Best of Houston
When many people hear the word "vegan," their minds immediatelyrush to all the things that arenot a part of a vegan diet, all the things a vegan can't eat. It's all about the negative — the lack of meat, the dearth of dairy, the absence of eggs.
If you're one of those people (just admit it) who turn their noses up at veganism as a fad or an unpleasantly restrictive diet, I encourage you to look at it from another perspective: Think of all the things a vegan can eat.
In a recent post about his own dabbles in veganism for Lent, Nicholas Hall wrote:
"When I dabble in faceless food, I always prefer to approach it from a different angle. While there are certainly challenges in moving from an omnivorous diet to a vegan one, I see those challenges as something to embrace. I see it as an opportunity to try new ingredients, ideas and techniques."
So, thankfully, do all these restaurants. They may not all be completely vegan, but they all embrace the lifestyle and keep "faceless food" as interesting and delicious as possible.
10. San San Tofu
San San isn't a dedicated vegan restaurant — it's vegetarian — but the vegan options are just as good as the veggie ones. The cooks were trained by a Buddhist monk to approximate the healthy vegetarian fare of the sort one might be served in a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. I've eaten at a Buddhist temple in Korea, and I must say, San San does a great job of re-creating that simple, healthful vibe while making remarkably flavorful food. Because it's not solely vegan, be sure to inquire about the mock meat, as some of it may contain eggs or dairy.
9. Loving Hut
This grub is 100 percent vegan but only about 80 percent Asian, since the Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese menu is punctuated with a few mock burgers, some spaghetti and some surprisingly good cakes. Yes, as Katharine Shilcutt pointed out in her review of the place, it is an international fast-food chain run by a cult, but the food is solid, if a little predictable. It's all shipped from the factory in Taiwan, and you can buy pre-made, frozen vegan food at the restaurant if you, too, want to "live in peace, love and harmony."
8. Quan Yin
When you're trying really, really hard to go meat-free, but you have a craving you just can't shake, head to Quan Yin for some of the best Vietnamese mock-meat dishes around. Everything is vegan — there's no meat, dairy or eggs in any of the dishes. Yes, there are egg rolls sans eggs. There's bun bo hue without bo (beef). There's chicken-less chicken satay. And it's all good enough to satisfy even most carnivores.
7. Pepper Tree
Pepper Tree is for Chinese what Quan Yin is for Vietnamese, and Pepper Tree is also completely vegan. Check out the weekday buffet featuring nearly 40 dishes for just $10.99. Mock meat is a big deal here, with tofu versions of Peking duck, General Tso's chicken and kung pao chicken, all of which are deceptively delicious. Unlike many of the vegetarian/vegan Asian restaurants in Houston that populate Bellaire Boulevard, Pepper Tree is located on Richmond inside the Loop, close enough to placate those wary of Chinatown traffic.
6. Jenni's Noodle House
Only one item on the menu is specifically labeled "vegan," but inquire about other options, and you'll find a whole host of dishes for your vegan dining pleasure. Nearly every dish is customizable, and many of them can be made gluten-free in addition to meat- and dairy-free. The menu of Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes does contain some meat, but anything that doesn't explicitly list meat is vegetarian, and most of those can be vegan as well. Try the popular Art Car Curry with potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and tofu served over jasmine rice for a super-flavorful look at what vegan food can be.
5. Green Vegetarian Cuisine
Green is an import from San Antonio, and I can personally attest to the fact that it's difficult to get tired of the options here, since I used to eat at Green all the time in college. It's steadfastly vegetarian — not vegan — but any dish not on the breakfast menu (there are a lot of eggs in that section) can be made vegan with simple cheese substitutions. If you frequently crave Mexican food, Green is a great place for light but hearty vegan Mexican-inspired dishes like chalupas, enchiladas and tacos. The veggie and mock-meat burgers are also among the best in town.
4. Green Seed Vegan
What started as a wildly popular food truck is now a brick-and-mortar restaurant with the same massive following. And why not, when the Dirty Burque veggie burger is enough to make you forget your beef craving, if only for a little while. Also try the Big Tex Burger, featuring fresh jalapeños, red onions and avocados with rich faux cheese. If you're craving a smoothie but still aim to be dairy-free, try Green Seed Vegan's creamy smoothies made with vegan ice cream. I sincerely doubt you'll be able to tell the difference.
