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The Dan Marino Restaurants

The 13 restaurants that nearly made our 30 essential Texas restaurants list.

On the Road

If you read last week's feature — "Eat Here: The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants to Visit Before You Die" — then you no doubt asked why X, Y or Z restaurant didn't make the list. Below are the 13 restaurants that kept getting mentioned again and again by our food writers and nearly made it, but just didn't get that final vote or two to push them over the top. These are the Dan Marinos of our list — the Super Bowl shut-outs that almost had a taste of sweet, sweet AstroTurf.

Alternately, you could think of these 13 restaurants as an extension of the top 30 list, in case 30 just weren't enough to satiate you. They're arguably as important as some of the others that made the top 30 list and represent an even broader swath of Texas. Tack these 13 onto the end of the top 30 and play the whole list on "expert" level.

Brennan's is notable for serving Creole classics in a refined, dignified setting.
Troy Fields
Brennan's is notable for serving Creole classics in a refined, dignified setting.
Our winning salad at McDonald's. (Wouldn't you rather see this picture than the fluffed-up one on McDonald's Web site?)
Photo by Morton Fox
Our winning salad at McDonald's. (Wouldn't you rather see this picture than the fluffed-up one on McDonald's Web site?)
Mockingbird Bistro packs them in every day with a solid, well-executed menu of bistro classics.
Mai Pham
Mockingbird Bistro packs them in every day with a solid, well-executed menu of bistro classics.

Restaurants are listed alphabetically and, as with our 30 list, are not ranked:

Barley Swine, Austin

Notable for: Being a restaurant. Chef Bryce Gilmore once ran the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer — probably Austin's most popular food truck for a long while — and eventually opened this brick-and-mortar gastropub to serve his food full-time in a small-plate format that features locally grown produce. Barley Swine takes its beer as seriously as its wine, too.

Brennan's, Houston

Notable for: Serving Creole classics in a refined, dignified setting that's remained virtually the same for many decades despite a devastating fire that burned Brennan's to the ground in 2008. Brennan's has retained its reputation as a "special occasion" spot that's warm and welcoming yet still serious, a quality found in increasingly fewer dining rooms. The restaurant has also trained up generations of young, successful chefs over the years — Randy Evans of Haven and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, just to name a couple — in its mammoth, old-school kitchen.

Congress, Austin

Notable for: Chef David Bull's so-called "Natural American" cuisine that's available only in nightly tasting menus — three or seven courses — and prepared with as many locally obtained ingredients as possible, with beverage pairings from sommelier Paula Rester. The pricey meals are served in an appropriately sleek, elegant downtown dining room that's next door to Bull's other concepts: Bar Congress and Second Bar & Kitchen.

La Gloria, San Antonio

Notable for: Being an upscale icehouse near the old Pearl Brewery in the newest hip part of San Antonio, serving a huge variety of Mexican street food from sopes to panuchos and a terrific selection of cocktails. La Gloria's fare is slightly more expensive Mexican street food, to be certain, but the atmosphere and the view onto the river make the price worth it.

The Lonesome Dove, Fort Worth

Notable for: Chef Tim Love's modern Texana cuisine, a love letter to the state, which runs the gamut from traditional steaks to wild boar and rattlesnake. Open for more than a dozen years, Lonesome Dove is in the heart of the Stockyard District — just like Joe T. Garcia's and Cattlemen's Steakhouse — but is by far more upscale than its fellow Fort Worth companions on the list.

Mary's Cafe, Strawn

Notable for: Chicken-fried steak, which has been universally deemed "road trip-worthy." The West Texas-style chicken-fried steak in this tiny town comes in three sizes, but the small is large enough to cover a dinner plate — so order wisely — and comes with all the fixings, including gravy on the side (the right way). Get the "Bubba"-sized tea to wash it all down. Trust us.

Oxheart, Houston

Notable for: Chef Justin Yu's Nordic-inspired minimalist cuisine, featuring Gulf Coast products and a predominance of repurposed vegetables. The nightly tasting menus — four or seven courses — are served in an itty-bitty spot in Houston's Warehouse District with baked goods from Yu's wife — pastry chef Karen Man — and an unusual wine program from sommelier Justin Vann.

