Best Of :: Food & Drink
Houston's roster of fine wine specialists has exploded in recent years, in part thanks to the city's rapid growth and the legion of sommeliers who have moved here from other states seeking opportunity in one of the country's hottest restaurant markets. But this year's "best sommelier" award has to go to one of the city's homegrown sons, Jaime de Leon, who started working as a bagger at Kroger three decades ago and nimbly climbed his way to the top of the supermarket behemoth's wine program to become one of its flagship buyers. The Sam Houston High School alumnus not only runs what is widely considered to be one of the best retail programs in the city (highly unusual for a supermarket), but he is also the inspiration for the Heights location's wine bar — a first for the chain. Kroger in turn has underwritten de Leon's bid to join the hard-to-crack ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers, a title he is sure to snag in the next few years. De Leon also mentors aspiring Houston wine professionals, leading more than one of the city's tasting and study groups. A bona fide sommelier's sommelier, he is the embodiment of connoisseurship and — most important — hospitality.
Though it's now served all over the world, ceviche, or cebiche, originated in Peru, a reason why contemporary Peruvian restaurant Latin Bites in Memorial is so good at executing this dish. It's traditionally made with a diced raw fish that is "cooked" in a fresh lime marinade called leche de tigre (tiger's milk), and Latin Bites offers three versions that are fresh, beautifully plated and brimming with authenticity. Their Market Cebiche, made with a seafood medley of seasonal white fish and octopus, is especially fantastic, striking the perfect balance in terms of flavor and texture with a well-balanced rocoto pepper leche de tigre and crispy-crunchy pieces of fried yucca and calamari.
When you dine at Picos, each table is served a red tomato-based salsa and a green, spicier tomatillo salsa, and while the green is excellent, it's the red that sets the bar. Chunky, yet smashed through so that it has an almost whipped, fluffy consistency, the roasted tomato salsa is made fresh daily from a tried and true family recipe. Smokey and well seasoned, with a rich tomato flavor, it's a study in salsa perfection — thick enough that you can scoop up small mounds on each chip with the barest minimum of drip — and utterly addictive.
Practically an institution when it comes to tried and true taco trucks, Tacos Tierra Caliente, located at the corner of the West Alabama Ice House, may not be anything fancy, but it sure knows how to serve up tasty, inexpensive and authentic Mexican-style street tacos. Ringing in at $1.50 to $2 each, the lengua is juicy, the barbacoa moist and delicious, and the pastor is packed with flavor. Tacos come with a liberal sprinkling of chopped onions and cilantro. Add a squeeze of lime, top it with your choice of red or green salsa, and as they say in Mexico, "Provecho!"
It's not the most cutting edge list, nor is it the most extensive cocktail list you'll find in Houston, but what Beverage Director Monique Hernandez's list does have is an approachability and likability factor that makes you want to indulge in a cocktail or two or three. With names that reflect the Field & Tides motif of land and sea, the 11-drink list gives you classics with a twist that wash down smoothly, whether you want to indulge in an aperitif, or enjoy a well-crafted cocktail with your meal. A pale lavender-colored "Rip Tide," made with Botanist Gin and creme de violette, is served in a coupe glass with a pretty layer of white foam. The "Counter Current," served in champagne flute, is Hernandez's take on the French 75 made with Fords gin. There's an F&T mule, made with Tito's Vodka and crushed ice, as well as an old fashioned, which she calls "The First Cut." But the most popular drink of all is her homage to the margarita. Made of habanero, jalapeno, red fresno and cucumber infused tequila, the "Angry Grunsel," is spicy and tart, tangy and fun, words that aptly describe the list itself.
There are a few reasons this gem has been operating successfully for more than 22 years: consistently great food, attentive service, fair prices and the promise of spicy heat that never disappoints. Order the satay, which comes with a sweet, tangy peanut sauce, or any Larb dish, minced and prepared Thai style with cilantro, red onions and Thai basil. One of our favorite curries is the red curry with duck, bamboo shoots, tomatoes and basil in a coconut milk spiced with red curry paste. But be forewarned. For the brave and adventurous who order the Thai hot level, you'll still have to pay for your meal regardless of if it's salted with your tears or not.
It takes a lot of guts to go against the grain when you're an up-and-coming chef, but Ryan Lachaine seems to defy the odds with his new Montrose eatery Riel, which combines the flavors of his Canadian and Ukrainian heritage with the culinary influences of Houston. With a technical savvy in the kitchen and a deft sensibility for balancing flavors, the chef has created chic dishes and an ambience that defy the crop of big-name, out-of-town expansions currently flooding Houston's fine-dining scene. Borscht? Hanger steak and potatoes one-upped by steak and pierogis? Such are the small feats that enhance Houston's dining identity, and call to mind something important: Houston needs to put its money on chefs like Lachaine, who bring talent and fresh ideas to the table on a homegrown level, if it wants more national recognition from the James Beard Awards and elsewhere.
