Best of Houston
Our 2013 Best of Houston® winners have been announced, but in many cases, picking the best item in any category was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we'll be rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!
Recently, a friend of mine uttered something so shocking, something so unbelievable, something so incomprehensible, I was shaken to my very core.
"I don't like french fries."
"What now!? I'm sorry, it sounded like you said you don't like french fries, but I know that can't be true, because everyone likes french fries, even Michelle Obama, a self-proclaimed health-food fanatic. So, come again?"
It was true, he said. He doesn't like french fries. But because every other sane person in the world does, we've rounded up a list of the best french fries in all of Houston — from the thin, crispy frites to the truffle-laced to the bowls of potatoes topped with everything under the sun. Houston has some amazing fries. Here are some of our favorites.
Brand-spanking new bar Lowbrow has a menu that's still evolving, but one thing the spot need not meddle with is the thick, hand-cut fries. Former Liberty Kitchen sous chef Rachel Merk recently stepped in as head chef at Lowbrow, but much of the menu was designed by Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys, which accounts for things like a jalapeño- and fontina-stuffed burger and those awesome fries. Marcus says the only way to do fries is to cut the potatoes by hand — no frozen fries or fancy equipment allowed. They're thicker than any of the other fries on the list, but they manage to stay firm and crispy in spite of their heft. Marcus uses Kennebec potatoes, which he swears are the best for fries, and pairs them with a spicy mixture of sambal (chile paste) and mayo, which gives them a slight Indonesian flair. Just try to resist eating the mayo with a spoon, or you'll get some weird looks.
9. Hubcap Grill
Sure, the burgers at Hubcap are a thing of beauty, but don't forget the burger's favorite side dish. At Hubcap, you can choose from 12 different types of fries topped with everything from country cream gravy to marinara sauce, but those in the know know that the Hell Fries are the most heavenly of them all. They're made from freshly cut and twice-fried potatoes, then tossed with cayenne and chile powder, drizzled with Sriracha mayo and sprinkled with chopped jalapeños. If they don't sound that spicy, allow me to warn you: They're really damn spicy! Order a side of milk with these fries. You're going to need it.
I've previously waxed poetic about Boheme's Bangkok fries, and nothing's changed since I first wrote about them several months ago. They're still thin and super-crispy, and still topped with melt-in-your-mouth charbroiled pork, vinegary hoisin sauce, spicy Sriracha, homemade yellow-curry mayo, crunchy crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro. They elevate fries from side dish to main course, and the mix of flavors is both a bit strange (yellow curry mayo?!) and familiar (fried potatoes). One serving of this can easily feed two people, but I highly doubt you'll want to share.
7. The Burger Guys
I used to have pet ducks, so for a while the thought of eating duck was unpleasant to me. Had someone introduced me to The Burger Guys' duck fat fries earlier in life, I don't think I ever would have thought twice about eating duck. This is why they were put on earth. These Belgian-style frites are fried in duck fat not once, but twice, which gives them an extra-crunchy crust and decadent flavor. For dipping, choose from house-made ketchup, herbed ranch, chipotle aioli, salted caramel and cilantro-jalapeño blue cheese sauce. And when I say "choose," I mean pay extra for all of them.
6. Café Rabelais
What makes the fries at Café Rabelais so delightful is their simplicity and their price. For just $2.50, you can get a basket of piping-hot frites wrapped in parchment paper and a side of the most incredible aioli. The fries are wonderful on their own — cooked to an ideal golden brown with a slight crunch, and never soggy — but combined with the aioli, they're some of the most delicious in town. It's better than your average garlic/mayo combo because Café Rabelais first makes the mayonnaise in-house, then roasts garlic and mixes coarsely chopped chunks of it with the mayo, then adds a sprinkle of fresh parsley. It's a dynamic aioli.
