Let's Get Greasy
Fried chicken may be a Southern staple, but here in Houston we put our own unique twist on even the most basic of foods. That's why our Top 10 list includes everything from Korean drumsticks to Middle Eastern wings — and, of course, a few classics to round it all out. 10. Zelko Bistro
Zelko Bistro is the only place in town where I'll order a fried chicken breast, and that's because the chicken breast at Zelko is plump and juicy beyond compare. Pair that impossibly moist flesh with a crispy, barely sweet crust made with — what else? — Captain Crunch cereal, and you have a winning textural combination. The darkly sweet and tangy shallot jam on top keeps what could be a kitschy dish elegant, as do the tender pea shoots. I love the chicken here so much, in fact, that it's the rare restaurant where I don't fill up on the buttery mashed potatoes first.
9. Max's Wine Dive
When the very first Max's Wine Dive opened in Houston in 2007, it led a wave of upscale-downmarket dining — or the more commonly seen moniker: "upscale comfort food" — with its famous offer of fried chicken paired with champagne. (Which is a great idea, if you ask me; a nice, dry bottle of bubbly is almost ideal with a greasy bucket of chicken.) The chicken gets its signature kick from a jalapeño-buttermilk marinade and is still fried to order at Max's Wine Dives across the state.
How can anyone not love a chicken joint whose motto is "Chicken & Joy"? Toreore — located inside the Super H-Mart food court — offers both in spades. The famously fiery fried chicken isn't for the faint of tongue, however. The sweet-and-spicy chicken delivers a delicately crispy exterior that gives way to a dark rumble of spiciness, which doesn't fully hit you until around a minute after you've taken a bite. In keeping with the general wackiness found around every corner at Super H-Mart, the take-out containers of Toreore chicken appear to be giant pizza boxes.
I am far from the first person to rave about the surprisingly terrific fried chicken from Randalls. Our own Jason Kerr — professional chef and former EOW columnist — is a fan of the stuff, and we even gave it the Best of Houston® award for Best Fried Chicken in 2010 despite a city full of serious contenders. Of the deep-fried drumsticks and wings, we wrote: "You might expect the fried chicken at Randalls to be mediocre, but someone there has a love for crispy, golden-brown, juicy country-fried bliss that cannot be denied."
6. the breakfast klub
It's almost blasphemy to eat the fried chicken at the breakfast klub on its own, so twinned is it in the Houston collective subconscious with either waffles or grits. But the wings are what makes the breakfast klub one of the city's favorite breakfast spots, and deserve highlighting on their own individual merits. The batter is supremely crunchy, the chicken brined and juicy, the seasoning lip-smackingly salty and good.
5. The Rice Box Truck
The Golden Doomba is named for owner John Peterson, whose Twitter handle is — you guessed it — @goldendoomba. It was his idea to add fried chicken to an otherwise American-Chinese menu on board the popular food truck. "When I first opened," Peterson says, "there were quite a few people that were always asking for no pork in anything. So I decided to make it easy." At first, the drumsticks were battered and fried using potato starch — it lent them a distinctly crunchy texture — but these days, Peterson says, plain old cornstarch is employed instead. Regardless, the drumsticks still taste as good as ever: wonderfully, arm-drippingly juicy inside and crispy, crackly crunchy on the outside.
Chef Randy Evans's buttermilk-fried chicken is quickly becoming the stuff of Houston legend, and with good reason. It's crispy and savory without being too greasy — this ain't a ten-piece bucket from KFC. (The herb-roasted version is no sad second: It's just as moist and flavorful, albeit with a little less guilt.) And because this is Haven we're talking about, the chicken is both free-range and organic, which means that all the calories are rendered moot. (Right? Isn't that how this works?)
3. Al Aseel
There's more than just the famed "Palestinian chicken" to be found at Al Aseel. Asked former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh on his blog after a recent meal there: "Did you know that the best fried chicken in Houston is served at a mom-and-pop Middle Eastern restaurant on Richmond called Al Aseel Grill & Cafe, 'The Taste of Bethlehem?'" We had a pretty good idea after tasting the standard grilled chicken here; the fried chicken with a za'atar-enhanced batter is — amazingly — a step up even from mouthwatering Palestinian chicken.
"Don't complain about the long lines — the fact that there are always people standing in line at Frenchy's guarantees that every piece of chicken you get has just come out of the fryer," wrote Walsh when he listed Frenchy's chicken as his No. 12 favorite dish in Houston. "Since 1969, Frenchy Creuzot has been consistently supplying the best Creole fried chicken in Houston. He has also been turning out the tastiest greens, the most satisfying andouille-studded red beans and rice and some of the best dirty rice and jambalaya the city has ever known — all sold in Styrofoam "to go" containers for a veritable pittance." The original Frenchy's location on Scott Street is still the best — and it's still open until 3 a.m. on the weekends.
1. Barbecue Inn
Food & Wine called it some of the best fried chicken in America, and Walsh placed the stuff at No. 5 on his own 100 Favorite Dishes. We've even given Barbecue Inn plenty of awards of our own over the years: Best Comfort Food in 2009, Best Fried Chicken in 2007 and Best Vintage Fried Chicken in 2005. (I'm guessing that "vintage" fried chicken would exclude modern concoctions like the Captain Crunch-battered chicken at Zelko Bistro.)
The chicken has received praise even from John T. Edge, the paragon of Southern food writers and founder of the Southern Foodways Alliance. And that praise was for something fried chicken isn't often associated with — an attribute that makes Barbecue Inn's chicken all the more crave-able.
"Of course, all fried chicken comes with grease. The question is how much," Edge told Walsh. "The chicken at Barbecue Inn is pretty damn greaseless."
WHY SCREW CAPS SUCK
But also why they rock.
By Jeremy Parzen
"Bartender, bartender! My wine smells like farts!"
No, this wasn't a George Carlin routine. It was me (and my not-so-inner wine nerd) as I sat at a bar at one of Houston's most swank joints, waiting to be seated for dinner. Honestly, I wasn't surprised that my wine smelled like a fart: It came from a bottle sealed with a screw cap.
Wines contained in bottles with screw-cap closures, when first opened, often smell like "rotten eggs, garlic, struck flint, cabbage, rubber, and burnt rubber," to borrow some descriptors from Master of Wine (and my favorite wine writer) Jancis Robinson. I can't imagine that she would ever use the word fart to describe a wine. She is British, after all. But you get the smell...ahem...idea.
Although the technicians of wine can't entirely agree on why this happens, it's generally believed that the phenomenon is due to reduction — in other words, the absence of oxygen in winemaking. (As Jancis points out in her excellent Oxford Companion to Wine, the term is "convenient, but rather inaccurate"; nonetheless, it has become part of the contemporary wine parlance.)
"Reduction is kind of like the male libido," winemaker Randall Grahm once told me. "It's not pretty," said the wine industry icon, owner and founder of Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz, California), "but it lets us know that everything's working correctly."
Grahm famously pronounced the cork "dead" in 2002 when he decided to abandon the traditional closure in favor of screw caps. At the time, the move was considered controversial and even untenable.
Even just five years ago, as Eric Asimov noted in The New York Times, screw caps and "screw cap taint" (a.k.a. reduction) posed a number of challenges for winemakers.
"Screw caps versus corks?" he punned. "It's all in the air."
Today screw caps are commonplace, especially when it comes to fresh white wines intended to be consumed in their youth, like the Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio that my bartender served me by the glass the other night.
The good news is that the "off" aromas caused by reduction in screw-cap bottles will generally "blow off" with just a few minutes of aeration. While the Felluga initially reminded me of my nearly 12-month-old daughter's early-morning toots, the funk quickly gave way to the fresh white fruit notes on the nose of this excellent, value-driven expression of Pinot Grigio from Friuli (one of my favorites for the price-quality ratio).
The even better news is that the use of screw caps is helping the over-cropped cork trade. We still need naturally produced corks for long-term-aging wines: The bark of the cork tree still provides winemakers and bottlers with the ideal organically porous seal for wines that require gentle oxygenation over long periods of time.
Screw caps also allow winemakers to use less sulfur during bottling and help them to preserve freshness and brilliance in the wine's fruit flavors. The best news is that screw caps, now more common than ever, eliminate the cork taint and oxidation problems found in up to one in eight bottles of cork-sealed wine.
They also make the bottles a lot easier to open, a feature that really comes in handy when you're entertaining at home or when you're a restaurant professional who finds her/himself "in the weeds" behind a bar and needs to open a bottle of wine swiftly and seamlessly.
GET OUT FOR LUNCH
The Top 10 restaurants in Greenway Plaza.
By Katharine Shilcutt
Although some Greenway Plaza office workers frequently bemoan the lack of good dining options in the area, I cheerfully disagree with them. Between hosting one of the absolute all-time best restaurants in town (our No. 1 pick, naturally) and some excellent, inexpensive lunch and dinner options, Greenway Plaza offers more than meets the eye.
While it's a bit difficult to define Greenway Plaza — the area around the master-planned mixed-use development created by Kenneth Schnitzer in the 1970s — the Greenway Plaza neighborhood can loosely be defined as such: south of West Alabama, west of Buffalo Speedway, north of Highway 59 and east of Loop 610.
Honorable Mention: Greenway Coffee & Tea
Although it's not a restaurant, we'd be remiss not to mention the little office coffee shop that spurred Houston's current love affair with serious coffee programs. Not only do owners David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto roast their own beans and help other restaurants/coffee shops get their own coffee programs in place, the pair is also opening a new shop in Montrose this month: the hugely anticipated Blacksmith.
A good choice for either lunch or dinner, Skewers smartly caters to both crowds independently. At lunch, you'll get a quick and filling meal with quality food — baked chicken or gyros are both great choices — for a low price. And at night, with full service and live entertainment (on the weekends), it's a lovely spot for a post-work drink (you must try the Lebanese wine) or a dinner date over silky hummus and fragrant kafta kebabs. As a bonus, the Edwards Greenway Plaza movie theater is right around the corner.
Oishii is a fun and funky sushi diner. Most regular sushi is a dollar apiece, with rolls starting around $5. During its famous happy hours on weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m., domestic beer is $1.25, imported is $1.75, hot sake is $3 and all of the $4 appetizers are buy one, get one free. There is free Wi-Fi, and much of the scruffy, multicultural crowd is usually taking advantage of it.
8. Pepper Tree
Pepper Tree is best known for its buffet, which features vegetarian Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Western cuisines. Typical dishes made with meat are reimagined as vegetarian here: Tofu versions of Peking duck, General Tso's chicken and kung pao chicken all come out tasting delicious. The modern, calming decor, spotless interior and friendly, knowledgeable staff make this the place for the novice or the experienced vegan.
7. Nielsen's Delicatessen
Unstinting applications of a good, snowy mayonnaise make this Danish hole-in-the-wall's old-fashioned chicken and potato salads among the very best in town. Other treats: corned beef and Swiss on rye with a pale, homemade liver pâté and devastating Danish butter cookies by the sack. Take your food to go, unless you enjoy dining in closetlike quarters.
Hot and trendy Korean fusion food isn't just found in food trucks; Kobecue offers a brick-and-mortar location on Richmond at Weslayan for you to get your kimchi fix. Pork and short rib tacos are among the most popular items, served with cilantro, onion and lime just like you'd find at a taco truck. But the real star here is a paper boat of kimchi-covered cheese fries. Drizzle some sweet, vinegary bibimbap sauce on top for a unique combination of flavors.
5. Ragin Cajun
If, for some reason, you can't find Ragin Cajun (it hasn't moved in over three decades...), just look for the huge red crawfish covered in Christmas lights next to the railroad tracks. Inside, you'll find picnic-style seating and walls adorned with Mardi Gras, LSU and various other Louisiana paraphernalia. If the counter service in the main dining area isn't your preference, there is a smaller table-service area to the right as you enter towards the back of the restaurant. Happy hour happens every weekday starting at 3 p.m. and runs until 7 p.m., except on Mondays, when it lasts until closing. I've been ordering the boudin links and red beans and rice since I was a kid, and my love for both has never waned.
4. Thai Cottage
Thai Cottage offers a thoughtfully heat-indexed menu (and trust me — trust them when they try to warn you "five pepper too spicy!"). Standouts include the crispy crab meat and cream cheese rolls with a spicy-sweet raisin sauce, and the velvety tom kha soup: chicken chunks and enoki mushrooms swimming in coconut milk spiked with lime juice and lemongrass. Diners choose their own degree of heat for red or green Thai curries; on the one- to five-pepper scale, three will gently prickle your scalp.
3. LA Bar
The elegant older sister to Ragin Cajun (the ultra-relaxed Cajun hot spot next door that's been owned by the Mandola family since 1974), LA Bar features many of Ragin Cajun's best menu items in a much nicer setting. Dark wood tones, chandeliers and a chic full-service bar highlight the grown-up space, while entrées such as a bone-in Cajun rib eye and barbecued blue crabs serve as a reminder that this is still a solidly Louisiana spot.
Oporto Cafe offers unusual wines and great snacks from chef Shiva Patel — who owns both it and The Queen Vic Pub along with partner Richard Di Virgilio — in a hip, relaxed, cozy atmosphere, making this a great happy hour or date-night destination. The wine list features several selections from Italy and Portugal, and there are tapas-size portions of interesting dishes such as linguiça (a Portuguese sausage), empanadas, meatballs in a saffron-tomato sauce and a bacalhau (salt cod) croquette. Lunch includes excellent pizzas and panini sandwiches (try the Italiano, with lots of meats, provolone and arugula).
For the quintessential dining experience with service (and prices) to match, there's only one place to go in Houston — and Tony Vallone's namesake restaurant is it. The decor is elegant yet subdued, and the wine list under wine director Scott Banks is unparalleled, with many sold by the glass. Every day brings a new list of specials influenced by whatever is freshest and in season. The regular menu under chef de cuisine Grant Gordon at this Greenway Plaza mainstay is a food lover's delight, with dishes like Petrossian Imperial Ossetra caviar as an appetizer or main courses such as handmade ravioli stuffed with soppressata and a 55-day dry-aged Prime New York strip. And you simply haven't lived until you've had one of Tony's soufflés for dessert, which can be made in any flavor imaginable.
OPENINGS & CLOSINGS
Goodbye Goldfish, hello Caballo.
By Katharine Shilcutt
As our own Josh Justice hinted at in last week's round-up of jinxed restaurant locations, there is indeed a steakhouse moving into the old La Strada spot on Westheimer.
According to a press release that went out this week, La Casa del Caballo — the second location of "the most internationally popular steak restaurant in Saltillo, Mexico" — is opening in January or February 2013. It plans to offer both steakhouse and Mexican fare, with everything from "fire-seared beef" to enchiladas on the menu. The location at 302 Westheimer has already shown that it can't support Italian (Cafe Bello) or Tex-Mex (Don Julio), so perhaps a hybrid of two of Houston's most popular cuisines can finally make this spot succeed.
And filed under "O" for Obvious this week were two closings in Upper Kirby that could be seen coming a mile away: The struggling Maggie Rita's at the corner of Richmond and Kirby closed its doors, having taken over Ninfa's this past summer.
And although owner Lonnie Schiller has claimed to Eater Houston that Alto — the sister restaurant to the also-closed Ava, which shut in June — is only temporarily closed, a sign in the window indicates otherwise. Despite a cracking location in the popular West Ave development, neither Ava nor Alto ever quite found the audience that neighboring restaurants such as Pondicheri have. A Del Frisco's Grille is currently being built inside the old Ava space.
Wondering whatever happened to homebrewer Daniel Naumko's plans to open The Sybarite Pig in Houston? Wonder no longer; Naumko has moved back to Florida, where our sister paper the Broward-Palm Beach New Times is reporting that the Sybarite Pig is opening this week in Boca Raton.
"Naumko had intended to turn his cooking prowess into an entrepreneurial career in Houston," writes New Times' Tricia Woolfenden, "but the high cost of doing business there kept stalling the project."
Fans of Delaware-based Capriotti's Sandwich Shop will be happy to know that they'll soon be able to get the 30-year-old sandwich chain's offerings — including The Bobbie — here in Houston. Capriotti's currently has 83 locations nationwide, including two in Dallas, and expects to open its first Houston-area restaurant by April, in Fort Bend County.
Elsewhere, B4-U-Eat reports that H-Town Bar & Grill on Washington Avenue has closed, as has Goldfish Garden Chinese — a restaurant which I'd never heard of until this week, but which I'm sad I never got to visit. Was there really a garden of goldfish there? I"ll never know.
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