10 Excellent Casual Gems in Garden Oaks/Oak Forest

Garden Oaks and Oak Forest — GOOF as the area is sometimes lovingly referred to — has been changing quite a bit recently when it comes to its options for dining out. The area has long been regarded as the home to some of Houston's most essential restaurants, arguably the best Shipley in town, the Barbecue Inn, Roznovsky's and Doyle's, just to name a few. Newer standbys, including Plonk, Little Bitty Burger Barn, Cottonwood, Shepherd Park Draft House and Pink's, have been serving the neighborhood well for years now.

It's the type of laid-back area of town that's a refreshing break from the Loop, what with its endless valet parking and zoo-like nightlife scenes on the weekends. It is the land of chill.

With the intersection of 34th and Ella also slated to have two new developments erected in the coming year, even more new eateries will be heading to the neighborhood. At least one is known right now — Pop + Pan — a new iteration of the beloved Popcorn and Panini shop that will feature specialty popcorn, paninis, small plates, drinks and more.

This is by no means a complete overview of every cool and casual spot in the area, but these are ten no-fail eateries that the Houston Press can totally stand behind, perfect for a variety of situations, whether you’re in search of a great coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, a stiff drink, or an outing with the family. If you haven't ventured to Garden Oaks or Oak Forest lately, here are ten great spots that are beckoning.

Petrol Station has covered seating out front and a huge backyard and deck as well.EXPAND
Petrol Station has covered seating out front and a huge backyard and deck as well.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Petrol Station, 985 Wakefield

A fantastic selection of beer on draft. Giant, juicy burgers. A huge and incredible Reuben. Warm pretzels with creamy cheese dip. Outdoor seating for days. Such are the perks of this low key but often hopping bar inside a former gas station, tucked into a quiet neighborhood. The bar regularly taps kegs of coveted beers along with favorites including California-based Lagunitas, Michigan gem Founders and Texas go-tos Saint Arnold, Southern Star and Brash. But beer novices need not fear, the menu is divided up to accommodate newbies, intermediate and expert-level beer drinkers. Plus, you can always ask the bartenders to guide you in the right direction flavor-wise.

Weekend warriors can also get their fill of the food menu at lunch (the bar opens at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays), and many will be happy to know there's some great non-beer drink options, including one of the best sparkling lemonades of all time, Fentimans Rose Lemonade. If you're ever had it, you know the magic that resides inside that glass bottle.

White Sangria goes down easy on a hot evening at SassafrasEXPAND
White Sangria goes down easy on a hot evening at Sassafras
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Sassafras, 5022 Pinemont

From its nonchalant locale — in an industrial-style metal shed behind a large metal fence in the mix of many a warehouse on Pinemont — to its charming staff and ambience, Sassafras is a great hidden gem of a bar, and talk about a great steak night.

On Mondays, $20 gets you a plate of incredible flat-iron or rib-eye steak ($15 for chicken), perfectly cooked by resident chef Mickey on a grill out front, along with two sides and a roll. As for the drinks, the house sangria is a neighborhood favorite, with the white variation offering up a sweet and bubbly respite form the heat (with a large splash of bubbly and loads of fresh fruit). 

Don’t forget to take in the bar’s special ode to Oak Forest native and Waltrip High School graduate, dearly departed actor Patrick Swayze, who is commemorated via a fancy plush pillow and a pretty radical painting on the wall — Saint Swayze does in fact watch over this roadhouse, y'all. Ample outdoor seating and a great jukebox also add to the appeal.

MytiBurger is a Houston must-try.
MytiBurger is a Houston must-try.
Photo by Troy Fields

MytiBurger, 2211 West 43rd

Most cities have a beloved burger dive that’s been around seemingly since the dawn of man. MytiBurger is that place, and it should probably be preserved in amber lest anything happen to it. That's how great it is. This is the type of feel-good throwback establishment where the ladies behind the counter call you baby and sweetheart and the customers say yes ma'am, and there's something about eating a burger here that brings 

one closer to the American Dream, if only for a few minutes' time. Patrick Swayze was said to have been a fan anyway.

Sit at a booth, take in the vintage photos on the wall, listen to the soft rock radio over the loudspeakers and soak up the cool a/c while downing a Myti Burger with cheese, the patty of which resides somewhere between classic flat-top diner and pub-burger thickness. Smothered in cheese and topped with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, onion, pickles and tomatoes (if you're one of those weirdos who actually like tomatoes on a burger), it's quite the perfect bite. The fries are somewhere between fast food and steak fry on the crispness scale and must be eaten quickly or they risk going soggy. Throw in a deep-fried apple hand pie or a chocolate milkshake and call it a day, cowboy.

Frozen paloma and three barbacoa tacos, please.EXPAND
Frozen paloma and three barbacoa tacos, please.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Tacos A Go Go, 3401 West T C Jester

Both kid- and adult-approved, this new-ish location from Houston's rockabilly taco empire fronts the same solid lineup of street style and puffy tacos that you’ll find on Main, but you will find more options on the booze side, including a pretty addictive frozen paloma — not too sweet and very grapefruity. Plus, there's ample outdoor seating in front of the restaurant and on the side. As for the menu, the barbacoa (in this case, lamb) taco is always a reliable choice here, as are both the queso and queso blanco.

