Westchase -- for its relatively small boundaries -- is a poster child for the breadth of ethnic cuisines available in Houston. Far from simply an area saturated with mid-rise office buildings and chain restaurant's, it's also a microcosm of the Bayou City. The neighborhood offers Cajun, Persian, Bosnian, Argentinean, French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Cajun, German, Mexican, British, Japanese, Portuguese, Brazilian and much, much more...if you just know where to look.
Along with Chinatown, Westchase was my destination of choice at lunch when I worked on the west side. If I still worked over there, I'd still be trekking up and down Westheimer and Bellaire each day on the hunt for great little holes-in-the-wall. If I missed your favorite, let us know about it in the comments section below.
Note: For the purposes of this post, Westchase is defined as bounded by Westheimer on the north, Gessner on the east, Dairy Ashford (not Wilcrest) on the west and the Westpark Tollway on the south.
Suzy Wong's for its spicy Sichuan dishes, Churrasco's for its South American pedigree and sheer longevity, Loving Hut for its radical vegan specialties, The Seafood Shoppe for its lip-burning batches of crawfish, The Bull & Bear for its well-pulled pints and cottage pies and Rudi Lechner's (although it's slightly outside the boundaries) for its schnitzel and sauerkraut.
10. Bistro Le Cep
This charming French bistro can be a bit long on the long-in-the-tooth crowd -- think Luby's at 4 p.m., but upscale -- although the food isn't entirely reflective of the crowd. It's charmingly old-school, always fresh and consistently delicious. My favorite dishes here include the pan-roasted calf's liver with apples, bacon and potatoes and the coq au vin that's ideal on a cold day.
You can go all-authentic at Marini's and stick to Argentinean classics like humita and beef "gaucho," complete with hard-boiled eggs and olives tucked inside the flaky dough. Or you can pick from Marini's wide, wild menu of fusion empanadas: Hawaiian, eggplant parmigiana, English or even Texas barbecue. Either way, the empanadas are consistently great. (And it was one of the wild empanadas -- filled with bananas, Ghiradelli chocolate chips and dulce de leche -- which made the list of former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh's 100 Favorite Dishes.
One of the city's best Spanish restaurants is outside the Loop -- way outside the Loop. But the trip to this oddly located Spanish paradise is entirely worth it. You'd never know once you're inside that Rioja is bordered by some rough apartments and a Fuddrucker's -- it's a little slice of Alicante in Houston. And while the paella here is very good (not stupendous, but better than you'll get anywhere else in town), the real treat is the tapas menu. On weekdays, Rioja offers a phenomenal lunch deal: three tapas for $13.95. The patatas bravas and the jamon serrano will make you feel as if you're right back on the Costa Blanca.
There are some who argue that this Persian palace has the best hummus in town -- a bold claim to make in a city so filled with excellent Mediterranean restaurants. The only way to be sure is to go and judge it for yourself. And while you're there, familiarize yourself with the intriguing bounty of Persian cuisine like khorake bademjan -- slow-cooked lamb shank in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and sour grapes -- or kubideh, a meat-lover's dream.
One of the few Argentinean restaurants in town and arguably one of the more authentic, Manena's serves breakfast, lunch and early dinner to Houston's small Argentinean ex-pat community and those lucky enough to stumble upon the little cafe. We recommend the extraordinary empanadas, which make a filling meal any time of day, or the milanesa sandwich. And don't forget to grab a few delicacies from the well-stocked pastry case before you go: alfajores are a house specialty here.
5. Rio Ranch
Just because it's attached to a hotel -- in this case, the Westchase Hilton -- is no reason to think less of Rio Ranch. This restaurant can hold its own, and has done so for nearly two decades. A Robert del Grande concept from its beginnings, Rio Ranch has been expertly shepherded since 1993 by its longtime chef, San Hemwattikit, who puts together a gorgeous (and well-attended) brunch buffet on the weekends and serves classics like buttermilk-fried chicken and cowboy-cut rib eyes at dinner.
4. Pho One
The 2009 Best of Houston® winner for Best Pho, this unassuming little Vietnamese restaurant (which shares the same red awning-ed strip center as Bistro Le Cep) is long on both service and great food. The pho here is made from the same recipe as the famous soup at Pho Tau Bay back in Saigon. Why? Because the owners are the grandchildren of famous pho restauranteur Y Van Vu. Not that pho is the restaurant's only selling point -- it offers delicious bun and com dia as well.
The opening of Arpi's represented the next step for the visionary Tcholakian family, who founded the original Phoenicia Deli on what was then a quiet stretch of Westheimer in 1983. Almost 30 years later, the Tcholakians are overseeing a growing empire of grocery stores that import food from all over the world as well as this new restaurant, just around the corner from the gargantuan Phoenicia. Inside, the Tcholakians will change the way you think about cafeteria lines, with wonderfully fresh and healthy options served in an array of sizes -- it's basically a giant mezze platter, with all the vivid flavors and scents that accompany the Middle Eastern cuisine. And on the non-cafeteria side of the restaurant, relax with an espresso and a cup of gelato before you tackle the business of filling your shopping cart next door. It's a no-brainer tag-team way to spend an afternoon.
2. Cafe Pita +
Bosnian cuisine is an interesting confluence of Mediterranean cooking and Central/Eastern European influence. As such, you'll find dishes here that seem oddly familiar, such as the enormous burek that resembles spanakopita on steroids. But the best items are the succulent meat dishes such as the burger-like plejskavice (especially when stuffed with cheese) and the fat little sausages called ćevapi. After one meal, you'll ponder why it's taken you so long to try Bosnian food. And you'll never look back.
The closest you'll come to a regular burger at The Burger Guys is the Houston burger, made with house-pickled bread-and-butter jalapenos and locally made cheese. But it's worth the trek out Westheimer and the sometimes mind-boggling menu (a Sydney burger with beets and a fried egg, a Saigon burger with pate and daikon radish) to experience The Burger Guys' progressive and ambitious gourmet burgers. Don't forget to order a side of Belgian frites -- duck fat fries -- with your choice of house-made dipping sauces. Top it all off with a made-to-order milkshake.
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