Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 5-1

Well, here we are at the end of my list. What a strange and interesting trip this has been. I first want to thank all of the kind people across the social media world who have shown so much support for this endeavor and those who urged me to do it. Of course the biggest thanks goes to my immensely talented and endlessly patient wife who painstakingly edits every single one of my posts and takes the majority of the pictures you see on this site. She has been to 48 out of these 50 places with me (I'll get her to Shri Balaji and Hunan Bistro someday!) and countless other places that did not make the list.

A few things I learned while putting together this list:
  • Service matters even more than I originally thought. Reading back on all of these posts I realized just how many times I commented on the service experience. It truly does bring a good meal to another level.
  • Houston is such a hotbed of culinary talent. Reflecting on a lot of the places on this list, I am beyond impressed with how many incredibly talented people are cooking in these kitchens.
  • Food writing is not easy. The Internet world is filled with aspiring food writers. Some take it seriously, to some it's a hobby, to others it's something entirely different that I won't get into in the interest of brevity. The process of putting fingers to keyboard and writing out thoughts on a meal is not as easy as many would think, especially if you have as much respect as I do for the hard working kitchen and service people who produce these meals. I sincerely hope that any industry people who have read one of these posts understand that I put out this list as an appreciation to the great places around Houston at which I enjoy dining.
  • Houston is home. I love to travel, and as a child I told myself that New York would always be home for me. That of course changed as I grew up and became more of a Texan than anything else, but I truly cannot imagine leaving Houston behind. I love so much about our great city, especially its dining culture.
With all of that said, here are my five favorite restaurants in Houston. Each one of these places offers something different in terms of cuisine, atmosphere, and section of the city. As always, click here for a rundown on the previous spots on the list and I hope I've inspired you to try at least one of these places.

State of Grace: (left) twice fried Korean chicken, (top right) roasted lamb with peas, green garlic, and lamb sausage,  (bottom right) delicious buttery milk rolls.
No. 5 State of Grace (River Oaks): One has to hand it to State of Grace owner and successful Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry: he did not play it safe when opening his first restaurant back in his hometown. Serving one of the most eclectic menus one could imagine in a River Oaks restaurant, Fry's plates run the gauntlet from southern to Tex-Mex to Asian inspired. State of Grace's menu is sharply executed under the direction of former Ciao Bello chef Bobby Matos. I applaud the State of Grace braintrust for making the often reserved diners in this part of Houston play with their food. Beautiful head-on shrimp are served in a flavorful lime broth and come with "soppin' toast," and fried Korean style chicken is playful in its sticky, spicy goodness. Fry evokes the nostalgia sensors with the Enchilada "A La Felix," a classic cheese enchilada bathed in an exquisite red chili gravy that would make any Houstonian happy. At first perusal, the menu may seem too scattered, too casual in comparison to the visually stunning aesthetics of the restaurant itself, but it all works in concert to create a refined but never stuffy dining experience. State of Grace also offers one of the best oyster selections in the city, and their oyster happy hour (3:00 PM to 6:00 PM Mon-Fri) is a great value with a few varietals available for one dollar per oyster. If wise enough to leave room for dessert, the sticky toffee pudding is tremendous and the smoked chocolate sundae is a worthwhile splurge. A little over six months into its run, State of Grace is beginning to hit its stride and I'm excited to see the menu's evolution.

Beef rib, moist brisket, turkey, and pulled pork at CorkScrew BBQ.
No. 4 CorkScrew BBQ (Spring): Will and Nichole Buckman, owners of CorkScrew BBQ, are easy to root for. After catering for friends' parties and local businesses' functions, the Buckmans took a leap of faith and began serving barbecue from a small trailer in a shopping center parking lot in Spring. By 2015 their business had outgrown the trailer set up and they moved operations to a full service restaurant in Old Town Spring. The restaurant provides the perfect setup for their business, and the barbecue continues to be among the best and most consistent in the state. The lines at CorkScrew can seem long, but I assure you they move more swiftly than most barbecue lines I've seen, and they frequently have meat later in the afternoon since converting from the trailer set up. I recently went at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon - prime barbecue eating time - and received my plate of food in approximately thirty minutes, a more than manageable wait for food this excellent. CorkScrew uses prime, all natural brisket exclusively, and it shows in the results. The moist brisket is almost impossibly juicy and well rendered whether ordered at opening time of 11 AM or near sell-out time of 4 PM, a  very hard feat to achieve. The Buckmans serve the best brisket in Houston and possibly my favorite in the state, but there is more to CorkScrew than just brisket. Big, meaty pork spare ribs are fantastic as well, and at $23 for a full rack, they are one of the best values in Texas barbecue. While I do not consider myself a potato salad aficionado, CorkScrew serves a very good version of the classic barbecue side, and the cobbler is a must order on most of my visits. Made fresh, the two dollar helping of fruit cobbler has the perfectly sweet, crunchy crumble that is such a welcome treat after the richness of a barbecue meal. The level of quality that CorkScrew has achieved is impressive, and it is due in large part to the owners' dedication to their product. Each tray of food that comes from the kitchen is personally cooked, sliced, and plated by either Will or Nichole. That day in-day out commitment is what helps make CorkScrew BBQ the smoked meat treasure that it is.

Squash blossom season is celebrated every year at Hugo's.
No. 3 Hugo's (Montrose): How can a restaurant whose chef has been a James Beard Award finalist five years running and is consistently ranked as one of the best in the city somehow feel under-the-radar? I suppose because it has been so long since Hugo's has been considered the hot new thing on the culinary scene, it sometimes gets overlooked when discussing great Houston restaurants. Make no mistake about it, Hugo's is as strong as ever and continues to turn out some of the best food in Houston 14 years into the restaurant's run. Service is always smooth, and the bar program continues to be among the city's best. The moles are predictably great, and the meat and fish cookery remain spot on. Whether it be a bright, acidic ceviche or succulent suckling pig served with one of their trademark bold salsas, a dinner at Hugo's is memorable from start to finish. No mention of this restaurant would be complete without highlighting the Sunday brunch buffet, a rite of passage for any Houstonian. It is simply the best brunch I've ever had or could ever imagine having. There is a massive spread complete with carnitas, cornbread topped with over medium eggs, chilaquiles, enchiladas, tamales, ceviche, salads, and all of the traditional Mexican accompaniments one could hope for. Keep in mind that is only one half of the buffet. The dessert side of things, spearheaded by pastry chef Ruben Ortega, Hugo's brother, is equally impressive with satiny flan, tres leches, churros, and hot chocolate. While Hugo's has not been the new kid on the block for quite some time, it is a Houston institution and even after over a decade in business, it remains one of our best restaurants.

Mung bean pancake stuffed with potato skins and miso from Oxheart.
No. 2 Oxheart (Warehouse District): Oh Oxheart, the place where this whole site began. It was a visit to Oxheart back in February 2014 that inspired me to write about food for the first time. Justin Yu's vegetable focused restaurant remains the most compelling eatery in the city, and I leave each meal there feeling like I've learned something new about a particular ingredient. I debated for quite some time as to whether or not Oxheart would take my number one spot on this list, but ultimately decided to put it second. I decided this not because Oxheart isn't the gold standard restaurant for Houston - I firmly believe that it is - but because Oxheart is for a certain audience. I would not recommend Oxheart to every friend or loved one looking for dinner ideas in Houston. But for those willing to be open minded about dining, Oxheart is as good as it gets. The service remains stellar, and not once has an experience there ever taken on the discomfort that can be associated with fine dining; I truly feel like I've returned to an old friend's house for dinner each time I walk in the doors of the modest restaurant space. Chef Yu's cooking remains as thought provoking and creative as ever as he and his team continue to evolve the menu. Just two days prior to this post, Chef Yu won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, the second Houston chef to take home the award in the last three years. Whether it be a delicately cooked piece of gulf fish or a creative carrot presentation, Oxheart continues to produce menus that reimagine simple ingredients with different cooking techniques. My best advice for anyone considering booking a reservation at Oxheart: forget what your opinion is about every ingredient you see on their menu. There's an excellent chance you will feel differently about them once the meal is over.

