Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Search for the Best BBQ in Houston

Let's face it. We are all looking for that perfect barbecue pit at the end of the rainbow. And guess what -- I found it. It's in Pearland.

Of course, I didn't find it on my own. I had a little help from someone who told me that Central Texas Style BBQ was the best barbeque in the Houston area.

Naturally, I was skeptical, but I took him up on his dare and did the trek.

And boy, am I glad I did.


It was just after 12 noon when I arrived at Central Texas Style BBQ on 4110 West Broadway, and from the outside, the place is unassuming. But inside, you'll be in for a shock...and a treat.

First of all, there was a massive line.

I didn't know what to expect, but a line that wrapped around the counter and almost went out the back door wasn't it. But that was perfectly fine. I always take long lines in places like this to be a good sign. It means the food is fresh and the customers are happy.

Besides, there was a lot of choices on the menu and I needed some time to figure things out.

So why is this place so popular? Well, it is family owned and has been around for nearly four decades. But what really keeps people coming back again and again is that they actually hickory smoke their own meat in the two pits they have on site. Plus, the customer service is like eating at mom's house.


Like I said, the line was long. But I really needed the time to think. That's because they have 10 choices of meat. Yup...that's right 10!! You can get everything from beef and sausage, to ham, turkey and chicken.

And once you figure out what you want, you then have to figure out how much you want.

I had never been to a place where you can order meat by the pound. Very cool, but a little intimidating for a BBQ newbie like me.

Thankfully, they have taken this into consideration as they have some plate dinners on the menu where you can pick one meat, two, three or a deluxe portion.

After watching the people in front of me get heaping trays full of food, I went with the Diana plate. Compared to the others, it's a smaller plate with your choice of meat, two sides and a drink.

So now all I had to do is pick out a side, but I was running out of time.

You see, even though the line is long, the people that eat there seemed to have a lot less of a problem picking out what they want than I did and the line was whipping by quickly.

I had only just narrowed down my meat, when it was time for me to pick out my sides - which is almost harder than the meat. That's because they have 14 main meal sides and seven desserts (that you can use as a side - excellent!).

Figuring in a place as busy as this, I couldn't go wrong with whatever I picked, I chose sweet potatoes and this one dish that all three people in front of me got. I didn't even know what it was, but it seemed to be very popular.

"That's Banana Pudding," said the server. "It's really good."

Okay, that sounds good to me.


One of my favorite things about Texas is there is always Dr. Pepper and I LOVE Dr. Pepper. Of course, there is always sweet tea, too, but that hasn't grown on me like the Dr. Pepper has.

After I filled my giant cup with the good doctor, I carried my now heavy tray to my table to see if the BBQ was as good as it smelled. And it was. It was tender, slightly hickory in flavor and worth the 30 minutes it took me to get there.

And yes. My source was correct. This was the best barbecue in Texas, and the place all others will be compared to in the future.

My banana pudding was also good, but by the time I ate the all meat and the sweet potatoes (yes, my mom taught me to eat the real food first), I was so stuffed, I couldn't finish it.

I was also glad I got the smallest plate on the menu, because if I ate any more, I would have exploded.

And by the way...the line was even longer at 12:45 so people just kept on coming in for the yummy barbecue goodness.

Then I saw it. The cornbread.

I leaned back in my chair and was about to take a couple of pictures of the restaurant when I noticed that every person sitting around me had this giant piece of cornbread on their table. Let me tell you a little secret...I will do anything for cornbread. It's my Texas kryptonite, and whenever it's around, I have to have it.

Based on the observation that everyone around had a giant chunk, I concluded that this must be some pretty good stuff, and there was no way I was going to miss out on good cornbread. Besides, if this place had the best barbecue in the area, then maybe it had the best cornbread, too.

It turns out they don't just have the best cornbread; they have the two types of cornbread: Jalapeno and sweet. Yay!! And it's only $0.75 - double Yay!!!

Yup, you will be seeing me in Pearland more often. In fact, I'm kind of craving barbecue right now.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Gloria Gaynor is absolutely divine

If Gloria Gaynor is a diva, then I want some of her diva-ness to wash off on me. I had the chance to meet her this week while she was in Houston for her concert and she is absolutely divine!!

"I try not to be a diva," said Gaynor. "I really try not to bother anyone with anything beyond what I need that I can't get myself."

Gaynor may be a diva on the stage (because who can deny her incredible voice and stage presence), but when not performing she is gracious, classy and humble. In fact, when I met her at lunch and complimented her on her fabulous red printed overwrap, she was almost shy.

"Thanks. It was something that was easy," said Gaynor, referring to the outfit.

Thirty years after her hit "I Will Survive" went number one, Gaynor kicked off her celebration tour in Houston with a concert. But this wasn't your traditional disco concert. It was special and something that was new -- even for Gaynor.

You see, months ago she was approached by Sean O'Loughlin from the Houston Symphony who said he'd like to create some special arrangements just for her.

"I was thrilled and honored for the opportunity. I had never performed with a full symphony before," said Gaynor.

The months leading up to the January 23 performance, Gaynor's excitement continued to grow as she heard snippets of the arrangements from O'Loughlin.

"I haven't heard it all together," said Gloria, the day before the concert. "I'll be hearing just a few hours before the audience will, but from what I've heard, it's going to be 'wow'."


"Wow" doesn't even describe the concert, and those who attended agree.

"This was my best night in my life. I have been listening to Gloria Gaynor for years and I still play 'I Will Survive' whenever I'm down," said Aida West, concert attendee.

Right from the first song, "Goin' Out of My Head," Gaynor had the audience captivated. She sang all of her hits including "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I Am What Am," and then threw in a couple of her favorite all time songs, including an upbeat version of "Every Breath You Take" and Barbara Streisand's "The Way We Were." She even honored a young "diva," Christina Aguilera.

"Sometimes an artist does a song that you wish you could have done," said Gaynor, as she prepped the audience for her rendition of Aguilera's 'Beautiful.' "I promised you something old, something new, something borrowed, but nothing blue. Well...this one is borrowed."

But the song that blew many people away was Gaynor's version of "Killing Me Softly." Combined with the powerful sound of the symphony behind her, the song sounded like it was made for Gaynor's voice. In fact, the very first note brought the crowd to a spontaneous applause.


While the concert was incredible, let's face it, everyone was really there for one thing: To hear the Disco Diva sing her Grammy winning hit, "I Will Survive."

Now, let me just say that before the concert, I was worried that the song would loose some of its disco power with the symphony behind it, but you'll be glad to hear, that I was completely wrong. It was even better!

From the moment Gloria started with "First I was afraid...," she had the entire audience clapping and cheering. Then, when she got into the verses, we were singing along - because why not? We all knew the words and frankly, Gloria didn't seem to mind. She was dancing and beaming just like the rest of us.

And at the end of the song, we couldn't even give her a standing ovation, because we were already were standing. It was an incredible experience and I'm sure if Gloria decided to sing that song again in her encore, none of us would have complained. Of course, she didn't. She came out and did a Marvin Gaye classic which was just as good.


Whew...you would think after a high like that, the night would be over. Well, not quite - at least it wasn't over for a few hundred of her fans who decided to buy a ticket to the after-party.

After the concert, the theatre transformed the stage area into a modern version of Studio 54 complete with a DJ, leather sofas and of course, a disco ball. While sipping on wine and cocktails, fans dance, mingled and re-lived the night by discussing their favorites.

But that's not all. Gloria Gaynor was also at the party and spent hours taking pictures with fans, talking with them and just being her gracious, fabulous self. It was a night all those who attended would cherish.

"It was a memorable night," said Jason Hose. "I was surprised that she came to Houston. And after tonight, I feel like I can do anything."

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Whitney Casey's Man Plan

All you true Houstonians know all about Whitney Casey. You've either watched her on Great Day Houston or read her weekly column in the Houston Chronicle. But as I've only been here a few months, Whitney was just a name that I heard around the station.

You see, she left KHOU a couple of months before I started, so we were like ships that passed in the night -- or maybe more like blondes who frequent the same wine bars. Whatever the case, when I heard she was launching of her first book, I had to go check it out and meet the woman behind the legend.


Whitney's first book signing in Houston was last Thursday and it was kind of a special one for her.

"I only had one other book signing so far and that one was in New York. This is my first one in Houston so it's special," said Whitney. "I actually dedicated my book to Houston and it's 'Great Days'."

The signing wasn't held at a swanky bar or some over the top party place. Instead, she had it at the Upper Hand Hair Salon on Westheimer, which was perfect. It was intimate, friendly and best place to launch a book about dating, because as every girl knows, the hair salon is where we go to talk about guys...and other stuff.

And girl-talk was the talk of the night.

The women I met ranged from University students to women in their 40s. But they all had one thing in common: they were friendly and open. It was a relaxing, positive experience that reminded me of a girls' night at home.

Plus, to make the night even more decadent, there was pink champagne and of course chocolate -- courtesy of Ooh-la-la cupcakes.

It was the perfect haven for the approximately 200 women (and a few guys) who showed up to learn more about Whitney's Man Plan and to meet her in person.


"I was in the audience once when she was on Great Day Houston," said one of girls at the event. "She was great on the show, so I wanted to drop by and say hello."

The girl was going to get to say a lot more than hello.

If you've never been to a signing, let me tell that usually the author just scribbles your name in the book and moves on to the next person. But this wasn't the case on Thursday. Whitney talked, laughed and took her time with every single person who showed up. She didn't treat them like fans, but like girlfriends.

And this skill of listening to people is what makes her book special. Because let's face it. Whitney is gorgeous. So what kind of man advice could an attractive, successful and confident woman have? She's already got men dropping at her feet.

But instead of telling people what she does, Whitney actually went out and interviewed men, women and professionals everywhere to get the inside scoop on what guys want-- and what they don't.

And no, this is not some sort of boring psychological get-to-know-yourself journal that will take years of in-depth soul searching to perfect. The book is witty and real.

"The advice is really practical. It's mistakes that you don't even know you make, but you do them," said one of the women at the book signing who just finished reading the book.


Practical and simple advice for everyday women is exactly what I thought when I was reading The Man Plan. And to prove it, here are three little tips that I read in Whitney's book:

1) Don't bring a big handbag when going out. Men start to wonder why you brought it. Was it luggage? Were you planning on sleeping over? Are you going some place after? You get the picture...big bags are not date material.

2) Don't wear your night time makeup for day dates. Men want you to look natural and dewy during the day, but this doesn't going without. If they saw you without any makeup, they would say that you look plain and tired.

3) The hottest hostess has the hottest home, so skip the family pictures in the bedroom, hide the medication (he doesn't want to know where you itch) and buy a comfortable couch.

Didn't I tell you they were easy tips? The book also has practical advice on what shoes to wear on dates, why you shouldn't wear black, what food men would like to see in your fridge, and even what to do (and what not to do) in the bedroom.


Learn more about Whitney Casey's Man Plan

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits at House of Blues

Wow! When the House of Blues told me they were going to feed my soul, they weren't kidding.

Beginning on Sunday January 11, the House of Blues is serving up Sunday brunch. But this isn't just any old Sunday brunch; it's a gospel brunch.

I dropped by during their test run just to check it out and it blew me away. And it should. Their brunch has actually won awards in other cities and it's sure to do the same in Houston.


First of all, let's talk about the food.

Are you going to get eggs and bacon? You sure are...but you'll also get some of that good old fashion soul food that the House of Blues is famous for. I'm talking about grits, biscuits and gravy, Creole chicken and shrimp jambalaya, and more good stuff.

They also have a waffle station, a meat carving station, and a made-to-order omelet area. So, if you're going to go, make sure you're hungry because the food is too good to pass up!

"Every Sunday, we'll transform the 1,500 person grand music hall into a family-style dining area. The tables will be set up in front of the stage so everyone has a great seat to watch the show," said Brian DiStefano, Marketing Manager of House of Blues Houston.

Distefano said they can fit 250 people in the area and will do two shows every Sunday. The first show will start at 11 a.m. and the second one at 1 p.m.

Oh...and did I mention that it's an all you eat buffet? If you want to be tempted, just check out the House of Blues Gospel Bunch menu.


The food might be mouthwatering good, but it's the music that will feed your soul. For the opening Sunday, the Hensley Ensemble along with Sylvia St. James will perform.

Let me just say, that St. James has a voice that could reach the heavens. She was incredible.

Dressed in a white dress and a feather hat, she had the entire room on their feet and waving their napkins in the air. The whole experience was uplifting, energetic and inspiring.

"The first three weeks our talent will be coming in from Dallas, but we are auditioning local talent next week," said Robert Simeone, Senior VP of the House of Blues.

Every week they plan to showcase someone new, but it won't always be a choir.

"Sometimes it will be a large choir, and sometimes it will be a popular gospel artist," said DiStefano.


The best thing about the brunch is that it's not expensive. For $35, you get the southern-style buffet and can watch the concert. Children under 12 are $18 and children under 5 are free.

If you don't want to eat and only want to watch the show, balcony seats are available. The price for these is $18.

"We recommend that people purchase tickets in advance as the shows usually sell out," said DiStefano. "They can only buy tickets through the House of Blues box office."

The number for the box office is: 832-667-7732.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ice sculpting at Discovery Green in Houston

There's more than skating going at Discovery Green; there's also ice sculpting-- but only this Saturday (January 10). I heard there was going to be seven artists sculpting so I drove down there to check it out.

Unfortunately, I was a little early as the ice was still in big cubes. But I did get to see them chisel away and chain saw some of the ice. There were ice chips flying everywhere!!


I highly recommend checking it, because these ice guys aren't want-to-be artists who are doing this for the first time. The guys are actually famous in the ice sculpting world.

In fact, the artists include Ben Rand (who just happens to be the #2 carver in the country), Dawson List, Vegas Iceman, Rich Bubin (Guinness Book World Record holder), Dan Rebolze, Robert Childres and Buddy Rassmussin.

The ice guys started carving away at 10 a.m. this morning, but when I got there at noon (yes, I was really early), they were just starting to chip out designs. They are going to be carving all afternoon and then at 5 p.m. the judging will begin.


I know that ice is already pretty cool, but the super cool part of the night is taking place at 6:15 p.m. That's when Reverend Butter of DLG Ice Factory is going to perform a 45-minute carving to live music by the band Downfall 2012.

If you have never seen Reverend Butter, I totally recommend going. He's an artist, entertainer and all round cool dude.

As you can tell, I love him. I had the chance to meet him at the Red Bull Art of Can exhibit in July 2008 and instantly became a fan of his work. It's not just his talent that will win you over, but his personality. He's a character - a true Texan with a style all his own.


Even though I went early to the event, I took a bunch of photos. The only problem is I can't take the after shots as I'll be at the station. So...if you go, email them to me and I'll add them to the slideshow. I'd love to see what the final cubes of ice look like!

Email your photos to michelle@michelleponto.com.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hot tea lattes for the Starbucks soul

Starbucks has new treats for the New Year, but they are not the brownie or loaf kind. Instead, they are the drinkable kind - which is just as good.

But rather than introduce some new coffees to the menu, Starbucks has come up with three lattes for tea-lovers...and those who just like to experiment with something hot on cold January days.


Naturally, because I am a Starbucks fanatic, and because I received a coupon in the mail, I decided to try a few of them out.

London Fog Tazo Tea Latte: First up, I had to try the London Fog which is Earl Grey tea with Italian bergamot, vanilla and lavender. They make it by steeping the tea in steamed milk and adding a couple pumps of vanilla syrup.

It sounds simple, but it is really good. In fact, out of the three new treats, this one is my favorite.

It's mostly because I love Earl Gray tea, and also because I actually had a London Fog in Calgary five years ago and have been dreaming of it ever since. It's like an Earl Grey dream all wrapped up in a velvety, milky foam. And with the last two mornings being a little gray, cold and rainy (just like London), it was the perfect way to warm up.

Black Tazo Tea Latte: Next up, I tried the Black Tazo Tea Latte. Starbucks describes it as "a bold black tea with hints of dark caramel, malt and black cherries."

I'm going to be honest with you...I tasted it and even with my eyes closed, I couldn't taste any caramel or black cherries. That's not saying that it was crappy. The black tea in steamed milk wasn't too bad. It wasn't as yummy as the London Fog, but it is packed with caffeine, so it's a good wake me up.

Vanilla Rooibos Tazo Tea Latte: Unlike the Black Tea Latte, the Vanilla Rooibos is caffeine-free. Combine it with the steamed milk and vanilla syrup, and you have the perfect hot beverage to help you unwind at the end of the day.


So the tea is kind of tasty, but will it wreck your New Year's diet?

Well, it does have milk in it, so if you get one of lattes straight from the menu, a grande will add up to 200 calories and 5 grams of fat. But thankfully Starbucks is all about customization. To save a little on your diet, you can get the same latte with non-fat milk and sugar free syrup. This will cut the calories down to 160 and 0 grams of fat.

This isn't too bad if you compare it to my absolute favorite Starbucks drink - their signature salted caramel hot chocolate. This decadent delight has 590 calories and 27 grams of fat and that's with non-fat milk.

It's so bad, but that's what makes it so good.


Starbucks also introduced a couple of cold teas, but I haven't tried them because it's been too chilly. But if you do, let me know which one is the best.

The two new cold teas are Berry Chai Tazo Tea Infusion and Apple Chai Tazo.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

This year I resolve to run in circles

I'm a runner. When I say this, I don't mean that I run marathons or that I run fast - although I would like to. Instead, I merely run the Mermorial Park loop.

I run the loop a couple of times a week and I must admit I love it. In fact, the loop was one of the reasons I moved to Houston.

You see, I've been a slow, but dedicated runner for years. It's my way to de-stress, forget about errands and move all my thoughts to the back burner. All I think about when I run is the beat of the music from my iPod and my goal of finishing the 5K.

But in order to make the running enjoyable, I have to "like" the path I run on --otherwise, it's torture and reminds me of gym class. Plus, it's got be safe, have a good running surface, and it's got to be pretty.

Yes, I know the last one is a little lame, but you have to admit that it's much nicer to run with trees or water around, compared to a concrete industrial track.


When I lived in Memphis, I ran along the Mississippi, and when I lived in Tampa, I ran along the bay on Bayshore. So when I moved to Houston, the first thing I needed to find was my running spot.

Surprisingly, Houston has a bunch of great running places. But three are my favorite. The first is, of course, Memorial Park. I love knowing exactly how far I'm running and knowing the end is just around the corner.

Then there's the Buffalo Bayou. The trail is gorgeous and unpredictible. There are even shady spots which make it perfect for running on those super hot Houston summer days. But of course, there are times when it smells like...well, it smells like bayou - if you know what I mean. It's also pretty scary when the sun goes down.

My final favorite trail is the one by the zoo. I don't even know what this one is called, but it's a nice relaxing run.

But if you don't like these, there is also this website that lists a bunch Houston jogging paths.


Right now I run the loop once and then treat myself to Starbucks on the way home. But I'm thinking for 2009, I should challenge myself. I'm going to try to run the loop not just once, but twice. Maybe not every time, but on the days when I actually have an entire morning free.

So to do that, I spent the day pumping up my iPod with music to keep me motivated the whole time -- because you know, nothing is more boring than running in circles in silence. Somehow, the music takes the pain away.

So what's on my iPod? Well, it's a little bit electic, but here it is:

First loop around:

  • 4 Minutes - Madonna and Justin Timberlake
  • I Don't Want to be in Love (dance version) - Good Charlotte
  • Shake It - Metro Station
  • Take My Hand - Simple Plan
  • Bad Girlfriend - Theory of a Deadman
  • Cold Hard B**tch - Jet
  • Are you going to be my Girl - Jet
Second loop around:

  • The Hand That Feeds - Nine Inch Nails
  • Snakes on a Plane - Cobra Starship
  • Faster Kill Pussycat - Oakenfold
  • He's a Pirate - Klaus Badelt & Tiesto remix techno version
  • Truly Madly Deeply - Cascada
  • Misery Business - Paramore
  • Bleed it Out - Linkin Park
Emergency songs (just in case I run slower than usual):

  • Stoned in Love - Chicane
  • Sandstorm - Darude
  • Another Girl Another Planet - Blink 182

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bringing in the New Year with a pop...pop...pop

Yes, I am a party pooper, but this year I wasn't planning to do the big New Year's Eve celebration. I figured I already had a great six months in Houston checking out what's going on around town that a relaxing night at home sounded wonderful.

In fact, I even had my night planned with my crackers and fancy cheese (the kind you only buy during the holidays), champagne in a can (it's not Taittinger which is my favorite, but not bad), and a couple of rental movies. Heaven.

But if you happened to have been at the Hyatt last night, you might have seen me. Yup...instead of hanging out at home, I decided to paint the paint the town red - well gold, as that was what I wearing (see the picture to the left. That gray band is my camera which I tossed over my shoulder for the shot).

I figure I can eat cheese any day, but how often can I ring in the New Year in style? Besides, I really couldn't resist going after so many people told how fabulous the party at the Hyatt is year after year. Plus, after I learned that the hotel had been throwing the New Year party for 34 years and that over 2,000 people would be there, I definitely had to go.

I didn't want to miss out on the ultimate New Year's bash.

And how could it not be? It was - count them - three floors of party space. Not three rooms, but the entire floor. Each floor had a band or DJ and a whole of people dressed in everything from jeans to gowns. But it didn't matter what they were wearing. The one thing they all had in common was the goal to party like it was 1999 ...um ...I mean 2009 (although they did play that Prince song).

The bartenders were also busy all night popping champagne like it was only beverage on earth. But hey, it's New Year's Eve and if you ever need to excuse to indulge in the bubbly, this is the night to do it. The only thing that they didn't have was food, but if I was smart, I would have reserved dinner at Shula's beforehand.

However, I wasn't there for the champagne or the music. I was there for the balloons. The 50,000 free falling balloons. They drop them all from a net at the stroke of midnight from the 33rd floor of the hotel. And let me just say that they were gorgeous in all their multi-colored splendor.

I didn't think I'd be so amazed over a bunch of balloons, but they were so mesmerizing you almost wanted them to fall for even longer. I tried to take a video, but it's not the same. You just have to be there to experience it.