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Dining on the Rails

A guide to light rail lunching in Houston.

When owner Staci Davis decided on a location for her restaurant, Radical Eats, one thing was extremely important to her above all: Davis wanted her vegan paradise to have access to the new Metro light rail North Line that's currently being built along Fulton. When the line is completed, riders will have only a few short blocks to walk from the Moody Park station to her restaurant. For now, the construction and the dust are a bit of a nightmare, but Davis insists that it's worth it.

And at the new 8th Wonder Brewery that's being built in EaDo [see our "First Look," below], the planned Stadium stop on the East End Line will not only service the Dynamo's shiny new stadium, it will bring visitors to the craft brewery as well as to concert venues like Warehouse Live and restaurants like Huynh.

Light rail development — for all its many quirks and flaws (it's called the Danger Train for a reason sometimes...) — will ultimately be good for Houston. I hope. There's only so much unchecked growth and sprawl that can take place in a city before its residents and planners become stewards of the land, attempting to encourage progress while being smart about it at the same time. It's the way of all great cities, or at least it should be.

Grand Prize Bar is gonna ring your dinner bell.
Katharine Shilcutt
Grand Prize Bar is gonna ring your dinner bell.
Aaron Corsi, Ryan Soroka and Matt Marcus are bringing craft beer to the East End.
Katharine Shilcutt
Aaron Corsi, Ryan Soroka and Matt Marcus are bringing craft beer to the East End.
Tastes like summer: the Salade Max & Julie at Brasserie Max & Julie.
Christina Uticone
Tastes like summer: the Salade Max & Julie at Brasserie Max & Julie.

To that end, the light rail line we currently have gets a lot of flack: It doesn't run to the suburbs, it only trolleys back and forth between Point A and Point B, et cetera. But I'm one of the people who's found it supremely useful.

I ride the light rail to the Museum District and to Reliant Stadium so that I don't have to deal with parking. I ride it to my doctor's appointments or to visit hospital-bound friends in the Medical Center (or to eat at Trevisio) because the only thing more confusing than the hospital corridors themselves is trying to recall where you left your car. I ride it to the Best Block in Houston to see shows at the Continental Club, to get cocktails and coffee at Double Trouble, to eat brunch at Natachee's or dinner at t'afia. I ride it to the Preston station and get my movies at Sundance or my culture at Jones Hall.

And, as you would expect, I ride it to restaurants up and down the line. People will often complain about walking in the Houston heat — that's why we have tunnels, after all — but the funny thing is this: You get used to it. Really fast. And walking off a meal is one of my favorite activities to do outside of eating the meal itself. If more of us did this (myself included, as I don't walk nearly as often as I should), Houston would undoubtedly remove itself from the running each year as the Fattest City in America. Walking is good. Try it.

On that note, we've put together a handy visual guide — to scale, no less! — of all the lunching and dining options off the main stops on the light rail. Some will require a bit of a walk (perhaps five blocks at most) while others are literally right in front of the stop itself. If you use it online, you'll note that you can click on the restaurant names to be taken to a site about the restaurant itself. If you cut it out, you can use it as a visual reference when you take your first heady steps into the rail car before it rattles and shakes off into city.

Whatever you do, just remember to put in your $1.25 before you ride — getting a Metro ticket for failing to pay is about as much fun as coming out of dinner to see a parking ticket under your windshield wiper.
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RESTAURANT NEWS

The Coolest New "Restaurant" in Town
Grand Prize plans to host rotating lineup of chefs in kitchen.

BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT

Grand Prize Bar has been more than just a bar since it opened nearly two years ago — it's had a culinary history of its own nearly since its birth. Only a few months after Grand Prize began shaking up its first cocktails in July 2010, chef Adam ­Dorris and his cooking partner Will Walsh began serving their now-famous Ghetto Dinners to large and hungry crowds.

Popular British restaurant Feast kept the kitchen stocked with hearty pub food for a while, and many a beer dinner has been held in the large upstairs bar area. And a constant rotation of food trucks — working both on the street and in the bar's surprisingly large kitchen — kept patrons fed for months after the Ghetto Dinners went on a long hiatus.

Regular patrons noticed, however, that for some time the bar no longer had food trucks parked out front and that the kitchen had been dormant for a while.

"People are expecting food now," says Joshua Martinez, owner of The Modular. "They want food from Grand Prize, one way or another."

So he hatched a plan with Grand Prize owners Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse to make that happen once again — and to satisfy an itch for his fellow food truck owners to get out of their trucks for a night and get back into a real kitchen. A kitchen with ovens and other cool toys, like a dehydrator and an immersion circulator.