Carrots from the Coltivare garden served with carrot top pesto.
No. 1 Coltivare (The Heights): When deciding on which restaurant would take the top spot on this list, I went back and forth between Coltivare and Oxheart. They are two very different restaurants, but both share a commitment to locally sourced product. What ultimately lead me to put Coltivare in the top spot of my favorites list - and please keep in mind this is a favorites list, not a best restaurant list - was that the combination of its style of cuisine, quality of ingredients, and price point of the menu makes it, in my opinion, the best value restaurant in Houston. Revival Market owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber opened Coltivare in early 2014 with the same dedication to locally grown produce and quality meats that Houston had come to know them for at the market. A garden was installed next to the restaurant from which much of the menu's vegetables are picked. Coltivare's Italian-American inspired menu provides options that appeal to a broad audience. No matter how adventurous a diner is or isn't, there are plenty of options from which to choose. Those that adhere to a vegetarian diet can eat a complete meal at Coltivare without feeling like they are missing out on most of the menu, while there are always options for the most carnivorous of customers. Since its opening, Coltivare has gained acclaim for a few staple menu items that do not rotate out, namely the spectacular spaghetti with black pepper, parmesan, and olive oil ($12) as well as a wonderful cauliflower dish that is flash fried and served with the Italian sweet and sour agrodolce and adorned with pine nuts and raisins ($9). The salumi program, which features a number of the meats cured at Revival Market, is one of the strongest in the city right now, while the "snacks" portion of the menu always provides one or two treasures from the restaurant's garden at or near a five dollar price. A menu this approachable and priced this well allows for a table to sample the best of what Coltivare has to offer. Chef Pera's kitchen also produces one of the better pizza menus in Houston with creative toppings and a pillowy dough that is a welcome change from the growing thin crust Neapolitan movement. If not in the mood for heavy pizzas or pastas, the composed salad dishes are well balanced, incredibly fresh, and change often based on seasonality. The bar program led by Weber is strong, providing fresh takes of some cocktail standards as well as innovative offerings that focus on housemade shrubs and the Italian bitter liquer, amaro. If there were to be a complaint with Coltivare, it is the infamous wait times for a table during peak hours. The restaurant does not take reservations, and for weekend service it is best to try an early dinner near the 5 PM opening time or a later dinner around 9 o'clock. If you're willing to plan around that issue, Coltivare is a great restaurant to take your family, friends, or out of town guests for a fantastic meal that pleases all types of diners without breaking the bank. In a city busting at the seams with great food, Coltivare is as good as it gets.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 10-6

Welcome to the top ten. If you've followed along from the beginning, thanks for sticking with me. If you're here for the first time, click here for links to the rest of the list.

Beef rib burnt ends and a two meat plate with a sea of creamed corn at Killen's Barbecue.
No. 10 Killen's Barbecue (Pearland): There's not much that can be said about Killen's Barbecue that hasn't already been covered on any number of the local or national write ups that Ronnie Killen's smoked meat Mecca has received since it opened. With one of the state's largest and most well executed barbecue menus, Killen's delivers a full restaurant experience. The array of meat options are of the highest quality, from well rendered brisket to pepper packed beef ribs, and Killen's boasts a roster of sides and desserts that take a backseat to no joint. No corners are cut at Killen's in terms of quality, including some of the best smoked turkey in Texas. There's good reason why the restaurant offers a five meat plate option as choosing what to order is difficult. My advice: don't miss the brisket or the creamed corn, whatever you do. While the line can be cumbersome and the trip to Pearland inconvenient for many, Killen's Barbecue is a pilgrimage every meat eater should make.

Hunky Dory: scones with jam, butter, and clotted cream | HD Burger and fries | lamb sausage with beans and egg.
No. 9 Hunky Dory (The Heights): For fans of the late, great Montrose restaurant, Feast, Hunky Dory was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in recent memory. Way back in 2013, The Treadsack Group (Down House, Foreign Correspondents, Bernadine's) announced big plans to open numerous restaurants around The Heights. One of those restaurants, Hunky Dory, would bring former Feast chef Richard Knight back to a Houston kitchen. Knight's British heritage, which was on full display at Feast, shines through at Hunky Dory as well. A massive wood burning hearth cooks much of the meat on the menu and is quite the spectacle for diners. Black puddings, terrines, and shepherd's pie have their place on the menu, but Hunky Dory excels with vegetables and more conventional dishes. The HD Burger is decadent in its simplicity, with two juicy patties topped with melted cheese and served with fries that cry out for malt vinegar. Chef Knight's kitchen is also serving an excellent, well priced brunch. While service in the early days of this restaurant could be a bit uneven, the food and bar program is more than good enough to keep coming back, and I'm confident that the smart folks behind this project will iron out the wrinkles. Feast was a restaurant a few years ahead of its time; I am hopeful that Hunky Dory has arrived when Houston is ready for it.

The ever-changing lunch special at Himalaya.
No. 8: Himalaya (Ghandi District): Kaiser Lashkari, the chef/owner of one of Houston's greatest culinary treasures, is one of the busiest people I've ever met. Kaiser oversees service at Himalaya every day and never seems to slow down. He's constantly on the phone, taking to-go orders, scheduling repairs needed at the restaurant, and checking on the tables to make sure diners enjoyed their meal. If that seems like a lot, then factor in that Kaiser also prepares much of Himalaya's daily menu. Himalaya is revered by locals and industry people alike for its intensely flavorful meats and curries. The dining experience at Himalaya never feels stale as Lashkari is always adding specials, such as a recent masala spiced brisket. The daily lunch special at Himalaya is one of my favorite meals in Houston. Served in a cafeteria tray, it has a rotating selection of curries along with rice, naan, and usually another savory treat in each of the tray's sectioned squares. Kaiser's newest experiment, spiced fried chicken, was on the tray on a recent visit. The food at Himalaya is among the most authentic and delicious in the city and Himalaya remains one of the most quintessential Houston restaurants.

The baloney at Public Services Wine & Whisky, to be eaten with an ample amount of sherry.
No. 7 Public Services Wine and Whisky (Market Square Downtown): I am not a bar person, but Public Services is not your typical bar. That is just one of the reasons why I love the place so much. Owned by Oxheart's Justin Vann, Justin Yu, and Karen Man and operated by Vann, Public Services has the city's most varied selection of rare wines and whiskies in the city. The enthusiasm the Public Services staff has about their menu is infectious, and service is always attentive but never pushy. It is a delight to walk into Public Services during their splendid happy hour (4:00-6:30 daily) at which time the entire wine list is half off and pull up a seat at the bar. Most trips in, I take a quick glance at the menu and then just put my drinking decisions in the hands of Vann and his talented staff. The food menu at Public Services is small but as strong as one would expect based on its owners. The house-made "baloney" is the perfect fatty treat, served with cheese and ritz crackers, and the smoked fish spread is a great snack, though I recommend making sure your drink order pairs well with it. If you're not a wine or whisky expert, or even if you are, I cannot recommend enough making a trip to Public Services and entrusting its crew to provide you with one of the most laid back and interesting bar experiences in Houston.

