Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Houston Barbecue: a very recent then and now

With today marking the third anniversary of Killen's Barbecue opening its doors to the public for the first time, I found myself thinking about how much the barbecue scene in the Houston area has changed since Ronnie Killen opened his now famous barbecue restaurant in Pearland.

Three years doesn't seem like a long time, but the changes in our city's barbecue options are noteworthy. It's astounding to think that if one were to make a top ten list of Houston area barbecue joints, it is quite possible that only one of those places was in the same location serving the same type of barbecue three years ago.

This not to say that Killen's Barbecue is solely responsible for Houston's barbecue boom; that is hardly the case. The Texas barbecue explosion seen across the country began with the Franklin Barbecue phenomenon, though one could argue that Killen's was the first to push the envelope in this area of what "new school" barbecue could be. In alphabetical order, let's take a look at ten of Houston's best places. This is just a small look at where they are now, and where they were pre-Killen's.
Metal trays with an assortment of housemade pickled condiments at The Pit Room - all classic signs of "new school" BBQ.
Brooks' Place BBQ - This is it folks, the only place still in the same form since prior to 2014. Trent Brooks remains at the small trailer in front of an Ace Hardware on the west side of town, serving up smoked meats with a hefty side of Second Amendment Rights.

CorkScrew BBQ - The Buckmans were serving out of a trailer next to a Big Lots back in 2014. They
installed an Oyler pit that year and steadily went from one of the best barbecue places in the area to one of the best in the state. CorkScrew quickly outgrew its trailer setup and made the move to a brick and mortar in October 2015.
Prime brisket ($18/lb) and beef plate ribs ($20 per rib) at CorkScrew BBQ are two of the best values in Texas today.
El Burro & The Bull - After many stops and starts that began in 2014, John Avila and his wife Veronica finally opened El Burro & The Bull last year in the downtown underground food hall, The Conservatory. Though El Burro often seems to fly under the radar compared to Houston's other smoked meat options, the food here is solid and the good bit of heat and Mexican flare on the menu helps set them apart from their competitors.
Gatlin's BBQ - Although the Gatlin family has been serving 'cue in Houston for what may feel like an eternity compared to other places listed here, they made a major upgrade in terms of restaurant space. Gone are the days of the small house in the Heights. In 2016, Gatlin's opened in a much larger space on Ella, hopefully easing some of those dreadfully long wait times that plagued the old location.

Pappa Charlies Barbeque - Back in 2014, Pappa Charlies was building a loyal audience from a food truck, mostly serving at bars. Owner Wesley Jurena and his team made the move to brick and mortar on the east side of downtown in the fall of 2015. Pappa Charlies has received rave reviews from Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, as well as national media since making the move to a permanent spot.
Brisket and glazed ribs at Pinkerton's BBQ.
Pinkerton's Barbecue - Grant Pinkerton, the young and ambitious owner of Pinkerton's Barbecue, was not on anyone's radar back in 2014. He quickly became an intriguing figure in the barbecue world when he first announced plans for a River Oaks joint slated to be opened in 2015. As anyone familiar with the obstacles of opening a restaurant in this city can tell you, many things can change from concept to opening. The River Oaks location did not come to fruition, but in late 2016 Pinkerton's finally opened in the north Heights area. They're off to a strong start and are quickly becoming one of the better joints in the Houston area.

The Pit Room - Yet another recent addition to the Houston barbecue scene, The Pit Room opened
last summer and was quickly met with praise by the hungry Montrose crowd and media alike. While The Pit Room serves the traditional Central Texas staples such as black pepper rubbed brisket, pork spare ribs, and three types of housemade sausage - a rarity for Houston's top joints - there is a clear new school barbecue influence such as tacos and a large condiment bar filled with an assortment of pickled vegetables and sauces.

