Best of Houston
Our 2013 Best of Houston® issue has arrived, and in many cases, picking the best item in the various categories was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we'll be rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!
I don't want to make broad, sweeping statements here, but I don't think I know anyone who doesn't like pizza. As such, I'm going to go ahead and say everyone likes pizza.
Vegetarian? Pizza comes without meat. Vegan? Sure, get you some fake cheese and go to town. Gluten-free? Practically a prerequisite on pizza menus these days. Solid carnivore? Yeah, pizza's got you covered.
And though Houston isn't known for its pizza in the way New York or Chicago are, we make some damn good pies 'round these parts. From Pink's to Pi to Pizaro's, Houston is cooking up incredible pizza everywhere you look.
10. Pink's Pizza
I remember getting delivery pizza back when I was younger, and it was always Little Caesars. And it was always edible. But I grew up in Corpus Christi, and the delivery pizza options there were limited (actually, the pizza options in Corpus in general are limited, but let's not get into that right now). Had I grown up with Pink's, I feel as if my life could have gone differently. Had I been raised on a Bada Bing pizza, with its prosciutto, bacon, pepperoni, mozzarella, mushrooms, spinach and tomato slices, I might have done better in school (thanks to the fortification) and realized sooner that it was my lot in life to eat and write about food. The three types of meat and a hefty serving of veggies on a thin but sturdy crust delivered right to my door whenever I needed it could have helped me through any number of teenage crises. But the past is the past. I'm just glad I discovered Pink's in my twenties. Pink's, the Bada Bing and I have many more wonderful years together.
I'm a sucker for an egg-topped pizza, so I was surprised when I ordered the carbonara pizza at Piola and it didn't come with a sunny-side up egg in the center of it. I opened the to-go box just outside Piola's Midtown storefront, only to find what looked like a cheese pizza with a bit of prosciutto and a nice golden crisp from the open fire in the restaurant's brick oven. I took a bite, and lo and behold, it tasted like...carbonara. Traditionally, of course, carbonara is a pasta dish composed of eggs, Parmesan, pancetta and some cracked black pepper. But this pizza is carbonara you can eat with nothing but your hands! It's simple and, contrary to Piola's claims of being authentically Italian, tastes exactly like a slice of pizza you'd grab at an above-average pizza counter in New York City. Fresh, crispy, greasy, delish.
8. Pizza L'Vino
Like Pink's, Pizza L'Vino delivers. Unlike Pink's, Pizza L'Vino delivers booze. Were accessibility and availability of wine with my pizza the only criteria for this list, Pizza L'Vino would be higher. But it's not. That said, Pizza L'Vino makes a mean pie. The Greek Islander is arguably the best, because it's one of the few pizzas in town I've found with so many "premium" toppings for a reasonable price. The Greek Islander packs sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onions, roasted garlic, artichoke hearts, feta, kalamata olives and Wisconsin mozzarella, all on one round of dough topped with purportedly Greek oregano. It's like a Greek salad on a pizza, and I'm convinced that the melty mozzarella is the single component that all the Greek salads I've ever eaten in my life have been missing.
The pizzas at Boheme are not traditional in any sense of the word. They're all served on a Middle Eastern flatbread known as lavash, which is made of flour, water and salt — no yeast. It's similar to a cracker crust, which some people might pooh-pooh, but you really shouldn't until you try it. Chef Rishi Singh's inventive toppings will have you reimagining all that pizza can be. Of all the wild, Asian-inspired pizzas, though, the Dutchie is the undisputed king. It was invented after a local PR maven and friend of Boheme, Dutch Small, asked his friends what kind of toppings he'd have if he were a pizza. It turns out the answer is sriracha tomato sauce (or sass), pancetta, mozzarella, ricotta, fresh basil and a touch of Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes. Just like its namesake, it's spicy, fresh and distinctive with each bite.
6. Coppa Osteria
I've already written once about my love for Coppa Osteria's carnissima pizza. There's not much left to say except that I used to despise any version of the meat-lover's pizza. I think I had one too many bites of rubbery sausage or "hamburger topping" as a child, and that ruined it for me. Until recently. Until my tongue met the spicy pork sausage, the fat-marbled coppa, the smoky prosciutto and the creamy Parmesan drizzle that tops it all off. I honestly thought meat-lover's pizzas and I were never meant to be. Carnissima, I was so wrong. Forgive me.
