Ask any parent of children under the age of 12 his or her requirements for dining out with the kids, and more than likely a playground or sandbox, kids’ menu, and tolerant servers top the list.
If a restaurant offers “Kids Eat Free” days, that’s a definite bonus for families looking to save a few dollars on food that may (or may not) get eaten. We’ve compiled a list of five restaurants in the Cypress/northwest Houston area that meet those requirements while giving choices that are also adult-friendly.
Warning: These are not restaurants for the parents of that precocious sashimi-loving eight-year-old. These are for those of us who tried to raise little gourmands but ended up with kids who won’t eat mac n’ cheese unless it’s a hue of bright orange. And germaphobes might want to whip out the industrial-size hand-sanitizer, because things may get a little dirty. For those of you who like a cold beer while watching the rugrats build up their immune systems as they scramble up plastic tunnels with other people’s little darlings, this list’s for you.
Santa Fe Flats, 21542 Hwy 249, 281-655-1400
For those who are unfamiliar with New-Mex food, Santa Fe Flats offers a little something different in the Mexican food scene. Green chiles add a unique flavor to some of the dishes, but much of the menu is pretty similar to the average Houston Mexican restaurant. Chips are served with both a red and green salsa. The green sauce is heavier on the avocado than the tomatillo, and the red sauce has a nice smokiness from the charred, roasted tomatoes.
There's also a salsa bar with salad fixings, so you can add as much cilantro, jalapeno or pico de gallo to your dish as your heart desires. While the interior decor is solidly New Mexico with its cow skulls and ochre-painted walls, the patio is where most families will plop themselves on a reasonably pleasant Houston day. Most of the patio is covered, with fans that keep a nice breeze circulating, while green vines and attractive plantings help drown out the noise of the very close highway.
There is a covered sandbox with tables nearby, so parents can sip an inexpensive frozen margarita as they watch Junior pour a bucket of sand over his sister’s head. The Kids’ Menu offers your basic Mexican fare, plus hamburgers, chicken tenders, and what I am pretty sure is frozen pizza, for the weird kids that don’t like Mexican food. For the weird adults that don’t like Mexican food, they make a pretty decent chicken fried steak. Be warned that the gravy is served with green chiles. I prefer it without, but you can order them on the side and see if green chiles are your thing. The $7 Chimichanga Special on Mondays is a real bargain, especially since it includes their rice and beans. My husband prefers their black beans. I think their charro beans deliver the goods.
A tip: Get an extra basket of chips just for the kids. You don’t want their sand-covered mitts griming up your chips. On Mondays, kids under 12 eat free, one meal per adult entree. There is usually live music on the patio on Saturday nights, for a kid-free date night.
The Adriatic Cafe, 17402 Northwest Freeway, 713-983-6565
Sometimes parents actually like to dine with their children rather than watch them get covered in sand or run amok. Italian food—primarily pizza and pasta—usually can fulfill the culinary preferences of most kids. In today’s culinary scene, many Italian restaurants tend to be more focused on regional cuisines, with a more formal bent. While we enjoy the broadening of our cultural appetites, sometimes, you just want a red gravy like Mama used to make. The Adriatic Cafe fills that need.
The serving sizes would make any Nonna proud. The dishes are what most Americans have been familiar with for the past 50 years. And that’s, okay. The restaurant is located right off 290 in a grim strip center, but the interior is much more welcoming, with a number of comfy booths that harken back to a time when Italian restaurants were considered the place to go for a romantic candle-lit meal. And yes, they have those little glass shades with Sterno cups inside.
For kids, this is a time to be a little more grown-up. At least after they fight over who gets the last piece of fried cheese. No phones, please. This is a time to listen to Sinatra as you enjoy the tomatoey-cheesy goodness before you and find out who your children really are. My teen daughter loves their fried calamari, which is lightly battered and served with the marinara, but she prefers Ranch dressing. Please don’t tell our Italian relatives in New Haven.
The pizza is good and lightly sauced. The sauce doesn’t knock you out with copious amounts of oregano or sugar, which has become a pet peeve of mine. The crust is nicely charred and on the thinner side, but still chewy. The small Greek Salad is enough for two people, but sometimes comes over-dressed with vinaigrette. They are pretty heavy-handed with the black olives and green peppers, too. Most of the stuffed pastas are a bit over-sauced and over-cheesed as well, but we all know that person who thinks that makes it even better (my dad).
The Children’s Menu is $4.95 and is basically eight variations of pasta or pizza. If your kid doesn’t like pasta or pizza, get a new kid. Or just feed them the yummy, soft, buttery garlic knots. They are complimentary, so you could get off cheap with that particular child. If anyone in your family is gluten-free, there is a gluten-free pasta menu. And a very cheap lunch menu from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week. Kids eat free on Mondays. Happy Hour is Monday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m., and includes $3 house wines and half-priced appetizers.
