Saturday’s Breakfast, and a Great One at That

A sign for the times. (Photo by James Brock)

A sign for the times. (Photos by James Brock)

One of the pleasures of moving to a new city is that everything is just that, new. That means new people and new restaurants, and I have encountered many of both since I’ve arrived. (It seems that at least five times a day I add another restaurant to the “must-visit” list I maintain in the Notes app on my iPhone, recommendations from nearly everyone I meet.) This past Saturday I met a new friend at a new (for me) restaurant for breakfast, a place he had told me about a few weeks earlier. We were going to Gerardo’s, and I was hungry.

It’s been open since 1977, and is a family affair, father and son, and that shows in the attention paid to the food and the customers. When I arrived at 609 Patton Street, the small space’s tables were almost completely full, couples and families enjoying barbacoa and carnitas. Chris was there when I walked in the door — I was thinking a beer would go well with the food, but while one can buy beer at Gerardo’s to take away, its license does not allow one to drink it on the premises, so I opted for a Topo Chico.

Some of the best Barbacoa – if not the best – in Houston.

Some of the best Barbacoa – if not the best – in Houston.

Sweetbreads and peppers.

Sweetbreads and peppers.

Chorizo with eggs – a great way to start the day.

Chorizo with eggs – a great way to start the day.

Jose Luis Lopez and his son Gerardo are the men behind this food, and the elder Mr. Lopez has been in the kitchen processing pounds and pounds of cow heads and pork and other meats for nearly four decades. Gerardo greeted us at the table and asked what we were hungry for; a few minutes later he brought over three or four small containers of hot goodness, including chorizo and eggs, babacoa and fried tripe. And foil-wrapped warm tortillas, of course.

“I remember coming here after school when I was 6 or so and taking a nap right there, behind the counter,” Gerardo told us, pointing to the floor. “I started helping out in the kitchen a few years later, and have been here ever since.”

Chris and I began with the chorizo, and the rest of the meal was a whirlwind of flavors and spices and textures and sighs. The barbacoa, which is famous and loved – rightfully so – was moist and rich and deep in flavor. Mr. Lopez told me that he goes through on average 160 cow heads a week, and the long process of cooking them results in this amazing dish.

They come from Dallas ...

They come from Dallas …

and become some great barbacoa.

and become some great barbacoa.

I love sweetbreads, and the ones at Gerardo’s are good, cut into small pieces and sautéed along with peppers and onions. The carnitas was a highlight, coming in, in my opinion, second only to the barbacoa, and if the carnitas had been my only dish that morning I would have been more than happy.

Family, tradition, attention to product: Gerardo’s has been around since 1977 for these reasons, and I am confident that if I return there 20 years from now a Lopez will be manning the kitchen and I will sit and eat like a king.

Jose Luiz Lopez, the man of the house.

Jose Luiz Lopez, the man of the house.

Standing behind his products.

Standing behind his products.

Perfect pig, perfect weekend

A brining pig

A brining pig

What do you cook at a lake in North Carolina on a summer day in May during a reunion with friends from high school, one of whom you haven’t seen in 13 years? A weekend during which Angela will meet some of your closest friends, people with whom you went to high school in Germany?

My first thought was a suckling pig, a pig that I hoped could be sourced from a North Carolina farmer. Beth, our hostess for the weekend, got to work and contacted Joseph Cataldo, a restaurateur in Salisbury, who found us the perfect pig. (He also loaned me a pan big enough to brine in.) Beth and her husband, Glenn, and their four children live in Salisbury, and they made us feel at home as well.

Glenn and Beth, consummate and caring hosts

Glenn and Beth, consummate hosts

Brined and rinsed

Brined and rinsed

A friendship more than 30 years in the making

A friendship more than 30 years in the making: Mark, Tina, Beth and James

Tina and Angela conspire

Tina and Angela conspire

Respect your product

Respect your product

We had some fine food during that weekend, including a Low Country Boil on Friday made by Beth and Glenn and a great dinner out on Saturday cooked by a Brazilian chef.

Low Country Love

Low Country Love

We saved the suckling pig for Sunday, our final day at the lake.

A fine pig

A fine pig

Skin-deep goodness

Skin-deep goodness

Prepping the skin

Prepping the skin

Mark and I rub

Mark and I rub

What's inside: garlic, fennel, basil leaves, orange zest

What’s inside: garlic, fennel, basil leaves, orange zest

Adding some salt

Adding some salt

Ingredients from the inside out

Ingredients from the inside out

We brined the pig on Saturday night, with lots of elephant garlic and some bay leaves and black peppercorns. On Sunday we transported the pig to the lake house and prepped. Angela took care of the garlic and the rub: orange zest, fennel fronds, salt, pepper and olive oil. I scored the pig’s skin, and Mark and I stuffed it with lots of garlic and the rub, plus some fresh basil leaves, and then massaged the skin with the remaining rub. A little more salt and pepper all over the skin, and the pig was ready for the oven.

I cooked it at 250 Fahrenheit for about 3.5 hours, and then for the last 30 minutes raised the temperature to 475 Fahrenheit, which gave us a perfect skin, crunchy and crisp; it melted in the mouth. We tented the pig with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes, and then began carving. The meat, dark and white, was moist, and the fennel and orange mingled in every tendril.

Out of the oven

Out of the oven

Perfect skin, perfect meat

Perfect skin, perfect meat

Mark gets some skin

Mark gets some skin

Crisp and hot

Crisp and hot

Glenn takes the knife

Glenn takes the knife

Glenn carves

Glenn carves

Glenn carves

Manual labor

Carving and talking

Carving and talking

The skin is key

The skin is key

Glenn carved, with expertise and aplomb, using his fingers like an extra knife, and we feasted, down to the tongue and ears. We ended the day on the dock, watching the sun set over the water. Perfect weekend, perfect pig.

On the lake, after the feast

On the lake, after the feast

(Angela Shah photography)

Perfection, for one

Every now and then I wander into a restaurant by accident, or spontaneously, no reservations, no recommendations from friends, never having read anything of it in a newspaper or magazine. And as much as I recall with infinite pleasure my meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the table reserved there months in advance, or my many nights spent dining at Babbo‘s bar, having waited with wine glasses in hand for a space or two to open at the noisy and warm expanse of wood, these “accidental” meals linger in my mind and leave me sated in an entirely different way. I recently had one such spontaneous experience, and it is about that I now write.

Around the corner from my apartment in San Sebastián there is a wine and tapas bar called Divinum, a place of high ceilings and tables of light-colored wood. It opens early in the morning, and is full of people young and old late into the evening.

I walked in on a recent night and made my way to the crowded bar, behind which a very efficient woman stood. I ordered a glass of Albariño and studied the menu, settling on a pintxo of slow-cooked pork. It is served in a round shape on a small plate, with its own juice, thickened by adding raisins and pine nuts. It is fatty, in the good way, and tender, and one can taste the time and care that went into selecting the pork and preparing it, even if pork cooked this way does not require an excess of attention.

Pork, pine nuts, raisins, and care

Pork, pine nuts, raisins, and care

I could eat three of these plates at a sitting. Or more.

I next ordered a Rioja red, because I love Rioja, and its wines. This to accompany a wonderful plate of beef cheek, served with a rich sauce, full of warmth and meat that did melt in my mouth. Not figuratively, but actual melting. (The photograph I took of it does not do it justice, so I will not ruin my memory of this dish by including an ugly image.)

And how about closing a meal with a foie gras pintxo? Of course that is what I did. It was warm, and cooked just right, so the outer surface carried crispness, and the rest … well, the rest gave me what foie gras always does: an occasion to close my eyes and taste, blocking out all other sensations. It was served on top of a piece of toasted bread, and a swirl of apricot purée decorated the plate. I did not need the decoration. The flakes of sea salt on top of the foie added to its wonder. It is dessert, my ideal dessert. Of course, with it I drank a slightly sweet Riesling from the Pfalz.

Foie gras closes my meal

Foie gras closes my meal

That was my perfect meal, at least for this week.

My favorite plate in Paris

It was on the menu, to my relief. Great relief. I first sat down to dine at Le Comptoir du Relais two years ago. It was a warm summer day, and the tables on the sidewalk were full of families and solo diners and couples. I was solo, and so had to share with no one one of the best plates I have ever had, anywhere: Carpaccio de Tête de veau. The chef, Yves Camdeborde, has long been a favorite of Parisian diners, and his kitchen is still producing great food.

Yves Camdeborde’s tête de veau: It will have you coming back for more.

Simply put, the meat that comes on this plate is sublimely flavorful, and when it first touches your tongue the sensuality of it melting in your mouth will make you want to close your eyes and forever stay in that moment. That feeling, and taste, will be the reason you, like I, will visit that sidewalk as long as the restaurant’s ovens are hot.

I decided to return to Paris this year, to spend days and nights with Angela, who is here for most of August. I have on more than one occasion told Angela about the dish at Le Comptoir, the Carpaccio de Tête de veau, that dish I love and adore and can by merely thinking about eating it grow desirous. I told Angela we had to go to Le Comptoir du Relais.

(A few nights before I made my way back to that sidewalk near Metro Odeon, Angela and I ate at a place in the 7th, and I had potatoes stuffed with the meat from pig’s feet. It was good, but it was nothing compared to my Carpaccio de Tête de veau. So, when you are in Paris, and wanting a great dish, take my advice and do nothing until you visit Le Comptoir.)

