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.

1 comment:

Kim said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I have not spent time in Chinatown. I need to go, and I definitely want to check out Hunan Bistro. Thanks for the tip!!