The Winner Winner at Austin import J. Black's.
The Winner Winner at Austin import J. Black's.
Katharine Shilcutt

The Rest of the Best

Best of Houston

Earlier this year, we asked: "Is Great Pizza in Houston Finally on the Rise?" The answer, six months later, appears to be a resounding yes.

Not even a year ago, our Top 10 Pizzas list (compiled to go along with our 2011 Best of Houston® issue) didn't even feature half the entries you see below. It's not that some of them didn't exist, mind you; it's that restaurants across the city have stepped up their pizza game — whether they're a pizza place or not. In fact, much like this week's list of the Top 10 Restaurants in Montrose, ten slots weren't nearly enough to chronicle all the great pizza we've got going on right now. It's a great problem to have.

And if this welcome trend continues, 2013 may well be the Year of the Pizza in Houston. It's been a long time coming.

Honorable Mention: Luigi's

Luigi's is your classic mom-and-pop pizzeria, baking New York-style pizzas in a wood-burning oven for a reasonable price. The neighborhood eatery has a bocce ball court, is BYOB and offers plenty of patio space for you and your dog. The menu also includes tasty calzones, cheese­steak sandwiches and daily specials like tortellini in lamb sauce, but it's really all about the pizza here (even if — like me — you have to get your slice with a side of Luigi's irresistible jumbo buffalo wings). Be sure to save room for dessert, too; the gelato is as much of a draw as the pies.

10. Bombay Pizza Co.

What could be more Houston than an amalgamation of Italian, American and Indian concepts into one fantastic dish? At Bombay Pizza, located on the ground floor of the Commerce Towers downtown, owner Viral Patel has combined his Indian background with an affinity for making great pies, and the result is dazzling. The Saag Paneer is exactly what it sounds like: a pizza topped with spicy greens and paneer (Indian cheese) along with goat cheese and mozzarella on a delicately crispy crust. Think of a spinach pizza but with a South Asian twist. And don't fret about missing breadsticks with your order. Bombay Pizza has something even better: a Kati Roll, fresh naan filled with cilantro-mint chutney and a choice of fillings.

9. Frank's

Frank's features superb hand-tossed pizzas, each topped with a homemade sauce. Traditional toppings are a cut above those of the chains, but no pizzeria comes close to Frank's specialties such as pesto spinach or chicken fiesta. For those not pining for pies (there's always one sourpuss in the group), Frank's packs a punch with Philly cheese steaks, Reubens, burgers and buffalo wings — and it's one of the few places to reliably deliver to downtown residents after hours.

8. Coppa Ristorante Italiano

Coppa has been drawing rave reviews for its thin-crust pizzas, including the clever ham and eggs pizza seen above. Each slice contains dusky slices of coppa — its signature cured pork product — and a perfectly poached quail egg that douses the pizza with its buttery yolk when punctured. The pizzas are a little pricey, so those on a budget will do well to visit during the daily happy hour that runs until 7 p.m. Pizzas like the the traditional margherita or the fingerling potato with melted leeks and truffle vinaigrette are only $5 at the bar.

7. Pi Pizza Truck

You can get two entirely different kinds of slices at this rolling pizza place: drunk food of the highest order or impeccably crafted gourmet pizza. Or, if you're packing a big appetite, both. The former category includes slices topped with chili-cheese Fritos, barbecue sauce, mac 'n' cheese and spicy nacho cheese Doritos (and should you be more than just drunk, let me recommend the 420 Slice). The latter category includes chef/owner Anthony Calleo's creations such as The Panty Dropper, which features grilled radicchio and fennel, gorgonzola, apples and shallots in a honey-balsamic glaze.

6. J. Black's Feel Good Lounge

I think I was as surprised as anyone to find myself loving the pizzas at this Austin import on Washington Avenue — as surprised as I was to find that I liked the loungey bar as a whole. You'd never guess this was the airplane hangar-like Phil's in a previous life; J. Black's has transformed the long building into a warm and inviting space. And while I appreciate that you can build your own pizza from a long list of fun ingredients (boursin cheese or spicy sausage from Patek's Shiner Smokehouse, for example), it's easier to put your trust in the ready-built pizzas. Winner Winner is a favorite, its thin crust topped with chili marinated shredded chicken, avocado, caramelized onion and boursin, while the simple Shiner, Texas is a winner in its own right with that spicy Shiner sausage, poblano peppers and julienned apples. Try it out on Tuesdays, when all the pizzas are half-price.

5. Arturo Boada Cuisine

Finding a great pizza wasn't even on my mind when I first visited Arturo Boada's Tanglewood-area restaurant. I expected good pasta from Boada (who was previously at Arturo's Uptown Italiano), and I expected his signature dish — camarones henesy en hamaca — to be smashing. But I was also wowed by two totally different pizzas: one a traditional margherita pizza with fine shreds of basil, creamy mozzarella and a chewy crust. The other was a pizza that's far more representative of Boada's style of Italian-Hispanic fusion cooking: carnitas with asadero cheese, a house-made fire-roasted salsa, chopped white onions and fresh cilantro. A squeeze of lime on top brings it all humming brightly together, and folding up a slice of the thin-crust pizza makes for the most interesting sensation of having a street taco and Italian pizza all in one.

4. Dolce Vita

Marco Wiles's pizza joint is, to some, a blatant rip-off of Mario Batali's Otto in New York City — but who cares? The fact of the matter is that it brought better pizza to Houston and showed the city that there's more to pizza than just the oversauced, overcheesed pies served at sleepovers and Little League games. These Italian-style pizzas feature thin crusts and high-end ingredients, like the noteworthy pear-and-taleggio pizza. Appetizers are wonderful too, from the roasted beets with horseradish to a buttery egg toast topped with shaved black truffle. Although Dolce Vita was temporarily closed by a fire earlier this year, the restaurant is back now and as good as it ever was.

3. Piola

This brightly outfitted Midtown pizza place is always packed — and its patio is especially inviting this time of year — with good reason: The pizza has only steadily improved since it first opened, although the menu of several dozen pizzas is still (in my opinion) far too long. Piola, which is headquartered in Italy but which does a brisk business in Brazil, is also one of only two places in town where you can find catipury cheese (the other being Friends Pizzeria), that unbelievably creamy Brazilian cheese that comes out in fat dollops like mozzarella but spreads like a triple-crème Brie. That's what makes the Salvadore my favorite, with that catipury cheese melting into roasted chicken and spinach, but the Mantova — beef carpaccio with Brie, diced tomatoes and arugula — is a close runner-up.

2. The Pass & Provisions

The whole idea behind Provisions, the casual side of two-in-one-restaurant The Pass & Provisions, was to offer simple food that chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan would want to eat themselves while relaxing: things like big bowls of pasta, meatball sandwiches and pizzas. But being the creative types, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan couldn't just keep their pizza toppings confined to pepperoni and sausage. Instead, you'll find inventive ingredients such as uni with guanciale, potato with taleggio and burrata with burst tomatoes. And because the pizzas come out of a wood-fired oven that cooks them in around 90 seconds, you'll get a nicely charred pie every time.

1. Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana

Pizaro's became an instant classic almost the moment that Bill Hutchinson opened its doors in a Memorial-area strip mall, because there's nothing else like it in town. The Napoletana-style pizza cooks in 90 seconds in a wood-fired 900-degree oven that's the centerpiece of the small, bare-bones dining room. What emerges from the belly of the fiery beast is a pizza with perfectly pillowy crust and wonderfully scorched bottom, topped with fresh mozzarella made on-site daily and San Marzano tomatoes. Bring your own wine when you come and prepare to sit a spell — the rest of the city has discovered Pizaro's, too, but the wait is always worth it.


A Few Bumps in the Road
Berryhill Baja Grill Food Truck hitting the streets.

Walter Berryhill was a mobile food pioneer in Houston, walking the streets of River Oaks and selling 200 dozen tamales from his little push-cart every week along with his wife, Billie, for nearly 40 years. A lit Coleman lantern hanging from the side of the cart let people know that Berryhill's tamales were fresh and hot. In the 1960s, with Billie in failing health, Walter sold his push-cart and recipe to River Oaks resident and attorney Bob Tarrant, a fan of Berryhill's cornmeal and masa-laced tamales, who held fast to the recipe for two decades.

In 1993, Tarrant teamed up with Chuck Bulnes to create the very first Berryhill's Baja Grill restaurant, which still sells its popular tamales and Baja-style fish tacos (which are said to have been the first fish tacos in Texas) on Revere at Westheimer. A few years later, customer Jeff Anon purchased the restaurant (and Walter Berryhill's recipes), finding that he loved the food so much he couldn't help but want Berryhill to become bigger and better.

It's only fitting, Anon says, that after all this time, Berryhill Baja Grill is getting back into the mobile food business. A custom-built food truck was delivered to Anon from Miami, Florida, back in August. And while it's been far tougher than Anon expected to get the truck on the road, he's excited about the tamales he loves coming full circle.

"I pity the poor people whose entire living is tied up in these food trucks," Anon said as he eagerly gave a guided tour of the truck despite last Friday's downpour. The truck is still waiting for a City-approved sink before it can receive its "medallion," part of the permit package which allows the Berryhill truck to start serving the public.

The sink that Anon had originally installed wasn't quite deep enough, a niggling detail that turned out to be only one of many that vexed the Berryhill team.

"It needed to be one-and-a-half inches deeper," said Anon, shaking his head. "We also needed a bigger vent hood," he said, beginning to list off all the issues the City permitting department found in his custom-built truck. "They needed to see all of the schematics, all of the electrical plans. Are you kidding me?" he said, visibly frustrated.

"It's a group of people that do not want you to do business [as a food truck]," Anon says of the uphill battles with the City. "Those people are still afraid of 'roach coaches,'" even though big brands like Berryhill are now stepping into the game. And Anon hopes that when consumers and politicians alike see brick-and-mortar places purchasing food trucks, that will eventually change.

"They see a brand name, they're not as afraid," he comments. "Food trucks bring color to a city, vibrancy." More to the point, he says, in areas such as downtown, "There are a lot of workers who can't eat in a nice restaurant — guys who are working construction, for example, and can't change into different clothes. Why not give them the option of food trucks?"

Berryhill isn't the first restaurant to start its own food truck, however — a point which City Council has so far been ignoring during its ongoing discussion on proposed loosening of certain mobile food unit regulations.

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen has successfully run the mesquite smoker-equipped No Borders truck for nearly two years, and, more recently, the owners of Bistro Provence started the city's first all-French truck, L'es-Car-Go. Shawn Bermudez owns Royal Oak, a bar and grill, as well as the upcoming Pistolero's — but he's also a part owner in popular food trucks Golden Grill and Koagie Hots.

The relationship between restaurants and food trucks cuts both ways, too: Green Seed Vegan was finally able to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant after generating enough revenue from its Third Ward food truck, while culinary trio Ryan Soroka, Matt Marcus and Alex Vassilakidis are hard at work on opening a cafe built on the success of their food truck, Eatsie Boys.

When Anon's new food truck does finally get rolling, it'll be one of the biggest and baddest ones out there. Kevin Charif, the food truck manager, showed off the truck's toys along with Anon: a hot box to keep prepped food fresh, a flat grill, a fryer, a cool box, a sandwich station — even a full POS to take credit cards and a surround sound system for playing music and calling out orders.

And on board, the truck will serve an assortment of Berryhill's best items: its famous tamales (the same tamales that got Mick Jagger hooked, thanks to Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top) and equally famous fish tacos with spicy banana-habanero sauce; juicy hamburgers on torta buns with creamy asadero cheese and sauteed onions; Sonoran hot dogs on a light, crispy lobster roll-style bun; burritos ahogados; delicate slices of tres leches and refreshing glasses of fresh-squeezed mint-lemonade.

Almost all the food at each Berryhill location (the five Anon-owned locations and the ten franchise operations) is made in-house, including its flour tortillas. "We source out our corn tortillas," admits Anon. "But that's about it." This policy will remain in place aboard the food truck, where only the bare minimum will be prepped at the Berryhill location on Post Oak — everything else on the truck will be made to order.

"If I'm going to do something," says Anon, who's been in the restaurant industry since he started washing dishes at 11 years old, "it's going to be exceptional." And his food truck — which he hopes will concentrate on office-heavy areas like the Energy Corridor and Greenway Plaza — looks to be no exception to his policy.

Outside, the rain had eased up a bit, and Anon exited the food truck to greet a delivery driver. The new sink for the truck had finally arrived. This last puzzle piece meant that Anon could get the truck on the streets in October. From afar, Anon's face fell. He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and began making calls.

The sink was the wrong size. Berryhill Baja Grill is still idle right now, but hopefully not for long. Katharine Shilcutt


Openings & Closings
Expansions and transformations.

Ever since the planned second location in the Heights for Killen's Steakhouse fell through, Ronnie Killen has been keeping busy back home in Pearland. There he's currently in the process of transforming his popular steakhouse into Killen's BBB.

Writing for CultureMap, Ruthie Johnson Miller says the new Killen's BBB (which stands for barbecue, burgers and beer) will "offer things like brisket, ribs, sausage, barbecued chicken, potato salad, and beans."

The switch isn't yet complete, though — the barbecue side of the menu isn't available to the public at this time — and the full changeover could take a while. Says J.C. Reid at 29-95: "The plan is to move Killen's Steakhouse to a larger location nearby in Pearland, and the current location will become Killen's BBB. However, no leases have been signed and for now Chef Killen is happy to tow his new Klose pit around the state to barbecue competitions where he can perfect his technique."

In the old Zimm's Little Deck space, another transformation is taking place: Shepard Ross of BRC Gastropub and Glass Wall has been hard at work since July changing it into Brooklyn Athletic Club. Yesterday Ross posted a photo of the new Brooklyn Athletic Club sign to his Facebook wall — a sign that that watering hole could be opening soon. In response to friends asking him to open up already, Ross simply said: "Workin' hard towards it, trust me!"

And downtown, another closed restaurant will likely be revamped very soon: The Strip House, which closed in July, is rumored to be the new location of a Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. The exceptionally upscale steakhouse — one of the city's best — would be an ideal fit for downtown, but it would also give its equals like Vic & Anthony's a run for their money.

Also downtown, another restaurant was — like The Strip House — recently locked out for non-payment of rent. Yao Restaurant and Bar, the Chinese restaurant that opened in February 2010, has closed. The Westheimer location in Westchase remains open. According to the Houston Business Journal, retired Houston Rocket Yao Ming "loaned his name to the business but did not own any shares."

In other closings, Swamplot reported the remarkable news that a Smashburger actually closed. The burger chain has seemed to multiply like a warren of rabbits, but the Westchase location on Westheimer near Beltway 8 was one of "the chain's worst-performing" stores. The empty spot has already been leased to a Dunkin Donuts, so rejoice, you west Houston donut fans.

Also in expansions, the Houston Business Journal has reported that Peter Piper Pizza is moving into the Houston market, opening 25 pizza joints throughout the greater metro area. The first location will be at 6223 E. Sam Houston Parkway North on Beltway 8 at Wallisville Road.

Pappa Geno's has finally opened its second location, this one in Bellaire at Bellaire Boulevard and Mapleridge.

And although it seems as though its second location (in the Heights) was just announced, Torchy's Tacos has already announced its third location, too. Says B4-U-Eat in its weekly newsletter: "...they've signed the lease on their third location, 2400 Times Blvd. Well, they told us they would open 15 of them here."

In a final bit of good news, Houston has another empanada shop — this one in Jersey Village. Yummy Mpanadas just celebrated its grand opening and is now serving a full menu of everything from breakfast empanadas to dessert crepes. Katharine Shilcutt


Lovely Lucy
First look at Houston's newest Ethiopian restaurant.

After being thoroughly disappointed with the one Ethiopian meal I had in Washington D.C., I began pining for a good meal at Blue Nile — my favorite Ethiopian restaurant here in Houston as well as the place where I'd first tried the cuisine many years ago. And then I remembered: Lucy Ethiopian Restaurant & Lounge had just opened in a high-profile location along Highway 59 south of Hillcroft. Why not give this new place a try instead?

So I corralled some friends together for a family-style meal at Lucy — after all, eating family-style is the best way to eat Ethiopian food — and headed south one Saturday night. I think we were all astonished to walk inside what looks as if it were once a Golden Corral to find the building transformed into an elegant, casually chic restaurant with three distinct areas: a full bar, an Ethiopian-style lounge packed with people dining on the floor and a tall-ceilinged dining room lined with modish crystal chandeliers and a softly flowing waterfall.

Although Blue Nile has come leaps and bounds since it first opened in its little Richmond strip center, it's still safe to call it a hole-in-the-wall, albeit a clean and well-kept one. Lucy, on the other hand, is a flat-out destination. And one that I think will be ideal for introducing newcomers to the cuisine, thanks to its friendly waitstaff and lush, inviting interior.

Upon seeing a flood of new customers into her restaurant, Lucy's owner shuffled away some of her friends occupying a large communal table and tsk-tsk'ed at them to go sit at a smaller one. My friends and I chuckled at this, although we were a bit embarrassed to take their spot in one corner of the main dining room. (The displaced diners, for what it's worth, barely seemed to notice that they'd been moved, so deep in Amharic conversation were they.)

I was almost afraid to look at the menu, as I know that prices have gone up considerably at places such as Sheba Cafe and Blue Nile in the past few years. Surely at this lovely, far more upscale restaurant, the prices would be painful. Not so, I found: A vegetarian combo with six items (meant to feed two to three people) was $17, while a full combo platter of meats and stews (for three or four people) was $27. My friends and I went whole-hog and ordered a round of combo platters — three vegetarian plates, two meat-and-stew combos, plus a few more dishes of doro wat, tibs and kitfo.

My second fear was that the portions would be miserly. I've seen this trend at even the Ethiopian restaurants I like: Where you would once get a platter of lentils and greens and cabbage all piled high and overlapping onto each other, now it's more common to see several inches of room between each spoonful of food.

The food at Lucy, however, came out hot, fresh and in heaping portions. So big were the portions, in fact, that my table only finished a little over half of the food we ordered. The kitfo — one dish that a few folks were nervous about ordering — was a huge hit, the raw beef so well seasoned that one friend remarked he'd never know it was the Ethiopian version of steak tartare. Our vegetarian combo platters contained bright, jewel-toned scoops of red and yellow lentils, dark green collard greens, savory stewed cabbage — all of it deeply seasoned with fragrant garlic and ginger.

And the doro wat, my personal favorite, had that signature deep red hue from the berbere spice mix used to impart a dusky spiciness to the stewed chicken, the same deep red color that always stains my fingers through the sheets of tart injera bread used as edible spoons. And the bread kept coming, something I appreciated, considering that many places have started charging for extra baskets of the stuff.

All in all, with a bottle of wine, several additional glasses, Cokes and our tremendous assortment of food, we ended up paying only $35 a person. With tax and tip. We walked away stunned, satiated and — at least on my part — incredibly eager for a return visit. Which, next time, will take place in that cozy lounge. Katharine Shilcutt


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