Smoke, Dallas

Notable for: Offering amazing barbecue in the middle of the Big D. Chef/owner Tim Byres goes beyond just barbecue, however, and crafts everything at Smoke in-house, including — as Leslie Brenner noted in her Dallas Morning News review of Smoke in 2011 — "baking breads, putting up pickles and jams, curing sausages, making his own ricotta cheese, growing many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant in a garden behind the restaurant."

Snow's, Lexington

Notable for: Having its own Wikipedia entry, and generally being accepted as serving some of the best barbecue in Texas despite being open for roughly four hours one day a week. This was perhaps the most surprising omission from the 30 list, along with the fact that no burger joints made the top 30.

Stagecoach Inn, Salado

Notable for: Surviving as the oldest continually operating hotel in the state, open since 1861. It's got plenty of other claims to fame, too, aside from being located in beautiful, historic Salado: Famous visitors over the years include General George A. Custer, Robert E. Lee and Jesse James.

Stingaree, Crystal Beach

Notable for: Being "a survivor and a great sunset destination," said contributor Syd ­Kearney of the Houston Chronicle. "And the barbecue crab is the real deal." Despite Stingaree and all of Crystal Beach suffering badly during Hurricane Ike in 2008, the restaurant stands as a symbol of the Gulf Coast's ­resilience.

the breakfast klub, Houston

Notable for: Long lines leading to the most perfect plate of chicken and waffles you've ever tasted. (Also: grits.) The breakfast klub has been called one of the "best breakfast restaurants in the nation" by everyone from Good Morning America and USA Today to Esquire and Forbes.

Tolbert's Chili, Grapevine

Notable for: Serving the state's official food in a restaurant opened by Terlingua Chili Cook-Off founder and chili expert Frank X. Tolbert himself. As Hanna Raskin put it in a 2010 article from the Dallas Observer: "[T]he restaurant functions today not just as a hometown honky-tonk and Texas foodways defender, but also as a sort of link to the state's first well-known food writer."
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For Your Health

How Does Your Garden Salad Grow?
Ranking 7 fast-food salads from best to worst.

Katharine Shilcutt

Since I've made a New Year's resolution — along with half of America, as with every year — to eat healthier, I've been investigating fast-food salads every now and then as a quick lunch option. I'm not one of those for whom eating salads is a penalty, however: I love a good salad, the crunch of good lettuce, the sweetness of good tomatoes; I love all the mingling of flavors and textures that a salad provides.

Maybe some of you have been noshing on fast-food salads at lunch, too, thinking they're a great choice when you're pressed for time and on the run. And some salads are. Others are decidedly not.

Over the past few weeks, I hit seven fast-food chains and chose the salads that appealed most to me. (Sometimes this was easier said than done.) If this list were based solely on taste, it would look much different. As it is, the best and worst rankings are based on the salads' nutritional value — if any — alongside their taste. Because what's the point of ordering a salad if it has as many calories as a Whopper?

The salads are ranked below in order of best to worst. All calorie and fat contents include dressing, but not croutons or other starchy, crunchy toppings (i.e., tortilla strips, croutons, etc.).

1. McDonald's Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken

Calories: 390

Fat: 14 grams

Go McDonald's. Seriously. I never thought I'd catch myself saying that outside of praising the chain's coffee drinks (sorry, coffee nerds). Not only was this the tastiest salad of the seven I ate, it was the healthiest. Besides having the lowest calorie and fat counts, it offers a decent amount of fiber (seven grams) and protein (27 grams). It also offered — by a long shot — the lowest sodium count of all seven salads at 650 milligrams. The lettuce was crispy and fresh, the grilled chicken moist and flavorful, the dressing zesty and a nice counterbalance to the corn and black beans that were found throughout. McDonald's even throws in a couple of lime wedges to add some extra zing.

