Best Of :: Food & Drink
Around noon on most days, influential veterans of Houston -- judges, top cops, city administrators, elite lawyers and the like -- start a quiet southern migration away from the ever-expanding zone of trendy eateries on the north side of downtown. They ease into the boxy, windowless old shell of a building housing China Garden, exchange first-name greetings with the proprietors, the Jue family, and feast on one of the best secrets around. China Garden knew decades ago that what really counts is on the inside: stress-free service, a longtime waiter snapping out a fresh blazing-white tablecloth for guests, good basic fare -- and some of the best off-menu offerings imaginable. The dumplings are divine, and the snapper so savory (as are all the seafood dishes, for that matter). Culinary skills keep evolving in this unique spot. And so does the patience. The Jues staked their claim in the central city long before the downtown bust. They were loyal to a neighborhood in decline. Now -- with the Rockets' arena and other development heading toward them -- a new Houston will discover what always attracted the old one into this China Garden of Eden.
Zimm's has been a wine bar; it's been a coffee-and-wine bar; it's been all but burned out in a fire last year; and it's been flooded by Tropical Storm Allison. Still, it endures, and it makes a damn good martini. The drinks are helped by the seductive ambience of the place -- dark and agreeably louche, with not-too-loud music, which one staffer describes accurately as "always calm and sexual and jazzy." The crowds on the weekends can get a little too pretentious for some tastes, but the weeknight vibe is more amenable and the martinis are just as good.
These sublime concoctions are undoubtedly best enjoyed alfresco, and to do so there is no place better than the Guatemalan/Mexican surf-and-turf, El Pueblito Place. First, there's the marg itself, which is tartly delicious as any in town and comes in large, extra large, and call-a-cab sizes. Then there are the cabana-comes-to-Montrose surroundings of the restaurant's new back patio, in which riots of pastel shades delight human eyes, and hanging plastic bags full of water bamboozle those of the flies. Accompanied by the restaurant's legendary pineapple salsa (or its severely underrated red companion) and the relatively cool breezes of the Gulf Coast evening, the El Pueblito Place alfresco margarita experience is not to be missed.
Houston's unique brand of spontaneous fusion is in full flower on Telephone Road. Formerly home to the white middle class, now part Asian and part Hispanic, Telephone crosses all the lines. Shipway began its life as a run-of-the-mill doughnut shop, and then it was purchased by a Hispanic family who expanded the place. So now the glass cases are filled with the usual chocolate-frosted and plain-cake doughnuts, along with brightly colored Mexican pastries. There's also a full menu of Mexican breakfast items like bacon-and-egg tacos, chorizo and egg plates. You can also order a tres leches cake for your kid's birthday party. And if that's not enough of a selection, Shipway also sells some of the best homemade pork or chicken tamales in the city on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. A hot foil package containing a dozen tamales sells for $5. Better get two: one to eat on the spot, slathered with hot sauce, and one to take home for the family.
Old-timers remember the era when Sunday afternoons meant post-church meals where anything but fried chicken would constitute outright heresy. Now the special repast is almost strictly the domain of fast-food joints. Fox Diner pays due homage to the heritage of fried chicken on Sunday. While the cooks of past eras never would have dreamed of coating the chicken in corn flakes, they'd be more than a little pleased at how this place does it with spectacular results -- the crust is properly crunchy and tasty. And the chicken itself stays oh-so-moist and flavorful. Have faith. This is one Fox you want in the henhouse.
When we say plantains, we aren't talking about those crunchy chips you find in a bag of trail mix. No, we're talking plantains here, the ones you peel and fry up in a pan. Most restaurants will serve up slabs of fruit from plantain purgatory, soft and pretty yellow on the outside, with a stiff, flavorless center. But Cafe Piquet is a place that understands Caribbean cooking. The tostones, fried when the fruit is still green, are thick and dry, and add the right touch to certain dishes. But the maduros are what keep us coming back. Sweet and gooey, they almost glisten as they drip off the fork. They aren't much to look at, with none of the pretty cinnamon sprinkles or frilly garnish. They're misshapen, blackened lumps that leave it to your taste buds to be the final jury. But don't let the discoloration scare you -- that's proof that this place knows the one secret to serving up good soft plantains: Pick 'em when they're ripe.