First off, we want you to know that we think Houston has a killer restaurant scene. We have some truly top-notch eateries in this town, and we're damn proud of them.
That said, everyone messes up from time to time. Chefs, waiters and restaurateurs all do stupid things. And we totally forgive them, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to call them on it. So we did a quick survey of our Houston Press food writers and came up with these gut reactions.
Think of this article as a public service. It's a means of inciting a discussion about what really chaps our asses (and your asses) about the Houston restaurant scene. And maybe, if we're lucky, our combined forces can help bring an end to the likes of bonito flakes and margarita flavoring.
One can only hope.
Sure, a beautifully designed plate of food is fun, but not if it comes at the cost of losing the quality of flavor in the dish. Today's chefs seem to be focusing more on the plating and presentation than on the quality and taste of the dish. More often than not, the best dishes are the simple ones, without frou-frou sauces spread across the plate like a painting. Focus on the taste more than the presentation; the quality of food is becoming less important than its appearance. MOLLY DUNN
Look, if a burger is good enough, it doesn't need a bunch of bells and whistles to make it delicious. Enough with the avant garde peanut butter and jelly burgers or lobster and foie gras-topped creations (offenders, you know who you are). Don't put a Frito pie on top of my burger and call it a burger. You just invented something else entirely. Good for you. Now make me a burger. Just give me a hunk of juicy, high-quality beef; a toasted bun; lettuce and tomatoes; and some killer pickles. If you must, add some bacon or cheese. But THAT'S IT. Let the good ingredients do the talking instead of masking them with grilled fruit or chips I can get out of a vending machine. KAITLIN STEINBERG
Overly Large Portion Sizes
There used to be a restaurant called Tejas on San Felipe. When I was in college, some family friends took me there, and I ordered the chicken-fried steak. When it came out, the dish boasted two large, piled-on-top-of-each-other, at-least-16-ounces chicken-fried patties. The mound of mashed potatoes that came with them was enough to feed four or more, and my friends stared at me aghast, asking, "You're going to eat all that?" The single portion was enough to feed six, maybe even more. While Tejas isn't there anymore (in its place is Yia Yia Mary's), it irks me when I order a half portion of pasta and get enough to feed three. That gourmet burger piled high with a thousand accoutrements looks scary to me instead of mouthwatering, and the fact that Houstonians demand — and get — 16-ounce steaks (do we need to eat that much, really?) is disturbing when the protein serving size recommended by nutritionists is three ounces. Our state may be big, but our waistlines and our portions don't need to be. MAI PHAM
When I go out to eat, I like to take my time. I'm paying to enjoy food at a restaurant, so I don't want to feel like I have 30 minutes to order, eat and pay the check. Just about every restaurant I have eaten at asks me what I want to drink before I even have a drink menu in front of me — sometimes the second I sit down. At least give me some time to look over the menu before you pull out your pencil to write down my drink order. If you're going to do that, I'm just going to order water and you're not going to make any money off me from ordering a drink. Not only am I rushed to order drinks, but even if I say there's no rush on the food and that I would like each course to come out separately, either everything arrives at the same time or the second one plate is cleared, there's another one sitting in front of me. If I wanted fast food, I would go through the drive-through. Waiters need to respect diners' time a bit more, especially if they say there is no rush. MOLLY DUNN
The Bonito Crutch
Bonito is a type of tuna that is flaked after drying. It's a critical ingredient of dashi, a clear stock that is a building block of Japanese cuisine. For the past several months, though, bonito flakes have been showing up all over the place...on top of roasted peppers, custards and soups, among other things. I'm waiting for someone to try and pass them off as a sundae topping. The popularity of bonito flakes is understandable. They're easy to use: Just grab some out of a bag and sprinkle them on top. Anyone can do it. Bonito flakes add umami and texture and do a wiggly little dance on top of hot things as they melt. (Depending on one's opinion of food that moves under its own power, that's either fun or disturbing.) However, it seems that they've become a crutch used at the expense of actual creativity. Are there no other ideas on how to add umami and saltiness to a dish? Bonito has become the new bacon, which leads me to ask, "What's wrong with the old bacon?" I'm hoping to see some other inventive, savory garnishes in the future. PHAEDRA COOK
Too Many Tasting Menus
Is it just me, or is the overabundance and overpricing of tasting menus becoming obnoxious? Sure, I love having the opportunity to sample several dishes in small-plate form, but when the prices soar to nearly $50 or $60 a person, it's just ridiculous. Either lower the price, increase the size of the plates or leave the small plates to tapas restaurants. I'd like to feel I'm getting my money's worth, but a few tiny dishes that don't even make me completely full aren't worth it. MOLLY DUNN
