Praise the Lord and Pass the Pints
Just 24 months ago, making a list of Houston's ten best beer bars would have been far easier. Since that time, not only have a ton of new beer bars opened up, many places have elevated their game. In fact, our rough draft for this list boasted more than 20 bars.
It's true that a solid handful of bars could make a case to be on this list, so much so that we're sure we left out at least one of your favorites. A few, such as Cottonwood and Nobi, are too new to be considered. Some places from our initial list were just too far away to be considered, like Brews Brothers in Galveston.
Still more barely missed the cut, which made picking the eighth-, ninth- and tenth-place spots far more difficult than determining our top three. Each and every one is a contender, and we expect this list to look vastly different next year as a result.
10. Down House
This Heights wunderkind is finally on stable ground after a few shaky opening months. The tap list is small but usually packed with Texas beers that regularly hold best-in-state status. At one point this year, Down House's tiny tap lineup contained four of the top 15 Texas beers, according to Ratebeer.com. That's an outstanding batting average. This is also one of the few surefire places to find Live Oak on tap in Houston. It doesn't hurt that the leather couches are some of the most comfortable places in town to throw back a pint.
The youngest bar on our list, Underdogs is one of the early signs that Washington might be able to survive its ongoing collapse and become a viable — and far more egalitarian — entertainment district. Owned by two passionate former bartenders, Underdogs boasts some of the cheapest craft pints in the city. A solid bottle list is home to some surprising rarities typically reserved for the shelves at Spec's downtown. We just wish it were closer to the already strong east end of the Washington corridor.
8. Mongoose Versus Cobra
Newcomer Mongoose Versus Cobra started off as a beer bar but has found itself working to become more well rounded. One of the best-looking bars in Houston, Mongoose also has strong cocktail service, so this is a smart place to bring those pesky non-beer drinkers you inexplicably still hang out with. You will always be able to find a solid beer here on its lengthy tap list and large-format bottle selection.
7. BRC Gastropub
One of the most enjoyable and well-rounded small tap lists in Houston is set in one of our favorite dining rooms. The long marble bar at BRC Gastropub is always home to a strong lineup of Texas breweries and selections of American craft beer from around the country. Every Tuesday, pints are just $3 and you can fill up on half-price appetizers.
6. Liberty Station
This is a drinker's neighborhood bar, staffed with knowledgeable service alumni from places like 13 Celsius and Petrol Station. Exceptional cocktails are topped only by the small but well-represented tap list and impressive can and bottle selection. This old gas station has seating in well-sectioned areas both indoors and out. Also worth noting: the curated pop art from local artists that rotates monthly, letting Liberty Station function as one of the most well-visited galleries in the city.
Another old-school beer haunt, Rudyard's is many things to many people. Not satisfied to be a singular style of watering hole, Rudyard's manages to function as equal parts neighborhood bar, music venue, pub and beer bar — and it scores top marks in each category. No other bar in Houston offers a pint of craft beer, an exceptional cheeseburger, and top-notch touring and local music in one fell swoop. You also cannot call yourself a craft beer fan in Houston without having attended one of chef Joe Apa's monthly beer dinners.
4. The Ginger Man
It's hard to imagine that the posh, sprawling, oak-lined bar of The Ginger Man in Manhattan spun off from the small house in Rice Village, a Houston original. Its American craft selection cannot stand up to the next three big guys on this list, but the selection of European beers is among the best in the city. It's also very hard to beat a pint on The Ginger Man's back patio in springtime.
3. The Hay Merchant
Now celebrating its first anniversary, The Hay Merchant has had very few noticeable hiccups in its infancy. Server knowledge here is stellar, as Hay Merchant easily boasts the most well-rounded and well-trained staff in the city thanks to owner Kevin Floyd's university-style training courses. As with most other bars on this list, nights and weekends can be hectic. But if any bar can handle the traffic, It's this one.
2. The Flying Saucer Downtown
With a selection of bottles and taps that's second to none for breadth, the original Flying Saucer seems to have been elevated by its new, younger sister in Sugar Land. The bar now boasts a dedicated cellaring area in its cooler for aging bottles and kegs, and service is at its best in recent memory. Despite being well over a decade old, Flying Saucer is still a force to be reckoned with. We had a hard time choosing between the two locations, but gave the nod to the original over its streamlined new sibling largely for nostalgia and central location.
1. Petrol Station
The first Houston bar to focus solely on American craft beer has finally expanded the kitchen as well as the backyard. Further improvements — proof that no one should leave a chalkboard menu in the hands of a bunch of bearded man-children — include rewriting the once nearly unreadable beer menu in a legible format. Is it coincidence the first female bartender in Petrol Station's history started recently? Never afraid to shy away from its nerd roots, Petrol Station had sectioned its beers into Youngling, Padawan and Jedi the last time we visited. At just under 40 taps and no bottle selection to speak of, the bar doesn't have the selections of our second- and third-place winners, but the choice of rarities combined with untouchable special events makes Petrol Station our 2012 Best of Houston® winner for Best Beer Bar.
Houston Heats Up
Eight semifinalists announced for 2013 James Beard Awards.
Everything's bigger in Texas, including the number of chefs, restaurants, bars, wine programs and more that were nominated as semifinalists in this year's James Beard Foundation Awards. You know the one — the so-called "Oscars of the food world." It's kind of a big deal.
The Lone Star State received 25 semifinalist nominations from the James Beard Foundation, ranging from restaurants in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio way out to El Paso and Marfa. But it was Houston that netted the most nods, with eight.
Oxheart and Underbelly are both semifinalists for the Best New Restaurant award, with their chefs independently nominated in two other categories: Oxheart's Justin Yu is a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, while Underbelly's Chris Shepherd is a semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. Shepherd says he was taken by surprise last week when he heard the news.
"I was just standing at Blacksmith getting coffee, and my sous chef calls me and says, 'You might want to check Twitter,'" Shepherd said. He laughed, thinking, "Oh no, this is going to be bad."
Of his and his restaurant's nomination, Shepherd said simply: "It's cool when you can do what you want to do and people like that. It's cool when your staff believes in it and when your cooks believe in it and when the city believes in it. That really means something to me."
Joining Shepherd in the Best Chef: Southwest category is Hugo Ortega of Hugo's. Ortega was nominated as a semifinalist last year as well and advanced to become a finalist at the James Beard Awards in New York City, although he ultimately lost to Paul Qui.
The Goodes, a multigenerational Houston restaurant family, were also recognized by the Beard Foundation. Levi Goode of Goode Company Restaurants is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for the restaurants that he and his father, Jim, have made into Houston success stories over the years: Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Taqueria, Armadillo Palace and Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Q.
"That's amazing to me," said Shepherd, who was happy to see longtime restaurateurs recognized as well. "They started this little barbecue joint and all of a sudden, it's an empire. They keep it family-run. It hasn't been taken over; it's theirs and it's what they believe in.
"It's a testament to the city."
Fleshing out the Houston semifinalist nominations were Anvil Bar & Refuge for Outstanding Bar Program and Tyson Cole for his work at both the Houston and Austin locations of Uchi. Cole is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Chef category.
Dallas racked up seven semifinalist nods and Austin six, with notable mentions for Stephan Pyles in Dallas (Outstanding Chef), Nick Badovinus in Dallas (Best Restaurateur for Flavor Hook, Off-Site Kitchen, Tried and True, and more) and Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin (Rising Star Chef).
Alongside Ortega and Shepherd in the Best Chef: Southwest category were fellow semifinalists Jason Maddy of Oak in Dallas, Teiichi Sakuri of Tei An in Dallas, David Gilbert of Sustenio at Éilan Hotel Resort & Spa in San Antonio, Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, Armando Pomales of Café Central in El Paso, Maiya Keck of Maiya's in Marfa, Rene Ortiz of La Condesa in Austin and Bryce Gilmore, once again.
"You can really see that Houston is kind of really on its way now," said Shepherd of the city's serial semifinalists. "And it's really good to see that." Quickly, he added with a chuckle: "Not that it hasn't been before — but you start to see us being up for multiple nominations, and it's cool to see that.
"You know how I feel about this city and how great it is," Shepherd said. "It's always been either Dallas or Austin, but now it's our time."
The finalists for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards will be announced on Monday, March 18. The awards themselves will be presented in New York City on Monday, May 6.
On the Menu
40 Days of Fish
Where to eat during Lent.
Lenten season is upon us. Many people have decided to give up something in their lives that they love, and most of the time that something ends up being food or drink. I'm talking about beer, chocolate, candy, coffee and meat.
Devout Catholics also abstain from meat throughout the Lent season, so several Houston restaurants have decided to make the next few weeks a bit easier by offering menus that cater to those Lenten needs.
D'Amico's Italian Market Cafes
Rice Village at 5510 Morningside, 713-526-3400
Heights at 2802 White Oak, 713-868-3400
D'Amico's two cafes, in the Heights and Rice Village, offer seafood specials during lunch and dinner. Alongside their daily menu items such as fire-roasted pizzas, soups, salads and handmade sandwiches, D'Amico's serves seafood dishes such as crawfish ravioli, snapper avocado, blackened salmon or seafood gumbo.
This chain restaurant offers a Lent-friendly menu filled with options that are just as tasty as those items now off limits. You can add Cajun shrimp to a Caesar salad, Caesar wrap or po-boy. Try their taco salad with Lent-friendly veggie chili for a hearty lunch or dinner, or one of their spuds — plain, with cheese, veggies or topped with their veggie chili.
Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood
4611 Montrose, 713-807-8883
Head on over to Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood for homemade seafood dishes like their jumbo lump crab cakes, barbecue shrimp or one of their many oyster dishes for an appetizer. Danton's also offers shrimp, oyster or catfish po-boys; a crab cake burger; and several stuffed fish dishes such as stuffed redfish, shrimp and flounder.
Berryhill Baja Grill
3407 Montrose, 713-523-8226
You can still satisfy your Mexican food cravings during Lent. Berryhill Baja Grill offers vegetable and seafood options in almost all its menu categories. Start your meal with chips, queso and guacamole, or a shrimp and avocado salad followed by a seafood burrito, mushroom and poblano quesadilla, or one of Berryhill's spicy fish tacos.
1103 S. Shepherd, 713-521-2239
Backstreet Café offers a Meatless Monday menu on its Facebook page and a vegetarian menu alongside its daily brunch, lunch and dinner menus. Choose from a variety of brunch options ranging from brioche French toast and gingerbread waffles to a crispy lobster sandwich and crab cakes and eggs. For lunch and dinner, try one of its various pasta dishes, mushroom soup with blue cheese toast, and a portobello burger on brioche bun with feta, grilled zucchini, pesto and red bell peppers.
1601 Richmond, 713-522-5650
This is probably not the most likely place to find a Lenten-friendly burger, but rather than spending an exorbitant amount of money just to get a simple fish sandwich, try Lucky Burger's hand-breaded fish burger for less than $5 or its veggie burger with grilled zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions for $4. Aside from burgers, Lucky Burger also offers a popcorn shrimp salad; fried rice with shrimp; fish and chips; and side orders of fried vegetables.
3139 Richmond, 713-807-1300
2701 White Oak, 713-868-8000
2710 Montrose, 713-524-4499
New Orleans-style cuisine is a good option during the Lenten season. BB's Café has three locations, all offering classic New Orleans dishes and BB's own "Tex-Orleans" meals. Order blackened redfish, a fried alligator po-boy or a crawfish tostada. And there's always the New Orleans favorite of crawfish étouffée, in cup or bowl size.
