Patio dining in Houston isn't quite the rage it is in more temperate cities. In fact, even cities like Chicago — which arguably enjoys the same amount, perhaps even less, of patio-appropriate weather as we do — seem to clamor for outdoor dining more than Houston does.
Despite that fact, we are in the midst of ideal patio weather, and Houston has no shortage of enjoyable outdoor space in which you may enjoy the next 17.5 days before we find ourselves in 90-degree-plus weather once again.
With glorious, short-lived patio weather in mind, here are our top 10 (give or take) patios in Houston:
10. The Creeks
Everyone in Houston has thoughts on the Creek family of restaurants — good, bad or otherwise. Luckily for Houston, we have four to choose from. Since no two Houstonians can seem to agree on which one is best, we lumped all four together here. Because all of the Creeks sit within a five-mile radius of one another, we've made it easy for you by picking all of them. For a more laid-back social vibe, we like the simplicity of Onion Creek or the so-called Austin-esque, sprawling hodgepodge that is Cedar Creek. If you prefer to BYOB, Dry Creek's small front patio is the way to go. If you can't be bothered with crushed granite gravel on your nice shoes, Canyon Creek is a far tidier if more stark patio.
9. El Pueblito
Surely you've seen the curious little cabanas and banana trees on Richmond. It's just another random sight — this oasis of white and green — on the patchwork strip of Richmond that's home to the rebuilt Talk of the Town porn shop and just blocks from the Menil. Stepping onto the greenery-draped patio, we wouldn't be surprised if you forgot you were in Montrose at all, even if it is just for a moment.
8. Jasper's and 1252 Tapas
With shopping, restaurants, bars and even a theater ringing its central green,The Woodlands Market Street offers something for most everyone. That central green area really is the highlight here, and to that end, Jasper's and 1252 Tapas both offer enjoyable views on their patios. While we prefer 1252's fare to the curiously stacking-obsessed platings at Jasper's — seriously, go look at its Facebook page — you can't deny that Jasper's slate- and steel-lined patio is stellar.
7. Brooklyn Athletic Club
At just under three months old, this is the youngest restaurant on our list. Not content with the perfectly acceptable patio inherited from Zimm's Little Deck, Brooklyn Athletic Club has gone full bore, adding an array of lawn games and a beer bar out back while retouching the front deck as well. We can't wait to spend spring camped out on Richmond with a pint.
6. Backstreet Cafe
There is a solid reason Backstreet Cafe always finds itself on lists like these. While the elegant old house is nothing to scoff at and the menu is as solid as ever, it's the patio that draws the attention. The outdoor seating is as classically beautiful as the people you see dining there. For our money, skip the weekend circus and stop in during the week for a more low-key look at a Houston tradition.
5. The Lake House and The Grove
Discovery Green does double duty here, serving as the backdrop to two exceptional patio spaces at two vastly different eateries just yards apart. For casual bite to eat, The Lake House is steps away from the activities and playgrounds of Discovery Green. For a more refined patio space, The Grove offers a small front patio with a view that actually exceeds the tree-shrouded rooftop deck. Both patios have tables offering exceptional views of the highly underappreciated east side of the downtown skyline, which has changed dramatically in the past few years.
4. The Tasting Room Kingwood
Overlooking the serene Lake Houston in Kingwood, The Tasting Room's patio has a view unavailable anywhere else in town. The brick paver patio lined in clean black steel fencing offers a peaceful surrounding to enjoy a glass of wine and dinner over the lake. Just don't go expecting the exact menu found at the Uptown Park or River Oaks locations, as each menu varies. You can still get the truffle fries, though, and they are a sure winner.
We are suckers for a New Orleans courtyard-style patio, and the rebuilt patio at Brennan's is a great example. The central oak tree may need another decade or two to fill out, but considering Brennan's stood for more than 40 years before succumbing to a fire during Hurricane Ike, we have a feeling that tree will be shading customers for years to come.
2. Tiny Boxwood's
With the addition of chef de cuisine Amanda McGraw in the kitchen, things are looking even brighter for one of Houston's sunniest spaces. It is with good reason that Tiny Boxwood's — which shares a spot with a nursery and landscape architecture firm — boasts one of the most beautiful and unique outdoor spaces in the city. Nighttime is looking up as well, since the restaurant has added dinner service and begun screening films on the grass terrace every Saturday evening.
1. Monarch at the Hotel ZaZa
Now helmed by executive chef Jonathan Jones, Monarch is still a see-and-be-seen hot spot, with tongue-in-cheek decor that is unmatched in Houston. The sweeping canopy patio offers views of Mecom Fountain and the 100-year-old oak trees lining Main Street. At night, the patio is illuminated by strands of red lights, adding to the sex appeal of the already swanky patio.
Crawfish Watch 2013
Massive Houston demand brings crawfish season earlier each year.
The tiny, peckish crawfish I ate last weekend at The Hideaway on Dunvale — my preferred spot for crawfish — would seem to indicate that although crawfish are available in Houston, crawfish season has not yet truly arrived.
This is a point of contention every year among crawfish lovers, who clamor for the bugs earlier and earlier each season. Spring arriving early in Houston hasn't helped matters, as the first gloriously warm and sunny days after winter are usually an indication that it's time to cake your face in crawfish guts.
"The season used to run from the end of February, and it would go into June," says Jim Gossen, owner of Louisiana Foods and the man primarily responsible for introducing crawfish to Houston starting in the 1980s. Crawfish season changes from year to year and is dependent primarily on water levels in Louisiana's Atchafalaya River Basin. The state accounts for between 90 and 95 percent of annual U.S. crawfish production, in which rice fields and crawfish farms typically operate as one.
"Now," says Gossen, "they start in November in the rice fields and run until they start planting again for rice." The reason? Demand, which has only increased since the 1980s and shows no signs of slowing down.
Gossen recalls growing up the child of rice farmers in Louisiana in the 1950s and 1960s, when crawfish boils were held mostly at home and rarely in restaurants. If you bought crawfish instead of eating the wild ones that appeared when the levees were cut, they were 17 to 18 cents a pound on average. "Thirty cents a pound was considered very high," he says.
These days, crawfish farmers can get $3 to $3.50 a pound for crawfish when demand is high — especially demand from Texas.
"I would venture to say that they sell as much crawfish in Houston as they do in Louisiana," says Gossen. "That big demand has really gotten people [in Louisiana] starting to fish them early."
Gossen agrees, however, that just because you can get crawfish this early in the season doesn't mean that you should. Both Gossen and former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh preach a paradigm of crawfish eating in which the best bugs don't typically arrive until after Easter.
This model has its detractors, of course, like former Eating...Our Words blogger and New Orleans resident Jason Bargas, who says the beginning of crawfish season coincides each year with Mardi Gras — which has already come and gone. Bargas consistently boils the best crawfish I've ever eaten, which engenders a certain amount of trust.
Another way to gauge peak crawfish season is by finding out which of your own trusted restaurants are boiling bugs. BB's Cafe started serving crawfish every day of the week on February 13, the day after Mardi Gras. Beaucoup Bar & Grill, however, has not. Neither has Danton's, where chef and owner Danton Nix is famously picky about serving crawfish only at the height of the season.
"My favorite time is always March and the end of April," says Gossen, who agrees that the current crop of crawfish is producing some pretty puny tail meat — but not for much longer.
"They're telling me that they should start getting much bigger in a week or two," he says. "It ought to be a really good season."
If you can hold out a few more weeks, until the really good crawfish start arriving, you'll find that the wait was worth it: Not only will the crawfish be larger, the price tends to drop as the season goes on. Whereas farmers right now are selling the crawfish for $3 a pound on average, Gossen says, "wait until they're bigger and more abundant, and they may be getting $1.80 or $1.90."
But if you just can't contain your craving any longer, there's a silver lining to the small, expensive crawfish currently for sale across Houston right now: More meat, which may seem paradoxical, but Gossen explains that a large crawfish has an average meat-to-shell ratio of 10 percent. Smaller crawfish actually boast a ratio closer to 14 to 15 percent.
"A small crawfish with no big claws, you're getting a better ratio of meat," says Gossen. There is one catch, he warns. "You've got to peel more of them."
50 percent of seafood sold in Texas is mislabeled.
Think that tai sushi you're eating is red snapper? It's far more likely to be tilapia, says Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based ocean conservancy organization. This isn't a new concern, of course. Former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh wrote a scathing exposé of the issue back in 2001, "Fish Fraud," in which he documented the red snapper substitutions rampant in Texas. And yet the problem persists.
Oceana released a new study two weeks ago in which it found 33 percent of the fish samples it analyzed from across the United States were mislabeled. The most frequently swapped-out fish? Snapper and tuna, which had mislabeling rates of 87 percent and 59 percent respectively.
The two-year-long study analyzed 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states and found that Texas was one of the worst offenders. According to Oceana's data, nearly half the fish sold in retail outlets and restaurants in Texas is mislabeled. The only other areas of the country worse at telling escolar from white tuna were Southern California (52 percent of its samples were mislabeled) and Pennsylvania (56 percent).
These findings echo previous studies done by outlets ranging from Consumer Reports and the Chicago Sun-Times to the University of North Carolina, which found in 2004 that 77 percent of fish being sold as red snapper was actually another species entirely. Mislabeling seafood is illegal, although the Food and Drug Administration — which is responsible for monitoring this area — typically focuses its efforts on food safety, not food fraud.