2. Whataburger Apple & Cranberry Chicken Salad

Calories: 505

Fat: 20 grams

I was leery of this salad, as Whataburger's garden salads are usually uniformly disappointing (and for reasons seen in the Wendy's and Burger King entries in this list). But Whataburger should be praised for a perfectly passable salad that comes up light on calories and fat — compared to the rest of the pack — although very high in carbohydrates thanks to the 29 grams of sugar contained in the salad. One nitpick, however, is that nutritional information on Whataburger's dressings is virtually impossible to find on its Web site. Work on that, guys. Go check out Jack in the Box and Wendy's Web sites for tips.

3. Chick-fil-A Southwest Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken

Calories: 520

Fat: 36 grams

Based purely on taste, Chick-fil-A would be neck-and-neck with McDonald's. In terms of presentation, Chick-fil-A wins by offering some splendidly fresh produce arranged thoughtfully instead of tossed into a plastic bowl. In terms of calories, however, the dressing is what pushes this salad over the top. The recommended "Spicy" dressing adds over half the calories and half the fat. Try the fat-free Honey Mustard, which would mean your salad comes in at 350 calories and nine grams of fat instead — pushing this salad over the top and into first place.

4. Jack in the Box Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken

Calories: 540

Fat: 33 grams

If this list were based entirely on which chain has the best lettuce, Jack in the Box would win. The dark green spring mix that greets me with each JitB salad is always a pleasant sight. The other produce inside is usually pretty swell, too. However, the chicken that comes on top is always quite flaccid and grim. The upside is that ignoring the chicken would save you 539 grams of sodium and 57 grams of cholesterol, making this salad an even better option (and taking it down to 406 calories overall). Then again, you wouldn't be getting any protein. Pros and cons...

5. Taco Bell Cantina Bowl with Steak

Calories: 560

Fat: 22 grams

The new Cantina Bowls at Taco Bell are basically the chain's version of a burrito bowl from places such as Freebird's and Chipotle: lettuce and other vegetables on a bed of black beans and rice. Even taken with steak — the premium option — this is one of the best choices on the list. The salsa-style dressing that comes with it is tasty and light, and while the guacamole adds fat and calories, it could be much worse (and it tastes pretty good, too). This salad is close to McDonald's when it comes to having low saturated fat levels (3.5 grams) and low cholesterol (tied with Chick-fil-A at 60 grams), plus it has the lowest sugar content of any salad on this list. The salad is offered as a package deal with a bag of tortilla chips and more guacamole, however. Don't do that. Come on, now.

6. Wendy's Apple Pecan Chicken Salad

Calories: 710

Fat: 38 grams

Wendy's really outdoes itself here, with a salad that already features 570 calories and 27 grams of fat before the dressing is added. An Italian vinaigrette, at that. With 36 grams of sugar, it's also the sweetest of the salads — not something you're generally looking for in a healthy meal. It's the one salad on the list that breaks the 100 mark with its cholesterol count: 115 milligrams. But believe it or not, this woeful salad (which doesn't even taste that great) isn't the worst on the list.

7. Burger King Chicken, Apple & Cranberry Garden Fresh Salad with Grilled Chicken

Calories: 850

Fat: 48 grams

Well, that got out of hand quickly. We sped right past the 600- and 700-calorie ranges right into the nearly-900-calories-in-a-salad range, which is a pretty sad place to find ourselves. Despite buzzwordy ingredients that make this salad sound healthy, BK's fruit-filled salad is a mess. Even before dressing, it's got 560 calories and 30 grams of fat — the highest fat content of any undressed salad on the list — and is pushing 1,000 grams of sodium. The sugar is out of control, too: 37 grams. By comparison, a Whopper is healthier for you than this salad. It only has 650 calories, 35 grams of fat and three grams of sugar. A Whopper. Jesus.

Top 10

Brasseries and Bistros
The top 10 restaurants in River Oaks.

KATHARINE SHILCUTT

The last time we tackled the Top 10 restaurants in River Oaks, Tony Mandola's was still open in what is now Brasserie 19's spot in the River Oaks Shopping Center. Needless to say, things have changed a bit in three years. And in spite of its ritzy exterior, River Oaks still has plenty of inexpensive holes-in-the-wall and divey spots to go along with the big-name restaurants that make bank with their society patrons.

