Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners have been announced, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we're rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!
Here in Houston, it's usually really damn hot. Except for recently, when it's been too cold to move, and all we want to do is sit in our cars with our heaters on and let someone hand us food through a little window. Okay, we want people to do that when it's hot, too. And when the weather is nice.
Look, we don't need a reason to sit in our cars like lazy bums. Drive-throughs are one of the best inventions ever. They save you the trouble of having to walk, except from your door to your car and back. They allow you to avoid human interaction by dealing mostly with a metal box from which a disembodied voice emanates. They make it okay to order a dozen tortillas and an extra large queso at 2 a.m. away from the prying eyes of the public.
And in our fair city, you can get just about any kind of food you want from a drive-through. That's a reason to hop in the car and celebrate.
It's a classic. Founded in Oklahoma in 1953, Sonic's menu may have changed over the years, but the great drive-up service hasn't. Roller skates aren't a job requirement, but at select locations you can still find servers who will deliver food to your wheels on their wheels. And don't forget happy hour from 2 to 4 p.m., when all drinks and slushes are half-price. That means you can get a giant Berry Lime slush for just over a dollar.
9. Becks Prime
I'm fortunate enough to live right down the street from the original Becks Prime, which means I can get a healthy and pretty darn good ahi tuna burger, veggie burger or fresh Mediterranean salad from the comfort of my vehicle in less than ten minutes. Of course, I don't get those things. I get Becks Prime's awesome milkshakes and house-ground Angus beef burgers, 'cause those are the really tasty treats!
8. Taco Cabana/Tornado Taco
Taco Cabana gets points for being everywhere and for its fresh salsa and tortillas. Tornado Taco gets points for keeping our buddies out in the Missouri City/Sugar Land area full of hearty breakfast tacos and Tex-Mex lunch items like the Mexican Sandwich "Torta" with barbacoa. Both have indoor seating, but the drive-throughs are more efficient, so you don't even have to think about whether to put on pants when you're headed that way.
7. James Coney Island
Yes, we know, it's now called JCI Grille. It confuses us, too. But that doesn't make the hot dogs at James Coney Island JCI Grille any less awesome. The original hot dog stand opened in 1923, and the menu now includes burgers, sandwiches, salads and ice cream, in addition to the gourmet hot dogs created by local chefs. And these days, there's even a JCI app, adding a whole other level of convenience to an already convenient and tasty place.
6. Ritter's Frozen Custard
People may be more familiar with Freddy's Frozen Custard or Connie's Frozen Custard, but Ritter's Frozen Custard in Katy takes the cake. Or ice cream. Whatever. Point is, Ritter's has an extensive menu full of various custards, toppings, milkshakes and handmade waffle cones. The custard is made fresh at each location every day, and if you're feeling truly adventurous, you can get a custard cake. Not sure if they pass those through the drive-though window, but it's worth a try, 'cause they're cool, creamy and delicious.
Our initial encounter with Salata's drive-through may have been problematic, but the local chain has since worked out the kinks in its few stand-alone businesses, and drive-through salads are a go! Currently, the Salata in Westchase is the sole Houston location with a drive-up window (and you do still have to order in advance), but the concept of a healthy and flavorful fast-food meal is continuing to take off, which means more salad drive-throughs in our future.
The beloved burger shop closed for a while in 2012, but a devoted fan took over in 2013 and brought it back from the dead. New owner Shawn Salyers continues to serve the same burgers that made Mytiburger popular when it opened way back in 1967. The classic roadside burgers fly in the face of gourmet burgers topped with foie gras or bacon chutney, which are all the rage in Houston these days. Instead, they're just good old-fashioned hamburgers cooked to order and prepared with care whether you're inside the quaint spot or waiting outside in your car.
It's open 24 hours. The drive-through is fast. It's cheap. The milkshakes taste like they're made with real ice cream, even though I know they're not. The burgers are thin and crispy on the outside. Some of them come thick (and hearty) and topped with A1 sauce. For breakfast, there's the ever-wonderful honey butter chicken biscuit or the B.O.B.® Whataburger is fast, cheap, consistent, tasty and ours. You're welcome, rest of the country.
2. W Grill
Three words: Drive-through margaritas. They shouldn't be legal, but somehow they are (because this is Texas, folks). While the 11 varieties of margaritas and mixed drinks run a little on the sweet side, they certainly don't skimp on the booze, and you can add an extra shot for only $1. The drive-through "seals" the margaritas in a plastic bag, making them — technically — closed containers. The rest of the food, like the salmon BLT or the fish tacos, is pretty great for drive-through cuisine, but the margaritas are what makes W Grill really shine.
1. El Rey Taqueria
El Rey is not your typical fast-food joint. Sure, the food comes out fast, but what we have here is a full-fledged Mexican-Cuban restaurant. Where else can you pick up a succulent, golden-skinned rotisserie chicken and plantains, complete with Mexican rice and pork-laced charro beans, at a drive-through window? Or a steak and eggs breakfast with caramelized onions and perfectly fried eggs? Or a grilled chicken salad with fresh mangos, pico de gallo, avocado and spicy cilantro dressing? Or tres leches and flan? Not to mention, they do breakfast. Drive-through Cuban coffee, anyone? I rest my case.
Oysters and Tuna Tacos
First look at Caracol.
'I could come here just for this," I thought to myself as I sampled the unbelievably tasty ostiones asados, or wood-grilled oysters, topped with chipotle butter at Caracol. The first of several dishes I tried during my first visit to Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught's new coastal Mexican seafood restaurant in the BBVA Compass building on Post Oak Boulevard, it is without a doubt their signature dish, the one you have to order every time you go.
Not only were the oysters mouthwatering to look at, but the flavor and texture were incredible: Each slurp of silky-smooth, molten, hot oyster tasted of mild oceanic salinity that ended with a great crispy, buttery, spicy finish. Parmesan-grilled oysters can commonly be found throughout Latin America — from Mexico to Peru and Chile — but Caracol's non-cheesy version is simply outstanding. I polished off six oysters by myself (and could easily have scarfed down a few more).
The food is just one of the things that make Caracol one of my favorite new restaurants to open in Houston this past year. The design of the restaurant is open and airy, with high ceilings; clean, modern lines; and a color palette of creams and pale powder blues that evokes the feeling of a coastal resort. Wall art is understated, depicting sea creatures from fish to the vibrant red squid that dominates the eastern wall. You could transport this restaurant to a beach in Mexico and it would easily fit right in. The lighting is attractive without being too bright or dim, and the noise level is controlled so that you can easily converse with someone sitting across your table. The service staff, wearing simple ruffled Mexican peasant shirts, are attentive, enthusiastic and friendly.
But back to the food. The menus are arranged so that the small, appetizer-size plates occupy the two outer columns with the larger, more substantial entrées in the middle. During my first visit, I didn't make it past the small plates, sampling items like a brilliantly conceived carnitas-style tuna taco, wherein chunks of tuna were prepared to mimic pork carnitas. The meaty flesh of the tuna had a crisp outer sear and mingled with bright slivers of red onion and a Sriracha-like spicy hot sauce to make one helluva gourmet-tasting fish taco.
A shrimp aguachile looked like a work of art, served on a small plate over rounds of paper-thin cucumber that had been arranged in an overlapping pattern to form the base of the dish. Although there were deep rust-colored dots of a smoky spicy sauce, I wished there had been a more pronounced acidity, like you'd find in ceviche. Nonetheless, I couldn't quibble with the authenticity of the preparation, because it tasted just like aguachile dishes I'd tried in Mexico.
A warm octopus salad, in which the octopus had been braised until tender before being finished on the grill, was another standout. Served with a mix of chunky roasted root vegetables, the dish was as vibrant in color as it was smoky and complex.
On a subsequent visit, I was part of a group of four, again opting to forgo the entrées in favor of ordering several small plates to share. We ended up with what was, in effect, a ten-course tasting by the night's end.
We started with the aforementioned favorites, along with a plate of fall-off-the bone costillas, or pork ribs; a snapper sashimi appetizer (the least memorable of the night); a fantastic mixed seafood campechana; a delectable chilpachole de jaiba, or softshell crab soup; and the signature ceviche de caracol, or conch ceviche, the sea snail after which the restaurant is named.
