Fresh, fast vegan fare at our No. 2 pick.
Fresh, fast vegan fare at our No. 2 pick.
Troy Fields

Pass the Vegenaise

Top 10

It's becoming easier than ever to go vegan in Houston, with local restaurants filling nearly every niche possible: You can get vegan baked goods from Sinfull Bakery, wedding cakes from Jodycakes or all-raw falafels at Pat Greer's Kitchen. There are food trucks like Bare Bowls, which makes exquisite vegan meals with vegetables fresh from Urban Harvest's farmers' markets.

Snap Kitchen carries its own take-out vegan meals — even if it doesn't always mark them as such. I like its oatmeals or mueslis for breakfast and its red-and-green salad or a vegan green curry for lunch. You can even get a cauliflower "steak" or spicy sambal tofu for dinner.

And there are plenty of restaurants, too, from an all-vegan Mexican taqueria to an upscale vegan wine bar (with attached juice bar for the mornings). You can get vegan pizza, vegan Chinese, vegan sushi, vegan Indian, vegan Vietnamese — you name it, and Houston's got it.

Here are ten of our current favorites for vegan meals, although be warned: Not all of these restaurants are entirely vegan. A few are simply standard restaurants (great for eating with a mixed group of veg and carnivorous friends) that offer great vegan options.

10. Doshi House

This newish coffeehouse in the Third Ward started out as just an art gallery, but has grown over time to offer everything from smoothies and fresh juices to vegan soups, paninis and dinner dishes. (Beware: The paninis come with cheese, so just ask Doshi to leave it off.) Oh My Pocket Pies is also selling its wares at Doshi, and all of the pies are vegetarian if not vegan. And although the pastries from area bakers La Unica and Ashcraft aren't vegan, owner Deepak Doshi is currently looking for vegan bakers to fill out his pastry case.

9. Quan Yin

This vegetarian/vegan restaurant is the perfect option for people craving their favorite meat dishes but unwilling to give up their meat-free lifestyle. Not only is the entire menu free of all animal products, seafood and eggs, but Quan Yin actually uses soy products and wheat gluten to re-create traditional meat products. For example, summer rolls have fake "bbq pork," and their faux chicken is the house specialty. Omnivores will get a kick out of testing the authenticity of the menu items, while vegans and vegetarians will enjoy not being relegated to limited dining options.

8. Field of Green's

Field of Green's meat-free menu (there is some fish) has a wide range of dishes, including a raw vegetable rainbow plate, green bean hummus wrap and six different kinds of veggie burgers. The knowledgeable staff makes ordering easy and will happily explain the difference between tempeh and tofu or make substitutions to accommodate those with additional dietary restrictions. Carnivorous companions will be pleasantly surprised by the meatless BBQ chicken salad or hearty eggplant parmesan.

7. ZPizza

One of the few pizza places in town to offer both vegan and gluten-free options — it's a California-based chain, after all — ZPizza always manages to impress with its regular, run-of-the-mill pizzas, too. The Bissonnet location is more geared toward delivery and takeout, but has a cheerful if basic dining room. You can order its most popular options by the slice or build your own with a huge selection of sauces, cheeses and toppings, including the surprisingly creamy vegan cheese, Daiya, which is so good you won't miss the dairy-based stuff. You can also BYOB here — and there's even a Spec's right across the street.

6. Roots Bistro

Vegan but still like an upscale dining experience or a thoughtful wine list? Roots Bistro in Montrose was almost custom-built for you. Although vegan chef German Mosquera recently left, new exec Chandler Rothbard is set to keep the menu interesting and modern — while very vegetable-friendly at the same time. Try the charred okra with maple syrup to start or the "squashta" made with seasonal squash, topped with squash blossoms and vegetables in a tangy tahini dressing. For dessert, there's a wickedly good raw chocolate chai ganache with persimmon puree.

