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!
It may seem strange to be thinking about ice cream in November, right when we're about to get a few months of chilly weather. But I guarantee you that there will be plenty of warm temperatures this winter that will have you craving a big bowl of ice cream.
And there's no shortage of great ice cream to be found in this diverse city of ours. From crazy flavors in Montrose to a good old-fashioned parlor in Galveston, we've got it all. So put on your stretchy pants and grab a friend (ice cream is best when shared), 'cause you're going to want to try all these spots.
Note: This list contains ice cream only. No gelato, no paletas, no froyo and no snow ice. We'll get to those, but ice cream is so delicious it deserves a list all its own.
10. La King's Confectionery
We all know Blue Bell has been making ice cream for a long time, but did you know that ice cream from the oldest producer in Texas can be found in Galveston? Purity Ice Cream, the first ice cream manufacturer in the state, was founded on Galveston Island in 1889. The King family, which owns La King's Confectionery, bought Purity awhile back, and now La King's is the only place in Texas where you can get ice cream made with some of the original recipes. It's made on-site, a few floors above the retail area at La King's, and it comes in dozens of different flavors, from the traditional chocolate, vanilla or strawberry to more extravagant offerings like apple pie ice cream with chunks of apple pie strewn throughout. Old-fashioned ice cream combined with the antique soda fountain atmosphere of La King's makes it easy to take a trip to another time, if only for a few minutes.
9. Pollo Bravo
When you go into Pollo Bravo and request ice cream, no one brings you a menu or asks what flavor you want. There is only one flavor at Pollo Bravo, and they do it so well there, nobody cares that there aren't more options. The owner of Pollo Bravo, Enrique Bravo, makes the helado de lúcuma himself, and he and the servers are all very proud of the product. And why shouldn't they be? The lúcuma ice cream has a sweet but unusual flavor, like caramel or vanilla with a hint of sweet almonds, with a bit of chalkiness that comes from the lúcuma fruit, which is native to Peru. If you've never tried lúcuma, this is the perfect way to start.
8. The Chocolate Bar
All of the ice cream at The Chocolate Bar is good, but the chocolate is, of course, the best. And by "the chocolate," I mean one of the dozen or so variations of chocolate available at the decadent shop. There's Chocolate Malt, Creamy Dreamy Truffle, Let's Go Oreo and Brownie Supreme; but my favorite is the simple French Silk, which tastes just like a traditional milk chocolate ice cream. There's nothing too rich or too complicated about it, which means it's easy to accidentally consume far more than anyone should. But don't worry; The Chocolate Bar also has Lemon Velvet ice cream, which serves as a cool palate cleanser before you go back for round two.
7. Amy's Ice Cream
This funky ice cream shop opened in Austin in 1984 (using a hot check to pay the first month's rent), but since then it has expanded to San Antonio and Houston as well. Part of the shtick at Amy's is the ice cream acrobatics employed by the servers to make your trip to the parlor a little more exciting. They'll toss scoops of ice cream in the air behind their backs or across the counter to another server, who will then catch it in a cup before handing it over. Theatrics aside, Amy's makes some darn good ice cream in unusual flavors like Irish coffee (booze included) and strawberry amaretto (booze not included).
6. The Burger Guys
They may be better known for their burgers (and duck-fat fries), but these guys also make some creamy and delicious ice cream in-house. Because it's made in small batches just for the burger joint, owners Jake Mazzu and Brandon Fisch are able to experiment with funky flavors like Cinnamon Toast Crunch and cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee). The Burger Guys love throwing cereal into their ice cream or into their crazy milkshakes, so look for Captain Crunch, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and other sugary breakfast treats you loved as a child. Ah, nostalgia.
5. Whipped and Licked Ice Cream
Whipped and Licked (don't Google that without "ice cream" after it) opened this year, and though it's sold only out of other businesses like Antidote, Boomtown and Black Hole, it has already made quite a splash, thanks to the fun and funky flavors and the prominence of booze in many of the recipes. In Whipped and Licked's "about me" section on Facebook, the only description is "It's fun and it's fucking ice cream." But really, it's so much more than that. The flavors are constantly changing and evolving, but recently I was able to try the Banana Royal Dip, a cone filled with banana rum ice cream with a brown-sugar caramelized banana swirl. Oh, and then the whole thing is dipped in a chocolate shell. And then there's the Urban Cowboy, with peanut butter and bourbon ice cream and a salty peanut butter and Coca-Cola swirl. Oh, and the roasted plum sorbet "bitch slapped with ginger, lemon and pimento dram liqueur." I'm sorry, I can't pick a favorite.
4. Hank's Ice Cream Parlor
Hank's has been a Houston institution since 1985, when Hank Wiggins opened up the shop with his wife, Okemah. Hank passed away last year, but he lived to see his humble shop win praise from every news outlet in town. Robb Walsh named Hank's ice cream number 46 on his list of 100 favorite dishes, writing, "While Okemah Wiggins was scooping my ice cream, I asked her about the butterfat level. She wouldn't disclose the secret recipe, but she assured me the butterfat content is much higher than the standard commercial stuff. 'It's a premium ice cream,' she said, smiling." The butter pecan remains the best-selling flavor, but Hank's also scoops more unusual treats like sweet corn as well as banana pudding with big chunks of vanilla wafers strewn throughout.
3. Eatsie Boys
The boys used to make all their ice cream in-house, but now the demand is so high that they've had to outsource. But don't worry, the producer still uses Matt Marcus's famous recipes for treats like A World Gone Mad, a Maker's Mark and vanilla ice cream mixed with Golden Grahams ('cause who doesn't want bourbon and cereal for breakfast?) and Glazed and Confused, an ice cream with a Shipley doughnut base. No, not chunks of doughnut. Those would get chewy when frozen. Eatsie Boys actually blends the doughnuts so fine that all you get when you eat the ice cream is the taste of doughnuts. It's a miracle of science. Eatsie Boys is now selling all their great flavors by the pint, so you no longer have to request seconds and thirds of frozen bourbon and cereal.
2. Cloud 10 Creamery
Chris Leung started his dessert business by selling to restaurants and chefs, but eventually demand for his stunning sweets became so great that he decided to open up his own place. Cloud 10 Creamery launched in October, and there's been a steady crowd lining up for Leung's unique flavors and whimsical creations ever since. The banana split is a thing of beauty that re-examines all that a banana split should be (ice cream, bananas and toppings) with a gourmet twist. The ice cream flavors themselves are impressive both in texture and because they all taste exactly like what they're supposed to. Those may sound like obvious criteria for good ice cream, but never have I had smooth, creamy peanut butter and jelly ice cream in which I could actually taste the toast. Bravo, Mr. Leung. Bravo.
1. Fat Cat Creamery
While the soon-to-open storefront is new to the scene, Fat Cat Creamery is no stranger to serving its crave-inducing homemade ice cream all over town. Using fine-quality local ingredients, these cats dream up and scoop out flavors like Maple and Candied Bacon, the eggnog-flavored Railean Rum and Brandy, and the decidedly modern Cat's Meow Mexican Vanilla. The storefront should be opening in late November, but until then you can find Fat Cat at more than a dozen shops around Houston. Also, the ice cream cups are made of leftover wheat straw and are fully compostable, which means eating Fat Cat ice Cream is good for the environment. From Pumpkin Cheesecake to Gettin' Figgy With It, no matter what you get, it'll be ultra-creamy and ultra-delightful.
James Coney Island Is Now JCI Grill
Does a hot dog by any other name taste as good?
Every restaurant goes through changes at one point or another, and it seems it's James Coney Island's turn to do so.
The famous Houston-based hot dog chain will no longer be known as James Coney Island. The restaurant has decided to change its name to JCI Grill in an attempt to rebrand itself. With 21 locations in Houston, the 90-year-old establishment will have a new look starting today.
JCI Grill will feature made-to-order salads, burgers and sandwiches on its menu, as well as the staple hot dogs, fries, chili dogs and corn dogs.
"The term JCI has been a nickname for years," Darrin Straughan, president of JCI Grill, says. "We added the word 'grill' because of all of our new menu items we are offering."
Straughan says the new menu features three made-to-order salads, a roast beef dip that comes with a side salad, an Asian sandwich, more chicken sandwiches and gourmet hot dogs, similar to the ones in the Chefs and Show Dogs series.
