The Rest of the Best
It wasn't too terribly long ago that most Houstonians found sushi to be a terribly exotic and occasionally daunting meal. My first sushi dinner was had at Cafe Japon on Kirby early in high school, with my worldly mother as my guide. It was terrifying and exhilarating, this unique experience of eating fish...raw.
"It's not raw in the way you're thinking," my exasperated mother kept trying to tell me. But I was fascinated by the idea that great hunks had simply been flayed off a live fish, then draped across a ball of (room temperature! not hot!) rice, so she let me run with it. For many years, I went back to Cafe Japon or its neighbor across the street, Miyako, when I wanted to feel the shivers of excitement that came from experimenting with a completely new type of fish or moving up the sushi ladder to pure sashimi, slowly but surely.
Nearly 20 years later, our sushi options have expanded greatly from basic purveyors like Cafe Japon and Miyako. The greatest sushi restaurant Houston has ever seen sits right down the street from these two pioneers, and our choices are only getting better by the day. Los Angeles import Katsuya by Starck offers a slick, chic scene to go with your sushi while mom-and-pop places like Sushi Miyagi in Chinatown provide a homey hole-in-the-wall in which to have a slow-paced, contemplative dinner.
It's refreshing when you find a place that's as genuinely comfortable as it is delicious. The menu at this diminutive Japanese joint isn't mind-blowing, but it's consistently refreshing, with delicious salmon, shrimp, eel and tuna offered in creative combinations, all at reasonable prices. You'll find the standbys on the sushi list, plus a bunch of more adventurous rolls that expertly play with textures and flavors. Beyond the food, the zen atmosphere is one-upped only by the amiable servers, who can make suggestions and customize orders. Perhaps best of all, every diner gets at least one small freebie with every meal — from creative rolls and punchy dumplings or baked mussels and green tea ice cream.
This well-frequented restaurant in a strip center on Westheimer is known for the freshness of its fish. The chefs create traditional Japanese food with a contemporary flair; there are many special sushi rolls, all beautifully presented. The atmosphere is relaxed yet upscale, and the hostesses are even dressed in traditional kimonos. Private parties can be accommodated in three — count 'em, three — tatami rooms.
8. Soma Sushi
A beautifully chic restaurant filled with equally beautiful, chic people, Soma serves up some of the best and most interesting sushi in town. Located along the Washington Avenue corridor, Soma helped make the area "cool" again and inspired an ever-growing number of trendy eatery owners to set up shop there. Sure, you can get your basic California roll or spicy tuna, and it'll be delicious, but why not try something more adventurous? There's New Zealand red snapper, yellow tail belly, sea urchin and flying fish roe, to name just a few. And don't forget the specialty rolls, like the Crazy Irish-Man, with salmon, tuna and avocado topped with spicy mayo, or the Relaxation roll, a mix of crab stick, avocado, fish egg and salmon on top of shrimp and grilled asparagus.
Ginza is by far one of the most traditionally appointed Japanese restaurants in the city; you almost feel like you're in Tokyo. That feeling doesn't always extend to the food, which is heavily Americanized, but of high quality nevertheless. Ginza's lunch specials are some of the best deals you'll find in town considering the quality of its fish, while you'll find a sizable Japanese expat population there at dinner. Chef Danny Trace of Brennan's is a noted fan of Ginza's super-fresh uni.
6. Sushi Miyagi
This mom-and-pop sushi restaurant in a slow-paced Chinatown strip mall doesn't look like much from the outside. The only external indication of its quality lies in its name: Miyagi is an extremely common name in the Ryukyu Islands, and it serves to let other Japanese know that an Okinawan runs this place. Miyagi himself is the sushi chef, his wife the sole waitress (and creative force behind the restaurant's art). The two of them serve the most honest, authentic sushi in town. The rice is well-vinegared and hand-formed, while the fish is superbly cut, always served at a pleasantly ambient temperature. Best of all, the prices and the atmosphere make it easily accessible, and the Miyagis will always make you feel at home.
I had Zushi all wrong before I finally ate there for the first time. I expected cheesy, strip-mall sushi and instead I got chef Chris Nemoto's excellently constructed nigirizushi and beautifully folded tamagoyaki, the true sign of a talented sushi chef. All of Nemoto's fish is fresh and his rice impeccably seasoned, even if the menu caters heavily to the Americanized roll set. Give it a chance and you'll be impressed, too.
Chef Hajime Kubokawa — or Kubo-san, for short — is no longer at the sushi restaurant he helped found with owner Yoichi "Yogi" Ueno. 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 through the years, including Kata Robata's sushi master, Hori-san. 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. Sushi Jin
When it first opened, Sushi Jin helped raise the bar for Houston's raw-fish lovers. Flown in straight from Japan, the mouthwatering pieces of salmon, tuna and yellow tail are sure to impress even the snobbiest connoisseurs. Wanna walk on the wild side? Jellyfish, sea cucumber and other exotics are hidden away in a secret stash — all you have to do is ask and prove you're no novice. Private karaoke rooms allow diners to sing and dance, or you can just relax in one of the booths and enjoy the restaurant's simple, elegant decor.
James Beard Award-winning Austin chef Tyson Cole's ultramodern Japanese import, Uchi, occupies the old building that housed Houston classic Felix Mexican Restaurant for half a century — and the young restaurant is already just as popular thanks to chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards and his team, who run Uchi like a well-oiled machine. You'll have to make reservations for this dinner-only spot if you want to sit in the steely-chic dining room, but walk-ins can usually be accommodated at the surprisingly cozy bar. A spot-on sake list (as well as beer and wine) accompanies a menu of "hot" and "cold" "tastings" along with more traditional sushi, sashimi and hand rolls. Happy hour is every weekday and offers some of Uchi's favorites — machi cure with smoked yellowtail, for example, and the skewers of pork belly called bacon sen — for a drastically reduced price.
1. Kata Robata
It says a lot about the changing palates of Houston diners that a highly modern sushi restaurant with a strong undertone of French fusion was our choice as Best New Restaurant in 2010. But the food at Kata Robata (and the casual atmosphere that belies some of the menu prices) is truly the biggest draw of any place that's opened in the past year. Omakase platters prepared by the talented Manabu Horiuchi, formerly of Kubo's, are both playful and breathtaking at the same time — as well as quite a bargain. And that's a recurring theme at Kata Robata: fresh, flavorful, high-quality food for a lot less than you'd expect to pay, which is why it was awarded Best Sushi in the 2012 Best of Houston® issue.
The Real Debate
What's the best bread/cheese combination for a grilled cheese sandwich?
If 4chan is the Wild West of the Internet, Reddit is the PG-13 version: a cleaned-up mining town grown rich on silver that mostly keeps the riff-raff out, Tombstone-style (or at least confined to subreddits such as r/gonewild and r/spacedicks). It's where the local residents gather to discuss important topics like kittens, memes, science, puppies, politics, arbitrary arguments for the sake of arbitrariness and gross-out stories that 31-year-olds shouldn't still find amusing but do. Reddit also loves food. A lot.
Many of the stories that make it to the sacred "front page" of Reddit through its system of user (or "redditor") upvoting and downvoting are nothing more than a picture of what someone cooked for dinner that night. Occasionally, a photo spread of something like one man's summer of eating at Los Angeles food trucks will make the cut, too. Far more popular, however, are Reddit threads that not only feature food as a topic but allow discussion and/or arguments over which foodstuff in question is superior.
Recently, a Reddit thread on "the best cheese/bread combo for a grilled cheese" hit the front page and Redditors across the Internet converged to give their own suggestions for the most superior grilled cheese of all.
With one major problem.
Not once in the top 200 comments did anyone mention Velveeta. Sure, if you expand the comment thread to include all 500 comments, Velveeta gets a few paltry mentions.
"But the Velveeta processed dairy product is sooo creamy and melty. I love me some fake cheese," exhorts one redditor. To which another redditor immediately retorts: "Bleh. Just American cheese sold in block form."
Just American cheese? Sold in block form? How about the American cheese sold in block form?
It is well-established that nothing melts like Velveeta, thanks — yes — in large part to the many chemicals that keep Velveeta in its charming block form, a form which has remained unchanged since my childhood.
Thank God some other redditor further down the thread came to Velveeta's defense, or else I would have had to de-lurk after years spent in quiet contemplation of Reddit's curious nature solely to defend America's favorite cheese product:
"I always go with cheap white bread and Kraft or Velveeta American cheese. Served with a cup of Cambell's tomato soup. So nostalgic and comforting, it takes me back to my childhood! When I make a grilled cheese sandwich, I spread margarine very carefully, covering each possible surface. I use a small skillet that has a lid and spray it with a touch of PAM. Grilling it with the lid on ensures all the cheese will be thoroughly melted as the heat gets trapped in there and kind of steams it. I only like a medium grill on my bread, and I kept finding the cheese in the middle wouldn't get nice and gooey."
And that's how you make a grilled cheese sandwich, folks. You can keep your fancy Gruyère and artisan sourdough bread. They're lovely and all, but a grilled cheese sandwich is at its best when it's simple and, okay, highly processed. Ain't that America? Katharine Shilcutt
An Embarrassment of Riches
Top 10 restaurants in the Heights.
Let's get one thing out of the way before we get started: This is a list of the ten best restaurants in the Heights, as "the Heights" is defined by the Houston Heights Association. That means that restaurants outside of its boundaries — north of Loop 610 West, west of North Shepherd, south of the Katy Freeway or east of Studewood/Airline Drive — are automatically excluded.
This means that truly excellent restaurants such as Gatlin's, Hubcap Grill, El Gran Malo, Pappa Geno's and Rainbow Lodge didn't make the cut. But it also means that future lists such as "Top 10 Restaurants in Oak Forest/Garden Oaks" or "Top 10 Restaurants in Timbergrove" are forthcoming.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the top ten restaurants in the Heights, proper, which still proved quite a challenge to select despite the small territory. If there's one thing the Heights is richer in than antique shops or bungalows, it's amazing food.
10. Carter & Cooley
The winner of our 2009 Best of Houston® award for Best Atmosphere, sandwich shop Carter & Cooley has been serving excellent BLTs, Reubens and warm honey ham and brie sandwiches for more than 20 years. The Simon Lewis building in which it's housed was erected in 1921 as Ward's Drugs and has been lovingly restored by owner Neil Sackheim. Eat your corned beef on dark Bentwood chairs under a pressed tin ceiling and enjoy the sense of being lost a few decades back in the Heights' history.
9. El Gallo de Jalisco
A small, unassuming, family-run place in the Heights, El Gallo de Jalisco is one of the few joints left in the increasingly restaurant-saturated area that's remained ungentrified. It's still cash-only, and very limited English is spoken inside, but you'll also find wonderfully authentic tacos, tortas and perhaps one of the finest chicken mole plates in town. Interestingly, the homemade salsas aren't at all spicy, but they taste great with basket of warm chips and a cold glass of jamaica.
8. Liberty Kitchen
BRC Gastropub chef and owner Lance Fegen shows off his Cajun side at Liberty Kitchen, an oyster bar that manages to feel like Louisiana and New England at the same time. The relaxed restaurant is perfect for slurping down East Coast oysters over local brews (which is why we gave Liberty Kitchen a 2012 Best of Houston® award for Best Raw Bar) or enjoying a huge bowl of gumbo topped with fried oysters. Other big winners: burgers made from fresh-ground beef that taste like upscale Big Macs and shakes made with tangy custard from dessert spot Petite Sweets.
7. Triple A
Here's how you do a Saturday morning right: Grab a chicken fried steak plus eggs, grits and homemade biscuits at Triple A, with an extra side of cream gravy for those biscuits and a neverending cup of diner coffee. Relish the sassy waitresses and the worn-down marks in the linoleum that signal decades of customers' feet wearing away the spots beneath the stools at the long, low counter. Walk it all off next door at the massive Canino's farmers market as you stock up on fresh produce. Reward yourself for a morning well done with a bag full of just-baked pastries at El Bolillo across the street. Nap. Congratulations, you've won Saturday.