Starting this week, there will be a different food truck chef in the kitchen every night of the week, serving food to the first 50 people who come to the bar. And lest you think it'll be more food truck fare — you'd be wrong. Expect gourmet, all the way.

Kicking things off is a group collaboration between many of the participating food truck chefs and Martinez himself, although he says that The Modular itself will be more of a pinch hitter and will sub in for the other food trucks if needed.

The schedule so far also includes:

Tuesdays: Jason Hill and Matt Opaleski from H-Town StrEATS

Wednesdays: Justin Turner from Bernie's Burger Bus

Thursdays: Van Pham from Phamily Bites

Fridays: Ruth Lipsky from Stick It Truck

Saturdays: Louis Cantu from Coreanos

Sundays are currently open, although Martinez is in talks with Buffalo Sean of Melange Creperie to come in and bring his crepe-maker with him. (Although, Martinez says, Sean won't be using it to make crepes.) And eventually, Matt Marcus of the Eatsie Boys, who studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at Cyrus, the critically acclaimed California restaurant with two Michelin stars to its name, will join the lineup on Monday nights.

The chefs are excited to show off skills that have been dormant while they work on their trucks, many of which have them "pigeonholed" into making specific foods or cuisines. Louis Cantu, who has worked at both Congress and Imperia in Austin, has been keeping himself sharp by driving back up to Uchiko every week to stage in the kitchen.

And Ruth Lipsky, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona, and worked the line at molecular gastronomy mainstay Moto in Chicago, excitedly told Martinez about her plans during her weekly turn at Grand Prize: "I can do things other than on a stick! Sometimes I want to put something on a plate."

Pricing for the nightly dinners — which will begin service at 7 p.m. — will be slightly higher than at the chefs' various trucks, "because some of the ingredients won't be your typical fare," says Martinez. But, as with the Ghetto Dinners, dinner will cost far less than what you'd pay at an upscale restaurant. And more collaborations are planned aside from this Monday's kick-off.

"At the end of July, we want to do a sit-down dinner for 22 people upstairs that's paired with the bartenders' cocktails," says Martinez. Until then, though, guests will get to enjoy the simple spectacle of chefs doing their best to out-do each other every night of the week.

"It's kind of a competition for each of these chefs in their own mind," laughs Martinez. "The gauntlet is kind of thrown, like, 'I'm gonna do this. I'm gonna show off. I'd better produce something super awesome.'"
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RESTAURANT NEWS

First Look at 8th Wonder
The East End gets its own craft brewery.

BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT

Aaron Corsi and Ryan Soroka first met at the University of Houston as beer-obsessed undergrads, where the pair quickly formed an underground brewing club. As graduates, the two are more driven to brew than ever: Corsi is now a professor at his alma mater, lecturing on brewing science, viticulture, enology and distillation science, while Soroka and his team at the Eatsie Boys food truck — Matt Marcus and Alex Vassilakidis — have founded a brewery.

Naturally, the Eatsie Boys asked Corsi to be their brewmaster.

Corsi — who is currently becoming a master brewer at the International Brewers' Guild while he pursues his Ph.D. in Molecular and Environmental Plant Science at Texas A&M — talks excitedly about the beers that he and the Eatsie Boys team are working on at the 8th Wonder brewery, which is on track to open this fall.

"We want to reinvent some styles and bring back some classic styles," he says, while sitting in thoughtful repose in an otherwise messy office filled with boisterous interns, a foosball table and bags of hot bagels that Marcus brought in for breakfast. "Beers that haven't been seen since Prohibition."

He's talking about focusing on such old styles as German altbier, an old-world style (its very name means "old beer" in German) in 8th Wonder's Alternate Universe — one of the three flagship beers that the team hopes to produce as its initial offerings. An extra pale ale called Hopston and a "light, easy-drinking, year-round" beer called the Intellectuale round out the trio of first-run 8th Wonder beers.

But they don't plan on releasing those first.

Instead, says Soroka, Corsi convinced them to wait until the recipes are perfected and the brewery is completely up and running.

"We don't want to disappoint people," Soroka says, if the recipes change between batches and first-timers have already gotten used to the hops in the Hopston or the malt in the Alternate Universe. Instead, the plan is to release a series of one-off beers — Experiment8ns, in the slang of the brewery — in firkins, containers smaller than kegs that hold nine imperial gallons (roughly 72 pints of beer).

Meanwhile, the crew is simply trying to navigate the logistics of getting their East End brewery up and running. Soroka notes that they signed a lease for the building at the corner of Dallas and Hutchins only a few months before the Dynamo announced that a stadium for the soccer team would be built a couple of blocks away.

