Best Neighborhood Spot in Montrose


Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
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
Call it the salad for people who hate salads. The "warm baked Texas goat cheese salad with apples and toasted almonds in a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette" -- yes, this salad needs a nickname -- at Ruggles Cafe Bakery seems like an hors d' oeuvres tray on a bed of lettuce. A thick, fat slab of goat cheese caked in sliced almonds sits on a bed of mixed field greens with slices of sun-dried tomatoes and Granny Smith apples. The whole affair is topped with shredded Parmesan cheese and a creamy, tart, husky, semi-sweet sun-dried tomato dressing. Add a grilled chicken breast to make this a hearty gourmet meal.
With its big open windows and lush plants, Mykonos Island seems plucked from its namesake spot in Greece. Try the Greek sampler platter, which offers traditional appetizers like meatballs and stuffed grape leaves. True to Greek island cuisine, psari (seafood) reigns supreme here, with fish like grouper and snapper arriving fresh daily. The snapper dishes are served full-fish -- head, tail and all. Try the appropriately, if not ambitiously, titled Mykonos "best seafood dish": a butterflied red snapper fillet charbroiled with sauteed shrimp, scallops, mushrooms and tomatoes and served with potato spears and a stream of garlic-butter sauce. Or enjoy other Greek staples like lamb riganato simmered in olive oil, lemon, oregano and garlic. Finish with sweet rizo galo, light rice pudding dusted with cinnamon. And speaking of sweet finishes, the belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights is also a Grecian delight.
Sure, you can get steak and fries at any steak house in the city, but Laurier Cafe's version is this town's best offering of the Parisian bistro classic. It starts -- as it always should -- with the steak, a glorious, 12-ounce Niman Ranch New York strip (Niman Ranch beef comes from cattle that are custom-fed and hormone-free). The steak is dressed with a zingy chipotle rub that teases the palate. Cut along the diamond crisscross sear marks, and you'll find a meticulously grilled slab with a picture-perfect pink center. Pommes frites, an elegant jumble of thin fries cooked to a perfect crisp, and sauteed spinach complete the triumvirate of bistro flavor. Wash it all down with a glass of cheap Rhone. We say bien fait to chef-owner Gary Fuller, who has transformed boring ol' meat and potatoes into a truly resplendent meal.
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.
It's the dish that sushi lovers and aficionados test any spot by: toro, or fatty tuna. Specifically, it's the cut of fatty meat along the fish's belly. A bad cut yields junk; a precise cut offers perfectly marbled flavor and a buttery texture. You'll never be disappointed by the toro at Osaka Japanese Restaurant, which serves the market's best tuna to a loyal clientele. The Montrose restaurant also boasts excellent offerings of sashimi (especially yellowtail tuna), consistently the best in town. The rolls here are keepers, too -- the spicy tuna and Osaka rolls are the real standouts. Between the beaming, kimono-clad waitresses and general manager Shirley, who bows to every guest and has been known to spring for appetizers or dessert, it's doubtful you'll find more authentic and attentive service.
Readers' choice: Azuma
Between the tangy Lebanese salad, fragrant tabbouleh, fluffy dill rice and creamy hummus, your plate is already full as you navigate the a la carte line at Fadi's. As you eye the offerings, you're given the choice of lamb, chicken of beef kebabs that arrive to your table sizzling, juicy and grilled to perfection. Or order the baked chicken, a full-flavored, succulent rotisserie bird seasoned with olive oil, spices and balsamic vinegar. A diverse crowd shows up to Fadi's two locations: Women in traditional shalwar kamises sit with their families among young couples of virtually every cultural background. The restaurant is a quick trip though Middle Eastern cuisine, right down to the freshly squeezed mango, strawberry and orange juices.
Back when NoDo was just called downtown, and before Main Street had a rail system -- or even more than one nightclub -- there was Warren's Inn. And there was the venerable Jose Serna, one of this city's most memorable, classy and distinguished bartenders. For more than 30 years, Serna, clad in white shirt and black bow tie, served politicians, visiting celebs, downtown suits, college kids and just regular Joes who frequented the Market Square gem. The gregarious Serna poured generously, especially when serving a Bombay Sapphire martini. His martinis became ridiculously hot commodities when the swinger scene re-emerged in the late '90s and word got around that Serna mixed the best. Sadly, he committed suicide in 2000 after a battle with incurable cancer, but his ring-a-ding-ding presence is still felt at the bar. Stop by the always-crowded joint, order a Sapphire or vodka martini, pop some Sinatra on the jukebox and offer a private toast to Jose. Somewhere, he'll be raising his glass back at ya.

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