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Rest of the Best 2013

The top 10 late-night dining restaurants in Houston.

Best of Houston

It's 2:15 in the morning. The bar has just closed, and you know you're going to be in trouble tomorrow unless you find somewhere with food that will help soak up all the booze you inadvertently consumed. Where do you go?

In the past, we've rounded up the best late-night restaurants in Houston, but this year we're taking it a step further. We're compiling a list of the best restaurants that stay open even after the bars have closed. You think midnight is late? Amateur. Some of these restaurants are open until 4 a.m. or, better yet, 24 hours.

Nothing wards off a hangover like Tex-Mex at Spanish Flowers.
Jeff Balke
Nothing wards off a hangover like Tex-Mex at Spanish Flowers.
The Melting Pot does fondue right.
Minh T. Truong
The Melting Pot does fondue right.

And the best thing about this list? These eateries are all over town. No matter where you find yourself hungry in the middle of the night, there's bound to be a surefire spot nearby, ready and waiting to serve up some hangover-healing grub.

10. Waffle House

What is there left to say about Waffle House that hasn't already been said? It's open 24 hours, around the clock. The events that go down there after hours are the stuff of legend. People from all walks of life, all neighborhoods, all ethnicities and in varying degrees of undress make their way into WaHo (as I affectionately call it) after lesser establishments close for the evening. I've been to WaHo at 4 a.m. and found a 30-minute wait for a table; that's how popular the purveyor of mediocre waffles and awesome hash browns is in the middle of the night. Don't be fooled by the late hour. It's a tight space, and the efficient servers aim to get you in and out in as short a time as possible.

9. Whataburger/Taco Cabana

My two favorite fast-food restaurants are grouped together because that is how I recall visiting them late at night in college in San Antonio. There was a Taco C on the way home from pretty much anywhere (including the original Taco C, I might add), and a Whataburger down the street another mile or so in the direction of my house. Inevitably, someone in the group would want queso and someone else would want fries. And then someone would decide that he wanted fries and queso and a milkshake and a quesadilla. Trust me, it's a great combo at 3:15 a.m. I would also swear by Taco C queso and tortillas as guaranteed hangover killers.

8. Katz's Deli

If you're in the mood for something a little more upscale and...um...kosher than fast food, give Katz's a try. The sign outside is true: Katz's "never kloses." So if you're hungry, you can get bagels and lox or a corned beef and cabbage sandwich any time, day or night. In addition to truly massive sandwiches, Katz's offers great comfort food like matzo ball soup, spaghetti and meatballs, and breakfast served all day and night. Oh, and if you're feeling truly adventurous, check out the dessert case. "World's tallest 7-layer chocolate cake"? Don't mind if I do.

7. Ruchis

There are six Ruchis El Rincón de Méxicos in the greater Houston area, and most of them are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to satisfy all your nighttime Tex-Mex cravings. Where else can you get mesquite-seasoned tilapia filets with grilled shrimp, rice, french fries and salad for $14 in the wee hours of the morning? Only here. Okay, actually, there's one other place I know of, and it's also on the list. But when you're craving the greasy, fatty Tex-Mex food of your youth, chances are Ruchis is only a short drive or cab ride away.

6. Dot Coffee Shop

The coffee shop that "never locks its doors" opened in Houston in 1967. At the time, it was the first concept from the Pappas brothers, who now have a Houston empire. If your idea of comfort food falls more in line with chicken-fried steak, bacon cheeseburgers and buffalo wings than queso and enchiladas, Dot is sure to satisfy. The retro eatery promises made-from-scratch food comparable to what Grandma used to make. As at Waffle House, breakfast is served all day and all night, but Dot's list of breakfast items, like French toast and banana nut pancakes, is far more extensive than ol' WaHo's.

