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The Heights of Comfort

Eating at Zelko Bistro is like coming home.

Dessert was no less fantastic. Created hand-in-hand by Da Capo's pastry expert Lisa Biggerstaff (keeping it local in the Heights, of course) with Chef Zelko, the dessert menu echoes the savory menu in every way, with classic, comforting desserts that are low-key and affordable. We split a lemon icebox pie, which turned out to be an ideal choice for the lovely weather outside, matching the cool air and the sharp breeze with its tart lemon base built upon a graham cracker crust ring that was neither too sweet nor too heavy. People who shy away from "sweet" desserts would love this icebox pie, especially the slightly salty dollop of fresh cream that tops it.

Our total bill that first night, with wine and coffee? A mere $60, the same price I'd paid for last week's miserable dinner at Mucho Mexico, where there was far less food and certainly not any of this quality. And this is where Zelko Bistro really outshines its "high-end" competition: A dinner for two here is profoundly affordable considering the wealth of talent behind the scenes and the emphasis on fresh, seasonal, local food. You get what you pay for here, and then some.
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My second dinner was even more mind-trippingly affordable. We ended up leaving an extra-large tip as a result, since I'd brought more cash than we ended up needing. That's always a pleasant feeling.

Heaven-sent: the Big Boss Burger.
Troy Fields
Heaven-sent: the Big Boss Burger.

Location Info

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Zelko Bistro

705 E. 11th St.
Houston, TX 77008

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Heights

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Fried pickles: $6

The Boss Burger: $10

Fish tacos: $12

Captin's fried chicken: $15

Shrimp & grits: $16

Lemon icebox pie: $6

Funnel cake: $6

Zelko "Shack Shaker" blend coffee: $3

Zelko Bistro

705 E. 11th St., 713-880-8691.

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Seated inside, it was apparent that the Zelko crew has put their heart and soul into the house's renovations and remodeling. My dining companion kept rambling in his rather hippie-esque general fashion about the "good feel" and "good vibes" of the place. One of his coworkers at their notoriously hippie-filled workplace reiterated those same words without prompting a few days later during a discussion about grabbing dinner at Zelko. "That place has such good vibes, man," she sighed. "Just such good vibes."

From the wood-paneled ceiling to the moss-green walls, from the dark chocolate-colored banquet seating to the open kitchen, the interior of Zelko Bistro is infused with warmth. Although I can imagine it being quite beastly during those un-air-conditioned summer months, I picture it becoming even more endearing in the coming winter. Encouraged by this thought, I ordered a bottle of Breckenridge's appropriately toasty Vanilla Porter, with plenty of roasted malt notes and lilting hints of chocolate and coffee. The beer list here is significantly smaller than the wine list but very well curated, with affordable options like the hoppy Full Sail Pale Ale, all the way up to Pike Brewing's Scotch style Kilt Lifter ale, which is worth every cent of its $7.50.

My dining companion's fish tacos were certainly very good, to be sure, especially with the sweet pineapple salsa that topped the grilled fish. And especially because they were served with a side of thick, sweet, succulent plantains that had been slightly fried until caramelized. But they weren't the highlight of the meal.

That honor belongs to the Big Boss burger, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, that left me utterly speechless. This is not what I expected from a chef-driven restaurant's burger. There is nothing hokey or cutesy about this burger — it is not topped with buzzwords or fad ingredients. It is simply a perfect hunk of juicy ground beef covered in cheddar cheese, crispy strips of bacon, sautéed onions, fresh leaf lettuce and slices of ruby-red tomato so thick, they add nearly an extra inch to the burger's already monumental height. A blend of Dijon mustard and mayo coats one side of the soft, slightly sweet brioche bun. And that's it.

This burger is heaven-sent. I have never tasted another burger like it in Houston. Perfect in its austerity and its simple flavors, this is the type of burger that makes people launch spontaneously into discussions of last meals and favorite childhood memories. After they've recovered the power of speech, that is.

I demolished it. With a vengeance.

Over a dessert of funnel cake — yes, powdered sugar-covered, honey-dipped, wonderfully amusing funnel cake — the burger was still all that I could talk about. I talked about it all the way home and into the next day. It was becoming comical. Thankfully, my dining companion had scored a few bites of the burger for himself and was all understanding and commiseration: "I wish we could get another one right now," he enthused over breakfast.

Such is the power of truly great food.

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