Best Of :: Food & Drink
New York may have a lock on the Chinese/Cuban restaurant thing, but Houston is leading in the Vietnamese/Mexican category. Well, actually, Matt's Fast Foods on 43rd Street may be the only Vietnamese/ Mexican restaurant, here or anywhere. There's a golden Buddha near the front door and a painting of a matador on the back wall. The word pho appears on one window, and a picture of a bowl of menudo is hand-painted on another. The neon sign in the window says, "Vietnamese & Mexican food," but there's no high-concept fusion going on here. It's just a little fast-food joint that features tacos and enchiladas on one side of the menu and Vietnamese vermicelli dishes, phos and stir-fries on the other. What else would you expect from an Asian man and a Mexican woman who got married and settled down to cook happily ever after in a Houston strip center?
Zimm's has been a wine bar; it's been a coffee-and-wine bar; it's been all but burned out in a fire last year; and it's been flooded by Tropical Storm Allison. Still, it endures, and it makes a damn good martini. The drinks are helped by the seductive ambience of the place -- dark and agreeably louche, with not-too-loud music, which one staffer describes accurately as "always calm and sexual and jazzy." The crowds on the weekends can get a little too pretentious for some tastes, but the weeknight vibe is more amenable and the martinis are just as good.
These sublime concoctions are undoubtedly best enjoyed alfresco, and to do so there is no place better than the Guatemalan/Mexican surf-and-turf, El Pueblito Place. First, there's the marg itself, which is tartly delicious as any in town and comes in large, extra large, and call-a-cab sizes. Then there are the cabana-comes-to-Montrose surroundings of the restaurant's new back patio, in which riots of pastel shades delight human eyes, and hanging plastic bags full of water bamboozle those of the flies. Accompanied by the restaurant's legendary pineapple salsa (or its severely underrated red companion) and the relatively cool breezes of the Gulf Coast evening, the El Pueblito Place alfresco margarita experience is not to be missed.
Houston's unique brand of spontaneous fusion is in full flower on Telephone Road. Formerly home to the white middle class, now part Asian and part Hispanic, Telephone crosses all the lines. Shipway began its life as a run-of-the-mill doughnut shop, and then it was purchased by a Hispanic family who expanded the place. So now the glass cases are filled with the usual chocolate-frosted and plain-cake doughnuts, along with brightly colored Mexican pastries. There's also a full menu of Mexican breakfast items like bacon-and-egg tacos, chorizo and egg plates. You can also order a tres leches cake for your kid's birthday party. And if that's not enough of a selection, Shipway also sells some of the best homemade pork or chicken tamales in the city on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. A hot foil package containing a dozen tamales sells for $5. Better get two: one to eat on the spot, slathered with hot sauce, and one to take home for the family.
Old-timers remember the era when Sunday afternoons meant post-church meals where anything but fried chicken would constitute outright heresy. Now the special repast is almost strictly the domain of fast-food joints. Fox Diner pays due homage to the heritage of fried chicken on Sunday. While the cooks of past eras never would have dreamed of coating the chicken in corn flakes, they'd be more than a little pleased at how this place does it with spectacular results -- the crust is properly crunchy and tasty. And the chicken itself stays oh-so-moist and flavorful. Have faith. This is one Fox you want in the henhouse.
When we say plantains, we aren't talking about those crunchy chips you find in a bag of trail mix. No, we're talking plantains here, the ones you peel and fry up in a pan. Most restaurants will serve up slabs of fruit from plantain purgatory, soft and pretty yellow on the outside, with a stiff, flavorless center. But Cafe Piquet is a place that understands Caribbean cooking. The tostones, fried when the fruit is still green, are thick and dry, and add the right touch to certain dishes. But the maduros are what keep us coming back. Sweet and gooey, they almost glisten as they drip off the fork. They aren't much to look at, with none of the pretty cinnamon sprinkles or frilly garnish. They're misshapen, blackened lumps that leave it to your taste buds to be the final jury. But don't let the discoloration scare you -- that's proof that this place knows the one secret to serving up good soft plantains: Pick 'em when they're ripe.
Deciding on an appetizer can be a weighty decision with Farrago's global cuisine, which has included such world-champion contenders as chili-cured tenderloin, Asian barbecue duck and jerk chicken wings. But we're decidedly mussel-bound, reaching repeatedly for the curried mussels. Chef Todd Stevens has really raised the culinary bar with this mountain of succulent shellfish soaking in a Thai curry-coconut milk bath, spiked with basil, cilantro and lime. The best part of this dish, however, is a side of garlic bread that is tastiest when dipped into the fusion of flavors. This exercise packs a punch to what was already a winner.