Roegels Barbecue Co. - Russell and Misty Roegels certainly aren't newcomers to the Houston
barbecue scene; they were successfully operating under the Baker's Ribs franchise name for over a decade. But it wasn't until the Roegels began sampling barbecue from some of the state's top joints along with trips to Texas A&M's  meat science camps that they began to alter Baker's recipes and started adapting their menu to suit the kind of barbecue they truly wanted to make. In late 2014, they broke away from the chain and opened as Roegels Barbecue Co. In the years since, Russell Roegels has continued to hone his craft and now produces some of the finest barbecue in the state.

Southern Q BBQ - Southern Q began as a food trailer in north Houston circa 2010. The Garner
family specializes in an East Texas style barbecue, which features a garlic-heavy sausage as well as boudin, both housemade. The Garners made the move from trailer to permanent restaurant on Kuykendahl near FM 1960 in early 2015 and in a time filled with Central Texas joints, Southern Q offers a nice change of pace.
The "Brisket and Blues" with brisket, blue cheese, onions and tomatoes at Tejas is one of the best BBQ sandwiches in town.
Tejas Chocolate & BBQ - Another new kid on the barbecue block is this little place in Tomball.
Owners Scott Moore and Michelle Holland enlisted the help of Scott's brother Greg, a seasoned foodservice industry veteran who worked at a restaurant that neighbored Roegels Barbecue, to help launch the barbecue side of their business. The results have been positive, to put it mildly. Tejas serves the traditional fare, but also offers unique sides, sandwiches, sauces, and desserts.  Opened in 2015, Tejas is yet another quality addition to the city's barbecue scene.

The growth of Houston barbecue the past three years has been nothing short of remarkable. Our city now boasts a long, deep roster of quality barbecue that combines classic techniques with contemporary concepts and the diverse cultural influences for which Houston is known. Ronnie Killen's juggernaut of a barbecue joint was not the sole catalyst for this revolution, but the explosion of Houston barbecue coinciding with Killen's popularity is not sheer coincidence. Will the growth continue over the next few years? Perhaps not at this pace, but it appears neither the popularity of nor the appetite for barbecue is slowing down any time soon.

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.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Houston Fed 50: Nos. 10-6

Welcome to the top ten. If you've followed along from the beginning, thanks for sticking with me. If you're here for the first time, click here for links to the rest of the list.

Beef rib burnt ends and a two meat plate with a sea of creamed corn at Killen's Barbecue.
No. 10 Killen's Barbecue (Pearland): There's not much that can be said about Killen's Barbecue that hasn't already been covered on any number of the local or national write ups that Ronnie Killen's smoked meat Mecca has received since it opened. With one of the state's largest and most well executed barbecue menus, Killen's delivers a full restaurant experience. The array of meat options are of the highest quality, from well rendered brisket to pepper packed beef ribs, and Killen's boasts a roster of sides and desserts that take a backseat to no joint. No corners are cut at Killen's in terms of quality, including some of the best smoked turkey in Texas. There's good reason why the restaurant offers a five meat plate option as choosing what to order is difficult. My advice: don't miss the brisket or the creamed corn, whatever you do. While the line can be cumbersome and the trip to Pearland inconvenient for many, Killen's Barbecue is a pilgrimage every meat eater should make.

Hunky Dory: scones with jam, butter, and clotted cream | HD Burger and fries | lamb sausage with beans and egg.
No. 9 Hunky Dory (The Heights): For fans of the late, great Montrose restaurant, Feast, Hunky Dory was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings in recent memory. Way back in 2013, The Treadsack Group (Down House, Foreign Correspondents, Bernadine's) announced big plans to open numerous restaurants around The Heights. One of those restaurants, Hunky Dory, would bring former Feast chef Richard Knight back to a Houston kitchen. Knight's British heritage, which was on full display at Feast, shines through at Hunky Dory as well. A massive wood burning hearth cooks much of the meat on the menu and is quite the spectacle for diners. Black puddings, terrines, and shepherd's pie have their place on the menu, but Hunky Dory excels with vegetables and more conventional dishes. The HD Burger is decadent in its simplicity, with two juicy patties topped with melted cheese and served with fries that cry out for malt vinegar. Chef Knight's kitchen is also serving an excellent, well priced brunch. While service in the early days of this restaurant could be a bit uneven, the food and bar program is more than good enough to keep coming back, and I'm confident that the smart folks behind this project will iron out the wrinkles. Feast was a restaurant a few years ahead of its time; I am hopeful that Hunky Dory has arrived when Houston is ready for it.