Spicy poke at Liberty KitchenEXPAND
Spicy poke at Liberty Kitchen
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Liberty Kitchen, 3715 Alba

Poke in Garden Oaks? Yes, you can find the trending raw fish bowls at this relatively hidden location of Liberty Kitchen, which like its sister locations features a little something for everybody in a setting that's colorful, breezy and pretty relaxed. The build-your-own poke bowls at lunch include options for tuna, salmon or veggie poke marinated in spicy mayo or a teriyaki-style sauce, with a base including white rice, cucumber salad or kale. The restaurant is a solid bet for downing a chicken-fried steak, grabbing a dozen raw oysters with a glass of wine, or enjoying an evening cocktail as well. If you're a brunch person, make sure to check out the weekend specials, including a crazy doughnut and fried chicken brunch bowl smothered in gravy. Covered outdoor seating is available as well, though of late there's been some road work going on out front.

Gatlin's BBQ, often crowded at lunchEXPAND
Gatlin's BBQ, often crowded at lunch
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Gatlin's BBQ, 3510 Ella

Run by pitmaster Greg Gatlin and family, Gatlin's actually opened its Garden Oaks location in 2015, after making a name for itself in the Heights. It's hard to go wrong at this spacious, welcoming barbecue outpost with quick counter service — a good thing because it's usually pretty packed with lunch crowds, full of families and coworkers. Don't overlook the gargantuan meat-stuffed baked potatoes or the sliced brisket sandwich. Pickles and sauces are self-serve at the condiment bar, and the signature house sides are as much a highlight as the meats, with excellent seasoned green beans, macaroni and cheese, smothered greens and dirty rice on the menu. You will want to save room for the lemon pound cake, though.

When you need a breakfast sandwich or banh miEXPAND
When you need a breakfast sandwich or banh mi
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Toasted, 3434 Ella

Located in the strip center next to that Shipley's 24-hour traffic nightmare, Toasted is a great no-frills spot for build-your-own breakfast sandwiches on biscuits, croissants or bagels for under $5, and high-quality Greenway Coffee drinks in the morning, though the cafe also rocks a solid selection of sandwiches in the $7 to $9 range, and pizza bagels that the kids will love, for a quick and affordable lunch. Really, though, the secret menu item worth an order is the crispy, meaty banh mi ($5), which you can also order as a vegetarian, made with tofu instead.

SlowPokes has a patio and a shady, fenced-in yard.EXPAND
SlowPokes has a patio and a shady, fenced-in yard.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

SlowPokes, 1203 West 34th (at Alba), Suite D

This is, without a doubt, one of the best coffee shops in all of Houston. Actually, it's more like a coffee shop/wine bar/neighborhood eatery. SlowPokes not only serves up fine coffee, teas and pastries — including its highly regarded hand pies —- the cafe also features an array of all-day breakfast items, sandwiches, flatbreads and snacks to enjoy from morning to night. A selection of beer and wine, along with a great patio, shaded yard and outdoor window service from the friendly baristas, makes this an ideal gathering spot for an al fresco evening with friends or family (there’s enough room for little ones with ants in their pants). The interior is kitschy and welcoming, with neon signage, vintage decor and plenty of seating via communal picnic and high-top tables and a few coveted banquettes that are usually taken up by folks using the Wi-Fi. It’s definitely worth the trek, whether you want to surf the Internet, get some food to go, drink a pint or enjoy a cup of joe while people-watching.

Cool treats await at this roadside gem.EXPAND
Cool treats await at this roadside gem.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

NeNe's Refresqueria, 448 West 34th

This blue shack on the side of 34th, amid a slew of car shops and a place called the Scar Face Business Center (motto: Say Hello to My Little Space), isn’t much to look at, but it sure is a hidden gem for hot-weather treats. A selection of icy raspas (Mexican sno-balls) come in an assortment of flavors, including "natural" variations such as the horchata-like leche, which one can get topped with crema (sweet condensed milk) for an extra 50 cents, or the tamarind sno-ball, which beckons for a sprinkling on tajin. Kids can order their raspas with gummies on top, and parents can always opt for fresh heaping bowls of fruit salad with or without a scoop of ice cream in the middle.

Govinda's buffet awaits.
Govinda's buffet awaits.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Govinda’s, 1320 West 34th

What’s not to love about an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet for $10.95? In fact, this all-vegetarian restaurant is a clean, welcoming respite to the work day with quick service — it is a self-serve buffet, after all — and a cost that won't cause sticker shock. Dinner is $12.95, and kids can eat for just $5.

The buffet features a salad bar full of fresh, enticing options — try the yogurt salad with cucumber — and the hot bar selections differ from day to day, with a creamy and dreamy saag paneer, flavorful bhindi masala (sautéed okra and potatoes), malai kofta with cauliflower and more.  Don't miss the crispy papadam and chutneys, and the desserts, including sweet rice pudding, and a fried bread that, flavor-wise anyway, is somewhat like an Indian version of a churro.

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