"On game days," says Marcus, "every one of these lots around us is full." They plan to take advantage of this luck by hosting tailgating parties once the brewery is finally open, although not just for the Dynamo. Minute Maid Park isn't too far from here either, and once the new light rail line is finished it will be equally easy to ride from Reliant Park to their front door.

They plan to host a blow-out block party this fall when the brewery is finished, inviting other food trucks ("It's a huggy industry," Soroka laughingly notes about the friendly, ultra-cooperative food truck scene in Houston) and hosting the neighborhood in an effort to bring more positive attention to the rapidly growing "EaDo" area. In the future, Marcus says, they even want to host a "Taste of EaDo" night to highlight the many terrific restaurants in the area — Cafe TH, Calliope's Po-Boys, Brothers Taco House, Huynh and Cork Soakers among them.

What needs to be done between now and then is to finish out the plumbing in the big, open space with vaulted barrel ceilings — ceilings that inspired Soroka to call the brewery 8th Wonder after the Astrodome's own curved roof — as well as to install glycol lines for the huge stainless steel tanks, which can produce 40 barrels of beer at a time. A converted shipping container will hold the finished kegs in cold storage, while a bar and merchandise area will eventually be built next to the office, which — for now — is the only air-conditioned part of the brewery.

Corsi estimates the brewery's capacity on tailgating days and other brewery events will be about 200 people when all is said and done. There will, of course, be food on-hand at the brewery from the Eatsie Boys truck, but Soroka and Marcus plan to invite others to play along too.

At the moment, the only beer for sale from 8th Wonder is its root beer, which is found at Local Foods — and which they're already brewing quite a bit of. It's all a lot to take on, especially when the Eatsie Boys are also hard at work opening a cafe in the old Kraftsmen space on Montrose. But they're nothing if not determined and ambitious.

"A year from now, we hope to double our brewing capacity," says an eager Soroka. Then, with a quick laugh, he corrects himself: "Scratch that. In a year, we hope to be brewing. Period."
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RESTAURANT NEWS

Openings & Closings
New Locations Coming Soon for Torchy's and BB's.

BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT

Attention all you Torchy's Tacos fans who aren't fans of the parking situation at the current location on Shepherd: The Austin-based taco shop is opening a second location in the Heights on 19th Street, in the spot formerly occupied by Harold's. Is there any restaurant that isn't opening a location in the Heights these days?!

Oh, wait — here's one: BB's Café is opening a fourth (!) location in Greenway Plaza next month. It doesn't seem like it's been nearly five years since the first BB's opened in Montrose, but owner Brooks Bassler has achieved great success with his mini-empire of Cajun restaurants in that time, having opened ­outposts in the Heights (see what I just said?) and downtown.

The new BB's Café will have room for 110 guests, with lot and garage parking available. It will also offer a full bar and fresh oyster bar, with plans to be open Sundays through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to midnight and Thursdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Back to the Heights, as usual, the Houston Business Journal reports that new French restaurant Salé-Sucré is now open. "Philippe Harel and his wife Béline are the husband-wife entrepreneurial duo behind Salé-Sucré," writes Greg Barr, "the city's newest crêperie tucked away in the former White Oak Bakery in the fast-growing restaurant row in The Heights on White Oak near Studewood."

And speaking of crepes...The recently opened Sweet Paris Crêperie & Cafe is already expanding its hours to include breakfast service starting today. From now on, the cafe will open at 8 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, and at 7 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The cafe still plans to close at 10 p.m. each day.

In addition to made-to-order crêpes — both sweet and savory — Sweet Paris will have espresso and coffee on hand as well as Mexican hot chocolate and spicy chai latte for those who aren't caffeine addicts, and a must-try frozen Nutella hot chocolate. Can winter please come soon?

Also in Rice Village, Red Mango has finally finished its conversion to a fully self-service store.

Way out west at Westheimer and Fondren, there's a new Turkish restaurant in town: Nazif's Turkish Grill & Deli, which is already featuring an extensive menu of Turkish favorites for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At breakfast, check out menemen or a traditional Turkish bagel. For lunch, you'll want to get acquainted with Turkish flatbreads such as pide and lahmacun — trust me.

And down south in Pasadena, check out a series of revitalized properties known as The Silver Sycamore: The Tearoom is located in a cottage built in 1930 and features a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts. The Coffee House is in a nearby house, also historic and now-renovated, and offers both coffee and freshly baked goodies as well as items from local suppliers. And if you happen to feel like staying, there's even a bed and breakfast on-site.
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TOP TEN

Happy Summer
Houston's top 10 salads.

BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT

We've come a long way from the days when salads were considered simply "rabbit food" or fare for picky girls attempting to slim down. I often anticipate a salad in a restaurant as much as I do the main course thanks to the extra attention that many restaurants pay their leafy greens. And just as frequently, I'll go to a restaurant specifically for a salad — something I certainly never did ten years ago. Here's a celebration of our favorite fresh and refreshing salads in town.