On the joyous night, Angela and I met a former colleague, Nick Stout, who has lived in Paris for 30-plus years, and he had never been to my sidewalk table.

Nick Stout, Paris veteran

Nick Stout, Paris veteran

He loved the food, and the place. We sat at a table outside, and I became lost in the wine  list. Interrupting my jaunt through the Loire Valley, Angela showed me that the calf’s head carpaccio was indeed available. I was happy. I ordered that plate as my first course, and it was a good as ever. The sauce is warm and slightly tangy, and the lettuce hearts on top are perfect companions for the meat slices. (See first photo above.)

My main course, Pied de Cochon, is composed of a rectangle of porcine greatness, served with creamed potatoes on the side. Imagine a crisp outside and an interior full of unctuous, moist, slow-cooked pork. I grew happier.

From the feet of pigs ...

From the feet of pigs …

Angela started with a salad of Burrata and heirloom tomatoes, with a nice basil pesto. It was acidic and excellent. She then enjoyed a great sashimi of tuna belly, topped with wasabi foam.

Sashimi with a French twist

Sashimi with a French twist

Nick chose gazpacho, followed by squid stuffed with risotto; its squid-ink sauce was pungent and perfect.

Big squid, big taste

Big squid, big taste

When I was in Paris in 2010 Le Comptoir was the only restaurant I dined at more than once. For good reason. And before I leave Paris this time I will once again find myself at that sidewalk table, a bottle of white chilling in the Ice Bag.

Chilling at the table

Chilling at the table

I do not have to tell you what I will order.

Offal is good

Sweetbreads. When I hear that word I salivate. I love them, and whenever I see them on a menu I order. Two recent meals in which they played a part I remember especially well: at Babbo, and at Le Pigeon, in Portland. (More on those meals, and restaurants, later.)

OFFAL: The Fifth Quarter, by Anissa Helou. Fully revised hardback edition, 192 pages, published by Absolute Press

OFFAL: The Fifth Quarter, by Anissa Helou. Fully revised hardback edition, 192 pages, published by Absolute Press

While I don’t need an excuse to think of sweetbreads, what brought them to my mind today was a book that I recently added to my collection: “Offal: The Fifth Quarter,” by Anissa Helou. (“The Fifth Quarter” refers to the parts of an animal – the head, feet, tail and innards –that do not belong to the four quarters of the carcass.)

Here is one reason I like this book; it is a quote found in its opening section – “An A-Z of Offal”– that introduces the entry on kidneys:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he like grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
Ulysses, James Joyce

You see, Anissa Helou not only knows her food, but she also appreciates literature. And food and literature are two of the passions of my life, so any work that combines them interests me.

But back to sweetbreads, and her wonderful book. I was glad to see “An A-Z of Offal,” because I am always encouraging people to venture beyond and try hearts and kidneys and brains … and, yes, yes, yes, sweetbreads.  In “An A-Z” Ms. Helou tells us, among other things, that “calf’s sweetbreads are finer than those from sheep,” an opinion with which, after much testing and tasting, I agree. You will also learn that a love of pig’s feet just might have been the undoing of Louis XIV.

If you buy this book, you will have at the ready a handy and informative lexicon of all things offal, and if you read it and cook from it, you and your guests will be the better for it. Above all, it allows one to understand that eating chittlerings or ears is not a macho, daring act, but one of taste, tradition and respect, and that is a valuable and important message indeed.

Calf's Sweetbreads with Capers (photo by Mike Cooper)

Calf's Sweetbreads with Capers (photo by Mike Cooper)

Full of clear and concise recipes – including Chicken Liver Tartlets, Mexican Pig’s Trotter Salad, and, a favorite of mine, A Head Dinner for Two: (Poached Brain and Eyes with Fleur de Sel, followed by Lamb’s Tongue with Vinaigrette Sauce, ending with Lamb’s Cheek with Blanquette Sauce) – Ms. Helou has stocked “Offal” with wonderful stories from her life and recounts the days and nights she spent in Paris, Barcelona, Marrakesh and other locales getting to know the items and recipes that make up the book. (Mike Cooper’s photography is an effective addition; take a look at his photo of frying pig’s trotters on page 101 and you’ll see what I mean.)

Personal and informative – “I am not one for eating feet stew for breakfast. Raw liver perhaps, but not feet stew.” – this volume belongs in the collection of anyone who embraces head-to-tail cookery. And I urge anyone who now turns up their nose at sheep’s brain and bone marrow to get “Offal: The Fifth Quarter” and explore a new route on their gastronomic journey.