The ever-changing lunch special at Himalaya.
No. 8: Himalaya (Ghandi District): Kaiser Lashkari, the chef/owner of one of Houston's greatest culinary treasures, is one of the busiest people I've ever met. Kaiser oversees service at Himalaya every day and never seems to slow down. He's constantly on the phone, taking to-go orders, scheduling repairs needed at the restaurant, and checking on the tables to make sure diners enjoyed their meal. If that seems like a lot, then factor in that Kaiser also prepares much of Himalaya's daily menu. Himalaya is revered by locals and industry people alike for its intensely flavorful meats and curries. The dining experience at Himalaya never feels stale as Lashkari is always adding specials, such as a recent masala spiced brisket. The daily lunch special at Himalaya is one of my favorite meals in Houston. Served in a cafeteria tray, it has a rotating selection of curries along with rice, naan, and usually another savory treat in each of the tray's sectioned squares. Kaiser's newest experiment, spiced fried chicken, was on the tray on a recent visit. The food at Himalaya is among the most authentic and delicious in the city and Himalaya remains one of the most quintessential Houston restaurants.

The baloney at Public Services Wine & Whisky, to be eaten with an ample amount of sherry.
No. 7 Public Services Wine and Whisky (Market Square Downtown): I am not a bar person, but Public Services is not your typical bar. That is just one of the reasons why I love the place so much. Owned by Oxheart's Justin Vann, Justin Yu, and Karen Man and operated by Vann, Public Services has the city's most varied selection of rare wines and whiskies in the city. The enthusiasm the Public Services staff has about their menu is infectious, and service is always attentive but never pushy. It is a delight to walk into Public Services during their splendid happy hour (4:00-6:30 daily) at which time the entire wine list is half off and pull up a seat at the bar. Most trips in, I take a quick glance at the menu and then just put my drinking decisions in the hands of Vann and his talented staff. The food menu at Public Services is small but as strong as one would expect based on its owners. The house-made "baloney" is the perfect fatty treat, served with cheese and ritz crackers, and the smoked fish spread is a great snack, though I recommend making sure your drink order pairs well with it. If you're not a wine or whisky expert, or even if you are, I cannot recommend enough making a trip to Public Services and entrusting its crew to provide you with one of the most laid back and interesting bar experiences in Houston.

Whole branzino from Helen Greek Food and Wine.

No. 6 Helen Greek Food and Wine (Rice Village): Helen is the rare restaurant where every meal I've had there is better than the last. This is an exciting thought for my next visit considering the spectacular dinner I enjoyed there last month. Respected sommelier Evan Turner realized his dream of bringing his version of Greek food to Houston last year when Helen opened in a small space in Rice Village. Chef William Wright leads the kitchen, and though he does not have a background in Greek cooking, Chef Wright expertly executes Helen's menu of traditional Greek flavors with touches of Houston mixed in to create some of the most interesting plates I've had anywhere in the country in recent memory. The trio of dips, available on all of Helen's menus, is a must order on any visit. The flavors change frequently, but much thought is put into each dip and they are a great introduction to the rest of the menu. Whether it be a smoky eggplant or spiced red bell pepper with feta dip, it is a great bite spooned atop grilled pita bread. Turner's love of Greek wine is on full display at Helen, which boasts one of the largest selections of Greek wines in the country. It is a well priced list and the staff does a great job of pairing the wine with the diners' menu selections. The salads at Helen pop with freshness and a perfect amount of acidity, and a grilled whole branzino dish I enjoyed on my last trip in was one of the best fish dishes I've ever had. The lunch menu equals the appeal of dinner at Helen, where a flavorful brined chicken is served with confit potatoes, a generous lunch portion for its $14 price tag. Helen has brought life to a mostly quiet dining area of Houston, and is one of those restaurants that I feel will get better with age.   

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.

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.