By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Fried eggs and truffle oil as toppings may be old hat to foodies these days. We're easily distracted creatures who paw like needle-clawed kittens at every new bauble that comes along.
But back in the rollicking days of the mid-2000s, the novelty had not yet worn thin and restaurants like Max's Wine Dive were blowing the average diner's mind by serving Champagne with fried chicken.
It's with nostalgia for a simpler time that I read my friend Judy Le's review of the original Max's Wine Dive when it opened in Houston in late 2006. Le's write-up at the now-defunct Houstonist (where she and I first met) is filled with the kind of sincere wonder that was fostered by swaggering restaurants like Max's Wine Dive, where chef Jonathan Jones — he of the steak knife driven pointedly into a po-boy the size of a Chrysler at successive restaurant ventures such as Beaver's — was showcasing the type of intentionally over-the-top food that quickly became his signature.
"Our plate of deluxe fries were piled high on a huge platter, smothered in venison chili, black truffle oil, gruyere cheese and two fried eggs," wrote Le. "After a split second to admire the decadence, the plate was cleaned spotless by our greedy little fingers."
Le finishes: "How is it possible that we have never had fried eggs on top of chili fries?!"
How indeed, one wonders now with over six years' worth of distance from the original Max's menu, was that possible? You can get a Faygo topped with a fried egg these days. Where has our innocence gone?
Max's Wine Dive continues to impress with its food, now under the stewardship of the more focused chef Michael Pelligrino, whose menu these days is split between Max's classic dishes and his own creations. You'll still find the Nacho Mama's oysters and Texas "haute" dog, but you'll also find Pelligrino's relatively austere dishes like trout with lentils, roasted tomatoes and charred lemon cream or roasted cauliflower dressed simply in olive oil, salt and pepper.
And although — to the foodie's eye — the hubbub may have died down, Max's still merits a long wait and packed house every night at its original Washington Avenue location. It was one of the first entrants to the Washington Avenue scene, an orgiastic 24-7 party that paired well with what Texas Monthly dubbed a "food orgy" inside the restaurant, and although the club and bar scene itself has now died down, Max's Wine Dive has survived intact.
Indeed, the once-frenzied Washington Avenue strip seems to be settling down into some version of maturity and is now one of the better restaurant corridors in town, boasting critical darlings like Coppa and benjy's, straightforward favorites like Laurenzo's and BRC Gastropub and promising newcomers like Hollister Grill, Katch-22 and Federal American Grill.
Max's Wine Dive has clearly learned something along the way, opening locations in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas during those intervening years — all of which are as successful as their mothership. Perhaps you've long wondered why Max's hasn't opened another location in Houston, perhaps you haven't. Either way, Max's is doing so now.
Lasco Enterprises (which also owns The Tasting Room chain of wine bars, another wildly successful venture that started as a small tasting room approximately the same size as the original Max's) announced last Friday that a second location of Max's Wine Dive would be opening in Montrose next door to Cuchara. While an exact date hasn't been set for its grand opening, this second location will offer more space than the notoriously tiny Washington Avenue spot — though only by 500 square feet — and the same combination of upscale "dive" food and chef-driven dishes that define the original location.
A chef has not been hired for this new location, although it's tough to imagine that some smart young thing out there won't snap this up. A showcase restaurant in the middle of the hottest dining neighborhood in Houston isn't exactly a tough sell.
What remains a tough sell for me, however, are a few niggling thoughts.
What will become of the already fraught parking situation here at the corner of Fairview and Taft? The parking lot barely contains the Cuchara crowd as it is. Its neighbor, Gratifi (previously known as Ziggy's), nearly closed three years ago after a parking dispute with the City of Houston, eventually spending $300,000 on a new lot (and a pissed-off sign to go with it) in order to accommodate parking requirements.
Moreover, I find it interesting — especially after a conversation with my friend Chris Frankel, a real estate and economics geek when he's not tending bar — that so many "new" restaurants opening around Houston these days are actually second locations or new concepts from long-established restaurateurs. Coppa is expanding into Rice Village, El Gran Malo into downtown, Liberty Kitchen into the Galleria, Jus' Mac into Sugar Land. Mockingbird Cafe owner John Sheely is opening a new restaurant on Post Oak Boulevard alongside fellow Montrose chef/restaurateur Hugo Ortega. Shepard Ross of Glass Wall recently opened Brooklyn Athletic Club, and subsequently a Brooklyn Athletic Club food truck. Even the little guys are doing it: Radical Eats owner Staci Davis is opening a second restaurant although her customers are, shall we say, a little upset over the news.
While it's exciting to see friendly faces cropping up throughout the city — especially if you're a Flying Saucer fan, for example, but don't want to drive from your home base in Missouri City just to pound a pint — part of me bristles at the ongoing trend of homogenization.
Houston has long been the city where chain restaurants come to die, a place where there is no place for On the Border or Marie Callender's. When chain expansion goes wrong here, it goes terribly wrong. One only needs to eat at the original location of Carrabba's or Ninfa's to see just how embarrassing every other incarnation is by comparison. Some even tend to regard our own legitimately good, homegrown chains like James Coney Island or the Pappas family of restaurants with unwarranted disdain.