The Cajun Stop
2130 Jefferson, 713-222-8333
Try The Cajun Stop's gator bites or spicy fried pickles for an appetizer; a shrimp, oyster or crab salad; or one of its seafood po-boys. If you're in the mood for a lot of food, order the Fisherman's Paradise platter, filled with fried butterfly shrimp, crispy oysters, catfish and Cajun-fried soft-shell crab.
Openings and Closings
Taco USA Takes The Woodlands.
There were lots of good scoops last week from around the city, so let's get straight to the action.
Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler reports that pastry chef Roy Shvartzapel — who's worked in kitchens from El Bulli to Bouchon — plans to open an "avant garde and modern approach to the cafe experience" at the corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy next door to Agora. The University of Houston graduate doesn't yet have a name for the cafe, but tells Sandler he'll be offering pastries (naturally) as well as gelato, sandwiches and fresh bread.
But don't expect just another corner bistro. Shvartzapel is swinging for the fences. He tells Sandler that his new restaurant isn't "about wanting to be the best pastry offering in Houston" but "the best in America."
In other openings news, new Montrose Tex-Mex steakhouse La Casa de Caballo opened February 18 after renovating the structure at 322 Westheimer, which once housed La Strada. Owner Carlos Abedrop has a popular steakhouse of the same name in Saltillo, Mexico, and this new Houston spot marks his second location.
Reginelli's Pizzeria is now open, reports Delicious Mischief host John DeMers. The west Houston pizzeria is located across Gessner from Memorial City Mall and has quite the pedigree: It's partly owned by Alex Brennan-Martin of Brennan's Houston and Ti Adelaide Martin of Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
Also open, according to B4-U-Eat, is Taco USA, which is something of a legend in East Texas. The Woodlands Events blog explains that the original Taco USA in Nacogdoches — run by Ottis Byers — was one of the most popular restaurants in town for 14 years, until Byers sold it. The new buyers weren't very good at running restaurants, it turns out, and Taco USA closed two years later, in 1994.
Now, Byers's sons, Chad and Jeff, are opening a brand-new Taco USA using the skills they learned working for their father in the original Nacogdoches restaurant (which also had a location in Lufkin). The new iteration of Taco USA opened last week in The Woodlands in the Grogan's Mill Village Center. Wrote Taco USA on its Facebook page:
"WOW....What a first day. It was great to see so many new and also familiar faces yesterday. A special thanks to Mark VanDover. Not only was he down from Lufkin to be the first in line when we opened, after he finished his meal he hung our NOW OPEN sign out front for us."
B4-U-Eat also reports that the Palazzo's Trattoria in Upper Kirby has been sold. February 23 was its last day in business. "After extensive renovation, Chef Fritz Gitschner will be opening a new concept at 2300 Westheimer," read this week's B4-U-Eat newsletter. However, it reports, the other two Palazzo's locations, at 2620 Briar Ridge and 10455 Briar Forest, "will not change."
The family-run Fratelli's Authentic Italian Cuisine Restaurant is closing after 13 years in business. Owners Bob Wittman and Teresa Tadeo Wittman lost their lease, and their last dinner will be served on Saturday, March 16.
More sad news comes from the Galleria, where Swamplot reports that the iconic two-story McDonald's on Post Oak has been demolished to make way for a "28-story luxury tower — with 3-bedroom units going for $1.3 million." Is it odd to root for a fast-food chain? In this case, I'll take what was the nicest McDonald's in town over another luxury high-rise any day.
Last, Washington Avenue sports bar Sawyer Park closed last week, four years after nearly demolishing the famous Pig Stand that once occupied its corner space, as reported by our sister blog Rocks Off. Few tears were shed for the demise of the bar, which commenters called "outwardly racist," "Douchetopia," "Jackhole central" and "a club aimed at the nouveau riche where this new money tells the other new money that theirs isn't good enough."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.