5. House of Pies

Anyone who knows me is aware of how much I love House of Pies. It's within walking distance from my house, and it's open 24 hours a day, which makes it the ideal late-night eatery. Plus, I don't have to decide between greasy-spoon grub or awesome desserts, because HOP has both. The Kirby location is currently closed for renovations after a fire that shuttered it in early November, but the owners have assured Houstonians that they will have pie for Christmas this year. I don't know about you, but that's all I want for Christmas: Bayou Goo at 3 a.m. once again. Dear Santa, I hope you're listening.

4. Spanish Flowers

When dining in the middle of the night, one ­often has to choose convenience over taste. Is it open? Yes. Then it's going to have to do. Not so with Spanish Flowers, which is just as delicious during the day as it is in the dark after several margaritas. Piping hot, freshly made tortillas and bright, zingy salsa will go a long way toward perking up the evening, while the thick, creamy queso del mar or earthy enchiladas mole will soak up any alcohol left in your stomach while simultaneously tantalizing your tastebuds. Spanish Flowers closes only between 10 p.m. Tuesday night and 9 a.m. Wednesday morning.

3. Pho Binh by Night

Three words: Bone. Marrow. Pho. Yes, there are other restaurants that rank higher than Pho Binh on this list, but that single dish makes it one of my favorites, and a favorite among many other night owls in Houston. Pho Binh by Night in Alief is open until 3 a.m. on the weekends, and it's well worth the drive out of the Loop for some of that heavenly pho. It's rich and sumptuous and not at all the austere beef broth you might get at a shop in Midtown (though that pho is good, too). This is the king of pho, brought to you by an unassuming little spot in a strip center primed and ready for some late-night eats and people-watching.

2. Mai's Restaurant

Mai's edges out Pho Binh for one reason, and one reason only: It's open later. This Vietnamese Midtown staple is open until 3 a.m. weeknights and 4 a.m. on the weekends. The pho at Mai's may not quite live up to the pho at Pho Binh, but everything else on the extensive menu is a safe bet — be you tipsy or otherwise. Mai is great for lunch, dinner or trying-to-avoid-a-hangover meals, and the bo luc lac — Mai's signature garlic beef, made with filet mignon — is a hit regardless of your blood alcohol level. On weekends, you'll find yourself dining among folks in dinner jackets, jeans and tattoos, and just about everything in between.

1. Pi Pizza Truck

Good news! You don't have to make it to your car for outstanding late-night grub; Pi Pizza Truck has got you covered. The truck, available for delivery till 3:30 a.m., is slinging some serious pies, from the wild-game-topped Outdoorsman — with venison sausage and port-wine syrup-coated cherries — to the massive bacon-mac-and-cheese-topped Who's the Mac. Of course, it's not just available for delivery. If you can make your way to the truck itself after a night out, the massive slices may aid in soaking up that booze. At least it's a start. And if you're one of the lucky few who shelled out for a Pi Pizza Truck tattoo recently, then congrats: Your slice is on the house.
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Local Spotlight

The Melting Pot's Four Course Experience
It just might bring fondue back into your life.

Minh T. Truong

I'm calling it now: Fondue, the dinner-party craze of the 1960s and 1970s, is making a comeback. When a girlfriend of mine suggested The Melting Pot for dinner and for us to catch up, I was surprised, but was game for it. It had been years since I'd been there. My most recent previous experience was back in high school, when my first boyfriend saved for months to take us out to a "grown-up" dinner. Because of that, and the fact that fondue is a food trend known mostly for its kitschy past, The Melting Pot is not a place I'd think to go. I imagined we'd dip some stuff in cheese and I'd leave hungry, then hit up a drive-through window. On the contrary: I left The Melting Pot happily full and with a newfound appreciation for fondue.

Our group of four opted for the Four-Course Experience, which included one cheese fondue choice, an individual salad, an individual entrée and one chocolate fondue choice. The various options in the entrée category make this an ideal dinner idea for large groups with varying tastes. The price of the entrée choice is the price of the Four-Course Experience and ranges from $36.95 for the vegetarian to $47.95 for the surf and turf.