"We have a build-your-own section and we are going to eliminate that and instead offer more dogs like we did with the Chefs and Show Dogs," Straughan says. "With that said, we are also going to do a main emphasis that we are going to divide our menu up and show our legacy items. In other words, there is going to be a section that highlights what brought us here — our coneys, our chili, our Frito pies and our Delaware punch. It's all going to be highlighted there — these are our fan favorites, but then the other section of the menu is going to show, but if you don't want that, we have all of these grill offers for you."
While this is exciting news for the hot dog company, fans and customers have shown disdain for the name and brand change.
One commenter on the James Coney Island Facebook page says:
"Don't change the name! Whatever idiot told you that it would be a good idea is completely wrong!"
"Oh no! Please don't change the name. I have such fond memories of the Walker St. location and am a James Coney Island fan from way back. I wish you the best."
Many Houstonians grew up with James Coney Island and don't agree that a hot dog by any other name will taste as good.
The hot dog restaurant released a statement on its Facebook page, and has responded to critics of the name change there.
"Word is out about the updated 'JCI Grill' and we know change makes people uncomfortable. We value our long time customers and your thoughts. In response to some of the recent comments:
Folks have been calling us "JCI" for years. The name James Coney Island is still part of our name but we are breathing new life into the brand and using the 'nickname' that we have had for over 30 years. The fundamentals of James Coney Island have not changed and Houston's favorite coneys, all beef hot dogs, chili and chili pie will always remain on the menu. Our core values have not changed, however, the management of James Coney Island has decided that it is time to take off the 'leisure suit' after 90 years and give our fabulous brand a face lift. We know how much Houstonian's love the nostalgia of the James Coney Island brand, however, that is not translating over to sales in our stores. Betsy Gelb, professor at University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, even quoted in today's Houston Chronicle article that she and her husband 'didn't decide to stop going there (James Coney Island). We decided to start going other places.' This is what we have been experiencing for the last 10 years. In order for us to stay relevant and hip in this highly competitive market, we need a face lift and we need to change with the times as all good brands have done before us.
Please feel confident that the James Coney Island core values, menu items and service is still alive and well and we hope our loyal James Coney Island fans will join us on this ride as we head into the next millennium."
Straughan says any time you change anything, it makes people feel uncomfortable.
"We really aren't changing that much...we are updating ourselves," he says. "James Coney Island is still written all over that building. When they have read articles that say we are completely dropping and changing James Coney Island, that's really not true. It is in our new logo and decor. We just put JCI Grill because that's our nickname."
Don't forget, there are just a few days left to order chef Hugo Ortega's Holy Mole Dog — it's the last specialty hot dog in the Chefs and Show Dogs series. The gourmet hot dog will be available until the end of November.
Top 8 Best Limited-Edition Holiday Treats
Now on your grocery store shelves.
Fall has always been my favorite time of year, partially because I long for the first cold front and the changing of the leaves, and partially because fall and winter foods are my absolute favorites.
As a child, I'd look forward every year to when chocolate oranges would reappear on grocery store shelves and gingerbread house kits would find their way to my kitchen table. Then there was everything pumpkin-flavored and filled with seasonal apples and overflowing with walnuts, pecans and chestnuts. Even now that I'm older, I still get excited by the first seasonal beers to hit the shelves and stores that sell eggnog with actual bourbon in it.
So sorry, spring and summer. I love your Easter candy and fresh fruit and whatnot, but fall and winter totally have you beat, foodwise.
If you're not convinced, allow me to present the following arguments.
8. Candy Canes
Peppermints are great and all, but you know what's even better? Peppermints with handles. Peppermints with handles that come in flavors other than peppermint. Seriously, if you don't like peppermint, there's another flavor of candy cane out there that you're bound to dig — from chocolate to Sriracha. According to the textbook Introduction to Food Science, the candy cane was invented in Cologne, Germany, in 1670. A choirmaster had sugar sticks made to keep his young singers quiet when they weren't performing, and in order to give them more of a religious twist (pun intended), he bent the warm sugar sticks to form the shape of a shepherd's crook. That sounds a little far-fetched to me, but if it took noisy kids and murky religious symbolism to bring us the holiday season's most versatile candy, then I'll buy it.
7. Anything with pecans
Pecan season is usually September through February, which means it peaks in November and December. And since Texas is one of the largest pecan producers in the country, we tend to have pecan products everywhere during the holidays. I'm partial to homemade pecan pies, so my favorite grocery store pecan product is Blue Bell's Spiced Pumpkin Pecan ice cream. It's available only in the fall, and it's a dream for anyone who loves pumpkin (sorry, I will never be over that flavor) and good ol' Texas pecans. Even with the price of pecans going up this year as a result of a poor growing season and increased demand from China, my beloved Blue Bell Spiced Pumpkin Pecan ice cream will still be around $4 for a half gallon.
6. Apple Cider
H-E-B now has entire shelves and end caps devoted to huge jugs of apple cider ready to take home and heat up for a soothing seasonal treat. Starbucks also makes a caramel apple cider, but I find theirs a tad too sweet, so I tend to stick to the grocery store variety with the least amount of sugar. Central Market has fresh cider in the refrigerated juice section with as few additives as possible for the purest apple taste. And, of course, everyone knows the best way to consume cider is to heat it up in a mug with a cinnamon stick for stirring and maybe top it with a dollop of just-whipped cream. Oh, and this should all be done while sitting in front of a fireplace and listening to Christmas carols. Just sayin'.
5. Gingerbread Houses/Men
It seems that during the past several years, gingerbread houses have grown in popularity, and kits are now produced for holidays other than Christmas, like Halloween and even Easter. I'm all for constructing things out of cookies year-round, but let's be real: Gingerbread is a winter food. One of my favorite holiday pastimes is building gingerbread houses (imperfect though they may be) and decorating little gingerbread men, then biting their heads off. Cruel? Maybe. But also delicious.
4. Eggnog and Eggnog Ice cream
Okay, so eggnog is incredibly simple to make, and none of the store brands contains bourbon unless you're shopping at a specialty market or liquor store, but there's something about that first time you notice eggnog on the refrigerated shelves next to the milk that heralds the coming holidays. And though store-bought eggnog can be a bit hit-or-miss due to the presence of fake eggs and bourbon flavor, the ice cream tends to fare far better. Many ice cream companies now roll out eggnog ice creams around the beginning of November, and they're all winners. I'm partial to Creamy Creations because it's just so darn creamy. Also, if you pour a little bourbon over the top, it's like an eggnog float. Warning: All the sugar in it will cause dastardly hangovers. I speak from experience.
3. Pumpkin bread
Many grocery chains manufacture pumpkin bread year-round, but it's not always easy to find. Thankfully, October marks the beginning of pumpkin season, so there's always plenty of pumpkin bread to be found through January. Something about pumpkin bread makes it seem less like a dessert than pumpkin pie does, even though it's probably just as sweet and caloric. But whether it's the name or the fact that it's sold at coffee shops as a breakfast item, I'm pretty sure it's socially acceptable to eat pumpkin bread any time of day or night. I'm pretty sure it's also acceptable to love it so much you eat an entire loaf every 48 hours. And if it's not, don't tell me.
2. Shiner Cheer
When I was living in Missouri, which I did for two years, I would call my parents before boarding a plane home for Christmas and inform them that there had better be Shiner Cheer waiting for me when I arrived or the hugs and kisses would have to wait until I obtained some. I remember several years ago when there was a Shiner Cheer shortage in Corpus Christi (and perhaps across the whole state), after people lined up to get it the day it was released, much like they do with Saint Arnold Pumpkinator. I searched high and low in that town for some Cheer and was unable to find it. Though Shiner seems to have figured out that they need to be producing a lot of Cheer to quench the thirst of millions of eager customers, I still stock up on the beautiful beer blended with ever-so-slightly-sweet peaches and walnuts the first time I see it every year.
1. Chocolate Oranges
You know how way back when kids used to get fruits and nuts in their stockings? That has always sounded awesome to me, but my parents took it a step further every year by stuffing my stocking with chocolate oranges. If you've never had a chocolate orange, I feel sorry for you, and if you have, then you know exactly what the phrase "whack and unwrap" means. Few things are more pleasurable than carefully extracting that ball of chocolate from its plastic prison, giving it several hard thumps on a table, then peeling back the foil to find perfect little slices of chocolate orange broken apart for easy snacking. The oranges come in milk or dark chocolate, and though I'm usually a dark-chocolate kind of gal, I waver in my loyalty between the two. Really, though, you can't go wrong with either. Screw peanut butter and jelly or mustard and ketchup. Chocolate and orange are the perfect pair during the holidays and any other time of year you're lucky enough to find them.
Openings and Closings
Houston, we have wings and a Cajun-inspired brunch spot in Montrose.
As it's the week of Thanksgiving, it's no surprise there hasn't been much action with restaurant openings andclosings.
B4-U-Eat's weekly newsletter reports on two recent closings: Trophy Room Sports Bar & Grille in Katy and Two Saints on Memorial Drive. Neither the websites nor the phone numbers work for either of these two restaurants.
La Fendee Mediterranean Grill has been closed since the end of September, but a new restaurant has taken its place, and it's not Tacos A Go-Go.
A few months ago, rumors spread that Tacos A Go-Go would take the place of La Fendee on Westheimer. However, the location will be filled by Cafe Layal Express. Currently, there are two Cafe Layal locations in Houston, one on Richmond and the other in Midtown; Eater reports that the new one will be an "express" restaurant (hence the name) intended to please the lunch crowd in the area.
Salata opened its first mall location, inside the Galleria, November 15. This is the first Salata location to feature a Greek yogurt bar, a fresh juicing station and a create-your-own-fruit-salad option, along with the regular salad and wrap bar.
Thanks to a tip from commenter Chic_Chick_Chic_Eats, we now know that Welfresh Market, an ethnic grocery store similar to 99 Ranch, opened on Saturday, November 16, in Sugar Land. The market sells Asian and American products and has a bakery — Kalaman Bakery, serving breads and sweets — and a hot deli, Mini Wok, serving dim sum, roast duck and take-out lunch boxes.
B4-U-Eat's weekly newsletter notes that Mar-Mar's Candy Jar opened on Saturday, November 16, just in time for the holidays. The candy store in Katy sells a variety of candies and chocolates, including truffles, caramels, gummies, jelly beans and gourmet popcorn. What separates Mar-Mar's from other candy shops is the all-natural ingredients used in each confection — no preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. The store even offers vegan sweets.
With the influx of Dunkin' Donuts, Deer Park was set to welcome the 12th doughnut shop in the Houston area on November 23. The newest location will offer free Wi-Fi and patio seating and apparently look strikingly different from the other Dunkin' Donuts locations around town, according to the B4-U-Eat newsletter. Through December 7, all customers can ask for a free medium hot or iced coffee at this location.
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To much anticipation, the Austin-based wings restaurant Pluckers Wing Bar officially opened on Monday, November 25. While Pluckers is famous for its variety of sauces (19 to be exact) and selection of traditional and boneless wings, the restaurant also serves over-the-top indulgent and greasy items such as fried Oreos, fried macaroni and cheese, and fried pickles. Houstonians now have a new place to watch the game and stuff their faces with wings, burgers and fried appetizers.
Another Austin-based restaurant has made its way to the Houston area. Mama Fu's, an Asian fusion restaurant, opened in River Oaks on November 20. Eater reports that customers create bowls with rice or noodles and top the base with vegetables and Chinese, Korean or Japanese flavors, in dishes similar to those served at other Mongolian stir-fry places, such as Genghis Grill.
Churrascos will be opening another location in Gateway Memorial City by December 5. Kaitlin Steinberg reports that along with the new location comes an improved menu. Steinberg writes, "The menu that was developed for the new restaurant (and is now the primary menu for all Churrascos restaurants) reflects a move back toward the more traditional Nicaraguan food that brought the family fame when Michael Cordúa opened his first restaurant, in 1988." New items include ceviche verde, taquitos de malanga (mini taro root taco shells filled with sweet pulled pork, pineapple pico de gallo and crema fresca) and a whole fried fish — it's butterflied and coated with a special batter.
Eater announced that Brick & Spoon has finally opened. Darla Guillen explains that Brick & Spoon is originally from Louisiana and brings Cajun-inspired brunch dishes, along with a build-your-own Bloody Mary menu, to the Montrose neighborhood. The menu features a variety of beignets, including classic beignets with powdered sugar and seasonal marmalade, blackberry crème-stuffed, and savory beignets with crab and creole mustard aioli. The restaurant also serves a few Benedict dishes with oysters, chicken florentine and soft-shell crab, as well as classic Cajun sweets such as Bananas Foster and bread pudding.