3. Cafe TH
Long considered one of the best places in town for meaty Vietnamese sandwiches and stir-fries, Cafe TH also has a special vegan menu with pho, curry and stir-fried tofu (among other things). Cafe TH doesn't get credit for having the most diverse vegan menu, but what it does offer is some of the best. When chef/owner Minh Nguyen is at the counter, he can work with you to adjust other dishes for your dining sensibilities as well. This is most definitely the spot for vegan pho, though, as Nguyen is able to coax as much flavor out of that veggie broth as the rest of us can out of beef.
2. Radical Eats
Staci Davis started Radical Eats as a totally vegetarian/vegan Mexican restaurant, a phrase you don't see very often. It had since evolved to include a few meat dishes — in fact, Davis recently competed at the International Festival's barbecue cookoff with legit beef — but Radical Eats is still popular for its veggie-friendly cuisine. In fact, Radical Eats is one of the only places in town that make vegan tortillas with no lard or butter that taste just as good as the fatty real thing. Most of the fruits and vegetables at Radical Eats are grown locally, though the restaurant no longer has its own backyard garden since it has moved to a bigger space on Westheimer. That means more room for brunch, though, the most popular meal of the week.
1. Doshi House
Doshi House, owned by Deepak Doshi and nestled in the southwest corner of the Third Ward, is the best among Houston's limited vegan joints. Functioning as a neighborhood coffee bar (with a coffee program overseen by Blacksmith's David Buehrer) and pastry shop by day, at night Doshi House serves up a single dish each evening — from vegan red beans and rice to vegan Thai curry, often for under $7. Here you can find comfort in a simple, hearty meal in a ragtag neighborhood art gallery-turned-cafe. Whether you're vegan or not, Doshi House's food is just plain good.
Paper Co. Coffee
Where have you been all my life?
It's no secret that I love coffee. The second a new coffee shop (orcoffee truck) opens, I'm all over it. Although Houston has many, many places to grab a traditional espresso-based drink or a creative concoction with a variety of syrups, no two are the same. Each shop has its own atmosphere, vibe, coffee drinks and selections of food.
If you want a funky latte or mocha, go to Inversion. If you're craving a perfect espresso and a filling breakfast, go to Blacksmith (the Vietnamese steak and eggs and the biscuits with crème fraîche are out of this world). If you're searching for a chill place to sip coffee, wine or beer and munch on something sweet late at night, try Agora or Southside Espresso. And if you prefer someplace quiet and relaxing with plenty of space, go to Paper Co. Coffee.
In the First Ward, practically underneath the interstate split of I-45 and I-10, you'll find what appears to be an abandoned warehouse, but really it's one of the best coffee shops in Houston.
I'm kicking myself for not discovering this gem, especially since I've driven by it countless times. Paper Co. Coffee has been open for almost a year — since July of 2013 — and I wish I had checked it out when it opened.
Taft Street Coffee closed last summer and moved from its location in Montrose to the building housing Ecclesia Church. It then reopened as Paper Co. Coffee. The building's first tenant was Phillips Paper Company, hence the name "Paper Co."
As you approach the giant white warehouse, you might second-guess yourself and think you took a wrong turn or failed to see the coffee shop. There are no neon signs or flashing lights pointing you in the right direction, just a small blue sign with an arrow guiding you to park on the other side of the building. When you pull up to Paper Co., you'll see a large window and a small bright blue door with the coffee shop's logo. Open that door to enter a high-ceilinged, wide-open cafe.
The moment you step inside, you're greeted by friendly smiles and a hello from the baristas. It's a charming cafe with whitewashed walls behind the wood-paneled espresso bar and dark-gray brick walls displaying art and photographs.
Paper Co. gets its beans from Mueva Coffee, a local supplier that imports coffee beans from Nicaragua, then roasts them in Houston, creating excellent hot and iced drinks.
The menu is simple. No frills. Just straight-up traditional coffee drinks done right. I started with my favorite espresso-based drink, a nonfat cappuccino — I've got a wedding soon; got to watch those calories! But let's be real; if baristas can make a frothy, creamy cappuccino with nonfat milk, then they know what they're doing, and Paper Co.'s barista did. The cappuccino was light and smooth, and as I took my first sip, the strong espresso mixed perfectly with the steamed and foamed milk. A sprinkling of cinnamon made it complete.