We went with the Spinach Artichoke cheese fondue — Fontina and Butterkäse cheeses, spinach, artichoke hearts and garlic, a lot of garlic. The server set up the fondue starting with a bouillon base and added each component one at a time, and once the cheese had melted into a beautiful gooey mess, we dipped cubes of bread, vegetables and tortilla chips into the hot cheese. The cheese disappeared in minutes, and thankfully our salads arrived. The spinach and mushroom was simple and fresh — spinach, baby portobello, red onion, chopped bacon and tomatoes were drizzled with a shallot vinaigrette.

I chose the Land and Sea entrée option ($38.95), which included cubes of filet mignon, herb-crusted chicken and white shrimp. We stuck with the basic vegetable bouillon as a cooking style for the meat. We speared the meat with our designated colored fondue forks and dunked them into the broth, chatting as we waited for the meat to cook to our desired doneness. Mushrooms, broccoli and red potatoes accompanied the meat.

For dessert, we went the purist route: melted milk chocolate. Strawberries, bananas, marshmallows, pound cake, brownies and cheesecake bits were sacrificed to the hot melted chocolate.

Fondue isn't gourmet; it's more about the experience than it is about the meal. It's the idea of sitting around a hot pot, sharing a meal, and it's about the hands-on element. And let's face it, it's never wrong to eat cheese- or chocolate-covered anything. It may be time to take down that fondue set you long ago forgot about. 
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Food Nation

Vapor Conflict
E-Cigarettes ignite debate about smoking in bars and restaurants.

Kaitlin Steinberg

The only regular smokers I know are in the restaurant industry, and in spite of the fact that anyone can see them smoking outside between shifts, none of them wanted to admit to smoking e-cigarettes.

"Is it because e-cigarettes look kind of silly?" I asked. "Or is it because you don't want to give the impression that you're harming your palates with nicotine?"

No and no, everyone said. They just didn't want to talk about it. Then they would turn away and continue puffing on a device that resembles a shiny ballpoint pen.

People are starting to talk more about e-cigarettes, though, as the once-oddball implements are becoming more common everywhere from the classroom to the boardroom and many restaurants in between. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the New York City Council announced that it would add e-cigarettes to the 2002 Smoke-Free Air Act, effectively banning them from all public places. Though the ban will ultimately come down to a vote, it's raising a question that many have so far neglected to answer: Should e-cigarettes be allowed everywhere regular cigarettes are not?

In Houston, there are no rules regarding this relatively new phenomenon.

According to our local regulations: 

"Smoking is prohibited in enclosed public places. Public places are places in which the public is invited or permitted. Restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, public and private schools, convention centers, theaters, bingo halls, bowling alleys, buses, taxicabs, retail establishments, shopping malls, lobbies, restrooms, and hallways of apartment or condominium buildings are a few examples of enclosed public places where smoking is prohibited except under very limited ­circumstances."

Pretty straightforward until you get to all the rules about how far away you have to be from emergency exits and air vents if you're outside, but that doesn't seem to be a contentious topic. But then there's the question of what constitutes "smoking."

Houston ordinance defines "smoking" as "­inhaling, exhaling, burning, or carrying any lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe, or other lighted tobacco product in any manner or in any form." Logic would follow that because e-cigarettes aren't "lighted," puffing on one doesn't constitute ­smoking.

When a traditional cigarette is lit, it burns tobacco, which releases smoke containing nicotine. The smoker then inhales, bringing nicotine into the lungs. Rather than being lit by a lighter or match, e-cigarettes are battery-powered. They work by turning liquid nicotine into vapor using an atomizer. The user then inhales the vaporized nicotine, which takes the substance into the lungs and bloodstream, creating the same effect as does smoking a traditional cigarette but without the harmful tobacco, tar and carbon dioxide.