What worries me is the idea that established restaurateurs and their moneyed backers are driving up the cost of real estate in popular areas with these second, third, fourth locations to the point where independent operators can no longer enter the market. (Coincidentally, this is nearly identical to the fiscally-based concern expressed by those opposed to the City of Houston's parking ordinance revisions.)
I am not saying this has happened yet, nor will it definitely happen. But I'd hate for that to be the case. Houston prides itself on ingenuity and eccentricity, but we're also a city driven by the whims of developers and fattened up on pure, unadulterated capitalism. It's a delicate balance — and one that's served the city well lately — and one that we'll hopefully maintain as we continue blazing our own defiant path.
In its press release, Lasco Enterprises crowed its accomplishments from the rooftops, as well it should: It was named "one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S." for three years in a row by Inc. The Houston Business Journal listed it as one of the "fastest-growing private companies in Houston" for four years running. It employs 500 people in four cities across Texas. Lasco Enterprises should rightly be proud of itself and its business model.
In my ideal Houston, however, there's room for both the Lascos and the little guys. Not just in the fringes where land is cheap, but in our urban core as well — and especially in landmark neighborhoods like Montrose. Will our city support them both?
A Cooler Coffee
Get your caffeine fix without the heat.
I've always hated the phrase "movers and shakers," but if applied literally, it's an accurate description of our city right now. With locals running around town implacably, outpacing frequent mentions from national publications (which have taken to calling us the new "it" city), it's easy to forget that Southerners are said to keep a leisurely pace.
Blame it on highly addictive frozen and iced forms of caffeine, without which many of us would cede to summer's oppressive heat and humidity. As luck would have it, getting your caffeine fix is becoming more convenient and more interesting.
Although there are plenty of consistently good warm classics — such as the Valrhona mocha at Blacksmith, a cortado at Southside Espresso or pretty much anything at Catalina Coffee — there are other less-known, summer-friendly takes on coffee that even the most devout purist would enjoy.
Undertow at Tiny Boxwood's
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Tiny's fan who doesn't immediately mention the popular chocolate chip cookies at this tiny nursery-turned-cafe. But for me, it's mostly the Undertow that could justify waiting in the long Sunday brunch line.
Warm layers of java and cooled cream create a beige-to-brown ombré design in a small highball glass. Those layers then fold into each other as you sip, becoming progressively cooler and sweeter, until you're left with one last, sugary slurp of creamy coffee. Fair warning: Don't take a spoon to that glass or you'll look like a novice.
Cajeta latte at Black Hole and Antidote
For many Mexican households, cajeta is the equivalent of Nutella. Consumed almost impiously, this syrup-spread hybrid is smeared or poured onto anything that can stand up to its weight. Montrose coffee shop Black Hole and its sister shop in the Heights, Antidote, know all about this caramel-like ingredient.
The cajeta latte is one of Antidote's best-selling drinks, hot or cold. Now that both Black Hole and Antidote sell their cold-brewed coffee in to-go containers, you can make your own latte at home without worrying about being caught licking the extra (always use extra) cajeta directly from the glass.
Vietnamese iced coffee at Les Givrals Kahve
I'd be remiss not to mention Vietnamese coffee in Houston, given this city's rich profusion of quality Vietnamese fare. And if I'm craving banh mi, it almost goes without saying that I'll be eating my sandwich while thick, dark Café du Monde trickles from the drip filter into a generous amount of ice and condensed milk. The ratio of condensed milk to actual coffee makes this drink more of an iced treat than an effective caffeine fix, but the concentrated coffee will ensure that your drink isn't overbearingly sweet.
Affogato at Eatsie Boys Cafe
With the Montrose eatery's matzoh ball pho and sticky bun sandwiches taking the spotlight at the Boys' cafe, many often forget their Frozen Awesome ice cream line. It's sold around town — Paulie's features it as a part of their regular menu — and comes in tasty, offbeat flavors.
That might be why their affogato is especially addictive, because you can ask for their popular Shipley's ice cream with your shot of espresso. The contrast between the smoky, milky shot and the super-sweet firm ice cream will satisfy your sweet tooth while waking you up after a Sabotage or pint of the Boys' new brewery 8th Wonder Hopston.
On the Menu
James Coney Island unveils new chef-designed hot dogs on June 1.
James Coney Island is one of the oldest restaurants in Houston, founded in 1923 by Greek immigrant brothers James and Tom Papadakis (this explains the Greek-influenced chili that remains on the menu to this day). But although the chain is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, the food is anything but old-fashioned.
In just the last few years, James Coney has started using local baker Slow Dough for its buns and introduced new twists on its classic coneys, such as the Lone Star Dog (topped with barbecue sauce and battered slices of onion rings) and the Baja dog, which sports avocado, chipotle mayonnaise and red onions.
