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Bivalve Season Is Here

Houston restaurants are ready to get shucking.

2.This Is It Soul Food. The restaurant's snazzy updated Web site and detailed descriptions have caused some to speculate that This Is It is becoming a bit too fancy to be a true soul food place, but anyone who has stopped by recently for some chitterlings, mac and cheese, or banana pudding knows (at least from the bare-bones, no-nonsense ambience) that This Is It is still all about hot, fresh and straightforward Southern grub.

1.Mikki's Soul Food Cafe. One of my strongest motivations to renew my vows is the thought of Mikki's catering my (second) wedding reception via large vats of fried cabbage with turkey, mashed potatoes made from scratch and candied yams. Of course, I would be forced to negotiate to have their smothered fried chicken (Monday special) available on a weekend night, but maybe they'd accommodate me if I asked nicely. Or begged.
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Edible Events

Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
Daniel Kramer
Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole
Mai Pham
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole

El Big Bad Is Coming Soon
Divine tequila cocktails and a chef-driven philosophy.

Mai Pham

Located on the prominent corner of Travis and Prairie in the building that used to house Cabo's,El Big Bad, the offshoot of Lea McKinney and Steve Sharma's wildly successfulEl Gran Malo, is almost ready to open. The gorgeous copper-topped bar is in place downstairs. The large, inviting patio is just waiting to be populated. The menu has been created by consulting chef Randy Rucker, and the two key players on the food side — executive chef Ben Rabbani and sous chef Mark Parmley — have been hired.

"You need to open soon!" I exclaimed as I stepped onto the restaurant's wide wooden upstairs patio. A light breeze drifted around me in lazy playfulness, making me want to hang out and admire the twinkling lights of downtown instead of going back downstairs.

"We're waiting on the murals to be completed," replied Sharma. "And a few other things," he added enigmatically. Even so, you can tell that Sharma and McKinney are more than ready to get the party started. And to give expectant fans something to look forward to, they recently held a "Snapshot" dinner, offering two seatings of a seven-course cocktail pairing dinner for $95, just to whet our appetites for what's to come.

To make the event even more special, El Big Bad partnered with Herradura Tequila, which flew in a third-generation jimador — a farmer who harvests agave plants — to kick off the dinner with a live demonstration. Guests watched in amazement as the jimador used a special tool to break down the spiky leaves of the plant before breaking open its core.

And then the festivities began. If you've been to dinners put on by the El Gran Malo team, you'll know that their drinks are seriously bad­ass. El Big Bad is no different. Their libations are extremely creative. They taste awesome. They're deceptively light but pack a strong punch. And they'll make you very, very happy.

This is no doubt how my friend Minh and several of the other attendees felt throughout the evening, starting with a shot of smooth Herradura Silver Tequila, which was served with delicious house-made red and green sangrita chasers to create a palette of red, white and green shot glasses: the colors of the Mexican flag.

The shots were paired with a first course of gulf shrimp aguachile made of lightly poached shrimp that had been marinated in a chile water of serrano, cilantro and shaved red onion. Resembling a ceviche but much milder and less tangy, the shrimp had an almost plain taste, until the bright pops of chile spice came into play. It was a shrewd pairing, allowing the tequila to shine next to the intensely herbaceous flavors of the two sangritas.

The second course — blue crab tostada with smashed white beans, corn, avocado and fried shallots — is something I'm hoping I'll see on the El Big Bad happy hour menu when it debuts, mainly because it's fun to pick up a crispy tortilla with your hands and munch on it until it's gone. Paired with an expertly concocted, magenta-colored agua fresca made of hibiscus-infused tequila, it was one of my favorite courses of the night.

Though each course offered something memorable — a salad of roasted beets sitting in a pool of mango puree with chile, lime and cilantro, and topped with round slivers of crunchy-crisp jícama sprinkled with crushed pistachios; chicken tamales made with a masa containing mangalitsa lard and served shrouded in a richly flavored, deep-brown Oaxacan mole; the whole grilled chimichurri-marinated Texas redfish served on wooden platters; hot beignet-like churros served with spicy Mexican chocolate sauce — the night, for me, was all about the drinks.

We're talking fresh and fruity pink-colored Herradura tequila margaritas made with blueberry, jalapeño and cilantro; peanut flips that tasted like spiked liquid Nutter Butters; gorgeously concocted Acapulco Slims of pineapple-infused Herradura Reposado with fresh pineapple, lime juice and sparkling wine; and even a French press Amaya Roasting coffee served with a "churro" shot of cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla-infused Herradura Añejo. The drinks, developed by the El Gran Malo team, were all expertly crafted, right down to the glass or vessel that was chosen for each one.

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