E-cigarettes were invented by a Chinese pharmacist in 2003 and hit the market in China the following year. The smoking devices received an international patent in 2007, but really took off in the U.S. in 2012, when American companies started producing them. They've quickly become popular here, and as a result, individual businesses, cities and states are grappling with how to regulate their use.

Houston has yet to pass any sort of legislation banning e-cigarettes from public places, but Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, recently decided that, like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes should be banned from the college campus. The only place students can smoke is in their cars.

People I talked with about e-cigarettes generally told me they smoke them for one of two reasons: Either they're trying to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, or they want the freedom to smoke anywhere and everywhere.

"I'm not going to smoke an e-cigarette while I drink scotch," a friend told me at a bar one evening as she inhaled deeply on a traditional cigarette. "I'm not trying to quit smoking. I just like to be able to smoke on airplanes or in restaurants."

Another friend echoed her opinion. "Did you know you can put weed in them and get high while you're on an airplane?" he asked. I'm not entirely sure how that works, but he swore it was possible.

I asked a nonsmoker what he thought about e-cigarettes, and his answer surprised me, because generally, people seem to tolerate their use. "I know the long-term effects of smoking cigarettes," he said, "but I don't know the long-term effects of smoking e-cigarettes. What if I smoke them for 50 years and suddenly doctors discover they're bad for you, too?"

It's an interesting question, and one that is still very much up in the air. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more children and teens are using e-cigarettes because there are few age restrictions on their purchase. This, coupled with the tasty nicotine flavors available for e-cigarettes (everything from gummy bears to s'mores), makes health professionals worry that their use could result in children smoking traditional cigarettes.

Advocates note that because e-cigarettes don't contain any of the chemicals that are thought to cause cancer, they're safe to smoke, but the CDC says that more studies need to be done.

So what if they are perfectly healthy? What if they're no worse than a glass of wine or a cup of coffee? If nonsmokers knew for a fact they weren't victims of secondhand smoke, would they stop complaining?

Maybe. I asked some of the bartenders at wine bar Camerata — where I noticed several folks smoking e-cigarettes — if people's using the contraptions indoors bothered them. I also asked staff at new bar Lowbrow and at Underbelly, and everyone pretty much had the same sentiment: "I don't care."

I've noticed a slight odor from e-cigarettes when my friends smoke them around me. It's not an offensive smell, more of a sickly sweet aroma. I've also witnessed smokers of e-cigarettes blowing vapor any which way they want, rather than turning away as smokers of traditional cigarettes might so as not to blow smoke in a friend's face. But with e-cigarettes, it's just vapor, so people seem less careful.

I've yet to see someone use an e-cigarette at a restaurant like Tony's or Brennan's, but it's probably only a matter of time. In my mind, smoking an e-cigarette at an upscale restaurant is no more offensive than chewing gum at the table. But eventually, it will be up to the city and state to make the final judgment.

What do you think, readers? Should e-cigarettes be allowed in bars and restaurants?
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Another pie shop shutters and highly anticipated restaurants open softly.

Molly Dunn

Even though the week began with the devastating fire-forced closure of a Houston pie shop landmark, the rest of the week has been filled with openings and announcements of future openings. But let's begin with the sad news.

Just two days after Thanksgiving, another pie shop caught on fire, forcing it to close. My Dee Dee's Pie Shoppe sold 2,000 pies to customers on Thanksgiving Day, and burned down on November 30. Houston restaurants and chefs teamed up to raise money for owner Bella-Katherine Curtis on December 7 at Haven. Ronnie Killen provided barbecue, Randy Evans of Haven and Kevin Naderi of Roost cooked up the sides, and Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar, along with Michael's Cookie Jar, Paulie's Cookies, Samantha Mendoza of Triniti and many other chefs, provided sweets and treats for a bake sale. Curtis doesn't want to stop making pies, so the Houston restaurant community is helping her continue baking and selling her delightful homemade pies throughout the holiday season.