Starting June 1, the chain will be featuring an even more intriguing take on Houston's favorite tubed meat in a bun: custom-designed hot dogs from some of the city's best chefs. Each month for the next six months, James Coney Island will feature a different custom-made hot dog from Monica Pope of Sparrow, Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata, Matt Marcus of the Eatsie Boys and John Sheeley of Mockingbird Bistro. Up first in the rotation, however, is Randy Evans of Haven.
Evans's creation is called the "Huntin' Dog," which will replace the standard Hebrew National all-beef frank with an Angus beef hot dog from 44 Farms, an independent cattle ranch near Cameron, Texas. The custom-baked jalapeño-cheese bun will still come from Slow Dough, and the dog itself will be topped with Haven's signature wild boar chili along with diced onions, cilantro and pickled jalapeño.
The Evans-designed Huntin' Dog will be available throughout June at all James Coney Island locations for $6.29. A new chef's creation will replace it on July 1, although JCI is staying mum about which chef will come next in the rotation and what his or her hot dog recipe will be. In addition to featuring the chef's creation for 30 days, James Coney Island is also donating $1,000 to that chef's favorite charity each month.
And if old-fashioned is your thing? Don't worry; the classic coneys at JCI are still as great as ever, and they'll always be on the menu.
Relaxation and repast at Bon Ga.
After two meals at Bon Ga, I understand why Oxhart chef Justin Yu names it as one of his go-to restaurants.
Bon Ga is not about culinary posturing, fussy presentation and unorthodox flavors. Fresh ingredients and consistently impeccable preparation are Bon Ga's hallmark virtues and the reason this restaurant is exactly where I want to go on a casual weekend night with friends.
It's hard not to order some form of dumpling (steamed beef are my favorite), because the supple dough and rich, spicy contents are pure comfort. The zucchini pancake, equally satisfying, presents more complicated flavors: fluffy salty cooked egg, tender botanical vegetables and crisp "skin" laced with sesame oil. A medium will have you fighting over the last piece with your fellow dining companions, so keep the peace (no pun intended — well, okay, yes) and order a large.
Both times I've eaten at Bon Ga I've ordered the bibimbap. It's unusual for me not to try something new on my second visit to a restaurant, but my initial experience with the robust purple rice adorned with mounds of pork and kimchi was so good it demanded repetition. Take II of the bibimbap was perhaps even better, probably because I mixed the egg yolk thoroughly through the rest of the dish's components so as to create a lovely binder between rice, meat and vegetables.
While the bibimbap was my and my friend's clear favorite, my husband and another friend were rightfully enamoured of the pan-fried squid and vegetables. The spicy garlic sauce with slightly sweet undertones was a fitting dressing for the milder seafood and produce, both slightly seared to preclude any hint of sogginess.
At my third dinner at Bon Ga, I should probably order Something Else. I wouldn't mind, though, if pleasant history repeated itself and I relished the bibimbap once again. I have a feeling, though, I would be just as pleased with anything on the menu. So, perhaps, then it's time to move on to the tofu stew.
Openings and Closings
Sugarbaby's shutters, Porch Swing Desserts swings open.
When one oven door closes, another opens (or something like that): Sugarbaby's Cupcake Boutique ceased operations May 18. The bakery inside the bright pink and green building on Shepherd thanked its fans on Twitter for all their years of support: "Sold out for our last day. It was great to see so many friendly faces. Thanks so much for 6 yrs of awesomeness."
But while Sugarbaby's is no more, Porch Swing Desserts has finally opened its own brick-and-mortar location after years of selling its baked goods online and in its mobile food truck. The new downtown bakery at 801 Louisiana (at Rusk) opened May 16 and is currently hiring another pastry chef to come on board.
Meanwhile up north, two openings to watch for: Crawdaddy's Cajun Cafe in Magnolia, which opened this week, and a new pizza place from the owner of popular Kingwood joint RC's Pizza. Reader Clay L. writes:
"This past March, [owner R.C. Gallegos] traveled to Las Vegas for the International Pizza Challenge put on by Pizza Today magazine and came home with a 2nd place in Traditional Pizza category for the "Mid-America" Division. In 2009, he took 1st place in Traditional (South Central Division) with a cheese-only pizza."
"The place is more than just pizza, which in my travels around Houston and a native Houstonian, for a traditional pie and buffalo wings, is the best in Houston, at a minimum, for sure, outside the loop. He is in the process of opening another location in Spring/Woodlands, same recipes/food/owner but new name, about 100 yards from Corkscrew BBQ in the old Steel City Pizza space, to be called NYC Pizza Co."
Clay recommends the garlic knots, the extra-wet hot wings, the Philly cheesesteak on Slow Dough bread and a SoHo spinach salad with the homemade balsamic vinaigrette, in case you're curious.
In other openings, the newest Little Woodrow's has made its debut. It replaces the old Block 7 Wine Co. on Shepherd. The weekly B4-U-Eat newsletter also reports that Floyd's on the Water is now open in Hitchcock for lunch and dinner, Thursday through Sunday only for now. "Located at Harborwalk, just west of Tiki Island on Galveston's West Bay," writes B4-U-Eat. "Beautiful sunsets."