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.

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