Best Of :: Food & Drink
Houston is a Mexican food town. And Hugo's Mexican food is among the best in the nation. Rick Bayless in Chicago and Zarela Martinez in New York are chef Hugo Ortega's main competitors -- few others come close. As a native of Puebla who received his culinary training here, Ortega has a big advantage. His grasp of Mexican flavors is so confident that he doesn't feel the need to prove himself all the time. While others slavishly imitate out-of-date Mexican culinary concepts in the name of authenticity, Ortega cuts loose with new American abandon. His roasted rabbit in guajillo sauce with yams and jicama salad seems like a cross between Mexican and American Southern cooking. The tacos al pastor have so much pineapple mixed in with the crunchy pork, they taste Hawaiian. Meanwhile, there's no chips and salsa on the table, no fajitas on the grill, and no compromising to our usual Tex-Mex expectations. It's a brilliant balancing act: Ortega is upholding Mexican culinary integrity and charming the Houston fine dining audience at the same time. If you're looking for a restaurant that will blow away your food snob friends from New York or California, this is the place.
Kozy Kitchen opened in 1946, during the era of segregation. Back then, it was one of many Fifth Ward barbecue restaurants for blacks. The brisket is juicy and tender here, and the beef links are the best in the city. But it's the veal that makes this place worth a detour. The veal sandwich is stuffed with a large pile of meat that includes a little of the spicy black coating from the outside and long strings of juicy veal. You can sprinkle it with the homemade hot sauce that's out on the tables, but don't forget to put your thumb over the cap and shake the bottle first. Kozy Kitchen's sandwich combo plate comes with your choice of sides. Go for the potato salad, it's the extremely soft style known as mashed potato salad, and it's made with pickle relish and mustard. The Fifth Ward's historic black barbecue joints were the unwitting victims of integration. Kozy Kitchen is the last one left.
Bibim means "mixed" and bap means "rice" in Korean. So bibim bap means "rice hash." Bibim bap is all the rage lately because it's light and healthy. And the Green Pine Tree is the place to eat it. Their version includes carrots, zucchini, cucumbers and sprouts, all of them marinated in a ginger dressing. The idea is to dump a bowl of hot, sticky rice over the cold vegetables and a raw egg yolk, then add some of the fiery Korean pepper paste called kochujang and stir it all together with a long-handled spoon. The egg yolk, the hot sauce and the marinade from the vegetables combine to form a lovely salad dressing. And the combination of hot rice and cold vegetables creates an exciting contrast. At the Green Pine Tree, you can hide away with your bibim bap in one of a half-dozen private dining nooks, or combine it with a fish course in the neon-lit sushi bar.
Everyone goes on and on about Krispy Kreme, but its down-home vibe feels a little bit forced now that the chain is taking over America. So why not go for the real thing? Christy's Donuts on the corner of Montrose and West Gray is a Houston institution. You can't miss its very ugly yellow and red sign out front -- but hey, that just gives the place charm. Inside you'll find a friendly staff offering up a plethora of tasty treats -- everything from apple fritters to chocolate glazed. We recommend the Bavarian filled doughnuts -- in a word, dee-lish. A dozen is less than five bucks, and the coffee, hot cocoa, juice and soda are reasonably priced, too. Once you've got your goodies there's no reason to leave. Christy's offers seats and tables where you can enjoy your breakfast. Yes, the chairs are made of a bright yellow plastic that matches the sign out front, but nobody goes to Christy's strictly for the decor.
Don't ask the bartenders at the Davenport if they have any suggestions, or you'll be drinking Barbie's Bathwater before the guy next to you makes his first move with his silicone date. Luckily, you don't need to ask for help, because the drink menu at your fingertips offers a long list of hilariously named cocktails. Where else can you find drinks like Duck & Run, Antarctic Blast, Keke D and Bloodied and Bruised? And with more than 50 different kinds of vodka, along with all the other usual liquors and mixers, each drink is as unique as its name.
To name a drink is to love a drink. Harvey Wallbangers are for old geezers, Sex On the Beach is not all it's cracked up to be, and having a Screaming Orgasm is what life's all about. But why not just say it like it is? A rainy night at The Boat at 3 Cheers produced this dizzying little number made of vodka, Southern Comfort, Galliano, orange juice and sloe gin. Keep your old-fashioneds, Exploding Irish Car Bombs and Sex with an Alligator -- we'll take a Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall every weekend we can manage.
Your boss has been giving you a hard time. Your lower back's giving you grief. And your girlfriend's not giving it up. Well, the top-shelf margarita at Noche won't get you a promotion, it probably won't heal those aching vertebrae, and it sure won't get you laid. But once you've ordered this delicious concoction, you won't care about any of that. Pull up a stool and watch as the bartender lovingly measures out the Presidente brandy, Sauza Hornitos, orange juice, triple sec and sweet-and-sour mix; shakes the concoction tenderly; and pours it into a martini glass adorned with a lime wedge on a little plastic sword. Savor the comforting tart-sweet balance of the mix and the decadent tongue-pinch of the tequila. After a few sips, you'll start to wish you could have another. Lucky for you, there are at least two more servings waiting for you in the shaker.
Okay, here's the situation: There's this spot near Shepherd Plaza that serves delicious fruit-flavored margaritas that are way too easy to get hooked on. Half the joy comes from watching the fiery seorita behind the bar make them. She puts the flavored syrup (strawberry, raspberry, cranberry, Halle Berry, Ken Berry, Boo Berry, Berry Gordy -- whatever kind of berry suits you) in the plastic cup first, then piles on the frozen margarita mix. Then, you take your swizzle stick and mix it all up. And voilà, a lovely concoction that's sweet and soothing and can get you drunker than the Hilton sisters on spring break. Hell, just writing about it makes us feel a little inebriated.
Floridita, Florida's, whatever. Management can change the name as often as they like, just as long as they don't change the recipe on the dark rum mojitos. Sweetened lime juice, club soda and fresh mint mingle with dark rum in a tropical paradise. One will get you humming like the overhead ceiling fans; two and you'll swear you can write like Hemingway. Where's that big fish?
The folks at CharBar take martini-making seriously, precisely measuring their cocktails as if they were fitting a new suit. And that makes sense, since this bar shares space and ownership with the Duke of Hollywood tailor shop. In fact, about the only thing missing from the fabulous chocolate Tuxedo Martini is owner Mike Shapiro's favorite prop, the tape measure. The greatest thing about drinking at CharBar is that you can get outfitted with stylish duds -- and even get your shoes polished -- while the bartender whips up another cocktail. It's the ultimate demonstration of living large.
Hurricanes come and hurricanes go, but the question is which one did the most damage? Floyd's takes no prisoners with its off-the-cuff version, and it pleases us to no end that the drinks are not served in regulation Pat O'Brien hurricane glasses. Grab yourself a seat at the bar, order up a couple dozen oysters and some spicy Cajun fare, and wash it all down the right way. When the Tabasco has the smoke coming out of your ears, there's simply no better feeling than to bury that straw in your drink and suck down three to four ounces of spiked fruit juice. Floyd's also has a sense of tradition, and when Mardi Gras rolls around, no place does it better than this bayou boozery.
The menu at Marine's lists 46 different empanadas. The rest of the menu items play second fiddle to these little pockets, filled with delicious delicacies. On the savory side of the menu, the Chuck Wagon ($2) is the way to go. It consists of chopped sirloin steak with mushrooms in a red wine sauce, all neatly packed in a pastry pocket. The best example, however, is on the sweet side of the menu. The banana with dulce de leche empanada ($2.25) is an incredibly rich concoction combining tiny pieces of banana with a hot, thick caramel sauce. One bite and you'd swear you were eating a liquid version of a caramel banana split.