Best Of :: Food & Drink
While the former shrimping town of Kemah has been converted to an amusement park, crusty Old Seabrook, right across the channel, is still the home port of a small fleet of shrimp boats. Seafood delivery trucks are parked along the streets, waiting to take the fresh catch to Houston. And the glistening, never-been-frozen, heads-on shrimp in the Vietnamese-owned markets along the waterfront are ridiculously cheap. That's why the shrimp dishes at Merlion, a few blocks away, are absolutely transcendental. Merlion is not an exceptional Thai restaurant -- it's a solid Thai restaurant with exceptional seafood dishes. The chef has the good sense not to overcook the shrimp and to buy it fresh every day. And when you combine perfectly cooked seafood with even average Thai curries and garlic chile sauces, you get something very special.
On Saturday afternoon, Burns Bar BQ is party central in Acres Homes. The crowds line up when the place opens, and they never let up until the ribs are gone. Burns Bar BQ serves their ribs well done under a sweet and subtle glaze of sauce and smoke. They're the best in the city. Patriarch Roy Burns grew up in Midway, Texas. He sold barbecue from a smoker on the side of the road until arthritis slowed him down. Fourteen years ago, he opened this restaurant and brought in some family members to help out. His brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth; it's as soft and wet as pot roast. If you judge it by the standards of white barbecue, then you won't get it. Beef that isn't falling apart simply isn't done enough according to the black East Texas aesthetic. Carolina barbecue is whole-hog, slow-smoked to stringy mush; the black East Texas style does the same thing with beef, which was always cheaper and more plentiful in Texas. Put some of Roy Burns's falling-apart brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions, and think of it as Texas's answer to a Carolina pulled-pork sandwich. Suddenly, you'll understand.
Readers' choice: Goode Co. Barbeque
At Under the Volcano, you won't be burdened with tacky mint syrups or low-rent spirits. Here, they do this Southern drink right. Watch in amazement as your bartender meticulously crushes a heaping handful of mint into your glass with a long prod, splashes on some top-shelf Kentucky bourbon and kisses it with just the right amount of sugar, suga. It's an exquisite spirit, perfect for drinking on the porch on a hot day.
The huge awning outside this classic little joint on the southwest side announces that Cafe Miami is the "King of Black Beans." In this town, that's no mean feat, and the fact is, the restaurant deserves the title. Also, try a basket of fried plantains and some yuca relish bathed in lime and cilantro. They will leave your taste buds both tantalized and titillated. Other favorites include tasty Cuban sandwiches, mind-blowing ropa vieja and steaks slathered in garlic paste. Follow it all up with some smooth-as-velvet flan. This stuff heals bodies faster than a splint ever could.
Can't imagine hot coffee on Saturday morning without hot, gooey, fruit-filled kolaches? Then you owe an homage to the Original Kolache Shoppe. Fifty years ago, the fresh, doughy Czech pastries called kolaches were a treat you found in the homes of Eastern European immigrants and their ancestors, not in bakeries or restaurants. Beginning in 1956, this little East End bakery started putting kolaches on Houston's breakfast table. Baked fresh six days a week, their kolaches are still yeasty and light with a wonderfully fluffy texture, just like in the good old days. They bake an assortment of fruit-filled kolaches as well as the sausage-and-cheese-stuffed "pig in a blanket" variety. For a real eye-opening breakfast, try the ones made with the jalapeno sausage.
Once, there was a convenience store with the wonderfully cryptic name "Christian's Totem" that was famous for its awesome burgers. Unfortunately, owner Steve Christian removed the convenience store shelves, expanded and renamed it Christian's Tailgate Bar & Grill. (A religious sports bar?) But lucky for us, Christian didn't screw up the burger. You get a hand-formed patty of never-been-frozen, freshly ground beef served on a perfectly toasted bun with just the right amount of lettuce and tomato, artfully wrapped in tissue paper and balanced on the edge of a red plastic basket full of fries. Jalapenos are extra and highly recommended.
Readers' choice: Becks Prime