You've got to do some digging to find greatness in the 'burbs, but I am tickled to say that there are some true gems in Cypress. Some are worth a significant drive, too. Two pairs of restaurants on the list are owned by the same people, so obviously they're doing something right.
I do have one question for Cypress restaurateurs: why do most places close at 9 pm instead of 10? In every instance where I was at a restaurant near closing time, there were still patrons inside that had to practically be chased out. It's not a school night for everyone. Perhaps it's time to take a second look at whether or not that hour is profitable.
Honorable Mention: Rockwell Tavern & Grill
Rockwell Tavern & Grill is a craft beer oasis in a desert of adjunct lagers. The taps on a recent visit included Founders Brewing Company's Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale, two Karbach selections, Buffalo Bayou Brewing's 1836, Cycler's Brewing Company's Palmarès Ris and Real Ale Brewing Company's The Highlander. Hallelujah! For the beer selection alone, Rockwell deserves a medal. The service here is also outstanding.
I'll have a beer and some fried pickles with some chipotle ranch sauce here any day, but the problem that keeps Rockwell out of my top 10 is the under-seasoned entrees. The menu looked extremely promising, but execution was lacking.
The chicken fried steak that I ordered was a travesty. It's bad news when country cream gravy is pure white with not even a sprinkle of black pepper. There was no salt or other seasoning in the breading of anything we tried. The accompanying mashed potatoes were watery, like the potatoes weren't fully drained before mashing, and the mushy green beans would have been right at home on a cafeteria steam table.
The dish called "Three Legged Pig On Its Side" is just one step away from brilliance. It's a beautiful, hearty dish of three hunks of bone-in pork atop fried potato bits and apple, with an apricot-jalapeño sauce. The needed step to push it to greatness? Seasoning the pork. Are you sensing a theme? I certainly did. Have a beer and anchor your appetite with some of the appetizers. If you find a tasty entrée here, I'd love to hear about it. If Rockwell had food that lived up to its beer selections, it would be a treasure.
Onward to the list.
10. Alicia's Mexican Grille
Alicia's is serving up solid, hearty Tex Mex. It's not haute cuisine, but it's a good place to go when you're in the area and need to fulfill that craving for an beef enchilada plate and some good green sauce.
Someone in the kitchen has a good handle on the seasoning. The beef in those enchiladas had just the right touches of salt, cumin and oregano. Chicken with chipotle sauce had enough heat to keep it interesting, but not so much as to scare anyone. The refried beans were both creamy and chunky, which is how I like them. Unfortunately, the Spanish rice is just that same old boring side dish that we've all come to accept has to be eaten along with the beans. Ah well. Moving on...
9. Cork Café Wine & Coffee
I feel like Cork Café is still a bit of a fledgling but has the potential to sprout some gorgeous feathers. In addition to a temperature-controlled wine program, there are big, milky, coffee drink selections for the non-drinkers. They reminded me of the giant mochas and lattes at Tiny Boxwood's. There are some pleasing beers as well (Kwak, Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse and Chimay Blue, amongst others.)
The wine list leans heavily towards California, but there are selections from other parts of the world, too. No Texas wine at all, though? For shame.
On the menu are a variety of flatbreads (essentially, pizzas), sandwiches and salads. You can also build some interesting cheese and meat selections. We really liked the Sartori cheese soaked in merlot and the smoked speck.
The "Nutty Pearfessor" salad that we ordered was a combination... blue cheese, pear, toasted pecans and bacon over greens. It was a bit overdressed, though, with too much oil and too little tang. The flatbread was a generous portion with a crunchy crust, but the cheese was too mild and goopy.
With that being said, service is excellent and Cork Café provides a pleasant, warm environment. I could see wiling away some evenings here either amongst friends or with a good book.
8. Locatelli's Pizza
Locatelli's was a surprise. I had no idea they were serving up crusts that were so thin and crispy. They take pride in their ingredients as well, and actually list on the menu which are "fresh cut, chopped or cooked today."
The TexaTelli pizza, with sausage and freshly chopped jalapeños, onion, red bell pepper and banana peppers was a great choice. The sausage was crumbly and the vegetables were roasted so perfectly that the natural sugars caramelized a bit. The fried ravioli appetizer was about what you would expect, too... in other words, crunchy and snackable with a nice marinara on the side.
This is another Northwest haven for beer nerds. While the selection isn't as extensive as Rockwell Grill, there are plenty to choose from, including Karbach Sympathy for the Lager, Hopadillo and Weekend Warrior; Harpoon UFO Wheat and Brooklyn Brewery Lager. I sank into a Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan on a 95 degree Houston summer day and couldn't have been more pleased.
7. Sierra Madre Taco Co.
This hole-in-the-wall is beyond casual. Order at the counter and don't expect white tablecloths or a napkin. Help yourself to the roll of paper towels.
