When I go to a coffee shop, nine times out of ten I order a cappuccino. To me, it reflects the true talent of a barista — getting the foam-to-espresso ratio just right; making sure the java is strong enough to ensure a caffeine boost; and guaranteeing every sip is warm, smooth and comforting. It's quite a difficult task.
Because I am not equipped with the necessary tools (or talent) to make a cappuccino at home, I venture to several Houston coffee shops for my coffee drink of choice. Here are my five favorite places to get a perfectly executed cappuccino in Houston.
5. The Nook Cafe
This new coffee shop on UH's campus is a casual, relaxing abode in which to read a book or get some work done while sipping on a hot cup of coffee and snacking on a pastry, muffin or cookie. And one of the standout items on the menu is the simple cappuccino. As I wrote in my first look at The Nook Cafe, the cappuccino, seen from far away, appeared to have whipped cream sitting on top of the espresso. But as I approached the counter, I realized it was a thick layer of super-creamy frothed milk. I also ordered this cappuccino with nonfat milk, and the barista was able to make the milk that frothy — props! The espresso is silky underneath the giant layer of froth and almost resembles the texture of a latte, making it heartwarming and comforting. Pair it with a moist pumpkin muffin from Sinfull Bakery for the perfect lazy Saturday afternoon.
While it's ideal to enjoy a cappuccino in a wide-rimmed mug at the coffee shop, sometimes that isn't possible. So when I'm on the go, I head to Inversion, because its baristas know how to make an excellent frothy cappuccino to go. Before I discovered this Montrose coffee shop, my to-go cappuccinos came from Starbucks, but I can't remember the last time I went into that coffee mecca for a cappuccino — I'm always getting mine from Inversion. The coffee is perfectly smooth underneath the light and frothy layer of milk. But the milk isn't the star; the espresso is. Strong espresso blends with the cloudlike milk, creating smooth sips every time. It warms your heart and your stomach.
3. Catalina Coffee
Catalina's cappuccinos are always frothy, always hot and always just what I need in the morning. The baristas make sure the foam hits the rim of the mug without spilling over, but one sip and you'll coat the tip of your nose in frothed milk. Just be sure you're with someone who will tell you you've got milk on your nose. Pair your coffee with one of the sweet pastries, such as the apple-cinnamon danish, for the first meal of the day or as an afternoon snack. And when the weather is nice, sit outside on the patio; it makes your coffee-shop experience ten times better.
This coffee shop is an excellent place to catch up with friends during the day over sugary Greek frappes, or extend a date past dinner with wine or coffee and dessert. Even if I try to order something different, my brain always follows my gut instinct and I order a cappuccino. Served with a small cookie, this cappuccino's espresso is strong (order decaf late at night), and the milk is smooth and creamy and won't disappear as you sip your way to the bottom of the cup. Drop the sugar cubes into the center to let the crystals melt into the espresso, then alternate taking a bite out of your cookie and a sip from your drink. It's the way cappuccino was intended to be enjoyed.
1. Blacksmith Coffee
It's fun to watch the baristas make coffee drinks at Blacksmith, especially the cappuccinos; you'll get lost in the masterful display of talent as your server coats the wide-rimmed cup with espresso, then gently pours the frothed milk on top and creates a beautiful design within the foam. Blacksmith baristas make me excited and eager to take the first sip from my drink. Order the small biscotti and dip each bite into the creamy cappuccino. If only the cups were larger, because you'll definitely be sad when it's all gone.
Titans of Industry
Tony's Still Wows
After nearly 50 years in business, the Italian mainstay is still on top.
With newer, hipper Italian restaurants opening in Houston every year, it can be easy to overlook the fine-dining behemoth that isTony'sin favor of something perhaps less dated. But this would be a mistake.
Tony's opened in 1965 as a mom-and-pop Italian eatery serving hearty bowls of pasta and recipes owner Tony Vallone learned from his family. In part due to his interest in the culinary realm and in part thanks to prodding from developer Gerald Hines, who owned his original building, Vallone began transitioning to fine dining.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Tony's is the place you suggest to your wealthy retired friends when they want to drop some dough for a birthday dinner. When people talk about Tony's, they tend to place it in a category of "expensive, fancy and for an older crowd" or "expensive, fancy and with a tasting menu."
If you've never been to Tony's, or if you haven't been in a long time, I urge you to go back, and soon. Yes, you might run into an oil baron treating his family to a lavish meal with ten courses of small tasting-menu portions. But you'll also find large bowls of perfect pasta and impeccable steaks and Tony Vallone himself stopping by tables to check on customers while his wife, Donna, greets diners at the door. It's still the same mom-and-pop joint. It's just a little bigger now.
The pasta on the menu at Tony's is what grabbed my attention on a recent visit. Previously I'd had only the tasting menu at Tony's. It's much like tasting menus at other upscale restaurants in that it's a number of small- to medium-size plates thoughtfully arranged and featuring a bit of foam here and gel there and some avant-garde flavor combinations as well.
The Tony's tasting menu is wonderful — don't get me wrong. Last time I ate there, Grant Gordon was in the kitchen taking fine dining to new levels with sometimes challenging but always delicious and unique plates of food. And now Kate McLean is leading the show, and her creativity is definitely on display in a number of the tasting menu dishes.
But when I think of Italian food, I don't think of avant-garde. I think of warm, hearty dishes that remind me of Sicily and family and little trattorias that have been in the same family for 80 years. And, as I discovered, Tony's does that, too.
I didn't start my meal that way. I started with seared foie gras with a blood orange reduction, because any time I see foie gras, I order it. And it was, as I suspected it would be, incredible. The blood orange syrup enhanced with a bit of orange zest has enough acid and bitterness to cut through the fat of the foie gras beautifully, allowing both elements to shine.
I then moved on to a truffle soufflé, because, much like foie gras, any time I see truffles on a menu — real truffles, not that fake truffle oil that everyone is so obsessed with — I order them. I'm a sucker for good truffles and foie gras. The truffle soufflé is as light as air. It lets out a small breath when you dig in with a spoon, and the earthy aroma of truffles fills the air around you. It's subtle but aromatic, almost like perfume. It doesn't melt in your mouth, per se, but it's reminiscent of the lightness and fluffiness of cotton candy.
After sharing these two appetizers, my dining companion and I really dug into the menu. We each ordered a pasta dish; he chose pappardelle bolognese, and I chose fettuccine with jumbo lump crab and Vallone sausage in vodka sauce. Then we ordered the classic vitello valdostana, a center-cut veal chop stuffed with fontina and topped with mushrooms.
Each dish was as robust and filling as one could hope for in a meal of Italian pasta and veal. The bolognese was a simple, traditional meat sauce with wonderfully chewy homemade pasta, and the fettuccine had a bit of spice thanks to the juicy Vallone sausage. And then there's the veal, which oozes cheese when you slice into it and is just as tender and succulent as any meat you'd find at a top steakhouse.
And lest you think Tony's is stuffy and old hat, check out the dessert menu, now featuring cronuts. Yes, those cronuts. The ones invented by Dominique Ansel that started a national craze. Vallone tried them when he was in New York and fell in love, so he had his pastry chef create mini versions — cronut holes, if you will — to dip in a trio of sauces.
But the best part of Tony's remains Vallone himself. He's a gem to watch. The man can work a room like no other, but it's clear that, though he's chatting and laughing, he's perpetually thinking about what to get done next. He'll stop a server and whisper something in his ear before ambling to another table to check on his guests. He'll pause to put an arm around his lovely wife. He'll decline invitations to sit, even for a moment. Even after Tony himself has been at it more than 50 years in the business, he's not showing any signs of slowing down. And neither is Tony's.
Top 10 Dog-Friendly Restaurants in Houston
Take the dog for a walk and get yourself something to eat.
Our music blog recently listed thetop ten bars where your dog is welcome, and we thought, hey, why should the bars get all the canine love? Thanks toPaws on Patios, an organization started in 2010 that made it possible for Houston restaurants to get permits from the city to allow dogs at outdoor tables, more than two dozen restaurants now welcome our canine friends.