5. MKT Bar
These ultra-thin fries give new meaning to the term "shoestring." They're thin and a little curly — almost like fried onions — and sprinkled with za'atar, which is made of dried and crushed thyme, oregano, marjoram and sumac, as well as a bit of salt. The flavor is unlike that of any of the other fries on this list (which tend toward French or Asian influences), but it's not so unique as to make them tiring after a few bites. Oh, no. I ate nearly the whole plate of them on a recent visit, and I think it's supposed to serve a few people.
4. Bernie's Burger Bus
These fries never survive the drive from wherever Bernie's is stationed back to my apartment. It's not that they get soggy or cold on the way home. It's that I eat them all before I even get a chance to look at my burger. I have never yet been able to resist the temptation of those perfectly crisped, skin-on, truffled Parmesan and green onion shoestring fries, which is a shame, because they pair so well with Bernie's homemade ketchup. But I never have the time (or the dexterity) to attempt to dip the fries while I'm driving. My one focus is always to eat them, as many as possible as soon as possible.
3. Brasserie 19
The Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 consist of slightly curly, dark orangey-brown fries tossed in sauce au poivre, grated Parmesan, truffle oil and chives. Then the mound of frites is topped with a generous portion of seared foie gras. Somehow the fries manage to stay crispy under the thick pepper gravy, and the truffle oil flavor is delicate enough that it doesn't overwhelm the entire dish. The earthy Parmesan and bright chives add minute flavor nuances to each bite. And then there's the foie gras, which is so rich that I eat it every other bite or so only, using the (also quite rich) fries to cleanse my palate. Sound over-the-top? It is, but in the best way.
2. Koagie Hots
One word: Kimchi. Though the Korean fermented-cabbage dish isn't universally loved, I happen to be obsessed with it. So the combination of my favorite healthy snack (kimchi) with my favorite unhealthy snack (french fries) is pretty magical. Koagie Hots tops its fries with homemade kimchi, spicy mayo, salty feta cheese and chopped scallions. The fried potatoes themselves may not be the best in town, but the kimchi sure is. Pile that and the other goodies on top, and you've got one helluva Korean fusion dish. It's perfect at 2 a.m. if...you know...you happen to still be out then, for whatever reason...
1. Fat Bao
Come to Fat Bao for the bao, but stay for the fries. The signature steamed Chinese dumplings are good, but the french fries are out of this world: hand-cut, perfectly fried and excellent all on their own. I recommend dipping them in Fat Bao's homemade kimchi mayonnaise (kimcheenaise) if you're feeling fancy, or ordering the Yummy Fries for a couple of extra bucks: They're tossed with a sauce of fresh rosemary and creamy Parmesan cheese. Simple, unassuming and the best fries in Houston.
Cheap & Good Eats
Top 5 lunch budget spots in the Galleria.
We've been rounding up our favorite budget lunch spots in different neighborhoods around town. So far, we've covered Montrose, River Oaks, Midtown, Upper Kirby, EaDo, Rice Village and the East End. But we're not done yet.
This week, it's the upscale Galleria neighborhood that gets a closer look. Here's our list of the best cheap (less than $10) lunch spots that this area has to offer:
Note: For purposes of this list, the Galleria is defined as anything west of Loop 610, south of Woodway, east of South Voss/Hillcroft and north of Richmond Avenue.
Honorable Mentions: Fountain View Fish Market, for their fresh fried fish and shrimp baskets; Argentina Cafe, for their hand-formed empanadas and choripán (Argentinian sausage) sandwiches; and Bubba's Texas Burger Shack, for their succulent beef and buffalo burgers.
5. Cafe Mawal
This Middle Eastern restaurant is one of our favorite places for al fresco dining. And rightfully so — it's not every day that you get to eat inside a traditional Bedouin tent. It sits perched outside the single-story home that the restaurant is housed in, and there's also an equally pleasant oak-tree-lined deck.
Find a seat and enjoy the backyard grill, wafting scents of paprika-and-turmeric-spiced butterflied chicken, kafta kebabs and makanek, links of a lamb sausage flavored with clove and chile. Served with rice, vegetables and fresh salads, the grill plates are more than enough for lunch. Though roughly 40 percent of the menu is under $10, you can keep the prices of the more expensive entrées low by splitting one and an appetizer with a friend. But soon enough, you won't have to — the owners are currently working on a special-priced lunch menu.
