Washington Avenue was briefly the center of all things nightlife-y and clubby for a few short years, before — as always happens in Houston — the scene began to mutate and evolve into other areas of the city. Some nightlifers have moved back to Midtown, while others have set their sights on the East End as the next great party scene.
What's left on Washington Avenue are two things: (1) the husks of once-popular clubs gone south and (2) bars/restaurants that have either seriously stepped up their food game or are still serving the same great food that made them popular in the first place. At this point in time, Washington Avenue could go the way of the Richmond Strip and become a ghost town. But I think it's far more likely that as the cruising crowds move away, the historic street will become even more of a food corridor and destination than it already is.
In order for that to happen, however, we have to support the restaurants that are currently there — great places like Soma Sushi, El Tiempo, J. Black's Feel Good Lounge, The Counter, Candelari's, Molina's Cantina, The Blue Fish and Patrenella's. Or you can start with one of our top ten picks below.
Disclaimer: For purposes of this post, "Washington Avenue" has been defined as the strip of Washington running from Westcott to Studemont, with a few blocks north or south on either side. Anything further west of Westcott and you're running into Rice Military; anything further east of Studemont and you're running into the Old Sixth Ward (which has its own, unique scene with places such as Catalina, Star Pizza, Beaver's, Liberty Station and the upcoming Julep and Cottonwood).
10. Sammy's Wild Game Grill
Although the Moon Tower Inn guys have been stymied in their attempts to get up and running again over the past year, you can get your wild game hot dog fix at Sammy's — and more. Depending on the season, the chili-cheese fries could feature anything from rattlesnake to elk in the chili on top, while wild game sliders see antelope, venison, buffalo, elk and kangaroo in between their buns. And if you're a spice-hound, you'll want to buy some of Sammy's wonderful ghost pepper sauce to take home with you.
I still think that TQLA's name was a mistake — it leads people to believe that TQLA is only a bar or only serves tequila — but the food and the drinks are certainly not. Chef Tommy Birdwell is still turning out the same high-quality food that made me fall in love with TQLA when it opened in 2010, dishes such as crawfish corncakes with lime butter, pumpkin seed-crusted salmon with fried green tomatoes or blue corn-fried oysters with chorizo cream. Southwestern food has never tasted better or more updated, even in simple adaptations like TQLA's green chile-laced burger with jalapeño cheese and avocado.
8. Sushi Tora
Ken Tanagi rules the roost at his sushi restaurant, backed up by his mother — Mami — of the infamous, now-closed Coco's Yakitori. The pair run a tight ship, making excellent rolls and serviceable sushi to a packed house nearly every night. But be warned: It's very loud inside, not only because of the music Tanagi plays but also because of the amount of screaming at his co-workers he does on a nightly basis. It's all in good fun, though, and you'll always get dinner and a show at Sushi Tora.
7. Taqueria Laredo
If it's down-home comfort you seek, look no further than Laredo Taqueria — one of the last old-school Mexican joints left on a street that was once dominated by the likes of Guadalajara Bakery and Matamoros Meat Market. From the woman behind the counter hand-rolling the softest of tortillas to the Little League photos and ceramic tiles depicting the Virgin Mary on the walls, this cozy restaurant feels like an old-timey taqueria because it is. The steam table boasts simmering troughs of pork, chicken and fajita meats, all of which are falling-apart tender. Plus, at $2 for a taco bursting with this much flavor, the price will make you feel good, too. Just prepare to stand in line — as with the breakfast klub, there's almost no time of day where you won't need to wait. (But it's worth it.)
6. El Rey Taqueria
El Rey is a terrific Cuban/Mexican restaurant masquerading as a fast-food joint. Sure, you eat with plastic utensils on blue plastic cafeteria trays. And yes, the food arrives very fast, but — as with next door neighbor Pollo Campero — this is not your average fast food. This stuff has soul. And flavor. Lots of flavor. A huge, old-fashioned rotisserie roasts beautiful, golden-skinned chickens that turn up in soups, sandwiches, tacos and burritos — and that also stand alone quite well, thank you. There are good accompaniments, too: nicely flavored Mexican rice with good-size chunks of carrot and deeply spiced refried beans that, when spread into El Rey's famous breakfast tacos along with some grease-laced chorizo, make the perfect restorative morning meal after a long night. Also perfect for those mornings? The lattes, which are almost too good to have come from a "fast food" restaurant.
5. BRC Gastropub
BRC Gastropub is cheeky in more ways than one: Yes, the "BRC" stands for "Big Red Cock" and the menu follows a similar adult playfulness. Don't expect to escape without dropping some bills on the food, but do expect a phenomenal beer (craft and otherwise) selection and some truly fun dishes. The poutine with a confit duck leg is pure decadence, while the skillet-based macaroni and cheese is so good we couldn't help but name it Best Mac & Cheese for two years running. Happy hour is recommended, as the restaurant only gets busier as the night goes on, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. And burger nights on Mondays get you a huge, beautiful BRC burger and fries for only $8.
4. benjy's on Washington
The second location of benjy's is quieter than you'd expect for its Washington Avenue location, without any of the hassle of forced valet or clubby music throbbing in the dining room. Its chic, elegant look is mimicked in the menu, which is full of locally sourced and seasonal food such as free-range chicken with summer succotash, pork rib eye with Texas peaches, or Gulf flounder with white asparagus and English peas. You'll also see Asian-influenced dishes (inspired in part by chef Mike Potowski's half-Japanese heritage) that run the gamut from beef udon to daily sashimi specials. Save room for dessert in the form of benjy's wonderfully geeky beer list and structured cocktails.
3. Branch Water Tavern
This upscale tavern is a great example of a uniquely American restaurant style that features a well-stocked bar and simple meat and seafood dishes that don't have French names. In many ways, the new American tavern is a throwback to early American eateries. The menu under executive chef David Grossman includes oysters on the half shell, crab cakes and smoke-roasted pork chops — items that were just as common on the menus of American taverns of the 18th century — as well as more updated items like house-made charcuterie and barbecued bone marrow. Lunch specials are outstanding, netting you a huge meal of fried chicken or a chicken pot pie plus iced tea for $10.
2. Max's Wine Dive
Max's Wine Dive owes its unusual name to the combination of a terrific Texas "dive" menu with chili dogs, cheese fries and mussels steamed in Lone Star beer, and an innovative wine list. These days, however, Max's is far less divey thanks to chef Michael Pellegrino and his inventive menus. This fall, look for modern dishes to fall in love with, like lemon-poppyseed muffins with uni butter; foie gras and escargot with a gremolata crème fraîche and tawny port-macerated blueberries; duck confit tarte tatin and egg yolk with Cheesy Girl goat cheese; and lengua pot roast with mousseline parsnips and green curry carrots.
1. Coppa Ristorante Italiano
Coppa Ristorante Italiano is the restaurant you turn to when you want to be assured of a great meal and equally great service; it makes things easy that way. The steady kitchen turns out an endless line of Italian classics under chef Brandi Key — meatballs al forno, lasagna, spaghetti carbonara — and an array of more modern dishes that delight in their simplicity, like duck-filled agnolotti with Brussels sprouts or pumpkin ravioli with cranberries. Small plates make for a good entrée size, while large plates are perfect for sharing. Don't miss the burrata, fresh from Puglia, or the signature brick oven-baked sardines. And if you just want a drink, the cheerful bar has an excellent classic cocktail program and nice happy hour prices.
The Most Interesting Man...
Anthony Bourdain on hipsters, food critics, tasting menus, the death of fine dining and a religious experience with Texas barbecue.
The biggest problem with interviewing Anthony Bourdain is not the crackly phone connection between Houston and New York City, nor is it the general trepidation that comes with talking to someone who's notoriously, forcefully honest.
The problem is that Bourdain is so interesting — has traveled so extensively and has such thought-provoking opinions on everything from Gulf oysters and Texas barbecue to the dangers of boredom — that it's far too easy to get off-track. Six tangents into discussing hipsters' impact on fine dining, and your 30-minute interview window is gone.
The celebrity chef, author and television personality is coming to Houston for a one-night-only show with Eric Ripert, the French chef who often plays the angel to Bourdain's devil on television and in real life — the two have been friends for years. Appropriately enough, Bourdain and Ripert's show on November 10 at Jones Hall is called "Good vs. Evil." It's also one of only four Good vs. Evil shows that Bourdain and Ripert will be doing across the United States.
No surprise, as Bourdain is currently one of the busiest men in chow-business. He's working on three television shows at the moment, creating a publishing empire, writing scenes for Treme and embarking on national tours aside from Good vs. Evil. The other leg of his tour, Guts & Glory, will be hitting two more Texas locations. But as soon as he's done here in Houston, Bourdain will — as usual — be flying directly out to his next speaking engagement...in Midwest City, Oklahoma.
Hopefully he'll have something good to eat here before that stop, although it's unlikely. As with his previous visits to Houston, Bourdain says this one will be short. But while he didn't have much to say on the topic of the Bayou City, he had plenty to discuss about other topics close to Texans' hearts.
On his erroneous dismissal of Texas barbecue prior to eating at Franklin Barbecue and J. Mueller BBQ in Austin during a recent taping of No Reservations, which marks the final season of his long-running series on the Travel Channel:
I'd previously taken sort of a dim view of Texas barbecue, but Franklin and J. Mueller showed me how good it really was. I had a religious experience there. The brisket at Franklin and the short ribs at J. Mueller were amazing. The brisket at Franklin is just salt and pepper and nothing else, and that's exactly what I love. My previous exposure to Texas barbecue was very sauce-centric, and I don't care for sauce.
It's like a lot of my epiphanies on the show, and one of the things I'm doing to remedy my previous oversight is publishing Daniel Vaughn's book [the upcoming Prophets of Smoked Meat]. It's a deep, thorough and expert look at Texas barbecue.
On hooking up with Texas barbecue blogger (and soon-to-be author) Daniel Vaughn, whom Bourdain credits as an intensely committed researcher and reporter of all things Texas barbecue:
I was aware of the Leslie Brenner incident [in which Brenner was accused of sourcing places for a best-of-barbecue list from Vaughn's blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, without giving Vaughn any credit]. I'm not a fan of Leslie Brenner, and I thought it was sort of symptomatic of all the ills of food writing today. It was a particularly ignoble moment in food writing.
Here's a case of even if you don't agree with [Vaughn's] choices, I think very few people would say, "Oh, you don't know what you're talking about."
On moving into the publishing industry with Ecco, his own imprint under HarperCollins, which plans to publish books by Vaughn as well as Los Angeles-based chef Roy Choi and kickboxer Mark Miller:
Publishing is a private passion of mine. You get to be an advocate for people you believe in.
On his Austin-based episode of No Reservations and what keeps him coming back to the Texas capital:
I love Austin. We picked Austin to do a show because I've been so many times on book tours and speaking tours. I love the town. It's just so quirky and has always been a welcoming place to be. There are good bars, good music, a good food truck culture — and the best kind of food truck culture. There's a lot of good, authentic Mexican food, a dining public at every income level who are open to and interested in new, different, authentic and tasty — it's a good environment for people who like to cook and eat — and I always get a good pair of boots there.
On what makes a good food truck culture:
Really creative people who can't afford to start up restaurants. Food trucks are a hospitable and cost-effective way to get your foot in the door. The menus are getting quirkier and more creative.
On how having a dining public at every income level has enhanced America's culinary scene in general:
Young people in their twenties are out there spending their hard-earned money on food, which was an unthinkable scenario 25 years ago. As Jonathan Gold has suggested, dining out has become a countercultural activity. Even restaurants like Le Bernardin in New York are changing themselves to be more friendly and more inviting to people who aren't middle-aged oligarchs.
On the so-called "death" of fine dining, with maitre d's and jacketed guests in every dining room:
I think that the only legitimate argument for that stuff other than sentiment is that those types of restaurants were the traditional sort of finishing schools to build a group of people who are trained in service at those kinds of levels. For cooks, those places are valuable; they're training academies of fine dining. I don't want to lose those places entirely, but when I hear some snowy-haired longtime food critic for a men's magazine whining about the decline of service, I just don't care. Those guys are just a bunch of old, entitled farts who'll die soon anyway.
I think it's nonsense. The young sommeliers, for instance, out there who actually know something about wine, beer and food is probably at a higher point than at any other point in history. We're catching up with France, Italy — cultures that see good food as a birthright.
On foodies versus hipsters (the latter of whom Bourdain believes are responsible for helping raise the culinary bar in America right now):
Who makes fun of hipsters? Other hipsters. I love making fun of hipsters. They're easily mockable, no question about it. But who would you prefer run a restaurant: hipsters or foodies? Multiply the regular posters on Chowhound by a million — no thanks. But as this current generation of hipsters gets older, they might want the volume turned down. No one's going to want to hear Gang of Four records turned all the way up forever.
On Pete Wells's recent indictment of tasting menus in The New York Times as "spreading like an epidemic":
I think it was a shot across the bow. I read it as a warning and as a statement of future policy. If I was a chef or a restaurant doing a 22-course tasting menu, I'd take notice.
On dishes he's sick of seeing in restaurants:
I agreed with everything [on Besha Rodell's recent list of five things restaurants should never serve again]. I'd add chicken caesar. And tuna tartare. I'm just bored; think of something else to do. I'm hardly that socially conscious, but can't we do something else? There's such a limited blue fin supply.
Read part two of our interview online at www.houstonpress.com/eating. Katharine Shilcutt
Openings & Closings
Restaurants and bars are betting on downtown in increasing numbers, as more business owners perform daring feats like — gasp! — moving into vacant spaces on Main Street or taking over failed locations with zest and zeal.
Now that I've gotten all of the Errol Flynn language out of my system for the day, on to the news — starting with the announcement from The Burger Guys that they'll be opening their new downtown location at 706 Main this week. Jake Mazzu and Brandon Fisch have transformed the old Korma Sutra space — which was also once home to Randy Rucker's laid-back manor — in record time and plan to serve their first burgers on Halloween (Wednesday, October 31).
Bragged Mazzu to the Chronicle's Greg Morago recently of the new space: "We're not like anyone else. We can't be compared. There's not one place in Houston or anywhere in the country that's comparable."
Elsewhere downtown, Latin tapas joint Batanga is moving into the old Wasabi space underneath the Market Square clock tower at 908 Congress. Food blogger Maya Fasthoff of Restaurant Traveler is behind Batanga, along with brother-in-law Brian Fasthoff and husband Hank Fasthoff, and plans to open the restaurant in late 2012 or early 2013.
"Batanga is a Latin American tapas restaurant featuring dishes from various regions in Latin America, such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Colombia, as well as dishes from Spain and Portugal," Fasthoff wrote on her blog. "We'll be open for lunch and dinner seven days per week, and brunch on Sunday, with take away and catering service available." In addition, Batanga will have a 3,600-square-foot patio that's shaded by tall trees and provides a beautiful view onto Market Square Park.
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And this week I've got two more downtown blind items for you to pick apart, coming on the heels of news that a popular food truck will soon be moving into a brick-and-mortar space at 306 Main. Two equally popular bars/bartenders will be setting up shop in two more locations right along Main Street — which means we'll soon have OKRA's Charity Saloon (right next door to Batanga) in addition to these new watering holes. Both bars are backed by longtime bar owners with spaces in Montrose, and one is a project set up just for a bartender who's shaken cocktails everywhere from Haven to Fitzgerald's.
Speaking of second projects from existing bars: Cottonwood, from the owners of Liberty Station, is now open in Garden Oaks. Eater Houston has a first look at the craft beer-oriented pub, which is serving everything from burgers and wings to "surprises such as stuffed quail and barbecued oysters."
Plans for the long-awaited Midtown superblock are finally moving forward now that one last piece of property has been purchased, reports the Houston Business Journal. Sad news, however: That holdout was the strip center that contains banh mi shop Thien An. No word yet on what will happen to the sandwich shop, but at least we still have Cali across the street.
Last but not least, The Woodlands is getting a new LongHorn Steakhouse at 26805 I-45 North. The Woodlands restaurant will be the third location in the Houston market and plans to play it big: The 6,270-square-foot restaurant will seat more than 240 guests. It opened Monday, October 29. Katharine Shilcutt