As I stared at the menu, looking for another drink to try, my eyes fell on the chai tea latte, and thank goodness they did. I'm going to go out on a limb and say this was the best chai latte I have ever had. Normally, I stick to cappuccinos and Americanos for my morning caffeine, but now I'm a chai tea latte convert. I was unsure if I should add sugar to the drink until I took off the lid; I breathed in the sweet smells of cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, sugar and possibly nutmeg and was convinced that it was perfectly fine as it was. It smelled and tasted like Christmas.
Go ahead and purchase a cinnamon roll to go with your coffee, be it a cappuccino, chai tea latte or any other drink. The sweet pastry isn't obnoxiously large and each one is covered with enough icing to coat the top and slide down the sides. Choose the one you want from the case — get there early to have a nice selection — then heat it up in the microwave for a comforting and scrumptious breakfast.
There's no doubt in my mind I will return to Paper Co. Coffee, even if the only thing I order is the chai tea latte.
The five best hidden restaurant gems.
Recently, I highlighted some of my favorite relatively unknown restaurants in Chinatown for your eating pleasure. There are so many spots there, it was hard to narrow it down to just five, but before I revisit even more delicious and authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries on Bellaire Boulevard, I thought I'd detour and scope out some hidden favorites in theHillcroft neighborhood, sometimes referred to asSharpstown.
I've also heard the area referred to as the Mahatma Gandhi District or Little India due to the large Indian population there. As such, the neighborhood — whatever you want to call it — abounds in Indian and Pakistani restaurants.
When I approached local ethnic food guru Chris Frankel, formerly the beverage director of RDG + Bar Annie but currently eating his way across the United States, about checking out some lesser-known spots around Hillcroft, he presented me with a single criterion: They can't all be Indian places. In spite of its reputation as an Indian neighborhood, the strip centers up and down Hillcroft are full of other ethnic cuisines that don't get enough media attention for being cheap, unique and, most important, totally tasty.
Here are some of the best.
5. Darband ShishKabob
Open since 1986, Darband claims to be the oldest Persian restaurant in Houston. Regardless of whether it's actually the oldest, it is one of the best. For just $6.95, you can get a hearty plate of ground beef kebabs with bread, grilled tomatoes and herbs. From what I've heard, the prices have hardly changed since the place first opened, and the food has continually gotten better and better. Even more impressive than the kebabs is the lamb shank, marinated in turmeric and garlic, and so tender it falls off the bone with little prodding. Oh, and the whole lamb shank is only $8.95. Try finding that value inside the Loop.
4. Bijan Persian Grill
Like Darband, Bijan serves Iranian food — mostly kebabs — but the dishes here are a little more upscale and the menu a little more extensive. You'll find a number of yuppie-looking Inner Loopers dining at Bijan (yours truly included) in addition to customers who appear to be regulars, back for the "Bijan Special" for the umpteenth time. The Bijan Special is a combination of grilled beef and chicken kebab meat served with cranberry and almond rice, some grilled veggies and herbs. All meals at Bijan come with house-made flatbread that tastes like the best, doughiest pizza crust you've ever encountered. That comes out before the meal, though, so be careful not to fill up on it. It's addictive.
3. Guatemala Restaurant
Tucked into a small strip center (but isn't everything on Hillcroft?) next to another awesome food destination, Jerusalem Halal Meats, Guatemala Restaurant is a treat for people who want food from south of the border but are interested in trying something other than Tex-Mex. You might be surprised to find that Guatemalan food isn't inherently spicy like much Tex-Mex, but it is bursting with flavor. I can't personally speak to the authenticity of the Guatemalan food, but all you need do is ask someone at a table near you. The other people in the restaurant are almost all regulars who stop by for a taste of home. Try the chicken pepian, a traditional chicken dish in a mole-like gravy served with buttery rice and stewed vegetables.
2. Bismillah Restaurant
More people know about (and patronize) Bismillah Cafe than Bismillah Restaurant, and that's probably because the cafe menu includes a number of Pakistani-American fusion dishes like wings and pizza. The restaurant is all about tradition, though, and one of the best dishes is the Beef Nihari, a slow-cooked stew of tender beef in a sauce of spicy brown curry thickened with bone marrow. It's super-rich, and you'll want to order extra paratha bread on the side to cut the heat a little. Tawa qeema — ground beef with onions, tomatoes and spices formed into a sort of cake — is another dish that really packs the heat, but if you're less inclined to crave the spicy stuff, stick to the kebabs or the Americanized items at Bismillah Cafe, a few doors down.
1. Hot Breads
Baked goods and Indian food are a few of my favorite things. Combine them in the most perfect way possible, and you have Hot Breads, originally a fast-food restaurant that got its start in India back in the '80s. Today, the shop produces a fusion of European, American and Indian favorites like the chicken tikka personal pizza, spicy goat keema panini or mango cake. Perhaps the item most indicative of the fusion happening at Hot Breads is the masala cookie. It's not entirely sweet, and the texture is reminiscent of shortbread, but the flavor is unlike anything you've ever had in a cookie before. Each bite bursts with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and ginger, alternately reminiscent of a masala dosa and spicy pumpkin-pie filling.
Openings & Closings
It's good to have you back, MF Sushi.
Last month ended with sad news when local baker Jody Stevenslost her home in a fire. Thankfully she was not at home during the fire, but she lost everything inside her home, including the tools she uses for her cake business, Jodycakes. Various restaurateurs and chefs have created fundraising events and aGive Forward accountto raise funds and help Stevens during this difficult time. The public is invited to a big fundraiser atBig Star Bar, 1005 West 19th,on Sunday, May 25, during Memorial Day weekend, that will feature a silent auction and possibly a dunk tank like the one at Gracie Nguyen's fundraiser last month.
Two weeks ago we welcomed two new bars. First is Beer Market Co., which officially opened for lunch and dinner on Monday, May 5. This new beer garden, located at 920 Studemont, Suite 900, rotates through 365 different types of beers regularly; pair any brew with a burger, tacos or comforting mac and cheese. It's a place to kick back and relax.
The other bar is Red Ox Bar &Grill , which opened at 811 Collingsworth. The new establishment offers craft beers, beef fajitas, burgers and tacos; enjoy a nice cold one inside at the bar or outside on the patio picnic tables while the weather is tolerable.
After months of reconstruction, MF Sushi is finally back in business. The popular sushi restaurant at 5887 Westheimer reopened on Wednesday, May 7, as reported by our very own Mai Pham. She spoke with chef and owner Chris Kinjo, who has been working day and night for the past three weeks to redesign the restaurant after the fire in September of last year. "I designed the restaurant and did all the woodwork and framing," Kinjo says. "Fifty percent of everything I did by myself." Welcome back, MF Sushi!
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As noted on the Facebook page of Roost, Kevin Naderi's new restaurant Lillo & Ella, at 2307 Ella Boulevard, should be open during the week of May 12. This Heights restaurant will focus on Asian cuisine and will be open for lunch, unlike Naderi's other restaurant, Roost, which is open for dinner only.
Table on Post Oak, 1800 Post Oak Boulevard, Suite 6110, has been in the soft opening stage for the past few weeks, but the revamped restaurant will officially open on Friday, May 16. Executive chef Manuel Pucha has taken the reins as head chef of his restaurant after serving as chef Philippe Schmit's chef de cuisine at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. Pucha has created a menu filled with starter options such as baked oysters, a tuna carpaccio flatbread and grilled octopus; main entrée items range from duck breast with a smoked tea-infused broth to short rib osso buco with saffron pearl onions, asparagus, fingerling potatoes and carrots. It's an inventive menu that definitely portrays Pucha's talents.
Another Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins will open on May 16 at 2808 Highway 6 South near the West Oaks Mall and Energy Corridor. The newest hybrid establishment will have a covered drive-thru (a first for Houston locations). With the approach of hot summer days, Dunkin' Donuts will now offer Arnold Palmer Coolattas along with the regular flavors like OREO® Frozen Coffee and Frozen Caramel Coffee.
While Dunkin' Donuts expands throughout Houston, the city is gearing up to welcome a local doughnut shop this summer. Glazed the Doughnut Cafe, at 1333 Old Spanish Trail, Unit E, will open in June, according to Eater Houston. Glazed owner Ose Ohen tells Eater that he traveled around the world searching for recipes and unique doughnut flavors that would distinguish his place from other doughnut shops in Houston. Glazed will serve raised, baked and cake doughnuts in a variety of flavors with a multitude of inventive toppings ranging from Dr Pepper to blueberry. As the name implies, the glazes will make each doughnut unique.