Westchase — for its relatively small boundaries — is a poster child for the breadth of ethnic cuisines available in Houston. Far from simply an area saturated with mid-rise office buildings and chain restaurants, it's also a microcosm of the BayouCity.
The neighborhood offers Cajun, Persian, Bosnian, Argentinean, French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Cajun, German, Mexican, British, Japanese, Portuguese, Brazilian and much, much more...if you just know where to look.
Suzy Wong's for its spicy Sichuan dishes, Churrasco's for its South American pedigree and sheer longevity, Loving Hut for its radical vegan specialties, The Seafood Shoppe for its lip-burning batches of crawfish, The Bull & Bear for its well-pulled pints and cottage pies, and Rudi Lechner's (although it's slightly outside the boundaries) for its schnitzel and sauerkraut.
10. Bistro Le Cep
This charming French bistro can be a bit long on the long-in-the-tooth crowd — think Luby's at 4 p.m. but upscale — although the food isn't entirely reflective of the crowd. It's charmingly old-school, always fresh and consistently delicious. My favorite dishes here include the pan-roasted calf's liver with apples, bacon and potatoes and the coq au vin that's ideal on a cold day.
9. Marini's Empanada House
You can go all-authentic at Marini's and stick to Argentinean classics like humita and beef "gaucho," complete with hard-boiled eggs and olives tucked inside the flaky dough. Or you can pick from Marini's wide, wild menu of fusion empanadas: Hawaiian, eggplant parmigiana, English or even Texas barbecue. Either way, the empanadas are consistently great.
One of the city's best Spanish restaurants is outside the Loop — way outside the Loop. But the trip to this oddly located paradise is entirely worth it. While the paella here is very good (not stupendous, but better than you'll get anywhere else in town), the real treat is the tapas menu. On weekdays, Rioja offers a phenomenal lunch deal: three tapas for $13.95. The patatas bravas and the jamón serrano will make you feel as if you're right back on the Costa Blanca.
7. Kasra Persian Grill
There are some who argue that this Persian palace has the best hummus in town — a bold claim to make in a city so filled with excellent Mediterranean restaurants. The only way to be sure is to go and judge it for yourself. And while you're there, familiarize yourself with the intriguing bounty of Persian cuisine like khorake bademjan — slow-cooked lamb shank in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and sour grapes — or kubideh, a meat-lover's dream.
One of the few Argentinean restaurants in town and arguably one of the most authentic, Manena's serves breakfast, lunch and early dinner to Houston's small Argentinean expat community and those lucky enough to stumble upon the little cafe. We recommend the extraordinary empanadas, which make a filling meal any time of day, or the milanesa sandwich. And don't forget to grab a few delicacies from the well-stocked pastry case before you go: Alfajores are a house specialty here.
5. Rio Ranch
Just because it's attached to a hotel — in this case, the Westchase Hilton — is no reason to think less of Rio Ranch. This restaurant can hold its own and has done so for nearly two decades. A Robert del Grande concept from the beginning, Rio Ranch has been shepherded expertly since 1993 by its longtime chef, San Hemwattikit, who puts together a gorgeous (and well-attended) brunch buffet on the weekends and serves classics like buttermilk-fried chicken and cowboy-cut rib eyes at dinner.
4. Pho One
The 2009 Best of Houston® winner for Best Pho, this unassuming little Vietnamese restaurant (which shares the same red awninged strip center as Bistro Le Cep) is long on both service and great food. The pho here is made from the same recipe as the famous soup at Pho Tau Bay back in Saigon. Why? Because the owners are the grandchildren of famous pho restauranteur Y Van Vu. Not that pho is the restaurant's only selling point — it offers delicious bun and com dia as well.
3. Arpi's Phoenicia Deli
The opening of Arpi's represented the next step for the visionary Tcholakian family, who founded the original Phoenicia Deli on what was then a quiet stretch of Westheimer in 1983. At Arpi's, the Tcholakians will change the way you think about cafeteria lines, with wonderfully fresh and healthy options served in an array of sizes — it's basically a giant mezze platter, with all the vivid flavors and scents that accompany the Middle Eastern cuisine. And on the non-cafeteria side of the restaurant, relax with an espresso and a cup of gelato after your meal.
2. Cafe Pita +
Bosnian cuisine is an interesting confluence of Mediterranean cooking and Central/Eastern European influence. As such, you'll find dishes here that seem oddly familiar, such as the enormous burek that resembles spanakopita on steroids. But the best items are the succulent meat dishes such as the burger-like plejskavice (especially when stuffed with cheese) and the fat little sausages called evapi. After one meal, you'll ponder why it's taken you so long to try Bosnian food. And you'll never look back.
1. The Burger Guys
The closest you'll come to a regular burger at The Burger Guys is the Houston burger, made with house-pickled bread-and-butter jalapeños and locally made cheese. But it's worth the trek out Westheimer and the sometimes mind-boggling menu (a Sydney burger with beets and a fried egg, a Saigon burger with pate and daikon radish) to experience The Burger Guys' progressive and ambitious gourmet burgers. Don't forget to order a side of Belgian frites — duck fat fries — with your choice of house-made dipping sauces. Top it all off with a made-to-order milkshake.
GORO & GUN GEARS UP
Houston's first ramen shop opening downtown.
Goro and Gun are the two main characters in Tampopo, a 1985 Japanese cult classic that's often referred to as the "first ramen Western" (a play on the old spaghetti westerns such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). It's fitting, then, that Joshua Martinez's upcoming downtown restaurant would be named after the two: Not only is Goro & Gun the first ramen shop in Houston, it's also a tribute to two characters who transformed a decrepit roadside joint into a place devoted to the "art of noodle soup making."
The downtown space that will house Goro & Gun hasn't been home to anything successful in years. Its last resident was a sandwich shop, which closed almost as quickly as it opened. But like his neighbors Charity Saloon and the upcoming Batanga and "Bad News Bar," Martinez hopes that Goro & Gun will be part of the ongoing revitalization of the downtown area near Market Square — although he and partners Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse (also partners in the nearby "Bad News Bar") aren't quite ready to reveal Goro & Gun's exact location.
What he can reveal, however, is that he has big plans for the renovated shotgun-style space. Martinez has revealed the original turn-of-the-century tile floors and hopes to restore them to their original glory. He also purchased many interior fixtures and fittings during a recent auction from the 65-year-old Houston Club, which is scheduled for demolition later this year — items like brass sconces, which will decorate the exposed brick walls, and a railing that will outline Goro & Gun's sidewalk patio when it opens in a month or so.
Martinez is most excited, however, about what's going on inside. A massive pasta extruder squats in one corner of the surprisingly large kitchen, and this is where Goro & Gun's culinary team — executive chef David Coffman and sous chef Matt Wommack — will be pulling ramen noodles fresh every day. This means that not only will Goro & Gun be the only ramen shop in Houston, it will also be the only ramen shop in the entire country pulling its own noodles in-house.
"In New York and L.A., they have shops that only make noodles," Martinez notes. "And they make really good noodles. So why make them yourself?" That's the model that all ramen shops follow, after all, and Martinez is quick to acknowledge that both making and serving ramen noodles might be too much to handle.
"Either we're really smart or we're really, really stupid," Martinez laughs. He has a contingency plan in place, however, with a local ramen noodle manufacturer in case it all goes horribly awry.
He's also quick to note that there's more to Goro & Gun than just noodle soup.
"It is a ramen restaurant, it is a ramen shop, but it is not only that," Martinez teases. "We also will serve things that I love and can't find done well here." One example? Soup dumplings. "I can't find a good soup dumpling here," he says.
Goro & Gun will also serve some of the favorites found on-board Martinez's other project, The Modular food truck. "The bone marrow will make it onto the menu over here."
Also look for a full slate of cocktails, beer, wine and sake at Goro & Gun — but not hot sake. Martinez doesn't believe in it. "I think we've gotten to a point now where people understand good sake," he says. Rouse and Moore are still pressing him to change his mind. "Maybe we'll say that's a soft no," jokes Rouse.
The bar is the focal point of the narrow space, which will ultimately house 65 people in total. Five of those seats will be at a chef's table, where Coffman will be able to showcase his extracurricular talents each night. "He's not just restricted to Asian food," says Martinez. "If he wants to do shrimp and grits, he can do shrimp and grits."
The rest of the seats will hug the long, broad bar or the brick walls in the form of both pub-height tables and black banquettes. There are only 15 inches of space behind the bar to put in shelving, so Goro & Gun will build up: Ceiling-height shelves will span nearly the entire wall on one side, with a library ladder built in to reach the highest parts.
With the bar as such a main element in the small space, patrons may think at first that Goro & Gun is simply that: a bar and nothing else. Martinez and Rouse want to emphasize that it's more than that.
"It's a restaurant," says Martinez. "A bar," says Rouse at nearly the same time. They both laugh. "It's everything," Martinez says.
"We want you to come in to eat but feel comfortable sitting at a bar and eating," says Rouse. "All of us like sitting at the bar to eat."
The Eating Our Words 100
ALL IN GOOD TASTE
Renatta Lindsey, The Taste contestant, hails from Houston.
Who she is:
A self-identified "home cook" from Houston who recently competed on the comfort food episode of ABC's The Taste. Renatta Lindsey's stellar Dijon chicken with mashed potatoes garnered her a coveted spot on the team mentored by British food writer Nigella Lawson.
How it all began:
Growing up in Mississippi, Lindsey learned about the power of good food by watching her mother. "She used cooking as a means of getting family members together. I saw that food had this amazing 'bonding' property — an ability to bring people together."
And the first dish she learned to make? "Banana pudding," Lindsey recalls fondly. "That recipe stuck with me forever."
Who inspires her:
"I love Rachael Ray and Paula Deen. Both have a down-home spirit. They're easy to watch and their food is delicious, straightforward, not too complicated." Lindsey is also thrilled to be working on The Taste with Lawson, whom she admires for being "a self-taught cook and someone who distinguished herself globally by thinking out of the box."
What she craves in Houston:
When she's not in front of her own stove cooking for family and friends, Lindsey loves taking advantage of Houston's diverse culinary scene. As for "favorite" restaurants, she's not afraid to name names: Chama Gaúcha Brazilian Steakhouse, Pappadeaux, Grand Lux Cafe and Fadi's are on the top of her list.
Where she hopes to be in five years:
Still based in Houston but perhaps with her own cooking show. "I would love to have something where I invite regular people to cook and eat with me. Almost like inviting folks into a home environment."
The title of this program? "Um, well..." Lindsey giggles. "I always joke it would be something like 'Cooking With Sunshine' because that's my personality and what I like to convey when I prepare food."
BUY THE GLASS
Houston's 10 best wine lists.
It's exciting to run across a well-priced favorite on a restaurant's wine list or to discover something new as you dig through its pages. But there's more to making a world-class wine list than just stocking a cellar with Cakebreads and Chardonnays.
To spotlight the best wine lists in Houston, we turned to the experts: a panel of respected Houston sommeliers that includes Marc Borel (general manager at Backstreet Cafe), Jonathan Honefenger (lead sommelier at Richard's Liquors and Fine Wines), Evan Turner (formerly of Branch Water Tavern) and Justin Vann (sommelier at Oxheart). What these professionals emphasized most is that there are at least three things that make a truly great wine list — starting with curation.
"There are a lot of great lists that are put together well and have interesting things and great price points, but who's curating them?" Turner asks. "You can watch a sporting event and it can be an amazing game, but if the people doing the color commentary are great, then it makes it even better."
A wine list could have more hidden treasures than the Vatican, but without guidance from someone who knows the list, only the geekiest connoisseurs would be able to spot them. Vann looks specifically for a well-trained wine steward when scouting great wine lists, asking questions like: "Does the list have good somms taking care of it? Can they find me something I like on the list in almost any price range?"
A second thing to keep in mind, says Turner, is how well the wine list holds up to its audience. A purposefully esoteric wine list has no place in a straightforward, casual restaurant where diners would be baffled by a list containing only orange wines while a Chardonnay- and Cabernet-heavy list of staid, middle-American favorites can easily bring down a fine dining experience.
Last, look for how well the wine pairs with the food the restaurant is serving. An all-American wine list in an Italian restaurant can clash as loudly as an all-Korn soundtrack in a fancy French restaurant. It's okay to have a few familiar standbys, Vann says, but he cautions: "Does the majority of the wine pair well with the majority of the food?"
The following ten restaurants were cited over and over again by our sommeliers as examples of places with truly great wine lists in Houston, although it should be noted that none of them mentioned their own places of employment.
Underbelly, for offering "big, bold American wines that go well with [chef Chris] Shepherd's food," says Turner. Brennan's, for maintaining a list that is "well-rounded, at a good price," Honefenger says. And downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's, says Turner, for having the type of wine list you can really splash out on.
10. Divino Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar
Borel calls Divino's wine list "very thoughtful," noting that he — and the list — have both been "obsessed with Italian wine lately." With very reasonable markups in place, most bottles of wine are no more than $60, and there are nearly 30 offered by the glass. The cozy, dinner-only restaurant in Montrose is "one of Houston's best-kept secrets," says Borel. On the first Monday of every month, Divino offers a special wine dinner, such as a recent evening that featured Tuscan wines of Rocca della Macie paired with pork tenderloin braised in milk, onions and herbs and a grilled rib eye "alla Fiorentina."
9. Cafe Rabelais
"Their wine list is exclusively French," says Vann. "And it is massive." Among the many lists in town that focus exclusively on wines from a single country, Cafe Rabelais's list is the best. "These types of wine lists deserve to be rewarded and celebrated because they're great places to try something new, and for classics," says Vann. "Tell them what you drink and have them find the French equivalent for you. Plus, these kinds of lists are great for hidden gems, like a 2006 A et P de Villaine Bouzeron for $65."
The wine list at Hugo's, created by longtime sommelier Sean Beck, is notable for its seamless pairing with chef Hugo Ortega's interior Mexican cuisine. "In my opinion, sushi and Mexican cuisine are two of the most lazily paired types of food," says Vann. "They both demand thoughtful wine lists, and these are the best examples of setting a guest up for success in a world where it's not easy to find the right wine with the food. Sean spells it out explicitly, not just showing which wines work with some dishes, but even goes further to warn about wines that won't work: the heavy reds section says 'careful, these may fan the flames [of spicy cuisine].'"
7. Uchi and Kata Robata (tied)
Along with Kata Robata, Uchi sets the bar in Houston for pairing sushi with wine — a difficult task, as noted above. At Kata, you'll find a section of Steven Salazar's wine list devoted entirely to solid sushi pairings with what Vann calls "legendary choices like Domaine Sigalas Santorini or Huet Sec Vouvray." And at Uchi Houston, Vann notes: "David Keck is an invaluable resource. He convinced the restaurant group to participate in 'Summer of Riesling,' which is genius for sushi joints."
6. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
"When you've got a billion dollars, you'd better have a great wine list," Turner jokes. The famously wealthy wine cellar under sommelier Steven McDonald at Pappas features more than 40,000 bottles — or roughly $5 million worth of wine. "When you want to spend serious money on a bottle of red wine, this should be your first choice," says Vann. "It's really quite simple: a massive, cavernous cellar, tended to by some of the best sommeliers in town. Their markups are beyond reasonable."
"Oxheart's list is great, and especially when you start talking about a list that lets its own ego go," Turner remarks. Chef Justin Yu's dazzling food is never overshadowed by the wines that Vann picks, although the wines themselves typically are unusual choices. Right now, for example, Vann is doing a daring all-white pairing with Oxheart's four- and seven-course dinners. "It stays very much in line with what they're doing in the kitchen, which is what a wine list should always do," says Turner. "It's just the wonderful frame in which that food is shown."
4. Backstreet Cafe
Sean Beck's motto at Backstreet is that "wine is not an extra or a luxury but a necessary part of healthy living and a critical ingredient in helping food taste its best." To that end, the list has something for everyone — perfectly geared toward the diverse clientele that crowds the old River Oaks house and its lush patio. "Backstreet's list is great in that if you and your wine geek buddies want to go and have something to eat, and drink something really new and cool and groovy, [Beck's] probably got it," says Turner. "If your aunt from Kansas City comes to town and all she wants to drink is Cakebread, they've got that, too."
Philippe's sommelier Vanessa Trevino Boyd has been hard at work recently, making sure that the wine program she curates remains one of the best in town. She's been hosting acollaborative guest sommelier series that's a steal at only $40 a person, and she's also transformed the ground floor of Philippe into Phil's Wine Lounge, which offers 80 choices by the glass from her fine, French list. "A lot of wine programs go 'Woo, I've got a lot of money, I can do anything!'" says Turner. Not at Philippe, where the wine list is classically structured, thoughtfully curated and captained ably by one of the few female somms in the city.
2. The Pass & Provisions
Plenty of raves are reserved for the intelligent wine list that sommelier Fred Jones has constructed at the whimsical Pass & Provisions. "Fred has such a geeky list, but approachable," says Borel. "Maybe it's because I'm such a geek, but I always find something I love on that list." Vann gushes that the list is "uncompromising, daring, adventurous, aggressive, esoteric," noting that he loves Jones' list "because in a town where too many wine lists play it safe, [they] are doing something few people are brave enough to do: push people out of their comfort zones. But their wines aren't just cool, they're good. Sometimes those two can be at odds with one another."
