Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Pie Five Yale Street

Well Dear Readers, now that the juice cleanse is in my rearview mirror until the next time in June, I've got a lot of great food as well as Lifestyle Experiences to share with y'all.  This one is of the Food kind and it was a good one I might add as well.  This fast casual pizzeria was the brain child of a bunch of former Smashburger employees/execs who were trying to figure out if there was a way to create a pizza experience that was fast, casual, customer friendly, economical and yet still provide a delicious pizza pie that held it's own against other chain pizzerias.  My recent visit to their newly opened location off of I-10 and Yale Street was a good opportunity to check them out.  But first a little background per their website:
First introduced in the Dallas area in 2011, Pie Five has grown to more than 30 locations in 9 states and has more than 400 announced franchised and company units under contract in 16 states and the District of Columbia. People in the know keep telling us how cool we are. For example, Pie Five has been named a 2013 Top 50 Restaurant Brand of the Year, a 2012 Hot Concepts winner by Nation’s Restaurant News and one of “10 Hot New Restaurant Chains from Established Brands” by Heck, even our CEO, Randy Gier, was named one of the “Top 10 Trendsetting Executives in Pizza” in 2013 by Pizza Marketplace. ... the next thing you know, everything you ever thought about the pizza dining experience has changed. For the better.
Sounds like a nifty idea that's made some headway.  I made my way over to the location, NOW OPEN sign large in the window.  I got there right after opening--wanted to check it out before Lunch Rush.  Took a look at their menu--note they had several creative house pies with crust recommendations such as the Farmer’s Market (tuscan marinara / mushrooms / spinach / red & green peppers / red onions / roasted tomatoes; recommended crust: whole grain thin), the athenian (olive oil / feta / grilled chicken / minced garlic / banana peppers / red onions / basil / kalamata olives / sun-dried tomato purée; recommended crust: artisan thin) and the chicken carbonara (alfredo sauce / parmesan / grilled chicken / mushrooms / crushed red pepper / bacon; recommended crust: artisan thin).  While all of these sound awesome, I am a fan of a loaded combination pizza with meats and veggies piled on it so I went with the Five Star: (Tuscan marinara / cheddar / pork sausage / pepperoni / beef / green olives / red & green peppers / black olives / red onions recommended crust: classic pan).

As I went through the line, I saw the Pizza specialists loading up the crust, asking for options, assembling a nice looking pie and then popping it into the hole (their oven).  When it came out a few minutes later, what I got was an incredibly well loaded about 7 or 8 inch pie, the crust looking nice and crisp on the outside.  The staff asks if you want their blend of cheeses and herbs called "Magic Dust" and/or crushed red pepper shaken on top.  I always take a little of each, though I often use Tobasco Sauce or Sriracha on top afterwards if I feel like it.  I don't always like to use that on a pizza--I try it before adding it to it, just depends upon my mood.  Thankfully, they have Sriracha sauce (the manager told me they'd just recently started carrying it after many customer requests) for those who want it.  Any pizza can be bundled with a small side salad or dessert and a Drink for $10.00 plus tax, which is a great value all things considered.

When I took a bite, I got what I'd expect from a good pizzeria:  crispy outside, soft inside crust, everything heated well, cheese a little stringy, toppings hot and cooked well, not burned.  A satisfying pizza indeed, and a good value as well.  No, it's not the same as a specialty local pizza joint, but it's definitely better than some of the larger chains and as a concept, it works very well.  Kudos to the founders on coming up with it.  As I was finishing my lunch, I noticed a long line had formed for lunch rush and the staff was working it very efficiently.  Seems like the word was already getting around.  ;)

Report Card for Pie Five on Yale Street
Food & Beverage:
     Five Star Pizza: A
     Brownie Cake: A
     Speed: A+
     Friendliness: A
    Kitchen Area: A
    Dining Area: A
    Men's Room: A

Atmosphere (Fast Casual Chain Pizza): A-

Overall Grade: A  

Pie Five has 3 Houston locations including Spring and a new one opening this week in Katy off of South Mason Road.  I visited the location between I-10 and Washington Avenue at:

107 Yale St. Suite 400
Houston TX 77007

Hours of Operation:
7 Days a Week 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Visit to Lone Pint Craft Brewery in Magnolia, Texas

Get a few college professors and a dean, all with a Hankering (pun intended) for craft beer together on a Sunny Houston area Saturday afternoon and give them a couple of hours, they'll find a local craft brewery to tour, and obtain a glass and a few tokens, along with a few more beers on their Untappd life list.  While I have visited many of our great local Houston craft breweries more than once, there are a few that I have not hit yet, and Lone Pint has been on my waiting list for a while.  It's not that it's that far away--it's up North of Tomball, near where the Texas Renaissance Festival is held.  So thanks to getting together a group of 30 to 40 something friends and colleagues together, I was able to correct this oversight.

