Best Of :: Food & Drink
Brennan's of Houston calls its cuisine "Texas Creole," and seldom do you find a cooking style and a restaurant atmosphere so perfectly in sync. When people walk into the old mansion on Smith Street, they look at the dark wooden bar and the magnificent brick courtyard outside and remark, "It looks just like New Orleans." The Brennan's building was constructed in 1930 as the headquarters of the Junior League of Houston. John F. Staub's L-shaped building with its garden patio was an adaptation of French Quarter architecture to the Houston site. It's a building style that might also be called "Texas Creole." The atmosphere of Midtown would be greatly improved if there were more buildings like it. After experiencing the gospel brunch at a courtyard table at Brennan's, your view of Houston will never be the same.
They bake seven varieties of baklava fresh every day at Phoenicia. There are Turkish ground-walnut triangles that ooze honey with every bite. And then there are the large Turkish cream and orange blossom syrup-filled baklava that taste a little like phyllo dough éclairs. The Persian baklava is layered with a heavenly filling of aromatic ground cardamom. And the richest of all may be the ones stuffed with ground pistachios and orange blossom syrup. But the bakery is only a tiny part of the whole Phoenicia experience. There's a meat market, a kebab-rotisserie chicken stand and a huge deli case, too. The choices of salamis, olives and dried fruits are unrivaled. And the European preserves, Asian lentils and legumes, and exotic spices are astonishing. But it's the prices that are the biggest shock – about half of what you pay elsewhere.
In the corner of the Kim Hung Market is a gem of a to-go counter filled with Asian-style barbecue ribs, fried rice and pig stomach. Really, you could feed an entire village for about 18 bucks! The deals here include an entire roasted duck for $12 or the barbecue lunch special, which includes fried rice, one veg and one meat for $2.75. The lunch special is a ton of food. If the pork stomach doesn't entice you, you can get a whole roasted pig for about $110.
Originally known as Shepherd Drive Barbecue, this is the restaurant where the legendary John Davis once presided as owner and pit boss. When John Davis died in 1983, the current owner, Jerry Pizzitola, bought the place from the Davis family so he could preserve it. The old-fashioned pit burns hickory, just like it did in John Davis's day. The sausage comes from a Czech sausage maker in the Hill Country; the barbecue sauce is thin and spicy; and the ribs and brisket are among the best in the city. And while the sides are plain, the desserts — which are made by Jerry's mom and include banana pudding and coconut pineapple cake — are excellent. The dining room sports one of the city's wackiest collections of bric-a-brac, much of it related to fishing.
After an up-and-down career in the fine-dining arena, Chef John Sheely has found a home in the more relaxed bistro category. Mockingbird Bistro is a perfect example of what a bistro is supposed to be — a place that's both comfortable enough to get a beer and a burger while dressed in blue jeans, yet sophisticated enough to take a date for a foie gras appetizer and a world-class glass of wine. The gothic interior decor, much it of left over from a former tenant, lends just the right sort of eccentric atmosphere to this Montrose neighborhood hangout. Sheely's crispy French fries in paper cones are among the best frites in the city, and his juicy, rare Kobe burger is a joy. And, of course, wherever Sheely goes, you'll find excellent fried calamari.
Bacon is sacred. And there's no reason to go messing with the time-honored formula of the classic BLT...unless you're going to do it right. The BLT at Brasil treats bacon with the respect it deserves. The addition of blue cheese, herbed aioli and red onion does good things for this sandwich, as does the choice of fresh focaccia or ciabatta. While you wait, kick back with a beer or a glass of wine and take in the Montrose scene. And if you still have room for dessert, the German chocolate cake or white-chocolate cheesecake are excellent choices. Brasil can get crowded on nights and weekends, so if you'd like a side of peace and quiet with your BLT, afternoons are optimum.
Duomo means dome in Italian, as in the top of a cathedral. It is also the name of a loaf of bread and, as its name suggests, it is big and round. It is also so crusty that it hurts the inside of your mouth when you bite into it. It's not soft and squishy or limp and lifeless like some other bread — it's what real bread is supposed to be. The inside is full of air pockets, and it has enough salt in it to be noticed. It makes the best sandwich bread and terrific toast. Tear off a hunk and have it with a piece of cheese. Smear it with butter and enjoy its simple pleasures; however, watch it really shine as a panino, coated with olive oil and grilled in a toaster oven (a George Foreman grill also works great).