Viva Sports Cantina, which is next door to Viva Cinema, announced via Facebook on November 26 that the restaurant had closed its doors. When the restaurant was open, patrons could take food from the sports bar to the adjacent movie theater; that, however, is no longer an option.

That's it for closings; let's take a look at the restaurants that have announced soft openings, grand openings and future plans.

Commenter Chic_Chick_Eats mentioned that AddicTEA Cafe opened in Midtown on December 2. The cafe and bakery serves bubble tea, macarons — including green tea macarons — a variety of tea drinks and other baked goods.

Last week we announced that the Cordúas were opening another Churrascos (in Memorial City!) with a menu featuring a variety of new items. The restaurant officially opened on December 4.

Another big-name restaurant officially opened on December 5. According to the Houston Chronicle, El Big Bad held its soft opening then and served only dinner until December 9; on that date the restaurant added a lunch service. Greg Morago describes "El Big Bad as El Gran Malo supersized." It's a two-story Mexican restaurant that's said to be five times larger than El Gran Malo.

Bradley Ogden's Funky Chicken had a soft opening on December 5; it will serve only dinner until its grand opening, which will take place on December 18. According to a press release, the James Beard Award-winning chef and his son, chef Bryan Ogden, created Funky Chicken as a farm-to-table restaurant featuring, of course, fried chicken, chicken pot pies, chicken sandwiches and chicken fingers. This casual, counter-service restaurant is located in the developing Heights Boulevard shopping center where Salata recently opened.

Big Freeze Ice Cream opened during the week of Thanksgiving on Washington Avenue in the location previously occupied by Berripop, and it already has a five-star review on Yelp. The Yelp reviewer says the pistachio, brownie-batter and bourbon-vanilla flavors are excellent options.

Although Vuelve a la Vida Mariscos held its soft opening on November 22, it celebrated its official grand opening on December 6. According to a press release, the Mexican seafood restaurant has a "contemporary sports bar atmosphere" complete with 50 HD TVs for group parties, a 36-foot bar and happy hour every day from 3 to 7 p.m.

For those who can't get enough of Hugo Ortega's restaurants, Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe, the chef and restaurant owner is opening another establishment. Caracol, which according to the B4-U-Eat newsletter means "conch, as in chowder, ceviche and fritters," will open on Post Oak Boulevard sometime this week. Eater reports the menu will include seafood items such as campechana, fish tostadas and sea snails. The executive chef will be Daniel Bridges, from Las Vegas; Ruben Ortega (Hugo's brother) will be the pastry chef; and Sean Beck will serve as the beverage director.

University of Houston students (and those who live near the campus) should be excited, because a new coffee shop officially opened December 6. The Nook Café serves coffee drinks, espresso, pastries and snacks from vendors such as Sinfull Bakery, Take the Cake and French Riviera Bakery. The long-awaited coffee shop and cafe (originally scheduled to open in July) will be serving throughout the winter break.

Number 13, a steak and seafood restaurant, opened on December 10 in the Pelican Rest Marina in Galveston. Number 13 serves a daily selection of oysters, crab claws and crawfish-stuffed beignets with creole crème, as well as a variety of meats, including a 16-ounce prime bone-in filet, 8-ounce American wagyu and Colorado lamb T-bones.

In coming-soon news, Eater reports that Kuu, a Japanese restaurant, will open in Memorial City in January. Chef Adison Lee, formerly of Blue Fish and Sushi Raku, tells Darla Guillen that he hopes Kuu will be a different type of Japanese restaurant for Houston; he will use "seasonal ingredients and traditional Japanese techniques."

Bernie's Burger Bus announced it's opening a bricks-and-mortar in the Bellaire Triangle, according to Swamplot. The restaurant will serve as the central location for production, preparation and deliveries to the other restaurants owner Justin Turner plans to open in the future. Swamplot reports there will be a bus inside the restaurant.

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