"Margarita"-Flavored Baked Goods
Guess what? It may be five o'clock somewhere, but it's not at your bakery. Ever. So, cease and desist, please, with those "margarita"-flavored cupcakes, cookies, etc. A margarita is a frosty (note, not frosted) adult beverage I drink during Tex-Mex happy hours or sometimes at home listening to Jimmy Buffett by my lonesome. It is not a flour and water and sugar concoction that requires chewing and possibly a napkin. I gather this was your very flawed line of reasoning in creating this abomination: People like margaritas. People like cupcakes. People will like margarita cupcakes. Wrong. Well, maybe a few mouth-breathers will buy into this tomfoolery, but I promise you most everyone else will take your sheet cake with fluorescent "margarita" icing as an insult to baked goods as well as to cocktails. Leave the margaritas to the barmen and the cupcakes to the bakers. Some worlds shouldn't collide. JOANNA O'LEARY
Okay, so whipped cream and meringue are both types of foam. And I'm cool with those. It's the stupid parmesan foam and tomato foam and freaking bacon foam I can't tolerate. I blame Ferran Adrià, the Spanish chef behind the now-defunct elBulli restaurant in Catalonia, for the foam craze. Even though elBulli closed in 2011, the foam thing is still going strong here in Houston and across the United States, and I just don't get it. Foam is glorified suds, people. And what's more, it doesn't even look appetizing! It generally looks like someone spit on your food. With foam in the picture, you have no way of knowing if your waiter hates you or if you're eating something expensive and innovative. Though my vote would be both. Let's all just make a deal right now to keep the foam on cappuccino, and only on cappuccino. You do that, and I'll save my rant about molecular gastronomy in general for another day. KAITLIN STEINBERG
Junk Food on Anything
If I wanted Flamin' Hot Cheetos on my sushi roll, I'd probably be pretty high, and I don't do that (hi, Dad). Rumor has it the orange puffs have even been seen dusted atop a Dr Pepper short rib-topped macaroni and cheese. No. Just no. I'm already eating enough crap to have to worry about Funyuns sneaking onto my bánh mì. Let's leave the stoner shit to Taco Bell, okay, Houston? BROOKE VIGGIANO
Saint Arnold Expands Distribution to Colorado & Florida
The Houston brewery still thrives in Texas.
Saint Arnold is heading east and west. The local craft beer brewery will begin offering several of its beers in Colorado and Florida at the start of the fall season. While the dates are not set in stone, Marketing Director Lennie Ambrose and marketing team member Jeremy "Jerm" Johnson said a few of the Saint Arnold beers, including the Pumpkinator, will be available to Colorado and Florida residents in September.
Saint Arnold beer will be sold alongside Colorado Front Range and in the northern region of Florida.
Ambrose explains that Saint Arnold has become a familiar name in the Colorado market, especially after winning a total of 16 medals at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, including in 2010, when the brewery was awarded the gold medal in the German-Style Kolsch category for Lawnmower as well as the silver medal in the Scottish-Style Ale category for Oktoberfest.
But that wasn't enough to get them in the Colorado and Florida markets. Ambrose explains that an employee rep who helped them launch in Louisiana in 2010 moved to Colorado, and the brewery decided to have her help them distribute there.
"She was moving to Colorado, and it was thrown up there as a joke at first," Ambrose says. "Then we started talking about it; maybe she could do another one."
Now Saint Arnold Brewery is getting ready to sell some of its most popular brands in Colorado and northern Florida. Lawnmower, Santo, Elissa, Pumpkinator and Christmas Ale will all be distributed in those two states in coming months.
"Elissa wasn't one we thought we could go with," Ambrose says. "But the distributor said a lot of people would be drawn to it because it is more approachable than the Colorado IPAs."
Johnson says the brewery will use refrigerated trucks to keep the beer fresh and cold while it travels across the country. Saint Arnold doesn't put any preservatives in its products, so the beer being distributed to Colorado and Florida will need to be kept as fresh and cold as possible.
The craft beers will also be distributed in Colorado and Florida the way they are in Texas — through restaurants and bars. But the Houston-based brewery isn't looking to open any more facilities in those other states.
"Honestly, right now we are focusing on expansion, and I don't mean other breweries; I mean in the state of Texas," Ambrose says. "Right now we are still trying to navigate the new laws and [what] they mean to us. We could stop doing the tours and totally go to a bar model...but we don't want to do that because we have built this up for 19 years."
Ambrose explains that Saint Arnold wants to share its Texas craft beers with more states, and joining the Colorado Front Range and northern Florida beer scenes will help spread the word about the brewery.
"It will just give us and, we hope, Texas beer more visibility outside of the state," Ambrose says. "I don't know if any other Texas breweries sell in Colorado. If someone from Colorado were to hear about our beer, that would be a good thing for Texas craft beer in general."