5. Pepper Tree

Pepper Tree is best known for its $9.99 buffet, which features vegetarian Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine as well as a few Western dishes. Anything normally made with meat is reimagined here with textured vegetable protein and more: Tofu versions of Peking duck, General Tso's chicken and kung pao chicken all come out tasting delicious. The modern, calming decor, the spotless interior and the friendly, knowledgeable staff make this the place for the novice or the experienced vegan. The wonderful owners, Happy and Mike Tsai, even serve de-chlorinated, triple-distilled alkaline clustered water in an ultimate health-conscious display.

4. Loving Hut

Yes, Loving Hut is run by a cult. But that cult makes damn good vegan food, so I'm willing to overlook it. (Anyway, it's not like these are Scientologists we're talking about.) The menu at this far-flung West Houston restaurant is primarily Asian-focused, with Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese-influenced dishes, but there are also more Americanized dishes like the Loving Hut Burger (with a soy patty and Vegenaise) and the Savory Spaghetti made with tofu. Half restaurant, half cafe serving fresh-squeezed juices, Loving Hut offers something for everyone — as long as they don't eat meat. You can even grab some of its more popular items, pre-packed, from the freezer to take home.

3. Cafe TH

This adorable EaDo banh mi shop doesn't bill itself as vegetarian or vegan, but offers excellent vegan Vietnamese food nevertheless thanks to conscientious owner Minh Nguyen, who's always looking to accommodate his loyal customers. Its coconut milk-thickened vegan curry has swayed every carnivore I've introduced to the stuff, and even landed on my list of 100 Favorite Dishes (as did the vegan fried avocado taco from Radical Eats). Cafe TH also offers vegan pho, vegan bun, vegan com dia, vegan bo luc lac (all made with tofu) and vegan eggrolls.

2. Green Seed Vegan

The original vegan food truck has expanded into a brick-and-mortar operation, although it's kept its base in the Third Ward — a neighborhood that's underserved by restaurants with healthy options. Green Seed's location on Almeda serves all of the food truck's popular items — and more. Juices and "elixirs" made with wheatgrass, fruits and veggies are made to order. All of the menu items, including the juices, are vegan — and many are entirely raw. But your best bets are the tempting Dirty Burque, which is good enough to stand up against any meat-based burger, and the spicy Tosh panino with maple-jerk tempeh made in-house with garbanzo beans instead of soy.

1. Radical Eats

Vegan Mexican food? Why not? Lard makes a lot of things better, but its use is rendered moot here at Staci Davis's all-veggie paradise. Instead, she's perfected a tortilla recipe that features no lard at all — nor are her tamales, enchiladas or tacos laced with the fatty stuff. Instead, she batters and fries avocados and stuffs them into tacos with a creamy, spicy slaw and makes spinach-and-corn tamales that are just as good as the "real" thing, especially paired with cold aguas frescas. Most of her food comes from the garden out back or local farmers, and the cooking is mostly done by volunteers. Sunday brunches are lavish affairs, but are also first-come, first-served, so get there early.

Wine Time

Unusual Wine Descriptors
Cat piss, horse sweat, wet dog, barnyard.

One of the pet peeves at our house is gooseberries.

No, not the berries themselves, but the people who use the descriptor gooseberry when writing a tasting note.

As one wine blogger put it, "New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc's classic description is smelling like cats' pee on a gooseberry bush. If you grew up both cat-less and gooseberry-less, you might be clueless as to what that smell might be like."

I can't say that I've ever plucked a gooseberry from a gooseberry bush and tasted it. Nor have I tasted elderberry flower, star anise or "burning embers," to borrow a descriptor that the "emperor of wine," Robert Parker Jr., once used to describe a 100-point wine.

Many wine writers and wine bloggers employ a healthy dose of braggadocio when composing their tasting notes, often using aromas and flavors that the rest of us humans do not commonly come into contact with (see this great post on the nature of tasting notes by BrooklynGuy, "Writing Tasting Notes Is Not Easy").

The other day when we posted on "What Is Terroir and Why Is It Important in Wine," a reader asked about the relationship between (the descriptor) barnyard and (the notion of) terroir.

That got me thinking about some of the more curious and often counterintuitive tasting descriptors used in wine writing. Here are some of my favorites:

Barnyard, a term often used to describe the nose of red wine, particularly Burgundy. It's a euphemism for shit.

Cat piss, one of the classic notes in the nose of Sauvignon Blanc, often euphemized as tom cat (but if you've ever smelled a great expression of Sauvignon Blanc, you know that it smells like piss).

Wet cardboard, sometimes used to describe cork taint but also often used in tasting notes for Chablis. As one wine professional once said to me, "It's either corked or it's Chablis."

Wet dog, a term that once caused a major kerfuffle when employed by a famous Wine Spectator editor to describe a revered Barolo.

Horse sweat, a canonical descriptor I often reach for when tasting red wines from the Rhône.

Dirty socks, a term often used to describe reduction in wine (when a lack of oxygen makes the wine smell like farts when first opened). Jeremy Parzen

Restaurant News

Changes Downtown
Openings and closings, October 2012.

Once again, last week's big restaurant news takes us to downtown, where Ziggy's Healthy Grill at 702 Main has closed. Owner Kevin Strickland has decided to take a completely different approach with the 18-year-old restaurant and is rebranding the remaining Montrose location to gratifi (pronounced "gratify").

But when one door closes, another one opens. Such is the case next door to Ziggy's, where The Burger Guys opened their new downtown location at 706 Main. Their grand opening was Wednesday of last week, serving an estimated 350 hungry customers at lunch. "Well, we no doubt made a ton of mistakes, but we are still alive and so very grateful for customers' patience today!" Tweeted owner Jake Mazzu afterward.

Speaking of new locations, Union Kitchen has just signed a lease that will give the restaurant a spot in the Heights. Its first two locations in Bellaire and Memorial are already doing well, and now the locally owned mini-chain hopes to conquer the popular Heights restaurant corridor. Swamplot reports that Union Kitchen will open in the ground floor of a new six-story apartment/condo building at 1111 Studewood.

Three restaurants/coffeehouses opened very quietly recently, but that didn't stop Eater Houston from getting a first look at two of them: Nosh Bistro, at Kirby and Highway 59, which is being billed as a pan-Asian cafe with both East Asian and South Asian influences. Nosh has a community table and a cocktail program, two aspects which have apparently become essentials when opening any new restaurant. Etoile Cuisine et Bar, meanwhile, opened in Uptown Park last week and is serving small dishes such as mussels and escargots as well as well-priced entrées like wild boar linguine and lemon sole meunière.

And after much anticipation, CultureMap reports that Montrose coffeehouse Southside Espresso from coffee roaster Sean Marshall is finally open. "Marshall tells CultureMap that Southside will be open from 7 a.m. to midnight beginning on Saturday," writes Whitney Radley, "and that he's expecting to receive a license to begin selling wine within the next few weeks."

Over at Haven, sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston has opened his own in-house raw bar that's housed inside Haven but serves an entirely different menu. Cove was built out of Haven's bar area, with lovely glass walls separating it from the rest of the restaurant. And although it will still serve Haven's classic cocktails, the greatly expanded bar will now also do double duty as Gaston's spot from which to experiment with raw preparations (of both fish and meat) from across the world.

The hidden Italian compound off West Dallas that houses Nino's, Vincent's and Grappino's has a new addition to la famiglia: La Gelateria, which — as its name would imply — is a gelato bar. Located in the landscaped courtyard between Nino's and Vincent's, La Gelateria offers a variety of gelato flavors to eat on the go or at one of the tables on the well-manicured patio. It will be open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 5 until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Finally, a reader has alerted us to a new pho restaurant she likes in the Champions Forest area off FM 1960. The family-owned Ba Mien Bistro at 5102 FM 1960 West has "a very modern, chic look to it," according to our tipster. Katharine Shilcutt

Top 10

In the Neighborhood
Top 10 restaurants in the East End.

The East End is undergoing some necessary growing pains right now as a new generation of Houstonians rediscover the neighborhoods right next door to downtown. Construction of a METRO light rail to connect the East End with the main line has had Harrisburg torn up for some time, but is nearly complete. The much-anticipated Dynamo stadium in EaDo has already hosted one successful season and the Dynamo are now headed to the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs. And these are just two of the things attracting business to the east side of town.

Moon Tower Inn owners Brandon Young and Evan Shannon aren't just planning on reopening Moon Tower itself on Canal Street in the coming months — they're also opening two additional concepts in their East End neighborhood. The Gift Horse Lounge will be a "small neighborhood bar with good drinks and great prices," said Young in August, while The Slice and Foam Co. will sell New York-style pizza by the slice and craft beer. And the Laurenzo family is betting on Navigation by opening a new, $1.75 million El Tiempo alongside longtime Tex-Mex warhorse Ninfa's.

Add to that the recent listing of the old KBR site — a 136-acre parcel of land with stunning skyline views of downtown and a location directly along a scenic portion of Buffalo Bayou — and you'll see the East End is ripe for further redevelopment. Although what will be done with the acreage is still up for debate, one thing is certain: The East End is changing rapidly, and this entire Top 10 list could well be moot this time next year.

So gather ye taquerias while ye may and enjoy the spots that have anchored the East End for years, places like Fiesta Loma Linda, 888 Chinese, Taqueria Alma Latina, Villa Arcos and Merida — and our ten favorite places below.

Disclaimer: The cartographic basis for selecting these restaurants was the official map of the East End, which roughly places its boundaries at Clinton Drive to the north, I-45 to the south, 610 to the east and parts of 59 to the west. That means nothing in EaDo, which will be a separate entry coming in the next few weeks, but plenty in neighborhoods such as Eastwood, Magnolia Park and the Second Ward.

10. Taqueria el Alteño

The atmosphere at Taqueria el Alteño is the main draw, as the food is simply average-to-good. That said, the food is simple, sturdy and inexpensive — so there aren't any real complaints there (and the chilaquiles with crema at breakfast are genuinely outstanding, even if they come with french fries). Tortas are enormous and so are the refreshing licuados, which are served in fishbowl-size glasses. On Sunday mornings, a live emcee croons norteño favorites and makes general commentary on everything from the weather to the sports scores from over the weekend. In a hurry? There's a drive-thru, but you'll miss the friendly service and live music inside.

9. El Greco

This hybrid Greek restaurant/panaderia offers a cuisine not often found in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood — but this cross-pollination of cuisines is very Houston nevertheless. One side of the giant strip center that houses El Greco is a nicer-than-normal panaderia with cafe tables and chairs, while the other side offers homemade Greek food from owner Anestis Papadopoulos, who once owned an auto parts shop down the street. His pita bread is as good as his pastries, and his pastichio comes topped with a thick, fluffy mantle of nutmeg-warmed béchamel sauce. Gyro meat can occasionally be tough, but El Greco's strong Greek coffee will help overcome one of the rare poor meals here.

8. Bohemeo's

The beloved East End gathering spot for live music, coffee and open mike nights was recently sold by longtime owners Lupe and Sid Olivares to a pair of Houstonians who are fast becoming fixtures themselves: Kent Marshall, owner of TK Bitterman's and Market Square Bar & Grill, and Keith Adkins of Fontana Coffee Roasters. Marshall and Adkins have already brought some big changes to the space, including a great new tap lineup of local and craft beer. The limited food menu has so far remained intact, but daily specials like a Swiss chard quiche (made with chard from The Last Organic Outpost) are being added. And although the new team plans to move away from live music, husband-and-wife team Lupe and Sid will still be around: Sid still plans to do art nights and Lupe will still rock the weekly Beatles nights.

7. Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito

At Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito, the house specialty is the trompo. It's not cooked the "authentic" way here — the pork rotating on a spit, gyro-style, with slices shaved off to order — but it's still good. (You can find authentic trompo at Karanchos if you're interested.) The taqueria keeps the trompo spit in the refrigerator to comply with Health Department regulations, then shaves pieces of the bright achiote-colored pork off and grills them before placing them into homemade corn tortillas that are golden and nearly crisp from their own turn across the griddle.

6. Champ Burger

Champ Burger has been open since 1963, and the original owner, though retired, still pops in often to check on his creation — which is usually manned by at least seven cooks during the busy lunchtime rush. Although Sparkle's Hamburger Spot may be more well-known as the East End's premier burger stand, Champ Burger one-ups it with breakfast tacos and its oft-touted "original Texas Size Steak Sandwich," basically a burger with a chicken-fried steak instead of a hamburger patty. All seating is outside the little burger stand, with tables either covered or equipped with large umbrellas to provide some shade. And although the Hershey's chocolate shake is our favorite, Champ Burger is equally well-known for its orange milkshakes, which taste like soft-blended Dreamsicles. Although Champ Burger finally takes credit cards after years of being cash-only, it's still only open during the week.

5. El Petate

A homey Salvadoran establishment with seven-day-a-week hours and a welcoming dining room, El Petate is a great place to explore Salvadoran cuisine beyond just pupusas. Try the salpicón, tender shreds of beef that you tuck into fat corn tortillas, or satiny-soft Salvadoran tamales — some stuffed with sweet corn and topped with tangy crema. But the pupusas — homemade and hot off the griddle — are the big draw here. And don't be afraid to dig into the communal plastic jar of curtido that's placed on your table when you order; the cabbage is for everyone to enjoy and the hot, fatty cuisine tastes so much better when perked up with some cool, crisp, tangy curtido.

4. Mandola's Deli

This unassuming little brown brick building on Leeland (just before it turns into Telephone Road) has been serving hearty Italian-American meals since 1975. Frank and Debbie Mandola are still there most days, but their son Joseph has mostly taken over now and is always ready with a handshake and a smile for his customers. The popular lasagna and Italian beef sandwiches are now available at dinner, too, as the restaurant no longer just serves lunch. Even better: The Mandolas have an excellent and well-priced selection of Italian wines and beers to go along with your dinner, too, as well as a pleasant patio on which to enjoy them.

3. Kanomwan

Located in the same historic Tlaquepaque Market as Bohemeo's, Kanomwan has a cult following that speaks for itself. Sometimes the people who eat here communicate with each other using menu item numbers like a secret code. They also insist that Kanomwan puts an addictive substance in the food that keeps them coming back at least once a week. There's a healthy dose of heat in just about everything, but the kitchen will happily make things spicier for you — at your own peril. Although the famous "Thai Nazi" — former owner Darawan Charoenrat — has now sadly passed away, Kanomwan tends to have a wicked sense of humor when customers mess with the menu. Definitely check out the pork toasts (A3), tom yum goong (S1), tom ka gai (S3), pad panang (H5) and whole fried snapper with chili sauce (H11). Then you too will make the weekly trek out to Telephone Road with your bottle of wine or cooler of beer to quell your addiction for some sweet, sweet S3.

2. Los Corrales

This unusual spot is a dried beef factory first and foremost, with a tiny wisp of a restaurant attached. Despite what you'd think, though, both the food and the service are outstanding. Los Corrales is most popular at breakfast, when people crowd in to get machacado con huevo — made with its signature product — or breakfast tacos made with its own fresh tortillas. (By the way, along with bags of dried beef, you can also order those freshly made tortillas to take home, too.) At lunch, you can find old Tex-Mex classics like entomatadas and aporreado that have long since disappeared from more mainstream and modern Tex-Mex spots.

1. Ninfa's on Navigation

The quirky Navigation original still can remind you what all the fuss was about — especially now that its menu has been tightened up and revamped in areas by chef Alex Padilla. Peerless beef fajitas, complex green and red salsas and hand-patted flour tortillas define their genres as they have done for years, while the quesos, carnitas and grilled platters seem largely undiminished. Meanwhile, Padilla's new dishes are as much of a draw: lobster nachos topped with saffron spinach or chiles en nogada stuffed with shredded pork, apples, raisins and almonds and topped with a walnut sauce. And although the new patio is big and welcoming, the old back room — with its snaky a/c ducts and paucity of right angles — remains a nonstop party. Katharine Shilcutt


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