Sliced up into long, thin rectangular slivers, the conch is placed on the plate in five small mounds, steeped in a marinade of pineapple, red pepper and ginger. The spice hits you at the onset but disappears immediately, and what you're left with is a kind of spicy sweet and sour taste as you absorb the wonderful textures of the conch itself. Imagine the quick bite of a fresh squid sashimi, the slight elasticity of a clam and the meaty chewiness of abalone all at the same time — that is what you experience when you chew on the conch.
On the libation front, Sean Beck — who oversees the beverage programs at Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe and now Caracol — has done a superb job creating a wine and cocktail program that effortlessly marries with the food at Caracol. For the ceviches and lighter dishes, he has by-the-glass options and full-bottle choices that were selected to enhance the food experience. This is what happened when he suggested a Jankara Vermentino Italian white from a small producer in Italy. Crisp and dry, with a fruity-floral nose and a light, easy finish, the wine paired well with all our ceviche and light fish dishes. When our blue crab soup came out, he suggested a slightly effervescent Riesling that was so perfect it had my girlfriend proclaiming, just as I did when I'd tasted the oysters: "I could just come here and have this soup and this wine, and I'd be happy."
It was a mantra that I could apply to the desserts as well. There's a strawberry rhubarb empanada served with a pale pink rose petal ice cream, a modern version of strawberry pie à la mode that is delightful. But the pièce de résistance is a genius creation by pastry chef Ruben Ortega called El Coco. Yes, I could visit Caracol just for that. A large six-inch chocolate sphere arrives at the table, complete with a small wooden hammer. When you hammer it open, it breaks apart to reveal layers of meringue, cream and textured crumble that perfectly captures the taste of a fresh coconut.
Anonymous Yelp Reviews
Not so anonymous anymore.
So much for free speech.
Two weeks ago, a Virginia court ruled that Yelp must turn over the identities of seven anonymous reviewers of a carpet store because the commenters may not have been actual customers. According to Yelp's terms of service:
"You may expose yourself to liability if, for example, Your Content contains material that is false, intentionally misleading, or defamatory; violates any third-party right, including any copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret, moral right, privacy right, right of publicity, or any other intellectual property or proprietary right; contains material that is unlawful, including illegal hate speech or pornography; exploits or otherwise harms minors; or violates or advocates the violation of any law or regulation.
The part that stood out to the court in Virginia is the bit about "material that is false." According to the court, such statements aren't protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. By that logic, neither are your restaurant reviews on Yelp or your anonymous comments on blogs unless they're clearly non-libelous opinions or verifiable statements of fact...Right?
I hope you saved those dining receipts.
In the case in Virginia, the 25-page majority opinion was written by Judge William Petty, who said, "The anonymous speaker has the right to express himself on the Internet without the fear that his veil of anonymity will be pierced for no other reason than because another person disagrees with him."
However, he went on, if "the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead, the review is based on a false statement." As such, it's no longer subject to First Amendment protection.
That makes sense in theory, but how do you police something like that? Yelp is concerned that its users will no longer feel sufficiently safe to express their opinions without fear of retribution. After the ruling, the company released the following statement:
"We are disappointed that the Virginia Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that fails to adequately protect free speech rights on the internet, and which allows businesses to seek personal details about website users — without any evidence of wrongdoing — in efforts to silence online critics. Other states require that plaintiffs lay out actual facts before such information is allowed to be obtained, and have adopted strong protections in order to prevent online speech from being stifled by those upset with what has been said. We continue to urge Virginia to do the same."
The defense believes that the lawyers for the carpet company couldn't adequately prove that the people who wrote the negative reviews were indeed never customers. The carpet company claims that the individuals' names are nowhere in its database, and they must have therefore fabricated their comments on the business. But what if this burden of proof becomes the standard? Will people have to photograph their receipts in order to post a review on Yelp? And if so, Yelp wonders, what will businesses do with this information about their unhappy customers?
The topic of Internet anonymity is a tricky one. Anonymity leads to what psychologists call "deindividuation," wherein societal norms are abandoned because identities are hidden. It's why people can be real assholes in a comment section, writing things they would never say in "real" life. It's what caused dozens — if not hundreds — of commenters to write horrible reviews of Amy's Baking Company in Arizona when many of them had never even been there. Similar things have happened at restaurants across the country in response to a negative depiction in the media. Suddenly, everyone's a critic, but with great power comes great responsibility to not be an arrogant ass just because you can.
But while it is unfortunate that people will write negative feedback about a place they've never eaten at or a service they've never used, it's even more unfortunate that the right to anonymity is being taken away because of a few self-centered idiots. Though this ruling isn't likely to directly affect Texas in the near future (we have more stringent standards for proving defamation here), it could affect the way people review restaurants online now that they know their opinions aren't necessarily anonymous.
This type of ruling could eventually force other websites that allow anonymous commenting (you know, like Eating...Our Words) to take away that right over fear of lawsuits. No, we don't really like it when you say mean things to us, but, yes, it's your right to do so.
So how do you think this decision from Virginia will affect online restaurant criticism? Will you continue to use Yelp now that you know your identity and personal information aren't necessarily protected?
Openings and Closings
Say it ain't so, Hubbell & Hudson.
For those living in Spring and The Woodlands, last week brought sad news about two establishments. The first tale of woe concerns Koya Asian Kitchen in Spring.
In one of the saddest restaurant closing announcements we have seen, Koya Asian Kitchen posted on Facebook that the barely three-month-old restaurant was forced to close due to a sewage odor circulating thoughout the restaurant. The post explains how the restaurant lost customers because of the smell. Though the issue was being fixed, the loss of business forced the owners to close their business.
While Koya's closing brought disappointment to the Spring area, the announcement of Hubbell & Hudson Market's scheduled closing in March brought much disappointment to The Woodlands area. Kaitlin Steinberg reports that the market and cooking school will close, but the bistro and kitchen will remain open.
According to Steinberg, "An unnamed source provided CultureMap with documents showing that the grocery store has lost millions since it opened and that consultants for the company did not believe it could compete with Whole Foods or nearby H-E-Bs." Head to Hubbell & Hudson to stock up on your favorite products before the market closes — dry-aged beef, anyone?
We reported a few weeks ago that Mo Mong had closed for renovations and that the Vietnamese restaurant would reopen soon. However, along with new decor and new menu offerings, Mo Mong has also changed its name. Eater reports that the restaurant will become Dua when it reopens. Owner Viet Hoang tells Darla Guillen of Eater that he decided to make the changes to the restaurant to cater to Montrose residents. He tells Eater: "People in Montrose are more educated on different types of food; there are more foodies and adventurous people."
Eater's Guillen announced the opening of Andes Cafe from chef David Guerrero, formerly of Samba Grille. Andes Cafe was set to open on January 18 and will offer a BYOB service. Guillen explains that the restaurant will feature South American foods. According to Eric Sandler of CultureMap, the menu at Andes Cafe will include the pepito, a Venezuelan sandwich, and Ecuadoran steamed cakes for breakfast. Guerrero has also added sodas from South America and Peruvian coffee from Katz Coffee to the menu.
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The much-anticipated Dish Society was scheduled to open officially on January 20. Eater reports that the executive chef, Johnny Romo, has created a menu that Eater describes as "contemporary Americana." The supper menu includes items such as chicken bruschetta, kale tostada, quinoa-stuffed avocado and four-cheese truffle mac. Expect to see dishes made with ingredients from Homestead Gristmill in Waco, Bee Wilde Honey in Montgomery and Texas Hill Country Olive Company in Dripping Springs. Of course, local brew selections will include beers from Karbach, Saint Arnold, Southern Star and Buffalo Bayou.
Cook & Collins was also scheduled to open on January 20. According to a press release, the restaurant will serve dinner only during its soft-opening stage; brunch and lunch will be added soon. Chef Jared Estes explains that "Cook" was his grandparents' last name and "Collins" comes from his favorite drink, the Tom Collins.
Swamplot reports that Mercantile will open a second location later this year, in the Montrose area. The Rice Village coffee shop tweeted that there will be a new location at Audubon Place soon. No official opening date (or month, for that matter) has been announced.
Just as you probably were thinking that there were enough El Tiempo Cantinas in the Houston area, another one is coming, this time to Webster, and it's supposed to be the largest one yet. Eater announced that the new location will begin serving food near the end of April. You can't have enough Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston, can you?