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Uncommonly Keen

The 10 best restaurants in the Upper Kirby district.

With the construction of three new Carrabba's family restaurants along Kirby and the continued success of West Ave — the mixed-use shopping/living/dining development on the corner of Kirby and Westheimer — the Upper Kirby district is a stronger dining-out destination today than it has been in years.

The last time we rounded up the ten best restaurants in the area was two years ago, and things have certainly changed since then. Gone are seafood favorites Pesce and Yelapa Playa Mexicana. In their place are the decidedly less interesting Brio Tuscan Grille and Estate nightclub, respectively. On the bright side, however, is the addition of so many new and interesting restaurants in the Upper Kirby district that it's hard to narrow the list down to ten anymore.

In fact, some of the city's best restaurants — perennial favorites and Best of Houston® winners among them — now lie within the Upper Kirby confines, making this recently repaved stretch of road one of the best spots to hit for a night out.

Breakfast thali at Pondicheri.
Gary R. Wise
Breakfast thali at Pondicheri.
An oyster-filled po-boy at BB's Cafe.
Katharine Shilcutt
An oyster-filled po-boy at BB's Cafe.
A late-night X-tudo burger at Copacabana.
Troy Fields
A late-night X-tudo burger at Copacabana.
Witchcraft Tavern brings another craft beer place to the Heights.
Katharine Shilcutt
Witchcraft Tavern brings another craft beer place to the Heights.

Disclaimer: Upper Kirby is defined as west of Shepherd, east of Buffalo Speedway, north of Bissonnet and south of Westheimer.

10. Chuy's

Chuy's is consistently packed for a reason. The kitschy decor and equally kitschy Tex-Mex food — while transported here from Austin — are fun, enjoyable crowd-pleasers. The margaritas (especially the Texas Tinis) are strong and well-balanced. The happy hour offers a free build-your-own-nacho bar with unlimited visits. In season, the Hatch chile specials are unrivaled. The creamy jalapeño dressing (which we all know is just Ranch dressing with a kick) is a Texas treasure. The Elvis Presley Memorial Combo is the stuff of legend. And Chuy's will gladly top anything — anything at all — with a fried egg.

9. Turquoise Grill

Turquoise Grill began its life serving office-building snack bar-type items like breakfast tacos and burgers alongside more traditional fare like Turkish kebabs made by friendly owner Yilmaz "Jim" Dokuyucu. Over time, it grew to be one of the most popular Turkish restaurants in town, and not solely by virtue of being one of only a handful of Turkish places in the city, and gradually it did away with most of its American fare. These days, one of the best ways to spend a low-key evening is grabbing dinner at Turquoise Grill before heading across the street to catch a show (and down a few pints of local beer) at the great McGonigel's Mucky Duck.

8. BB's Cafe

The fourth — and, so far, the largest at 1,800 square feet inside and 1,400 square feet of patio outside — location of popular Houston chain BB's Cafe offers the same great Cajun food that made the original Montrose BB's such a hit when it first opened in 2008. It's also the prettiest of the three locations, with a light and bright dining room that features just enough Cajun flair to let you know to expect excellent po-boys, gumbo, oysters and two of our favorite dishes in town: Grillades & Grits and the so-called "Cajun poutine," the Tex-Cajun Virgin.

7. Goode Co. Seafood and Goode Co. Taqueria (tie)

We're still crazy about Goode Co. Seafood after all these years. But that's not all that the Goode family does well: Mesquite-grilling is their specialty, as seen at Goode Co. Taqueria right next door. If you're dining at Goode Co. Seafood, be sure to grab a seat in the "older" part of the restaurant: a converted train car with retro fixtures and photos. And if you're hitting the Taqueria, be sure not to miss breakfast, which it is now serving seven days a week, when quail, venison and catfish mingle with traditional Tex-Mex favorites like migas and huevos motuleños.

6. Hawthorn

Hawthorn, which opened this past spring, has been quietly drawing rave reviews with its menu of refined Italian standards mixed with more upscale Texan fare under the expert guidance of chef Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio. Witness an appetizer of Texas quail stuffed with farro, toasted pinenuts and dried cranberry, for example, or an entrée of housemade agnolotti with braised rabbit. Wrote Alison Cook in her recent review of Hawthorn in the Chronicle: "If there's any justice, the restaurant won't stay a sleeper for long."

5. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

By day, it's a casual and cute place to grab an inexpensive Italian lunch. By night, it's effortlessly and casually romantic, just as you'd want a great date to be. Fairy lights twinkle in the canopy of the sweet little patio; the wine bar is dimly lit and well-stocked with Italian classics; the dining room is low-slung and moddish; and the small plates of elegant (and surprisingly inexpensive) food are meant to be shared. But aside from being a charmingly romantic spot, Giacomo's also offers simply exquisite Italian fare from chef/owner Lynette Hawkins, with timeless dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara and eggplant involtini delighting every time.

4. The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen

A bit of Britain in Houston — and a bit of India, too — keeps me coming back to The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen. Indeed, it's the kind of place where you can get so cozy with a craft beer and a curry with chips, you might never want to leave (especially on a cold, wintry evening). Befitting its name, the pub also has a brilliant beer selection, including hard-to-find classics and limited-batch Houston brews. Better than the beer, though, is chef Shiva Patel's Texas-British-Indian fusion food, from her Oysters Victoria topped with saag paneer to an outstanding pub burger between two English muffins.

3. Pondicheri

Another slice of Indian fusion heaven can be found just down the street, where chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani has been wowing West Ave visitors at Pondicheri since it opened last year. Pondicheri is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering casual counter service during the day and upscale table service by night. It even offers classic Indian takeaway, albeit with Jaisinghani's modern, Gulf Coast twist on traditional Indian food. This clever restaurant takes all comers while still creating some of the most breathtakingly interesting and soulful Indian food anywhere, such as Texas shrimp chaat with corn and avocado, paneer-stuffed chicken legs or oatmeal chocolate-chile cookies.

2. Haven / Cove

The recent addition of new raw bar Cove has made the Houston food scene sit up and take notice of Haven once again, not that anyone had really forgotten about chef Randy Evans's farm-to-table temple or the reliable Southern classics with a twist that he turns out daily. With new restaurant-within-a-restaurant Cove offering up inventive, all-raw dishes from across the world under sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston, Haven's traditional vibe is turned on its ear in the most refreshing of ways. Grab a small dish or two (and a cocktail) at Cove, then grab another entrée and dessert at Haven to enjoy the best of both worlds without even having to hit two restaurants.

1. Kata Robata

It says a lot about the changing palates of Houston diners that a highly modern sushi restaurant with a strong undertone of French fusion was our choice as Best New Restaurant in 2010. But the food at Kata Robata (and the casual atmosphere that belies some of the menu prices) was truly the biggest draw of any place that opened that year, and it continues to draw crowds today. Omakase platters and daily specials such as amberjack sashimi with foie gras prepared by the talented Manabu Horiuchi, formerly of Kubo's, are both playful and breathtaking at the same time — as well as quite a bargain. The desserts under pastry chef Chris Leung are equally intriguing, with a lighter and more intelligent touch than is normally found in any pastry program — let alone at a sushi restaurant.
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Local Spotlight

REVERSING THE CURSE
7 Formerly Jinxed Houston Restaurant Locations.
By Joshua Justice

Late in 2009, Eating...Our Words took a look at the then-top "jinxed locations" in Houston. The compiled addresses had such a long and storied history of failure that they made the Astros look like the Yankees.

Looking back at the list today, there may be hope for hometown baseball. Of the eight restaurants listed — two of which happened to be ­carryovers from another list of cursed locations from 2008 — six are still in business. That's a damn fine batting average. Here is a look back at some of the survivors from that list and a few more that have "broken the curse."