Once you get oriented to where things are and how the place works, it's playtime! Entertain yourself with the housemade salsa, picante, creamy sauces and homemade chips. The salsas are not labeled, so start with small samplings until you figure out heat levels. A salsa verde that initially seemed bland suddenly punched my tongue with smoky heat. If you're not looking for heat, a slow cooker of warm, salty tomato salsa with a hit of cilantro resides near the chips and is friendly enough for just about anyone. If you ARE looking for heat, look on the counter for the salsa de molcajete made with roasted peppers and ground with a mortar and pestle.
Getting chips to scoop up your salsa with is a little difficult sometimes. Sierra Madre's small staff fry the chips in-house and they seem to run out frequently. You just have to be patient until another batch is ready. It's worth the wait.
The menu items are taqueria-style... piratas, tacos, enchiladas and the like. I was terribly pleased with the generous portion of tapado, a mixure of chopped fajita beef, bacon, green bell pepper, onions and cheese. There was enough to feed both me and a friend. Also, they serve breakfast and on the weekends, there's cabrito al pastor (goat) and menudo. To top it all off, it's BYOB. What's not to love?
6. Dario's American Cuisine
Dario's American Cuisine is testament to the idea that some places deserve a second chance. The first night we tried to dine there, a raucous party was whooping it up at back table. Between this, the pricey menu and the long wait to place a wine order (despite only three tables occupied), we excused ourselves.
My return visit was entirely different. Top-notch service, honest opinions from my server and a delightful glass of Poema Brut Rose cava got the night off to a soaring start. I felt well cared for... pampered, even. Their lobster bisque has a mighty fine stock base. It was a touch salty and a little thin, but it's still one of my favorite lobster bisques in town (behind Vic & Anthony's).
My steak, ordered medium rare, was delivered with a warm, pink center. In other words, it was exactly right. The accompanying red potatoes, asparagus and carrot were nice enough veggies, but suffered from lack of seasoning. Skip the ricotta cake for dessert. It sounded like a good idea and was described as "light" but ended up being a fluffy cream disaster. There were thin layers of angel food cake alternated with whipped cream. I assume there was ricotta in the whipped cream but it didn't make its presence known.
Definitely try Dario's for a fancy dinner... but be warned that it has a bit of a dual personality. It's probably also the most expensive place in Cypress. Soup, the strip steak with vegetable sides, two glasses of wine and dessert put me out $60 plus tip. Was it worth it? Yes. I had an elegant time and felt well taken care of. Go here for a date or have a nice meal with the parents.
On a budget? Head to the number 10 choice, Alicia's Mexican Grille. It's just next door and, in fact, has the same owners.
5. The Shack "How have I never been here before?" I mused as I cut into the rich egg yolk of my 5 Napkins burger and watched it drizzle over the meat. Fellow writer Hank of the "Hank On Food" blog and I marveled over the thick hamburger patties, slightly sweet jalapeño, cheese and sourdough buns, thick bacon and fries decorated with heaps of mild, chopped garlic... and... heh heh... more bacon. Yes, indeed.
As far as the atmosphere goes, it's like someone sent a little bit of Austin to Houston. The atmosphere and décor is beyond funky. There's even a pig-shaped smoker. A little stage is in the back, I assume for local bands to come show their stuff.
After closing for repairs, The Shack had to reapply for their beer license. So, for now, they're BYOB. Take advantage of this quickly; the owners expect to be approved to start serving beer again any day now.
Like other Cypress residents, Gerry and Adriana Sarmiento got tired of having to drive to Houston for a great meal. Unlike most other Cypress residents, they decided to do something about it and opened a own restaurant to meet their own high standards.
This is apparently the "strip mall of cuisine" in Cypress, as three of the places in this list are in the same shopping center. Mezzanotte has the distinction of being the first recommendation I received two years ago when I asked "what's good to eat in this area?"
We're regulars there on Steak Night, where one can get a choice of appetizer, filet mignon (generally served au poivre style) and a dessert spoon (usually crème brulee) for $18. It's cheap enough to take the entire family out for a nice meal and filling enough that we don't leave hungry.
The pasta here is always tender and I enjoy dancing through their appetizer menu. One night I might dig on the imported olives and the next visit might find me gnawing on baby lamb chops. Order a salad if you want... I've never once found a brown leaf here. The insalata Mezzanotte is a greatly pleasing combination of apple vinaigrette, green apple slices, gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts.
Mezzanotte is, simply put, a classic.
3. Rice & Beans In my adventuring around Cypress over the past several weeks, this was the first "find" I got really excited about. I can't tell you the last time I had good Cuban food. When I was growing up, some friends would make roasted pork and black beans with rice on Sunday and invite people over.
Rice & Beans is delivering a close rendition of that childhood memory. The tender meat with touches of garlic and oregano was irresistible. The beans needed a little salt, but once that was added they were just fine. The ropa vieja (shredded beef) and rabo encendido (oxtail) were almost as pleasing as the pork. I may be prejudiced towards the pork, though.
Rice & Beans is very reasonable, too. For $60, you can easily feed four people a great Cuban dinner. Be aware that navigation programs will probably lead you astray. Rice & Beans is on the south side of the freeway in an odd little triangle formed by 290, Hempstead Highway and Fry Road.
2. Phở Binh
Cypress, you have been granted a Phở Binh and you need to flock there to experience the joys of bone marrow phở. Here's how it works: order the bowl of phở of your choice, then order a cup of bone marrow. It will arrive at your table piping hot in broth. Add the bone marrow to the phở to create the richest, most succulent soup you can imagine. A small bowl of marrow is more than enough for one person; a large will take care of up to four people.
Actually, residents near the other locations may be jealous, as there's some extra features here. Folks who work out at the nearby gym are stopping in for the freshly-made fruit and vegetable juices. There is also an open grill area. Pick your vegetables from a nearby station while the chef behind the counter cooks the meat for you. The seasoned, crosscut short ribs are especially attractive.
When I started this list, I kind of suspected that a Peruvian restaurant I visit regularly, Piqueo, might be towards the top. Even after traveling and dining all over the area, my choice for number one is unshaken.
Piqueo suffered from inconsistency the first few months after it opened, but there has been some serious tightening of the ship since then. Even then, when it was "on," it was remarkable. It's been "on" for my past several visits so I feel good selecting them as number one for this list.
It hits that sweet spot between elegant and fun. The Peruvian classics are outstanding: ropa vieja, ceviche, seco de res, etc. But the owners, Gerry and Adriana Sarmiento (who also own Mezzanotte) aren't afraid to go out of bounds sometimes. The paella, a traditional Spanish dish, was one of the best I've ever had. Paella is tricky, too. The texture of the rice is crucial and you can't go over the top with the seasoning, but it definitely has to have some. The delicate flavor of saffron (which lends a beautiful golden color) but isn't capable of getting the job done all by itself. There also has to be a sufficient amount of seafood. Piqueo's version delivers and also brings Spanish chorizo to the party.
And, oh my goodness, you can't leave without getting an order of the chicken chicharrón. Imagine crispy-skinned chicken bathed in a sauce tinged with soy and pumped up with green onions, chopped ginger, sesame oil and lime juice. This dish is one of several examples of how the Peruvians adopted Chinese flavors and melded them with their own cuisine.
The drink program is excellent. There are $5 wines on Tapas Night (Tuesdays) and Steak Night (Thursdays) and plenty of piscos and tequilas to choose from. There are even some South American rums. Check out the Red Rum cocktail that Gerry created... initially just for himself.
By the way, Piqueo has adopted the very successful $18 prix fixe three-course steak night that has been a fixture at sister Mezzanotte for years. It's often a chimichurri rendition. No complaints here.
I always have fun here. It's not cheap (allow for $30 per person on a regular night before drinks), but I never feel like I paid too much.
You'll always see either Gerry or Adriana walking the floor from table to table greeting their customers... many by name, as they make a point to get to know them.
If I choose to support delicious, interesting food and considerate people with my dollars, I not only fill my belly, but my heart a little bit, too. And that's a rare meal indeed. Bonus #1: Snack Time at Touch of India
Tucked away behind a Chevron gas station is a well-stocked Indian grocery called Touch of India. It's not just a grocery store, though. Go in at lunchtime and make a beeline for the order counter, where you can get a variety of chaat (Indian snacks). There's bhel puri, papdi chaat, sev puri and samosas, amongst other treats. Best of all, nothing on the small menu costs more than $3.99.
Bonus #2! Brooks' Place BBQ
Houston is still building its reputation for having great barbeque. As the recent Houston BBQ Festival proved, we're getting there, but it takes time. Why do you think Houstonians still make treks to Lockhart and Austin? That's great if you need variety, education or a fun road trip, but if you just need great barbeque, go to Brooks'.
Brooks' might not be a "restaurant," as it's a trailer tucked away in a shopping center near an Ace Hardware, but they are producing some of the best barbeque in Houston. The ribs I tried were perfectly cooked. They didn't fall apart but the meat pulled easily off the bone. The fatty brisket is terrific (even thought it was cut with the grain instead of against) and the lean brisket wasn't dried out like it is at far too many other barbeque joints.
If they don't make their sausage in-house, I don't want to know, because this was some of the best I've ever had. It was a bit of a loose grind that still held together with the right balance of fat and leanness and the mahogany casing yields with a bit of a snap. If you are in Northwest Houston or Cypress, you are doing yourself a favor by stopping by.
Cypress is an area growing in diversity. It's not hard to get an excellent meal there. You just need to know where to go. Now, if someone would just open a good Chinese restaurant there...
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I made a handy map that you can reference here
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