Note: For the purposes of this post, River Oaks is defined as south of Buffalo Bayou, west of Dunlavy, east of Suffolk and north of Westheimer.

Honorable Mention: Weslayan Cafe, Tiny Boxwood's

Although these spots fall outside the boundaries of River Oaks, they're still thought of as area classics. Get the pan-fried dumplings at Weslayan Cafe, and coffee with cookies at Tiny Boxwood's (if you can endure the long line).

10. Avalon Diner

Avalon Diner has been serving up some of the best greasy-spoon food in the city since 1938. The place is usually filled with regulars, and the waitstaff has been there for ages. There's something for every diner craving, from Blue Plate Special comfort food to arterially challenging breakfast staples. The lure of breakfast food all day long is reason enough to stop by and check it out at least once, and the milkshakes — some of the best in the city — long ago cemented Avalon Diner as a true Houston classic.

9. Crescent City Beignets

Except for the updated accents, this no-fuss coffeehouse in a mid-century strip center looks like a New Orleans original, with exposed brick walls, black-and-white photography and zydeco music in the background. The specialty here is, of course, beignets, which are as hot and fluffy as you remember them at Café du Monde. (Just remember not to inhale or exhale while taking a bite, unless you're looking for the perfect powdered-sugar storm.) The house beverage, café au lait, is a vacation in a cup, but we recommend another treat: granitas, akin to frozen coffee smoothies. Crescent City also serves Cajun/Creole entrées, but it's the beignets that always draw me in — especially late in the evening, after dinner has already settled. It's a good thing Crescent City stays open until 10 p.m.

8. Red Lion Pub

Don't let the red pleather-upholstered booths and faux Tudor timbers fool you. This isn't just another fake British pub. This is an authentically fake British pub, right down to the iconic red telephone box inside. Founder and owner Craig Mallinson is the son of British folk singer Sarah Mallinson, and he bakes the Cornish pasties himself. He even has the "Fruity" variety of HP sauce to slather on your sausage rolls. But it's not all Sunday roasts here; true to England's food culture (which incorporates Indian food much in the same way we do Tex-Mex), you'll find excellent curries on the menu, too. In cold months, enjoy the warmth of the cozy interior fireplace. But in warmer months, the tree-shaded patio is the place to be.

7. Ouisie's Table

Leave it to Elouise Adams Jones to bring out the trendy and elegant best in old, homey favorites. Ouisie's Table's cream of mushroom soup, for example, in its thin, milky broth, is loaded with tons of mushrooms that fairly pop with freshness; fried oysters, for another, are so tender and juicy that they seem lighter than air. The chicken-fried steak — once deemed the best in the state, and the winner of multiple Best of Houston® awards across many years — used to be available only on Tuesdays, but proved so popular that Ouisie's was fairly forced to put it on the regular menu, complete with all the fixings: mashed potatoes with black pepper milk gravy, black-eyed peas, mustard greens and Lucy's corn pudding.

6. Relish Fine Foods

If you like Central Market but hate the parking, you'll love Relish Fine Foods — especially since it's located right down the street from the grocery giant. The vibe at Relish is very similar: part grocery store with high-end goods and local products such as Slow Dough bread and Way Back When milk, part ready-made foods you can eat at Relish or on the go. An assortment of gourmet soups, salads and sandwiches are all made with local ingredients and change with the seasons, but not all is light here: Check out the Rice Krispies treats made with brown butter or the salted caramel brownies from Relish's in-house pastry chef.

5. Américas

Américas is the restaurant responsible — along with its owners, the Cordúa family — for first introducing Houston to South American cuisine. As with its sister restaurant, Churrascos, the menu has barely changed since Américas' inception on Post Oak Boulevard (which is now closed). The only real difference at the River Oaks buildout is the rather insane interior: a mishmash of Aeon Flux and The Lion King staged on Broadway, as envisioned by Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. (Compare this with the old Post Oak location's aesthetic of "Dr. Seuss on acid," however, and the dining room seems right on track.) Stick with classics like the churrasco steak or the smoky crab claws, and try not to stare — at the enormous booths or the socialites packed into them.

4. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino

We gave Giacomo's a Best of Houston® award for Best Date Night in 2011, and that sentiment still stands. You get a lot of bang for your buck at Lynette Hawkins's cozy, romantic bistro on a quiet stretch of Westheimer thanks to a clever menu that encourages sharing of small, smartly priced plates of Italian classics: eggplant involtini, spaghetti carbonara, swiss chard crepes and more. The wine list is just as affordable as the menu, and there's even a cute wine bar in which to enjoy it.

3. Mockingbird Bistro

Mockingbird Bistro is so sequestered in a little neighborhood south of West Gray, finding your way back can sometimes feel like searching out Brigadoon in the mists. But this is just part of the charm at John Sheely's funky neighborhood cafe, which has been serving what seems like the same rotation of patrons for the last 11 years. Sheely, along with talented sous chef Jose Luis Vela, packs them in at lunch and dinner every day with a solid and well-executed menu of bistro classics: foie gras, onion soup, roasted chicken, steak frites and and an Old World-heavy wine list. While over-the-top burgers like the $32 foie-topped Wagyu burger hold court at night, happy hour is a less expensive time to visit and indulge in $5 bar bites, cocktails, wines and beer.

2. Backstreet Cafe

Backstreet Cafe hasn't changed all that much since we awarded it Best Brunch back in 2004, but that's why we like it. The classic River Oaks restaurant is the oldest of Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega's restaurants — tucked into every nook and cranny of a century-old house, including its lush backyard — and has run smoothly for years precisely because of that consistency. The menu doesn't stagnate, but does continue to offer old favorites like gingerbread waffles and perfect eggs Benedict over cheddar-chive biscuits for brunch. The service — including longtime sommelier Sean Beck — has remained consistently excellent, too, guaranteeing that pretty much every meal at Backstreet will be a success.

1. Brasserie 19

A River Oaks playground for Houston's rich and famous, Brasserie 19 nevertheless has the food to match the crowds and the hype, turning out classic French and Belgian staples like steak frites and cassoulet alongside an impressive list of beers, wines and cocktails to match. Executive chef Amanda McGraw has also begun to branch out into more modern daily specials such as a 63-degree over parmesan custard and pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche — all of which have been equally well-received. The sleek, marble-topped bar is the place to be if you're young and single, while the restaurant's main floor is a gathering point for socialites and food-lovers alike. The egalitarian patio is the most pleasant spot to dine, however, with far less noise and a pretty view of the brightly lit River Oaks Theatre marquee across West Gray.
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Backstreet is back, plus craft beer-based grub gets wheels.

Katharine Shilcutt

Last week was quiet; this week has some talking to do — starting with news that David Grossman will be closing out at Branch Water Tavern and taking the restaurant's name with him when he does. The restaurant itself will remain open under a new name and new ownership, reports Greg Morago at the Houston Chronicle, and Grossman hopes to reopen Branch Water Tavern in another venue at a later date.

"Grossman said Matt Brice, of Bistro Des Amis in Rice Village, is the new lessee of the Branch Water Tavern space," writes Morago. "It is not known what type of restaurant he will operate there or what it will be named."

Backstreet Cafe, meanwhile, has been temporarily closed for renovations since January 14 but reopened yesterday. A source at the restaurant says that most of the changes were the sort of basic, behind-the-scenes repairs and upkeep required for a century-old house, so don't worry — Backstreet still looks exactly the same.

It was announced back in September that chef John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro would soon be opening a second restaurant near the Galleria, in the BBVA Compass building that's currently under construction. Mike Riccetti at the Examiner has the scoop on that new restaurant — Osteria Mazzantini, named after Sheely's maternal family — which will feature Italian classics in a 130-seat space with an 80-seat patio. Riccetti even has a sample menu, with intriguing dishes like calf's brain-filled ravioli on the list. Osteria Mazzantini is slated to open at 2200 Post Oak this April.

Another food truck hit the streets last week: Craft Infusion, a mobile canteen from Troy Witherspoon — the former chef at Petrol Station — that will be serving more of Witherspoon's noted beer-based grub. Look for the truck today at Oak Forest Chill (3542 Oak Forest Drive), where it's been serving lunch and dinner since last Friday.

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