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.

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