5. Pi Pizza
Few pizza joints in town approach the traditional Italian dish with the same amount of creativity as does Pi Pizza chef and owner Anthony Calleo. Mac and cheese on pizza? Why the hell not? With a little bit of added bacon and a sturdy crust, he makes it work. Frito pie? Done. If you ask Calleo, though, he'll tell you the pizza he's most proud of is the Outdoorsman. It's one of Pi's simplest creations, featuring only three toppings: venison sausage, cherries soaked in port wine syrup, and mozzarella. If it sounds improbable to you, you're not alone. I first ordered the Outdoorsman because Calleo suggested it, and I love a good food adventure. Now I understand that venison and port-soaked cherries are long-lost lovers finally reunited on a bed of gooey mozzarella and subtly tart tomato sauce. Reunited, and it feels so good.
Real talk: Initially, the idea of potatoes on my pizza was off-putting. Restaurants keep inventing dishes where they stuff french fries into anything and call it innovative. There are french fry-stuffed burgers and burritos, and soon there will be french fry-stuffed milkshakes. Just kidding (hopefully). So when the owner of Pizaro's, Bill Hutchinson, suggested I try the Patata e Funghi pizza topped with truffle oil, Yukon gold potatoes, oven-roasted mushrooms, mozzarella, rosemary and garlic, I was hesitant. Now I know to listen to Bill. This Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified restaurant that uses San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy and authentic "00" Italian pizza flour is one of the few places in town making legitimate Neapolitan pizzas — and with interesting toppings, no less. Sure, Pizaro's does a margherita, but why bother when you can get a pizza that so artfully displays the genius of mixing truffle oil, potatoes and dough?
In my pizza memory, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn holds a cherished place. But I recently had a pie at Provisions that easily deserves a spot on my pizza love list. It's the Tuscan kale, spicy pork sausage, ricotta and fontina pie, and I liked it so much that I have ordered it twice since then. To begin, the crust is perfect. Quick cooking in a hot wood-fired oven makes it crisp, and the dough's ingredients impart a slightly sourdough-y taste that I like. (Too often, as with hamburgers and inferior buns, restaurants neglect their pizza dough, and the best toppings cannot make up for shoddy crust.) The kale is prepared carefully — I envision a searing in the pan with garlic before it is put on the uncooked pizza — and the house-made pork has the proper amount of fattiness and spice. Creamy, mild ricotta and sharp fontina (the Italian kind — don't waste your time with Swiss fontina) combine to create a sauce that will make you shake your head in appreciation. And look forward to your next trip to Taft Street.
2. Pizzeria Solario
At this point in the roundup, I absolutely must mention crust. So often as a child, I ate my pizza with the toppings, then tossed the crust aside as if it was no longer worthy of my palate as soon as it was devoid of cheese and sauce. I have since learned that it's the crust that makes the pizza. I personally believe that the best pizzas come from an incredibly hot oven powered by burning wood. Gas fire is all well and good, and coal fire is wonderful but rare. The heat from a wood fire gives pizza crust a perfect char and slightly smoky flavor that cannot be achieved through any other means. At Solario, the pizza makers scoop up a pie on the wooden peel seconds before it's finished cooking and hold it up to the top of the domed oven, where the temperature and smoke are concentrated to provide an ideal crispy finish. For a prime example of this technique in action, order the Parma 600 pizza with white garlic crema sauce, fior di latte cheese, pecorino and prosciutto di Parma 600 (a.k.a. extra-special prosciutto). The final crisping brings out the richest flavors in the Italian meat and cheese, and then the pie is removed and quickly topped with fresh arugula and a touch of truffle oil. I like to think that the lifting of this pizza at the end of the baking adds a little bit of heaven to the toppings. It certainly tastes like it.
1. Dolce Vita
There's this small restaurant in Florence called Trattoria 4 Leoni that I go to every time I'm fortunate enough to find myself within the historic Italian city. And every time I'm at 4 Leoni, I order the same thing: fiocchetti pasta stuffed with pear and taleggio. Here in Houston, Dolce Vita makes a pizza — the pear and taleggio, drizzled with truffle oil — that takes me back to Florence. It's acidic but sweet, earthy but crisp, funky but mellow. The pies have a traditional Neapolitan-style crust and a thin but fluffy body. They're crispy on the outside but still doughy and chewy on the inside. If there is such a thing — among all of the thousands and thousands of iterations — as the perfect pizza, I'd swear this is it.
