The Rest of the Best: Houston's Top Mom-and-Pop Restaurants
They love you no matter what.
For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Family-run establishments have the heart and soul that you often miss from corporate chains. Mom-and-pop joints offer a chance to settle into a familiar seat with comfort and eat something prepared with love and care.
It's a rare accomplishment to run a business that reminds customers of their own homes, their own families and of the meals they've shared together. It takes gumption, hard work and a desire to make total strangers feel completely at ease. Of course, it also takes a good meal.
What follows is the Rest of the Best for Mom-and-Pop Restaurants in Houston.
Make yourself comfortable.
An excellent place to go have a bagel and a kvetch. It's an authentic East Coast-style joint serving all the lox, bagels and cream cheese you could want, as well as sandwiches and standard diner breakfast fare. There's a bagel shop on one side and a coffee shop/diner on the other side. The bagels are fantastic, and the diner is dirt-cheap and very homey.
Lox and bagels is one of my favorite breakfasts, but throw some eggs and home fries in for a complete meal.
The place is small, cramped and crowded, but it's totally worth it.
I'm from Sugar Land, so I've eaten at this place a number of times over the years. Family-owned and incredibly friendly, the restaurant is pure Texas comfort, with good burgers, plenty of things cooked over a hot grill and a decent chicken-fried steak. It's nothing fancy, just consistently tasty, offering simple favorites and ice-cold beer in a welcoming atmosphere.
It's also super-affordable, and any place with a giant Texas flag painted on its tin roof is worth a visit.
The place has sort of a funky-farmhouse style of motif, a place where Dalton, Patrick Swayze's bouncer-with-a-heart-of-gold character from the classic '80s film Road House, might just elbow up.
Live Oak's namesake is a 150-year-old oak tree providing shade for the outside eating area. It's also right around the corner from Constellation Field, home to the fledgling Sugar Land minor league team, The Skeeters.
Go grab a burger and catch a game out in The Suburban Bubble.
Get the onion rings, too. You won't regret it.
I hate most holidays. Christmas sucks, Valentine's Day is a crock of shit and Easter is one rung below Dungeons and Dragons as far as fantasy stories go.
Thanksgiving, though? That's one of my favorites.
Cleburne's makes my list because it's a place where you can get a ridiculously good turkey dinner with all the fixins anytime you want in their cafeteria-style setting.
On top of the great turkey, you can get a chicken-fried steak about as big as your head, some fantastic, rib-sticking sides and some truly majestic desserts: massive slices of cake, eye-popping pies and enough custards and cobblers to rival Paula Deen.
Cleburne's has been family-owned and run by Greek immigrants since 1941, and they won't let you forget it -- there are multiple family portraits adorning the walls, ranging from black-and-white relatives of yore to current incarnations of the Mickelis family.
If you are in the market for a belt-busting, tryptophan-induced, post-meal coma-like state, then head over to Cleburne's.
Dude, have you had their pizza? And you know they have Bocce ball, right? They also have great gelato, friendly service and you can bring your own damn booze.
Sign me up.
I love Luigi's pie. And the family that runs the place is always amiable. They'll keep your beer inside the walk-in for you, ensuring it's cold enough to fight off those 90 degree summer nights.
Add some prosciutto to their Caprese pizza. It's my favorite in town.
Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook just put out a list of her top 10 best Tex-Mex places in Houston, and Lopez was not on it. After reading the whole list and not seeing Lopez, I said to myself:
This list is bullshit.
Lopez has been family-run since 1978, and they consistently sling some of my favorite Tex-Mex around. The place can become a cluster after about 7 p.m. on the weekends, so you know it's good if you have to fight for a parking spot.
While not a small, quaint mom-and-pop place -- Lopez is monstrous and constantly full of people -- the really tasty food makes this very well-run machine of a restaurant deserve a spot on this list.
Family-run, this Best of Houston® winner makes a mean bowl of pho. Pho is comfort in a bowl, good for cold days or just days when you have a cold. Their pho recipe has been kept in the family for generations and the restaurant remains a family affair -- the adorable little girl pictured eating noodles in Pho One ads is the owner's niece, he once told me.
The menu also features the ubiquitous pan-fried noodle dishes and spring rolls you find at other places, but the pho stands on its own.
Good food, friendly atmosphere and affordable prices make this little noodle shop a consistent winner.
Tex-Chick has some seriously good Puerto Rican food. If you can't feel full and happy and safe after a plate of their carne guisada, then something must be seriously wrong. It's a tiny place that can seat no more than maybe 12 people, but if you can find a chair you are in for a real treat. It's Latin comfort food.
"You want to know the secret to this place?" asked the proprietor of this tiny Montrose landmark.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Professional baseball players."
The Cardinals were just in town when I was there this weekend and former Astro (and Puerto Rico native) Carlos Beltran had just walked out, getting a gigantic order to-go a few hours before the game Saturday night. It's fairly common to see Latin players from the Astros -- and visiting teams as well -- coming in and getting that taste of home.
You'll have some serious garlic breath, but get some mofongo.
Seco's makes my list solely on the merits of its Sunday brunch. I've never been there at any other time, and though I am sure it is good, the remarkable brunch is why I return.
They are very liberal with their bottomless mimosas, which are mixed strong and refilled often, and they do a great job making you feel comfortable. Seco's occupies an old brick house with the homey, friendly feel of a family establishment.
Visiting the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet is going to significantly slow down your Sunday, but it is worth it even if you ate nothing else but the red-pepper shrimp soup, which is good enough to make you want to choke that dumb little kid in front of you who is just fishing around in the big soup pot with the serving spoon, digging for shrimp.
That's my game. Run along, kid.
Excellent pork and fish dishes combined with both a waffle and an omelet station should fill you up, but it is definitely the dessert table which floats my brunch boat.
Homemade bread pudding with sweet whiskey cream sauce. Best bread pudding around, in my book.
Former Best of Houston® winner Gatlin's BBQ in the Heights is a family-run institution for all things smoked meat.
A comfortable environment, excellent food and decent prices make it a friendly, welcoming place to grab a brisket sandwich or some smoked sausage.
Run by an experienced, 30-plus-year sushi chef from Osaka and his wife, this sparse restaurant in an unassuming China Town strip center is the best sushi in Houston. It's some of the best sushi I've had anywhere, in fact.
Because they have a staff of exactly two, you can expect a little longer dining experience than at other places, but patience is a virtue, and in this instance it is a virtue worth developing.
Fancy-pants fusion rolls have their place, certainly, but the way to really gauge a sushi place is by its sashimi. You can hide mediocre fish under sauces, or in rolls with crunchy fried bits on them and artful presentation, but I much prefer just the simple fish, served straight up after the Gollum fashion:
"Give it to us raw and wriggling."
On to our winner from Best of Houston® 2011: Mel's Country Cafe.
Mel's Country Cafe is a family-run establishment off the beaten path in Tomball that delivers on all the name implies. Diner tables fill the ranch house and add to the comfort factor when you step in.
A 16-ounce chicken-fried steak anchors a menu that offers home-style victuals like greens, fried okra and catfish. The servers operate with a relaxed ease about them that you'd expect to find in the Tomball area. What could be homier than that?
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