Best Of :: Food & Drink
Chef Hugo Ortega, long the top toque at Backstreet Cafe, is now turning out cutting-edge Mexican food at this stunning new spot on Westheimer's restaurant row. You won't find any nachos, fajitas or chips and salsa here. What you will find is roasted rabbit in guajillo adobo with mashed sweet potatoes and jicama-radish salad, and quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms and huitlacoche. Chef Hugo is smart enough to call his cooking "original Mexican food" rather than fall into the authenticity trap. Instead of sticking to outdated regional Mexican recipes, he wisely invents his own combinations and presentations. Still, the restaurant lovingly showcases traditional Mexican ingredients and preparations, grinding its own chocolate, making its own tortillas and offering unusual specialities like cabrito, nopales and squash blossoms. This is the best Mexican food to be served in Houston in years, but it's also the most expensive.
They fry your chicken to order at Henderson's Chicken Shack. It takes about 20 minutes. Henderson's isn't a franchise or a chain. It's owned by a Creole woman named Ann Henderson, who was born in New Iberia, Louisiana. Cooking the chicken to order seems like a nuisance when you're waiting, but once you bite into the hot chicken, you know it's worth it. There's a wonderful thick, spicy crust, and the chicken pieces come on two slices of white bread, which soak up the juice. Most people get their order to go (there isn't much in the way of tables) and let the chicken cool off in the car, so it's the perfect temperature when you get your yardbird home. But be forewarned, you'll probably end up eating all the red-peppery fries on the drive.
Cajun Corner sells boiled Cajun-style crawfish all year round in its Vietnamese neighborhood. Gulf Coast Vietnamese-Americans are wild about Cajun-style boiled crawfish -- the spicier the better. There's a condiment bar where patrons stir up insanely hot dipping sauces made out of pure cayenne powder with a dash of ketchup and mayo or a little squeeze of lemon. Cajun Corner also sells gumbo, étouffée, chicken wings, alligator platters and a full menu of Cajun specialties. But the only other dish besides boiled crawfish that really stands out is the crawfish fried rice.
They're large, always warm and have just the right balance of firmness, chewiness and doughiness. The bagels at Manhattan Bagels run golden-brown rings around the others. More than 20 different varieties are always available, including all of the standards, plus rye, whole wheat, egg, jalapeo, spinach, cinnamon and raisin, cranberry and chocolate chip. Also available are cream cheese spreads in a dozen different flavors. At $5.95 for a baker's dozen, they're a terrific bargain. The breakfast and lunch sandwiches are also good values. With their frequent shopper cards, you can earn a dozen free bagels after your 12th purchase. Now, if just we could get them to open one inside the Loop.
Mama Tran makes the dumplings at this quirky little family-run Vietnamese restaurant in the Old Chinatown neighborhood near the intersection of Highways 45 and 59. The dumplings are awesome, and the noodles are pretty good, too. Owner Jenni Tran-Weaver (Mama Tran's daughter) makes the homemade Vietnamese desserts. But that's not all that makes this place special. According to the menu, you get a lap dance from Jenni's husband, Scott, added to your bowl of noodles for $50 extra. (Shrimp is a cheaper add-on, at only $4.) Members of various local arts groups come here to eat such signature dishes as Infernal Chicken Curry and Art Car Curry. The employees wear T-shirts printed with such slogans as "Madonna Eats Here" and "My Noodle Is Bigger than Your Noodle." If you're having trouble finding this strip mall location just off Jefferson, look for Jenni's plastic pink flamingos that she strews all over the grass strip in front of the place every morning.
Plum sauce is mundane in these surroundings. If the toddy palm drink, fresh seaweed, spicy sliced pork ear and stomach, or fish balls aren't exotic enough for you, try the mochi chocolate pai, karela, tidora or moo, none of which comes with a translation. Then there's the fruit-flavored beef jerky and the sweet soursop, both of which sound like oxymorons. Live geoducks (giant clams) lie lazily in one of the many fish tanks, awaiting their fate as live sushi. Kids, this is not the kind of stuff you'll find at Kroger. The wildest ingredients, though, also may be the most expensive. Take a gander at the dried deer leg at $25 per pound, or the shark fin at a toothy $250 a pound (both are used to make soup). Sorry, you can't just have a pound or two; you've got to take the whole fin, which weighs from ten to 13 pounds. That's not just exotic, it's plum wild.
When you query the folks at Zydeco Louisiana Diner as to just why their mashed potatoes taste so good, they look at you quizzically and reply, "They're real." Duh. Of course they are. There's simply no way instant taters could provide such pleasure. Creamed soft but not so soft you don't find the occasional chunk of potato hidden inside, this godsend of a dish is finished off with lots of garlic and butter. Of course, the catfish and okra are great. But you really need only a large plate of mashed potatoes and a side of corn bread to leave Zydeco happy. Sure, you can almost feel your arteries clog up as you shovel them down. But what a way to go.
Sam Segari's gumbo is murky, mysterious and full of character -- just like everything else in this crazy little joint. The soup is loaded with fresh shrimp, and the dark roux is just spicy enough to keep your lips warm. Sam prefers to serve the gumbo as an appetizer. The entrées are whatever he feels like making, but there's usually a steak and a crab salad covered with more lump crabmeat than anybody could possibly eat. Don't ask to see the menu -- there isn't one. And don't ask to be seated in the no-smoking section -- they don't have one of those, either. There are only six tables in the whole place: two round ones in the barroom up front where Sam holds court, and four in an old-fashioned dining room decorated with a huge dark wooden breakfront. If Sam doesn't like your attitude, he'll run you off, regulars warn. And they aren't kidding.
Our favorite feature of the olive bar at Whole Foods is that samples are freely available, so it's easy to try some new and exotic olives before you buy. Tucked away at the back of the store, near the cheese counter, the bar offers an excellent array of olives from around the globe. They come in all different colors, sizes, shapes and textures, with or without pits. There are picholines and niçoises from France, arbequinas and catalanas from Spain and kalamatas from Greece. The best are the stuffed one, filled with everything imaginable: pimientos, garlic, jalapeo, blue cheese and feta. Whole Foods is a perfect final stop when you're looking to accessorize the ultimate wine-and-cheese party.
The counter men wear New York Fire Department gimme caps and talk with that unmistakable Big Apple accent. The menu hanging on the wall behind the counter includes a Yiddish glossary, just in case you're wondering about authenticity. Yes, these guys are genuine meshuga New Yorkers, and the big doughy, boiled-and-baked bagels taste just like the ones you get on the Upper West Side. But there are plenty of good bagels to choose from in Houston. What causes New York expats to schlepp the whole mishpokhe all the way across town to this little shopping center bagel shop on the U.S. 59 frontage road are all the tasty schmeers. Hot Bagels has an incredible selection of smoked fish. Sure, there's kreftig Nova Scotia salmon and shana whole whitefish, but they also have the best hand-sliced sturgeon this side of Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King. And such a mechaya, you don't find just anywhere!
Is there smack in this salsa? No, of course not. But the addictive quality of El Pueblito's version of the condiment will make you wonder. At this Guatemalan/Mexican restaurant, owned by Eduardo and Monica Lopez, the salsa is more than just something to dip the chips in while waiting for your main course -- in fact, stopping there would be almost impossible. The mixture of fresh cilantro and ripe tomatoes makes everything on the varied menu taste even better than it does plain -- from the vegetarian quesadillas to the fresh bay snapper -- so go ahead and cover your plate with the stuff. The chunky sauce is blessed with a sharp bite that somehow makes your mouth feel cool and hot all at the same time, and if you become a regular salsa junkie, the staff will string you out even more by bringing you extra big cups of it. Forget pot -- after one visit it's obvious that El Pueblito's salsa is the true gateway drug.
The lunch salad with scallops, listed on the menu as "pancetta-wrapped Maine diver scallops, warm salad of watercress, jicama and wild mushrooms," tastes as big as its name. First you notice the scallops: three big fat ones, wrapped in pancetta, and the salty Italian bacon pairs beautifully with the sweet shellfish. Then you assess the "salad" part of the equation. Those scallops surround a small, warm mound of jicama slivers, wild mushrooms and watercress. When you eat a bit of everything at once, the combination of textures and flavors is so entrancing (chewy! soft! crunchy! salty! sweet! peppery!) that for a minute you forget about Quattro's impressive view of the George R. Brown Convention Center. You forget to enjoy the restaurant's hyperstylish interior. You forget even what you were telling your lunch partner just a second before. Maybe it's not fair to classify this dish as a salad -- it could count as a light entrée -- but chef Tim Keating obviously doesn't fret about such petty distinctions, and neither will you. In fact, you'll wish more salads took themselves so seriously.