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Washington Avenue was briefly the center of all things nightlife-y and clubby for a few short years, before — as always happens in Houston — the scene began to mutate and evolve into other areas of the city. Some nightlifers have moved back to Midtown, while others have set their sights on the East End as the next great party scene.
What's left on Washington Avenue are two things: (1) the husks of once-popular clubs gone south and (2) bars/restaurants that have either seriously stepped up their food game or are still serving the same great food that made them popular in the first place. At this point in time, Washington Avenue could go the way of the Richmond Strip and become a ghost town. But I think it's far more likely that as the cruising crowds move away, the historic street will become even more of a food corridor and destination than it already is.
In order for that to happen, however, we have to support the restaurants that are currently there — great places like Soma Sushi, El Tiempo, J. Black's Feel Good Lounge, The Counter, Candelari's, Molina's Cantina, The Blue Fish and Patrenella's. Or you can start with one of our top ten picks below.
Disclaimer: For purposes of this post, "Washington Avenue" has been defined as the strip of Washington running from Westcott to Studemont, with a few blocks north or south on either side. Anything further west of Westcott and you're running into Rice Military; anything further east of Studemont and you're running into the Old Sixth Ward (which has its own, unique scene with places such as Catalina, Star Pizza, Beaver's, Liberty Station and the upcoming Julep and Cottonwood).
10. Sammy's Wild Game Grill
Although the Moon Tower Inn guys have been stymied in their attempts to get up and running again over the past year, you can get your wild game hot dog fix at Sammy's — and more. Depending on the season, the chili-cheese fries could feature anything from rattlesnake to elk in the chili on top, while wild game sliders see antelope, venison, buffalo, elk and kangaroo in between their buns. And if you're a spice-hound, you'll want to buy some of Sammy's wonderful ghost pepper sauce to take home with you.
I still think that TQLA's name was a mistake — it leads people to believe that TQLA is only a bar or only serves tequila — but the food and the drinks are certainly not. Chef Tommy Birdwell is still turning out the same high-quality food that made me fall in love with TQLA when it opened in 2010, dishes such as crawfish corncakes with lime butter, pumpkin seed-crusted salmon with fried green tomatoes or blue corn-fried oysters with chorizo cream. Southwestern food has never tasted better or more updated, even in simple adaptations like TQLA's green chile-laced burger with jalapeño cheese and avocado.
8. Sushi Tora
Ken Tanagi rules the roost at his sushi restaurant, backed up by his mother — Mami — of the infamous, now-closed Coco's Yakitori. The pair run a tight ship, making excellent rolls and serviceable sushi to a packed house nearly every night. But be warned: It's very loud inside, not only because of the music Tanagi plays but also because of the amount of screaming at his co-workers he does on a nightly basis. It's all in good fun, though, and you'll always get dinner and a show at Sushi Tora.
7. Taqueria Laredo
If it's down-home comfort you seek, look no further than Laredo Taqueria — one of the last old-school Mexican joints left on a street that was once dominated by the likes of Guadalajara Bakery and Matamoros Meat Market. From the woman behind the counter hand-rolling the softest of tortillas to the Little League photos and ceramic tiles depicting the Virgin Mary on the walls, this cozy restaurant feels like an old-timey taqueria because it is. The steam table boasts simmering troughs of pork, chicken and fajita meats, all of which are falling-apart tender. Plus, at $2 for a taco bursting with this much flavor, the price will make you feel good, too. Just prepare to stand in line — as with the breakfast klub, there's almost no time of day where you won't need to wait. (But it's worth it.)
6. El Rey Taqueria
El Rey is a terrific Cuban/Mexican restaurant masquerading as a fast-food joint. Sure, you eat with plastic utensils on blue plastic cafeteria trays. And yes, the food arrives very fast, but — as with next door neighbor Pollo Campero — this is not your average fast food. This stuff has soul. And flavor. Lots of flavor. A huge, old-fashioned rotisserie roasts beautiful, golden-skinned chickens that turn up in soups, sandwiches, tacos and burritos — and that also stand alone quite well, thank you. There are good accompaniments, too: nicely flavored Mexican rice with good-size chunks of carrot and deeply spiced refried beans that, when spread into El Rey's famous breakfast tacos along with some grease-laced chorizo, make the perfect restorative morning meal after a long night. Also perfect for those mornings? The lattes, which are almost too good to have come from a "fast food" restaurant.
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