The location next door to New York Bagels, the best bagel bakery in town, gives this New York-style coffee shop a major advantage over other breakfast venues — if you like bagels. These bagels at New York Coffee Shop aren't just fresh, they're hot out of the oven. And they come in such favorite flavors as onion, sesame, poppy, salt and pumpernickel. Try a bialy! It's an onion bagel without a hole. The egg-and-bagel breakfast with home fries is a bargain at under $4. The scrambled eggs and caramelized onions with salty lox or milder Nova Scotia smoked salmon are a favorite for exiled New Yorkers. And the fish platter is sensational for those who like smoked salmon and raw onions for breakfast. The service is excellent. And the interior, with its dated wallpaper, worn Formica tables and cramped booths, is as authentically generic as a coffee shop in Manhattan.
Look for a shiny taco truck parked in front of a do-it-yourself car wash. The big fat breakfast tacos are $1 a piece and you get your choice of scrambled eggs with bacon, ham, potatoes, nopalitos, machacado (shredded beef), chorizo or roasted peppers on a corn or flour tortilla. The flour tortillas are handmade, and the chorizo is truly exceptional. The thick green salsa is tart and hot. There's no coffee, but there are fresh-fruit aguas frescas available. Check out the advertising illustrations painted on the sides of the truck — they are among the most interesting examples of taco truck art in the city. And if you're worried about the sanitary standards, it might comfort you to know that everybody behind the counter wears hair nets.
Forget nachos, tacos and Tex-Mex in general. At Hugo's, the brunch features regional Mexican cuisine at its finest. Set the scene with Bloody Marias or a pomegranate mimosa and enjoy the live music coming from the upstairs balcony before venturing to the elaborately decorated buffet. It contains an incredible variety of delectable dishes not found in your average cantina. Start out with a soothing corn soup; then try the sweet corn pudding or the delicious ceviche or the ensalada de nopales (cactus salad) or the squash stuffed with huitlacoche (a corn fungus). Return for the best carnitas ever or the chilaquiles with fried eggs. At this point, you still have half the buffet to taste, but you may wish to go straight to the dessert station anchored by tres leches cake, which ranks among the best in the city, and a rich, traditional hot chocolate, which, along with churros, is not to be missed.
T-Bone Tom's is a Kemah meat market that morphed into a restaurant. The burgers are exceptional, thanks in large part to the quality of the hamburger meat, which is ground fresh daily on the premises. The meat is formed into a distinctive square patty in your choice of a quarter-pound or half-pound size. Both are cooked to order and served with the customary lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo and mustard on a toasted bun. Customized versions include a cheeseburger, a jalapeño burger, a mushroom-Swiss burger and a bacon-Swiss burger. There is also a heavenly hamburger-steak dinner with brown gravy and grilled onions. You can enjoy your burger inside the meat market or out on the deck, which is known as Tom's Backyard. There's live music seven nights a week outside. And there's nothing like a reggae tune, a sea breeze and a cold beer to make a burger taste better.
The walls are covered with buffalo heads, cowboy memorabilia and giant photos of Jim Goode's chuck-wagon cooking team. The live music comes from Texas singer/songwriters, and the ice-cold draft comes in frozen cannonball schooners. The bar stools are shaped like saddles, and the bartenders spin the longnecks around one finger before they open them, just like Buffalo Bill used to spin his six-shooter around one finger before blowing the smoke out of the barrel. And it's amazing what a massive dose of unabashed Texana does for the flavor of a classic Texas burger. Oddly, Armadillo Palace's burger utterly outclasses the one at Goode Company's burger joint across the street. It's a half-pound of fresh-ground USDA Choice sirloin, and it's extremely juicy if you request it medium-rare. Add cheese or guacamole for 75 cents, bacon or venison chili for 95 cents. READERS' CHOICE (tie): Beck's Prime, Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar