The East End is undergoing some necessary growing pains right now as a new generation of Houstonians rediscover the neighborhoods right next door to downtown. Construction of a METRO light rail to connect the East End with the main line has had Harrisburg torn up for some time, but is nearly complete. The much-anticipated Dynamo stadium in EaDo has already hosted one successful season and the Dynamo are now headed to the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs. And these are just two of the things attracting business to the east side of town.
Moon Tower Inn owners Brandon Young and Evan Shannon aren't just planning on reopening Moon Tower itself on Canal Street in the coming months -- they're also opening two additional concepts in their East End neighborhood. The Gift Horse Lounge will be a "small neighborhood bar with good drinks and great prices," said Young in August, while The Slice and Foam Co. will sell New York-style pizza by the slice and craft beer. And the Laurenzo family is betting on Navigation by opening a new, $1.75 million El Tiempo alongside longtime Tex-Mex warhorse Ninfa's.
Add to that the recent listing of the old KBR site -- a 136-acre parcel of land with stunning skyline views of downtown and a location directly along a scenic portion of Buffalo Bayou -- and you'll see the East End is ripe for further redevelopment. Although what will be done with the acreage is still up for debate, one thing is certain: The East End is changing rapidly, and this entire Top 10 list could well be moot this time next year.
So gather ye taquerias while ye may and enjoy the spots that have anchored the East End for years, places like Fiesta Loma Linda, 888 Chinese, Taqueria Alma Latina, Villa Arcos and Merida -- and our ten favorite places below.
Disclaimer: The cartographic basis for selecting these restaurants was the official map of the East End, which roughly places its boundaries at Clinton Drive to the north, I-45 to the south, 610 to the east and parts of 59 to the west. That means nothing in EaDo, which will be a separate entry coming in the next few weeks, but plenty in neighborhoods such as Eastwood, Magnolia Park and the Second Ward.
The atmosphere at Taqueria el Alteño is the main draw, as the food is simply average-to-good. That said, the food is simple, sturdy and inexpensive -- so there aren't any real complaints there (and the chilaquiles with crema at breakfast are genuinely outstanding, even if they come with french fries). Tortas are enormous and so are the refreshing licuados, which are served in fishbowl-size glasses. On Sunday mornings, a live emcee croons norteño favorites and makes general commentary on everything from the weather to the sports scores from over the weekend. In a hurry? There's a drive-thru, but you'll miss the friendly service and live music inside.
9. El Greco
This hybrid Greek restaurant/panaderia offers a cuisine not often found in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood -- but this cross-pollination of cuisines is very Houston nevertheless. One side of the giant strip center that houses El Greco is a nicer-than-normal panaderia with cafe tables and chairs, while the other side offers homemade Greek food from owner Anestis Papadopoulos, who once owned an auto parts shop down the street. His pita bread is as good as his pastries, and his pastichio comes topped with a thick, fluffy mantle of nutmeg-warmed béchamel sauce. Gyro meat can occasionally be tough, but El Greco's strong Greek coffee will help overcome one of the rare poor meals here.
The beloved East End gathering spot for live music, coffee and open mike nights was recently sold by longtime owners Lupe and Sid Olivares to a pair of Houstonians who are fast becoming fixtures themselves: Kent Marshall, owner of TK Bitterman's and Market Square Bar & Grill, and Keith Adkins of Fontana Coffee Roasters. Marshall and Adkins have already brought some big changes to the space, including a great new tap lineup of local and craft beer. The limited food menu has so far remained intact, but daily specials like a Swiss chard quiche (made with chard from The Last Organic Outpost) are being added. And although the new team plans to move away from live music, husband-and-wife team Lupe and Sid will still be around: Sid still plans to do art nights and Lupe will still rock the weekly Beatles nights.
At Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito, the house specialty is the trompo. It's not cooked the "authentic" way here -- the pork rotating on a spit, gyro-style, with slices shaved off to order -- but it's still good. (You can find authentic trompo at Karanchos if you're interested.) The taqueria keeps the trompo spit in the refrigerator to comply with Health Department regulations, then shaves pieces of the bright achiote-colored pork off and grills them before placing them into homemade corn tortillas that are golden and nearly crisp from their own turn across the griddle.
6. Champ Burger
Champ Burger has been open since 1963, and the original owner, though retired, still pops in often to check on his creation -- which is usually manned by at least seven cooks during the busy lunchtime rush. Although Sparkle's Hamburger Spot may be more well-known as the East End's premier burger stand, Champ Burger one-ups it with breakfast tacos and its oft-touted "original Texas Size Steak Sandwich," basically a burger with a chicken-fried steak instead of a hamburger patty. All seating is outside the little burger stand, with tables either covered or equipped with large umbrellas to provide some shade. And although the Hershey's chocolate shake is our favorite, Champ Burger is equally well-known for its orange milkshakes, which taste like soft-blended Dreamsicles. Although Champ Burger finally takes credit cards after years of being cash-only, it's still only open during the week.
5. El Petate
A homey Salvadoran establishment with seven-day-a-week hours and a welcoming dining room, El Petate is a great place to explore Salvadoran cuisine beyond just pupusas. Try the salpicón, tender shreds of beef that you tuck into fat corn tortillas, or satiny-soft Salvadoran tamales -- some stuffed with sweet corn and topped with tangy crema. But the pupusas -- homemade and hot off the griddle -- are the big draw here. And don't be afraid to dig into the communal plastic jar of curtido that's placed on your table when you order; the cabbage is for everyone to enjoy and the hot, fatty cuisine tastes so much better when perked up with some cool, crisp, tangy curtido.
This unassuming little brown brick building on Leeland (just before it turns into Telephone Road) has been serving hearty Italian-American meals since 1975. Frank and Debbie Mandola are still there most days, but their son Joseph has mostly taken over now and is always ready with a handshake and a smile for his customers. The popular lasagna and Italian beef sandwiches are now available at dinner, too, as the restaurant no longer just serves lunch. Even better: The Mandolas have an excellent and well-priced selection of Italian wines and beers to go along with your dinner, too, as well as a pleasant patio on which to enjoy them.
Located in the same historic Tlaquepaque Market as Bohemeo's, Kanomwan has a cult following that speaks for itself. Sometimes the people who eat here communicate with each other using menu item numbers like a secret code. They also insist that Kanomwan puts an addictive substance in the food that keeps them coming back at least once a week. There's a healthy dose of heat in just about everything, but the kitchen will happily make things spicier for you -- at your own peril. Although the famous "Thai Nazi" -- former owner Darawan Charoenrat -- has now sadly passed away, Kanomwan tends to have a wicked sense of humor when customers mess with the menu. Definitely check out the pork toasts (A3), tom yum goong (S1), tom ka gai (S3), pad panang (H5) and whole fried snapper with chili sauce (H11). Then you too will make the weekly trek out to Telephone Road with your bottle of wine or cooler of beer to quell your addiction for some sweet, sweet S3.
2. Los Corrales
This unusual spot is a dried beef factory first and foremost, with a tiny wisp of a restaurant attached. Despite what you'd think, though, both the food and the service are outstanding. Los Corrales is most popular at breakfast, when people crowd in to get machacado con huevo -- made with its signature product -- or breakfast tacos made with its own fresh tortillas. (By the way, along with bags of dried beef, you can also order those freshly made tortillas to take home, too.) At lunch, you can find old Tex-Mex classics like entomatadas and aporreado that have long since disappeared from more mainstream and modern Tex-Mex spots.
The quirky Navigation original still can remind you what all the fuss was about -- especially now that its menu has been tightened up and revamped in areas by chef Alex Padilla. Peerless beef fajitas, complex green and red salsas and hand-patted flour tortillas define their genres as they have done for years, while the quesos, carnitas and grilled platters seem largely undiminished. Meanwhile, Padilla's new dishes are as much of a draw: lobster nachos topped with saffron spinach or chiles en nogada stuffed with shredded pork, apples, raisins and almonds and topped with a walnut sauce. And although the new patio is big and welcoming, the old back room -- with its snaky a/c ducts and paucity of right angles -- remains a nonstop party.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown