ON THE ROAD
In the past, I've been criticized by some readers for focusing my restaurant research on establishments inside the Loop. And while it's true that I don't regularly travel very far for my food, I recently found yet another excuse to go way outside my ZIP code.
Alvin, Texas, is my new favorite dining destination, and here are five reasons it should be yours as well:
5. Scotch Eggs
At Gordon Street Tavern, the fare is solid but predictable: hot wings, fried mushrooms, burgers and some damn good waffle fries doused in beef gravy. The unexpected hit, however, is the Scotch Eggs made from scratch by Chef Jason Chaney, who was inspired to re-create the British dish after tasting it as a child at Dickens on the Strand. House-made sausage, bright yellow yolks and a crisp coating of fresh bread crumbs make this appetizer fresh, robust and flavorful.
4. Craft Brews Great and Small
To wash down your Scotch Eggs, Gordon Street Tavern offers a wide range of mass-market and craft beers, including some varieties (like Coors's Batch 19) that are available only in a handful of Texas bars. There's also a wide choice in portion sizes from the cute mini-mugs for tastings and sampling to the 120-ounce containers (about two pitchers) for larger parties that require a lot of brew to fuel their brouhaha.
3. Grilled Oysters Three Ways
A hop, skip and a jump from Gordon Street Tavern is Coastal Crossing Grill, where fresh gulf seafood rules. Of special note are the monstrous grilled oysters, available in three different styles: "Fancy" (a sharp, citrusy dressing of shallots, cracked pepper and lemon vinaigrette), "Creole" (creamy jack cheese coating with smoky notes ) and "Sealy Street" (a fiery blend of pickled jalapeños and almost-burnt bacon).
2. Deep-Fried Short Ribs
Given that the Grill's kitchen is also manned by the talented Chaney, who earned significant street credit for his work at The Barbed Rose (former occupant of the site), it's not surprising that a non-seafood dish is also (ironically) making waves. To say that the deep-fried smoked short ribs are tender is, perhaps, the understatement of the year; when I picked up one of the ribs, the meat literally fell off the bone and almost into my lap. And despite a thick coating of spicy batter atop the sumptuous streaks of fat and pig flesh, the ribs are not cloyingly rich. Even a generous dip in the accompanying sweet, vinegary barbecue sauce isn't enough to induce moans (in a bad way). The sounds coming out of the mouths of diners (including my own) are of pure pleasure.
1. Elvis Cake Balls
"Omigod, cake balls are, like, so 2011." Fine, naysayers, you can skip the cake balls at Norma's Cakes & Cookies. Just know, however, that you'll die without tasting one of the most incredible creations in the history of baking. An homage to The King's favorite sandwich, the Elvis cakeball combines peanut butter chips with (overripe!) hearty banana cake to form a dense sphere that's finished with a dip in fine milk chocolate.
Mexico's answer to the bacon cheeseburger
It's been awhile since a burger has stopped me dead in my tracks. Such is the arresting power of the trompi-burger at Taqueria La Macro, a new Monterrey-style restaurant in Northside.
I first ended up at Taqueria La Macro after my boyfriend came home from driving down North Main and reported that there was a new restaurant in the neighborhood, and it looked like it served trompo. As we've discussed before, true trompo — pork cooked al pastor-style on a vertical pit with a whole pineapple dripping down onto it as it rotates — is incredibly difficult to find in Houston. Even at one of my favorite spots, Tacos del Julio, the "trompo" is actually kept in a refrigerator and warmed up on the griddle to order.
When we walked into the bright, well-appointed dining room at Taqueria La Macro, I expected the same. This place simply looked too clean, too modern to have an authentic trompo like places such as Karanchos boast. Yet there it was, a glowing orange beacon from the middle of the open kitchen, topped with a fat, golden core of pineapple.
Trompo is a specialty at any Monterrey-style restaurants, and Taqueria La Macro is no exception. And in typical fashion for any restaurant operated by expats from Monterrey, the city and its famous mountains are well represented, from the neon outline of Cerro de la Silla in the window to photos of the chic Mexican city on the walls inside. (When it comes to having pride of place, Texans and Regiomontanos are tied in terms of sheer ostentatiousness.)
Also in true Monterrey fashion, the trompo makes appearances throughout Taqueria La Macro's small menu: You can order it in tacos, taquitos, tortas, quesadillas and even on hamburgers. And although it's very good on a Gringa taco with asadero cheese, folded into a flour tortilla and grilled until oozing, it's even better on a hamburger.
It's also sort of Mexico's answer to a bacon cheeseburger. Here's how it breaks down:
In place of a hamburger bun, you get buttery torta bread that's crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.
In place of Cheddar, you get white asadero cheese, a Mexican white cheese that's both salty and creamy.
In place of bacon, you get sweet, smoky, tender slices of achiote-colored pork straight off the trompo.
In place of mustard or mayonnaise, I recommend squeezing a bunch of Taqueria La Macro's peppy green salsa on top to cut all the richness from the beef, pork and cheese.
It's a very nearly perfect creation, made all the more wonderful by the fact that it's only $5.95 (including french fries — and that's where you should use the mayonnaise packets the restaurant gives you along with the burger) and even includes softly caramelized onions on top.
Grab a Modelo for $4 or a michelada for $5 and settle in with your trompi-burger while you watch soccer on one of Taqueria La Macro's fancy flat-screen TVs. It's the Monterrey way. By Katharine Shilcutt
Houston's top 10 specialty drinks for the summer
With the cocktail movement booming in Houston, it seems as though you can hardly go to a bar or restaurant these days without encountering a list of cocktails. And on that list of cocktails, expect to find a list of the house specialty drinks — concoctions created by (or for) that bar or restaurant that, ideally, reflect the atmosphere and/or food. But not all specialty cocktails are created equal.
10. Añejo Old Fashioned at TQLA
You may be tempted to order a margarita at TQLA, as well you should. The margaritas here are fantastic — and I'd expect nothing less from a place named after the drink's main spirit, nor a bar which features about 100 different bottles of the stuff. But when you decide you're in the mood for something different, give this grown-up tequila cocktail a shot: the buttery, oaky sweetness of the añejo (or aged) tequila in place of whiskey or brandy provides a deeply different twist on a standard Old Fashioned.
9. Lonestar Dove at Shade
At first glance you'd think the Lonestar Dove — a play on Larry McMurtry's classic Texas novel Lonesome Dove — is a sickly sweet "girly" drink, blushing pink and standing pert in a tall Collins glass. But you'd be wrong. The cocktail is a blend of grapefruit juice, Siembra Azul tequila, Campari, lime juice, lemon bitters and peppy ginger beer. You can barely taste the tequila for the sharp bite of the strongly herbal Campari among notes of citrusy lemon bitters and effervescent ginger beer. In combination with the freshly squeezed juices, it makes for an entirely refreshing and sunny cocktail on a hot day inside Shade.
8. Lonestar Lemonade at benjy's in the Village
There is no actual lemonade in the Lonestar Lemonade at benjy's, and the cocktail might be better for it: There's nothing to distract from the three basic ingredients, all of which are Texas-made. Rebecca Creek whiskey (my own "house whiskey" at home) is combined with Paula's Texas Orange and benjy's own house-made sweet and sour mix, making for a cocktail that has the citrus punch of lemonade with a boozy, adult kick.
7. Frozen fantasticness at Grand Prize Bar
The nightly drink inside Grand Prize's margarita machine varies, but it's almost always a frozen version of a classic cocktail like an Aviation or sometimes even a straight-up daiquiri. They're always delicious and always welcome on a hot, muggy night spent on the Slippery Slope's upstairs patio. Beware, however: These drinks go down fast and are incredibly strong. I once witnessed a grown man bite a woman on the face and then loudly tell every single patron at the bar that he was in love with me after consuming only three. I am not kidding about this.
6.The Trotter at Anvil Bar & Refuge
Hal Brock has spent time at some of Houston's best cocktail bars. These days, he's slinging drinks at Anvil and making signature cocktails of his very own, like The Trotter. Brock employed his Carolina roots to make a "shrub" (an acid-heavy juice made from fruit, sugar and sometimes vinegar) based on Carolina-style barbecue sauce that's heavy with red pepper and vinegar. The result is an incredibly well-balanced cocktail that has the kick of a good East Coast barbecue sauce, offset by the sweetness of pineapple juice, the brightness of lemon juice and the buttery notes of bourbon.
5. Barrel-aged spiced Negroni at Coppa Ristorante Italiano
Coppa is barrel-aging three different cocktails right now, but this is my favorite: This larger one is our barrel-aged spiced Negroni. The Negroni is a really traditional Italian cocktail using Campari, gin and vermouth. Here we are using Tru organic gin, Campari and red vermouth as well as baked apple bitters and black walnut bitters, which is all then aged in our oak barrels. So you get all these great flavors going on with a twist aged on the oak.
4. Modern Man at Hearsay Gastro Lounge
Hearsay's cocktail program has been seriously revamped since its opening just two years ago, when it was determined to steal "Houston's cocktail crown from Anvil." That didn't quite work out, so now the cocktail bar/restaurant has focused on doing its own thing with spectacular results. The Bill's Derby is the only bacon-based cocktail I've ever liked. The Whiskey & Cigarettes is an almost literal interpretation of its name, with a smoky rim that comes courtesy of an open flame and a peaty Laphroaig giving it another layer of charcoal underneath. But the Modern Man is a true triumph: Scotch, dark rum, Swedish punch, Pernod, lemon and bitters. It's risky, strong, bracing, complex and irresistible to anyone bored with cocktails filled with St. Germain and Cocchi Americano.
3. Daisy de Oaxaca at Haven
Haven is one of my secret spots for amazing cocktails, although I realize that constantly trumpeting this fact will make it not-so-secret eventually. Regardless, I love the work that bartenders Aaron Lara, Zachary Adams and Ornella Ashcraft do here — and with old Anvil warhorse Linda Salinas now overseeing service at Haven, the cocktails are only bound to get better. Ashcraft's most recent addition to the cocktail menu is a Whiskey Daisy with a fun Mexican twist: mezcal. The smoky, funky liquor adds a deep layer of flavor under brighter notes of chartreuse, and the entire thing goes down terribly fast.
2. Formula #4 Manhattan at Line & Lariat
This often overlooked hotel bar has one of the strongest cocktail programs in town right now. Go and strike out at Line & Lariat while the iron is hot, and grab yourself one of its five signature Manhattans from its Iconic Manhattan series. My favorite is the Formula #4, which combines vanilla-infused bourbon with peach bitters and Cocchi Americano (hey, I just made fun of that! but seriously, it's a great dry vermouth) to make a stunningly well-balanced cocktail that might even be an improvement on the original.
1. The Other One at Down House
If Hearsay has polished itself up since opening, Down House has undergone a complete makeover. This is one of the rare restaurants I'd like to re-review because of how amazing it's become since my initial write-up. The food menu has been revamped and expanded, the beer list includes hard-to-find selections like Wealth & Taste out of Deep Ellum in Dallas and the cocktail list is a serious connoisseur's dream. Out of that list, my personal favorite is The Other One — another mescal-based cocktail that tastes like the handsome bastard love child of a Negroni and a Last Word. If those two drinks make your motor run, you need to excuse yourself from whatever activity you're doing and head to Down House posthaste. By Katharine Shilcutt
The Steve Buscemi of Chardonnay
Sommelier Sean Beck on translating wine for the masses
"The sommelier is there to 'translate' the wine" for the patron, says sommelier Sean Beck. Beck runs one of the city's most respected wine programs at Backstreet Café. "You're there to make the guests feel confident about their choice" of wine, he explains.
In a city like petrochemical-based Houston, where high rollers and dick waggers negotiate the velvet rope of wine with relative ease while the rest of us have to stand at the back of the party bus, Sean's easygoing, collegial attitude is as unusual as it is refreshing.
Having worked as a "floor sommelier" for more than 23 years (since his early twenties), Sean long ago eschewed the affectations embraced by the majority of wine professionals in our town.
"The other day I heard a sommelier use the word tertiary as he was describing a wine to a guest," as in the expression secondary and tertiary flavors. "I mean, come on, who uses a word like that? When you do that, you're developing a language that the guest has to translate."