6401 Woodway

Today: Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

Previously: Grotto, Mi Cocina, PK's Blue Water Grill

No one would make the mistake of saying Sylvia's has had an easy run of things lately. Owner Sylvia Casares was critically injured when she was allegedly shot by her then-boyfriend Michael Warren back in March. Despite this incredible setback, Casares's family and employees pulled together and managed the two Sylvia's locations in her stead. Today, Casares has recovered and returned to the kitchen, and Sylvia's Mexican Kitchen soldiers on.

4315 Montrose

Today: Brasserie Max and Julie

Previously: Aries, Pic, Russo's, Café Anthony, 43 Brasserie

Formerly inhabited by not one but two different concepts from the arguable king of curse, Scott Tycer, 4315 Montrose has housed some exceptional talent in the past, including Monica Pope. The second restaurant from owners of Café Rabelais in Rice Village, Brasserie Max and Julie is going on its sixth year in business.

1915 Westheimer

Today: Firkin & Phoenix

Previously: Ciro's Italian Grill and Bar, Ohio Grange Cafe, Sabine, Chef G.'s, Epoch Fusion Café

Setting aside my beer nerd qualms about a place with "firkin" in the name that serves very little in the way of craft beer (much less cask beer), there is something to be said for a place that is basically an also-ran Bennigan's surviving at the outer edges of Montrose for going on six years. Clearly it has found a customer base in a spot that — by last count — held at least five restaurants prior. That's certainly a respectable achievement.

2411 S. Shepherd

Today: Torchy's Tacos

Previously: Greatfull Taco, Sabetta, Café Zol, Crostini

Previously home to Greatfull Taco (which, oddly enough, was opened as a sort of homage when a planned Torchy's franchise fell through), this space — now a Torchy's proper — finally has a tenant that people will brave the poor parking and ingress to visit. Though I'm pretty middle of the road on Torchy's and their unforgivably bad tortillas, it's good to have what seems like a solid, stable resident as opposed to the revolving door of previous restaurants. Given some of the beautiful dining rooms that came before, who knew Torchy's stark "institution chic" would be the winner? And while 12 months is probably too early to declare the curse broken, the long lines at Torchy's are a safe bet it's here to stay.

2710 Montrose

Today: BB's Cajun Cafe

Previously: Alfredo's European Grill, others

I spent a long time looking for what used to be housed in the small space behind the Valero at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose. I know this parking lot well; when I was a teenager, our moms would drop us here to hang out at places like Numbers as a compromise and promise that we wouldn't go up to that "horrible area" off Washington Avenue that housed places like The Vatican and Mary Jane's. I can't for the life of me remember anything that preceded Alfredo's in that spot, though people assure me it's been many different things. I guess that shows you the problem. BB's has bucked the trend, however, with soulful Cajun food and late-night hours.

3600 Kirby

Today: Kata Robata

Previously: Hue Restaurant, others

Anyone who follows food in Houston probably scoffs at the idea of Kata Robata ever being included on a cursed-locations list. Three short years ago, however, someone probably still remembered the names of its predecessors at the corner of Kirby and Richmond. Needless to say, the curse has been lifted. (Too soon to see if it's been dumped on Maggie Rita's across the street, though.)

706 Main

Today: The Burger Guys

Previously: Korma Sutra, Laidback Manor, Yatra Brasserie

If anyone has a shot in the midst of downtown's ongoing construction woes, it's the nearly universally adored Burger Guys. Their far-flung Westchase location attracted steady crowds, so it stands to reason the downtown location will draw strong crowds during lunchtime. How they will fare in the evenings may be another story, but with a handful of restaurants and bars planned downtown in the next 18 months, evenings downtown are bound to get a lot more vibrant.
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Top 10

MIDNIGHT MEALS
The top 10 late-night dining spots in Houston.
By Katharine Shilcutt

Regardless of when you're staying up super late (or why), Houston's increasing number of late-night dining options are affording you more choices than ever in 3 a.m. pancakes or midnight po-boys. It wasn't so long ago that you had to pick from a short roster of places — most of them with the word "House" in their name somewhere — to satisfy late-night/early-morning cravings, but that's not the case anymore.

Of course, spots like Waffle House, House of Pies, the International House of Pancakes (see what I mean?) and Whataburger are still as great as ever when you really need to have a short stack and grits at 2 a.m. — but if diner food isn't calling your name late at night, here are our ten (okay, more like 16) picks for the best spots to satisfy that witching-hour craving.

10. Mai's / Majorca (tie)

Open until: 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 a.m. the rest of the week (Mai's)

Open until: 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, midnight the rest of the week (Majorca)

This Midtown classic was many Houstonians' first encounter with Vietnamese food. And 34 years after opening, it's still the most reliable spot in the area to get a midnight meal of pho and spring rolls (or to watch the girls spilling out of area clubs stumble around awkwardly on tired, be-heeled feet as their eyes readjust to the light). And on the other side of Midtown, relative newcomer Majorca is a fun change-up from diner food with its menu of tapas and other Spanish favorites (like the albóndigas with a fried egg on top that will perk up even the weariest diner).

9. Copacabana Pizzeria

Open until: 1:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 11:30 p.m. the rest of the week

It can be tough to find good late-night options this far outside the Beltway, but Brazilian-Italian joint Copacabana Pizzeria (formerly known as Friends Pizzeria before it relocated to its new home a few months ago) has everything from rum-soaked caipirinhas (now that it finally has its liquor license) to wonderfully messy X-tudo burgers. And — of course — pizzas, topped with anything from basic pepperoni to Brazilian specialties like soft, savory catupiry cheese.

8. Max's Wine Dive

Open until: 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, midnight the rest of the week

Max's would be higher on the list if only its 2 a.m. closing time extended to the rest of the week — can you imagine being able to get chef Michael Pellegrino's fried chicken or beef belly meatballs on duck fat biscuits at all hours of the night? As it is, being able to dine at Max's past midnight on the weekends is still pretty cool.

7. Shepherd Park Draught House / Cottonwood (tie)

Open until: 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, midnight the rest of the week

These two GOOF-y spots (that's Garden Oaks-Oak Forest to the uninitiated) are located practically right next door to each other off Shepherd, and both offer great food and excellent craft beer late into the evening. Although it's too new to say how Cottonwood's food will ultimately fare, I was seriously impressed with a plate of late-night jerk chicken wings one recent night. And the slightly upscale pub grub at Shepherd Park Draught House — especially the burgers — is reliably good stuff.

6. Steak 'N Shake

Open until: the cows come home (it's a 24-hour joint)

I, for one, was excited to welcome Steak 'N Shake to Houston when it opened its FM 1960 location earlier this year. Back when I had to travel a lot for work to some very small, very unlikable towns, the trim and chipper local Steak 'N Shake was often my only bastion of sanity — particularly late at night, when I was feeling lonely and bored in my Super 8 motel room. There are now four locations scattered throughout Houston (one in Katy, one in Pearland and one in Webster), and all are trusty spots to get a cheerful midnight milkshake or burger in parts of town where Denny's or IHOP may otherwise be your only options.

5. Genji

Open until: 2 a.m. every night of the week

Genji recently relocated from the same Westheimer strip center that also housed Friends Pizzeria to a new Westchase spot, but it kept the same late hours. It's still the most reliably awesome karaoke in town (complete with a binder of songs that's labeled "Engrish songs by title" unironically) as well as the best spot to get a late-night meal of udon, katsudon or a Japanese omelet covered in ketchup. (Don't knock it till you've tried it.)

4. Onion Creek

Open until: 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, midnight the rest of the week

Onion Creek Coffee House, Bar & Lounge (its full Christian name) is practically open all the time, starting with breakfast at 7 a.m. and ending most nights at 2 a.m. It's the living room of the Heights, with a cozy interior that's reminiscent of a hipster hunting lodge and a sprawling patio that's usually packed at all hours, so you never have to drink (or eat) alone. The Frito pie is reason alone to go, however, topped with creamy squiggles of cool sour cream and spicy pickled jalapeños in addition to the cheese and chili.