"It is very difficult for consumers to purchase a real red snapper in Austin and Houston," the Oceana study reported. "None of the eight 'red snapper' samples tested were true red snapper: Three were tilapia, two were breams and three were less expensive snapper species."
Dr. Kimberley Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana, says that although the sample size in Texas was small — with only five samples from Houston analyzed — the results were on par with the same seafood fraud that's occurring across the nation, especially in restaurants. While 38 percent of restaurants carried mislabeled fish in Oceana's study, only 18 percent of retail outlets had fish swaps.
"You have stronger labeling requirements in grocery stores," Warner says. "Right up front you see a bit more information about your seafood than on a printed menu." On the other hand, restaurants — "sushi bars in particular," Warner said — are worse about mislabeling their seafood and offering that tilapia in place of red snapper, "unless a customer asks a lot of questions."
A whopping 74 percent of sushi restaurants were selling mislabeled fish, which means customers need to be particularly discerning when it comes to ordering their next piece of nigiri — especially in Texas.
"Every sushi sample purchased in Texas was mislabeled," the study reported. "Escolar was swapped for white tuna in both sushi venues where it was purchased, which is a fish that can cause unpleasant digestive effects in some who eat too much."
More troubling, however, are the high mercury level swaps, in which fish with high levels of methylmercury are subbed for supposedly safer fish.
"The most egregious substitutions," Warner says, "were king mackerel swapped out as grouper in Florida and tilefish being swapped out as red snapper and halibut in New York.
"Those instances weren't extremely common, but to find them at all was disturbing to me," Warner says. High amounts of methylmercury are typically found in large predatory fish like black bass, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Excessive consumption of these types of fish can be toxic for certain groups of people, such as pregnant women and children.
And not even salmon, that most recognizable of fish, is safe from swaps, says Warner.
"The kind of salmon fraud that had been reported in the past was farmed salmon being substituted for wild-caught Atlantic salmon," Warner says.
Farmed salmon has been spotlighted in recent years as a poor alternative to its wild-caught kin, for reasons ranging from high concentrations of several cancer-causing substances in the farm-raised fish to the pollution that degrades ocean waters around salmon farms and puts wild-caught populations at risk of disease.
In a bit of good news, however, Warner says that because 2012 was "a spectacular year for sockeye salmon," the wild-caught fish was abundant and the prices correspondingly lower. And where there's not much room to make money, there are fewer instances of fraud. In almost all the states where salmon was tested — including Texas — most of the samples tested as bona fide wild-caught salmon, as did the samples of mahi mahi and wahoo.
Another silver lining, says Warner, is that as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, supply chains for Gulf seafood feature much more transparency than in other parts of the world. And it's supply chains where the fraud is occurring.
Warner praised the "traceable seafood that is available in the Gulf," encouraging Gulf Coast residents to "seek that out and support the people that are doing the right thing."
Examples of these traceable supply chains close to home include retail operations like P.J. Stoop's weekly by-catch sale at Revival Market and restaurants such as the always-reliable Captain Benny's boats that are scattered around Houston. Captain Benny's has bought its seafood from a single distributor — Dutchman's Seafood — since opening, and elaborated on its Facebook page last week:
Dutchman's Seafood had been a long time player in the Houston seafood business, dating back to the 1940's. Once owning and operating their own shrimp boats, oyster reefs, processing facility, retail outlet and distribution network, Dutchman's was involved in just about every step of the business. ... Today Dutchman's Seafood is still owned by the same family and still sells directly to their own Capt. Benny's Restaurants insuring the quality of the products they offer.
Warner offers similar advice to consumers looking to ensure their own seafood-purchasing experiences go well.
"Establish good relationships with the people you buy your seafood from," she says. "Ask questions. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is."
Lunch and a Lager
Saint Arnold Brewery launching weekday lunch program.
Houston's oldest craft brewery once hosted a tour only once a week, back in the days when the Saint Arnold Brewery was still located in a warehouse that lacked both air conditioning and space for its growing crowd of fans. Four years ago, the brewery moved into a big new facility at 2000 Lyons that offered plenty of room for its expanding lineup of beers as well as even more guests. And in 2010, it began offering tours six days a week.
One common complaint I heard from people trekking out to Saint Arnold for tours, however, was this: There's no food. The brewery has always encouraged people to bring their own meals (as well as board games and other entertainment) to the tours. But for those who didn't realize the area immediately surrounding the brewery is bereft of dining options, the lack of food in the vicinity was frustrating.
Saint Arnold can't magically build restaurants in its neighborhood, but that's okay — it's doing its guests one better. The brewery will now be offering lunch five days a week starting in mid-March.