10. Salad bar at Georgia's Market Downtown

Although I prefer a salad that's thoughtfully constructed for me, there are times when all I really want to do is crash madly through a salad bar and hurricane together a mad mixture of vegetables on a plate. Georgia's has long been my favorite place to do so, mostly because you always know that the vegetables, fruits, dressings and other accompaniments are organic and as fresh as Georgia's can get them.

9. Som tam at Vieng Thai

Green papaya salad isn't for everyone, but those who enjoy the stuff will find the best version of it in Houston at Vieng Thai. I love the apt description that the Fearless Critic team gives of Vieng Thai's version in its Houston guide:

Som tam is made with green papaya (which has nothing to do with the sweet orange version of the fruit; it's crisp and sour, somewhere closer to cabbage or jicama). It also involves fiery chiles, palm sugar, salt, garlic, dried shrimp, peanuts, fish sauce, lime and often other ingredients, ground together with a mortar and pestle.

8. Salade Max & Julie at Brasserie Max & Julie

This delicate but tasty French salad from Houston's most adorably French brasserie comes with shaved celeriac, toasted fennel, hazelnuts and orange slices all on top of a huge bed of mixed greens. In keeping with the orange slices, it's dressed with an orange vinaigrette that — while actually a winter fruit — always tastes like summer to me.

7. Que Más salad at Mission Burrito

The phrase "que más" means "what more," and the Que Más salad at Mission Burrito is a veritable treasure chest of ingredients — greens, potatoes, corn, roasted red peppers, jicama, tortilla strips, cheese and the meat of your choice (although it's just as good without). It's an eclectic mix, yet somehow it works; it's hearty, healthy and tasty. Try the low-fat buttermilk dressing if you're a health nut, but the salad is truly best with Mission Burrito's signature cilantro-ranch dressing.

6. Shrimp salad at Local Foods

Local Foods is more than just a sandwich shop: Its soups and salads are fine stuff, too, especially its shrimp-topped salad of arugula dressed in a bright lemon-thyme vinaigrette. Along with a plethora of shrimp, you'll also find tangy dried cranberries, salty sheaths of Pecorino-Romano and sweet Texas pecans given the slightest glaze of honey.

5. Jellyfish salad at Que Huong

Spicy, crunchy and tangy, Vietnamese jellyfish salad is also called "Seafood Delight" or "Summer Delight" and both titles are equally appropriate. The salad is loaded up with seafood — ranging from jellyfish (of course) to shrimp, mussels, squid or fish balls — then tossed with cucumbers, onions and a few stray leaves of lettuce (so, you know, it's still a salad in that sense). The lime-fish sauce dressing is both tart and pungent, and delivers a hot wollop thanks to the crushed red chile flakes scattered throughout.

4. Torn greens salad at Haven

Sometimes simple is best. Case in point, the very simple torn greens salad at Haven, where a pile of crunchy greens is coated in a black pepper-Dijon mustard dressing, then topped with crumbles of Brazos cheddar and — the crowning glory of this salad — croutons made from fried green tomatoes.

3. Farmers salad at L'Olivier

Another refreshingly simple salad, this French salad at L'Olivier takes crunchy mixed greens and tops them with a ground black pepper and a basic vinaigrette that's enhanced with the golden yolk of a poached egg on top. A welcome salty rush of flavor is provided by thick, fatty knots of bacon throughout.

2. Sicilia salad at Trevisio

This elegant, highly civil Sicilia salad captivated me from the moment I saw it on the menu. Frisee topped with juicy oranges, delicate white anchovies, tangy Castelvetrano olives, bright fennel and heirloom tomatoes — this was a salad with some thought behind it, existing as a showcase for all of these ingredients instead of a repository for kitchen scraps.

1. Texas melon salad at Beaver's

The honeydew melon is at its greenest and sweetest right now, perfectly accented with fat white peaks of Brazos Valley raw feta. But although those two ingredients work wonderfully together, Beaver's didn't make a name for itself based on simplicity. The salad is also topped with roughly diced bacon, thin slices of fresh jalapeños, pumpkin seeds and pickled red onions that pack a tart little punch with each bite.

Finished off with a serrano-based vinaigrette that tastes bright and citrusy, the salad fires on multiple cylinders like a finely tuned machine: salty, sweet, spicy, meaty, tart, soft, crunchy, hot and cold all at once. You'll want to spend time over this salad, constructing every bite as such. This isn't a throwaway salad, a mere pit stop before the real show begins. This salad is a main event in and of itself.

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