4. James Coney Island
It just doesn't get better than a good ol'-fashioned hot dog. Oh, wait, yes it does. How about a Chicago-style dog ($2.79), with mustard, relish, hot peppers, celery salt and a pickle spear in a poppy seed bun; or a gourmet Baja dog ($4.99), smothered in chipotle mayo, guacamole and red onions.
Earlier this year, the 90-year-old hot dog institution started hosting a Houston Chefs and Show Dog series; each month a local chef creates an over-the-top hot dog, and a portion of the proceeds from the sales of the hot dogs is donated to that chef's charity of choice. The series will come to a close at the end of this month, so get Hugo Ortega's Holy Molé ($8.49) — featuring smoked chicken andouille sausage, tinga, mole sauce, queso fresco and crema fresca in a Slow Dough pretzel bun — while you can.
3. Fountain View Cafe
Enter the Fountain View Cafe any time of day and you're likely to be hit with the glorious scent of bacon. That's because the counter-service, old-fashioned restaurant makes breakfast (and some serious lunch) all day long (7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends). Check out the chalkboard menu, grab yourself a cup of Joe and wait for your short stack of crisp, vanilla-laced pancakes ($3.95), custom-made omelet (starting at $5.45) or classic tuna melt ($5.50) to arrive. Plump and juicy 1/3-lb all-beef burgers are fantastic and start at just $5. Add a cup of soup, side of slaw or pile of fresh-cut fries for just a few bucks more. You just can't beat these old-fashioned prices.
2. Cafe Pita Galleria
Cafe Pita has made its name in Houston's dining scene for a reason, and the reason is its unbeatable Bosnian food. If you haven't tried it, do yourself a favor and visit the quaint one-story cottage on Richmond. There you'll find several dishes that you may be more familiar with than you realize, like the Bosnian musaka, a version of the popular eggplant-and-potato dish moussaka — made here with layers of eggplant and zucchini, ground beef and a rich béchamel. Served in a zesty tomato sauce, it is not to be missed. Neither is the goulash, chunks of tender, melt-in-your-mouth beef stewed and served on a bed of basmati rice. Lunch specials are just $7.99 and include a soup or side salad, but gyros, stuffed burek (puffed pastry), kebabs and entrée salads are available as well.
1. Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe
If you are craving falafel, this walk-up service cafe is the way to go. Crisp on the outside, soft and delicate at the center, these deep-fried, za'atar-spiced chickpea patties are perhaps the best in the city. Enjoy them stuffed into a pita with all the fixin's ($4.49 for a small, $5.49 for a large) or just eat them as is with a side of creamy tahini sauce ($.75 each, $7.50 for a dozen or $6.99 for a platter with tabouli salad, hummus and pita). There's also plenty of shawarma, spinach pie and baklava to go around.
The Great Debate
Do casseroles deserve a place at our dining tables?
According to theMerriam-Webster dictionary, the word "casserole" was first used in 1708, but the origin of the term can be traced to a much earlier time. It comes from the French word for saucepan, which possibly has its roots in the Greekkyathos, which means ladle, bowl or cup. The dictionary describes a casserole as "an earthenware or glass baking dish, usually with a cover, in which food can be cooked and then served" and "the food baked and served in such a dish, typically rice, potatoes or macaroni together with meat or fish and vegetables."
Sounds innocuous enough.
So why are people so divided on casseroles? Poll any group, and you're bound to find both people who love casseroles and people who cannot stand them. We found such a divide in our own newsroom, so we decided to nominate one pro-casserole person and one anti-casserole person to duke it out.
Which side are you on?
Pro-casserole by Molly Dunn
Growing up, I always craved a hearty shepherd's pie on cold winter nights. There's something about a helping of mashed potatoes with ground beef, carrots, peas, onions and cheese that could always warm my heart and my stomach.