And fortunately for those of us who like to enjoy a nice day with our dogs and a delicious meal, there are some truly great Houston eateries with dog-friendly patios. It's no longer just beer joints and the random greasy spoon. These ten places have great food and great spaces in which you and your dog can dine together.
Honorable Mention: Beaver's, Winston's on Washington, Café Rabelais and Paulie's all have small but very dog-friendly outdoor seating areas.
Tila Hidalgo's unique Mexican restaurant has imaginative food; strong margaritas; and a great, sprawling patio perfect for pooches. It was one of the first restaurants to welcome dogs after the initial Paws on Patios permits were granted back in 2011. Since then, Tila's has been welcoming dogs of all breeds. Okay, technically, they aren't supposed to eat there, but there's no harm in sneaking some quesadillas under the table, right?
9. Little Bigs
Little Bigs is known for great sliders and boozy milkshakes, but the patio near the corner of Montrose and Westheimer is also a great place to chill with your dogs. The entire family-friendly outdoor seating area is shaded, and there are almost always kids running around while their parents take a much-needed burger break. (So if your dog doesn't do kids, this might not be the best spot for him.) The shade and available water will keep your canine cool, while The Dude, a white Russian milkshake, will keep you cool as well.
There are six Barnaby's locations in town, all of which are dog-friendly. After all, the place is named for the owner's childhood pet, Barnaby, a big, goofy sheepdog. Barnaby's had been allowing pets on the patio for years until it was pointed out that city ordinance forbade that. So for a while all Barnaby's restaurants had to ban dogs, until Paws on Patios permits made it A-OK once again. You'll almost always find dogs at Barnaby's around town now for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The menu features a wide variety of options, and all the meat used is humanely raised.
7. J. Black's
Get a little fancy with your four-legged friend at J. Black's, where you can enjoy lamb chops or an artisan pizza on a swanky patio and your pup can feel like a classy fella. The food at J. Black's is pricier than at some of the other places on this list, but it's good quality and worth it to dine in style with your dog. J. Black's also features a great cocktail program, making it an ideal place to start an evening of fun on the Washington Corridor before heading out to one of the many dog-friendly bars in the area. Just remember: Your dog cannot be your designated driver.
Gratifi recently underwent renovations thanks to the TV show Restaurant: Impossible, and the newly redesigned space and menu are better than ever. Thankfully, the production crew left the great canine-friendly patio intact, meaning you can still dine with your dog at the first Paws on Patios restaurant in town. Owner Kevin Strickland loves dogs, and he often holds fundraisers for local animal rescues at Gratifi. All the food is made from scratch, including the dog food, which you can purchase along with your dinner, so you and your buddy really can eat together.
5. Backstreet Cafe
The outdoor patio at Backstreet Cafe is one of the loveliest in Houston, and it makes a great dining spot whether you're with a dog or not. Hugo Ortega (of Hugo's and Caracol) is the executive chef at Backstreet, so you know the food is going to be great, though it differs from the traditional Mexican food you'll find at Ortega's other restaurants. Pull up a chair with Fido under one of the patio's large trees and enjoy outdoor heaters during the cooler months and a great breeze coming off a large fountain during the summer.
Cottonwood has much more space outdoors than indoors and invites drinkers and diners to bring the kids and the dogs and settle in for killer burgers and a few games of horseshoes or giant Jenga. Cottonwood is more bar than restaurant, but the menu is quite good, and it features one of the best burgers in Houston. The great space often hosts events featuring live music, artists selling crafts and an array of food trucks to feed all the extra mouths, and your dogs are welcome even then.
3. Good Dog Houston
The hot dog food truck gone brick-and-mortar restaurant opened in the Heights late last year, and people have already embraced the notion of eating 'dogs with your dogs. The menu is simple (but awesome), the food is cheap, and there's outdoor seating in the front and back for you and your furry friends. Though hot dogs may sound like a great food to share with your pet, these are really too delicious to give to a non-discerning critter. Bonus: Good Dog has a great selection of wine and beer to make those beef and pork hot dogs go down just a little more smoothly.
Hugo Ortega's namesake restaurant doesn't seem like a place that would welcome dogs. It's a little on the fancy side, and the cuisine tends more toward upscale Mexican than Tex-Mex. Still, the patio at Hugo's is just as lovely as the one at Backstreet Cafe, and it, too, is dog-friendly. It's isolated enough that you'll forget you're in the middle of bustling Houston, but totally walkable if you live in Montrose. Did I mention that Hugo's serves some of the best Mexican food in Houston and has a wonderful wine and cocktail program? Yeah, all that and you can bring your dog.
The food and drinks at Boheme get better every week. No, really. Chef Rishi Singh is constantly adding new, delicious options to the menu (think lobster pizza), and the talented bar staff are mixing up unique cocktails all the time. The indoor part of Boheme is on the small side, but the outdoor patio is huge (6,000 square feet to be exact), and dogs are welcome throughout. The pizzas at Boheme are some of my favorites — not because they're traditional Neapolitan-style pies, but because they have unique toppings that pair wonderfully with the house-made sangria or a pint of craft beer. There are water and bowls available for your four-legged friends, and plenty of room for them to stretch out and sleep under the table while you eat and drink the night away.
Openings and Closings
Adios 1252 Tapas in Uptown and Hello Taco in The Woodlands.
While it's not a restaurant, it's still a notable closing. B4-U-Eat, an online Houston restaurant guide, announced its own closure on February 17. For the past 23 years, B4-U-Eat provided Houstonians with a variety of updates for restaurant openings and closings, reviews, and events listings. B4-U-Eat will certainly be missed by many Houston residents.
Mary Lee Donuts, located on the Gulf Freeway, was gutted after an early-morning fire on February 14. CultureMap reports that no one was inside the 25-year-old restaurant at the time of the fire and that investigators believe the source of the blaze was a fryer or the exhaust system.
The 1252 Tapas Bar in Uptown Park closed on February 17, but CultureMap notes that the owner is set to open a new restaurant in the same location this summer. Over the past summer, 1252 Tapas in Vintage Park shuttered; now the Uptown Park location has said adieu, leaving the original location in The Woodlands all by itself. Sometimes the original is the one that works.
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Thanks to a tip from one of our readers, we now know that Thai Sticks on Montrose closed on February 15. The reader told us that a server informed their table that Saturday was the last day Thai Sticks would be in business. We called the restaurant several times and no one answered during normal serving hours, but the voice-mail system still works.
Coffee drinkers, get excited, because another coffee shop is opening in the near future, and it's being brought to you by Boomtown Coffee's Matt Toomey and Charlotte Mitchell, as well as Goro & Gun/Bad News Bar's Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse. CultureMap notes that The Honeymoon will open at 300 Main sometime in April. Along with coffee drinks, The Honeymoon will serve cocktails and baked goods — it's meant to have a New Orleans style and vibe. Justin Burrow of Bad News Bar has created the cocktail menu, and chef Amanda McGraw will make the baked items, according to Eater.
Nothing Bundt Cakes opened another location in Pearland, this one at 11041 Shadow Creek Parkway, which held its grand opening on February 24. Head to this location on Saturday, March 1, for a chance to win free bundlets (mini bundt cakes) for a year; the first 50 guests to purchase something in the store will receive a free bundlet every month for one year.
The Woodlands will welcome a new Mexican restaurant in the middle of March. Hello Taco is a concept from husband and wife Armando (originally from Mexico City) and Susan Ocampo. The restaurant will feature a menu of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, tortas and salad bowls prepared with a variety of meats and seafoods (chicken, carne asada, blackened fish, shrimp, etc.). Nothing on the menu will be fried, and the restaurant promises to not use any lard. Oh yeah, and the guacamole is made several times a day, and flour tortillas are made fresh daily as well. Hello Taco will open at 25114 Grogan's Mill Drive.