It's hard to believe that we're a month out from Hurricane Harvey. September was, well, a month of stress, panic, anxiety, love, community and reflection. It is still an ongoing process to recovery, but Houston's restaurants have been nothing but extraordinary in terms of helping bring relief and comfort to the community, whether it was through donating meals, feeding first responders or just getting back open. We tip our hats to the hospitality industry, and with that, here are the best things we ate in September, which run the gamut from hot dogs to gumbo to desserts. Feel-good foods, naturally.
Since the August edition of The Best Things We Ate got lost in the Harvey fray, we're also including dishes we tried last month as well.
14. Duck Soup at Pepper Twins, 1915 West Gray, Suite A
"A lunch meeting at Pepper Twins was the right call," says contributor and chef Cuc Lam. "We enjoyed one of their most popular dishes, the Pepper Twins Chicken cooked with dozens of Szechuan peppercorns and burn-a-hole-in-your-stomach chile peppers. The tongue-numbing peppercorns are an experience all Houstonians must try. Our other dishes hit the spot as well. The Dancing Squid, with cucumbers, celery and another butt-load of peppers, was delicious, but the Duck Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens was the most delightful dish of the meal. Rich, deep, gingery broth and whole cut-up duck made for the perfect bite."
13. Lump Crab and Shrimp Tower and Crab Beignets at Marais, 2015 FM 517 East
"The first week after Hurricane Harvey, we went down to Dickinson to help our friends pack up what belongings had been saved after three feet of water flooded their home," writes Lorretta Ruggiero (read her Harvey Hangover tale here). "Later we ended up, kids in tow, at Marais along the Dickinson Bayou. After days of junk food, it was nice to eat food that was fresh and vibrant. We adults decided to share a number of appetizers so that we could get a taste of the restaurant’s offerings. The best thing we ate was the lump crab and shrimp tower. We carefully tucked in, making sure to get all of the ingredients in a bite. The sweetness of the crab was enhanced by the citrusy sweetness of the diced mango and the creamy avocado. There were only two shrimp, but those were snagged by someone else, so I didn’t get to taste them, but that’s okay. More crab for me. The second best thing was the crab beignets. We were concerned that they might be heavy, but they were actually quite light, letting the taste of the blue crab come through the pastry, and only needed a tiny dab of the rémoulade sauce to give it a little extra flavor. It was a welcome meal after days of wine and Doritos."
12. Whiskey Cake at Whiskey Cake Kitchen & Bar, 23139 Grand Circle
The signature dessert at Whiskey Cake is basically "a mouthful of autumn," says Jennifer Fuller, thanks to its buttery richness and warmth, along with majorly comforting flavors: toffee, spiced pecans and bourbon anglaise.
11. Smoked Ricotta Gnocchi at Radio Milano, 800 Sorella Court
"A recent visit to Radio Milano to chat with its new sommelier, Joshua Theis, presented me with an opportunity to try the Smoked Ricotta Gnocchi," says Jamie Alvear. "Pillowy, handmade gnocchi are topped with grilled octopus, tomato sauce and shaved Parmesan. The dish paired perfectly with an Owen Roe Rosa Mystica Cabernet Franc."
10. Dim Sum at Fung's Kitchen, 7320 Southwest Freeway, Suite 115
"Fung's Kitchen knocks it out of the ballpark every time with the dim sum," says contributor Cuc Lam. "Traditional faves like the har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) and xiu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings) are must-haves, and one of my personal favorites is the black bean clams and the congee with preserved egg. Fung's offers dim sum every day, all day long."
9. Chili Crab With Fried Bao Buns at Aqui, 520 Westheimer
"While there were many memorable bites at Aqui," Mai Pham, contributor and reviewer, says, "starting with a melt-in-your-mouth uni toast, and the beautifully constructed tuna kinilaw, the dish that stole the show for me — and is one of the best things I've eaten in a long time — is one called Chili Crab and fried bao. It's a take on Singaporean chile crab by chef de cuisine Gabriel Medina, and I've had it twice now at Aqui and loved it both times. Fresh crab is folded into a thick, burnished orange, dip-like paste topped with shallots and cooked with galangal, tomatoes, egg and a slew of spices. The bao buns are plush, like brioche, with the light, crispy exterior of a beignet. You scoop the crab paste onto the bao buns and wham! Rich, briny and full-bodied like a stew that has been left to marinate in its flavors overnight, the crab essence, combined with the texture of the bao buns, just kind of rocked my world. Lick-the-bowl delicious."
8. The Ol' Zapata, Chili-Cheese Dog and Tofu Dog at Good Dog, 1312 West Alabama
"The super-buttery and gorgeously griddled buns alone are enough reason to love Good Dog," contributor Brooke Viggiano says, "but when you stack on snappy, Texas-made dogs and condiments from scratch, things get real. I can never decide on just one, so my husband and I usually split two. This time we made the right choice: the jam-packed Ol' Zapata, plump with bacon, sweet caramelized onions, fiery jalapeño relish and mayo; and a build-your-own dog smothered with chorizo chili and a side of the divine mustard cheese sauce that doubled as a dip for the fries."