Whole branzino from Helen Greek Food and Wine.

No. 6 Helen Greek Food and Wine (Rice Village): Helen is the rare restaurant where every meal I've had there is better than the last. This is an exciting thought for my next visit considering the spectacular dinner I enjoyed there last month. Respected sommelier Evan Turner realized his dream of bringing his version of Greek food to Houston last year when Helen opened in a small space in Rice Village. Chef William Wright leads the kitchen, and though he does not have a background in Greek cooking, Chef Wright expertly executes Helen's menu of traditional Greek flavors with touches of Houston mixed in to create some of the most interesting plates I've had anywhere in the country in recent memory. The trio of dips, available on all of Helen's menus, is a must order on any visit. The flavors change frequently, but much thought is put into each dip and they are a great introduction to the rest of the menu. Whether it be a smoky eggplant or spiced red bell pepper with feta dip, it is a great bite spooned atop grilled pita bread. Turner's love of Greek wine is on full display at Helen, which boasts one of the largest selections of Greek wines in the country. It is a well priced list and the staff does a great job of pairing the wine with the diners' menu selections. The salads at Helen pop with freshness and a perfect amount of acidity, and a grilled whole branzino dish I enjoyed on my last trip in was one of the best fish dishes I've ever had. The lunch menu equals the appeal of dinner at Helen, where a flavorful brined chicken is served with confit potatoes, a generous lunch portion for its $14 price tag. Helen has brought life to a mostly quiet dining area of Houston, and is one of those restaurants that I feel will get better with age.   

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 15-11

It's coming down to the wire on my 50 favorites list, with only two weeks left before I round out my top five. For a list of my ranking guidelines as well as all of the places on the list so far, click here.

Gulf redfish with seasonal root vegetables (left), teres major with fingerling potatoes and beets (right) from Bramble.
No. 15 Bramble (Tanglewood): When Bramble opened last July, I was beyond impressed with what Chef Randy Rucker and his staff were doing from the start. After a few more visits, I'm still a fan. Chef Rucker's dedication to gulf coast seafood and locally sourced vegetables remains a focus on Bramble's menu. Though Rucker has a well-established reputation for using uncommon ingredients and lesser known cuts of meat, Bramble offers its take on some familiar menu items to the delight of neighborhood patrons. The hamburger has earned rave reviews, and the Monday fried chicken and one dollar oyster specials have been a big hit. I definitely recommend trying the standard fare, but I hope the neighborhood embraces the ultra fresh, delicately cured fish dishes and in-house charcuterie program as well. Though not every dish is a home run and the cocktail program has had some hits and misses, Bramble remains one of the city's more interesting dining options.

No. 14 Caracol (Galleria): The ownership group of husband and wife duo Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught continues to treat Houston diners to delicious, regional Mexican cuisine. Following successful ventures Hugo's, Prego's, and Backstreet Cafe, Ortega and Vaught opened Caracol in the Galleria area a couple of years ago to much acclaim. With a focus on coastal Mexican cuisine, Caracol offers patrons the opportunity to taste wood grilled oysters, vibrant ceviches, and whole roasted fish prepared with traditional Mexican flavors. As is the case with Ortega's namesake restaurant, Caracol offers a Sunday brunch that is not to be missed. While some may think a $35 price tag is too high for a brunch buffet, I assure you that the spread at Caracol is a worthwhile splurge. For fans of the legendary Hugo's brunch, the layout is similar: one area of the restaurant is dedicated to savory dishes such as tamales, salads, seafood soups, ceviche, enchiladas and stuffed peppers, while a separate table is reserved for treats such as flan, cookies, and assorted pastries. If you're not yet ready to commit too much of your dining budget to Caracol, I also recommend stopping by for happy hour to sample some of the seven dollar plates and oyster specials.

My favorite version of ma po tofu in Houston, from Mala Sichuan Bistro
No. 13 Mala Sichuan Bistro (Chinatown and Montrose): I've spoken before of my affinity for Houston's Chinatown. Previously an underrated dining area in our city (some say it still is), the stretch of Bellaire that is home to so many unique and exciting ethnic restaurants has received a much deserved amount of attention the last few years. One of the key reasons in an increased spotlight being shone on Chinatown is Mala Sichuan Bistro. Mala made a name for itself serving lip tingling, spicy Sichuan cuisine true to the region of southwest China for which it is named. My favorite experiences with Mala are the unexpected ones. Cold noodles bring surprising heat while red oil dumplings have a perfect chew and subtle spice that builds. Mala's dishes always deliver on their promise, another achievement for which they should be lauded. Crispy chicken arrives fantastically crunchy and hot and sour glass noodles bring the perfect balance of tang and fire. The expansive menu can be intimidating to work through, but the price point allows for a decent sampling of the different areas of the menu and repeat visits provide opportunities for a new surprise every time. While Mala has opened a second location in Montrose that looks and feels more refined, I prefer the nondescript Chinatown restaurant where it all began. Mala remains one of the best and most important ethnic restaurants in the city.

Two meat plate at Roegels with brisket, pork ribs, pinto beans, and collard greens.
No. 12  Roegels Barbecue Co. (Tanglewood): It's easier to make mediocre barbecue than to work on the craft of carefully produced, well made smoked meat. Russell Roegels, owner and pitmaster at Roegels Barbecue Co. would admit that. For years Russell and Misty Roegels made a good living, serving their restaurant's neighborhood and providing for their family by serving chain restaurant style barbecue. The Roegels could have continued cooking this type of barbecue for a long time and never looked back, turning a good profit and pleasing the masses. Fortunately for Houston - and for barbecue lovers like me - Russell Roegels decided not to rest on his laurels and continued his career education. After attending Texas A&M's barbecue camp and eating at some of Texas' popular joints a few years ago, Russell decided he wanted to start making barbecue his way. Though he was trained on chain barbecue, learning under the Bodacious BBQ brand and later running the Houston outpost of Dallas based chain Baker's Ribs, Russell wanted more. He began altering the spice rubs and cooking methods he had long been using under the Baker's Ribs name and together the Roegels husband and wife team left the Baker's company to re-open as their own operation. The results speak for themselves. The crisp, peppery bark on a fatty slice of Roegels' brisket alone would make it worth a trip in, but the fun doesn't stop there. With a rotating selection of daily specials like smoked pork chops, pastrami, lamb chops, and pork belly, Roegels has been a key player in the ascension of the Houston barbecue scene. Full disclosure, I consider both Russell and Misty friends and visit their restaurant more often than any other on this list. But fear not, their place on this list is completely deserved, and they would be the first to tell you that I'm not shy about giving my honest opinion of their food, good or bad.

Biscuits and gravy with tasso, runny egg, and crispy onion rings from Kitchen 713.
No. 11: Kitchen 713 (East End): Few restaurants can pull off what Kitchen 713 does so well. Sure, there are a plethora of restaurants serving southern, homestyle food. Many even serve it with the flare of chef-ly touches that the Kitchen 713 chef/owners Ross Coleman and James Haywood employ. But I can think of very few that serve it in such a pure and honest way. There is no marketing campaign or culinary buzzword laden menu selling this restaurant. There is just damn good food served without a hint of pretension, full of flavor and care. Shrimp and grits, a menu item I wouldn't mind seeing erased from nearly every menu on which it appears, stuns at Kitchen 713. Fresh shrimp chorizo and a touch of white wine elevates the dish in a way I'd never imagined. While the dinner menu may seem a bit more refined, brunch dishes at this small East End restaurant are comfort food at its finest. Biscuits and gravy from Coleman and Haywood will make you rethink what that dish should be, and the fried chicken for two is so comically large that I wonder which two people the chefs had in mind when composing it. Eight pieces of chicken served with three full sides and biscuits, it's a dish my wife and I have never finished in one sitting. The chefs at Kitchen 713 pay homage to the city's culture with innovative dishes like tres leches pancakes and Vietnamese style turkey neck lettuce wraps that somehow manage to feel gimmicky and genuine all at once. The majority of Houston's most renowned restaurants are managed by smart, savvy restaurant groups and investors with deep pockets, and they should be applauded for their hard work and success. It is refreshing, though, that in a city our size places like Kitchen 713 can still succeed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 20-16

The countdown continues this week as I get closer to finishing the list of my 50 favorite places to eat and drink in Houston. For a recap of the list so far, click here.

No. 20 Bernie's Burger Bus Stop (Bellaire and Katy): Flashback to 2011, when many of us spent an inordinate amount of time chasing around food trucks in search of the latest mobile culinary wonder. I, for one, am glad those days are over. Nothing against kitchens on wheels, but it made for some hasty dining decisions. Even if I wasn't particularly in the mood for a thick, hearty hamburger, if Bernie's was near me I would end up there so as not to miss out on one of owner Justin Turner's juicy beef patties topped with tipsy onions, crispy bacon, or the now clichéd runny egg. Oh, and give me some of those crispy fries served with some of the best scratch made ketchup you'll find anywhere in town. As Bernie's gained both local and national notoriety, one Burger Bus became two, then three, and soon it was much easier to find a Bernie's near you. Unfortunately the expansion came so fast that I feel there was a time that quality dipped a bit and visits to the buses became more hit or miss. One time a burger would arrive medium rare instead of their standard medium while another meal would disappoint with a medium well. When Turner announced plans for a permanent restaurant, I was delighted for two reasons: I felt a dedicated location would help with consistency and I work less than ten minutes from the Bernie's on Bellaire. Fortunately for me - and for Houston diners as a whole - I was correct in regards to the consistency. I'm a frequent diner at the Bellaire location, and Bernie's is once again a reliable spot for good burgers and fries with clever toppings.

Korean braised goat and dumplings from Underbelly.
No. 19 Underbelly (Montrose): It would be a disservice to many of the great restaurants in our city to deem Underbelly as "the restaurant that started it all" in terms of Houston's recent culinary ascent into the national spotlight. After all, it is Chris Shepherd himself who hands his diners a list of great Houston eateries they should visit. But there's no denying Underbelly's importance in our dining landscape. Since its debut four years ago, Underbelly has spawned an all star roster of chefs (see Southern Goods) and its influence on a number of restaurants that have opened since its inception is undeniable. Chris Shepherd's dedication to celebrating the local cuisines of Houston has been on display since day one. The menu continues to be awash with Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mexican influences. Though not every dish has been the hit that the now famous Korean braised goat and dumplings has been, the Underbelly menu is always interesting. There are not many restaurants in which you will find Thai curries and house cured charcuterie on the same menu. Underbelly has been a victim of its own success at times - they've lost a lot of talent in the kitchen and Shepherd has become a highly sought after food personality in the wake of his James Beard Award win, which pulls him away from the kitchen - and that success has in my opinion taken away from the customer's experience. In the early years of eating at Underbelly, a table of four could order a multitude of dishes, sampling all of what Underbelly had to offer at what many would consider more of a casual splurge. Nowadays the restaurant has become a special occasion place for the average diner. A recent look at the menu showed that 12 of the 20 composed dishes on the menu carried a price tag of at least $24 each, and only one dish at less than a $12 price point. Conversely, a look at early Underbelly menus displays 12 of 20 dishes were under $16, and four dishes had less than a $12 price tag. Admittedly, Underbelly is the only place on this list that I have not visited within the last year. The "story of Houston food" has just gotten a bit pricey these days.

Masala Dosa (left) and Madras Thali (right) from Shri Balaji Bhavan
No. 18 Shri Balaji Bhavan (Ghandi District): One of my favorite dining areas of Houston is the Mahatma Ghandi District. The small stretch of Hillcroft west of Highway 59 is home to many of the city's best ethnic restaurants. None of these restaurants will stand out aesthetically, but the flavors of the different Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines more than make up for that. Nestled in a strip center on Hillcroft near Westpark, Shri Balaji Bhavan specializes in vegetarian Indian cuisine. Nothing is tamed for Western taste buds here; the filled dosas and chaats are as spicy and aromatic as one could hope for. With a menu that lacks descriptions of the dishes, it can be daunting deciding what to order at Shri Balaji Bhavan if you are unfamiliar with South Indian cuisine. My best advice would be either to go with a friend who is well versed, or just ask the person behind the counter to recommend a few different dishes. Most items on the menu are less than ten dollars, so it won't hurt your wallet to take a chance here. Still afraid to take the plunge? Order the Madras thali which comes with different types of curries, soup, rice, one dessert sample, and chapatis (similar to a tortilla). This will allow you to try different items for seven dollars. The spice levels at Shri Balaji Bhavan range from mild to atomic, so beware. There is good reason why they leave full pitchers of water by the silverware station for customers to take to the table.

Beef belly with grits and greens | Porterhouse pork chop with caramelized mashed potatoes at Southern Goods
No. 17 Southern Goods (The Heights): Those of us who follow the Houston restaurant scene closely will look back on 2015 as one of the most exciting, important years in our dining culture. Every month new restaurants opened that caught the attention of our city's passionate dining community. No restaurant, however, opened up with more culinary star power than Southern Goods. Chef Lyle Bento, a rising star in our city with restaurants like Rainbow Lodge, Stella Sola, and Feast on his resumé, left his sous chef position at Underbelly to open up Southern Goods with Cottonwood owner Charles Bishop. Chef Bento recruited some of his former Underbelly kitchenmates in JD Woodward (another Rainbow Lodge and Stella Sola alum) and Patrick Feges (Brennan's and Killen's Barbecue) to join him at Southern Goods. With Woodward installed as chef de cuisine and Feges in as sous chef, expectations were high before Bento and his crew ever opened the doors. To put it mildly, Southern Goods has been a huge hit. Beloved by locals and food writers alike, it has delivered on its promise of fun, creative dishes full of flavor in a laid back atmosphere. Feges' barbecue background has allowed Southern Goods to provide clever smoked elements on its menu; the beef belly with grits is a stunning visual on the plate, though it has recently been rotated out with a brisket plate. The restaurant also does monthly Saturday barbecue lunches, something I regretfully have not attended yet. One will find one of the great burgers in Houston on its menu, a simple but well executed double meat cheeseburger full of flavor and a comeback sauce that is true to its name. You'll find different southern and cultural influences on the seasonal menu as well. Whether it be Mexican street corn one week or crisped up pork belly "cracklins" the next, Southern Goods dishes are both delicious and approachable.

The Chillin' Dog and Curryous Frank from Good Dog Houston
No. 16 Good Dog Houston (The Heights): Growing up in a New York household, I never thought of hot dogs as more than a quick meal that fit the grab-and-go mentality. Shame on me for never thinking of the possibilities that existed within the confines of a bun and a frank, and thank heavens that Good Dog owners Amalia Pferd and Daniel Caballero seem to have thought of them all. Another food truck turned brick and mortar, Good Dog has made a name for itself by taking flavor combinations from different cultural influences and craftily incorporating them into hot dog buns. In the mood for Mexican flavor? Try the Chillin' Dog that's topped with beef and chorizo chili, pickled jalapenos, and Good Dog's excellent house mustard. My wife's personal favorite is the Curryous Frank with curried onion relish, sweet potato crisps, cilantro chutney, sriracha ketchup, and garlic aioli. This may sound like too many ingredients on a simple hot dog, but I assure you that the deft hands in the Good Dog kitchen never overdo it. All of the flavors come through perfectly with each topping feeling like it belongs in the dish. The overly large Slow Dough buns that Good Dog uses are a perfect vessel for their clever accompaniments. Lightly toasted and hefty, the buns can withstand the weight of the toppings admirably. With every hot dog on the menu in the seven to eight dollar range, I defy you to find a better meal at that price point in this city. If you happen to leave room, the Good Dog milkshakes are all made with Fat Cat Creamery ice cream and are a great indulgence. I have long thought that this is a restaurant that just "gets it" when it comes to delivering great food and service, but my most recent experience at Good Dog took that belief to another level. When the server dropped off my wife's meal at the table, she explained that my hot dog was being remade because when it was plated for service, it "didn't look pretty." While to some this could appear to be the most trivial of reasons to delay an order, it shows how savvy the restaurant is in terms of its image and reputation. We live in an age where every diner has a camera phone at the ready, many use online review sites, and every plate a restaurant sends out of its kitchen has a better than average chance of ending up displayed across multiple social media outlets. Good Dog is a smart restaurant that recognizes the importance of maintaining that quality standard, no matter how silly it may seem to watch us clowns photographing a hot dog.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 25-21

The countdown continues, though I must make one thing clear before kicking off the second part of the list. Restaurants change frequently, chefs move on and I want to try to make sure that I'm providing my opinions of these places based on fairly current information. Thus, I have tried to go to at least one place on the list every week before it gets posted to reinforce my feelings on its merits. That said, as always you can click here for my other self imposed rules and to find out the other places on the list to date.
Fried eggs with chilis (left), spicy pork with long beans (right) from Hunan Bistro
No. 25 Hunan Bistro (Chinatown): If you've never spent much time in Houston's Chinatown, it's an experience I cannot recommend enough. The stretch of Bellaire Boulevard between Highway 59 to about a mile beyond Beltway 8 is home to many different Asian restaurants and bakeries, most of which offer unique offerings at good prices. It is in Chinatown where you'll find the 25th spot on my list. Hunan Bistro is located in the Dun Huang Plaza, which houses the more well-known Banana Leaf and Fu Fu Cafe. Hunan cuisine is known for its intense spice levels and use of preserved and cured products, and Hunan Bistro stays true to that style. I like to think I have a higher than average spice tolerance, but some dishes at Hunan have tested my limits. Not to worry- not all dishes pack this amount of heat, and the staff will help guide you through the menu to make sure you can handle it. Fried eggs with chilis is a dish I could eat once a week, and most of the lunch specials are a more than generous portion at around a six dollar price tag. I recommend going with a group and ordering a few dishes to share. A spotlight has been shone on some Chinatown restaurants in recent years, but Hunan Bistro is still relatively unknown in the food community. With a long list of flavorful, interesting dishes, I have a feeling they won't toil in obscurity for long.
The show-stopping banana split from Cloud 10 Creamery.
No. 24 Cloud 10 Creamery (Rice Village): I don't think I've ever anticipated a dessert place's opening more than when highly acclaimed pastry chef Chris Leung announced he was going to open Cloud 10 Creamery in Rice Village. Leung, the former Kata Robata pastry chef, started Cloud 10 in 2012 selling his small batch ice creams to restaurants. It was at Underbelly that I first got a taste of Leung's unique ice cream creations. After building a successful clientele, plans for an ice cream shop began to take shape. Now open in Rice Village, Cloud 10 serves up unique ice cream flavors that change with the seasons. One visit in the fall may bring a scoop of gingersnap or maple butter, while a stop in the spring may reward you with a smoked peach ice cream. The seasonal sundaes are always interesting as Leung and company play with different flavor and textural profiles. The Cloud 10 banana split, comprised of a caramelized banana sliced in half lengthwise, vanilla, chocolate, and Nutella with marshmallow ice creams all topped with berry sauce, fudge, magic shell and Nutella "powder," is one of Houston's great desserts. Though Cloud 10 specializes in one of the core childhood indulgences, it is much more than just that. Going to Cloud 10 Creamery is truly a culinary experience.
A typical spread at Asia Market.
No. 23 Asia Market (North Houston): In the last few years, our city has seen a number of food trucks transition into brick-and-mortars, but Asia Market may be Houston's only eatery once housed inside of a grocery store to transition into a full service restaurant. For years Asia Market operated within a market on Calvalcade on the north side with the market's employees pulling double duty as both cashiers and servers. Last year the owners opened up a full service restaurant not far from the market, and while it is nice to have a more proper sit down meal, I do miss a bit of the charm of sitting in the market. The food, however, has not changed and some have said it has actually improved. Thai food dumbed down for American taste buds runs rampant in Houston, but not so much is the case at Asia Market. The green curry is my favorite in the city, and Asia Market is one of only two restaurants I know of that serves sour Thai E Sarn sausage. While there are some stumbles - I don't need Thai eggplant in every dish - they deliver on flavor and heat when requested. The som tum at Asia Market has proven to be a bit more consistent in terms of flavor and spice level than some recent trips to Vieng Thai, and don't miss the pad kee mao.
The pastry case at Common Bond is still a sight to see.
No. 22 Common Bond (Montrose): I must admit this is one of the most internally debated places on my list. Six months into its existence, Common Bond likely would have been a top five spot on my list. The pastries were and still are world class. Impeccably flaky and buttery croissants are the star of the pastry case, but the citrus accented, sugary kugelhopf are a close second for me. Common Bond also serves one of the city's finest chocolate chip cookies. Why then is it not ranked higher for me? Simply put, I remember what the place used to be and could have been. Common Bond was launched by one of the country's most touted pastry chefs, Roy Shvartzapel along with investors. Shvartzapel amassed a culinary dream team upon return to his hometown of Houston, creating a lot of buzz with his claim of wanting to open the "best bakery in America." By all accounts, Common Bond was off to a great start with fantastic breads, pastries, and an always changing hot breakfast and lunch menu that rivaled some of the best restaurants in the city. Unfortunately for Houstonians, a year into its run, Shvartzapel broke from his business partners and left Common Bond. While their pastry program is still as strong as our city has to offer, the overall menu that was so well produced and innovative has become more standardized and less reliable. Common Bond has recently been sold to Johnny Carrabba, a transaction that one can't help but find curious. Carrabba does promise more parking which should come as great news to its patrons' endless battles to find a spot. But will Common Bond ever get back to its early glory days? I have my doubts. But please, for the love of baked goods, don't change a thing about those croissants.
Simple but very good misto from Giacomo's
No. 21 Giacamo's Cibo e Vino (Upper Kirby): An expansive menu of thoughtful, delicious Italian food served in a quaint restaurant with one of Houston's best patios? Sign me up. Giacomo's is one of those restaurants that just makes you feel good about dining out. One can go hearty with arguably the city's best bolognese or an order of the polpetti puccini, spicy meatballs in a creamy tomato sauce that don't skimp on the fennel. If something lighter fits the occasion, order from the vegetable side of the menu with options like a seasonal misto. The pasta dishes are portioned well, and the menu is set up for diners to sample a few things without breaking the bank. While I have encountered a service issue here and there, the food that comes from the kitchen always seems to be made with such care and a touch of home. We need more places like Giacomo's in Houston.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 30-26

This week's batch of five brings us to the halfway point of the list. For a recap of the previous spots, click here.

No. 30 The Hay Merchant (Montrose): The craft beer movement has been sweeping across Texas for some time now. New breweries seem to open up in the Houston area almost weekly, and bars specializing in craft beers are benefiting greatly from this growth. The Hay Merchant has been at the forefront of craft beer bars in our city since its opening four years ago. Housed next door to its co-owner Chris Shepherd's award winning restaurant Underbelly, The Hay Merchant boasts dozens of taps of all craft - and mostly Texas brewed - beers of different styles. With a great patio area right in the heart of Montrose, the vast selection of brews would be enough to make this place a worthwhile destination, but my favorite reason to go here is the affordable menu. Straightforward bar fare like the double meat and cheese cease and desist burger (so named after an In-and-Out Burger trademark issue) are well executed, and chicken wings get amped up with sauce options like a Korean style gojuchang for the slightly more adventurous patrons. If one really wants to stretch their culinary horizons, the half pig head entree is a show stopping presentation that could feed a table of four quite comfortably. As Underbelly has gained national notoriety, its menu has become less financially palatable to the average diner, making The Hay Merchant a nice option to get Underbelly style cuisine with a less substantial hit to the wallet.
From Revival Market Left: Zataar spiced chicharrones | Right: Lamb pastrami with potato salad
No. 29 Revival  Market (The Heights): Much has been written about Revival Market's place in Houston's culinary landscape, and rightfully so. I don't think it is overstating to say that the Heights market and eatery has played a crucial role in crafting a more informed diner. From butchery classes to highlighting local farmers and vendors, co-owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber have spent the last five years showcasing quality product and educating Houston on the importance of supporting the local food community. The coffee program at Revival Market, which uses Greenway Coffee (more to come on that below), is among the best in the city, and the ever-changing weekend breakfast options are stellar. A few times a year, Revival Market serves up their scratch made kolaches and klobasniky to the fervor of the many locals who line up right at opening time for a fresh batch of both the fruit-filled and sausage breakfast pastries. The weekly lunch menu at Revival features fresh and house-cured meats from the market as well as local produce, and the meat counter always has interesting take-home options. The dining culture in Houston has seen a wide growth recently, and places like Revival Market are a big reason why.
Fresh pastas from Paulie's
No. 28 Paulie's (Montrose): Every food city has a "where the industry people eat" list, and one of the places inevitably on Houston's list is Paulie's. On a given day you may see a well-known chef at a table feasting on one of Paulie's fresh salads or sandwiches at lunch, or one of the city's food writers enjoying a scratch pasta dish or ossobuco special at dinner. It's not a see and be seen place; it just serves damn good no frills food. The portions at Paulie's are hearty to say the least - expect leftovers unless you arrive completely famished - and the prices are more than fair. The daily specials are not to be missed, the Friday linguini and mussels being a personal favorite that harkens back to my childhood. If there's no room for dessert, I recommend at least pausing at the dessert counter on the way out. Paulie's decorated cookies have reached near legendary status with their colorful artwork. With a menu that's approachable to everyone, Paulie's is one of my favorite go-to spots for simple, well-made Italian comfort food.
The seasonal Hatch chili burger at Hubcap Grill is not for the faint of heart.
No. 27 Hubcap Grill (Downtown, Heights, Kemah): Confession: for a long time, I didn't understand the intense praise lavished upon Hubcap Grill. While I had eaten at the location on 19th street in The Heights multiple times and enjoyed my meals, I never could quite wrap my head around why so many of the city's respected food personalities swore by Ricky Craig's burger joint. After some time to reflect, and after a few more trips to Hubcap Grill, I came to the realization that I was simply overthinking it. I was expecting Hubcap to be something more than it was ever trying to be. It's a burger joint, and a very good one at that. Craig's clever burger toppings (strangely, crunchy peanut butter works on a bun) and crispy fries are burger dining in its most creative yet purest form. Unless one adheres to a vegan or vegetarian diet, there is something for everyone at Hubcap Grill. Classic double burgers are hard seared and served up to the burger purists, while options such as the hangover burger topped with cream gravy await those looking for something more off-the-wall. With locations downtown, in the Heights, Kemah, and an outpost inside of Bush Airport on the way, the Ricky Craig burger empire is growing. I'm glad I finally came around.
Blacksmith's square biscuit with either marmalade and crème fraiche (left) or sausage, egg, and cheddar (right)
No. 26 Blacksmith (Montrose): The Montrose area is getting a lot of love on this week's portion of the list, and for good reason. This part of Houston is home to many of the city's most acclaimed eateries and also houses my favorite coffee shop. David Buehrer's Greenway Coffee Company made a name for itself from humble beginnings at their small coffee shop in Greenway Plaza. Word spread quickly and Buehrer's carefully sourced and expertly roasted beans soon began showing up on menus in some of the best restaurants in Houston, including the aforementioned Revival Market and Paulie's. After helping numerous restaurants improve their coffee programs, Buehrer opened Blacksmith in 2013 in partnership with the Clumsy Butcher Group. Blacksmith serves a mostly traditional coffee menu featuring well-made espressos, cortados, lattes and the like. The food menu is small but equally well crafted. The Clumsy Butcher Group brought in well respected and immensely talented chef Erin Smith to develop the original Blacksmith food menu. Though Chef Smith left in 2014 to pursue other ventures, her square biscuit remains a staple of the menu and one of my favorite breakfast items anywhere. Served with your choice of either crème fraiche and seasonal marmalade or with sausage, egg, and cheddar, it's a perfect flaky biscuit that eats well with a cup of Greenway coffee. Houston is home to quite a few excellent coffee spots these days, and Blacksmith remains at the head of that class.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 35-31

The countdown continues on my favorite spots in Houston. As always, feel free to click here to view the rules I set for myself in making this list. You can also catch up with previous spots on the list via that link.
Left: Meat pie with chickpeas and pickled veg. | Right, Spicy falafel sandwich from Zabak's
No. 35 Zabak's Mediterranean Café (Galleria area): I fear that places like Zabak's are an endangered species. Although they have no social media presence and their restaurant is tucked away in a strip center at Westheimer and Fountain View, the Zabak siblings continue to serve quality food to hungry Houston diners just as their parents did a generation before them, and places like that are in short supply. While they've received praise over the years from everyone from Alison Cook to Robb Walsh to Katharine Shilcutt, they still seem to operate in relative obscurity. Much has been written about the legacy of the falafel sandwich made famous by their father, the late George Zabak, over 40 years ago. Zabak's spicy falafel sandwich is great, and it's one of my favorite quick hit vegetarian lunches in town. But Zabak's is more than just that sandwich. Easily one of the friendliest counter service restaurants you'll encounter, Zabak's is a great lunch spot to get a full plate of food for under ten dollars. Both the gyro and the shawarma sandwiches are solid options, and the spinach and meat pies have a perfect crust that is just the right shade of golden brown and flakes wonderfully when you cut into it. While waiting on your order, don't miss the complimentary chickpeas and pickled vegetables near the counter. The Zabak family is a Houston institution; here's hoping they stick around for another forty years.

Epic spread from Pappa Charlies (photo courtesy Scott Sandlin)
No. 34 Pappa Charlies Barbeque (Downtown): It's hard to fathom that most of the best barbecue joints in town did not exist just a few years ago, including the number 34 spot on my list. Pappa Charlies came onto the scene a few years ago as a food truck, mainly posting up at Jackson's Watering Hole on Richmond. Owner and pitmaster Wesley Jurena was a decorated competition cooker long before getting into the commercial barbecue business and has applied his years of experience tinkering with different flavor profiles to his restaurant. Pappa Charlies successfully transitioned into a brick and mortar location last fall and the reviews are coming in strong. Elements of Jurena's competition days still pop up a little on the menu; his much ballyhooed ribs have a bit of that sweet heat combination you often find at cook-offs, but never skew too much into the "candy ribs" category that I personally don't care for. Pappa Charlies has perhaps the most aggressive black pepper brisket rub in the state today, a feat for which I applaud them. There's nothing better than biting into an intensely peppery slice of fatty brisket. Keep an eye out for the specials they put on the menu, like the smoked meat loaf and lamb ribs, and whatever you do don't miss out on their mac 'n cheese. While Wes and his crew - which includes son Jared and longtime friend and helper Jim Buchanan -continue to work on meeting the demands of a hungry Houston crowd, they keep the fires burning and are a shining example of the improvement of the Houston barbecue scene.
Banana Nutella crepe with strawberries. | The Melange cart can most often be found at the Montrose HEB these days.
No. 33 Melange Creperie (Montrose HEB/East End Farmer's Market): There are people that are just born to put on a show, and then there is Sean Carroll. Affectionately referred to as "Buffalo Sean" in reference to his upstate New York heritage, Carroll has been dazzling diners at his crepe stand for years. Of course neither his funny banter nor his warm personality would matter in terms of being on this list if he wasn't also serving delicious food. Carroll started Melange Creperie after eating crepes in Paris on his honeymoon, and his stand took up regular residence in front of the now-closed Mango's club in Montrose. Along with menu staples of ham and cheese or banana Nutella, Carroll also offers different crepe options that change almost weekly based on availability, seasonality (many ingredients come straight from his garden), and showcase different ethnic cuisines. One week it may be a take on the Chinese jian bing,  and another may be a classic ratatouille stuffed into a paper thin, crispy pocket. Whichever crepe you choose, it will be served with excellent ingredients and there will be a personal touch that accompanies your wait for what Carroll jokingly refers to as his "pancake tacos." These days you can find Melange at the Montrose HEB in the freezer section as well as both the East End and City Hall farmers markets while Carroll continues to look at brick and mortar options.

No. 32 Vieng Thai (Westview on Long Point): Perhaps no area of town better illustrates our city's cultural diversity than Long Point Road on the west side of Houston. Taquerias are plentiful, Bon Ga Garden (one of the better Korean restaurants in town) is on Long Point, and Vieng Thai resides here as well. The latter is a no frills, strip center restaurant that is one of the best BYOB no corkage fee places around. Thai cuisine can often be hit or miss in Houston, but Vieng Thai is one of our better options. The som tum is always part of my standard order, but beware the varying levels of spice that I have been served in the classic papaya salad dish on different visits. Most experiences have provided a perfect heat, but there have been a few times where my mouth has been left numb by an overwhelming amount of chilis in the dish. The tom kha soup is always vibrant with just the right amount of kaffir lime to wake up the dish, and the curries are reliable. What the restaurant may lack in refinement it more than makes up for in ambience; the dining room is a mish-mash of kitsch and amusement with its mirrored wall, disco ball, and television playing anything from sports to old westerns. Feel free to wait for a table on their 70's era flowered couch. Vieng Thai is like your favorite antique store that also happens to serve really good Thai food.

Pizaro's: 90 seconds in a 900 degree oven makes for a great pie, but don't be shy to ask for another 20 seconds of char.
No. 31 Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana (West Houston/Montrose): I suppose we've reached the BYOB portion of my list, as Pizaro's also allows its patrons to bring in the bottle(s) of their choosing. Unlike Vieng Thai, however, Pizaro's charges a corkage fee at both locations. At last check the charge was $3.00 per bottle of wine and $0.50 per beer, a more than reasonable amount. Drinking aside, I come here for great pizza. Adhering to the strict Italian code of making Neapolitan style pizza, Pizaro's uses only San Marzano tomatoes and type 00 flour for their crust. I began going to the original location on the west side of town a few years ago and fell in love with the deeply charred crust and simple but thoughtful topping combinations at Pizaro's. Whether it's one of their standards like the salsiccia e funghi with tomato sauce, mushrooms, and sausage topped with their quality mozzarella or one of their daily specials like the sausage and ghost pepper pizza I had last Halloween, Pizaro's always delivers on flavor. After a couple char-lacking experiences at the Montrose location, friends on Twitter clued me in on asking for extra char as they had to dial it back on the crispy crusts at the newer location after some customer complaints. Whether it's a slightly chewy dough or a dark, crispy crust you prefer, Pizaro's will gladly oblige.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 40-36

The countdown continues for my 50 favorite places to dine around Houston. Click here for my self-imposed eligibility guidelines where you can also find links to the first ten spots on the list.

Puntas chimino from Alicia's Mexican Grille
No. 40 Alicia's Mexican Grille (Multiple locations): I feel I would be doing our city a disservice if I did not have at least one Tex-Mex place on the list, and Alicia's Mexican Grille is worthy. Having been to both the Katy and Cypress locations, I can vouch for the quality and consistency of the food Alicia's is putting out. Some of the more popular Tex-Mex chains around town have seen a decline in quality and an increase in price over the years, but Alicia's remains an affordable option for a good Tex-Mex meal despite their growing roster that now includes four locations. My go-to order at Alicia's is the puntas chimino: chunks of beef tenderloin cooked with bacon, jalapeños, mushrooms and onions and served with a great avocado relish over which my wife and I go to battle. In true Tex-Mex style it is a large enough portion to bring some leftovers home for a meal the next day. It is a spicy dish, so if that isn't your speed the fajitas and enchiladas are a safer and still very good choice.
Zucca (left) and Margherita (right) pizzas at Dolce Vita. Pardon the lighting.
No. 39 Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca (Montrose): I go back and forth in my head on which Houston pizza is my favorite, Dolce Vita or Pizaro's. Truth be told I still haven't decided, but the research sure is fun and the competition will only increase with Dallas favorite Cane Rosso opening in The Heights later this year. The pizzas at Dolce Vita are Neapolitan style with a vast selection of toppings. One of my personal favorites is the zucca featuring charred thin crust topped with buffalo mozzarella, butternut squash, pancetta, and red onion. Dolce Vita is more than just good pizza though; the various fritto options and cured meats are not to be missed, and Chef Marco Wiles' team does great things with vegetables. The grilled broccoli with pecorino and a perfectly roasted cauliflower are wonderful examples of excellence in simplicity.

No. 38 Café TH (EaDo): Houston's large Vietnamese population means that there are a plethora of options from which to choose when in the mood for a banh mi, a bowl of pho, or any other Vietnamese delicacy. Cafe TH more than fills that role for the east end crowd. Owner Minh Nguyen is always present to greet customers, answer questions, and check on tables at his small cafe that serves up  delicious, affordable weekday lunches. My personal favorite is the xiu mai (pork meatball) banh mi, but I'm often swayed by the rotating list of daily specials Nguyen offers. The house made spring rolls are always crisp and fresh too, if you feel a lunch appetizer is in order. In a time where most fast food meals approach the ten dollar level, Cafe TH is one of the best lunch options in town when it comes to price and quality.

No. 37 Marini's Empanada House (Katy & Westchase): Katy is undergoing a bit of a restaurant revolution. Some of the chain restaurants are closing (bye-bye Steak 'n Shake) and more family owned and chef driven restaurants are opening. Long before the improvement in this suburb's dining scene, when family owned places were scarce, there was Marini's. Located in a small strip center on Mason Road near Westheimer Parkway, Marini's serves handmade savory and sweet empanadas. Savory options include a spicy pulled pork with onions and cilantro and a chicken poblano with mole. The fried pockets arrive hot and golden brown with a side of Marini's bright chimichurri sauce. Two empanadas is usually a good serving size, though a table of two hungry diners may opt for an order of five to share. The service is attentive and friendly; you'll almost always be served by a member of the Marini family. Another reason that Marini's became a favorite of mine when I lived in Katy: they are big fans of craft beer and keep a great selection at the store. Can't find the latest "get in line at Spec's" offering from a popular brewery? Check Marini's- you may be able to get one to go.

Mexican chocolate and horchata swirl in a brown butter waffle cone.
No. 36 Fat Cat Creamery (The Heights): It's hard not to love ice cream. It's even harder not to love Fat Cat Creamery's frozen treats. This small batch ice cream outpost began a few years ago by selling to different vendors in the city such as Revival Market as well as a small rolling cart which they'd take out to places like Buchanan Plants in The Heights to peddle their wares. It was there that I first had both their Mexican vanilla ice cream and their strawberry and buttermilk made with Waterlooo gin. After building up a strong customer base, "the cats," as they are known to call themselves, opened up a shop at Shepherd and 19th Street. In their small but inviting space they offer both of the aforementioned vanilla and strawberry flavors as well as a milk chocolate stout and an array of rotating flavors. Feeling nostalgic? Go for their soft serve flavor of the day in one of Fat Cat's signature brown butter waffle cones. My favorite find there was an horchata and Mexican chocolate soft serve swirl. Next time you're out for a meal in The Heights (Fat Cat is a stone's throw away from Southern Goods, Hunky Dory, and Bernadine's), skip dessert at the restaurant and cap off your night with a couple scoops.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 45-41

Over the next several weeks I am highlighting my 50 favorite places to dine around Houston. If you missed the first five spots revealed last week, click here. A list of ground rules is available for anyone curious as to how I went about the selection process.
Rotisserie chicken with rice & spicy fried cassava (think yucca) | The dangerously good green sauce from Pollo Bravo.
No. 45 Pollo Bravo (multiple locations): I would come here just for the sauce. There is no simpler way to say it. Pollo Bravo specializes in flavorful rotisserie chicken served with small cups of a mayonnaise based green pepper sauce that has me completely hooked. While they won't specifically tell you which peppers are used, Peruvian aji peppers seem to be the consensus amongst the dining community. The sauce is as wonderfully spicy as it is diverse. When picking up a to go order, I always request an extra sauce to utilize later in the week (pro tip: it's great on eggs). That's not all that makes Pollo Bravo one of my favorite quick stops. Billing itself as a Peruvian-Mexican hybrid, Pollo Bravo offers dishes like Peruvian style ceviches and crispy taquitos. Although there is no shortage of rotisserie chicken options in our city right now, Pollo Bravo is the one I'd recommend.
The Burger Joint is serving up some of the best burgers in Houston right now.
No. 44 The Burger Joint (Montrose & food truck): With so many places around the city to get a hamburger these days, it would be easy to overlook The Burger Joint's opening late last year in the former Little Bigs spot on Montrose. One trip there confirmed the reviews I had been reading about The Burger Joint; this place is a worthy hamburger destination. They offer both your standard burger toppings as well as more specialized burgers like the Greek inspired "opa!" lamb burger and a Korean influenced kimchi burger. For those not afraid of heat, the fire burger with spicy sauce that's topped with both jalapeño and serrano peppers is a great option. The shakes are solid, and the queso fries are a delightful indulgence. Kudos to The Burger Joint for executing their patties at a juicy medium. Many places claim to do it, but few achieve a good pink center in burgers these days. I was impressed that my burger was cooked properly both at the restaurant and on a recent order I picked up from their food truck.

No. 43 Tita's Taco House (Humble): Quick, name a restaurant around town that lets you pay via the honor system. Don't feel bad, I couldn't either until I went to Tita's Taco House, where you place your order, eat, then go to the register where they ask you three simple question. How many tacos did you have? Did you add cheese to them? Did you have anything to drink? Once you've provided your answers, you get your bill for the meal. Tortillas are cooked fresh to order, though they sometimes have a small stash of flour already made that morning. The corn tortillas, my personal favorite, almost always take a couple minutes to cook once you place your order. Tita's offers a rotating selection of different types of taco fillings; everything from barbacoa to chicken mole to short rib, chorizo and egg to poblano and cheese and more are available on a given day depending on availability. Each taco starts with a smear of homemade refried beans on the tortilla followed by a generous but not overstuffed amount of whichever meat or vegetable you choose. Three tacos will satisfy any moderately hungry diner, and at two dollars per taco, it's a fantastic bargain for food this authentic. Sauce bottles are available for you to dress your tacos, and they are your standard red and green chili styles. Both are serviceable, but use them sparingly; these tacos are just fine without them. Located in a small house on Wilson Road in Humble, Tita's is a family run place through and through. The colorful murals that adorn the walls are as amusing as they are random: a Muhammad Ali wall here, a New York skyline there. There is really nothing not to like about Tita's. My only complaint about would be that they are only open for breakfast and lunch (closed Sundays), and I am a big fan of a good taco dinner.

No. 42 Brother's Pizzeria (multiple locations): If you have ever tried to talk to a New Yorker about eating New York style pizza anywhere outside of their home state, you've likely heard all of the griping. "Eh, they don't know what New York pizza is, the crust is all wrong." Being from New York myself and being raised by my father who spent the first 48 years of his life living in Brooklyn, I have heard it all. When my family moved to Texas, my father's culinary heart remained in The Big Apple. In the early 90's, the discovery of Brother's Pizzeria - at that time located in the food court of West Oaks Mall - was the answer to my father's greasy pie dreams. Brother's departed the mall food court ages ago and has since opened outposts on Highway 6 off I-10 (the location I can vouch for), in Garden Oaks, and in Cypress. Perfectly thin crust and dripping with grease, this is the pizza I grew up with and the flavor I crave. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy most styles of pizza from Neapolitan to deep dish, but a simple New York pie with pepperoni brings me back to childhood.

Blueberry pancakes as big as your face from Pecan Creek Grille
 No. 41: Pecan Creek Grille (West Houston): I never realized how much I missed living near a place that serves good, straight-forward breakfast until I moved 40 miles away from Pecan Creek Grille. My current suburb has thus far proven to be a wasteland for breakfast food, which has me longing for the fluffy pancakes and weekend specials of pulled pork hash that Pecan Creek provided me with for years. There's nothing fancy going on here- just good folks serving good breakfast to eager crowds for a fair price. You may recognize the dinner plate sized pancakes at Pecan Creek Grille; they're a tradition the owners brought over from their days at the famed Houston breakfast spot The Buffalo Grille. If you live on the west side of Houston, forgo the griddle at home one weekend and let Pecan Creek take care of you and be glad that you live close by.