Thursday, September 25, 2008

A day on the Catholic Charities Green Team

Whether it was the loss of power, lack of food, or simply all the destruction, somehow Ike bonded the Gulf Coast together. I got to experience this while volunteering with Houston's Catholic Charities on Wednesday.

Catholic Charities has been working with small communities since the storm.

"We pick different communities every day. We try to target the ones that have been missed or forgotten by other organizations just because they are so small," said Charlene, Catholic Charities Communications Assistant. "Many of them that we've gone to, I had never heard of until now."

While donning my green volunteer vest and baseball cap, Charlene told me that today we were going to Bacliff down by the Bayshore RV park to help out with two trucks full of supplies.


Driving into the town, it didn't take a rocket scientist to see that Bacliff was hit hard by Hurricane Ike. There was debris everywhere, roofs were torn off of houses, palm trees were stripped bare, and some people had even set up tents as temporary shelters.

And of course, power was a luxury that none of the residents had.

"I just got a generator from my dad today and we're setting it up. We've had nothing for days," said Ted, one of the residents. "We've been mostly cleaning up and airing out the place."

I had never been to Bacliff before, but Ted told me the town looks completely different after Ike stormed through. The flooding may have gone down, but trees were missing and parts of the beach had been rearranged.

"The hurricane moved all these giant rocks onto the boat dock," said Ted. "It's hard to believe that the big pile of rocks wasn't there before."

Ted was just one of many who were sweating it out while waiting for the power to come back.

While we didn't have any power to give him, we did have food, cleaning supplies and other essentials.

But first we had to unload the trucks.


Let me tell you that volunteering is good for the soul, good for those who are on the receiving end, and a good workout for your body.

Before we could start helping people, our little green-vested team of 12 had to unload the trucks which were piled full of donations. While it wasn't really heaving lifting, it wasn't as easy as handing out a bottle of water to someone walking by. But, we worked together in an assembly line to quickly unload the trucks and set things up for the massive amount of people already lining up in their cars.

Some of the volunteers had helped out before and were already pros at the process.

"My brother and I have been handing out stuff in parking lots like this one for a couple of days now," said one volunteer. "We are originally from New Mexico and this was our first hurricane. It's been an experience that I hope I don't have to go through again."


Unloading the trucks was just the beginning. After that it was time to start doing the real work: Handing out the stuff to the people who needed it.

Starting at noon and going until 7 p.m., we began handing out buckets of supplies and thousands of boxes of pre-made meals. The cars kept coming and coming.

But while the line was long and seemingly never ending, everyone was extremely patient and helpful. Many were desperate for diapers, water and food.

And how did our little green team do? Fantastic - if I must say so myself.

We might have been tired and some of us will probably be sore the next day, but we had smiles on our faces and the energy never faded.


It's still a long road of recovery for Ike survivors.

According to CenterPoint, some of these smaller communities along the coast may not have full power until November - which means grocery stores and local businesses will not be operating in full capacity. They are relying on outsiders to help them make it through.

"Catholic Charities is helping on average 1,250 people a day," said Julissa Chappell, Director of Communications for the organization.

Julissa said they are still looking for more volunteers to help out. For more information, you can contact Nancy in Volunteer Services at 713-305-8268.

Donations for Ike are also urgently needed to assist with recovery efforts. To donate visit

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gotta have Sambuca heart

Hurricane Ike can't keep a good Texan down. At least that's what I thought when I met David Foreman, the Operations Director of Sambuca Restaurant.

While checking some of the fine food Sambuca has to offer, Foreman told me how he and his dog weathered the storm by sleeping in his bar.

"It was awesome. I spend the night watching the storm out those windows," said Forman, pointing to the side of the bar.

On the night of the hurricane, Foreman got quite a show.

Sambuca is in the old Rice Hotel located on the corner of Texas and Travis Street. Because of how the buildings are situated, Travis Street became a wind tunnel and Foreman watched the horizontal rain stream down the street and even saw a 20-foot water vortex shoot straight up into the air.

"He said everything was going good until the 75-story Chase Tower started popping windows.

"They started popping like crazy around 5:30 a.m. It sounded like a thousand people were throwing down beer bottles," said Foreman.

But it wasn't the popping that bothered Foreman.

"After that I could see the furniture flying out...chairs, computers, blinds, everything," said Foreman.

Because Sambuca is directly across the street from the tower, the restaurant lost eight windows and suffered a little water damage.

"We were fairly lucky. Most of our windows were knocked out by the flying computers and office furniture from the tower," said Foreman.

The lack of windows didn't keep Sambuca closed for long. They were open by 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. Foreman said he wasn't planning to open, but while cleaning up the debris, people kept asking if open for business. So he thought, why not?

"Because of the storm, we had canceled two weddings that were planned for the weekend, so I had lots of food and alcohol on hand. It all worked out," said Foreman.

On Sunday, Sambuca had around 50 to 60 customers. More came on Monday and Tuesday. Most of Foreman's staff was also able to come back to the bar. The only thing he didn't have was live music.

"My waiter has been begging me to watch him audition. I didn't have a band so I told him that tonight was his night," said Foreman. "He brought his guitar and we had music. We all worked together to make it happen. It's the Sambuca heart. You gotta have heart."

So would Foreman spend the next storm in his bar?



To mimic Foreman's words - Absolutely! Sambuca has been around for 10 years and is a cozy neighborhood bar without the sports memorabilia. The food is creative, yet recognizable.

And while you might think you've had samosas before, you haven't had the ones at Sambuca. These little patties were filled with chicken and potato goodness and tasted so much better than the ones I remember eating at Indian restaurants. I'm not sure if it was the homemade red pepper chutney or the melt-in-your-mouth pastry, but whatever it was, it made it good.

I also tried the sea bass skewers which I thought would be plain and boring. But I should have known after hearing Foreman's hurricane story that nothing could be boring in his restaurant. The skewers were incredible. They weren't fishy, but instead the combination of the Teriyaki and ponzu sauces brought out the grilled flavor.

The final thing I tried was the meatballs. Again, these aren't your average meatballs. First of all they are made from lamb, and secondly they are perched on top of these filo pastry puffs that are stuffed with feta and spinach. And then there's the sauce. It's a jalapeno-mint jelly that the chef makes from scratch. With all the flavors together, it's the perfect mix.

Foreman also told me that once they settle back down after the hurricane, they'll be adding some pizzas to the menu and a happy hour. Whoo-hoo!

But even if I wasn't in the mood to eat, I would still visit Sambuca's for a night of chilling out and listening to live music which they have every night. And if the waiter, who was jamming out on his guitar when I went, is any indication of the caliber of music, you'll be in for a treat.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane Ike: Hunkering down Texas-style

The morning after Hurricane Ike, I woke up to waterfront property. But instead of seeing boats and joggers along a gorgeous boardwalk, I saw the tops of trees.

Yup...the bayou had overflowed and made its way all the way to my apartment complex.

While I didn't have power or water (still don't), I was instantly thankful that I was up on the top floor. At least I didn't have flooding, and the view was kind of pretty in a scary sort of way.

Of course, the night before was horrible.

There I was, hunkering down in my apartment in the dark. I had my stash of food, my car was full of gas, and I had even filled my tub with water. I was ready for Ike - or so I thought.

You see, I had never been in a hurricane before, but working in the news, I had heard all of the horror stories of windows blowing out, stop signs whipping through the air and striking people while walking, and living weeks on end without power. So even though I had worked a 14 hour day at the station, I wasn't sleepy. And once my windows started rattling at 4:00 am, I was wide awake.

I don't know what I thought 100 mph winds would sound like, but I never imagined it being so loud. It was as if a jet engine was going off in my apartment. Plus, rain was pelting against the glass and leaking though the cracks. And then, when something crashed against the window, I lost it.

There was no way I was going to take this lying down in bed. Nope...I was going to take it like the girl I am - or at least the girl I was when I was in kindergarten.

So what did I do? Well, I got up and hid in the closet -- literally. It was not my bravest moment, but I laid out an exercise mat on the floor, grabbed my pillow and a blanket and curled up on the floor with the door closed. Yes, I am pathetic, but I slept like a baby.


The next day was a little like Christmas morning, except instead of rushing to see what Santa had brought me, I ran to my window to check out the damage. It was amazing.

In just a couple of hours, Ike had come in and rearranged all of Houston. Nothing looked the same. My apartment was an island surrounded by water.

But what was really surprising was that all the Texans were down on street hanging out. I guess they were done hunkering down (I've never used this word before living here - very cool), and ready to get out. They were biking through the puddles, walking their dogs along the edge of water and taking pictures. Some had even set up lawn chairs like they were at the beach!

Naturally, I had to join them. And you know what? It was fun.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cowabunga, Dude! Surfing in Galveston

Before every hurricane, you always see the surfers catching some waves out in Galveston Bay. So with yet another storm taking aim at the Gulf, I figured, if you can't beat them, join them.

Yup...that's right. KHOU's Girl About Town is going surfing - but first she has to learn how.

Surfing is something I've always wanted to try, but I've backed off because: a) I didn't want to wipe out and be knocked unconscious by my board, and b) I didn't want be eaten by sharks.

Turns out, both of these fears are completely rational.

"Getting hit by your board is the most common surfing injury," said Brian, my surf instructor. "I knew this hula dancer when I living in Hawaii. She wiped out, and her board came around and knocked all her front teeth out."

Crap. That's just what I need.

Brian, who owns C-Sick Surfin on Galveston Island, has been surfing since 1962. He's caught waves all over the world including Africa, Hawaii, California and any place else you can think of. Plus, he still has all his teeth so he must know something.

I met up with him on Monday for my first lesson, and you'll be happy to hear that he didn't just hand me a board and throw me into the water (thank goodness). We spent at least the first 30 minutes of the two hour lesson learning the basics like how to spot the waves, the currents and rips, and what dangers to look out for. He also taught me how to properly carry the surf board and we practiced getting up on it on the sand.

Then we hit the water.

The first thing that surprised me about surfing is that you don't have to be in really deep water to catch a wave.

"You just need to be waist-deep and then you can climb on your board and start paddling," said Brian.

But you don't need to paddle for hours. You just need to go where the waves are. On the day I went, the water was below chest level and it was perfect height for getting the surf.

The second thing that surprised me was that it's much harder to stand up on a moving surfboard in water than it is to stand up on the sand.

I swear, I was doing excellent on the shore during the practice session. Didn't fall off the board once. But in the water, it was completely different.

There I was paddling, feeling the wave start pushing the board. And from behind me, I could hear Brian yelling, "Stand up now." The steps of how to do it were going through my head: grab the rails and push up, move your right foot to the center, and stand up straight with your weight in the middle and knees bent.

Sounds simple, but man, the board was moving fast.

But I paid $50 and drove all the way to Galveston, so I was going to do it.

I took a deep breath, pushed up, and amazingly, I was standing!!!! They worked. The steps really worked!!

Then, a second later, I wiped out.

You know that saying, if you fail, try again? That's the way it works in surfing. I got my board, paddled back out and tried it again. The second time, I didn't even make it a standing position, but plunged head first and sucked in a bunch of seawater. Yeah...I was really graceful.

But the third time, was the dream. I got up, caught the first wave and then stayed up long enough to catch the second bigger one coming in behind it. It was a complete rush. It was my best ride of the day and the reason I'll be going back again.

Two hours later, I was getting pretty good at feeling when the wave was coming. And while I was able to stand up most of the time (at least for a few seconds), I was nowhere near being a professional surfer and will probably need a couple more lessons before I commit to buying my own surf board.

But here's what I did learn:

1) I'm a goofy foot and not a regular foot, which means I stand with my right foot forward on the board.

2) The sun will burn you - everywhere. I wore a t-shirt over my bikini top just because I didn't want anything coming loose in the waves, and I was glad I did. At least my chest and back didn't get burned. But I can't say the same about the back of my knees. Ouch.

3) If you fall off your board and don't know where it is, cover you head and face with your arms. Your board will come back and hit you. Remember the hula girl.

4) When paddling out, don't fight the waves. Paddle between sets or use the rips to get out. If you don't know what these are, find someone like Brian to teach you.

5) If you see lots of birds feeding or lots of fish jumping, don't surf there. Chances are there's a big fish feeding on the smaller fish below the waves.

6) Don't dangle your toes off your surfboard, wear red nail polish or shiny watches. All these things will make you attractive to big fish like sharks.

7) Invest in a surfer shirt (they call them rash guards). The material in the shirts has 50 UV protection, plus you won't get a rash from rubbing against your surfboard when paddling.

8) Don't wear bright colors like yellow and orange. Fish love them. "We used to call it Yum-Yum yellow," said Brian. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't want to be yum-yum for any fish.

9) If you can swim a couple of laps, do a couple of pushups and conquer your fear of falling off, you can surf.

Here's the one thing I didn't learn: Are there sharks in Galveston Bay? I don't know....and I don't want to know.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Mac & cheese, big ass brownies and more!

Mashed potatoes, chocolate, bread pudding, peanut butter sandwiches...everyone has their own form of comfort food. Mine is usually chewy brownies, but since I moved to Houston, I've been craving good old fashioned macaroni and cheese.

Good thing Max's Wine Dive on Washington Avenue in Houston had exactly what I was looking for...and a little bit more. But let me warn you, if you show up at Max's 8:30 on a Saturday night like I did, chances of getting a seat will be pretty slim. It was packed and it didn't look like it was going to slow down.

Thankfully, Julius, the place's coolest wine-guy, was able to squeeze me in at the bar. I swear, sometimes being a party of one does have its advantages.


Naturally, I ordered the Max & Cheese from their appetizer list as that was why I was there. Their version of the cheesy dish was not exactly the same as my mom used to make - it was actually better. Sorry Mom, but it was. Max's tosses the pasta in truffle cream with a mozzarella, Texas gruyere and grana padano cheese blend. It's mmm....mmm...good.

Now, one of the cool things about Max's is that you can ask to taste different wines before committing to a full glass. I didn't take advantage of this as I'm not really a wine connoisseur. Instead I asked Julius to pick something out that would go with the meal, and I wasn't disappointed. He picked out a Pinot Gris from Oregon that complimented my pasta perfectly.

But while the Max & Cheese was incredible, the Nacho Mama's Oysters are out of this world. They are deep fried and placed on top of fried wontons. And no, I didn't order them. The Venezuela group sitting beside me did and I tried one of theirs (yes, it's true, you can't take me anywhere).

I swear the oyster literally melted in my mouth. It was fabulous and I will be getting them next time I'm at Max's. The people who actually did order them, agreed. They were a party of three, and they had almost ordered every appetizer off the menu. They tried the buffalo meat sliders, the rib basket, Max & Jack's frites, and finally the oysters. All of the food looked good, but they said the oysters were the best.


You would think I would be done after eating a big bowl of pasta and someone else's oysters, but no, I had to have dessert. However, I knew that something called "The Big Ass Brownie" would not be something I could handle on my own - but it could be something six girls could handle.

Seated on the other side of me at the bar were five girls from Houston. Let me just say, that after a couple of glasses of wine and conversation about food (they ordered the wild boar pasta), we decided to share the brownie dessert. And I think it was the best decision of the night.

The "Big Ass Brownie" was gigantic and if I did eat alone, I would definitely have a much bigger butt today. It's also completely addictive and not overly sweet. Instead, it's slightly spicy. That's because it has ancho chili in it.

Of course, Julius, my wine-guy, didn't let me down. He recommended an Australian Moscato to go with the brownie and again it was perfect.

Overall, my night at Max's was a hit. While it's a little on the expensive side (my mac and cheese was $15.00 and the average glass of wine is going to run you $12.00), it's a place where you can go and spend the evening having a great conversation with friends -- or in my case, complete strangers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Meeting a couple of hereos at an "Unbeatable" performance

It's been over a year since I saw a play, but when I watched Unbeatable at Houston's Stages Repertory Theatre on Thursday, I instantly remembered how much I love them.

If you haven't been to Stages Theatre, it's an intimate space - which means it's small, there is not a bad seat in the house, and you're so close to the actors, you can see their facial expressions.

This also means that the actors have to be really good to pull off the show, as they can't hide behind big special effects. It's basically them, a couple of props and their talent.


Talent is not something the cast of Unbeatable was lacking. In fact, some of you may have seen the lead actor, who plays Tracy Doyle, before. Her name is Kristy Cates and she was Elphaba (you know, the green girl) in the original Broadway cast of Wicked. I actually had the chance to see her when the show was on tour in Toronto and she was brilliant. In this play, she's just as amazing.
From the moment she steps on stage, you are instantly swept up into her character's world of never ending appointments, deadlines, events and errands. It's all rush, rush, rush...and run, run, run.

Wait a minute....that sounds like my life.

But that's where the similarity ends.

You see, Unbeatable is based on the true story of a woman who thought she was in control of her life, until she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Then, everything changed whether she wanted it to or not.

But don't even start thinking this play is going to be a downer, because it's actually the opposite.

Unbeatable is not going to leave you with bloodshot eyes and a runny nose (well, I admit I did tear up a couple of times, so maybe you should bring one or two tissues). But really, this musical is a comedy.

I promise the catchy tunes, quips between the characters, and jokes throughout the play will keep you laughing - especially the heroine's best friend Ally, played by Cassie Goldbach. Ally's a little boy-crazy, a little-wild, and a whole lot of fun. She's the loyal friend that every girl needs. And in this play, she's the comedic relief. Plus, she has a powerful voice that could raise the roof. Give me some soul, sister!

So is this another cancer-schmacy story? Nope...not at all. Unbeatable deals with some something many of us are guilty of: Time and taking it for granted.

Instead of focusing on cancer, Unbeatable puts the lead character on trial on how she spent her life. Sure she may have saved a thousand hours over her lifetime by squeezing in appointments and juggling commitments, but does it matter? What important things did she put on hold because she was too "busy" to take the time?

Kristy Cates told me this theme was one of the reasons she took the role.

"I want people to leave the performance saying, 'I'm going to be a better person'," said Cates.

And you will.


I admit my favorite part of the night was after the performance was over. It was then that I ran into the two most amazing women I have met so far in Houston.

Sharron Zaisman and Beverly Schaffer are friends who came to the show. They are breast cancer survivors and proud of it - as they should be. They are spunky, positive, and beautiful. Their zest for life is empowering.

"I've been cancer free for seven years," said Sharron. "Hope and faith got me through. I told the doctor to just remove both my breasts, but he told me their goal was breast conservation."

Beverly was less lucky.

"I've been cancer free since 2001, but they just discovered that the cancer has come back," said Beverly. "But I'm going to beat it again with a new procedure."

Beverly is one gutsy lady. She is going to try something new to beat the disease with the goal of getting rid of it forever. Her innovative procedure will involve shooting radiation into her bones and then chemotherapy.

"I'll be poked and prodded for 18 months, but I'm going to lick this thing," said Beverly.

Sharron couldn't agree more and has every confidence that her friend will be cancer free again soon.

"You really have to keep your sense of humor. That's the most important thing," said Sharron.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Yay!! Starbucks has new treats

We all have our weaknesses. One of mine happens to be Starbucks, which is weird because I don't drink coffee (I'm a hot tea drinker). Yet, I can't pass by one without the temptation of going inside. Must be something subliminal in the mood lighting that suckers me in.

So because I am frequent customer, I was thrilled to see Starbucks has introduced some new treats - Yay!!

Some of you are saying "who cares?", but for true Starbucks addicts like me, this is a big deal. You see, us regulars look forward to the seasonal additions to the menu like pumpkin lattes in the fall, peppermint hot chocolate in the winter, and the other goodies they only bring around for limited time.


Last Tuesday, Starbuck's introduced some healthy food. Now, before you start making your broccoli face, let me tell you these healthy treats have the Starbucks touch to them, AND I've taken it upon myself to try three of seven new additions:

1) Perfect Oatmeal: Okay, I admit I wasn't going to try this one as I figured I could make oatmeal at home. But then again I could make tea at home and yet I get in my car and drive to Starbucks just to have the barista pour boiling water into a cup. Anyway, my barista told me that people ARE actually ordering the oatmeal AND he told me it was good. So...of course, I had to try it.

He was right. It was the BEST oatmeal ever!! No really, I wouldn't lie to you. I have no idea what they put into it, but it was sooooo good. It's basically 100% whole grain oats and then you get the choice of dried fruit, nut medley or brown sugar. The barista said most people pick brown sugar, but I picked the nuts. Mmmm...mmmm....super good. This is my new favorite.

2) Berry Stella: This has been around all summer. I guess they were testing the healthy stuff. Anyway, it's an oat-based pastry that has been shaped into a star, and it has berries in the middle. It's okay, but not as satisfying as some of their other items like the blueberry scones or very berry muffins.

3) Chewy Fruit & Nut Bar: This bar contains real fruit, nuts and clover honey. It's really yummy and does fill you up. But here's the catch. The little grains get stuck in your teeth, so make sure you pop by a mirror before smiling. It's also a little high in fat (10 grams compared to the oatmeal's 2.5 grams).


There are four other items that I didn't try - mostly because I haven't had time yet. They include:

1) Multigrain Roll: This sounds boring, but the barista swears it's excellent. It's made with seven hearty grains and seeds. It also comes with your choice of almond butter or fruit preserves. The guy seemed more excited about the almond butter, than the jam.

2) Apple Bran Muffin: I haven't seen this one as they've been sold out every time I've gone. I'm told it's got 7 grams of fiber, and then is jam-packed with dried cherries and baked apples. Sounds pretty good.

3) Power Protein Plate: This is not in every store and seems like a South Beach Diet knock off. It's a plate of cheddar cheese, fruit, hard boiled egg, a whole wheat bagel and some peanut butter.

4) Spinach Feta Wrap: Like the protein plate, this is not in every Starbucks. It's a wrap with spinach, feta, egg and roasted tomato. Like the apple bran muffin, it also has 7 grams of fiber.


I admit that my Starbucks fetish over the seasonal foods is a little strange, but what's even weirder is that I get a kick out of seeing which cities get the best food based on their demographic.

If you travel and have the same Starbucks addiction I do, you already know that every place has something different: Toronto Starbucks have these yummy oat/chocolate squares and vegan brownies, Tampa has this exotic Mallocara sweet bread, and San Fran has Polenta Cherry Scones and Carmelita bars - BUT they don't have the double chocolate loaf.

I was hoping Texas Starbucks would have something unique, but I haven't found it yet. Still...the search continues.