Because it's not fair to give a full cafe review to a restaurant before it's been open for at least three months, we bring you First Looks at new restaurants around Houston to see what they're doing right so far and what they still need to work on.
The new Union Kitchen replaced a Hunan Emperor that had occupied the corner of the Lantern Lane shopping center on Memorial Drive for years. Inside, you'd be hard-pressed to tell, however: Union Kitchen has fully remodeled the restaurant into a welcoming space complete with full bar, private dining room and even a sunny side patio.
This location marks the first and -- so far -- only outpost of the original Union Kitchen in Bellaire, which has been flying under the radar for a couple of years under the ownership of Paul Miller and his chef, Juan Arellano. The pair's success led them to open this second location in Memorial after Miller discovered -- according to My Table -- that many of his customers had been driving to Bellaire all the way from west Houston.
When I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon just ahead of the church lunch crowd, Union Kitchen was already packed. Miller certainly seems to have judged his demographic correctly. Yet there are still many things that need tweaking.
5 Things Union Kitchen Is Doing Wrong
1. Waiters shouldn't be waiting around: Our waiter was friendly and polite, but we waited ages between being seated and receiving our drinks, then waited another long stretch before he came back to take our order. Our water and iced tea glasses sat empty. Our Bloody Marys ran dry. And the entire time, we could see our waiter -- along with many others -- huddled near the kitchen in a pack with his fellow servers, on their phones or simply waiting around.
2. Handing out incorrect menus: Although we were there for brunch, we received both brunch and dinner menus but didn't realize it until later. A table near us was eating some delicious-looking sandwiches, and my friend asked our waiter -- after he'd taken our order -- where the sandwiches came from, as we didn't see any on the menu. "Those are from the lunch menu," the waiter said, nonplussed. "Would you like to see a lunch menu instead?"
3. Overly fussy plating: As seen above, plates don't need to be decorated with baroque streaks of balsamic vinegar. In fact, the fussiness makes it seem less appetizing. Keep it simple -- especially with this very tasteful and tasty appetizer of lemon-tinged goat cheese.
4. Gummy, overcooked pasta: The "Tyler's Chicken" is a simple bowl of fettucini with chicken, a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce and basil. It would have worked very nicely were it not for the gummy pasta that had clearly been overcooked into a mushy mess. Good pasta -- like good bread or good rice -- is a foundation that you just can't mess up, especially when your menu is pasta-heavy.
5. Don't be afraid of the salt: This isn't just a problem with Union Kitchen; it's endemic these days. Kitchens are either too heavy-handed with the salt or afraid to touch it. I can't decide which is worse, but I do know that two of the breakfast dishes I tried would have been spot-on perfect if they'd only been seasoned with a little dash of salt. Ditto the otherwise excellent meat on the onion ring-topped Union Burger.
On the next page, a list of what the Union Kitchen is doing right...
5 Things Union Kitchen Is Doing Right
1. Pancakes: Did you see those things? There's another photo above in case you missed them. And there's no such thing as a "short stack" here -- you'll get seven of these fluffy, golden, nutty, buttery rounds of deliciousness and you'll like it. I only wish Union Kitchen had real, honest-to-God maple syrup to pour on top.
2. Creative breakfast dishes: Even before I got to Union Kitchen, I'd already scoped out the brunch menu and knew that I'd be ordering the Tejas Eggs Benedict. In lieu of English muffins, Union Kitchen stacks poached eggs atop soft corn masa cakes like sopes and tops it all with a chorizo-studded potato hash, chipotle hollandaise sauce and cotija cheese. All of the right elements were there to make this a stand-out brunch dish worth trekking west for -- it all just wanted for a little more oomph (and a few pinches of salt), but I think that Union Kitchen is bringing dishes like these together very nicely.
3. Burgers: I'm far from the first local food writer to be wowed by Union Kitchen's namesake Union Burger. Jack Tyler flatly called it "burger porn" in a post from March and the Chronicle's Alison Cook gave the beast a solid A in her weekly Burger Friday report. Sure, the meat is undersalted, but the rest of the burger makes up for it in ooze, crunch from those thick onion rings and crispy produce and robust, meaty flavor.
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4. Bloody Marys: Made with Absolut Peppar for an extra kick, these are not wimpy brunch cocktails -- these are the real thing, thick and spicy. I only wished there were another bartender back there; the one guy on duty that Sunday seemed slammed with drink orders (and considering that we ordered several of these ourselves, I couldn't blame him for being in the weeds).
5. Atmosphere: Despite the weird (albeit friendly) service, the wait time and the underseasoned food, the half of my four-top that lives in Memorial couldn't wait to get back here. I can see why: Union Kitchen at brunch is a lot like what I wish Le Peep were still like, and what it used to be like in the '80s. It's boisterous and fun but also grown-up and tasteful at the same time; there are far more adults here than high chairs. There really aren't any brunch options like it in the area -- especially brunch options that aren't chain operations. And for that reason alone, Union Kitchen will likely thrive.