Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 5-1

Well, here we are at the end of my list. What a strange and interesting trip this has been. I first want to thank all of the kind people across the social media world who have shown so much support for this endeavor and those who urged me to do it. Of course the biggest thanks goes to my immensely talented and endlessly patient wife who painstakingly edits every single one of my posts and takes the majority of the pictures you see on this site. She has been to 48 out of these 50 places with me (I'll get her to Shri Balaji and Hunan Bistro someday!) and countless other places that did not make the list.

A few things I learned while putting together this list:
  • Service matters even more than I originally thought. Reading back on all of these posts I realized just how many times I commented on the service experience. It truly does bring a good meal to another level.
  • Houston is such a hotbed of culinary talent. Reflecting on a lot of the places on this list, I am beyond impressed with how many incredibly talented people are cooking in these kitchens.
  • Food writing is not easy. The Internet world is filled with aspiring food writers. Some take it seriously, to some it's a hobby, to others it's something entirely different that I won't get into in the interest of brevity. The process of putting fingers to keyboard and writing out thoughts on a meal is not as easy as many would think, especially if you have as much respect as I do for the hard working kitchen and service people who produce these meals. I sincerely hope that any industry people who have read one of these posts understand that I put out this list as an appreciation to the great places around Houston at which I enjoy dining.
  • Houston is home. I love to travel, and as a child I told myself that New York would always be home for me. That of course changed as I grew up and became more of a Texan than anything else, but I truly cannot imagine leaving Houston behind. I love so much about our great city, especially its dining culture.
With all of that said, here are my five favorite restaurants in Houston. Each one of these places offers something different in terms of cuisine, atmosphere, and section of the city. As always, click here for a rundown on the previous spots on the list and I hope I've inspired you to try at least one of these places.

State of Grace: (left) twice fried Korean chicken, (top right) roasted lamb with peas, green garlic, and lamb sausage,  (bottom right) delicious buttery milk rolls.
No. 5 State of Grace (River Oaks): One has to hand it to State of Grace owner and successful Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry: he did not play it safe when opening his first restaurant back in his hometown. Serving one of the most eclectic menus one could imagine in a River Oaks restaurant, Fry's plates run the gauntlet from southern to Tex-Mex to Asian inspired. State of Grace's menu is sharply executed under the direction of former Ciao Bello chef Bobby Matos. I applaud the State of Grace braintrust for making the often reserved diners in this part of Houston play with their food. Beautiful head-on shrimp are served in a flavorful lime broth and come with "soppin' toast," and fried Korean style chicken is playful in its sticky, spicy goodness. Fry evokes the nostalgia sensors with the Enchilada "A La Felix," a classic cheese enchilada bathed in an exquisite red chili gravy that would make any Houstonian happy. At first perusal, the menu may seem too scattered, too casual in comparison to the visually stunning aesthetics of the restaurant itself, but it all works in concert to create a refined but never stuffy dining experience. State of Grace also offers one of the best oyster selections in the city, and their oyster happy hour (3:00 PM to 6:00 PM Mon-Fri) is a great value with a few varietals available for one dollar per oyster. If wise enough to leave room for dessert, the sticky toffee pudding is tremendous and the smoked chocolate sundae is a worthwhile splurge. A little over six months into its run, State of Grace is beginning to hit its stride and I'm excited to see the menu's evolution.

Beef rib, moist brisket, turkey, and pulled pork at CorkScrew BBQ.
No. 4 CorkScrew BBQ (Spring): Will and Nichole Buckman, owners of CorkScrew BBQ, are easy to root for. After catering for friends' parties and local businesses' functions, the Buckmans took a leap of faith and began serving barbecue from a small trailer in a shopping center parking lot in Spring. By 2015 their business had outgrown the trailer set up and they moved operations to a full service restaurant in Old Town Spring. The restaurant provides the perfect setup for their business, and the barbecue continues to be among the best and most consistent in the state. The lines at CorkScrew can seem long, but I assure you they move more swiftly than most barbecue lines I've seen, and they frequently have meat later in the afternoon since converting from the trailer set up. I recently went at 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon - prime barbecue eating time - and received my plate of food in approximately thirty minutes, a more than manageable wait for food this excellent. CorkScrew uses prime, all natural brisket exclusively, and it shows in the results. The moist brisket is almost impossibly juicy and well rendered whether ordered at opening time of 11 AM or near sell-out time of 4 PM, a  very hard feat to achieve. The Buckmans serve the best brisket in Houston and possibly my favorite in the state, but there is more to CorkScrew than just brisket. Big, meaty pork spare ribs are fantastic as well, and at $23 for a full rack, they are one of the best values in Texas barbecue. While I do not consider myself a potato salad aficionado, CorkScrew serves a very good version of the classic barbecue side, and the cobbler is a must order on most of my visits. Made fresh, the two dollar helping of fruit cobbler has the perfectly sweet, crunchy crumble that is such a welcome treat after the richness of a barbecue meal. The level of quality that CorkScrew has achieved is impressive, and it is due in large part to the owners' dedication to their product. Each tray of food that comes from the kitchen is personally cooked, sliced, and plated by either Will or Nichole. That day in-day out commitment is what helps make CorkScrew BBQ the smoked meat treasure that it is.

