Houston’s Restaurant Scene is Exploding

The kitchen garden at Coltivare is extensive, they even grow corn!

The kitchen garden at Coltivare is extensive, they even grow corn!

Houston, I’ve been told, is the most diverse city in the United States. More than 170 languages are spoken here, beating even Astoria, Queens as the biggest challenge for translators.  This vast city is full of so many immigrants, that naturally, it would also be a top food destination.

Chefs in front of the wood fired oven at Coltivare.

Chefs in front of the wood fired oven at Coltivare.

Last night we fanned out all over Houston in a dine-around, groups were dispatched to a dozen different restaurants. I joined Houston’s tourism press rep, A.J. Mistretta, and climbed aboard the bus heading for Coltivare, where the name means cultivate in Italian.

Chef Ryan Pera makes the best use of local ingredients by shopping in the big kitchen garden in the restaurant’s own patio. Tall stalks of corn, towering tomato plants, and rows of lacinato  kale join many other veggies and herbs that the chef uses in the simple dishes.  “We don’t grow cauliflower,” we were told by GM Jeb Stuart, “but we grow a whole lot of everything else.”

A potato egg pizza from the wood fired oven.

A potato egg pizza from the wood fired oven.

We sat at a big long table out in the patio, and they brought forth dish after dish. We didn’t have to decide what to order, they just kept bringing out small plates of delicious Italian dishes, starting with a big board of salami, pepper spread, prosciutto, olives and warm bread. Then a tomato and feta basil salad, with unusually red ripe tomotoes, then their signature roasted cauliflower florets…and finally some of their wood-fired sourdough pizzas.  It was truly the perfect way to dine and with their top-notch wine list, it was just about perfect. I love it when I don’t have to decide, it just comes.

Other Houston dining highlights are Underbelly, which has a great reputation for all things pork, with their own butcher shop and owned by famous chef Chris Shepard, an expert on the local food scene. Other kudos from Houston locals were directed at Nifa’s and the many great joints along Montrose Street. With more than 10,000 restaurants to choose from, it would take quite a bit of research to determine the best, but it would be a very delicious endeavor!  Find out more at Visit Houston.

Houston’s a Great Place to See By Bike

Seven steel towers show images drawn by schoolkids along the Buffalo Bayou trail in Houston.

Seven steel towers show images drawn by schoolkids along the Buffalo Bayou trail in Houston.

The Phoenicia Specialty foods market has everything Mediterranean, including killer lamb and chicken shawarmas

The Phoenicia Specialty foods market has everything Mediterranean, including killer lamb and chicken shawarmas.

The life of President George HW Bush is profiled on plaques behind this large sculpture of him standing near George Bush park.

The life of President George HW Bush is profiled on plaques behind this large sculpture of him standing near George Bush park.


A bike path protected from cars in Houston, Texas.

A bike path protected from cars in Houston, Texas.

There is really no better way to explore a new city than by bicycle.  I joined Phil Butcher, owner of Bayou City Bike Tours this morning for a trip around part of downtown Houston, and I was impressed.

Before I took off on our ride, some of the people at the conference mentioned that it was hot. Yes, it was already in the mid-eighties, but that didn’t deter me. We made our way to one of the city’s many bike rental kiosks, and with the insertion of a credit card I was on board a bike. The first 60 minutes are free, so if you switch bikes every hour, you don’t have to pay.

Our route was on a long section of street painted green with rubber bumper barriers, a protected bike lane that Phil said many delivery trucks and other vehicles often ignore. But it felt safe as we pedaled toward the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike trail, that runs for eight miles along the chocolate-milk colored Buffalo Bayou river.  This is the river that flooded in April 2016, and though this had happened last month, there was no sign of it on our ride, as we rode past egrets and large ducks and the skateboard park named for a famous local attorney and his wife.

Phil told me lots of things about Houston that were impressive. It’s the most diverse city in the US, with 6.2 million people speaking 100 different languages in the 627 square miles that make up the city. Vietnamese are just one of many countries where large numbers of Houstonites came from. This is the headquarters for giant companies like Exxon Mobile, United Airlines, Waste Management and AIG, it’s the home of more Fortune 500 companies anywhere but New York City.  The theater district here is also 2nd only to NYC, with more shows and more tickets sold than any other city besides the Apple.

Our ride took us to Market Square Park, where under a leafy canopy, people queued up for Greek food and coffee at Niko’s, and on a rectangular brick patio we sat at the site of the city’s original town hall. Birds sang in the trees as we relaxed at the table.

I asked Phil about his favorite Houston restaurants, and he told me about Pico’s, where a specialty is fried soft shell crab. His favorite beer bar is the Hay Merchant, and if he wants something fancy, he’ll take his girlfriend to the Mockingbird Bistro, or The Raven in Rice Village.  I took an Uber across town to a very upscale joint last night called Peska, where they had the perfect pea soup and a soft shell crab taco that really hit the spot.

I also enjoyed another recommendation of Phil’s–The Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a Mediterranean gourmet food store, bar and restaurant. We waited in a line for lamb shawarma, served hot in a wheat pita with tzatziki sauce and roasted brussels sprouts on the side. I loved that place and stayed around after Phil left to pick up some spices they sell in bulk, including sumac, chicken shawarma spice and a Moroccan spice blend called Ras El Hanout.  The next time I cook I’ll remember Phoenicia Specialty  in Houston!

Stephen Szkotak Has Lived a Great Life, and Shared Much of It With Me

Steve Szkotak walks his daughter Molly down the aisle at her wedding in May 2016.

Steve Szkotak walks his daughter Molly down the aisle at her wedding in May 2016.

Stephen Szkotak has had a great run.  I write this with great sadness, after hearing from Mandy his wife of nearly 40 years, that he is in hospice care.  Like all of us, he’s facing the end, the only difference is that he’s painfully closer.  He’s battled this cancer and fought hard, and through much of his struggle, he has shared it with me, as my email pen-pal.

He’s been tossing me his long, perfectly spelled and typo-free emails for years, and I would bat back long missives of my own whenever I got one of his. We’ve been like regular tennis partners, batting back, sharing tidbits, asking questions, but mostly, pouring out what’s inside us to a trusted confidant.  He’d chastise me for typos and grammar slip-ups, as any good editor would do. I always appreciated that, when my dictation would fail me on the screen.

We’ve been corresponding since, well, I don’t really know, but it’s been many, many years.  Steve has worked as an editor and as a reporter at UPI, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, and for longer in Richmond Virginia for the AP.  He’s the only person I know who ever complained to me that my emails were ‘thin gruel,’ with not enough substance.  I loved that about him.

We met when he and Mandy got married, back in 1980, and I was overjoyed when he got hired on at the Gazette when I was working there in advertising. We were an interesting pair, fast friends, from two different parts of the building. I don’t know of any my ad pals who hung out with editors, but we had a lot of fun, going to lunch, and enjoying Friday cocktails together. We used to carouse around and I remember a night when we drove up to a bar in Millers Falls to see a great band.  We also attended a few of the formal Amherst Chamber of Commerce dinners together. He made it fun, even though it was an evening of pomp and stiffness all around.

I left the paper before he did, and he tried to get out for a long time, finally landing a great gig down in Richmond.  Though Mandy and Steve both missed the Valley, they made a great life and a comfortable living in this vibrant city, and as I said in the beginning, they’ve been very happy and successful.

Steve had the joy of walking his daughter Molly down the aisle at her wedding just a few weeks ago, and he wrote about how hard that was for him. “Can’t sugarcoat the state I’m in. With the wedding looming, I’m wondering how much I have in the tank to walk Molly down the aisle, deliver a rousing toast, and make the rounds. It’s daunting.”  But he did it, and it was a great day for their family, and as the photo shows, he made it.

After they moved to Richmond, we flew down and got a few rooms at the Tides Inn in Virginia’s Northern Neck.  I was early in my travel writing career, and I thought that the restaurant would comp us whatever we wanted, so I loaded up on one of everything on the menu.  When the bill came, I had to pony up the $400, with Steve and Mandy pulling out all the money they had in their wallets to try and cover it. Lesson learned. But we had great fun later that weekend when I met one of their relatives who had a great big plantation house in the Northern Neck and treated us all to a big family dinner.

In May he shared his condition as well as told me something that meant a lot to me. “My dear friend, Max. I remain weak and mentally sluggish. Hope to get back to correspondence. Til then, you must know the resumption of our letters has been a great joy.”   Nobody has ever made me feel better as a writer than he did.

I often laughed out loud at his descriptions and his clever repartee that came though in his emails. Here is a dispatch from April after I lamented the state of dress in the airport. “Airports offer a nice slice of Americana, minus the lower classes of society.  I’ve often considered a transition to athletic gear as a default fashion statement. The track suit with piping on the slacks, all smooth and wrinkle free, with the latest in shiny new sneaker. Black men of a certain age favor this fashion statement, or lack of statement. It would simplify life to have a closet full of track suits, ready for any occasion.”

I don’t know anyone who I could share lively conversations with on so wide a range of topics, my heart sinks and when I think about losing our connection,. I will never have a friend like Steve, and never meet someone who knew me better by virtue of all that I shared with him.  Godspeed, good friend. Godspeed.

Snack Toys Replace the Time-Consuming Habits of Kids

A new trend in toys is tiny inexpensive items, that can provide a faster experience than a boring long game or construction project.

A new trend in toys is tiny inexpensive items, that can provide a faster experience than a boring long game or construction project.

Who has time? Even youngsters are all on a schedule these days, it’s time for Johnny’s playdate, oh, we gotta leave now to get to Susie’s soccer practice!  Who has time to play games that take as long as 30 minutes?   I read a story yesterday by Anne Marie Chaker in the WSJ about a new trend. “Snack-like Toys” that don’t take too long to play that fit into the busy lives of our youngest citizens.

One example is a cute little set of toys that come in spice containers, complete with the wooden rack. Spicy Games can fit inside your kitchen cabinets and is four different ‘mini-games.”  Well, you buy them individually for $8 each, and inside the plastic jars are games, like Cheater’s Chili or Sugar Cubes. The first one is a guessing game with coins, and Sugar Cubes is a word game that you play with a timer. It’s a perfect short-attention span entertainment for those boring moments while we’re all waiting for dinner to be ready.

Lego too, is jumping on the snack toys bandwagon.  Everyone knows how long it can take to assemble one of the company’s daunting construction sets, complete with so many parts that you’re bound to lose some under the sofa soon after you open it.  The company now makes “Mighty Micros” which only cost $5-10.  Contrast this with the big sets, that can run $20-30, or way more for the very complex sets.  The Micros are more simple, for $10 you get two characters, one superhero and a villain and the makings to build two small vehicles. What more do you need, really?

For girls, the trend continues with a twist. The Tsum Tsum Mystery Stack Packs are $3 and you don’t know what your’e actually getting. This encourages kids to pick up three or four, said Kim Ferguson, VP of Marketing for Jakks Pacific. She said the volume makes up for the small per-unit profit.


Sheryl Sandberg’s Suggestion Is Good Advice at Bedtime

scroll2Sheryl Sandberg is famous for her line that is the title of her book: Lean In. But besides being the CEO of Facebook and a major empowerer of women, she’s someone who has suffered a great loss, and despite vast wealth and power, remains humbled by it.  In today’s WSJ, there was a story by Georgia Wells that shared some of this.

Sandberg’s husband was the CEO of SurveyMonkey, Dave Goldberg, and he died suddenly last May. Sandberg spoke at graduation ceremonies at UC Berkeley on Saturday and shared some good advice.

She said that every night when she goes to bed, just before she goes to sleep, she writes down three moments of joy that she experienced that day. – This was her New Year’s resolution, and she says “this simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to bed thinking of something cheerful. Try it.”

Poker on a Sunday Afternoon: Nothing I’d Rather Do!

Time for a poker game in Sunderland!

It’s time for poker. YAY!

I can’t think of anything I’d rather do right now than join my five pals and play some poker.  To people who don’t play, it’s hard to convey, but to those of us in my poker group, it’s a golden time for all.

To a man, we all love the game and we love the competition. We not only love our games, but we love being together, gathering and finding out how we are all doing. It’s in that subtle, man to man way that we check in, share what’s going on in our lives, and then proceed with the bravado, bluffing and competition of the poker game.

Ed Valerio, Dave Chouinard, Don Gibson and Steve Hartshorne are all pictured on the wall of my office–my stalwart poker mates, who have joined me in this game for probably ten years.  Eric Jayne is our newest player, he’s been in the circle for about three years.  I know them all so well and I can honestly say these are some of my favorite people on earth. I might not tell them that, ’cause we’re guys and all, but dammit, I love these men and I love seeing them whenever I can. Nothing could stop me from leaving my house in a just a few and sitting down to the poker table with these fine gentlemen!