Tuesday, May 22, 2018

History of the Beignet

            New Orleans is known for its food. There’s gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys, red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee. There’s king cake and bread pudding for dessert. But there’s nothing quite like beignets. No trip to the Crescent City is complete without a visit to Café du Monde. There’s something wonderful about those flaky doughnuts doused in powdered sugar. If you walk out without any powdered sugar on you, you’ve done beignets wrong. In honor of this quintessential New Orleans dessert, breakfast food, snack, and all-around delicious foodstuff, let’s take a look at the history of the noble beignet. 

Cafe du Monde beignets 

            Unsurprisingly, beignets are French in origin. The word beignet means bump. Beignets are pastries made from a deep fried choux pastry. A choux pastry is a light pastry dough made from butter, water, flour, and eggs. Unlike other doughs, it does not have a raising agent like yeast. Instead choux pastry relies on large amounts of moisture (from the water and butter) to create steam that causes the pastry to rise during baking. Choux pastry doughs are used to make a variety of pastries including churros, profiteroles, eclairs, and French crullers. 

            According to Harold McGee, author of On Cooking, choux pastry dough emerged during the Middle Ages in France. Although the history of frying dough stretches back much farther than that. Historical records from Ancient Greece note that Ancient Greeks were frying foods in olive oil in the 5thcentury B.C. Beignets arrived in New Orleans in the 18thcentury with the arrival of the French colonists. The Acadians, exiled from Nova Scotia in the 1760s, also brought the tradition of beignets with them. They became an important part of Creole cuisine and began to incorporate local ingredients like bananas and plantains. Today across the city you can find beignets on dessert menus with a variety of fillings. The State of Louisiana declared the beignet the official state doughnut in 1986. 

            Café du Monde is the most popular spot for beignets in New Orleans. The famed location in the French Quarter sits on Decatur Street right near Jackson Square. It is open 24 hours a day and only serves beignets—three per order—and a number of drink options. The most popular pairing with beignets is café au lait—coffee with milk. The difference is New Orleans café au lait has hot milk added as opposed to white coffee, which has cold milk. New Orleans café au lait also includes chicory—added during the Civil War as a result of a coffee shortage. The chicory adds a chocolate-like flavor. In recent times, Café du Monde only closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina. On August 27, 2005, the restaurant closed and did not reopen until October 19, 2005 after taking the opportunity to refurbish the famed spot’s interior. 

            If you can’t make it to New Orleans to try beignets yourself, the good news is that Café du Monde sells its beignet mix online. Just add water to the mix and heat up some oil for frying and you can enjoy this New Orleans staple anywhere in the world. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Austin Eats

            Last week we offered some restaurant recommendations for Texas’s largest city: Houston. For this week, we thought we’d take a look at some spots to eat in Texas’s weirdest city: Austin. The city’s unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird.” As the capital of Texas, Austin features some unmistakable signs that you’re in Texas—cowboy hats and boots, seersucker suits, an obsession with football—and some that would make you think you weren’t—the influx of tech companies and international cuisine. Yet there is something undeniably charming about this welcoming city that features the best Texas has to offer. 

Torchy’s Tacos: This small Austin-based taco chain began in a food truck on South 1st Street. Owner Mike Rypka had grown tired of life as a high-end chef and mortgaged his house to buy a food truck and set up shop in Austin. The menu features a wide range of tacos and a not-so secret menu of special tacos. For breakfast, we recommend the Migas taco. Migas tacos, which are an Austin staple, feature scrambled eggs, crispy tortilla strips, and tomatillo sauce. From the regular menu, try a Green Chile Pork taco—pork carnitas with green chilies and topped with cojita cheese and tomatillo sauce. Really though, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu at Torchy’s. 

Torchy's in its glory 

L'Oca d'Oro: If you’re looking for a restaurant serving homemade pastas and Italian cuisine in a comfortable neighborhood setting, then L’Oca d’Oro is for you. The kitchen prepares the pastas, breads, cheeses, vinegars, and liqueurs in house. They have an expansive wine menu and warm and friendly service. The chef, Fiore Tedesco, first started to learn to cook in his uncle’s deli before working at some of New York and Austin’s finest restaurants including Grammercy Tavern, Roberta’s, Franklin BBQ, and Bufalina. Adam Orman, the restaurant’s GM, worked in San Francisco and New York before settling in Austin and working with Tedesco to open L’Oca d’Oro. 

Franklin in all of its glory 

Franklin BBQ: Opened in 2009, Franklin BBQ quickly took the barbecue world by storm. Led by pitmaster/owner Aaron Franklin, the restaurant offers a range of barbecue and sides. The fatty brisket melts in your mouth and tastes a little like foie gras. The ribs are tender and fall off the bone with the slightest tug. Even the turkey and sausages are packed with flavor. Be warned, the lines at Franklin are famously long. So if you want to make sure you get your share of these heavenly delights, make sure you get in line by 8 or 8:30 in the morning. Have no worries, the staff checks in with patrons and gives you an estimate of when you’ll eat. Also, it’s Austin, so patrons are encouraged to bring snacks and drinks and make a morning of it. 

Micklethwait in all its glory 

Micklethwait Craft Meats: About a half mile down the road from Franklin is one of Austin’s hidden BBQ gems—Micklethwait Craft Meats. In an unassuming little trailer that features free coolers of beer—the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license—Micklethwait’s has some of the best BBQ in Texas. The brisket is mouthwateringly succulent and the pork ribs are tender and rich. Micklethwait’s also shines with its side dishes. Make sure you order the coleslaw—shockingly bright and refreshing and a nice contrast to the barbecue—and the jalapeno cheese grits. The grits are packed with a blend of cheese with a smokiness and texture that is reminiscent of queso. Also the lines at Micklethwait’s are nothing like those at Franklin. Where Franklin can take hours, you can count your wait at Micklethwait’s in minutes. 

Austin Cake Ball Shop: We’d be remiss if we didn’t offer you some kind of dessert option. Austin resident Stacey Bridges began experimenting with cake balls in 2008 after spending years as a costume designer. The resulting creations, little balls of cake covered in different coatings and frostings have become locally famous. The Austin Cake Ball shop features a rotating menu of flavors including chocolate, vanilla bean, red velvet, Mexican chocolate, birthday cake, chocolate mint, and s’mores. Best of all, you can order cake balls online and have them shipped anywhere in the United States. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Houston Eats

Houston is the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest city in the United States. (Only New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago are bigger.) Yet when discussing Texas, we tend to think of Dallas or San Antonio, or even Austin before we get around to acknowledging Houston. The city has over two million residents and is one of the most diverse cities in the country. It is home to oil companies, energy companies, and famously NASA and the aeronautics industry. It has professional football, basketball, and baseball franchises. We’ve previously looked at the Space Center Houston, but for this week, we thought we’d look at some casual dining spots in Houston. 

Christy’s Donuts: Located in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, Christy’s is located in a non-descript strip mall. An aging yellow sign stands on the corner. It’s unassuming nature masking the delicious doughnuts just feet away. The homemade doughnuts are crispy on the outside and fluffy and airy in the middle. The friendly owners and employees nearly always add a few extra doughnut holes in the bag. During a recent visit, one customer asked, “Which one of you is Christy?” The woman behind the cashier answered, “Oh, we have no idea. That was the name when we bought the place. We just kept it because people like the name." They like the doughnuts too. 

Jinya Bun 

Jinya Ramen Bar: Part of a chain of ramen places with several locations in the Houston area, Jinya features deliciously cream tonkotsu broth and fresh made noodles. The atmosphere is a little bro-heavy and much of the seating is at a long communal table. Beware that the seats at the communal table do not have backs. Atmosphere aside, the ramen is unbelievable, with pork, chicken or vegetarian options. The Jinya buns are a must-try—a steamed bun with slow braised pork, cucumber, mixed greens, and a homemade sauce. 

Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca: Dolce Vita is an authentic Neapolitan pizza located in the Montrose neighborhood. The atmosphere is homey and comforting. It’s the ideal neighborhood pizza restaurant as it buzzes with the sound of locals unwinding after a long day. Dolce Vita boasts an impressive selection of Italian wines to pair with their char-crusted pizzas. The restaurant is the brain-child of Houston restauranteur Marco Wiles, who owns and operates two other Italian restaurants. Wiles’ nearby Da Marco restaurant features some of the best homemade pastas that you’ll find outside of Italy. 

Behold the glory of The Pit Room's BBQ and sides 

The Pit Room: Daniel Vaughn, the authority on Texas barbecue, named The Pit Room one of the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas. The restaurant features melt in your mouth brisket, tender pork ribs, crispy pulled pork, chicken, turkey, and sausages. The hidden gem of the menu is the tacos. The Pit Room make their tortillas in house and instead of using lard, they trim the fat from the raw briskets and incorporate it into the tortillas. The brisket fat gives the tortillas a depth of flavor that you can’t find in a regular old tortilla. They’re also a bit denser than an ordinary tortilla allowing them to serve as an effective barbecue delivery system. 

Amy’s Ice Creams: This Austin-based small chain has a single location in Houston and is well-worth a visit. Amy’s first opened in 1984, making handcrafted artisan ice cream and frozen yogurt. Amy’s has over 350 flavors that rotate throughout the year including their famous Mexican Vanilla Ice Cream. Amy’s is one of those ice cream places where they mix the ice cream right in front of you on a marble slab and they mix the toppings right into the ice cream. So you get a show and some delicious ice cream. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

2018 Saints Draft Review

            Last week, we offered a preview of the New Orleans Saints’ needs in the NFL draft. Now that the draft is over, let’s take a look how it went for the Saints. New Orleans entered the draft with 8 picks and thanks to a trade (discussed below) left Dallas with seven new players. 

Round-Overall Selection
Marcus Davenport
UT-San Antonio
Tre’Quan Smith
Rick Lenoard
Florida State
Natrell Jamerson 
Kamrin Moore
Boston College
Boston Scott
Louisiana Tech
Will Clapp

            We’ll get to the other picks in a second, but we need to start with the Saints first round pick Marcus Davenport. New Orleans entered the draft with the 27thpick in the first round. In order to move up to 14, the Saints traded with the Green Bay Packers. The trade is below. 

Saints receive: 2018-1-14 
Packers receive: 2018-1-27, 2018-5-147, and 2019 1strounder 

            This trade is a massive overpay by the Saints. The team clearly identified pass-rusher as a need and grabbed the consensus second-best pass rusher in the draft, but paid a huge price to do so. Using the draft chart developed by Chase Stuart, which looks at historical production of draft picks, the Saints paid approximately 187 cents on the dollar for the right to draft Davenport. By the Jimmy Johnson chart, which looks at the perceived value of picks, the Saints still overpaid by a measure of 157 cents on the dollar. If we value next year’s pick at the middle of the 1stround, then the Saints traded value equal to the 1stoverall pick in the draft. Even if the Saints win the Super Bowl and only give up the 32ndpick, they’ll have valued Davenport as equal to the 3rdpick in the draft. 

Stop trading up! 

            The trade up—which we accurately predicted last week—highlights a number of troubling steps back for a Saints team that was a surprising contender last season. First, it is part of a long pattern of New Orleans management of sacrificing future draft picks to fill current needs. For example, in 2011, the Saints traded their 2nd round pick (56th overall) and 2012 1st round pick (27th overall) to the New England Patriots in exchange for a 2011 1st round pick, 28th overall. In essence, the Saints gave the Patriots a 2ndround pick in exchange for waiting a year to move up one spot in the draft. The Saints have consistently undervalued future picks in order to chase wins in the short-term. In an interview after this year's draft, head coach Sean Payton revealed the team’s ignorance regarding how to value draft picks when he justified the trade up by saying, “[the trade] appears to be a lot ... but shoot, what's our country's national debt?” 

            Additionally, the trade repudiated last year’s draft successes. After years of trading up, last year the Saints received extra 1stand 3rdround picks for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. They then used those picks on players who stepped in and were effective starters. Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, and Alex Anzalone all played important roles on the Saints and were a desperately needed infusion of young talent. They joined 2016 draft picks Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, and Vonn Bell to form the basis for the next potentially great Saints’ team. If the Saints had been so successful at drafting and developing talent over the past 2 years, wouldn’t they want to hold onto their picks or even trade down to get extra ones, to bring in even more young talent? Doesn’t every NFL team want as many young, cost-controlled players as they can get so they can spend the rest of their salary cap on elite level talent and depth? 

Marcus Davenport 

            Besides paying too much in a trade, Davenport is a talented, but unrefined athlete who may take several years to develop into a top-flight pass rusher. That hardly makes sense for a team that is in win-now mode as Drew Brees nears 40 years old. Last season, the Saints drafted Lattimore and Ramczyk, two experienced starters from Big-10 programs. Davenport played at UT-San Antonio whose opponents last year included Southern, Marshall, UT-El Paso, and Rice—hardly a murderer’s row of opponents. If the Saints are going to give up a ridiculous amount of draft capital, then they should at least spend it on someone ready to step in and play Week One. 

            New Orleans’ third round pick Tre’Quan Smith fills a need for the Saints at wide receiver. With the departure of Willie Snead, the Saints had need for competition at the 2ndstarting wide receiver position. After Michael Thomas, 33 year old Ted Ginn, better known as a returner, was slotted in as a starter. Smith also fits the profile of the Saints using mid-to-late round picks on wide receivers and turning them into effective players. The rest of the Saints draft is fine--4th-7th rounders mostly serve as depth and occasionally develop into starters--but failed to address any of New Orleans’ other needs at tight end, linebacker, and quarterback. 

            In total, the 2018 draft represented a significant step-back for a team that spent several years investing in the draft and rebuilding around young talent. Now that they’ve hit double-digit wins again, the Saints are back to trading away their future in pursuit of another Super Bowl.