Lannae's Food and Travel

I hope you like my food and travel blog.

January 30, 2008

Ocean Palace

Ocean Palace
11215 Bellaire Blvd
Houston, TX

a bench at one of Houston's Chinese shopping strip malls

I was reading a blog friend's blog,, and she has taken time in Houston, TX, and she has spent some time in the west side of Houston which is now a HUGE Chinatown. This area of Asian restaurants and shops is HUGE, like everything else in Texas. Nicole Sauce made a blog post with a link to a Houston Chinatown directory, and it spurred me to post about my trips to Houston last Summer and Fall. I originally did not blog about Houston and my food there because these were a couple bitter sweet visits. I have lovely and loving extended family in Houston, but one of my visits there was because my dear Aunt passed away, and the 2nd visit was to go heal my heart and be with my cherished extend family. In Chinese culture, healing always involves soul food, and soul food for me is dim sum - a little love from the heart. We did eat a lot of great food during my 2nd visit, but it has taken until now to muster up the courage to blog about what I ate.

the front Ocean Palace, one of many giant Chinese restaurants in Houston

During my 2nd visit to Houston, I made sure I stayed through a Sunday because that is the day of the week all my family gets together and goes out for Sunday dim sum brunch. My dear Uncle from Houston, my cousin and her grandbaby came from North Texas, my other cousin and her son came from south of Houston, my other cousin came from Manhattan New York, and even more cousins from the west side of Houston came for this Sunday special brunch. There is no better way to honor my Aunt, but with breaking bread (or should I say breaking open dumplings), sharing stories, and laughing with my very kind and funny family.


On that particular Sunday, we went to the Ocean Palace Restaurant for dim sum. It is a huge 2 story building, with maybe a 50+ 10-person tables on the 2nd floor alone, that is seating for 500 people! Wow! I was giddy looking at this place. There were the dim sum carts rolling around the restaurant with dishes and dishes of treats. There were dumplings of all kinds, noodles, chicken feet (I don't eat these if I don't have to), dessert custards, rice dishes, beef intestines, pork pi quat, bok choy and veggie dishes, and all sorts of Southern Chinese treats that you could imagine. It is amazing to me the array of choices. Dim sum is like Chinese version of Tapas, they are smaller plates of carefully made foods that go will with hot tea rather than sherry.

my tea cup

As the saying goes, everything in Texas is bigger, and the Ocean Palace size and the amount of dim sum they have is certainly bigger than any Boston dim sum house I have been to. Seeing this place full on Sunday with a lot of Chinese people with a long waiting line out the door, and knowing there are a lot of other Houston dim sum houses in the Chinatown area and which are just as full, and there is a large population of Chinese in Houston who did not go for dim sum on this particular Sunday, I am assuming that Houston must have a pretty large Chinese population to support these big businesses. There must be many Chinese are living in Houston, and there are enough to allow me to have delightful authentic dim sum brunch before heading back to Nashville, the Chinese food void.

shu mai

One of my favorites from childhood, and I always opt for when I can get it, is shu mai. It is a little pork dumpling wrapped in a wheat flour noodle, then steamed. When I was a kid, I used to deconstruct the shu mai by carefully unwrapping the noodle part and eating that first, then I used to cut into the meatball and eat 4 pieces of meatball. Sheesh, who has time for that now? It is about 2 or 3 bites of this yummy and it was gone, and my plate was ready for another dumpling.

har gao

Another favorite of mine is har gao, a shrimp dumpling wrapped in a white rice flour wrapper. To have these made correctly, they must be made by hand fresh the day they are to be eaten. I particularly love the texture of the wrapper, that is unlike other noodle or won ton skin. It is al dente and slighty chewy when made perfectly. I have some of the flour at home, but it is a lot of work to make these. The shrimp inside, I am not sure what it is seasoned with, but it is umami for sure. This is truly one of my favorite dishes that I cannot get enough of.