Every great city needs an exceptional throwback burger joint, one that harkens back to another, simpler place and time, where the servers still call you "hon" and "baby" and the customers respond with a yes, ma'am. That place is MytiBurger, still going strong after 50 years in business in Garden Oaks in its original retro Googie digs with a drive-through, checkered black and white floors, and just the right amount of kitsch, from the vintage soda fountain to the pictures of old Houston to the lore of Patrick Swayze, a former regular. You'll want to park at one of the cramped, bright tables to down your crisp fries and MytiBurger, which borders on being a classic flat-top burger, though it's a little bigger than that and is smothered in cheese with all the traditional toppings. Throw in a deep-fried apple hand pie or a chocolate milkshake and call it a day.
Leave it to one of Houston's most highly regarded chefs, Ryan Hildebrand, to close the city's first tasting-menu restaurant and open its hottest new casual eatery down the road. The chef believes that making burgers is just as difficult as cooking "tweezer food," because people have preconceived notions of what a good one tastes like, and FM's taste dang good, like better-than-Shake-Shack good, though there's also the huge chicken-fried steak dripping in gravy and more comfort food. Huge warehouse windows and a big backyard with pingpong and yard games make this a family-friendly playhouse, but beer/cocktails on tap and a well-curated band and DJ lineup also bring out oodles of adult revelers ready to kick back on the weekend as the sun sets low.
One Austin export we can definitely get behind in Houston is Dolce Neve, makers of fine gelato. Sure, it's a little different from ice cream in that it's decidedly Italian, and this Heights shop serves up a killer stracciatella (chocolate chip), hazelnut and lemon custard. But a selection of creative seasonal flavors such as the ultra-luxurious goat cheese and pecan, with chevre sourced from Pure Luck Dairy and pecans from San Saba, is the real reason you should become a regular. That, and the fact that you're just as likely to find proprietor and Italian transplant Marco Silvestrini offering samples, making the shop's signature waffle cones, or talking about the art of gelato. Not to be overlooked are the salted caramel gelato pops, gelato sandwiches and the affogato — espresso poured over the gelato of your choosing. Here, that caffeine fix comes courtesy of Dolce Neve neighbor Morningstar. Already a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, Dolce Neve has also teamed up with Agricole Hospitality chef Ryan Pera to offer new seasonal flavors plucked right from Coltivare's garden and beyond.
This sleek East Village eatery opened in May and is everything you want in a poke stop: It's quick and efficient, design-forward and drenched in natural light, with style for days and a clean, chic appeal. It was evident from the get-go that chefs Tai Nguyen and Vuthy Srey had crafted a menu a notch above the competition, and you should expect the unexpected: housemade tinctures in dropper bottles, sprouts so fresh they're still in planters, jars of furikake and more glitzy add-ons for building your own bowl. But it's the signature poke that delights: The yellowtail truffle bowl arrives like a work of art, with a nest of delicately dried, ruby-hued chile pepper ito togarashi elegantly placed atop a mosaic of fresh fish, cilantro, pepper, masago (roe) and speckled puff rice. Salmon ponzu is brightened by garlic and vibrant orange, and tuna aioli gets a tangy assist from Thai chile and fried shallots, all of it beautifully plated. Not too shabby for a $10 bowl, but you'll also want to nab a bag of ube (purple yam) or matcha (green tea) "rice cripsy" treats and a cup of Maine Root soda — prickly pear lemonade for the win — to round out the best poke experience in town.
It starts with the actual quality of rice, in this case an aged carnaroli from the Piedmont, which Tony's sources from renowned rice producer Acquerello, used the world over by only the finest restaurants. At Houston's own Italian landmark, the end product is a decadent risotto cacio e pepe, which yields a markedly tender, creamy and dreamy mouthful of risotto with notes of nutty, salty pecorino and subdued peppercorn. But first comes the best part of all. Servers rush the table with a veritable terrarium of black truffle, housed in its glass orb over a sea of uncooked rice. The large glass lid is removed and the truffle wafts toward your nose, having met the steam rising from the risotto, a sensory overload at hand as the pungent fungus is shaved over your dish. Tony's makes several seasonal risotto dishes, but the simplest version is truly the standout among them all.