Friday, December 6, 2013

Best vegetarian lunch in Houston

 This should at least make the top ten, in my opinion. 
The lunch vegetarian plate at Blue Nile, 9400 Richmond.  They also serve it during dinner, but it's $12.99 as a lunch special. 
And notice that I said "best vegetarian lunch" and not "best vegetarian restaurant".  The issue I see with many of Houston's veg ratings is that they tend to be all or nothing - in order to get a nod in the local news media, the whole restaurant needs to be vegetarian, and usually very hip or trendy to boot (e.g., this rating or this rating).  That leaves a lot of worthy contenders off the table (pun intended), which I think is really dumb, especially given that so many vegetarians do a lot of their eating out with non-vegetarian friends and family members (Blue Nile also serves excellent meat dishes, especially the lamb they serve with jalapenos). 

I first started going to Houston's best-known pair of Ethiopian restaurants about sixteen years ago:  Blue Nile, and Queen of Sheba (the latter has reportedly since closed).  I did a 3-year sojourn in Austin about twelve years ago, and at that time, there was no Ethiopian food for sale in central Texas, except that an independent person did sell the famous Ethiopian flat bread injera through one of the local Asian Indian grocery stores.  We die-hard fans used to line up on Saturday mornings for a chance to buy some of that limited supply, except that I was one of the few enthusiasts who was not a person of color, so I stuck out like a sore thumb.  One day, a young man boldly asked me, "Who are you, and how do you know about injera?"  I explained to him that I had become fond of Ethiopian food while living in Houston, and I missed it after moving to Austin.  When I told him about Queen of Sheba, he responded, "Oh, then you've met my parents - they are the owners."  Small world, as always.  I still have his business card.

There's nothing quite like authentic 100% teff injera.
Injera is a sourdough flat bread made using a highly nutritious grain called teff.  It has the curious consistency of a thick, soft old cotton t-shirt, and a nutty, tangy taste. 

In the photo of the vegetarian plate above, you can see that they've assembled the selection of vegetable curries and salads right on top of a large round injera that completely fills the plate.  And you'll see that there are no utensils next to the plate.  That's because the food is eaten by ripping off sections of the underlying injera and using it to scoop up mouthfuls of the goodies.  Blue Nile also provides an extra basket of rolled-up injera for this purpose, analogous to a Mexican restaurant that provides extra tortillas.  I suppose a person could ask for utensils, but for me, that would dilute the experience of the meal.  This kind of food is intended to be eaten with the hands. 
After learning about teff's superior nutritional profile, I began incorporating teff flour into some of my distinctly American recipes.  However, it has gone missing from the grocery market within the past several months, which is one of the reasons why I was inspired to go all the way to Blue Nile a few days ago - to get my fix.
Teff flour used to be found in the organic section of grocery stores, the section that looks something like this.  Not finding it recently, I inquired at the Kirby Whole Foods.  They told me that they haven't been able to get any in months, and they don't know why, or when the supply might resume. 
I did find a few sources on the internet that claim to still have it, but the price with shipping has tripled compared to what it used to be.
That's one expensive little (24 oz) bag of flour, especially when adding in the $4.99 shipping cost.  But you know that I've always advocated for investing in health food far more than useless trophies and trinkets such as unnecessarily expensive cars and houses

Screengrabbed from the "Shop on Google" sidebar.
Teff flour works very well as a partial offset for wheat flour in home-made muffins, for instance.  I use it in a ratio of about 1 part teff for every 2 parts wheat (more than that and you'd probably be running into a gluten insufficiency).  It's quite striking because it will turn your muffins an unusually dark color, evidence of all that iron and bran content.  By making muffins rich in teff, flax meal, and nuts such as almonds, I can turn what would conventionally be a treat with a hideously high calorie count and glycemic index into a vitamin-rich staple food (I also cut way back on the sugar in my muffins). 

Anyway, good luck with your own dining and cooking adventures.  Blue Nile's quality is just as robust today as it was sixteen or seventeen years ago when I first started going there.  Here's hoping it continues, with the prerequisite 100% teff injera. 

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