This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
I have a confession.
I made a grave mistake a few months ago when I compiled my list of the best burgers in Houston. As I was traversing the city, consuming burger after burger, several people suggested I go to El Real Tex-Mex Cafe and try the El Real Burger. But I resisted. No, I thought to myself. It's too fussy. Fritos on a burger? No. Keep my Fritos and my Tex-Mex and my hamburgers separate, thanks.
But then, a few weeks later, I stopped by El Real, drawn in primarily by the fact that I love the decor of the refurbished movie theater (someone there really likes ZZ Top) and because El Real serves some of the best -- if not the best -- puffy tacos in town. I pulled up a bar stool, ordered a Michelada and began the mental debate between barbecued pork and picadillo when a waiter strolled by with the El Real burger in hand.
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"That," I said to the bartender. "I'll have that."
The reasons I loved the El Real Burger are precisely the reasons I originally discounted it as too much.
First, the Fritos. I'm generally more of a Frito pie person myself, but Fritos on a burger actually add a great crunch to an item that's usually chewy and meaty but not often truly crunchy. They also add a great deal of salt, which, thankfully, is minimized in other parts of the burger for balance.
Next, the Tex-Mex-ness. Avocado on a burger is great. Poblano peppers on a burger are great. Refried beans are pushing it, but they could be good. Cheese, lettuce and tomato are burger staples. But all of these things together? YES. I, too, was a little surprised.
Generally, if I want Tex-Mex, I'll order tacos, and if I want a burger, it'll be great meat with some cheese and something acidic on top (pickles, tomatoes, etc.) and perhaps something green for good measure. During this meal, though, I discovered that these two disparate cravings can come together in a wonderful way.
The patty, ground in-house, was cooked to an ideal medium-rare, a temperature that, lately, has been difficult to achieve based on the number of overcooked hunks of meat I've been served. The meat was juicy and smoky, with a nice, light char on the outside. Beneath it was a layer of refried beans spread on the bun as if they were mayo, those curly, crunchy Fritos, and, on top, a mound of cheese, tomatoes, roasted poblano peppers, lettuce and, finally, a spread of chunky avocado.
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I get full all over again just writing about it.
In addition to the surprisingly tasty Fritos and decadent refried beans, the poblano peppers are what truly sets this burger apart from lesser burgers. Roasted poblanos are ever so slightly sweet and taste like bell peppers upon the first bite. After they linger on your taste buds awhile, though, the heat rises, and you wonder why you so confidently took such a big bite.
Then you down some beer, loosen your belt a notch and dive back in for more.
The list so far: No. 49: Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets No. 50: Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant No. 51: Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi No. 52: Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections No. 53: Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho No. 54: Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots No. 55: The Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow No. 56: Eggplant Fries at Batanga No. 57: Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar No. 58: Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill No. 59: Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe No. 60: Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's No. 61: Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme