The sandwich is a wonderfully portable creation, a meal which pleases the pickiest of eaters and in the simplest of ways: bread, meat, maybe some cheese. With that in mind, we kept this week's list to low-key places serving straightforward deli-style sandwiches, preferably those who slice their own meat and carefully source products like cheese and bread (if they don't bake their own).
Banh mi, milanesas, cheesesteaks, tortas, the shrimp BLT I dream about at Frank's Chop House — all of these are noble and noteworthy sandwiches. But today it's all about the humble deli sandwich.
10. The California Connection at Central Market
There's always a long line at the sandwich counter just around the corner from the deli inside Central Market. And as far as I'm concerned, the line is for its top sandwich: the California Connection. Slices of turkey are jazzed up with sweet, caramelized red onions, two kinds of creamy pesto, chipotle mayonnaise and melted provolone on soft sourdough bread. I like to add avocados for overkill, but the sandwich is terrific ordered as is.
9. Honey ham and Brie at Carter & Cooley
As mentioned in a recent post covering the top ten restaurants in the Heights, the honey ham and Brie is my personal pick at Carter & Cooley most of the time. It also made Jeff Balke's list of favorite Houston sandwiches a couple autumns back. It's a simple, straightforward combo that just makes sense: sweet honey mustard and honey ham mixing with mushroomy melted Brie on a salty, savory onion roll. There's lettuce and tomato involved, too, but who cares?
8. Italian hoagie at Paulie's
Topped with just a little oil, vinegar, pepperoncini peppers and salad stuff — served alongside a couple scoops of surprisingly light herb-laced potato salad — the Italian hoagie at Paulie's is actually less top-heavy than its thick stacks of ham, Genoa salami and Provolone would imply. You'd expect to feel like a blimp after eating the hefty sandwich, but the best thing about the hoagie is how it leaves you simply and pleasantly satiated instead.
7. Egg salad at Nielsen's Delicatessen
Very little has changed at Nielsen's since it first opened more than 50 years ago — including its egg-sellent (I can't help myself) egg salad sandwiches. The secret is keeping it incredibly simple: just hard-boiled eggs and Nielsen's famously tangy homemade mayonnaise. That same mayonnaise is also what makes the chicken salad, the potato salad and the deviled eggs equally amazing here. And good luck trying to get out of there without ordering those deviled eggs on the side, no matter which sandwich you pick.
6. The Cold Fish at Kraftsmen Cafe
This is the perfect marriage of an everything bagel and lox with a far-more-manageable sandwich, which works especially well thanks to the richly flavored and freshly baked biologique bread from Kraftsmen Bakery. The cafe is simply an extension of the huge Kraftsmen Bakery — which bakes bread for many of Houston's best restaurants — so you can always expect every baked good here to be fine and fresh, not just the bread. Smoked salmon on that soft biologique bread with a schmear of cream cheese and the crunch of lettuce and red onion is perfect for lunch or breakfast (the latter of which you can get all day).
5. Pâté de France at Spec's
The sandwich is so well constructed that I can't think of another ingredient I'd want to add between its two slices of rye bread. There's even a sandwich within the sandwich: Thinly sliced Angus roast beef on one side and a slice of country-style pâté surround a filling of crunchy, mayo-tinged coleslaw. On the outside of the "inner sandwich," fat slices of tomatoes rest against mayonnaise on one side of the bread and whole grain mustard on the other. I may not be able to "see the Eifel [sic] tower" with every bite, as promised on the menu, but that would just be weird anyway; you don't mess with the space-time continuum when you're running a deli.
4. Muffuletta at Revival Market
It's always a gamble ordering a muffuletta at a non-Cajun restaurant. Not so at Revival Market, where the muffuletta just might be the best sandwich on the whole menu. It makes sense here, in this temple to charcuterie, that the best sandwich would feature thin, piled-up slices of Revival Market's house-cured meats under a thick layer of homemade giardiniera. That giardiniera is thick with pickled cauliflower and other vegetables but features among the brininess a sweet, citrusy note that makes the entire sandwich hum — to say nothing of the fun, spongy texture of the fresh-baked sesame bread.
3. Mortadella sandwich at 13 Celsius
The mortadella sandwich at 13 Celsius has morphed over the years but has always managed to improve upon its past incarnations. The current iteration of the sandwich finds sliced-to-order mortadella, soft and slick, on top of a pretzel bun and covered with a fried egg. I took sandwich guy Jacob Warny's advice last time and let him drizzle some honey on top, too. It was genius. The mortadella is also Terrence Gallivan's favorite sandwich in town, and the chef knows sandwiches (they serve some terrific ones at his restaurant with Seth Siegel-Gardner, The Pass & Provisions).
2. Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth at Kenny & Ziggy's
Look at that thing. Look at it. If there's a bigger sandwich in town...well...it's still going to be at Kenny & Ziggy's. The Fiddler (or the Number One, as you're supposed to order it) is actually one of the always-busy deli's smaller sandwiches, which is what makes it one of my favorites. It's more easily managed this way, and you can actually make a college try at eating the pastrami-and-corned-beef sandwich as if it were an actual sandwich instead of an impressively towering pile of meat. K&Z's meat is what makes the sandwich, though, with corned beef and pastrami so tender the thin slices nearly melt. Add a touch of whole-grain mustard on top, grab a pickle to crunch between bites and you're in business.
1. Roast beef at Local Foods
Even though it took over the old Antone's location (a deli) and is now a deli itself, you won't find a typical roast beef sandwich at Local Foods, the Rice Village restaurant from the owners of benjy's. Onto the delightfully rare, paper-thin slices of roast beef goes a spicy horseradish aioli along with some of Local Foods' crunchy kale salad, rosy red tomatoes and a layer of bright-yellow curried cauliflower that elevates the entire sandwich from "quick lunch" to "experience." And like all of the other sandwiches at Local Foods, the roast beef comes with your choice of two generous scoops of freshly made sides like couscous with carrots and pickled vegetables or a bowl of soup, all of which are more exciting offerings than a traditional bag of chips — and which make the price tags on these sandwich package deals (ranging from $9.50 to $12) a true value.
Farmers' Market Spotlight
Daikon radishes, locally grown by Congolese refugees.
Even if you've never heard of a daikon radish before, chances are you've had one. It's usually found julienned and pickled alongside carrots atop most banh mi sandwiches — but the thick white radish can be used for so much more than just sandwich topping.
And at the HCC Southwest Farmers Market, you can stock up on the radishes while supporting a terrific cause: Plant It Forward Farms, which works with Congolese refugees and — according to its mission statement — provides them with "an opportunity to become self-sufficient through growing, harvesting and selling produce from a sustainable urban micro-farm within the city of Houston."
"Plant It Forward Farms is one of our newest vendors at our farmers' markets," says market manager Tyler Horne. The nonprofit can be found farming in Westbury, where the group leases three acres of land from the Braeswood Assembly of God, and daikon radishes are just part of their weekly harvest.
Says Horne of the vegetable: "Recipewise, the daikon is pretty versatile. It is a staple vegetable of Japanese cuisine, with recipes utilizing the pickled form of it known as takuan in rice and sushi. I personally treat them like a huge radish and like to cut them up raw and put them in salads or cut them into big chunks and roast them like any other root vegetable."
Other options include incorporating the daikon into kimchi you're making at home or into any other pickled, brined or fermented mix of veggies. Imagine how good daikon would taste in a giardiniera, for example. And if you have a mandoline, you can shave thin ribbons of radish and use them in place of lettuce or spring roll rice paper to make Asian-style wraps.
Since the radishes are sold with the greens still attached, you can even use those. They're a tiny bit spicy, just like the radishes, and taste great when steamed lightly and used in place of spinach, Swiss chard or kale. With something as versatile as the daikon, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Katharine Shilcutt
Yum Yum, Indeed
Top 10 restaurants in Rice Village.
We're tackling the city's neighborhoods one by one now that the Best of Houston® issue is out. First was Montrose, then the Heights and now Rice Village, an area that's absolutely saturated with great restaurants.
One of the best things about the saturation in Rice Village is how easy it is to park your car and spend an afternoon walking (imagine that!) around one of the most charming, idiosyncratic areas of Houston. Some of the shops in Rice Village — like G&G Model Shop — feel like stepping back in time, while others — such as British Isles — take you to a different part of the world entirely.
You can also accomplish this sense of departure by dining at some of the diverse restaurants all packed into this small area: Spanish tapas at Mi Luna, Indian food at Shiva or Bombay Brasserie, Vietnamese at Miss Saigon, Turkish at Pasha, British at Baker Street Pub, Thai at Thai Spice or Thai Village.
You can even grab a round of drinks Irish-style at Brian O'Neill's, Scottish-style at The Kelvin Arms or English-style at The Ginger Man. And that's just the beginning of the breadth of charming establishments that Rice Village has to explore.
10. Yum Yum Cha
Rice Village has the distinction of having the only dim sum restaurant inside the Loop. It's not the best dim sum in the city, but it's still very good, and its standards from the 50-item menu are very reliable stuff: dishes like pork-and-shrimp shiu mai, shrimp dumplings, shrimp rice rolls and warm sesame rolls for dessert. And although dim sum is traditionally a brunch affair, you can even get dim sum at Yum Yum Cha in the evenings.
9. Sweet Paris
This utterly adorable creperie just opened, and with time I feel it may move higher up on the list. For now, it's an ideal spot for a layover between hitting the boutiques along Rice Boulevard — split a simple lemon crepe with a couple of espressos, for example — but also makes a cute dinner destination if you get one of the more filling crepes. Sweet Paris just started serving breakfast, too, opening at 8 a.m.
8. Bistro des Amis
Bistro des Amis looks like the sort of small-town cafe where you stop to get a coffee and a pastry or an ice cream while shopping in a French village — right here in Rice Village. And with good reason: The owners, Odile de Maindreville and her brother, Bernard Cuillier, are from Biarritz, a town in the Basque region of France. Because of this, you'll find more nontraditional dishes like a slightly spicy "beef paprika," their version of goulash, and slices of moist gâteau Basque. Lunch and dinner specials are very reasonable, and the soups, stews and pastries (the last of which are always well-stocked in the pastry case) are made in-house.
This longtime Village favorite from garrulous owner Nash D'Amico and daughter Brina D'Amico Donaldson is a typical red-and-white-checkered-tablecloth place with the air of a traditional trattoria, serving home-style Sicilian food. The lush patio has grown more splendid over the years and is still one of my favorite outdoor eating spots in town, while the homemade black pepper tortellini stuffed with wild mushrooms, walnuts and cheese in a lemon-butter sauce is the stuff of legend. D'Amico's red sauce is another standby, and daily steam-table specials are a steal. Muffulettas and po-boys can also be found on the menu next to a small marketplace of Italian goods where you can pick up all the ingredients for your own Italian meal at home.
6. Local Foods
Local Foods is the epitome of a useful restaurant, the kind of place that's relaxed and easy — and inspires you to have a relaxed, easy meal yourself. The choices are streamlined and simple: a few sandwiches, two soups, a handful of salads and sides, and a few Texas-made beers and wines. So is the chic, updated deli decor with white subway tiles, exposed materials and bold color choices such as electric blue booths. You can take your meal inside, on the shady patio or to go (I love to call ahead for dinner). You can even enjoy a cocktail; like everything else here, they're made with Texas-sourced products, keeping Local Foods true to its name.
5. El Meson
This longtime Village eatery allows you to tour Spain and its colonies via owner Peter Garcia, who's run the family restaurant since his father passed away in 1992. Traditional Spanish tapas and paellas find their place next to Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and picadillo a la criolla. There is even a large Tex-Mex side to the menu, offering fajitas, enchiladas and some of the most beloved margaritas in town, strong with tequila and tangy with lots of lime juice. With its dark wood and booths lining the walls, the spacious restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood taverna. The extensive wine list includes choices from the New World as well as the Old, all of which pair nicely with the equally extensive list of Spanish cheeses.
The second-story location in the Rice Village can be difficult to find, but if you're a sushi lover, it's worth the hunt. Chef Hajime Kubokawa — or Kubo-san, for short — is no longer at the sushi restaurant he helped found with owner Yoichi "Yogi" Ueno, nor is Manabu Horiuchi (who is setting the sushi world on fire at Kata Robata). But it's still one of the best sushi joints in the city, a fact that's more impressive considering its longevity and the talent that it's worked with since opening ten years ago. Some of my most memorable meals have been at Kubo's over the years, from the night I tried my first idiot fish prepared by current chef Kiyoka Ito to the one-off kaiseki dinner I still dream about.