This wonderfully festive, colorful and inexpensive neighborhood place has a spacious covered patio, efficient waitstaff and large portions of some of the best Tex-Mex in Houston. As an added bonus, it's easy to find: Just look for the brightest pinkest restaurant you've ever seen. The green tomatillo salsa, charro beans and thick, handmade corn tortillas are awesome, as are its daily breakfasts. But it's the grilled items like fajitas and shrimp, the cheap but strong margaritas and the singularly spectacular snapper al cilantro that keep us coming back week after week.
5. Zelko Bistro
We gave Zelko Bistro the 2010 Best of Houston® award for Best Comfort Food with good reason: This cozy converted house in the Heights offers everything comfort food should be. It's inexpensive, well-made, thoughtfully presented, delicious food from childhood served with a warm smile. Zelko Bistro also happens to serve one of the finest burgers anywhere — The Boss Burger — and desserts you thought you'd never find on a chef-driven restaurant's menu: funnel cake and banana splits. An elegantly constructed wine and beer list with seriously affordable prices and a hidden garden-style patio have made Zelko one of the most welcome additions to the Heights in years.
4. Asia Market (Disclaimer: Asia Market is half a block "outside" of the Heights, just barely east of Airline on Cavalcade. I'm letting it slide on this technicality.)
Why does Asia Market consistently top Houston chefs' lists of their favorite places to eat in Houston? The low prices and deep authenticity factor in, but the real draw is the firecracker food (even if it's only farang, or "foreigner" spicy). Along with Vieng Thai, Asia Market offers the best Thai food you'll find in Houston with dishes such as som tum (green papaya salad) and Kang Massam curry as some of our favorites. For something really adventurous, Chris Shepherd recommends ordering the off-menu "black egg
3. Revival Market
You may not realize it, but Revival Market sells complete meals in addition to all the fixings to make your own meal at home. Like everything else in Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber's shop, all of the food is made entirely with local products like Weber's own pigs and vegetables from area farmers. The Asian-inspired duck slaw is a standout, as are simple items like pickled carrots. Hot dogs made from Weber's Mangalitsa pigs on Slow Dough buns are a can't-miss, and sure to please the kids, too. Eat in the small but bright cafe inside or take your meal into the fresh air on the cozy patio.
Claire Smith's flagship Heights restaurant keeps it light and casual, but its occasionally Asian-inflected dishes don't skimp on flavor, like grilled quail stuffed with venison sausage and cabbage or a sautéed red snapper with Napa slaw and a red curry-coconut broth. The bar hosts a great happy hour during the week, with classic cocktails served alongside favorites like fried shrimp and bacon-cheese grits topped with Frank's Red Hot sauce. Shade was one of the first upscale-casual restaurants to open in the Heights (remember when it was an antique store cafe?) and nearly a decade later it's still one of the area's strongest restaurants.
1. Down House
It seems like years ago that I reviewed Down House and found it wanting. These days, the ultimate "useful" restaurant has almost completely transformed itself into a lean, mean food-making machine. Breakfast is served nearly all day. It's a competition to decide which is better: the coffee or the cocktails. The beer list is constantly shifting to match the ever-evolving lunch/dinner menu of mostly local foods. The atmosphere invites you to have a quick bite or linger at one of the marble-topped bistro tables all day long. Down House is anything you want it to be — and although many restaurants fail miserably when trying to be something to everybody, Down House is an excellent example of a place that mostly manages to get it all right. Katharine Shilcutt
Your pumpkin spice lattes are safe.
I know people who mark the passing of the seasons by Starbucks' seasonal lattes, and I am very much not joking about this. Fall has officially arrived when the coffee chain starts carrying Pumpkin Spice-flavored lattes. Winter is here when the Peppermint Mochas arrive. It's become a cycle as constant as the North Star.
Except when there are national Pumpkin Spice latte shortages and the nation loses its collective mind. At least, that's what The Huffington Post would have us believe.
"That's it, folks," wrote Cavan Sieczkowski in the Post recently. "Fall might very well be ruined." Why? Because the venerable Wall Street Journal reported on a shortage of Pumpkin Spice lattes at Starbucks across the nation "due to high demand after the drink's Sept. 4 release."
Although I'm pretty sure that even my Gingerbread latte-loving friends wouldn't have their fall entirely "ruined" by this news, I did wonder if Houston was perhaps insulated from this national trend. I certainly haven't seen any wailing, torturous posts about it on Facebook or Twitter. (And I'm friends with people on Facebook who post graphic photos of their babies pooping, so I would know.)
It turns out that Houston has been buffeted from these apparent nationwide shortages, in much the same way that our economy has been largely insulated from the national recession. Boo-yah, rest of the United States. Come to Houston for the jobs, stay for the unlimited Pumpkin Spice lattes.
I talked to an employee at my local Starbucks while waiting for a Pumpkin Spice latte of my very own last week, who said that no shortages had been reported in Houston.
"We try to keep it in stock until at least February," he said, chuckling at what he perceived to be my own personal panic over a potential shortage.
"Of course," he continued, "there are occasionally shortages. And we don't know until we don't receive our weekly shipment that there's not going to be any." This had never happened with the Pumpkin Spice to the best of his knowledge, however.
I celebrated Houston's Pumpkin Spice victory with a slice of pumpkin loaf to accompany my latte. Verdict: The latte was far too sweet, as always. And calling anything a "loaf" automatically takes it down a peg or two on the "sounds delicious" scale, but the slice of soft pumpkin bread was as good (and as pumpkiny) as ever. Katharine Shilcutt
Openings & Closings
Cafe Adobe closing and downtown blind items.
It looks like EaDo is getting more gentrified by the day, as one of our readers sent in pictures of TABC notices for Walker Street Gastropub, set to take over the old Cafe Shoppe place at 2016 Walker. A banh mi shop replaced by a gastropub? The old Chinatown has truly changed.
Another old spot will be transformed into something completely different: Cafe Adobe on Westheimer, which has served enchiladas and margaritas for more than 30 years, will soon be torn down to make room for an apartment complex, reports CultureMap. Go Houston. Cafe Adobe is not my favorite Tex-Mex in town, but I have extremely fond memories of happy hours with friends on that rooftop patio or family dinners inside the glass-walled, plant-covered, indoor-outdoor dining room. Cafe Adobe is quirky and fun and, sadly, will be only a memory after it closes for good next year.
In its place at the already uncomfortably crowded intersection of Shepherd and Westheimer will be an "upscale residential rental project" from Hines. Cafe Adobe sold its original location to Hines in order to raise enough funds to buy out all the remaining Cafe Adobe locations in Houston, according to a press release:
"Due to the unfortunate and untimely death of Cafe Adobe partner Scott Cragin, Cafe Adobe has completed the sale of the land where the original Cafe Adobe now stands at 2111 Westheimer to provide for Cragin's family and the buyout of its partners. Borochoff, who bought into the company six years ago, emphasized that the Westheimer restaurant will continue to operate as usual and will move to a new location in the same area next year."
You may have noticed that another restaurant called Sapori Ristorante opened last week, but chef Alberto Baffoni isn't back at his old spot. Instead, this is a different Sapori completely, reports B4-U-Eat. This one is in Galveston:
"Brothers Rosario and Nunzio Incorvaia last week opened Sapori Ristorante, 7611 Stewart Rd, Galveston. It's been a long two years of renovating but they are serving Italian-European dishes and pastries daily from 11am-9pm."
Finally, it's time for another exciting blind item. Last week, we got news straight from the horse's mouth that a very popular food truck is about to put down brick-and-mortar roots...downtown. I wonder how City Council and the GHRA feel about that. Katharine Shilcutt
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