As you wind through the maze of Houston's Central Market, past the exotic fruits, past the clam aquarium, past the 17 kinds of rice, you eventually come to an enormous shopping-cart traffic jam in the store's right rear corner. This is where the best bread in the city is being baked. Is it the crusty ciabatta or the pain au levain that's causing the delay today? Or have they just taken a batch of raisin-pecan bread out of the oven? The Southern Burgundy walnut bread is popular with cheese lovers -- it's perfect for serving with soft stinky French fromages. But usually the holdup is caused by the free sample table. Honestly! You'd think these folks had never seen a bacon-cheddar scone before. And look at them just standing there wolfing down that fresh-baked pound cake with those berry preserves! Some people have no shame.
It's not just noodles anymore, and they don't all come from Italy, so put that redneck mentality aside and take a look at the rainbow of international pastas that make Houston a regular pasta jungle and their gustation a celebration. Better yet, take a father and son of Armenian descent who love southern European cuisine, and stick them in an American kitchen to get Masraff's. Father Tony and son Russell Masraff spin out some tasty and eye-catching dishes, but a singular dish of mushroom ravioli shows they appreciate both the form and function of delicious pasta. The plump cushions of many mushrooms found at Masraff's are made from thin, near-transparent slips of pasta that defer to the flavor of the ravioli's contents, unlike so many doughy raviolis one has to fight through to find the treasure inside, which often is disappointing if the pasta itself steals the show. The ravioli contains fresh representatives from a well-stocked fresh fungus aisle, from morels to portobellos, and are infused with white truffle oil and Madeira wine. The mushrooms that don't fit inside the glistening pasta pockets are piled on top, as if a signature.
An order of empanadas at Café Red Onion is a trip around the world in which fresh medleys of flavors flatter each other in encounters that are interesting even in a place that prides itself on its culinary theme of Latin fusion. The light-crusted, deep-fried pies, served up in a swirl of different sauces, challenge the traditional view of the lowly empanada, long restricted to meat and potatoes as ingredients. One can almost see the chef playing in the kitchen as he came up with the ingredients for this trio of pies, whose ingredients include fresh guava and goat cheese; grilled chicken breast, mozzarella and pesto paste; and potatoes, ground beef and mozzarella. To make things even more interesting, each empanada is served with a separate homemade sauce of either queso, cream of poblano or cream of red bell pepper (the latter two also serve as Café Red Onion's signature soups), artistically drizzled and dabbed onto the empanadas to make colorful and palate-pleasing pools underneath. At $5.95, the dish is a bargain and a wonderful light appetizer for two. But for those who want to keep the tastes all to themselves, an order of empanadas makes a lovely light lunch.
Don't worry about a thing: White meat or dark, every serving of this jerk chicken's gonna be all right. The flavorful tryst begins the moment the vibrant Fiestaware plate arrives with its bounty of spicy rice, steamed vegetables and quarter-bird drenched in the Jamaican marinade. The meat is tender and succulent, anchoring the scotch-bonnet heat, sultry thyme and myriad other dimensions of the sauce. Lube it up with some zesty habaero pepper sauce, and you'll lively up your sweat glands fast. The restaurant's lovely apricot iced tea is an antidote. But the fresh-baked coco bread is an even better way to smother the pepper-juice fires. Reggae Hut exudes positive vibrations even during the lunchtime crunch. True, the plantain appetizer may arrive after the main course, and getting a refill on iced tea can be an exercise in forbearance. But any frustration will melt away amid the bright colors, friendly help, reggae music and Red Stripe beer. You never have to wait in vain for your food -- it's always great. Even smokers will find the sweet-fire taste of the $6.75 jerk chicken lingering on their palates all day.
There comes a time in every other week, generally toward the ass end of a paycheck, when budgeters careful and shoddy alike are faced with the dilemma of making $9 stretch just four more days until reinforcements arrive in the old checking account. It's at times like these that Cali proves itself a godsend with its array of $2 sandwiches, each on a toasted French roll, dressed with a smear of mayo, pickled carrots, raw jalapeos, cool cucumber slices and a squirt of soy sauce. We're partial to the grilled pork as filler, but all sorts of different tastes can be mollified with options from pâté to shredded grilled chicken to pork meatballs. All for just $2. If that won't feed you till payday, maybe you don't need a cheaper sandwich so much as a better job.