It is funny, a lot of my memories of events revolves around food. Is it cultural, or is it me? I look at these photos, and I can picture everyone there so vividly in my mind. My dear family, this dim sum - love from my heart blog post reminds me of you.

Ocean Palace on Urbanspoon


January 27, 2008

Give me 5

We went to Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries last Wednesday for a quick dinner. This franchise had been open for 2 days, and all the staff was still there training. We went because a guy we knew said that this is the best burger he has ever had. The premise is simple, you order a little burger (one patty) or a regular burger (two patties) and you decide what toppings you want from a bunch of sauces, pickles, onions, fried onions, mushrooms, lettuce tomatoes, bacon, and other toppings. Then you order fries, regular or spicy, and what size of regular and large. Just similar to other burger joints, the little burger with cheese and nothing else is about 600 calories, a regular (small fries) is about 600 calories, and a small soda with ice in the cup is about 200 calories. The total calories of this meal made of the smallest order options is about how many calories a 125 lb woman should eat in one day. I am mentioning this calorie count because the Five Guy website does offer the calorie count of its burgers and toppings right up front.

I ordered a small burger without cheese, fried onions, mushrooms, pickles, BBQ sauce and lettuce, and a regular fries to share with my dining companion. I got water to drink. It was a ton of food, and I was full. The burger was fun to make, and I got exactly what I wanted on it. The Five Guy motto is to use beef that is never frozen, and I could tell. The fries were tasty too, but as you can see, the cup of fries was over flowing and had to remain in the bag or dump them all over the table. The funny part about this place is that they have giant boxes of peanuts that you are supposed to eat while the staff cooks the burgers, They want you to drop the shells on the floor. It was unexpected, and a little strange to have peanuts available. I ate two, but I did not eat more because there was going to be a huge burger meal coming.

The funny thing about eating at Five Guys was this stand-up display from Vanderbilt Medical Life Flight right next to our table. Vanderbilt Life Flight is the helicopter service for people who are dire need of medical emergency care, such as people who are in rural areas having congestive heart failure to people in terrible car accidents on the highway where it would be hard to get a ambulance there. As I ate my burger and fries, I just stared at the Vanderbilt Life Flight display. This sign made me think about what I was eating, and if the sign was a "sign" trying to tell me something. It was like the Family Guy episode McStroke, where Peter saves the owner of McBurgertown, and gets all the free hamburgers for life. Peter then goes to McBurgertown and eats 30 hamburgers in one sitting and then has a stroke. He could have used Vanderbilt Life Flight to help him out.

January 26, 2008

Before Winter

21 little local honey bears for the winter

Last winter I read Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, I was reading food blogs including Cookiecrumb's, and reading Cookie's recommended eat locally group blog about eating locally on the budget of the average American. These three readings inspired me and my household to eat completely locally for one week in May. Well, the household had no choice because I am the primary cook in my house, so they either ate what I made or went out without me. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I was not prepared. The one aspect I was lacking in was flavoring for food. I could happily eat the same thing for a week, as long as the aroma and flavorings have variety, fun, and zip. The only flavorings that I had was a little bit of honey, and traditionally easy herbs to grow like oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage. I have been growing and drying these herbs organically for years, so I was thinking that these flavors would be enough. No, I miss my hot red pepper flakes, garlic, onions, spicy paprika, and savory curries.

The week long experiment was a success, and I continued on with incorporating local foods in every meal I make. It was fun during early spring and harvest fall with the bounty to be had at various Nashville farmer's markets. There were bulbs and bulbs of spring garlic and onions, there were fresh greens, carrots, and tomatoes. There were my peppers dripping off the plants, and herbs surviving the drought we had.

Each day last year as I bought locally grown garlic, onions and peppers, I thought about preserving them to keep for a long bland winter. With limited freezer space, I had to rely on old try and true methods of preservation: drying. I bought a bunch of spring garlic and onions and hung them for a few weeks in the dark shed closet we have out back. I didn't cure some of the garlic enough, and they rotted out. Luckily, I have a couple of garlic bulbs left to use. The onions amazingly lasted as long as I wanted to use them, but since I use garlic and onion for nearly every meal, the onions are gone. I feel like I remember a fable or story about the squirrel who did not stock up for winter and starved. I was really trying not to be that squirrel.

