There are so many truly fabulous patios in Houston that it's difficult to limit the list to only ten. So this isn't a definitive list of the city's best patios for all time, but a list of the places where I'm enjoying dining alfresco at the moment. I hope you will, too.
10. 901 Postoffice
Cozy, cute and charming — with the added bonus of the sea breeze from Galveston's shores and some of the best food found on the island.
9. Las Ventanas
The lush tropical patio here makes it feel like you're taking a vacation in the Caribbean — even if you're only in west Houston. There's even a playground to keep the kids occupied.
Bocce ball and BYOB reign here, and you're encouraged to linger with a pizza and some of Luigi's equally terrific wings on this blissfully quiet end of Midtown near the Third Ward.
7. Cedar Creek
Sure, you have to endure some bad bros and equally bad service, but the rambling "creek" (it's a drainage ditch, but it's been nicely landscaped) and rolling "hills" (again, it's Houston) make it feel like you've escaped to the Hill Country for the weekend.
6. El Pueblito
This is probably the best-known patio along Richmond, and it's hard not to notice the billowing white sheets of El Pueblito's cabanas from the road. It's even harder not to pull over and ensconce yourself in one, margarita in hand, and escape from the sun for a little while.
5. Lucio's BYOB
The stunning, clean-lined patio at this Montrose BYOB looks like something out of a modern art museum, complete with giant copper sculpture and gray stones scattered across the two-level deck.
4. Baba Yega
Sprawling, eccentric and covered with old oak trees, just like the rest of Montrose, Baba Yega's patio has been the neighborhood's go-to brunch spot for decades.
3. Monarch at the Hotel ZaZa
With a view onto Hermann Park, the Mecom Fountain and the lush Museum District, dining at the Hotel ZaZa feels a little like noshing at a swank Central Park spot — especially as you traipse through the elegant lobby to get there.
2. The Tasting Room Kingwood
The newest location of The Tasting Room is on the shores of Lake Houston, with a relaxing sunset view that can't be beat, with or without a glass of wine in hand.
1. Backstreet Cafe
The original, the best: This is where Houstonians have enjoyed the perfect patio spot — tucked behind a 1930s-era home — for nearly 30 years.
Sweat and Shrimp Heads
Behind the scenes as Eat St. films The Modular.
BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT
It didn't matter that it was high noon on a weekday afternoon in crushing heat and humidity: The line of customers at Grand Prize wrapped from the rear of the Montrose bar all the way to the city sidewalk out front. Sweaty fans were lined up on the hot concrete in support of The Modular, the popular food truck that often parks outside the bar in the evenings, and — of course — for their chance to appear on TV.
Eat St., a new show on the Cooking Channel, was in Houston last week to film a series of segments on the city's thriving food-truck scene. The production team kicked off the week of filming at Grand Prize Bar with The Modular and wrapped up with St. John's Fire at the Bo Concept furniture store. In between, the camera crew also hit Phamily Bites, The Waffle Bus, The Rice Box and Stick It.
After the crew wrapped up their final bits of filming (and in between water breaks inside the cool, dark confines of the bar), I headed out to do my own quick bit of filming for the show. The producers had invited food writers and food bloggers from across the city to film segments at each truck, and mine, fittingly, was at The Modular — a truck I've loved and supported for years.
Hearing about my fondness for eating shrimp whole, head and all, the producers handed me a paper boat filled with The Modular's kimchi grits and head-on shrimp. In between juicy bites of shrimp heads, I explained how the city's food-truck culture had been entrenched for years in the form of taco trucks and — before that — tamale vendors on Market Square downtown and how only recently had "ghetto gourmet" food like The Modular's taken off in Houston.
The producers nodded politely at my Rainman-style recitations before asking me to eat some more shrimp heads. Slowly this time, they said. Really take your time, and turn to the camera some more. There you go. Sweat trickled out of every pore as I stood in the heat of the midday sun, a collapsible reflector the color of C-3P0 focusing the heat of at least one additional sun onto my reddening face.
I ate another shrimp head. And another. Turning my mouth toward the camera, I did as I was told and made every effort to show how much I was enjoying the briny pop of sweetness beneath each crispy carapace. And thought vaguely that this must be how patient porn stars make their living in Arizona's burgeoning porn industry, sweating it out on white-hot concrete while trying to look as composed and excited as possible. But porn sets probably don't have food as good as the kimchi grits from The Modular.
Look for Eat St.'s Houston episode to air this fall.
Openings & Closings
BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT
Because sometimes around EOW, we like to take a little poetic license with things, here is the past week's restaurant news presented in some merry iambic pentameter:
Though downtown's lost a Mexican rest'rant,
Fear not because another soon will haunt
The Cabo space with patio sublime:
Pepper Jacks will open there in time
More Mexican is moving in on already-crowded Navigation; Next to Ninfa's soon will be
El Tiempo — its old family
And though it's been too many a warm week
Without the welcome salve of beers and freaks
Moon Tower's finally making concrete plans
To reopen with a vengeance for its fans
We've bid adieu to Dharma Cafe
Sad farewells and come-what-mays
But on its horizon has appeared
A Belgian cafe with excellent beers
And finally after hopes and dreams
Of eating in front of the big screen
Inner Loopers will go gung-ho
In Midtown: Remember the Alamo...
Houston's Top 10 Milkshakes
BY CARLA SORIANO
Finding Houston's top milkshakes was an endeavor more challenging than it sounds. Lucky for you, we completed the agonizing task of sampling countless shakes to bring you a list of the best. So, without further ado, the cream of the crop of Houston's milkshakes:
10. Avalon Diner
If you're looking for a wonderful old-fashioned milkshake, you'd be foolish not to seek it out at Avalon Diner. This no-frills mom-and-pop restaurant, which has been in business since 1938, is the real deal: a diner that serves nostalgia-inducing food with a heavy dose of Southern hospitality, all reminiscent of the good ol' days.
Avalon's thick milkshakes come with the mixing can in tow, which only makes you feel more like you're in the 1930s. For tradition's sake, don't rush the lunch or dinner milkshake run to Avalon; sit back, relax and enjoy sipping on a shake along with some friendly conversation with the elderly, overalls-clad customers or the grinning fiftysomething waitresses, aprons and all.
9. The Counter
The Counter is a modern-day burger joint that still has that laid-back, diner-like feel. The large namesake counter is an ideal spot for pulling up a bar stool and downing a shake. Try their peanut butter variety, as it's a flavor you won't find just anywhere. The Counter makes this shake with just the right amount of peanut butter. And just like The Counter's yummy burgers and fries, their milkshakes come in generous portions — consider sharing it. Or not, if you like generous portions of simple perfection.
There are lots of reasons to love the milkshakes at this affordable sandwich shop with multiple Houston locations. First things first — the size. It's easily handheld and perfect for taking to go, making it one of the most easily drinkable shakes in town. Yes, we know that everything is typically bigger in Texas, but who said milkshakes have to be, too? Another plus to Potbelly milkshakes is that should you choose one of the fruit flavors — strawberry, mixed berry or banana — the fruit used is all natural. Finally, see those two rings around the straw? They're mini shortbread cookies, baked in-house — the delicious little cookies are a treat on top of your drinkable treat.
Häagen-Dazs is one of the world's premium brands of ice cream, and it's the use of this top-notch stuff — known for its dense, buttery texture — that sets Smashburger's milkshakes apart from others. Even after being mixed into the milkshake, the ice cream holds up extremely well, even under the Texas sun. And in a city as hot as Houston, bonus points are due to any milkshake that can hold its own in the heat. Just another reason to love the already likable Smashburger.
6. Amy's Ice Cream
Considering that milkshakes are made up of few ingredients and that ice cream is one of their core components, it's almost a no-brainer that Amy's Ice Cream makes the list of the best shakes in Houston. You see, the delightful ice cream served up to customers in scoops and cones at Amy's — which comes in mouthwatering flavors that range from classic to alcoholic to eccentric — also goes into their milkshakes. You get to choose which ice cream will flavor your shake and to add ingredients regularly used as "crushn's" and toppings (candy, cookies, nuts, and fresh fruits and syrups).
5. The Burger Guys
The Burger Guys' milkshakes — like everything else the locally owned and operated burger and hot dog spot serves — put other Houston milkshakes to shame, mainly because they make their marvelous ice cream in-house — eight gallons at a time, to ensure that it's always as fresh as can be. The Guys are extremely talented at making ice cream that rocks your socks off. The cafe sua da shake is a spin on the Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened, condensed milk. The unique, filling milkshake's strong flavors come from high-quality ingredients that will leave you yearning for a second visit even before you're done with the first. Also not to be missed: the salted caramel milkshake.
Reef's "No-Minors" milkshake is thick, sweet and boozy. Served alongside the shake's sipping straw is a delicate, house-made chocolate cigar. This White Russian-flavored shake is by far the thickest of all on this list, the ice cream dense and gooey and creamy and plentiful. We're not quite sure what the ratio of milk to brandy and Kahlúa is, but one sip reveals that this one's for grown-up good times. Designed to be a dessert, the sophisticated concoction is all too fitting in Reef's posh setting.