La Hacienda by the Creek, 12503 Telge, 281-373-0300
Yes, another Mexican restaurant, but let’s face it. When it comes to pleasing the wee ones, a quickly-brought basket of chips can work wonders in keeping their hands to themselves and their appetites satiated until the meal arrives.
Another way of keeping the kids entertained is the plastic playground at the end of the very large, covered patio. This is for the parent who is used to having their child disappear into a tunnel and not emerge until the meal is nearly finished. While the food here is not at the top of my Mexican food faves, they do have a few dishes where the vegetables actually make a bigger impression than the meat.
This is old style Mexican cooking, without much of the Tex-Mex influence. I prefer the green sauce over their red, rather watery salsa. The chips are nice and thin. The restaurant itself is a sight to behold. There are a couple of classic cars parked out front and upon entering, the huge dining room looks like a little Mexican village. Or more like a kitschy idea of a Mexican village.
If you’re trying to avoid the giant plastic tunnel, there are plenty of knick-knacks inside to keep an older child’s interest. But more than likely, you are headed to the patio with the rest of the parents looking to enjoy a cold margarita while the kids make instant friends, brought together by a desire to climb for absolutely no reason at all.
My cat-loving daughter was more interested in the feral kittens that made their way onto the Spanish-tiled floor of the terrace. The decor of the restaurant may be dated, with its white wrought-iron lacework chairs and the serape wall hangings, but it’s a charming reminder of a time when Americans weren’t so worldly and Mexican food was considered a trendy ethnic cuisine.
The Backyard Grill, 9453 Jones, 281-897-9200
The Backyard Grill tops the list of many a Cypress parent’s kid-friendly dining options. The decor includes a collection of vintage signs and eclectic knick-knacks and a large fake tree in the dining room, strung with white Christmas lights. There are booths and tables available, with outside seating on the patio and a sandbox. The menu is large. Very large. It includes a variety of burgers, hot dogs, and wings, plus barbecue, fajitas and a multitude of other fried, unhealthy foods.
There are entree salads, but the amount of ingredients pretty much precludes them from being a low-fat, low- calorie option. My husband once ordered the turkey melt, but was not impressed. That’s what he deserves for ordering something so lame when a plethora of sinful, gut-busting foods are on offer. Save this restaurant for your heart-stopping splurge. For me, it is the Chili Cheeseburger. The Backyard Grill version is large and sloppy, requiring a knife and fork for those of us who prefer not to have beef chili running down our forearms.
The kids’ menu, $4.99, offers the usual child-geared favorites: hamburgers, corn dogs, quesadillas, etc. The meal comes with a choice of sides including fries, fruit cup, mashed potatoes, and even green beans. If you can get your kid to choose green beans over french fries, you are a better parent than me. Or a more neurotic one. For a buck more, the Tweeners menu offers meals that are a little larger, including a steak meal.
Besides having an extended Happy Hour during the week (2 to 7 p.m.) and daily specials, The Backyard Grill offers “ Kids Eat Free” on Wednesdays, after 4 p.m., one meal per adult entree. This is a popular event. There are usually characters brought in ( we’ve seen Spider-man and the occasional clown) and there might even be a bounce-house outside. Kids also eat free breakfast on Saturdays. If you’re the type of person who starts their diet on Monday morning and breaks it by the afternoon, you can take the kids here on a Monday, where a kid’s meal will only set you back 99 cents. With summer approaching, The Backyard Grill offers families some great dining deals. You can always take a family hike afterward to offset the gluttony.
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BlueWater Seafood, 12914 FM 1960, 281-894-9221
Choosing a restaurant for a family that varies greatly in their food preferences can be a challenge. Sometimes, you say, “Suck it up, we’re having Vietnamese." Other times you find a restaurant that can satisfy everyone. Seafood always seems to be the toughest cuisine when it comes to picky eaters. Some of us believe that the bounty from our lakes and oceans is a sign that God truly loves us. Others think seafood is an aberration. Three members of my family are in the “if it swims, I’ll eat it” camp, while our youngest member sticks to land mammals. Or cheese.
BlueWater Seafood offers great choices for kids, whether they love fried shrimp or want to stick to the grilled cheese and fries. There are picnic tables on the patio, which is perfect for crawfish season. Somehow, it doesn’t feel right to suck heads indoors. My daughter and I like to split the Captain’s Catch, which is one pound. of crawfish, 10 boiled shrimp, four to five snow crab legs, and a potato and cob of corn. Since she likes to share my husband’s raw oysters (his genes), I get more of the shrimp.
The crawfish pistolet is a delicious, greasy way to start your meal. People may argue about the various renderings of crawfish pistolets, but I care not. If it has crawfish and cheese sauce in a fried roll, I am good. My first crawfish pistolet was at a crawfish festival from a truck vendor, so maybe my expectations aren’t real high, but the pistolet at BlueWater makes the Louisiana side of me happy. Like Justin Wilson-happy. I guaaaarahntee it.