As with many of our local craft breweries, it's set up in a semi-warehouse type steel building just off the main drag of that part of town.  As with the others, you pay $10, get a souvenir glass and tokens/tickets for 3 beers (They don't want you buying more than 3 because they do not want anyone to overconsume).  One of the immediate reactions of of our cre noted was "You get one less token than you get at [Insert Other Local Craft Brewery] but the glass seems to be the size of an Imperial Pint!!!"  Indeed, it would seem to be the case.  I charged one of our number who is a Biology Professor and runs labs to bring his class to campus and accurately measure the liquid volume using the lab equipment!  ;)

One thing I need to point out before I get too deep into this write up is that Lone Pint, while producing some other variety of beers (Pale Ales, Wheat Beer, American Strong Ale and Brown Ale), much of their line-up is aimed at the Hoppiest of the Hop-heads--the IPA and Imperial IPA lover.  Just looking at the board you see on the left, IPA dominated the taps they had that day, and many times when I've found Lone Pint in a local craft beer bar, it's been one of their IPAs.  Which is cool--I've found several I like over the past few years, though it's still not my favourite style.  I guess that's just part of that Bitter flavour trend that I was predicting for 2015--the fact that American IPAs have been one of the fastest growing categories of craft beer and it seems that there are more and more of them all the time just reinforces it to me.  So, while four academic dudes talked some shop, shot the breeze and took some time to relax before the semester got busy, we tried a couple of beers that are a little more obscure and enjoyed the talk that was given during the tour.  Based on their list of taps, Lone Pint will not be obscure for long!

Heather Bolla and Trevor Brown are the co-owners of this brewery.  Heather and Trevor are visible at the brewery managing the line for the washroom, selling tour tickets and glasses, grilling food for the visitors (no set price list, but donations accepted--includes really good sausages among other things) and so forth on down the line.  Though their brews are not sold in cans, they are sold in 750 mL bombers, they are sold and many growler filling places around the Houston area.  And if I was not mistaken I *thought* I saw a growler filling appliance near the taps, but I didn't get a photo of it--apparently I was mistaken.  As per usual, the atmosphere is like a laid back festival environment with much beer flowing, many folding chairs and games brought.  Since the weather was sunny yet cool, it was a perfect afternoon to drink great beer and enjoy the experience.

Tornado Shark
I've tried 667 Neighbor of the Beast (66.7 IBUs) and Jabberwocky (114 IBUs) before.  Both strong bitter IPAs that have some interesting flavour notes.  As they say on their website "We use raw whole cone hops. No filtration, pasteurization, or laser beams!"  And indeed, you can tell in all the beers they appreciate the hop.  However, this tour I found two of their beers that I have NOT seen in my usual craft beer bars, and I made it my aim to see what Lone Pint does well besides IPAs.  The two I sampled this time were the Tornado Shark American Strong Ale (54 IBUs) and the Lily & Seamus American Wheat Beer (31 IBUs) .  These two beers had good flavour and complexity, and a small bit of hop essence, but not to the degree of any IPA.  Per their website "Tornado Shark combines American two row malted barley and the darkest caramelized malts available. It is extravagantly hopped with four robust whole cone American hops; 68% of which are added to boil during the last fifteen minutes! The beer is named after two things that strike fear in those who are scared of them and such."  This beer starts off with a bit of a hop nose, but then you're hit with that caramel malt twang ant the front end, a bit of a thick middle, but not as heavy as a stout and a lagery finish.  It was the most complexly flavourful of the beers we sampled that day and was deemed the favourite of our rag tag group of Academics.

Lily & Seamus
Lily and Seamus per their website: "an American Wheat is a marriage of American two row malted barley, American malted white wheat, and a touch of light caramel malts. Three different whole cone American hops are used with restraint. Whilst brewing, we continually repeat "this is our delicate summer beer" lest we throw an entire bale of hops into the boil. This beer is named after hopes and dreams. Sometimes we perform a secondary fermentation with Kumquats from the Selby Kumquat Orchard in Alvin; other times we sour the mash then dry hop with El Dorado and Mosaic."  This beer has the usual citrus nose of a Wheat beer, but with a hint of those hops.  It starts out lemony, turns yeasty and finishes clean, but again, with a hint of hops.  Yes folks, there seems to be no way to avoid the flavour of high quality hops in the beers of Lone Pint.  And you know what, that's cool with me.  One of the main points of craft beer is that each brewery's take on a style is going to be unique.  I'd be disappointed if I drove out to Lone Pint and found their Jabberwocky tasted exactly like Saint Arnold's Endeavour, the 667 tasted like Eleven Amp IPA from No Label and the Lily & Seamus tasted like Karbach's Weisse Versa Wheat.  I'll say this much:  Lone Pint has established themselves doing things their way the past few years and having a good time doing it.

Blake Niederhofer leads the tour with scientific accuracy
I'll also add that the two Science Professors were paying careful attention to the talk the tour guide was giving on the brewing process and he passed their test, getting the chemistry correct all the way through.  There was even a discussion on having a science/business hybrid class on brewing beer, perhaps even creating a series of Craft Beers for the different campuses of our college, but it was just a lot of talk though, so don't start ringing registration off the hook just yet, Dear Readers.  And one last note:  Beards just seem to go with brewery employees for some doggone reason!  But again, that's cool with me!

Lone Pint Brewing
507 Commerce Street
Magnolia, Texas 77355

Come on up to Magnolia for a  laid back brewery tasting and tour every Saturday from noon to 4. The tour happens around 1:30 with later ones planned as needed. Cost is $10 each, cash only. This gets you a pint glass (yours to keep) and three tasting tokens. They grill food for all, free for the taking. Donations are gladly accepted. There are two twenty foot long picnic tables. Feel free to bring lawn chairs as the tables can fill up fast. FYI:  They are kid and dog friendly.

Eat Happy and Drink Craft Beer, Y'all!!!
吃得开心 & 喝啤酒愉快!!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Tiff's Treats Celebrates 16 Years in Business

Well folks, despite doing a juice cleanse, there's always some great food news to share with y'all.  And this piece of news is a sweet one, one I will partake of after I'm done with the cleanse.

Courtesy Tiff's Treats
Tiff’s Treats, the much loved, Austin-based, baked-to-order, warm-delivery cookie company today celebrates 16 years in business. For its birthday week, today through 25th, and to celebrate 16 years, Tiff’s Treats has a special offer, just $16 for two-dozen warm cookies. This birthday offer is valid at every Tiff’s Treats location, for delivery or pick up, online only; enter code “SWEET16.” Delivery fees are separate.

 In its 16 year history, Tiff’s Treats has grown from an apartment kitchen in Austin to to 16 stores across Texas, and has baked and served over 50 million cookies.  There are 3 locations in Houston:  one in Midtown, one by Lakewood Church and in my 'hood: WESTCHASE (10455 Briar Forest Dr Houston, TX 77042 713-360-5100)!

“We never once imagined what Tiff’s Treats would grow into when we first started,” said Tiffany Chen, Tiff’s Treats co-founder. “We are so proud of what we’ve accomplished, and the type of business we’ve built, only possible with an amazing team of colleagues and customers who love our brand and support us. This 16 year mark is a perfect time to pause and be so thankful to so many.”

Courtesy Tiff's Treats
Founded in 1999, Tiff’s Treats started out of a college apartment with two friends baking cookies at the University of Texas to help fellow students get through exams. This past November, Tiff’s Treats opened its 16th location in Texas and its 1st location in San Antonio. With this San Antonio opening, Tiff’s Treats now delivers warm cookies to the four biggest cities in Texas: Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The plan is to open at least 3 more stores in 2015, too!  Again, sometimes the greatest businesses come from a good idea that starts out in somebody's home.  (Similar to another Austin-based food & entertainment company named Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, in fact!)

Reflecting on 16 years in business, co-founders Tiffany and Leon Chen remember – and appreciate – the little and big things that have been part of their story:

Courtesy Tiff's Treats
  •  Tiff’s Treats was open two full days before it got its first order, from a girl named Amy at the University Towers of UT. Cookies were then $5 a dozen and her tip of $5 is still remembered, and appreciated. 
  • The first big order the company took was for 75 dozen, which took them 12 hours to bake. Now, each store can bake 75 dozen in a half hour. Multiply that by 16 stores, and at least 12 baking hours a day per location, Tiff’s Treats is now producing close to a million cookies a month on average.
  • A UT advertising student named Matt brought in a logo suggestion in 2001. Tiff’s Treats traded him some cookies for it, and still use the same logo today.
  • Tiff’s Treats started doing grand opening fundraisers when it opened its first Austin store beyond the headquarters shop five years ago. It has now donated over $70,000 in cash to non-profits in its 16-year history as well as nearly $75,000 in donated product in 2014 alone.
  • And of course, the sweetest – pun intended – part of the story: starting the business 16 years ago, just as friends, Tiff and Leon grew so close they are now married.
“It is rare in life to have a job you love working with people you love,” said Leon Chen, Tiff’s Treats co-founder. “To have started that business yourself, from a little idea and a personal passion, and to build it to something really special and successful along side your spouse…..well, that’s a gift I’m grateful for every day.”

Nothing like a great story of resourceful Texas Entrepreneurship, True love and DELICIOUS COOKIES to warm the heart, eh folks?

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!