This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.
Inside City Cafe, it's like time itself has paused for a cigarette break and a cup of black coffee. Here in the City of South Houston, a few short blocks away from Pasadena, smoking is still allowed at the long, diner-style counter (although, as a stern black sign points out, there's no cigar smoking allowed in here). Patrons take their chicken-fried steak and eggs in the morning with a red pack of Marlboro 100s, lined up in a row as they catch up with each other in the familiar rhythms that only regulars in small-town cafes possess.
On a Saturday morning this past spring, that's where I found myself along with a friend, catching up over a breakfast that was nearly too large for the funny little two-man booth we'd sat down in. Because it seemed like the thing to do, we ordered the chicken-fried steak and eggs that everyone else around us was eating, along with a standard Texas breakfast platter of two eggs over easy, bacon, hashbrowns and a biscuit with a side of grits. And, of course, waffles.
While we waited for the food to come out, I tried to explain the grits scene in My Cousin Vinny to my friend, the one in which Joe Pesci's carpetbagger of a character encounters grits for the very first time in an Alabama town. City Cafe reminds me very much of the type of cafe which the screenwriters must have had in mind while writing that scene, a soulfully no-nonsense establishment where the food is equally straightforward and blessedly simple.
And at the end of that lovely, simple meal waited our dessert: a malted waffle, ordered before we'd realized just how much food was headed our way. Neither of us was hungry for it after the amount of food we'd just consumed, but I gamely took a bite. And then I took five more -- it ended up being the best part of the meal.
If you've never had a waffle made from Carbon's Golden Malted waffle flour, imagine it as the waffle equivalent of Ovaltine: rich, toasty, barely sweet and tasting of pure nostalgia. I'd forgotten how good a malted waffle could taste until re-encountering it at City Cafe. After all, it's a rare thing to run across them anymore. Thank God for the patches of small-town life that still exist in the big city.
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The list so far:
No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F. No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck