Best Of :: Food & Drink
Bryan Caswell was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the country by Food & Wine Magazine this year. He owes much of that honor to the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico. Caswell is a fisherman, and he understands the treasures of the Gulf in a way that non-fishermen never quite get. His nickname on Twitter is "Wholefish," and that's also the name of his seafood encyclopedia of a blog. The name describes his culinary philosophy in one word — Caswell doesn't buy filets or fish steaks or anything that someone else has cut up; he buys whole fish. That's the only way to know exactly what you're getting, he says. At Reef, the menu takes advantage of what's available. Sure, there's shrimp, crab, oysters and red snapper. But there's also wahoo, tripletail, amberjack and sheepshead. These are fish that no one else in town is cooking, and at Reef, they are all presented in unexpectedly brilliant dishes.
The name of the restaurant is a wordplay on owner Kim Oanh Vu's middle name. Vu comes from a famous pho family. Her father, Y Van Vu, opened one of the most famous noodle shops in Saigon in the 1960s — it was called Pho Tau Bay. In 1975, the year that Saigon fell, Y Van Vu and his six kids moved to the U.S. The family opened a noodle shop in Gretna outside of New Orleans which they proudly named Pho Tau Bay. The business took off and the Vu family opened more Pho Tau Bays, and then Katrina hit. All of the restaurants were closed, and the family evacuated. Kim Oanh Vu and her husband decided to stay in Houston and open a noodle shop here, but the name Pho Tau Bay was already taken in Houston. Pho One hasn't achieved the kind of fame that Pho Tau Bay had in Saigon or New Orleans. But the pho is made according to grandfather Vu's exacting recipe, and the beef broth is especially good. Try the beef soup (pho), the vermicelli salads and the flat noodles.
The appeal of longtime Heights sandwich shop Carter & Cooley isn't only in its Bentwood chairs and pressed-tin ceiling, or in the highly polished wood floors and antique scales used to weigh fresh deli meat – it's in the entire neighborhood. The little shop that was once a drugstore has been as lovingly restored as the rest of 19th Street, an effort that has re-created a bustling main street in the city's oldest "suburb." For the last 20 years, owner Neil Sackheim has tended to the building — which was erected in 1921 — as if it were his own child, and it shows in the positive energy and sense of history one feels when noshing on a honey ham and brie or corned beef sandwich.
Don't let the name fool you: The Petrol Station serves much more than just coffee. And although you can get a fine cuppa here, the beer selection is what makes the Petrol Station special. You won't find Bud Light, but you will find a limited yet remarkable selection of cask ales and locally brewed beers. And they know their stuff, too: On a recent visit, the knowledgeable bartender responded to a request for a "fiercely hoppy beer" with a freshly drawn pint of fragrant and snappy Avery cask-conditioned India Pale Ale. Despite the presence of far too many little ones underfoot at times (after all, this is a neighborhood watering hole), the Petrol Station is a hidden gem of a place where you can relax, grab a bite to eat and be dazzled by a new beer each time you go.
It's hard to beat the Bloody Marys at the Cadillac Bar on Shepherd — that's because you make them yourself. The Bloody Mary bar is set up during the Cadillac's elaborate Sunday Brunch buffet. The bartender pours some vodka over the rocks and hands you the glass; then you walk over to the most ornate do-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar you've ever seen. Choose from several varieties of tomato juice cocktail. There's some celery stalks, sure, but there's also pickled okra, baby corn, olives, cocktail onions and more. There's pickled peppers, fresh peppers, bottled pepper sauces, Worcestershire, celery salt, lemon and limes too. In fact, the only important ingredient missing from the line-up is horseradish. Horseradish isn't Tex-Mex, the bartender says. If you think horseradish is critical to a perfect Bloody Mary, you better bring your own.
A pastry cafe with the best BLT? Really? Yes, really. The folks at Dacapo's may specialize in sweets, but they certainly kick butt when it comes to savory sandwiches. Piled high on toasted whole wheat bread is the perfect slathering of mayo, lettuce, thick-cut sliced tomatoes and bacon so perfectly cooked — crispy yet full of fat and salty flavor — you'll want to rush into the kitchen to get a peek at just how they do it. Add a pickle and a cup of homemade potato salad, and it's easy to understand why lunchtime at Dacapo's resembles the running of the bulls. Best to order ahead.
El Bolillo, the Mexican bakery across the street from Canino's on Airline, has got a lot of things going for it. Elaborately decorated cakes, sheet pans of tres leches, and coffee and hot churros for starters. Then there are the crunchy mini-baguettes called bolillos in two sizes, and the soft, dense telera bread — perfect for torta sandwiches — that you can also cut in half and use for hamburger (or torta burger) buns. Fresh tortillas made the old-fashioned way out of stone-ground nixtamal are sold out of a steamer case near the cash register, and they are exceptional. Try these and the enchiladas at your house will never be the same. And before you complain about the dry pastries, try the little cookies sold in the clear plastic clamshell packages in a display near the front door. They're made with a touch of lard, and they are anything but dry — but be careful, they are also addictive.
Known for its Cajun creations, the Sabine River Cafe might not be one of the first places you think of for breakfast. But it should be. Inside this sleek, modern-looking restaurant with wraparound outdoor seating, the kitchen is pumping out simple, flavorful food every morning from 7 to 11. From breakfast burritos to biscuits and jalapeño cream gravy to pecan waffles shaped like Texas, Sabine has it all. And for those who need a little Cajun first thing in the morning, order up the all-Cajun breakfast, complete with andouille smoked sausage and a beignet covered with powdered sugar and honey.
It all kicks off early in the morning when the women behind the counter start hand-rolling the softest tortillas in town. You could stuff anything in these velvety creations and it would taste good. Luckily, though, there are more than enough simple yet delicious breakfast creations to sate even the pickiest of eaters. Try the egg, potato and green chile, the egg and spicy chorizo or the egg and green bean tacos, topped with a tasty red salsa that lets the cilantro and onion really shine through. At $1.75 a pop, they're a deal too.
Dharma Cafe is a homey oasis smack-dab in the rundown industrial area along Houston Avenue that makes up the nexus of Downtown and the Heights. Get away from the hectic noise and the stiletto-heels scene that dominate many high-end Sunday brunch spots and pull up a chair in this unassuming cafe with photos of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and his sidekick Neal Cassady scattered on the walls. The buffet is all-you-can-eat and includes traditional items such as waffles made in an antique waffle iron, blueberry or banana pancakes, sausage gravy and eggs made to order. But like the joint itself, this buffet marches to its own beat, also offering homemade fettuccini, moist and tender salmon and pork loin served with a sweet Sunday morning apple glaze. The fresh blueberry scones are arguably the best on the planet. And at only $17, this brunch buffet will cure any barely legal hangover.
The 105 Grocery & Deli is located about eight miles southwest of Navasota on Highway 105. Former names include "DK Gen Store, Café, Meat Market, Feed Store" and "B&J." Whatever it was called, the convenience store has been making burgers for decades. The grill is closed on Monday and Tuesday and when the grill cook doesn't show up. So call before you make the trek (about an hour from Houston). The burgers are mountainous — each patty appears to be around two-thirds of a pound. (You'll want a double-meat, double-cheese.) A crunchy wedge of iceberg and two tomato slices come under the burger in the "upside down" configuration with a modest sprinkling of chopped onions and a couple of pickle slices. The white-bread bun is toasted and spread with yellow mustard and Miracle Whip salad dressing. Some burger lovers I know bring their own Hellmann's mayonnaise to replace the offending MW. But it's a tiny blemish in the otherwise perfect burger.
When Guy Fieri and his Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives visited Eydie Prior on his trip to Houston, he confirmed what many Houstonians already knew — Lankford Grocery is a treasure. Eydie's parents started the place as a convenience store in 1939, but it was the hamburgers that brought in the crowds. And so they took out the store shelves and put in some tables. The smoking section is on a former driveway where two picnic tables are adorned with orange marigolds growing out of coffee cans. The garage door is still there. Today, Lankford Grocery's rural vibe is one of the last remnants of the historic Freedmen's Town neighborhood. The row houses have mostly been leveled and replaced with towering town houses. Every couple of months, Eydie goes on a decorating binge and decks the place out with a seasonal theme.