3. Chacho's / Spanish Flowers (tie)

Open until: you go home; both places are 24-hour affairs

Sometimes the only thing that will set you right is a plate of cheese enchiladas or a handful of fluffy flour tortillas with some sirloin steak stuffed inside. And both of these Tex-Mex stalwarts will take care of those cravings 24 hours a day. Chacho's has a drive-through — handy if you're on the way home — and a remarkably pleasant patio that's akin to a Taco Cabana on steroids. Spanish Flowers, meanwhile, only takes one break a week from serving customers: It closes at 10 p.m. on Tuesday before reopening on Wednesday at 9 a.m.

2. Pho Binh by Night / Fu Fu Cafe (tie)

Open until: 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, midnight the rest of the week (Pho Binh)

Open until: 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 2 a.m. the rest of the week (Fu Fu)

It used to be that the Chinatown go-to for late-night dining was Tan Tan. And while it's still a strong contender for the list, you can get far better food at both Pho Binh by Night and Fu Fu Cafe. Pho Binh is an offshoot of the immensely popular Pho Binh trailer in south Houston — owned by the very same family, so you know the pho is still every bit as amazing — while Fu Fu Cafe offers what many Houstonians consider to be the city's best soup dumplings...if there are any left at 4 a.m., that is.

1. BB's Cafe

Open until: 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday (Montrose location), 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday (Heights and Greenway Plaza locations), midnight the rest of the week

Whether at the original Montrose location or the conveniently located Heights spot across the street from Fitzgerald's, BB's Cafe currently has the market cornered on late-night dining. Where else in town can you get a po-boy this good this late at night? There are only a handful of places that rival BB's Cafe in the daylight hours as it is. And BB's knows that late-night diners are its bread and butter, offering amazing morning-to-night concoctions like breakfast po-boys, such as the Morning Glory po-boy filled with scrambled eggs, queso, fajita beef and BB's sauce. What else could any Houstonian ask for at 2 a.m. that doesn't come with a pillow and comforter?
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Restaurant News

OPENINGS & CLOSINGS
Witchcraft, Underdogs and Blacksmiths.
By Katharine Shilcutt

On my way home a few nights ago, I noticed that a hunch I'd had was true: Bibas Brooklyn Express had closed after only six short months in business on Main Street. I'd noticed the lights off for a few days, and a new spread of brown paper in the windows meant only one thing. B4-U-Eat reports that the paper indicates something new is in the works, though: "We hear it opens in 2 to 3 weeks as a Romas Pizza," reported its weekly newsletter.

And in other closings, our own Brittanie Shey's favorite Hawaiian joint has shut its doors: Hula Mama's — which Shey called "paradise in a double-wide" — took its tiki torches down for good over the weekend. According to B4-U-Eat (which has all the good scoop this week): "Chief Tama Satoa is moving to Maui to open a restaurant Luau show there. For Luau shows here, Drums of the Pacific is still open, operated by his daughter."

Witchcraft Tavern & Provision Co. opened in the old Dragon Bowl space at Shepherd and 11th Street, bringing another excellent craft beer selection to the Heights. Owner Ken Bridge (who owned Dragon Bowl, and who also runs Lola, Pink's Pizza and Shepherd Park Draught House) was on hand when I visited this past week, showing his new chefs how to cook up a menu of simple pub favorites.

I even got a quick peek in the back, where Bridge has built possibly the finest tap room in town; each keg has its own individual regulators, and there's plenty of room for cask ales, too. Witchcraft also has the same rock and roll vibe of Shepherd Park Draught House, with more of Bridge's rock memorabilia on display and a stunning piece of wall art made out of retro speakers.

And speaking of craft beer, a new underdog is set to be the best bar to open on Washington Avenue since the original incarnation of Pearl Bar: The appropriately named Underdog's has been operating quietly in the old Lot space for the last four months, offering an incredible selection of microbrews at ridiculous prices. I'm talking $3 for nearly any pint — even stuff like Saint Arnold Pumpkinator and Sixpoint Autumnation — and only $6 for heavy-duty brews like Narwhal. It's the best-kept secret on Washington Avenue for now, but I doubt it'll stay that way for long.

And after months of anticipation, The Pass portion of The Pass & Provisions finally opened last Tuesday.

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