"It seems like a pretty logical thing to me, especially if you have a lot of people coming in to see your brewery," says chef Ryan Savoie, who was recently hired away from The Grove to head up Saint Arnold's new kitchen. Prior to working at The Grove, Savoie was the executive chef at Alto and has been a fan of Saint Arnold from the beginning. When he heard about the new position opening up at the brewery, he acted fast.
"I sent in my résumé immediately," Savoie says. "As soon as I heard about it." After a few conversations with the brewers and founder Brock Wagner, Savoie was hired.
"I've been a fan of the beer for quite a long time," he says. "And I like the way that Saint Arnold is run. They make a very, very good beer and they're very accessible people."
To that end, Savoie is creating a menu that's equally approachable. His menu proposal contained dishes such as roasted chicken with tarragon dumplings and haricots verts; fried chicken with corn succotash; housemade pappardelle with pulled chicken, mushrooms and tarragon; and pork chops with braised apples and figs.
"Or maybe peaches when those come in," says Savoie, who wants to keep the daily three-course menus seasonal.
Appetizers will range from wedge salads to onion soup with Gruyère, while desserts will be made in-house and be as classic as the entrées. Think chocolate cream tarts, lemon pound cake and tarte tatin.
Because lunch will be served in the brewery, expect some of the dishes to be cooked with beer, but not all.
"When it can be used, I'll certainly use it," says Savoie. But featuring Saint Arnold beer in every single recipe could quickly become hamfisted, something Savoie recognizes. Instead, look for beer pairings to go along with each day's new dish. And if you find a favorite meal, enjoy it while it lasts.
"Popular menu items will come around again," says Savoie, "but I also probably won't do the same thing like every Thursday."
Even vegetarians should be pleased with the new lunch offerings. "We're going to try once a week to have three courses that don't feature any meat," Savoie reports.
"Not for any particular reason other than I think it would be something good to do — a good, three-course vegetarian meal."
Lunch will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and will be separate from the daily tours, which still start at 3 p.m. during the week and 11 a.m. on Saturdays. Tours still cost $8, which includes a souvenir glass and four fill-ups from the taps in the grand second-floor beer hall, where lunch will also be served.
In keeping with the tours, the price point of the daily three-course menus will also remain low-cost: The prix fixe menus will never cost more than $20.
"Brock's pretty adamant about that," says Savoie, who's excited to start serving food that he feels falls right in line with Saint Arnold's overall philosophy.
"I want to make this food that's really good but accessible, just like the beer."
Openings and Closings
The Big Sleep for The Big Mamou.
Last week, Eating...Our Words got the scoop on a few upcoming openings to keep an eye on, starting with the new Fat Cat Creamery ice cream parlor opening this summer in the Heights. Owners Jarvis and Sarah Johnston plan to sell eight flavors of their popular hand-packed ice cream, mixing five standard flavors with rotating seasonal ones. In addition, look for the ice cream shop to stock everything cool from milkshakes and malts to sundaes and sodas.
Owner Joshua Martinez plans to open downtown ramen shop Goro & Gun within the next month now that he's perfected his ramen recipe and hired a few front-of-house faces. Alex Gregg (previously of The Pass & Provisions and Anvil) will be the bar manager, while Mikey Nguyen (previously of Uchi and Kata Robata) will man the floor. And right around the corner, Latin tapas joint Batanga looks close to opening soon, too.
Meat mecca CK's Steakhouse from Killen's owner Ronnie Killen and Hubcap Grill owner Ricky Craig has hit a few snags in the Heights, reports Alison Cook in 29-95. Although the restaurant originally planned to open this month, Cook writes that the renovation of the old Mr. Shine Car Care building would have to be raised by three feet in order to be approved by the City, since it falls within a 100-year floodplain. Instead of undergoing such an exhaustive redo, Killen and Craig now plan to build a new restaurant from the ground up.
Oak Leaf Smokehouse is now open on Telephone Road in the space that previously housed Pete's BBQ but looks to offer some dishes very different from what you'll find at your typical barbecue joint. CultureMap's Tyler Rudick reports that owners Brian Lewis and Lisa Kuhfeldt plan to make not only Texas barbecue, but also Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City-style 'cue, too. But that's not all.
"In addition to spreading the gospel of BBQ, Oak Leaf is upping the ante in the sides department as well," writes Rudick, by "offering beans, slaw, potato salad and corn pudding that are all vegetarian and gluten-free."
In a bit of sad news last week, The Leader reports that Heights-area Cajun restaurant The Big Mamou shut its doors February 28. Owners Rufus and Brenda Estis cited "family commitments" as the reason for closing their four-year-old restaurant.
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.