Best Of :: Food & Drink
Did Hugo Ortega know he was creating the most cutting-edge Mexican food in town when he opened his eponymous restaurant? Or was he simply paying homage to the diversity and culinary gifts of his homeland? Either way, he's at the forefront of 21st-century Mexican cuisine -- both locally and nationally. First-timers can expect to be challenged and surprised by the menu offerings: pato en mole poblano (roasted duck in red mole), cabrito (roasted goat meat pulled from the bone) and conejo rostizado (roasted rabbit with guajillo adobo, camote morado and jicama salad). Ortega and wife Tracy Vaught also co-own Backstreet Cafe, and true to form, their desserts are impressive -- especially the chocolate flan with ground cocoa beans. And don't miss the tequila flight, which offers a trio of tequila or mescal samples.
On Saturday afternoon, Burns Bar BQ is party central in Acres Homes. The crowds line up when the place opens, and they never let up until the ribs are gone. Burns Bar BQ serves their ribs well done under a sweet and subtle glaze of sauce and smoke. They're the best in the city. Patriarch Roy Burns grew up in Midway, Texas. He sold barbecue from a smoker on the side of the road until arthritis slowed him down. Fourteen years ago, he opened this restaurant and brought in some family members to help out. His brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth; it's as soft and wet as pot roast. If you judge it by the standards of white barbecue, then you won't get it. Beef that isn't falling apart simply isn't done enough according to the black East Texas aesthetic. Carolina barbecue is whole-hog, slow-smoked to stringy mush; the black East Texas style does the same thing with beef, which was always cheaper and more plentiful in Texas. Put some of Roy Burns's falling-apart brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions, and think of it as Texas's answer to a Carolina pulled-pork sandwich. Suddenly, you'll understand.
Readers' choice: Goode Co. Barbeque
At Under the Volcano, you won't be burdened with tacky mint syrups or low-rent spirits. Here, they do this Southern drink right. Watch in amazement as your bartender meticulously crushes a heaping handful of mint into your glass with a long prod, splashes on some top-shelf Kentucky bourbon and kisses it with just the right amount of sugar, suga. It's an exquisite spirit, perfect for drinking on the porch on a hot day.
The huge awning outside this classic little joint on the southwest side announces that Cafe Miami is the "King of Black Beans." In this town, that's no mean feat, and the fact is, the restaurant deserves the title. Also, try a basket of fried plantains and some yuca relish bathed in lime and cilantro. They will leave your taste buds both tantalized and titillated. Other favorites include tasty Cuban sandwiches, mind-blowing ropa vieja and steaks slathered in garlic paste. Follow it all up with some smooth-as-velvet flan. This stuff heals bodies faster than a splint ever could.
Can't imagine hot coffee on Saturday morning without hot, gooey, fruit-filled kolaches? Then you owe an homage to the Original Kolache Shoppe. Fifty years ago, the fresh, doughy Czech pastries called kolaches were a treat you found in the homes of Eastern European immigrants and their ancestors, not in bakeries or restaurants. Beginning in 1956, this little East End bakery started putting kolaches on Houston's breakfast table. Baked fresh six days a week, their kolaches are still yeasty and light with a wonderfully fluffy texture, just like in the good old days. They bake an assortment of fruit-filled kolaches as well as the sausage-and-cheese-stuffed "pig in a blanket" variety. For a real eye-opening breakfast, try the ones made with the jalapeno sausage.
Once, there was a convenience store with the wonderfully cryptic name "Christian's Totem" that was famous for its awesome burgers. Unfortunately, owner Steve Christian removed the convenience store shelves, expanded and renamed it Christian's Tailgate Bar & Grill. (A religious sports bar?) But lucky for us, Christian didn't screw up the burger. You get a hand-formed patty of never-been-frozen, freshly ground beef served on a perfectly toasted bun with just the right amount of lettuce and tomato, artfully wrapped in tissue paper and balanced on the edge of a red plastic basket full of fries. Jalapenos are extra and highly recommended.
Readers' choice: Becks Prime
Bruce Molzan has had a rough couple of years seeing his establishments at Minute Maid and downtown fold like...um, folding chairs or a deck of cards or something. But that doesn't mean he's lost it. We still think he has the best desserts in town. And while his hearty sandwiches and sweet potato fries are also a delight, we'd much rather skip dinner altogether and get to the desserts as soon as possible at Ruggles. Pastry chef Susan Molzan's delicious confections -- including gooey tres leches, white-chocolate-macadamia-nut tortes, chocolate truffle cake and bread pudding -- will have your eyes rolling to the back of your head. You'll forget all that ails you.
This is a pleasant, relaxing Heights-area spot that serves up tall cups of caffeine and pints of beer (not a short feat in this dry part of town) as patrons take in live music and DJs. At breakfast, loyal morning patrons inhale tasty croissants, bagels and kolaches, while lunchtime regulars wolf the phenomenal pizzas, "country ass" Reubens and delicious O.C. poor boys. Bring a laptop or a newspaper, or watch one of the many unobtrusive flat-screen TVs tucked away in the corners as you lounge on a comfy couch or soak up some rays on the deck.
With a five-station mixer constantly making shakes, malts and sundaes, the counter staffers at Yale Street Grill have their hands full. It is unknown whether they've been making shakes since 1923, when they opened, but the mixer sure looks the age. They start out with two or three generous scoops of Blue Bell ice cream, a good amount of milk and, in the case of the Oreo version, enough crushed cookie pieces to make it impossible to suck through a straw, no matter how big a sucker you may be. A spoon is definitely required. Classic flavors -- vanilla, strawberry, banana and chocolate -- are all available.
Readers' choice: 59 Diner
While many Montrose cafes and coffee shops attract a fairly intriguing array of customers -- students with laptops, poets with notebooks, artists with sketchpads, wedding planners with engaged couples -- few provide as comfortable a place to just "be" as Brasil. And the food is no slack job, either. Stunning hummus pizza and mozzarella-tomato sandwiches delight. Wash them down with the city's best cup of joe or one of the several brews on tap while relaxing to the easy notes of jazz or ambient trip-hop. Our town's cooler, less hip-hop-and-house-obsessed DJs, like DJ Sun, DJ Suma and Lil Tiger, have all held down nights there, and groups like Drop Trio, Zin and Free Radicals have been known to set up shop as well, making Brasil also one of our more forward-thinking music venues.
Conversation momentarily ceases the moment the towering pyramid of onion rings hits your table at Fleming's. Then there's the hesitation: Do you dare disturb the architecture of the thickly sliced Vidalia onions and flaky, crunchy batter? Of course you do. This side dish is an excellent group treat, though you'll find you're muscling your way in past your tablemates to grab one of these nearly five-inch-wide golden-brown hoops, which are served with a zesty chipotle chili mayonnaise. If there's any stuffiness in this chic, trendy steak house, it's gone as soon as you eschew your knife and fork, dip your chunk of battered onion into the sauce and become a true lord of the rings.
Dishes like roast beef, chicken-fried steak and mac 'n' cheese rarely grace the cover of Gourmet magazine, but they're at the epicenter of the collective American palate. And you'll be hard-pressed to find a place that serves better versions of these favorites than Cleburne Cafeteria. The lines form early and snake out the door here daily as West University locals and visitors clamor for the dishes that taste straight out of Mom's kitchen -- fresh milk, butter (lots of it), eggs and all. Owner George Mickelis keeps the Greek tradition of his father's cafeteria alive by offering excellent dishes like pastitsio, moussaka and even a palate-cleansing tabbouleh. And his downright addictive pies, cakes and custards, made daily, are the perfect Sunday-afternoon treat.
Readers' choice: Barnaby's