3. Istanbul Grill
Istanbul Grill is an outpost of Turkey nestled between monuments of yuppiedom in Rice Village. Inside the restaurant, the TV glows with scenes from a Turkish broadcast, while outside young Turks happily demolish platters of food or sit quietly sipping Turkish coffee. Swooning is a natural reaction to imam bayld, a luscious dish of roasted and stuffed eggplant. A favorite entrée is iskender kebab, alternating layers of lamb and beef on a skewer, but the Istanbul Grill allows you to sample a wide variety of good kebabs. And on weekends, don't miss the tiny Turkish "ravioli" called mant that are filled with lamb and topped with a tangy yogurt-mint dressing. And remember that if you park behind someone in the miniature parking lot (as is expected here), you'll need to move your car when the staff yells out, "White Jeep!" or "Red Volvo!"
Prego and its longtime chef, John Watt, have been serving solid Italian food in Rice Village for well over a decade, and yet the menu at this mahogany-accented trattoria never seems stale. Watt keeps it fresh with seasonal changes and daily specials such as pumpkin-seed-crusted red snapper or Peroni-braised heirloom Berkshire pork belly, while new pastry chef Matthew Zoch seems poised to keep the dessert menu fresh, too. (Look for Zoch's caramel apple crumble with bourbon ice cream this fall.) Along with a beautiful, well-stocked bar, some of the most affable bartenders in town and a terrific wine list from sommelier Rafael Espinal, it's also one of the few Italian restaurants in the city to offer a substantial gluten-free menu. Yes, even gluten-free pasta. And although the gluten-free stuff isn't made in-house, the rest of the delicious pasta (and bread) is.
Benjy Levit and Dylan Murray have been serving some of the most creative modern American cuisine in the city since 1995 — although you'd be hard-pressed to know that benjy's has been open that long, so current is the menu and recently revamped decor. The kitchen under executive chef Joseph Stayshich never seems to fail, and dishes rotate on a seasonal basis. (An excellent happy hour and busy brunch are year-round attractions, however.) Small plates like the Texas crab cakes with green goddess dressing are usually big enough to share, although you won't want to. Pizzas from the wood-burning oven are usually a good bet, but it's the seasonal entrées such as ricotta dumplings with wild mushrooms and Swiss chard or the Moroccan-spiced duck with red wine farro and beets that make benjy's the restaurant to beat in Rice Village. Katharine Shilcutt
Openings & Closings
Coastal Crossing crosses over.
Two of our favorite late-night destinations have been split apart from one another thanks to the sale of the strip center at Westheimer and Locke Lee Lane: Genji and Friends Pizzeria. Genji moved a few weeks back to a new location at 11124 Westheimer (near Wilcrest) and is still the destination for Japanese karaoke and omelets covered in ketchup.
Friends Pizzeria, reports B4-U-Eat, is moving to 2825 South Kirkwood (between Richmond and Westheimer) and is changing its name. The newly christened Copacabana Pizzeria will still serve owner Ronaldo Gomes's excellent Brazilian burgers and pizzas but will now have a full bar and table service.
In other news, lots of new chain locations are descending upon the city...
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Zoe's Kitchen is opening its 70th location across 12 states in Houston. The new River Oaks spot at 3838 Westheimer will open its doors on November 1.
Grimaldi's Pizzeria is continuing its expansion into Texas and will open its third Houston location in La Centerra at Cinco Ranch. The coal-fired pizza place will feature 3,600 square feet of indoor dining and patio space.
And finally, Smashburger celebrated the opening of its 13th Houston location (and the third inside the Loop) when the new Heights location at 174 Yale Street opened this week.
And in closings, sad news from Alvin, where Coastal Crossing Grill has already shut its doors after replacing the Barbed Rose Steakhouse in July. We never got to try those Creole grilled oysters, and for that we are bummed. At least Gordon Street Tavern — from the same Alvin restaurant group — remains open. Katharine Shilcutt