Cheap & Good Eats
Best budget lunch spots in Midtown.
Last week, we rounded up the Top 5 Budget Lunch Spots in Montrose and River Oaks. Today it's all about Midtown. With some remnants of the old Little Saigon and plenty of bars and restaurants, this area has no shortage of great food.
Here's our list of the best cheap (under $10) lunch spots that Midtown has to offer:
Note: For the purposes of this post, Midtown is defined as south of I-45 (the Pierce Elevated), west of Highway 288, north of Highway 59 and east of Bagby.
Honorable Mentions: Harry's Restaurant & Café, which falls just outside the border but has massive breakfast plates and Greek and American cafeteria-style lunch specials, most all of which are under $10; and hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint Kim Tai, famous for its duck soup and popular comfort food banh bot chien.
5. Cali Sandwich & Les Givral's
Both Les Givral's and Cali Sandwich (pictured below) are mostly famous for one thing: their cheap and delicious banh mi ($3 to $4). You can't go wrong with either spot, so we'd go with whichever has the shorter line during their booming lunch hours. Expect no frills but extremely quick (albeit a bit curt) service and tasty sandwiches with authentic Vietnamese flavors. We like the Xiu Mai, a classic sandwich with tender and plump pork meatballs and all the usual fixin's — carrots, cucumber, cilantro and more.
4. BlackFinn American Grille
On Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., BlackFinn offers $7.99 to $9.99 lunch specials in addition to its regular menu. We like the crab cake sliders, topped with apple slaw and served with fries; or the Pick 2 special — with choices of soup, appetizer salads and half-portioned flatbread pizzas. Service is fast, making it a perfect workday pick-me-up.
3. Pho Saigon Noodle House
If you follow our series Where the Chefs Eat, you'll find many of them frequent this midtown pho spot. And if there's one thing we know, it's that you can trust a Houston chef. Start with a pork and shrimp spring roll ($1.25, or $2.40 for two), then finish with a comforting bowl of chicken, beef or seafood pho ($6.15). We like the #18 because it's packed with all types of beef — eye of round steak, well-done flank, fatty brisket, soft tendon and tripe.
With wood-fired pizzas available by the slice and an outdoor bocce court, this mom-and-pop pizzeria is the perfect spot for a lazy lunch. Bring a six-pack or a bottle of wine and relax on the patio with a slice of New York-style pizza. We like the Caprese ($3.19), topped with fresh basil, plump tomatoes and creamy buffalo-style mozzarella. If you're in the mood for something more, try the hearty beef lasagna ($8.99), which is served with breadsticks and a small salad; or the pepper- and onion-studded cheese steak ($6.99), served on crusty French bread.
1. Spec's Deli
Loyal patrons of the midtown Spec's know it's more than merely a liquor store. Its deli makes some of the best sliced-to-order sandwiches in town. Like the Reuben to Die For, stuffed with hot corned beef, sauerkraut and Russian dressing; or the California Dreamin', with sliced turkey, Havarti, avocado, cucumber and sprouts. Both sandwiches are loaded with one-third of a pound of meat for a reasonable $7.99. But that's not all this place has. Check out the daily lunch specials, soups, burgers, fries and more.
Torchy's Tacos Suit Against Texas Taco Co.
Alleged theft of food-prep bible.
Back in August, we reported on the anticipated opening of a new taco joint in Houston called Texas Taco Co.The Friendswood location was the third store set to open in Texas — the other two are in Baytown and Magnolia — and though it sounded like a delicious addition to the Houston-area restaurant scene, we andEaternoticed a striking similarity between the menu at Texas Taco Co. and the menu of another much-lauded Texas taco spot: Torchy's Tacos.
Apparently we weren't the only ones.
As soon as the first Texas Taco Co. opened, in Baytown, diners started sending messages to Torchy's asking, essentially, what's up with your new restaurant? People assumed, because of similarities between the two menus, that Texas Taco Co. was somehow affiliated with Torchy's.
For example, the Torchy's menu offers a breakfast taco called the "Monk Special," which is described as "'Hold the potatoes.' Eggs, bacon, green chilies & cheese. Served on your choice of tortilla."