3. Katz's Deli & Bar
This New York-style delicatessen and bar with two cool locales makes one amazing milkshake. The cheesecake variety contains a gargantuan slice of house-made cheesecake. And the milkshake's garnish? A little slice of cheesecake, which is infinitely better than those tired maraschino cherries. This shake has an unparalleled creaminess that's pretty much addiction-forming, and the graham-cracker crust adds a welcome texture that gives it a homemade quality. At $8.50 a pop, this beauty of a shake is best thought of as an investment in your personal happiness. Trust us, your taste buds will thank and praise you.
2. Jerry Built Burgers
The fresh fruit in the shakes here is from nearby farms, while both the half and half and the whipped cream are organic. Make it a point to try the Ginger Bull shake, not only because it's so good but because it has a cool story behind it. Jerry Built buys gingerbread cookie dough from Three Brothers Bakery that's used to make fresh cookies on a daily basis. The cookies (some of the best we've ever tried) are sold in packs of three for $2.99, with $1 from each pack's sale going to benefit a local charity. Cookies that don't sell are used the next day in the Ginger Bull shake, made with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. From now through August 24, Jerry Built will be featuring a Blue Bell-based shake each Friday until it sells out. Flavors to look forward to include Peachy Peach (June 15), Dulce de Leche (July 6) and Dreamsicle (August 31).
1. Little Bigs
This low-key, casual spot serves sliders, fries, and inexpensive beer and wine. It also happens to be the place where you'll find two of Houston's most delectable milkshakes. The shakes at Little Bigs are small but make a big impression. The Dude, which is White Russian-flavored like the one at Reef, differs greatly from the version at its sister restaurant. It's icier (think frappuccino consistency), with the alcohol flavors toned down and a hint of coffee flavor. But the king of kings is Little Bigs' butterscotch milkshake. What makes it so special? The fact that it doesn't try too hard to be the best — it doesn't have any crazy, hard-to-find ingredients and isn't complicated to make. The simple, incredibly fine-tasting milkshake features simple ingredients, house-made butterscotch being the best of them. Not only does the divine butterscotch make the shake, it's what holds it together. The shake remains intact even when you're sitting on the patio for an hour under 90-degree heat. Simply put, Little Bigs' butterscotch milkshake is fluffy, creamy joy, second to none.
First Look at Sweet Paris Crêperie
BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT
Although it's generally agreed that Melange Creperie serves the best crepes in Houston, there is one distinct disadvantage to the crepe cart: the weather. When it's raining or blazing hot (as it's about to get very shortly), head crepe-maker Buffalo Sean and his gang will often close up shop — as well they should. After all, no one wants the Melange gang to die of heatstroke or suffer electrocution just for the sake of a crepe. (Please note: Melange only closes in the last two weeks of August, so don't let the heat keep you away; they're still at it every day.)
Enter the new Sweet Paris Crêperie in Rice Village. It's air-conditioned, open for lunch and dinner (no breakfast crepes here as of yet), and offers an assortment of crepes that — while not Melange-level excellent — are extremely good. And although it doesn't offer the charm of a Left Bank street creperie, it has its own striking French allure.
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The restaurant is trimmed out in clean, crisp shades of white, robin's egg blue and pale Nordic wood. The ceilings are tall and the dining room airy and bright, while the small front patio is cozy and welcoming to dogs. In essence, it's an inviting place in which to relax between shopping trips along Rice Boulevard or to catch up over a light lunch. In fact, I can foresee the place shortly becoming inundated with ladies who lunch — albeit a more low-key version of that crowd since the restaurant itself is decidedly low-key as well, fashioned in a sense after a La Madeleine — but before that happens, you should head over to try its offerings.
My favorites from a recent lunch included a turkey and Brie filled with fat green grapes and knotty walnuts and a dessert crepe filled with a simple duo of sweet cream cheese and Bonne Maman strawberry jam. But although I stuck with the lighter offerings on that initial visit, I'm intrigued now to go back and try heavier crepes like the chicken carbonara with bacon or the Italian sausage and peppers — crepes you can make a serious meal out of.
On second thought, maybe Sweet Paris Crêperie — for all its feminine wiles — won't be a ladies-who-lunch-type place after all. I know more than a few men who'd make quick and happy work of those crepes, especially with a graham cracker-and-Nutella-laden s'mores crepe for dessert.