In an industry where cerebral and celestial analogies are measures of a gold standard in wine descriptors, Sean prefers to describe wine using metaphors that the rest of us common folk can palate. The other day when I stopped in for a glass of Sylvaner by Abbazia di Novacella (from German-speaking Italy), we compared notes on the 2008 and 2009 vintages of Chablis, he noted that "Chablis is the Steve Buscemi of Chardonnay."
"It can be nervous," he said, referring to its often intense minerality and nervy acidity.
And while there are plenty of wines on his lists that the rich and not so famous can use to one-up each other (he also manages the wine programs at Trevisio and Hugo's, my personal favorite), I find his by-the-glass program to be one of the most approachable and affordable in the city.
A wine program "should be like a hostel, where everyone can afford to stay. I think it's easier to get people to try different wines when they're inexpensive," he said as he poured me a glass of the bright Sylvaner for $11 (which is drinking great right now).
Of course, Sean can afford to take a demotic, balanced approach to sommelier brinksmanship: Having aced Houston's Iron Sommelier competition three times, he has retired from the contest (this year, he is curating the event, to be held at the Houstonian on September 11, 2012, benefiting the Periwinkle Foundation, providing "programs that positively change the lives of children, young adults and families who are challenged by cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and are cared for at Texas Children's Hospital)."
Despite the many accolades he's received and magazine profiles devoted to him, Sean just seems to have always kept his feet on the ground. While we chatted about pH levels in the 2008 and 2009 expressions of Chablis, he seamlessly switched gears as he poured another guest a glass of Russian River Pinot Noir, patiently describing the wine in terms even my mother could understand. No translation required... By Jeremy Parzen
OPENINGS & CLOSINGS
Second and Third Locations Opening Everywhere
After months of speculation on the location of her rumored cocktail bar, Alba Huerta has announced that she'll be opening Julep in the old Corkscrew location at 1919 Washington Avenue. The historic building will be restored to its full glory, showcasing a secluded backroom bar that was built but never used for public service as well as a patio in a space currently used as a garage. Huerta plans a Southern-centric menu of drinks and food at Julep, which will specialize in — you guessed it — bourbon cocktails.
"There's just something special about a finely crafted classic mint julep that strikes a chord with people," says Huerta. "It never fails to bring out a smile." It should also bring a smile to peoples' faces that Julep is adding to the more "serious" side of Washington Avenue, which features craft beer bars like Liberty Station, restaurants like Beaver's and The Broken Spoke, and coffee shops like Catalina instead of gaudy nightclubs. Julep plans a January 2013 opening.
In other booze news, the second location of Sonoma Wine Bar has quietly opened in the Heights at 801 Studewood. "Pssst! Don't tell all your friends, but we're swinging the doors open to our Heights location tonight for a soft opening," the wine bar wrote on its Facebook page last week. "We're pouring delicious wines, cracking open ice cold beers, and serving up artisanal cheese and charcuterie plates." Oops — secret's out.
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Just down the street, it appears that the planned second location Killen's Steakhouse has hit some snags. Eater Houston reports that lease negotiations on the former Stella Sola location were taking far longer than planned, although the building's owner says "that the deal is still on."
Meanwhile, over at West Ave in the Upper Kirby district, Del Frisco's Grille is set to replace the now-closed/consolidated Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar. The restaurant plans to be a less fancy-schmancy version of the Del Frisco Double Eagle Steakhouse in the Galleria, according to general manager Arthur Mooradian, who announced the news on The Cleverley Show.
Not far from the Galleria, 1252 Tapas Bar has opened its third official location at Uptown Park in an unusual case of a suburban restaurant moving into the city. 1252 Tapas first opened in The Woodlands, then Cypress.
Last but not least, The Burger Guys have announced plans for the second location of the popular west-side restaurant: downtown. The Guys are moving into the recently vacated Korma Sutra space at 706 Main. "In the Westchase location, we only have about 30 seats," says Brandon Fisch. "At the new place, we have 100 to 120. It's huge." The Burger Guys eventually plan to offer dinner, but are concentrating now on opening for lunch by mid-September. By Katharine Shilcutt