Likewise, contributor and reviewer Erika Kwee says, "A vegetarian hot dog isn't the most inspiring image, but Good Dog Houston serves up a surprisingly tasty tofu dog option. All dogs come enrobed in a pillowy Slow Dough challah bun that's basically worth the price of admission, and the classic New Yorker comes piled with sauerkraut and a spicy whole grain mustard that'll make your nose tingle."
7. The Jess Special at Tacodeli, 1902 Washington
During a breakfast visit to Tacodeli on Washington, reviewer Erika Kwee wrote, "the popular (and my personal long-awaited taco) Jess Special impressed with creamy eggs, a sea of melty jack cheese and avocado slices. Although the corn tortillas underwhelmed with a lack of flavor and structural integrity (a lone tortilla ripped under the weight of a juicy egg white and spinach taco), the tender flour tortillas worked well with most tacos."
6. Fresh fruit shaved ice with banana, mango and flan at Juice Box, 9889 Bellaire
"When I'm feeling down, dessert always perks me up," says Mai Pham. "It was hot and muggy outside and my spirits were low in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. So I decided to reward myself with a bowl of fresh fruit shaved ice at Juice Box. It had been awhile since I'd had it, so I didn't hold back — getting two fruits — banana and mango, and opting to add a whole flan on top. They finished it off with condensed milk and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The flan added this silky texture that you don't always get with shaved fruit ice. I couldn't get enough of it."
5. YoYo's Hot Dog, 5555 Morningside
Dash of pepper, warm cream cheese, spicy mustard, curry ketchup, griddled onions, crunchy fried onions, honey mayonnaise and a touch of sriracha sauce. These are the toppings on one of Houston's best late-night bites, YoYo's Hot Dog, which as the name suggests serves just one glorious thing: this righteous hot dog. Available Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
4. Mixed BBQ Platter at Aga's, 11842 Wilcrest
This palatial Indo-Pak eatery has a lot going for it. It's located in the most Houston of all Houston shopping centers, sandwiched between a Marshalls and a big-ass firing range with parking lot security that circles in a blinking white pickup truck. It boast banquettes and glittery silver and purple chairs that look plucked from a '50s diner, though the restaurant itself is far more formal than that, and yet also so casual. Servers carry iPads anyway. Needless to say, it's a total joy to dine here, from the meat platters, including a mixed grill that combines chicken and beef seekh kebab, bihari, and boti on a heaping sizzling skillet, to the numerous goat curry specialties, fiery jalapeño naan and then some. Do yourself a favor and make the trip. Or order online. They have that down pat too.
3. Moist Brisket at Rudy's Country Store, 20806 Interstate 45
From the looks of it, the Rudy's on Interstate 45 in Spring is the spot to order huge take-out (or dine-in) servings of barbecue, sausage and smoked chicken by the pound, along with incredible grab-and-go sides, perfect for catering your football-watching needs on Sunday, or just for a drop-in weekend trip with the family. The moist brisket is exactly that, moist and succulent, best accompanied by a squirt or two of the restaurant's signature fiery sauce. The baked beans here are great too, not in the least bit sweet, for a change, though the cobbler does deliver on that front.
2. Cacao at Xochi, 1777 Walker
"If you want a show-stopper, go for 'Cacao,'" wrote Nicholas Hall in his review of Xochi in early August. "Your dining companions might not believe you when you tell them that the picture-perfect cacao pod that lands in front of them is fully edible. Mine didn’t, until one brave soul got up the nerve to call my bluff. Doubt turned to delight as she popped an airbrushed piece of molded white chocolate into her mouth. Inside that pod, a dream boat for chocolate lovers spins through a wild panoply of flavors and textures. Some midnight dark, bitter and beguiling. Some milk-sweet and light as a cloud. Some spiced with cinnamon and other things, dusky and mysterious. Crumbly 'soil.' White puffs of tejate foam break up the chocolate landscape, tasting like a nutty and slightly wild vanilla."
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1. Felix-style Queso at El Patio, 6444 Westheimer
We're not sure how it's possible ever to go back to real queso after eating this little cheese pillow sent from heaven, or rather from the recipe of long-lost Houston institution Felix Mexican Restaurant, which you can order at El Patio. But then again, this queso is not for everyone. It's fairly reminiscent of baked macaroni and cheese in its béchamel-esque existence, but doughier, really, paste-like in appearance and also in its ability to turn you into a six-year-old that knows you shouldn't be eating this but will continue until the teacher finds out and calls your parents. It's also soaked in a sinful lair of cumin-tinged oil. Oh, that glorious oil. Let it drip down your chin. Let it drop onto the soft cotton ply of your favorite T-shirt, so that you may carry around this moment forever. Either that or your thighs will.