Best Of :: Food & Drink
Spewing happy talk and fawning over socialites has long been mistaken for good service in Houston's top-end restaurants. (It's actually an institutionalized form of panhandling.) T'afia exemplifies a new and more enlightened approach to restaurant service. The waitstaff is unobtrusive, unassuming, yet helpful. Most important, they're extremely well informed about the food, its provenance and its preparation. It's nice to know that the carrots are cooked with ginger tonight, but at T'afia, the staffers can tell you the name of the local farmer who grew them, how long the farm has been certified organic and which day the carrots were picked. And they'll invite you to come back on Saturday morning when you can buy the same carrots at the farmers' market held every Saturday in the T'afia parking lot. Credit for the highly informed service goes in part to chef Monica Pope's concept; she serves local produce and artisanal food products because she's dedicated to changing the way Houstonians eat -- and she understands that it's her waitstaff who's doing the educational outreach.
You walk through the door, and no one seems particularly glad you came. You stare at all the amazing choices on the menu while they wait and sigh. You ask for pepper steak, and they give you meatballs. You ask for macaroni, and they say, "Yams it is!" But because they're the undisputed champ, and because any item you end up with from the This Is It! menu is going to be the best soul food in Houston, hands down, we'll grant them a little arrogance. Just be sure to pile on the gravy.
Whether you're fulla bull or not, if you want to feel fulla beef, no place satisfies like Hickory Hollow. Offering three sizes of the national steak of Texas, the Hollow has a plate suited for every appetite. The Plowman's Meal is described as "jest right fer lunch," but it's so large that almost any man will be forced to unbutton the top of his jeans. The Hired Hand's Meal claims to be "big enuf fer a Texan." Sure -- a fat Texan. The Rancher's Meal boasts of being "bigger'n a saddle blanket." And it dang near is. And at $10.95 for the enormous mass of battered, cubed steak with "river bottom gravy," plus a trip to the salad bar and mashed 'taters or fries, you can afford a real blanket to keep you warm while yer hospitalized from the heart attack it'll give ya. All sizes of delicious fried beef pass quality control: No need for a knife to cut the golden-brown meat; the ratio of beef-to-batter is perfect; and the color of the meat (light brown with a hint of pink) demonstrates that the Lone Star delicacy is cooked precisely.
More than just a Tex-Mex joint, Felix's is a historic local landmark, serving up enchiladas and margaritas to Houstonians for nearly sixty years. And when Felix Jr. announced that the place would be closing its doors and shutting down for good, there was an overwhelming response from people all over the city who couldn't bear to live without this Montrose staple. And then what happened? Nothing. Like Ozzy Osbourne and every furniture store this side of the Rio Grande, Felix's pulled a miraculous recovery and decided against retirement.
The Hershey's chocolate milk shake at Becks Prime is the epitome of what a milk shake should be: thick, extra-creamy and ice cold. It's so thick that you can't possibly drink it through a straw -- that's why they provide a spoon with every order. The creaminess and unbelievable mouth feel come from the high-butterfat soft-serve ice cream Becks uses as the base. About three quarters of the way through filling the cup with ice cream, the soda jerks squirt in a heavy dose of Hershey's chocolate syrup, give it a good whirl on the mixer and then fill the cup with even more ice cream, until it runs over the top. Another whirl at the mixer, and it's ready for you to take your first mouthful and experience what ice cold liquid chocolate tastes like. The servers are used to patrons standing in front of them moaning in ecstasy. It happens all the time.
Houston's Spanish-speaking community includes a great many people from El Salvador. If you need verification, just look for a pickup ftbol game at Hermann Park or hit a pupuseria, the Salvadoran answer to the taqueria. El Pupusdromo is easily the most successful Salvadoran chain in town, and with good reason: The pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans, chicharrones (pork cracklings), cheese or any combination thereof, are made fresh and delicious. And at $1.50 each, all you need do is spoon on some cortido (spicy pickled cabbage and carrots) and you're in highly affordable heaven. The many and varied dishes offer an authentic taste of this Central American culture. Salcipon (diced beef stew with onions and mint), camarones a la criolla (shrimp with sauted onions and peppers), sopa de mondongo (beef foot and tripe soup) and tropical breakfasts with pltanos refritos y crema (fried plantains and a type of crme frache) will transport you far south of the border.
In the same strip center as a Conoco gas station, on a block full of car repair shops and import stores, Casablanca hides behind a narrow wall of shiny windows, reflecting southwest Houston's grunge. But step inside, and the bleak atmosphere gives way to cheerful walls of tangerine and lime. This is probably Houston's best-kept Mediterranean secret -- a redoubt of conviviality where well-dressed Moroccans quaff shot glasses of mint tea, speak French around tile-inlaid tables and watch Arab-language television. But, just as important, Casablanca serves as a bastion of cooking good enough to make an Atlas grandma weep. Everything is fresh -- so fresh, in fact, that by late evening the cook often scratches half the dishes off the menu. Try the lamb tagine with saffron sauce ($6.99), in which a rich broth infuses a perfectly roasted lamb shank and an apron of potatoes, peas, black olives and caramelized onions. Other dishes faithfully incorporate traditional green olives, pickled lemon halves, manioc and yams. The moist couscous, infused with meat stock, butter and cumin, is excellent. Try it with a marinated meat or the delightful merguez, the best Moroccan sausage you'll find in the city.
If the Goddess of Pimento Cheese does not sound like a glamorous title, then you've never had Janice Schindler's pimento cheese. The former food editor of The Houston Post and the Houston Chronicle whips up a concoction that will make you forever forget that pale, pinkish spread found in convenience-store sandwiches. It's a recipe partly developed with Elouise Adams Jones of Ouisie's Table, and it regularly brings devotees to the Bayou City Farmers Market hoping to score a serving before it runs out. The farmers market runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays on Eastside Avenue between Richmond and Alabama. But don't go there at quarter to seven or ten to 12 expecting to get the city's best pimento cheese. It'll be long gone by then.
It used to be that crepes and Houston went together like tea parties and Hummers. Maybe that hasn't changed, but at least Houston now has an actual creperie -- and a good one at that. CoCo's Crepes & Coffee, which opened last year, serves a savory crepe that would make a San Franciscan or Parisian barista proud. The flour wrappers don't crack or obscure the contents with too much heaviness. The crepe made with goat cheese, spinach and roasted red peppers is simple, delicious and a great deal at $4.90. For a dollar more, try a crepe filled with caramelized onions and Moroccan sausage. It's plenty for a meal, whether it's for breakfast or, as is popular in San Francisco, lunch. Sweet dessert crepes include peach with vanilla gelato, raspberry crme and the ever-iconic Nutella. With free Wi-Fi, shaded tables on a brick sidewalk and great cakes and coffee, CoCo's is the kind of place you never want to leave.
The uninitiated, the experienced, the displaced natives and the seriously hungry alike all find solace in the wide array of offerings of this Middle Eastern/Mediterranean buffet. Diners looking for culinary standards are more than pleased with the falafels and kabobs, and heartier appetites are appeased by the shredded beef and lamb shanks. The heart-healthy do well with a variety of vegetables, including Dimassi's eggplant (baked in "pomegranate mosses," peppers and olive oil), spinach (an aromatic baked concoction with onion, garlic, cilantro and chickpeas), fatoosh (onion, tomatoes, lemon juice, olive oil and mint) and a choice of salads.
There's always a huge crowd on hand at Kim Son's Stafford location on Saturday and Sunday mornings, so you might have to sit outside and wait for a table. But it's worth it; the selection of dim sum there is the best in the city. But no matter how well you order at Kim Son, there's always one incredibly alluring item that rolls by on the cart after everybody is stuffed and you've closed out the bill. It might be the brown mushroom-capped meatballs, the eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, the pork dumplings with quail eggs inside, or the clams in black bean sauce that leave you wishing you had been more selective. Relax. With more than 70 items available each week and a repertoire of more than 100 dim sum dishes, you'll probably never be able to sample everything. And that's what keeps you going back.
Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday nights only, this red-checkered-tablecloth Italian restaurant caters to theater and concert hall patrons eating a pre-performance meal. The prices are reasonable, the food can be good, and the atmosphere is friendly and fun. Order fresh-tasting dishes off the daily special board -- grilled salmon and spinach salad or gnocchi in blue cheese sauce -- rather than more mundane menu items such as baked lasagna and cannelloni. At lunchtime, Perbacco switches to counter service and serves up fast, tasty and inexpensive lunches to the downtown crowd. Best Drive-Thru If the world had a clue, KFC would not be colonizing Latin American plazas, Chinese malls and Parisian boulevards. Instead, everyone would bow down to Frenchy's, and the Third Ward institution would consummate its global chicken empire with a gleaming skyscraper in downtown Houston. Alas, we live in a world of fools, a place where Frenchy's is consigned to a dingy shack plagued by flies and homeless people, a place where white kids from the adjacent University of Houston are too scared to walk up to the stainless-steel counter and order the three-piece "college special." (With red beans and rice, a biscuit, a jalapeo, a strawberry drink and a peach cobbler, it's doubtless one of the best meals money can buy anywhere.) The birds are crunchy and juicy and Creole-spiced in a way that makes Popeyes look like a Bourbon Street tourist trap. Fortunately, the Frenchy's drive-thru window spreads the gospel. Patrons posting to the foodie Web site B4-U-EAT.com talk of bringing home 50 to 75 wings at a time. With a drive-thru wait that can stretch upwards of 45 minutes, you'd best stock up when you can.