Bishop's Barrel No. 4 was released on August 12. It is a barrel-aged Weizenbock made with locally sourced cocoa nibs.
"There's a chocolate company, Tejas Chocolate, and they did the cocoa for us," Ambrose says. "We already had that recipe ready, and we thought maybe there is someone local we can source the cocoa nut."
Don't forget to visit the brewery for tours on Saturdays. Bring your lunch (or enjoy the brewery's selections), enjoy some beer and have a grand old time. Cheers!
Happy Hour Scene
Cove Cold Bar's Happy Hour
It's cozy and cool.
Minh T. Truong
Cove Cold Bar, a "self-contained mini-restaurant," opened inside Haven late last year with chef de cuisine Jean Philippe Gaston taking charge. The regular menu is a trip around the world with offerings from Tahitian poisson cru to Mexican ceviche to Italian crudo. But the "seafood haven of sorts" also explores options with four legs with French steak tartare, lamb heart carpaccio and a goat-heavy cheese selection. It's a culinary adventure you have to take.
Also worth the trip is the happy hour, which is short but definitely sweet, from 4 to 6 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to close. Make your way to the little enclosed haven inside Haven, grab the corner table and enjoy a cozy couple of hours away from the world, or grab a seat at the bar and chat it up with the man who's shucking your oysters. Either way, inside the little bubble that is Cove, the hustle and bustle of the restaurant are forgotten — on the afternoon my girlfriends and I met there, we noted it was almost too quiet. We were afraid our laughter was going to draw too much attention until some light samba music began to play.
We ordered everything on the Cove bar bites menu at $6 each. First to the table were the iced shrimp, six large boiled shrimp served simply with wedges of lemon and house-made cocktail sauce. The ceviche spoons consisted of tilapia, tomato, onion, cilantro and chiles — the citrus was just right and all the other ingredients remained crunchy. The oysters on the half shell came four to an order; the server let us know they were Conway Royales from northern Prince Edward Island, Canada. They were briny but not deeply salty, and the beautiful orange-and-shallot vinaigrette that came as a condiment was the perfect complement to the salinity. The last item was the oyster shooters, which come three to an order and with an option of three different flavors — a michelada, a vodka-based and a sweet liquor-based.
We added a couple of items from the Haven side of the menu — also $6 each. The barbecue sauce on the pork sliders was a little too sweet, but the buns for the sliders were actually the famous yeasty rolls with coarse salt that you get at the beginning of your meal at Haven — you know the ones I'm talking about — so I didn't even care about the sauce. And you can't go to Haven and not have their shrimp corn dogs.
Haven's happy hour was always a winner, but the addition of all the cold items — $4 8th Wonder beer on tap, $5 wine (including a bubbles option) and reverse happy hour — definitely makes it one of my favorites.
Openings and Closings
Tequila bar, French food and how many Dunkin' Donuts?
So many awesome openings, so little time to try all the new places!
Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta of Anvil opened a new bar, The Pastry War, downtown on August 13 to major crowds interested to see what the Anvil boys had up their sleeves. The Pastry War is a tequila bar, or mezcaleria, with an emphasis on Mexican cocktails and beer. Last week was technically the soft opening, so recipes are still being tweaked. The bar, which is next door to Bad News Bar and Goro & Gun, is part of the ongoing revitalization of the Market Square Park area. With places like these, we're excited to see what comes next!
French Bistro La Balance opened August 15, but we were able to get in early for a sneak peek of the restaurant and the impeccable food. Chef Jose Hernandez chose to open the restaurant in Katy because rent is less expensive there, and he isn't working with any investors. The menu "offers classic French standards that include beautifully plated salads, seared foie gras, buttery-garlic escargots de Bourgogne, the ever-popular steak frites made of grass-fed beef, magret de canard (duck breast) and, most important, [Hernandez's] famed desserts."
Eater reported that Maine-ly Sandwiches's second location had its soft opening on August 15, with the grand opening the next day. The new location, on Shepherd between Alabama and Richmond, has more kitchen space and a deep fryer, so the owners, Buddy and Angela Charity, can now serve fried clams and french fries in addition to the crazy-popular lobster rolls and clam chowder.
Greenz Restaurant opened its first Houston franchise in The Shops at Houston Center on August 8. The salad restaurant focuses on bringing "fine dining salads" to the masses at an affordable price. The salad joint also offers soups, sandwiches and smoothies, and every Wednesday from 2 to 3 p.m. during the month of August, Greenz is giving away smoothies for free. There's really no excuse not to eat healthy now.
CultureMap reports that Bite Macarons opened next to Paciugo Gelato on Buffalo Speedway earlier this month. Sandia Horng and her business partner, Gabo Lo, hope that the bakery will be "a little bit of Europe in Houston," but they don't want to make only macarons. Eventually, they hope to start making high-end French pastries as well, but for now, Bite Macarons is serving more than a dozen different flavors of the popular French cookies.
French Fry Heaven, a new fries-only chain, hosted its Houston grand opening on August 17 at The Woodlands Mall. According to the press release, "French Fry Heaven serves more than 50 creative flavor combinations, including Garlic Parmesan with black truffle salt; French Quarter with rémoulade sauce; Cha Cha with ghost pepper salt ; Saint Jennifer (sweet potato fries that taste like sweet potato pie with marshmallow topping); Festival Saint (tastes like funnel cake)." Okay, so with all the crazy toppings and flavor combos, can we still call all these french fries?
Gay cowboys are still mourning the loss of Brazos River Bottom, but they can dry their pretty little eyes because Neon Boots Dance Hall and Saloon is coming to town. It will occupy the former Esquire Ballroom, which is being completely restored to include a huge dance floor and performance stage as well as a large outdoor area with a deck and patio. There will be table service and six bar stations throughout the dance hall. The owners also hope to eventually install a mechanical bull, sand volleyball court and horseshoes in the back patio area. At more than 10,000 square feet, Neon Boots will be the largest gay bar in Houston when it opens August 22.
The Houston Chronicle reports that HUSA Management is opening a pizza and craft beer pub called City Oven in the Heights. HUSA owns and operates a number of other pub chains in Houston, but City Oven will be the first to focus on artisan pizzas and craft beers. It's scheduled to open sometime at the end of August.
The Chronicle also reported on plans to turn a long-abandoned gas station at the corner of La Branch and Alabama in Midtown into a coffee and crepe joint called Retrospect Cafe. The owners of Tacos a Go-Go are behind the new cafe concept, which will also serve beer and wine. Currently, the former gas station is part of a graffiti and mural exhibit in conjunction with the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. One of the owners of Retrospect Cafe, Sharon Haynes, says she's been admiring the artwork on the building for years, so hopefully the structure will continue to be a canvas for local artists.
Allô French Rotisserie is planning a September opening, according to Eater. The non-stuffy French restaurant will be located inside the Vintage Park Shopping Village and offer hearty French food in a casual dining setting. Eric Goldner, formerly of Hubbell & Hudson Bistro in The Woodlands, is the mastermind behind Allô.
Swamplot reports on a new "ranch to table" concept from Chef Fritz Gitschner called 60 Degrees Mastercrafted. The restaurant is showing every aspect of its development on Facebook, from going to the Houston Permitting Center to bulldozing parts of the property to make room for the new building. It will be opening in the fall.
Adam Karam, the owner of Red Door, Saint Genevieve, Wonder Bar and The Good Life, tells CultureMap that he sold defunct sports bar Sawyer Park on Washington Avenue to his cousin Saleem Fernandez, who is remodeling the space. It seems Fernandez intends to keep the space a sports bar, and he is aiming for a September opening. Fernandez also owns Roosevelt Bar on Washington and 5th Amendment in Midtown.
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A reader sent Swamplot photos of a TABC sign taped in the window of an old laundromat at 1009 Moy Street that promises a Pink's Pizza will be opening soon. This will be the fourth Pink's Pizza inside the Loop; a fifth restaurant is located in Garden Oaks.
Dunkin' Donuts is planning to take over Houston, according to the Chronicle. The chain has announced plans to open three new branches with drive-throughs on Center Street, just north of Pasadena Boulevard, in Deer Park; west of Beamer Road and Scarsdale Road in southeast Houston; and south of the corner of Fry Road and Morton Road in Katy. Another store already opened in Terminal E of IAH on August 15. Jonathan Hicks, a broker with Davis Commercial Real Estate who represents Dunkin' Donuts, also told the Chronicle that the chain plans to open 60 stores in Houston over the next five years. Um, WHAT?! I know America runs on Dunkin', but I'm partial to a little mom-and-pop donut joint myself. Sigh.
In über-exciting news, Bernie's Burger Bus has been granted its own booth inside Reliant Stadium for all Texans home games. The food truck had previously sold burgers to tailgaters, but moving into the stadium is a dream come true, Texans fan and Burger Bus owner Justin Turner told CutureMap. The booth will be on the first level of Reliant Stadium, which means visitors won't need special tickets to access it. No word yet on whether burger prices will be jacked up to match that of the stadium beer.
B4-U-Eat reported two closings last week: Pho Quyen in Greenspoint and Don Julio's in Cypress. No word on why either place closed, but the Don Julio's Web site still lists the Cypress restaurant as open.