Casseroles, or hotdishes (for those from the north), have stood the test of time. While food trends and culinary styles have progressed and changed each year, casseroles are still popular dishes among families, households and the community.
A casserole is one of the easiest ways to welcome someone to the neighborhood, lend a helping hand during a rough patch in someone's life or simply feed a bunch of hungry mouths any night of the week. Pasta, chicken, ground beef, potatoes, rice, vegetables and everything else in between can be made into a casserole. No need to worry about picky eaters: There's something for everyone.
Casseroles are one of the most popular items brought to family gatherings, picnics, funerals and potluck lunches. And there's a reason (actually, several) people love them.
First and foremost, a casserole is a simple dish to make, and easy to prepare in advance. For those who don't have time to prepare a full dinner for their family when they get home from work, a casserole is their saving grace. Assemble the night before and pop in the oven when you get home — dinner is ready in a snap.
Take, for instance, shepherd's pie. Simply brown the beef in a skillet, add the vegetables, tomatoes and seasoning, place the mixture into a casserole dish, cover with mashed potatoes and cheese, then bake for just 15 minutes. Voilà! You have a hearty, comforting and scrumptious casserole. You'll get several servings out of one dish and will still have some for leftovers.
While some people instantly think of tuna noodle casserole as the stereotypical "casserole dish," they don't realize that many of their favorite dishes are in fact casseroles — the word "casserole" doesn't need to be in the name for a dish to be considered one, you know. Lasagna, mac and cheese, chicken potpie and enchiladas are all casseroles.
Your favorite celebrity chefs also have sophisticated versions of classic casserole dishes, such as Alton Brown's Curry Chicken Pot Pie or Emeril Lagasse's Twice Baked Potato Casserole. Each of these uses real ingredients; no condensed soups here.
Casseroles are also not limited to dinner; they can be made for breakfast and dessert. Scrambled eggs with bacon, sausage and cheese sitting on top of an English muffin or biscuit halves make for a perfect breakfast casserole. The individual servings from each English muffin or biscuit half make things easy for large families or social gatherings. Desserts can also easily be made in a casserole form. Use a large casserole dish or small individual dishes for bread pudding, cobbler and upside-down cake or molten lava chocolate cake.
While casseroles are easy to make, comforting money-savers and come in a variety of forms, the most important reason they're wonderful is their ability to bring families and friends together.
For those of you in favor of casseroles, what are your favorite recipes?
Anti-casserole by Kaitlin Steinberg
If you read my list of the Top 5 worst Thanksgiving side dishes last week, you probably already know what I'm about to admit. I hate casseroles. All of them. I cannot think of a single casserole that I would seek out in favor of, say, a burger or a salad or any of the individual components that make up a casserole. I have never liked them. And I believe I can say with some certainty that I never will.
I grew up in a small family of healthy gourmet cooks who never saw the need to make anything large enough to fit in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, aside from the occasional cake. If we were going to a potluck, we generally brought salads, assuming that everything else at the event would be a grayish shade of cream of mushroom soup. As a child I sometimes wondered where the green bean casserole was at Thanksgiving or why I didn't get to eat marshmallows for dinner like some of my friends with their sweet potato casserole. Now that I'm older, I get it.
A casserole covers a multitude of sins, and not in a good way. Got crappy canned green beans? Throw 'em in a casserole! Trying to figure out how to combine pasta, cheese, potatoes, fried onions, bacon, squash and mushrooms? Casserole! I prefer my food fresh and demonstrative of its own unique flavor, thank you very much. I don't think I've ever had anything in casserole form that couldn't be improved upon by grilling, sautéing, roasting, braising, smoking...well, you get the picture. I'll take taste over convenience any day.
