Best Of :: Food & Drink
by Katharine Shilcutt
The bacalao y mofongo on my plate at Tex-Chick is a brilliant jumble of fall colors: ruby red, auburn, burnt orange and bright gold. A dish originating in Portugal, the bacalao — chipped pieces of salted and dried codfish — ring the mound of mofongo like Matisse's colorful dancers. And the sturdy mofongo, that pile of yellow plantains and crumbs of bacon, rises from between them with the promise of a transporting experience ahead.
Where do you want to go? Puerto Rico? Cuba? Portugal? Spain? China? West Africa? No need to board a plane away from Houston. At Tex-Chick, like so many Puerto Rican restaurants, the marriage of dishes and flavors will fly you headlong from one country to another.
"We have always been a mixture," owner Carlos Pérez laughs about his native Puerto Rico. "We party with everybody."
The San Juan native came to Houston in 1986 to study hotel management. He found some friends and a girlfriend here, but began to get homesick for his native food. An old high school friend took him to Tex-Chick, one of the only Puerto Rican restaurants in town, and Pérez quickly fell in love.
"The former owners were like grandparents to me," he says. "I came every week, ordered the same thing each time. I brought my girlfriend, who then became my wife, and then we started bringing our kids. Every week."
Tex-Chick wasn't always a Puerto Rican restaurant, however. Back in the 1940s, it was a drive-thru-only stand on Montrose, where burger joint Little Bigs is now located. The owner, from Oklahoma, served old-school American food.
After he retired, in 1982, Tex-Chick was sold to Teo Gonzales and his wife, Carmen. The couple began serving Puerto Rican food, their native cuisine, at the same time they moved the restaurant to its current location on Fairview.
Incongruously located across the street from Black Hawk Leather and Video, in a tiny storefront that houses four tables and a small kitchen, Tex-Chick has become a second home for Houston's small Puerto Rican community. It's endlessly jovial and welcoming inside, with tables full of other Puerto Rican ex-pats and neighborhood residents.
A few years ago, the Gonzaleses decided that it was time for them to retire, too, and decided to close Tex-Chick for good. Pérez was horrified.
"I told them, 'You can't close it!'" he recalls. "'Then you keep it!'" Teo said.
Pérez simply couldn't let his beloved restaurant close, so he worked out an agreement with Teo and Carmen Gonzales: "He stayed on with me and helped me run the place. He was like an uncle to me."
These days, Tex-Chick has had a bit of a facelift. A cheerful blue awning welcomes people into the small restaurant, which is only open each day until 5 p.m. Pérez says that it's because Puerto Rican food is so filling that you won't need to eat again "for a day and a half."
His favorite item on the small menu is the bistec empanizado, breaded steak that he fixes up with a pile of the sweet, vegetal, garlic-tinged mofongo. The mofongo itself has a long history; it was first imported to the island of Puerto Rico by West African slaves. In its native lands, mofongo is called fufu and is made with boiled, mashed green plantains.
Although there are an estimated 7,000 Puerto Rican people in Houston, there are a disproportionately small number of Puerto Rican restaurants. Tex-Chick is one of only two, since Isla Coqui closed a few years ago. Pérez chalks this up to a dining attitude in his countrymen that Houstonians should find familiar: "We mix so well with so many cultures that we'll eat anything. Chinese one day, Mexican the next. It doesn't matter to us."
Pérez keeps the place running now much as the Gonzaleses did, and it's clear that Tex-Chick has retained its immense popularity in Pérez's capable hands.
"I still don't know why I did it," laughs Pérez. "I just love the food."
One of a host of recent "gastropubs" to pop up around Houston, BRC is the only one that truly hits the nail on the head of this culinary trend. BRC — which, yes, stands for Big Red Cock — serves up not only a small but stunning menu of "pub" food (if a traditional pub were located in the Deep South) but has a rotating menu of craft and micro brews that often can't be found anywhere else in the city. With 28 taps and frequently tapped casks, you won't always find the same beer here twice, but you'll most definitely fall in love over and over again with the finds that Lance Fegen discovers and wags back to the bar. Grab a floppy, dog-eared copy of the leather-bound beer list and peruse the clever descriptions ("biscuity nose") if you aren't quite sure what you want. And don't be afraid to experiment: Most draft beers are only $6 or $7 and you can even get a highly affordable beer flight if you just can't settle on one.
Beware: Not all Alma Latina restaurants are created equal. But if you make it to the correct one — the location on Telephone Road in the Second Ward — your journey will be richly rewarded. Stay away from the breakfast tacos and instead focus on dishes like the hot, vividly flavored menudo or the hearty huevos rancheros. Both will either fuel you for a long day ahead or take the edge off that raging hangover and allow you to salvage what's left of your day, even if you didn't get up until noon. That's right: Alma Latina serves breakfast all day, although they charge a little extra after 10:30 a.m. But the free chips and queso you get with your breakfast more than make up for any convenience charges.