I bought hundreds of red peppers last fall, and dried them. AHHHH! I have hot spicy zip to my food for winter. These little peppers were a great success to dry. Thank goodness. During my week experiment in May, I had not one flake of pepper or hot spice to use. It was ok for a couple of days, but red hot peppers is the spice of life. The week after the experiment was over, I wanted flavorful, hot and spicy foods, like Prince's Hot Chicken, hot Thai and some hot Indian.

This winter, I have a couple more garlic bulbs, lots of dried red peppers, dried herbs, and honey to sweeten everything up. With these base flavorings, it is gonna be ok. Note to self for next year: get as many onions as possible and cure them for winter.


January 21, 2008

That's Bologna

Bologna plain is not a good sandwich meat for me. I don't like it, never did. When I was a kid, on occasion my mom would pack a bologna sandwich on white bread from my lunch. One time, I think I was 7 or 8, I did not want to waste food, so I did not eat the bologna sandwich and brought it back home with me. Instead of telling my mom I did not eat the sandwich, I hid it behind the back seat of the station wagon. In kid logic, I thought that since I did not put the sandwich in the trash, I wasn't wasting food. Well, days later, that sandwich began to stink and grow mold. When my mom found it and pulled it out from the behind the back seat of the station wagon, and after being in a hot car that lived in sunny Southern California, I think my mom was completely grossed out. I was grossed out by that rotting sandwich, and you bet that I never put a bologna sandwich behind the seat ever again.

At any rate, I don't like cold sandwiches in general. I don't like plain bread that is not toasted. But, when bologna is fried, and put in between 2 slices of toast with melted cheese, that is a sandwich I can eat with gusto!

The proper way to make the sandwich is to get a good thick slice of bologna from the deli. I also got a nice thick slice of horseradish cheddar cheese to go with my bologna. I then went to the Provence Bakery to get 2 slices of very good bread. At home I had some nice coarse mustard to use as well.

Here is the process:
Cut a line in the bologna slice from the center to the edge.
Pan fry the bologna to lightly brown and the bologna looks like Pacman.
Remove the bologna from the heat.
Take bread and spread a little mustard on one side of each slice.
Cut the cheese in 1/2 and place one piece on each slice of bread on the mustard side.
Place bologna in between the bread and cheese.
In the skillet, add a little butter, and place sandwich in the skillet until the bread is toasted and the lower side cheese is melty.
Turn over the sandwich over to brown the other side and melt the other cheese.

When you are done toasting the bread and melting the cheese, the sandwich should look like the one above. Yummy!

Here is my sandwich that I cut in half right before I ate it. It was really good for a quick hot dinner. The mustard and horseradish cheddar added a really nice punch to this dish.

Jerk Salmon

I am not impressionable at all. Not at all. Nothing on the TV sways me to buy or eat certain things. (Note, there is sarcasm in that typing.) Well, I was at the gym yesterday jogging on the treadmill for a couple hours, and the gym has TVs set up with all the treadmills. What I was doing was switching between Home and Garden, Travel and Food TV stations. I stopped on Rachel Ray, and it looked like she was making baked crab cakes. Oh, do I like crab cakes. About 10 years ago I was up in Baltimore, Aberdeen and Annapolis, Maryland, I tried crab cakes from various restaurants every day I was there. At the time, there was a new restaurant just north of Aberdeen that had the best crab cakes because it was a lot of the crab body meat, no crackers or bread filling, and a light spicy seasoning to it. I was thinking about those crab cakes as I watched the Food TV show.

The wheels started turning in my head, and I wanted to make crab cakes. Luckily there is a good grocery store near my gym, so I was going to buy canned crab meat (I live land locked surrounded by 8 states, and there is no fresh seafood here) and go home to make crab cakes. I thought that canned crab meat isn't good, so what could I use that would be good. I remembered that I had a salmon fillet in the freezer, so I was now thinking about salmon cakes made in the crab cake tradition. I also decided on spicing my salmon cakes with the lovely Key Lime Jerk seasoning that Deb's Key West Wine and Garden gave to me during the spice exchange. Yes, a slight deviation from the Old Bay Seasoning, but well worth the taste.

The other things I had at home already were locally grown shitake mushrooms, garlic and onions. I had some dried thyme that I grew last year and dried. I also had some locally grown crushed red peppers that I dried for use during the winter. I had a 2 day old stale piece of focaccia from the Provence bakery, which I thought would be a nice binder. I thought all these things would go well in my salmon cakes.

First, I diced up the mushrooms, garlic, onions and focaccia and added them to a bowl with thyme, crushed red pepper, and the Key Lime Jerk seasoning. I wanted to add the onion and mushrooms in because I had them on hand, and because they add moisture to a salmon cake. Salmon can be really dry with a dry texture I dislike, so I was thinking about adding moisture filled delights to the salmon cake. Boy, this dish was smelling really good, and I had not cooked one thing yet.

Second, I chipped up the cooked salmon fillet that I had marinated in the Key Lime Jerk seasoning then cooked. I added the chipped salmon into the bowl. I added a couple locally grown and pastured chicken eggs into the mix, and stirred. I may have added too much egg, but I wasn't sure if the dry ingredients would bind together without enough egg. Also, the eggs help add to a moist texture to help off-set the dry texture from the fish and the focaccia. I then used two table spoons to make croquette shaped blobs that I placed in a frying pan. I used my spatula to flatten the cakes, and cooked them like pancakes.

Ta da, the pan fried salmon cakes! They have a slight hot spicy kick to them, and the aroma from the Key Lime Jerk seasoning is scrumptious. They are good to be eaten straight, and as a sandwich. I put a salmon cake into a pita bread with lettuce, and it was very good that way.

Ok, so I am a bit impressionable from good looking food images on TV, but at least it inspired me to try making salmon cakes from all the ingredients I had in my house already. I was a little nervous while making the salmon cakes because I did not know if it would turn out tasty. I have never made a salmon cake, crab cake, nor salmon croquette before. I have had institutional salmon croquettes (bad school food) and they were tasteless, dry, fish bone infused deep fried things. I disliked them greatly. I had no idea if I was making something I disliked greatly, or making something that I would like to eat. If I did not like it, I was feel so bad for wasting food, so I was hoping a lot that the salmon cakes would be good. Thank goodness this was one food experiment that worked out.

January 20, 2008

Athens of the South

At one time, in the 1800's the wealthy and the leaders of Nashville wanted to call Nashville "The Athens of the South" with the concept that Nashville would grow to have the best art, culture and educational institutions in the the Southern USA. Well, that didn't happen, but at least Nashville has a full sized replica of the Parthenon and the tallest indoor free standing statue, which is of Athena holding Nike, inside the Parthenon. The Parthenon replica and Athena are something to see while in Nashville,. Nike stands over 6 feet tall in Athena's hand, but when looking at Athena and Nike, with Athena being so tall, Nike looks a lot smaller than she really is. That is how tall Athena is.

the lemon chicken and rice soup

Another place Nashville has is Athens Family Restaurant. With its ups and downs, I think it has finally hit its stride. The standard fare we get are the lemon chicken and rice soup, burgers and the spanikopita. At one time Matt lived in Astoria Queens amongst the cheap eats Greek Diners, and he would get the lemon chicken and rice soup and a burger with fries. The soup is generally the same, the the burger and fries are that institutional burger and fries. When we first tried Athens for soup, burger and fries, Matt's memory was immediately thrown back to the Astoria Queens Greek Diner food.

a bacon Swiss burger with fries

A couple months ago, before xmas, we went, and soup, burger and fries were right along the lines of the Queens Greek Diner food. It has become our staple when thinking of an Astoria diner burger. For a couple years now, Athens has been consistent with its burger and fries. Nothing special, always the same, and always reminding Matt of Astoria Queens.

Since I never lived in Astoria Queens, I am not attached to the burger and soup, but I like the diner fries for nostalgia reasons of my own. When I lived in Phila for a decade or so, there was this diner near Penn we used to go to after hours, and I would get a plate of extra crispy diner fries and chocolate milkshake to dip the fries in. I usually order my fries at Athens to be extra crispy.

my spanikopita and salad

Well, just last week, starting this new year, Athens changed what fries they buy. They are not serving up the plain old diner fries anymore. The have gone to the skin-on steak fries, that are some how more "shee shee". They are like gourmet fries served at Mirror. It is no longer the same. They messed up the fries. What to do, what to do? Do I say something about the fries being all messed up now? Was it an accident with the wrong fries being delivered, and they will go back to generic diner fries? Oh, what should I do?

Athens Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon


January 19, 2008

Not Ready

I am thinking that I really am not ready to give up the image of the beautiful beaches of Cozumel, and I have been home and land-locked for 3 weeks now. It is cold and gray where I am, and I keep looking at this photo I took on the beach to remind me of the 85F, sunny and slightly breezy conditions, aka perfect relaxing beach weather.

the beach in Cozumel

some shops in Cozumel which are visual beautiful

January 13, 2008

New England Dinner Chronicle

It was like any other day at work, then like any other day commuting home, then like any other day trying run errands after work, and then it was like any other day as I walked into the house. But then, a call came to the house for an offer I could not refuse. It was for a New England boil dinner of the very best kinds at a friend's home for his birthday. This friend is originally from New England, with parents who are total lobster and clam connoisseurs, and his parents figured out that every year they will send him a mail ordered New England lobster dinner and all the fixings (aka fixin's in the south). This package came with clams, and lobsters caught and boxed with ice packs and seaweed just one short day before and overnight mailed to his house. It is such a treat to be invited to this celebratory dinner, that I was beside myself! Believe me, I was so happy that he was born, and I was more than happy to help him celebrate his birth. I had other errands to run, and I had 4 miles to jog (as I train for the Nashville Marathon), and I had to drop stuff off at another friend's house later on that evening, but all of that went to the wayside for this wonderful birthday dinner. Here is the photographic chronicle of this wonderful birthday dinner. Thank you friend's mom and dad! Thank you for having a son who lives near us now, and who has such a generous spirit to share his New England dinner!

The beautiful center piece

the salad with raspberries and cucumbers

the cheese and crackers

the clams soaking in corn meal, as they eat the corn meal, they spit out sand

the clams steamed with onions

a lotta lobsta

readying the lobster

the lobster pot

lobster on a plate

getting ready to take a bite

the remains of the day

vegan truffles for dessert

ginger, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne pepper varieties

We each had ramekins of melted butter to dip the clams and lobster in. It was truly decadent to have a nice big ramekin of my very own. The birthday fellow told us that there have been studies showing that men who drink whole milk have lower risk of prostate cancer than those who drink skim. It has something to do with the milk fat. Well, here's to a bunch of melted butter for prostate health! Ah, my prostate feels better already! Wait, I don't have one.

January 12, 2008

They said...

They said it couldn't be done...

... the quad stuffed cookie. We did it, it was perfect.

January 8, 2008

The Chef Wins

China Chef
857 Bell Road
Nashville, TN

China Chef is located in a strip mall in the corner southeast corner of the Hickory Hollow Mall parking lot. It is right next to the TGI Fridays that is located in the corner of the Hickory Hollow Mall parking lot. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the inside looks like a mini-NYC Chinatown restaurant with the textured ceiling, pagoda style lighting, Chinese-esque crown molding, and well used booth seating. I would not have normally gone to a Chinese restaurant in this area because it is hard to get to for me, and the traffic around Hickory Hollow is always insane around there. Well, this time, I was tipped off my a secret diner whom I have never met that China Chef has a single paper menu with Chinese menu items on it, and some sketchy English translations. There is the normal menu with normal deep fried Sysco style meats and corn syrupy sauces, and the paper menu for those in the know. As per my secret informant, I was in the know.

the ceiling

I got to talk to Suzanne, the owner, and she said her family has owned the China Chef for about 5 years now. She is from the Canton region of China, but doesn't speak Cantonese, rather she is fluent in English and Mandarin. I know some Cantonese food words, so asked her if she has a few ingredients in the kitchen in Cantonese, and she did understand what I said. I said to her, "Ah ha! You do know Cantonese!" Well she knows at least the important food words. I am at a loss because I don't know any Mandarin food translations, so I can only hope people understand what I am saying in Cantonese, or it sounds similar enough to the Mandarin word. At any rate, Suzanne confirmed that she did not have chow fun with fermented black bean sauce because there isn't the client base for that. I was slightly sad, as that is one of my favorites. I guess the next time I am in NYC or Boston, it is on my to-do list. I spend a small amount of time asking Suzanne about more traditional Chinese dishes, and she said she really had to balance making a living by serving average dishes to the taste of the Nashvillians that go to China Chef and not alienating that client base with food that is too different and that may not appeal to them, with wanting to serve up more traditional dishes that represent China.

the paper menu

Since I got the tip off from the secret informant about the paper menu that have some authentic Chinese dishes, I asked Suzanne for the paper menu. She brought it to me, and I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted Kung Po Squid. Kung Po involves some red chili peppers, garlic, scallions, ginger and salt as the basic ingredients. It is supposed to be hot and spicy. I also wanted squid, I love squid made in both Chinese and Italian traditions, and I just can't much of it here in landlocked Nashville because we don't have ocean near by. I was told that squid is a fairly easy and less destructive to the ocean environment when harvesting them. The low amount of ocean life dies per pound of squid harvested. In contrast, wild shrimp dredged from the gulf kills about 5 lbs of sea life for each 1 lb of shrimp harvested, making it one of the worst by-catch (aka sea life destruction) seafoods.

the squid dish

When my dish came, I was actually surprised at how good it was. No, it was not exactly like the Chinese restaurant in the basement of some Chinatown side street in NYC, but it was truly good and levels above any thing comparable that I have had in Nashville. My squid dish had almost a smoky flavor to it, something only really really hot and flamed wok cooking can get. NYC and Boston Chinatown Kung Po dishes all have that smoky hot wok flavor that I adore, and this dish is the only Chinese food dish I have had in Nashville that has come close to that flavor. The scallions, garlic, salt, ginger and red hot peppers all combined to make that flavor I really like, is a classic Chinese food combination, yet seems absent from other Chinese restaurants I have been to in Nashville.

I guess every time I want to go see what the Bitten line has new to offer, or if I need a new pair of Starbury's fabulous basketball shoes at Steve and Barry's (this is located at the Hickory Hollow Mall) I will make sure I go during lunch or dinner time and hit up China Chef for a meal off of the paper menu.

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January 6, 2008

Vacation's Last Supper

The problem with vacation is that it must come to an end. The suspense of real life is over, and the reality of life comes back. We all disembarked at the Port of Miami, and it was almost time to leave the 80F breezy weather of Miami for 7F weather back home. This is what we saw and ate.
South Beach lounge chairs to relax

South Beach hard pack to jog

Gelato delivery service

Sofitel's bread and butter

La Riviera's romaine salad

La Riviera's version of the Cubana Sandwich

La Riviera's room
We holed up at the Sofitel Miami before taking off back to the northern cold lands. It was our last chance to dine and relax in the fine city of Miami. To our surprise, the hotel restaurant, La Riviera, was a tasty meal before leaving the warm sunshine. The service was excellent, the presentation was beautiful, and ingredients were fresh. As Matt always says, "It is obvious there is someone back in the kitchen who cares about what they are making." It was was a luxurious and lovely way to spend our last moments of vacation in 2007.