Squash blossom season is celebrated every year at Hugo's.
No. 3 Hugo's (Montrose): How can a restaurant whose chef has been a James Beard Award finalist five years running and is consistently ranked as one of the best in the city somehow feel under-the-radar? I suppose because it has been so long since Hugo's has been considered the hot new thing on the culinary scene, it sometimes gets overlooked when discussing great Houston restaurants. Make no mistake about it, Hugo's is as strong as ever and continues to turn out some of the best food in Houston 14 years into the restaurant's run. Service is always smooth, and the bar program continues to be among the city's best. The moles are predictably great, and the meat and fish cookery remain spot on. Whether it be a bright, acidic ceviche or succulent suckling pig served with one of their trademark bold salsas, a dinner at Hugo's is memorable from start to finish. No mention of this restaurant would be complete without highlighting the Sunday brunch buffet, a rite of passage for any Houstonian. It is simply the best brunch I've ever had or could ever imagine having. There is a massive spread complete with carnitas, cornbread topped with over medium eggs, chilaquiles, enchiladas, tamales, ceviche, salads, and all of the traditional Mexican accompaniments one could hope for. Keep in mind that is only one half of the buffet. The dessert side of things, spearheaded by pastry chef Ruben Ortega, Hugo's brother, is equally impressive with satiny flan, tres leches, churros, and hot chocolate. While Hugo's has not been the new kid on the block for quite some time, it is a Houston institution and even after over a decade in business, it remains one of our best restaurants.

Mung bean pancake stuffed with potato skins and miso from Oxheart.
No. 2 Oxheart (Warehouse District): Oh Oxheart, the place where this whole site began. It was a visit to Oxheart back in February 2014 that inspired me to write about food for the first time. Justin Yu's vegetable focused restaurant remains the most compelling eatery in the city, and I leave each meal there feeling like I've learned something new about a particular ingredient. I debated for quite some time as to whether or not Oxheart would take my number one spot on this list, but ultimately decided to put it second. I decided this not because Oxheart isn't the gold standard restaurant for Houston - I firmly believe that it is - but because Oxheart is for a certain audience. I would not recommend Oxheart to every friend or loved one looking for dinner ideas in Houston. But for those willing to be open minded about dining, Oxheart is as good as it gets. The service remains stellar, and not once has an experience there ever taken on the discomfort that can be associated with fine dining; I truly feel like I've returned to an old friend's house for dinner each time I walk in the doors of the modest restaurant space. Chef Yu's cooking remains as thought provoking and creative as ever as he and his team continue to evolve the menu. Just two days prior to this post, Chef Yu won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, the second Houston chef to take home the award in the last three years. Whether it be a delicately cooked piece of gulf fish or a creative carrot presentation, Oxheart continues to produce menus that reimagine simple ingredients with different cooking techniques. My best advice for anyone considering booking a reservation at Oxheart: forget what your opinion is about every ingredient you see on their menu. There's an excellent chance you will feel differently about them once the meal is over.

Carrots from the Coltivare garden served with carrot top pesto.
No. 1 Coltivare (The Heights): When deciding on which restaurant would take the top spot on this list, I went back and forth between Coltivare and Oxheart. They are two very different restaurants, but both share a commitment to locally sourced product. What ultimately lead me to put Coltivare in the top spot of my favorites list - and please keep in mind this is a favorites list, not a best restaurant list - was that the combination of its style of cuisine, quality of ingredients, and price point of the menu makes it, in my opinion, the best value restaurant in Houston. Revival Market owners Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber opened Coltivare in early 2014 with the same dedication to locally grown produce and quality meats that Houston had come to know them for at the market. A garden was installed next to the restaurant from which much of the menu's vegetables are picked. Coltivare's Italian-American inspired menu provides options that appeal to a broad audience. No matter how adventurous a diner is or isn't, there are plenty of options from which to choose. Those that adhere to a vegetarian diet can eat a complete meal at Coltivare without feeling like they are missing out on most of the menu, while there are always options for the most carnivorous of customers. Since its opening, Coltivare has gained acclaim for a few staple menu items that do not rotate out, namely the spectacular spaghetti with black pepper, parmesan, and olive oil ($12) as well as a wonderful cauliflower dish that is flash fried and served with the Italian sweet and sour agrodolce and adorned with pine nuts and raisins ($9). The salumi program, which features a number of the meats cured at Revival Market, is one of the strongest in the city right now, while the "snacks" portion of the menu always provides one or two treasures from the restaurant's garden at or near a five dollar price. A menu this approachable and priced this well allows for a table to sample the best of what Coltivare has to offer. Chef Pera's kitchen also produces one of the better pizza menus in Houston with creative toppings and a pillowy dough that is a welcome change from the growing thin crust Neapolitan movement. If not in the mood for heavy pizzas or pastas, the composed salad dishes are well balanced, incredibly fresh, and change often based on seasonality. The bar program led by Weber is strong, providing fresh takes of some cocktail standards as well as innovative offerings that focus on housemade shrubs and the Italian bitter liquer, amaro. If there were to be a complaint with Coltivare, it is the infamous wait times for a table during peak hours. The restaurant does not take reservations, and for weekend service it is best to try an early dinner near the 5 PM opening time or a later dinner around 9 o'clock. If you're willing to plan around that issue, Coltivare is a great restaurant to take your family, friends, or out of town guests for a fantastic meal that pleases all types of diners without breaking the bank. In a city busting at the seams with great food, Coltivare is as good as it gets.


Kim said...

I've been waiting for #1, and I'm so delighted to see that it was Coltivare!! Thank you so much for sharing your 50 favorites- I have really enjoyed following a long!

Breaking Mad said...

This place doesn’t have any 'i'm too cool and busy for you' wait staff. As per me, everyone at Los Angeles venues is nice, friendly, and helpful and they really seem to like their jobs there and that is important to me. We had an awesome experience here.