Marco Wiles's latest Italian eatery is linger-worthy. The darkened dining room and menu of small plates feel perfectly authentic, despite the fact that Westheimer in all of its local color is whizzing by outside. Poscol does many things right, but its risottos are the best of all, creamy and decadent without being heavy, simple to look at but complex at first bite. Both the valpolicella (made with red wine) and butternut squash (topped with fried chicken livers) will make you consider licking the plate.
After a lovely meal featuring some of Houston's best seafood, go ahead and indulge that aching sweet tooth with REEF's "No Minors" milk shake.This is not your grandfather's milk shake, nor is it fit for the children. Here, the age-old milk shake gets a kick in the pants, adding brandy and Kahlúa to its delicious ice cream base. Yowzah! It's basically the milk shake version of a Brandy Alexander: creamy and smooth — yet not so rich as to be considered sinful. Portions are large and hearty; we like to add an extra straw and share it 1950s-style.
One thing should be perfectly clear when ordering a dish of ceviche at Ocean's, the new restaurant that has taken over the old Bistro Vino space with panache: This is not the ceviche to which you are probably accustomed. The plates that come out at Ocean's are immense platters, artfully decorated with a few spare pieces of raw fish. The effect is more like sashimi than ceviche, but the taste is wholly Latin-influenced. The rasurado plate hums with the intensity of Serrano peppers mixed with chipotle sauce, the fiery flavors balanced by a creamy slice of avocado on top of each velvety piece of yellowtail tuna (which is the fish that Ocean's recommends with the platter). On an entirely different note, the Oriental plate — recommended with salmon — is elegantly seasoned with ginger, orange juice, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. When's the last time you ate ceviche that comes with soy sauce?
What could be more Houston than an amalgamation of Italian, American and Indian concepts into one fantastic dish? At Bombay Pizza, located on the ground floor of the Commerce Towers, owner Viral Patel has combined his Indian background with an affinity for making great pies, and the result is dazzling. The Saag Paneer is exactly what it sounds like: a pizza topped with spicy greens and paneer (Indian cheese) along with goat cheese and mozzarella on a delicately crispy crust. Think of a spinach pizza, but with a South Asian twist. Feeling more adventurous? Try a Gateway of India pizza that mixes tandoori chicken with artichoke hearts in a cilantro-chutney sauce. And don't fret about missing breadsticks with your order. Bombay Pizza has something even better: a Kati Roll, fresh naan filled with cilantro-mint chutney and a choice of fillings.
When you think of empanadas, you may not immediately think of the first Houston restaurant to be certified by the Green Restaurant Association, but the folks at Ruggles Green are churning out a delicious new twist on the classic South American dish. Cleverly named "Hempenadas," this version is made with high-protein hemp flour and a stuffing of golden raisins, nutty hemp seed and Texas grass-fed beef. $8.95 gets you a trio of half-moon delights with a ramekin of roasted garlic cilantro sauce for dipping, served as an appetizer. Delicate on the outside and moist on the inside, these all-natural creations are not to be missed.
If Under the Volcano seems like an unlikely place to order a shot, that's because it is. Most of the time, you'll see most regulars at this classic Rice Village bar drinking frozen screwdrivers, frozen rum and Cokes or just a plain old draft beer. But if you're feeling capricious, order a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake at the bar and prepare to judge shots quite differently. Unlike overly sweet intoxicants like Buttery Nipples or Red-Headed Sluts, the Volcano's Pineapple Upside-Down Cake is a shot you can actually sip on, if that's your thing. The tropical taste of pineapple washes down neatly with a smooth layer of vanilla and a bright note of grenadine at the very end. We're not saying you should make a habit of ordering these one after another, but there are far more embarrassing ways to get your shot on.
At Block 7, dry-aged beef is topped with well-melted Gruyère and a bacon relish that adds a hint of smoke and edge to the already flavorful meat. The kitchen keeps additions to a minimum (arugula, Dijon aioli), and this restraint, plus an excellent bun from local Slow Dough bakers, keeps what could be an over-the-top burger from becoming pretentious. Block 7 also serves up toothsome sweet potato fries and one of the most reasonably priced wine lists in town, making the burger experience at the glass-lined Heights eatery an excellent one.
This isn't your mama's chicken-fried steak — it's an obscene tower of goodness, impaled with a wood-handled steak knife, daring you to defeat it. Unlike many other CF steaks in town, the accompaniments at Beaver's are just as good as the main event: mashed sweet potatoes and Southern-style greens, all swaddled in a rich mushroom gravy with a side of Texas toast. And the star of the show? Perfectly crusted on the outside, moist and decadent on the inside. Fair warning — the faint of heart may need to bring a dining companion along to finish the plate.
There's nothing pretty about Hank's — it's a dive in a strip mall way the heck out on Bellaire, but man can these folks boil some crawfish. Big, fat mudbugs are served up for some of the lowest prices per pound in town, but the tail meat is sweet and tender, the spice blend perfect. You can order at four different levels of spice — mild, medium, spicy and tear-inducingly hot, adding in fresh garlic if you like. Luckily, cold beer is available to quell the fire in your mouth and Hank's sports plenty of other Louisiana favorites — po boys, boudin, barbecue shrimp and more — to round out your meal.