Best Of :: Food & Drink
by Nishta J. Mehra
When Chris Shepherd first took the helm at Washington Avenue's Catalan, he kept his menu closely aligned with the region for which the restaurant was named, Spain's Catalonia. "I felt I needed to focus on doing Spanish-influenced items," he says. The decision earned him a lukewarm response from diners and critics. Sure, the dining room was lovely, the wine list from sommelier Antonio Gianola was outstanding and the food was good — Shepherd, formerly of Brennan's, certainly can cook — but things at Catalan just didn't click.
"After a certain point, it didn't make sense," says Shepherd. "I realized that what it really should be is a look into our city." And so Shepherd began to play around with the idea of what a distinctly Houston restaurant might look like.
That vision can now be seen rather clearly on the "Street Food" section of Catalan's menu, with its clear shout-outs to the ethnic groups that populate Houston: Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean, as well as hat tips to the restaurant's beginnings and geographic location, with Spanish street food and I-10 East street food, respectively. Oxtail spring rolls, sweetbread tacos — these aren't necessarily an easy sell, but Shepherd insists that pushing his diners out of the box is precisely the fun and challenge of his job.
"You keep pushing and pushing, and they'll go for it, they like it! Ten years ago, when I was at Brennan's, to put foie gras on something was hard — now look at things." The evolution of the Houston dining palate and vocabulary is reflected in one of the many quirks on Catalan's menu, the line item that reads, "add seared foie gras (to anything and we do mean anything)."
Shepherd has taken his knowledge of dishes commonly found far outside the Beltway and presents his interpretations of them to a crowd that may not often head out to taco trucks on Long Point or dim sum dives on Bellaire. "Maybe it gets them to go there," Shepherd muses. "Part of what I want to do is educate somebody — you have this in your own backyard, you can go find these things."
Catalan's transformation into a distinctly Houston restaurant has also meant a shift towards local farmers, growers and fishermen. "You have to look at what's available and go from there," Shepherd insists. He conceptualizes his menu from the ground up, with only 20 percent of what he offers going the other way. "It's not the easiest thing to do," he admits, "but as chefs, I think it's our responsibility to do it...I can give you food that was in the field yesterday, this morning, even."
When available, the restaurant's "Sandbox Tasting," at $80 a person, is a showcase of Houston-area meat, produce and seafood. On a spring visit, Gulf oysters, deep-fried snapper, Asian-style vegetables and various cuts of a heritage pig raised nearby did indeed make dinner feel like a playground.
And so does Catalan's new happy hour, with an irreverent menu that changes weekly — fried bologna sandwiches? Hand-battered hot dogs? A $5 bone marrow service with Galveston salt? "It's called happy hour, you know? I thought it should be fun."
If you ask Shepherd, he'll tell you that, from his view, the Houston dining scene is "going to blow up." With chefs like him, it seems that Houston is well on its way to becoming its own food city, with diverse influences, a laid-back vibe and an eager dining constituent, thrilled to be eating here and not New York, L.A. or Chicago.
One of a host of recent "gastropubs" to pop up around Houston, BRC is the only one that truly hits the nail on the head of this culinary trend. BRC — which, yes, stands for Big Red Cock — serves up not only a small but stunning menu of "pub" food (if a traditional pub were located in the Deep South) but has a rotating menu of craft and micro brews that often can't be found anywhere else in the city. With 28 taps and frequently tapped casks, you won't always find the same beer here twice, but you'll most definitely fall in love over and over again with the finds that Lance Fegen discovers and wags back to the bar. Grab a floppy, dog-eared copy of the leather-bound beer list and peruse the clever descriptions ("biscuity nose") if you aren't quite sure what you want. And don't be afraid to experiment: Most draft beers are only $6 or $7 and you can even get a highly affordable beer flight if you just can't settle on one.
Beware: Not all Alma Latina restaurants are created equal. But if you make it to the correct one — the location on Telephone Road in the Second Ward — your journey will be richly rewarded. Stay away from the breakfast tacos and instead focus on dishes like the hot, vividly flavored menudo or the hearty huevos rancheros. Both will either fuel you for a long day ahead or take the edge off that raging hangover and allow you to salvage what's left of your day, even if you didn't get up until noon. That's right: Alma Latina serves breakfast all day, although they charge a little extra after 10:30 a.m. But the free chips and queso you get with your breakfast more than make up for any convenience charges.
Marco Wiles's latest Italian eatery is linger-worthy. The darkened dining room and menu of small plates feel perfectly authentic, despite the fact that Westheimer in all of its local color is whizzing by outside. Poscol does many things right, but its risottos are the best of all, creamy and decadent without being heavy, simple to look at but complex at first bite. Both the valpolicella (made with red wine) and butternut squash (topped with fried chicken livers) will make you consider licking the plate.
After a lovely meal featuring some of Houston's best seafood, go ahead and indulge that aching sweet tooth with REEF's "No Minors" milk shake.This is not your grandfather's milk shake, nor is it fit for the children. Here, the age-old milk shake gets a kick in the pants, adding brandy and Kahlúa to its delicious ice cream base. Yowzah! It's basically the milk shake version of a Brandy Alexander: creamy and smooth — yet not so rich as to be considered sinful. Portions are large and hearty; we like to add an extra straw and share it 1950s-style.
One thing should be perfectly clear when ordering a dish of ceviche at Ocean's, the new restaurant that has taken over the old Bistro Vino space with panache: This is not the ceviche to which you are probably accustomed. The plates that come out at Ocean's are immense platters, artfully decorated with a few spare pieces of raw fish. The effect is more like sashimi than ceviche, but the taste is wholly Latin-influenced. The rasurado plate hums with the intensity of Serrano peppers mixed with chipotle sauce, the fiery flavors balanced by a creamy slice of avocado on top of each velvety piece of yellowtail tuna (which is the fish that Ocean's recommends with the platter). On an entirely different note, the Oriental plate — recommended with salmon — is elegantly seasoned with ginger, orange juice, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. When's the last time you ate ceviche that comes with soy sauce?
What could be more Houston than an amalgamation of Italian, American and Indian concepts into one fantastic dish? At Bombay Pizza, located on the ground floor of the Commerce Towers, owner Viral Patel has combined his Indian background with an affinity for making great pies, and the result is dazzling. The Saag Paneer is exactly what it sounds like: a pizza topped with spicy greens and paneer (Indian cheese) along with goat cheese and mozzarella on a delicately crispy crust. Think of a spinach pizza, but with a South Asian twist. Feeling more adventurous? Try a Gateway of India pizza that mixes tandoori chicken with artichoke hearts in a cilantro-chutney sauce. And don't fret about missing breadsticks with your order. Bombay Pizza has something even better: a Kati Roll, fresh naan filled with cilantro-mint chutney and a choice of fillings.
When you think of empanadas, you may not immediately think of the first Houston restaurant to be certified by the Green Restaurant Association, but the folks at Ruggles Green are churning out a delicious new twist on the classic South American dish. Cleverly named "Hempenadas," this version is made with high-protein hemp flour and a stuffing of golden raisins, nutty hemp seed and Texas grass-fed beef. $8.95 gets you a trio of half-moon delights with a ramekin of roasted garlic cilantro sauce for dipping, served as an appetizer. Delicate on the outside and moist on the inside, these all-natural creations are not to be missed.
If Under the Volcano seems like an unlikely place to order a shot, that's because it is. Most of the time, you'll see most regulars at this classic Rice Village bar drinking frozen screwdrivers, frozen rum and Cokes or just a plain old draft beer. But if you're feeling capricious, order a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake at the bar and prepare to judge shots quite differently. Unlike overly sweet intoxicants like Buttery Nipples or Red-Headed Sluts, the Volcano's Pineapple Upside-Down Cake is a shot you can actually sip on, if that's your thing. The tropical taste of pineapple washes down neatly with a smooth layer of vanilla and a bright note of grenadine at the very end. We're not saying you should make a habit of ordering these one after another, but there are far more embarrassing ways to get your shot on.
At Block 7, dry-aged beef is topped with well-melted Gruyère and a bacon relish that adds a hint of smoke and edge to the already flavorful meat. The kitchen keeps additions to a minimum (arugula, Dijon aioli), and this restraint, plus an excellent bun from local Slow Dough bakers, keeps what could be an over-the-top burger from becoming pretentious. Block 7 also serves up toothsome sweet potato fries and one of the most reasonably priced wine lists in town, making the burger experience at the glass-lined Heights eatery an excellent one.
This isn't your mama's chicken-fried steak — it's an obscene tower of goodness, impaled with a wood-handled steak knife, daring you to defeat it. Unlike many other CF steaks in town, the accompaniments at Beaver's are just as good as the main event: mashed sweet potatoes and Southern-style greens, all swaddled in a rich mushroom gravy with a side of Texas toast. And the star of the show? Perfectly crusted on the outside, moist and decadent on the inside. Fair warning — the faint of heart may need to bring a dining companion along to finish the plate.
There's nothing pretty about Hank's — it's a dive in a strip mall way the heck out on Bellaire, but man can these folks boil some crawfish. Big, fat mudbugs are served up for some of the lowest prices per pound in town, but the tail meat is sweet and tender, the spice blend perfect. You can order at four different levels of spice — mild, medium, spicy and tear-inducingly hot, adding in fresh garlic if you like. Luckily, cold beer is available to quell the fire in your mouth and Hank's sports plenty of other Louisiana favorites — po boys, boudin, barbecue shrimp and more — to round out your meal.