formal service, lots of glassware and cutlery, real tablecloths and the stuffy feel of a tropical restaurant gone formal, the food is presented in a way suggesting that the chef or whoever is in charge of the kitchen has seen a few magazines and websites. It is good without being great and combined with the attentive yet cool service, the experience is decent enough.

Bucaneros

Bucaneros surprised the Critic because not only was the food great, but also the service was the friendliest experienced at any commercial establishment in Chetumal. Highly recommended for fun ambience and tasty, generously-portioned seafood creations including seafood-stuffed queso relleno!