Best Of :: Food & Drink
Houston is well-endowed in the empanada department. There are Colombian, Argentinean and Central American empanadas to choose from. But the richest, flakiest, tastiest in town are served at this Venezuelan pastry shop in Braes Heights. The half-moon-shaped meat pies come with a delicate yellow crust and your choice of a minced chicken or beef filling. They taste like a cross between South American empanadas and Jamaican patties. And they go great with Cuban coffee. While you're at Venetian, take a look at Venezuelan pastry chef Hugo Penaranda's fantastically colorful cakes, caramel-topped éclairs and Cuban-style breads. During the last decade, Penaranda has opened more than 30 Cuban-style bakeries in Florida. But when he decided to build a Latin-style bakery of his own, he headed for Space City.
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.