Texas Taco Co. offers an "Alamo Special," described as "'Hold the potatoes.' Eggs, bacon, green chilies & cheese. Served on your choice of tortilla."
You see the issue?
Torchy's saw an issue, too, especially when people there remembered that back in March a former employee, Mario DeJesus, had allegedly stolen the Taco Bible, "a proprietary start-to-finish recipe and food process guide for all Torchy's food products." As a condition of employment with Torchy's, workers must sign papers agreeing not to disclose the confidential inner workings of Torchy's Tacos, including recipes.
DeJesus initially denied he had stolen the Taco Bible, but according to his testimony, Forrest Harrell, an employee at Torchy's, convinced DeJesus to admit he had taken the document and to return it. DeJesus told Harrell he would leave the book on top of a car in the parking lot of an Exxon station just south of the restaurant. Harrell was able to regain possession of the book, and DeJesus was fired.
Lawyers for the plaintiff discovered that shortly after he left Torchy's, DeJesus began working for Texas Taco Co., driving 40 miles each way from his home every day to do so. Lawyers for Torchy's argue that DeJesus wouldn't be making an 80-mile round-trip drive for work every day for his $10-an-hour paycheck. They believe he was employed by Texas Taco Co. prior to being fired and that he received a substantial amount of money from the owners of Texas Taco Co., ARK Dudes, in exchange for the proprietary information contained in the Taco Bible.
On June 7, 2013, Success Foods Management Group, the owners of Torchy's Tacos, filed a temporary restraining order against DeJesus. The court decided that "there is a substantial likelihood that Defendant Mario DeJesus has engaged in wrongful conduct, including misappropriation of trade secrets and breaches of duties owed to Torchy's, related to competitive activities and Torchy's confidential information that DeJesus is in a position to use on behalf of a competing business." The court went on to note that DeJesus's continuing actions could cause "immediate and irreparable injury" to Torchy's business.
DeJesus claims that he had not been in contact with Texas Taco Co. prior to being fired from Torchy's. He says that he saw the Texas Taco Co. restaurant in Baytown and decided to apply for a job there. Based on his testimony, he does not seem to think there's anything suspicious about driving 40 miles to get to a job that pays $10 an hour and isn't always a full-time position.
Brittany Platt, marketing director for Torchy's Tacos, says Texas Taco Co. is in the wrong.
"Honestly, we'd like for them to stop," Platt said when asked what the company hoped to achieve with the lawsuit. "I think we agree it's a pretty poor business practice, and we're trying to rally the troops and clear the air. People think that we're affiliated, and we're not."
We were also able to get in touch with the lawyer for Texas Taco Co., Matthew Hoeg, who said that the claims being made by Torchy's are false.
"There's this allegation that there's a videotape of my client supposedly stealing the Taco Bible, but there's no such tape, because it didn't happen," Hoeg says. "Their story is that they misplaced or lost it." Hoeg also says Torchy's claims someone at the company lost the confidentiality agreement that his client supposedly signed.
As for the menu overlaps?
"Did my guys like the notion of what they do?" Hoeg asks. "Sure. Were they trying to imitate the things that succeed there? Sure. The menu isn't secret. They don't own that concept."
Hoeg is vehement that his clients, DeJesus and ARK Dudes, have done nothing wrong and that Torchy's has been very reluctant to hand over incriminating information, including the surveillance tape and the confidentiality agreement.
"We don't have and have never had their stupid Taco Bible," Hoeg says. "Nor do we want it."
The new Texas Taco Co. that was supposed to open in Friendswood appears to still be closed, and the phone number listed for that location is not working.
Here is a comparison of some other items on the menus at Torchy's and Texas Taco Co.:
Torchy's "Mr. Orange" — Blackened salmon topped with a grilled corn and black bean relish, queso fresco and cilantro. Drizzled with AVOCADO SAUCE then served with a wedge of lime on a corn tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Poncho Lefty" — Blackened salmon topped with a roasted corn & black bean salsa, queso fresco and cilantro, drizzled with AVOCADO SAUCE, served with a wedge of lime on a corn tortilla.
Torchy's "The Independent" — Hand-battered and fried portobello mushroom strips with refried black beans, roasted corn, escabeche carrots, queso fresco, cilantro and avocado. Drizzled with ancho aioli on a flour tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "William Travis" — Hand-battered and fried Portobello mushroom strips with refried black beans, roasted corn, escabeche carrots, queso fresco, cilantro & avocado. Drizzled with ancho aioli on a flour tortilla.
And lest you think it's tacos only...
Torchy's "Grande Burrito" — Your choice of beef, chicken, pork or veggies served with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole. Wrapped in a 12" flour tortilla.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Big Bad Bandito Burrito" — Your choice of beef, chicken, pork or veggies served with rice, beans, shredded cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream & guacamole. Choice of sauce and wrapped in a 12" flour tortilla.
Torchy's "Green Chile Queso & Chips" — Torchy's homemade chips with delicious green chile queso topped off with guacamole, queso fresco, cilantro & diablo sauce.
Texas Taco Co.'s "Green Chile Queso & Chips" — Homemade chips with delicious green chile queso topped off with guacamole, queso fresco, cilantro & DIABLO sauce.
Openings and Closings
Goodbye, Zushi, welcome back MF Sushi and hello Allô.
We heard of only one restaurant closing its doors last week (and it came without much of a shock).
It wasn't much longer after the Zushi on Memorial Drive at Westcott closed that the other Zushi location, in the Energy Corridor, shut its doors. Sushi Club of Houston President Carl Rosa reports on the club's Facebook page that the only remaining Zushi in Houston has officially closed. In one of the comments about the announcement, Rosa writes, "The management and ownership of the restaurant had no experience offering quality sushi and operating a restaurant. I worked with them for several months to establish a database and customer relationships...but inevitably, I had to excuse myself from Zushi altogether. There was no strategy, no mission, no focus and no genuine interest. The owners were never there. They used to watch the entire restaurant from video cameras in their home. They would visit Zushi once every two weeks."
Now let's move on to the openings from last week — lots of anticipated restaurants either opened or announced they are veeeery close to serving customers.
The sister restaurant of Liberty Kitchen opened on October 18 and began serving lunch and dinner on October 21. Eater reports that Liberty Kitchen Bar & Oysterette will serve seafood with a Southern touch. There's an oyster bar in the center of the restaurant, which will be open all day. CultureMap reports that the restaurant has a menu that is larger than Liberty Kitchen's — more oysters, more appetizers and a table-side prime-rib cart.
Little Dipper will open at the end of October; the bar concept comes from those behind Poison Girl, Black Hole Coffee House and Antidote Coffee. While the bar will be similar to Poison Girl — look for a pinball machine and jukebox — it will also have a few additional types of beer and wine. In fact, CultureMap reports that the team is working with a former Oxheart sommelier, Justin Vann, to develop the beer and wine list at Little Dipper.
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Lowbrow Bar held a soft opening on October 24. Eater reports that the bar, from Free Press Summer Fest founder and Free Press Houston publisher Omar Afra, will represent Montrose — "just swanky enough and just sleazy enough." Eatsie Boys chef Matt Marcus was brought in as the culinary adviser and consultant. Lowbrow's online menu shows breakfast being served all day, including burritos and Cheddar biscuits with gravy, as well as "Not Breakfast" items, such as a pastrami brisket sandwich and a chicken-fried black bean burger — yum. According to the bar and restaurant's Facebook page, it will be one of the few places in Houston that represents all local breweries with draft selections.
Eater tells us that Allô French Rotisserie, from the former manager of The Woodlands' Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Eric Goldner, opened on October 21. It's not an upscale French restaurant. Rather, Allô is meant to be casual and family-friendly. The restaurant will serve a rotisserie of the day, every day, such as herb pesto lamb on Saturdays and roasted short ribs on Tuesdays, along with all-natural rotisserie chicken every day. Typical French bistro items will be served, including quiche, potato croquettes, French shepherd's pie and croque monsieur.
MF Sushi will reopen next month, as reported by B4-U-Eat. A fire that broke out on September 29 forced the acclaimed sushi spot to close, and we are happy to hear MF will be back in business in a few weeks.
Chocolat Du Monde reopened in its new location at 2428 Times Boulevard. The European chocolate boutique was forced to close in July because of a rent increase. Chocolat Du Monde doesn't have all its supplies yet, so call ahead to verify if it has the chocolates and sweets you're looking for.