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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 50-46

If you have any questions about how this list came to be, click here for a brief outline on the ground rules for my fifty favorite places in and around Houston. Over the next ten weeks, I'll be posting a fresh batch of five places each week to eat and drink around our great city.

No. 50 Bill's Cafe (Kingwood): This list would not be complete without at least one good old fashioned greasy spoon, and Bill's Cafe perfectly fits in that niche. Housed in a small building off of Loop 494 in Kingwood, as the sign will tell you, Bill's has been "serving the world since 1945." One look inside the place and you'll be inclined to agree with that timeline. The smell of sizzling flat tops and fryers fills the air, and the walls are adorned with hats left behind by the construction workers and blue collar types that have frequented Bill's for years. It's a great place to get cheap, greasy burgers. Their appetizers are mostly different forms of fried bites ranging from pickles to mushrooms to mac n cheese, all offered at a by-the-piece price. If you're fortunate enough to come in on a night when they're serving chili, don't pass it up. It's a great version of Texas red, adorned with diced onions and chopped pickled jalapeños. 
The monstrous Wicked Philly from Papa Geno's
No. 49 Pappa Geno's (Multiple Locations in Houston): With the unholy amount of smoked meat I consume, I try to eat a little healthier during workday lunches. When that plan inevitably fails and I throw caloric caution to the wind, I end up at Pappa Geno's for a Wicked Philly. This mammoth of a Philly cheesesteak sandwich is topped with grilled onions, mayo, and spicy giardiniera pickles on a sturdy sandwich roll. Not a fan of spice? Pappa Geno's array of sandwiches has something for just about everyone. With locations off of Ella, on Bellaire between Chimney Rock and the Bellaire triangle, and on north Eldridge, you have plenty of opportunities around the city to ruin your diet. 

No. 48 The Curry House (Humble): If you are a fan of ethnic food and live in the Humble/Kingwood/Atascocita (HKA) area, then you've suffered as I have with the dearth of any acceptable options on the north side. Well friends, I am happy to report that things are looking up. The Curry House opened in August just off of Highway 59 and FM 1960, specializing in cuisine from both Northern and Southern India. While I did have a less successful experience dining a la carte off of their dinner menu, the lunch buffet ($9.95 weekday, $12.95 weekends and holidays) is varied and more interesting than many of the Indian buffets I've eaten at in our city's great Mahatma Ghandi District. 
Though they cater to the masses with the standard versions of butter chicken and saag paneer, The Curry House shows a deft hand with a great goat curry whose heat builds by the bite. A beetroot masala was available on one visit, which offered a great sweetness and textural difference on the plate. The Curry House does cook in accordance with Muslim Zabiha regulations, which should come as welcome news to Muslims in the HKA area.
Empanadas, papa rellena, croquetas de jamon, and tamal from Café Piquet. Use the sauce at your own risk.
No. 47 Cafe Piquet (Bellaire): The melting pot that is Houston is a large part of what makes our dining options so vast and plentiful. Unfortunately, there is not much Cuban influence in that pot. Cafe Piquet is one of the few reliable Cuban options I've found around town. Family owned and operated for nearly twenty years, Cafe Piquet serves a traditional Cuban sandwich and several standard dishes like ropa vieja, pernil asado, and picadillo. I cannot confidently proclaim that Piquet offers a world class representation of Cuban cuisine, but the food is always solid and the Cuban coffee is robust. With no real lunch menu, this is definitely a restaurant that is more financially palatable for dinner. If you're like me and get sporadic cravings for Cuban food, Piquet will hit the spot.
Brisket, ribs, and boudin from Southern Q. Photo courtesy of Bryan Norton
No. 46 Southern Q BBQ and Catering (North Houston): One of my favorite things about Houston's barbecue culture is that there are varying styles of barbecue available throughout the city. Austin, widely considered the current Texas BBQ Capitol, seemingly has a quality joint at every street corner. Unlike Houston, though, the vast majority of Austin joints serve some version of the heavily black pepper rubbed Central Texas style 'cue that has taken the entire country by storm in the wake of the Franklin fame. Though I firmly believe that few things in the culinary world are as carnally enjoyable as a peppery, fatty slice of brisket, I also appreciate different styles of smoked meat. Enter Southern Q owner and pitmaster Steve Garner. 
Steve and his wife Sherice began serving East Texas style barbecue out of a trailer in North Houston a few years ago, and moved into a permanent location on Kuykendahl just off of FM 1960 in early 2015. The Garners make garlic tinged sausages at the restaurant as well as one of the best links of smoked boudin you're likely to find around the city. Those liver spiked links served with firecracker saltines would be worth a visit all on their own, but Southern Q is upping their brisket game as well. My most recent visit rewarded me with some great slices lined with a jet black, crunchy bark that had been missing on previous stops. Houston barbecue is growing by leaps and bounds, and Southern Q is a welcome addition to the scene. 

Houston Fed 50: the ground rules

Here's the list so far: Nos. 50-46  |  Nos. 45-41  |  Nos. 40-36  |  Nos. 35-31  |  Nos. 30-26
                                          Nos. 25-21  |  Nos. 20-16  |  Nos. 15-11  |  Nos. 10-6  |  Nos. 5-1

When I first began this undertaking, I knew it would be daunting. It ended up being even more difficult than I'd imagined. How does one put together a list like this in a city so sprawling and so diverse in its cuisine? How could I could compare a burger joint to a fine dining restaurant? Where does great barbecue fit in with the James Beard nominees of Houston? There were no perfect answers. I decided I needed to set some ground rules for myself to keep some semblance of structure to the list. Here were my parameters:

Rule No. 1: Only places I had visited more than once would be eligible for the list. There are plenty of great places in the city which I either have not visited, or only had a single meal at for one reason or another. If one of your favorite places isn't on the list, there's an excellent chance that I just have not dined there enough to make what I feel is an informed assessment. All restaurant recommendations are welcomed!

Rule No. 2: Personal biases, either positive or negative, absolutely could not factor into the equation. Over the course of time there have been chefs and restaurant owners with whom I've developed personal relationships. Conversely, there have been others for whom I have a less than rosy opinion. Neither end of the spectrum will play a role in this list, unless it pertains to the dining experience. Plainly put, service matters. The full dining experience, relative to the type of restaurant, factors in to my perception of each place. Of course I do not expect the same type of service from a white linen, sit down restaurant as I would a hole in the wall, counter service Vietnamese place.

Rule No. 3: This is not a ranking of the fifty best restaurants in Houston. There are places you won't see on this list that serve a higher quality of cuisine than places that are on the list. This list is meant to represent a variety of different types of cuisine at various price points throughout our city. Tony's is not on this list. Does it mean that Bill's Cafe in Kingwood (no. 50 on the list) serves better food than they do? Of course not. But it could mean that, relative to price, I feel more confident that a patron will walk out of Bill's feeling better about their dining decision than they would had I recommended they go to Tony's. This is not meant to single out Tony's, I chose them as an example because I have never eaten there. That's not to say that there won't be some high dollar restaurants on this list, but price relative to experience is a factor.

Rule No. 4: This list will encompass not just Houston proper, but the surrounding areas. As someone who has lived in various Houston suburbs for nearly my entire adult life, I am a firm believer that Houston's outskirts are an extension of the city. I know that comes as a shock to many inner-loopers, but there is worthy cuisine outside the boundaries of 610. Venture out once in a while; you might be surprised!

Rule No. 5: No outside food writer influence. The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook is among the most respected food writers in the country, and for good reason. Her annual top 100 list is always a fun exploration of what our city has to offer. Culturemap's Eric Sandler is often on the front lines of all new Houston restaurant news, and his monthly hot lists serve as a great resource for me and other enthusiastic food seekers in our city. If you haven't been reading Phaedra Cook's restaurant reviews for The Houston Press, or the insightful stories that Katharine Shilcutt, Alice Levitt, and company are doing over at Houstonia, you're missing out on some great food writing. That said, I definitely don't always agree with their takes on every restaurant, nor would I expect them to agree with mine. Food is subjective. It would be easy to compile a list of all of their favorites and call it a day, but there are enough aggregator sites around these days.

This list is filled with my opinions of Houston food, for better or worse. Feel free to disagree with me or call me crazy, but please trust that my opinions come from an honest, informed place. I will release a new batch of five places each week for the next ten weeks until I reach number one. I hope you follow along until the end. It should be a fun trip.