Now, there are some foods baked in ceramic dishes that I can get behind, but I don't refer to them as casseroles. Scalloped sweet potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, lasagne. All of these things technically fit the definition of "casserole," but in my mind, they're different because they (generally) don't make use of canned ingredients. Lasagne certainly isn't prepared out of convenience, and ease of creation is one of the elements in my definition of casserole. If you want to buy fresh green beans, make your own cream of mushroom soup and fry your own onions into crispy little strings for green bean casserole, you're no longer making it because it's simple and easy. But I maintain that each of those ingredients would be better on its own than mixed.
A few final arguments in opposition to casseroles: Mexican spaghetti. Hamburger Helper. Tuna.
Openings and Closings
Ripp's Grille shutters & Tiger Den finally opens for good.
Ripps Grille was the only restaurant to announce sad news last week, and the diner's final day of business was November 14. AstheHouston Chronicle's Syd Kearney reported, the movie-themed restaurant would be closed as of 10 p.m. on November 15.
Now let's take a look at the restaurants that opened last week. Hint: We have ramen, and more Japanese and Korean food.
Heights General Store opened on November 9 in the location that previously housed Harolds. CultureMap Houston reports that Heights General Store is a market downstairs selling produce and prepared foods from local vendors. Upstairs it's a restaurant, serving lunch daily, and breakfast and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Chef Antoine Ware, previously of Federal Grill, Catalan and Hay Merchant, has created a menu that showcases Southern items such as the Carolina pulled pork sammie with a pickled vegetable salad on the lunch menu; soy- and honey-glazed pork chop with braised greens, sweet potatoes and corn bread on the dinner menu; smothered pork grillades with Mama's "cheezie" grits on the brunch menu; and a potato hash with bacon or sausage, bell peppers, onions and a fried egg for breakfast.
Good Dog Houston opened its brick-and-mortar at 903 Studewood on November 14. The hot dog restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., according to a Facebook announcement.
Nara, a Korean-inspired restaurant from chef Donald Chang, previously of Uptown Sushi, Bluefin, The Fish and Miyako, opened on November 13 at West Avenue in River Oaks. Nara's menu features small-bite dishes such as oxtail rice cakes, jellyfish salad with cured jellyfish and dumplings with Spanish Duroc pork, as well as full-size items such as Berkshire pork and organic chicken, spicy oxtail ramen and a bulgogi pot pie. Chang tells Kaitlin Steinberg that his goal is to show how Korean food can evolve into lighter, healthier fare while maintaining aspects of the food he enjoyed as a child.
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Tiger Den reopened on November 13 after closing its doors a few days after a soft opening (for staff training). Co-owner Mike Tran tells Greg Morago of the Chronicle that Tiger Den serves Hakata-style ramen, which take much longer to prepare — they are thin, firm noodles served in a creamy broth. Even though everyone is excited about Tiger Den as a new ramen hot spot in Chinatown, Tran tells Morago that the restaurant serves more than just ramen bowls: The menu includes robata-grilled chicken gizzard, chicken hearts, pork belly, beef liver and beef tongue. It's also a reasonably priced restaurant. In fact, Mai Pham reports that the chicken wings are approximately $1.50 per order and a bowl of ramen costs about $9.
Another market is coming to the Houston area, but not until 2015. Swamplot reports that a new Whole Foods Market will open in The Woodlands near the intersection of Lake Front Circle and Lake Woodlands Drive, and that it will be approximately 40,000 square feet in size with a parking garage and surface parking adjacent to the building — there really shouldn't be any complaining about parking after it's built.
Swamplot also reports that Siphon Coffee will take the spot of the former Washateria in the shopping strip across Greeley Street from the Blue Bird Circle Shop on West Alabama. The coffee shop will open by the end of this year. According to its Facebook page, Siphon Coffee will serve more than just coffee and espresso. Amanda McGraw, former chef at Brasserie 19, designed the menu and trained the in-house chef. Siphon Coffee will also offer craft beer and wine.
Cravin' Cajun held its grand opening on November 10. From the looks of the photos posted on Facebook, which included the Cravin' Fries topped with shrimp, crawfish and crab sauce mix, this seafood and Asian-fusion restaurant is offering a variety of intriguing dishes to the Katy area.