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.

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