1. 13 Celsius
It's a nearly unanimous decision that 13 Celsius is still the gold standard for wine lists in Houston nearly ten years after its owners renovated a 1920s-era Mediterranean-style building that once housed Jennings Cleaners and Dyeing Shoppe. Vann calls 13 Celsius "the best wine bar in town" for its "aggressively low markups on an extensive by-the-glass program that also allows tasting-sized pours." Turner agrees, adding: "Everyone else is playing for second place. Their list is amazing, it's big, it's interesting, it's curated with such love and care. You go in there and speak to anyone who works there, and it's like they made that list." "Mike [Sammons] and Adele [Corrigan] gravitate toward French and Italian selections — both classic and the freaky stuff," says Vann. "Plus they also have a killer beer list, and it is the best place in town to go knock back a few bottles of Basque Sidra out of the authentic Porron decanter." Turner adds with an approving laugh: "And they only carry one American Chardonnay on that list."
OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
Time for El Tiempo's big debut.
With news this week of two big downtown developments, it seems as if Main Street and Market Square Park are becoming hot commodities once again.
Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore of Grand Prize Bar in Montrose and Big Star Bar in the Heights are helping to redevelop the long-dormant area: The two barmen are helping friends Joshua Martinez and Justin Burrow open two new spots near the Charity Saloon at Main and Congress. Martinez hopes to open Goro & Gun, the first ramen shop in Houston, with chef David Coffman within the month. Burrow is opening a nearby cocktail-centric spot tentatively called "Bad News Bar," which will also feature cheap beers and fun frozen drinks.
In other upcoming news, Alison Cook at the Houston Chronicle reports that Pizaro's Pizza is looking to open a second spot inside the Loop. The popular Napoletana-style pizza place in Memorial is swamped every night as it is; a second location would be welcomed by its fans. First, though, Pizaro's owner Bill Hutchinson has to pick up the 8,000-pound oven he's ordered from Italy.
Crawfish Cafe (11209 Bellaire, inside the Hong Kong Mall) hosted its grand opening last week and is now offering — you guessed it — crawfish, but also much more. The menu includes "all of the usual Cajun food," says owner Kiet Dong, such as boudin, gumbo, oysters, etouffee and blackened fish. Dong also promises a slew of boiled seafood, including blue crab, snow crab legs, king crab legs, lobster and shrimp. Hours are 3-10 p.m. daily.
In grocery store news, Swamplot reports that yet another new Trader Joe's location may be on the horizon — this one on Washington Avenue, of all places. A tipster tells the real estate Web site that a fourth TJ's is planned near the traffic circle on the Rice Military end of the busy thoroughfare, although the grocery store chain has not yet confirmed this.
Speaking of chains, three additional national chains are putting down roots: Corner Bakery opened its fourth Houston location this past Monday the 11th at 107 Yale in the Heights. The fifth Houston location of Jersey Mike's Subs planned to open Wednesday, February 13, at 8001 West Main Street (the third Jersey Mike's run by franchise operator Terry Nordenstrom, who also operates the locations at 1635 Eldridge Parkway and 103 Yale). And Zoës Kitchen is opening its sixth Houston location in Rice Village on Thursday, February 14, at 5215 Kelvin.
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La Casa de Caballo — the Mexican steakhouse from Carlos Abedrop — is getting close to opening at 322 Westheimer in the old La Strada space. Abedrop recently hired both a chef and a general manager for the restaurant, which will serve both Tex-Mex and steaks in a fine dining atmosphere. Roger P. de la Fuente III — previously of Capital Grille and Las Alamedas — has been named as GM. Kirby Smith, a 20-year veteran, will be the chef de cuisine. Look for La Casa to open in late February.
Also opening in late February will be the largest El Tiempo Cantina yet at 2814 Navigation, smack-dab next door to the original Ninfa's. It's a return to the neighborhood that started it all for the Laurenzo family, which first opened Ninfa's in 1973. Mama Ninfa's son Roland Laurenzo opened the first El Tiempo Cantina in 1998 after parting ways with the Ninfa's chain, and this new El Tiempo will mark the restaurant's fifth location.
"What a great way for our family to celebrate 64 years in the food business," says Laurenzo of the new location. "It's fitting that this restaurant is located between the two original tortilla factories that my parents, Domenic Tommy (DT) and Ninfa Laurenzo, built when they moved to Houston in 1949." Laurenzo calls the years "when Daddy and Mama were toiling in the tortilla factory making tortillas, taco shells and pizzas...the best days of our lives. That's why the East End is truly where our heart resides."
Last but not least, if you've been on the look-out for chef Amanda McGraw since she left Brasserie 19 last month, you don't have to look far: McGraw is now helming the kitchen at another River Oaks favorite, Tiny Boxwood's, where she once worked as a sous chef four years ago. She plans to make some updates to the menu, including mussels baked in its wood-fired oven, and hopes to incorporate even more of the fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs that are grown on-site at the adjoining Thompson + Hanson nursery.