Do the Curry Crawl
As we enter the new year, I'm trying to make good on a few resolutions. And one of those is to get outside the Loop a bit more — even though a great bounty of amazing restaurants have opened inside the Loop in the last 12 months — and back to exploring the rest of Houston's rich food scene. On a recent Eating...Our Words post rounding up all of our restaurant reviews from 2012, commenter kevin818 wrote: "I would like to see more reviews of restaurants along the Hillcroft strip." To kevin818's point, it had been far too long since I spent an afternoon in Little India. So I took a few friends out one Sunday afternoon to visit some old favorites and get acquainted with some new ones.
10. Bombay Sweets
Dessert is always on your mind at Bombay Sweets because the place is foremost a candy store and the dining room is right next to the display case. But it's the $4.50 all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet that's the main attraction. Don't miss the awesome chickpea masala and the eggplant stew called bengan bhurta. Other dishes rotate in and out of the lineup. But you can hardly go wrong with any of the featured items.
9. Shiv Sagar / Sagar (tie)
Shiv Sagar has an all-vegetarian, chaat-style menu that allows you to build a meal of smaller Indian dishes, and is very often my go-to Sunday brunch destination for a recuperative meal of dahi puri, spicy samosas and a thick, cumin-laced salt lassi. Sagar, its little sister, also offers chaat — but there's so much more to the menu, including Indo-Chinese dishes, Mumbai-style street tood, Gujarati thalis and Punjabi treats. Sagar has everything from Hakka noodles and Kati rolls to bhel puri and mango lassis, and at the same low prices as its big sister.
8. Raja Sweets
It's hard to pass up the festive trays of Indian pastries on display, but the steam table on your right yields a bountiful bargain at Raja Sweets, one of the first Indian restaurants in the Mahatma Gandhi District and still one of the most popular. Ask what's underneath all the stainless-steel lids, and the sari-clad server will whisk them off, revealing chickpeas, curry, lentils and goat meat with your choice of rice or naan. There's an even lower price for this extra-spicy plate lunch if you skip the goat meat. Raja offers superb samosas and vegetable pakoras as well, and you don't want to pass up dessert, of course. Owner Sharan Gahunia and her family — who started Raja Sweets in 1985 — are known for making the best gulab jamun and Chenna Juli in town.
7. London Sizzler
Unlike most places in Little India that are BYOB or completely alcohol-free, London Sizzler has a full bar and a festive, pub-like atmosphere. That's because owner (and nonresident Indian) Ajay Patel was born in Zambia and raised in England, and brought British-Indian food to Houston when he opened London Sizzler. Here you'll find more British-influenced Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala (CTM) served with ice-cold pints of Boddingtons. London Sizzler is a popular stop on the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau's Where the Chefs Eat tours for dishes such as goat biryani, jeera wings and fluffy naan.
6. Bismillah Chaat / Bismillah Restaurant (tie)
If you want a full, sit-down Pakistani meal, head to Bismillah Restaurant. If you want a quick, counter-service meal of Pakistani snack food, head to Bismillah Chaat. You can't go wrong either way. At the chaat house, you'll find traditional dishes like sev puri and chicken samosas mixed in with more updated fusion dishes reflective of younger Pakistani culture: lamb sliders, fries and tater tots covered with garlic mayonnaise and masala spices, peri peri-spiced chicken wings and Bismillah's best-seller: a "ten chicken sandwich" that features chicken breast coated in ten different spices, served on a ladi pav bun with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and a yogurt-chutney sauce. (Bismillah also serves my second-favorite dahi puri in town.)
The southern Indian cuisine at Udipi is entirely meat-free, but that doesn't mean it's boring or won't fill you up. Offering everything from playful, lighthearted fare like creamy, sweet mango lassis and springy idlis to more substantial dishes like fragrant aloo gobi, thick palak paneer and navratan korma over tamarind rice, Udipi encourages you to experiment with vegetable-based dishes in an easygoing environment with reasonable prices. And although there's no booze on the menu, you can always BYOB here.
Himalaya Restaurant & Catering is a classic Hillcroft hole-in-the-wall where exotic meat dishes keep company with Pakistani cheeseburgers (and owner Kaiser Lashkari's desk in the middle of the dining room). Ask for reduced oil in the vegetable dishes if you don't like to see a puddle of ghee in your saag paneer. The affable Lashkari — who attended medical school in Pakistan before getting his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Houston — will gladly suggest which Indian and Pakistani dishes he thinks you should order, in case you can't make your mind up. Can't-miss dishes include the chicken hara masala, aloo tikka and absolutely anything with lamb.
3. Biryani Pot
This newcomer is outside the traditional confines of Little India, but that's simply a sign — to me, at least — that the district is continuing its pattern of growth. Biryani Pot's high-profile location on Westheimer will hopefully pull more people off the main thoroughfare and onto Hillcroft by way of its vibrant curries and colorfully named dishes like the Goat Chops of Heaven. (The name does not lie; this is the best goat I've had anywhere in Houston.) The Hyderabadi cuisine is never hurried here, and as a result you'll need to be patient. Most days, there's a long wait at the front door, adding to your need for patience — but the food and cheerful, efficient service are absolutely worth it.
2. Shri Balaji Bhavan
Nestled between sari shops and South Asian grocery stores on Hillcroft, this popular spot offers fresh and fiery-hot vegetarian fare in the tradition of South India. Shri Balaji Bhavan's inexpensive menu, sparkling tile floors and thumping Bombay pop draw a diverse crowd of Indian foodies. The popular Madras thali includes seven stainless-steel cups filled with an assortment of dishes flavored with tamarind, coconut and walloping peppers. Other favorites include the dal fry, dosas, handmade breads and dahi puri — the best in Houston, in my personal opinion (which doesn't count for too much, since the little snacks can change drastically in their composition from restaurant to restaurant).
1. Hot Breads
Believe it or not, this is a fast-food franchise that started in Madras, India, in 1988. The idea was to bring Western-style baked goods to an Indian audience, but the bakery offerings eventually morphed into a European-Indian fusion style. Chicken tikka croissants and goat korma-stuffed puff pastries are popular here, as are the shortbread cookies and tea cakes — although you'll be hard-pressed to meet the $10 credit card minimum even after filling up your cart with goodies, so inexpensive is it all. You can also get hot sandwiches and chaat to round out a simple but filling meal here. Hot Breads also does a swift trade in eggless bread for the Indian community and makes plenty of sugarless pastries, too.
On the Menu
Chilly Weather Food
Six places to get your chili fix.
Most of the time, I'm the type of person who thinks that — like barbecue — chili is best made and enjoyed at home. It's simple stuff that dates back nearly 500 years to the first chili recipe, when Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Hernán Cortés's captains, described the Cholulan Indian stew in 1519 as containing "tomatoes, salt and chiles." (What's often left out in this tale is that the missing chili ingredient — meat — was meant to come from the conquistadores' slaughtered bodies after the Cholulan Indians killed all of Cortés's men.)
Today, despite chili being the official state food of Texas, it's not a meal that most Texans go out to eat. We go to chili competitions and sample the entries studiously and engage in fierce chili cookoffs, yes. We scream bloody murder when someone suggests putting beans in chili and will argue endlessly with one another over this one ingredient for days.
But what about just seeking out a bowl of comfort when it's cold outside? Below are six suggestions for a bowl of red — not all of them Texan, though.
Armadillo Palace offers my platonic ideal of what a bowl of chili should be: good-sized chunks of meat cooked in a red sauce that's thick but not soupy, well-spiced but not sweat-inducingly spicy. The sweet bites of venison are given depth with a cumin-laced chili sauce and livened up even further with some crunchy raw onion and fresh jalapeños — which are served separately for you to add to the chili at your own discretion. (Now if only someone would tell Armadillo Palace that the wonderful chicken-fried steak should be served the same way, with the cream sauce on the side.)
Haven's wild boar chili epitomizes the sort of upscale down-home Texas cooking that chef Randy Evans specializes in, presented elegantly but without fuss. On top of the chili is a tangy crema in lieu of sour cream (although they're virtually the same thing), minced onions, jalapeño Cheddar cheese and what Haven calls a "corn stick," tilting out of the bowl at a jaunty angle. It's as if someone took the hushpuppies at Catfish King (where my East Texas folks at?) and made them better. I know. Sacrilege. But it's true. And on Wednesdays, that same chili is atop a Frito pie as the day's blue plate lunch special.
The venison chili at Twin Peaks actually fits the odd hunting lodge aesthetic of the place and is served very simply, with just a scattering of pepper jack cheese and green onions for bite. This is not a chili for the thinking man; it's a chili that's best enjoyed while grunting at a football game on TV, drinking a "draft beer so cold that ice crystals form in the glass" and taking in the view of the staff's own very prominently displayed Twin Peaks. (Hey, there's a chili out there for everyone!) Beware of going in the evenings, however, when wait times for a table can start at 90 minutes.
The Chili Shak
At this relatively new Braeburn spot, there are huge stacks of napkins on each tidy table — and that's because you'll need them for the wonderfully messy chili dogs and chili burgers The Chili Shak sells. True to its name, everything on the menu features chili. You can get a bowl of it all on its own, of course, which tastes like Wolf Brand chili made by someone's loving father. (This is a compliment, I promise.) But it's best on top of a Frito pie with jalapeños and fine shreds of cheese or on a big, beefy burger with mayo, lettuce, melting cheese and crunchy red onions.
James Coney Island
Although it's not very Texan, Houstonians love the Greek-style chili at Houston's oldest hot dog restaurant. James Coney Island was founded in 1923 by Tom and James Papadakis, immigrant brothers from Kastelli Gravias, Greece. The Papadakis brothers sold their "secret recipe" chili for 15 cents a bowl and topped hot dogs with it, just as James Coney still does today. And although the ownership has changed since then, the Greek chili hasn't. It's still full of ground beef and beans, stewed together in a faintly sweet sauce that tastes of nutmeg. It's not full-on Cincinnati-style chili, but it's close. And it's still so popular that you can buy it frozen at the store to go.
Even though it's not a bowl of chili, the chili-topped Chili Cheese macaroni and cheese skillet at Jus' Mac remains one of my favorite dishes in Houston. Get it with a wedge salad (for a little textural contrast and, my God, something green), split them both with a friend and enjoy this chilly weather while it lasts.
Houston's 10 best restaurant restrooms to bang in.
This list was built by polling service-industry veterans, bar patrons and a slutty-looking girl I saw sitting out front of Boondocks. (Her emphatic answer was "Fuck off!" by the way; I couldn't find that bar on Yelp, however.) We rated bars and their washrooms on ambience, ease of entry and egress, feasibility — sorry, Grand Prize, but one person can't fit in your stalls alone, much less two — and overall sex appeal.
Our list of the ten best bathrooms to have a shag in is as follows:
BRC was the first Houston bar we remember seeing in the new unisex bathroom trend. Separated from the dining room almost completely, the layout features separate stalls off the main washroom with what one woman knowingly described as "plenty of room."
9. Fitzgerald's Women's Restroom (Upstairs)
This one goes out to all the scene kids and hipsters in the audience. Being equipped with what my mom tells me is formally known as "a peepee," I have yet to see this bathroom. But while I was researching this article, no fewer than three women offered the upstairs bathroom at the legendary music venue as a viable hookup closet. "Would you even want to fuck in there?" I asked a particularly fussy female friend. "The whole idea is about being as dirty as possible," she responded, "and you literally can't get much dirtier than that, so I guess it might be hot." And I guess it could be worse; it could be Lola's.
Though it's certainly quieted down since its early buzz days, Reef's dining room is busy most nights, even if the "3rd Bar" is not. The well-appointed bathrooms are off a back hallway, making access for you and your boink buddy easier than a pair of crotchless panties. Bonus points if you pick up some strange at Proof Bar upstairs and bring them down to seal the deal.
7. Secret Bathroom at Petrol Station
Not so much a secret anymore, Petrol Station's extra bathroom finally has a solid lock on the door — so no need for performance anxiety whilst wondering who is about to bust in on your washroom tryst. Gentlemen, you probably want to bring a date if you plan on checking this one off your list, as single ladies at Petrol Station are almost as scarce as Bud Light. Conversely, ladies, everyone knows beer nerds are better lovers, or so I've been told.
6. The Dirt Bar
Dirt Bar was created so people had a place to have a drink before they go off and bang in the bathroom. It's just that kind of bar. The vibe in this place — the closest thing Houston has to a heavy metal bar — can range from calm-yet-never-quiet to "Holy shit, is this The Apocalypse?" If you want to bed a rock star, one of your very best shots is at a Dirt after party held for shows at House of Blues just across the street.
5. Mongoose Versus Cobra
Mongoose was one of the early inspirations for this article. I saw two girls hooking up in MvsC's cozy unisex bathroom before soft opening was even over. If you ever find the wait for a drink interminable, camp out near the bathroom and catch the show.
4. 13 Celsius
13 comes in high on the list after scoring well in both the talent and ambience categories. Whether you favor your anonymous hookup flavor in well-suited business professional, married yuppie on the prowl or the scruffy hipster variety, this perpetually hip wine bar has pretty people from all walks of life. Besides, if you need help encouraging your significant other to join you for a quickie, a bottle of wine is excellent lubrication, social and otherwise.
If the sultry vibe, provocative art on the walls and endless supply of red wine at Boheme don't get you going, then maybe the leather couch in the private men's room will. Of all the washrooms on this list, this is the only one we found with furniture. All three of the restrooms (including the unmarked unisex room in the middle) are private, so feel free to explore. Bonus points if you figure out how to use the high-tech Japanese toilets.
Every single service-industry vet polled mentioned "the middle bathroom at Anvil" quite specifically. Some even offered stories of having to eject patrons found sneaking a quickie in the single-occupancy bathroom. "Swingers, man. They used to come in all the time," offered one former bartender. "You'd look up and two of them are gone and sure enough...in the bathroom."
1. The Pass & Provisions
One of my favorite pastimes is sitting at the bar at Provisions and watching patrons discover the small unisex bathroom for the first time. "There's a condom machine in there!" a preppy brunette in a sleek Brooks Brothers dress giggles as she straightens her pearls. "Oh, no way!" her friend retorts, visibly blushing. When it flusters the girls from The Young Republicans Waco Chapter, you know it's a swank bathroom.
"I'd do it in the other bathroom, too," quipped a friend of the bathrooms in the main dining room. "Who doesn't want to get it on to Julia Child?" (Audio of the late celebrity chef's cooking show is piped into these bathrooms. That voice.) The large main bathroom looks like BRC's unisex locker room got sent to finishing school. Complete with five private stall-rooms, this is the Maserati of washrooms; it's just that sexy.
Openings and Closings
Surfing Cowboys and plenty of pizza
A new year means plenty of new restaurant news, and we're glad to have it. Starting with the super-awesome-spectacular news that there's now a Vietnamese restaurant/craft beer bar in Webster. Yes, Webster. Nobi Public House (241 E. NASA Road 1) is a collaboration between brothers Charles and Andy Nguyen and features 200 craft beers along with a growler fill station, a cask system and a full-on nitro system.
Charles also owns the Shell station at the corner of FM 528 and Blackhawk, known in the craft beer community as a one-stop shop for craft beer and wine. Andy, meanwhile, owns the Vietnamese sandwich shop next door, Nobi Asian Grill, where he allowed people to bring in beer and wine from his brother's shop next door. Creating a full-on pub/restaurant was a logical next step for the two.
Bruce Molzan's new restaurant, Corner Table, is up and running in the old Brownstone location. Eater Houston got a sneak preview of the place, which editor Eric Sandler writes will "offer casual counter-service atmosphere at lunch and a more fine-dining aspect at dinner." Next-door neighbor (and little sister wine bar) 1919 Wine and Mixology isn't quite open yet, but look for it soon along with the upstairs component that completes the trio: Oak Bar, a nightclub.
Not too far away, Fat Bao (3419 Kirby) opened its doors on December 30, serving bao (steamed Chinese buns) stuffed with everything from pork belly to soft-shell crab — and the place has been packed ever since. In addition to a full menu of bao, look for side items such as fried cauliflower with curry sauce and "Yummy Fries" topped with parmesan and rosemary.
Burger Nation (914 Main) has closed in the tunnels after being open for only four months. Reports B4-U-Eat on the situation: "Burger Nation...closed Monday due to 'rising costs and extremely high rent and limited hours of operation.' They are looking for space elsewhere."
In other news, Charity Bar started food service on Wednesday, January 2, according to co-owner Paul Petronella, who posted an update on Twitter. It's only a soft service so far, so be gentle.
We've saved the best news for last this week, which is the announcement that Moon Tower Inn may reopen as soon as this week. Wrote co-owner Brandon Young on Facebook last Tuesday:
"well y'all, it's a new year and our NEW BUILDING PASSED INSPECTIONS YESTERDAY!!!! we're gonna blow off steam coon ass style, while we wait for the health dept. to clear us! see y'all in a week or so when we open! WE LOVE YOU FUCKERS. STAY SAFE OUT THERE!!!"
We love you fuckers, too. Can't wait.
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