My first time at Down House was on a blind date. He lived in the Heights and I had never been, so it seemed perfect. Sometimes there's just a connection, an instant attraction, a chemistry you can't deny. And that's how I felt...about Down House. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the date, but Down House, where have you been all my life?
I've more than made up for the lost time. I've had brunch there three weekends in a row since that fateful date, and each time, I found, I enjoyed it even more than the last. The restaurant opens early and closes late, so you could stay all day. Linger over a cup of coffee, stick around for lunch and finish the night with cocktails. It's all in the little details, the periodic table of elements on the wall, your receipt stuck inside a book — usually something along the lines of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The service is friendly, I've had a different server each time and each one of them made me feel as if I were a welcome guest in his or her home. But what would any of that matter if the food weren't solid? And Down House delivers as well.
The taco plate is perfect for brunch ($10), with two tacos of your choice served with home fries or black beans. The applewood-smoked bacon and egg taco with Cabot cheddar is my favorite, a straightforward classic made excellent by the thick cuts of bacon and sharp, slightly pungent cheddar.
The kimchi burger ($15 at dinner), available all day, is worth a trip on its own. A perfectly cooked-to-your-preference (in my case medium rare) patty is served on a Slow Dough challah bun and comes with house kimchi, that same Cabot cheddar, a sunny-side up egg, house mayo and bulgogi sauce. If you think it sounds messy, you're right, but as you bite into it, and the juice from the patty mixes with the yolk and sauce and mayo, and it oozes onto your hands, you won't even reach for a napkin, opting instead to lick up whatever you can.
For another Asian-inspired dish, try the shrimp and grits ($15); wild-caught Gulf shrimp, applewood-smoked bacon, Anson Mills grits, cilantro and scallions all come served in a shallow bowl topped with pho broth. It's rich and flavorful, but not so much that it weighs down any one ingredient.
To me, the true sign of a good restaurant is if I recommend it to friends. If I think they should try a particular place when there are so many great joints in our city, then you know I think it's something special. On one occasion, I took some friends who'd never been. They immediately liked the decor, and they enjoyed the fresh squeezed orange juice ($3) and the spicy Bloody Mary ($5); things seemed to be going well. When our food took far too long and my friends were starting to wonder what I saw in the place, I thought perhaps my love affair with Down House was going to be a quick one, but the manager came by, apologized genuinely and offered a complimentary dessert. Now even my friends approve. This could be love.
THROW A SUMMER OUTDOOR DINNER PARTY
Don't let the heat ruin a good time.
The unfortunate part about summer in Texas, more specifically in Houston, is that you want to go outside, but it's just too dang hot to stay out there for more than five minutes without breaking into a sweat.
My family loves to grill during the summertime, and we love taking our food from the grill to the patio table. Sometimes the weather is our friend and we can stand the heat of not only the grill but also the season itself; however, most of the time the weather is our worst enemy.
But if you're still determined — and why shouldn't you be? — to throw an outdoor dinner party, or just an outdoor dinner, here are some tips on keeping the food fresh, you cool and your guests comfortable.
Keep the Bugs Away
First of all, keep your food and guests bug-free with a few tricks. Place covers over dishes if you're having a serving station outside. Of course, you can keep bugs from getting into your serving dishes if you let guests fill up their plates inside, but where's the fun in that?
Whether you have covers that match your dishes or you want to purchase some of those super-cool net covers, anything that keeps insects out of your food will work.
I have always been a fan of using tiki torches to light up the night and keep the mosquitoes away. It's a twofer — decorate and keep the bugs out. Obviously you need to be careful with your torches; don't place them underneath a tree or tent or close to anything else that could catch fire. But if you properly set the torches up in areas where mosquitoes and bugs are most likely to congregate, then you can create a relaxing, mosquito-bite-free zone.
Make Seating Comfortable
No one wants to sit outside in the heat in a hard, uncomfortable chair, wishing he was back inside where it's nice and cool. Place pillows in the seats or use pretty seat cushions to add a little splash of color to the table setting.
Besides making the table where you'll be having dinner comfortable, create a space for guests to lounge before and after. Serve appetizers with cocktails before the meal, and let guests mingle and chat with one another. Afterward, use that same space to enjoy desserts and drinks. The more comfortable your guests are, the longer they'll stay outside and enjoy it.
Keep It Cool Outside
This is probably the most difficult thing to do when the temperature outside is scorching, but the easiest solution is to schedule your dinner for later in the evening. Don't have guests come over at 4 p.m. when it's blazing hot. The sun doesn't go down until much later, so invite everyone to show up for drinks and appetizers around 6, then sit down to eat around 7:30, followed by desserts at sunset. Not only does the setting sun create a beautiful backdrop to your dinner, but your guests will be happy they aren't sitting underneath the bright sun.
If you have a patio or a covered deck, then there's no need to use a tent or umbrellas to keep your guests covered. But if you have wide-open spaces in your backyard, then set up a tailgating tent or several umbrellas above the tables to keep everyone in the shade. It doesn't hurt to place a few fans around the area so there's always a light breeze.
Keep guests refreshed with cold towels in an ice chest when it gets a little too hot.
Cook Something Simple
No need to toil away in the kitchen to make a five-star meal utilizing innovative techniques and daring ingredients. Your guests want something familiar, something easy and something tasty. Here are a few ideas sure to satisfy all appetites.
• Guacamole and chips
• Crostini — tomatoes, hummus, sliced meats
• Grilled shrimp on skewers
• Mini cheese/chicken quesadillas
• Spiced pecans/cashews/almonds
• Smoked salmon
• Cold corn and tomato salad
• Texas caviar
• Watermelon and tomato salad
• Pickled carrots/cucumber salad
• Small baked potatoes
• Stuffed tomatoes with blue cheese
• Grilled skirt steak
• Chicken kebabs
• Crab cakes
• Lobster rolls
• Pulled pork sandwiches
• Fish tacos
• Fruit sorbet
• Strawberry shortcake
• Panna cotta
• Grilled fruit (peaches, pears, pineapple, figs)
• Peach sangria
• Wine coolers and beers
TOP 5 FROZEN CANDY BARS
Better eaten frozen than at room temperature.
The heat has managed to squelch my appetite, yet I still hunger for chocolate. Go figure. Usually, I would bake up a batch of brownies to satisfy my craving, but lately I can't bear to turn on the oven. A candy bar is an easy, cheap and even cooling way to appease my sweet tooth, especially if I stick it in the freezer first. Here are five candy "bars" I actually prefer to eat frozen.
Snickers. At room temperature, Snickers bars definitely satisfy, but the individual components tend to blend together into one uniform sugary taste. A few degrees cooler, and the nuts are crunchier and saltier, the chocolate sharper in cocoa flavor, and the caramel more buttery than syrupy.
4. Peanut Butter Cups. Some may argue that cold temperatures mute the nutty flavor of peanut butter cups. A reasonable concern; however, the overall improvement in texture, I believe, trumps the slight change in taste. When eating a frozen PB cup, you appreciate more the hard ridges of the perimeter, the supple chocolate surfaces and the gritty nut interior. Almost makes you slow down to enjoy the experience.
3. Charleston Chews. I'm pretty sure that if hard-pressed, most Charleston Chew fans would admit that masticating the hell out of this candy bar grows tedious and even painful after the first few bites. Frozen Charleston Chews are still chewy but more manageable, having lost their goopy stringiness. And the nougat flavor (be it vanilla, chocolate or strawberry) is more vibrant.
2. Peppermint Patties. Given that most of the commercials for peppermint patties involve snow and ice, why would you ever think this product was designed to be eaten in a temperate climate? The wonderful cool mint effect of a peppermint patty increases exponentially if you pre-chill it. Plus, I swear, breaking apart a frozen peppermint patty actually creates a visible burst of cold air.
1. Heath Bars. Warning: There is a small, small chance that eating frozen Heath Bars too quickly will chip your teeth. Then again, eating them at room temperature too slowly probably increases your chance of tooth decay by allowing the sugar to linger on your molars. Therefore, the more healthful — not to mention more enjoyable — means of consuming Heath Bars is to eat them very, very cold, at which point they taste like chocolate-covered sticks of frozen butter. Or better yet, crumble them into chilly little bits and sprinkle over ice cream.
SUMMER MENU AT PANERA BREAD
Just order the salad.
Hot weather does not stimulate my appetite. The other day I was hungry and driving around aimlessly, but nothing appealed to me. I passed restaurant after restaurant, in strip mall after strip mall, and nothing piqued my interest. Burgers? Too heavy. Chinese? Not in the mood. Grocery store? Too much assembly required. I had just about resigned myself to going home and eating a bowl of cereal when I caught the sign for Panera out of the corner of my eye. I loved the idea of a fresh, crisp salad, so I decided to go for it.
But you know what they say about best-laid plans!
I always intend to order the salad...until I remember how much I love simple carbohydrates and then order the pasta. With bread. And why not a creamy soup for the dunking of the bread? The problem is not lack of willpower but long lines that give me too much time to give in to temptation.
Panera Bread was advertising several new summer items: a strawberry, poppyseed and chicken salad; a shrimp roll; pesto sacchettini pasta; and a sweet summer corn soup. I liked the sound of the pesto, and I can never resist a yummy corn soup, so I ordered both items to go and opted for a side of fresh baked Panera baguette.
Given that my appetite was already on the low side of the scale, I can't say that the pasta really wowed me at all. The pesto was a little oily, and combined with the cheese, it felt awfully heavy; the freshness provided by the basil was not enough to lift and brighten the dish on its own, especially given that the pasta was overcooked and gummy. Too rich and hearty for summer, this dish is far better as comfort food — basil alone does not communicate summertime.
The sweet summer corn soup, while delicious, suffered from similar problems. Between the creamy base and the chunks of tomato, it didn't feel quite "summery" enough for a hot June day. I loved the sweetness with a hint of heat behind it, but it just felt too heavy — and so did I after eating it. I can't quite remember the last time I said this and meant it, but...I should have ordered the salad.
OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS
Houston Food Park opens and others reopen.
Last week brought more openings and reopenings than closings, so let's start with the good news. Eater Houston reports that Marfreless, the makeout bar that closed in March of this year, posted an announcement on its Web site June 14 that it will be back in business at the same location in River Oaks by the end of summer.
The Web site notes, "Although we will be under new ownership, we promise the same unique atmosphere, premium menu, friendly staff, and neighborhood charm."
In other reopening news, The Palm Steakhouse announced on Facebook that it will be back July 8. The restaurant has been completely renovated and will also offer new lunch menu items.
Houston Food Park (1504 St. Emanuel) opened June 22 in EaDo. The location can hold up to eight or nine food trucks, but the Houston Food Park team has plans to expand the lot to accommodate more than twice that number. The park began serving lunch every day June 24.
Morningside Thai also reopened June 22 at its new location at 2473 S. Braeswood.
B4-U-Eat's Newsletter also reported that Mark's BBQ & Catering would close June 22. However, the restaurant is working on building a mobile unit, as noted in a post on its Facebook page, should be open by the end of July, so you can still get your favorite barbecue dishes from them this summer.
In other food truck news, Pi Pizza Truck owner Anthony Calleo has decided to create a brick-and-mortar location to sell sandwiches. CultureMap Houston reports that Sandy Witch Sandwich Company has leased the kitchen of Grand Prize Bar in Montrose and will sell his witch-named sandwiches there.
If you can't wait for Dunkin' Donuts to arrive, check out River Oaks Donuts, which opened June 13. According to CultureMap, two billionaires, Mindy and Jeff Hildebrand, decided to open a donut shop in River Oaks because the others were too far from that neighborhood. They serve donuts with colorful and decorated icings and even filled donut holes.
Sadly, chef Aldo El Sharif of Aldo's Cucina Italiana decided to close his restaurant in Shenandoah; the B4-U-Eat Newsletter says that a Bennigan's will be taking the space in July. The Woodlands got a new sushi restaurant on Sawdust Road. Zato Thai & Sushi, originally located in Plano, opened on June 1.
B4-U-Eat also notes that Fajita Jack's opened its new location at Waterpoint Marina off Highway 105 West on June 14 and closed it's old location in Montgomery June 16. Uncle Tony's lost its lease in Porter; however, the restaurant has a new location in Conroe.
Villagio's Italian Grill has closed due to a disagreement with the property owners over its leasing contract. A note on the restaurant's home page says, "We are currently looking at other locations to move Villagio's Italian Grill and will update this website with any new information regarding that search."
In happier news, Washington Avenue will be getting a Sonic Drive-In around the middle of July, as reported by the Chronicle. You can't complain about another location to grab a happy hour soda and a side of tater tots or a breakfast burrito on the way to work.
The Chronicle also let us know that First Colony Mall in Sugar Land would see the opening of Tucanos Brazilian Grill June 18. Now we have another place offering meat on skewers.
Jal — The Grille, a barbecue restaurant off the Southwest Freeway, also opened in Sugar Land. The restaurant announced on Facebook that it held its grand opening on June 15.
B4-U-Eat reports that Kemah received Skallywag Suds N Grub. We're not too sure what the restaurant's menu looks like, but it will be serving burgers and most likely potatoes in some shape or form.
McDaniel Hill, a Texas Family Cafe in Richmond closed its doors a few weeks ago, and according to Facebook, the restaurant is working on reopening as soon as it can.
Alison Cook ran into Pico's owner and chef Arnaldo Richards and got an update on his new Kirby at Richmond location. Rather than in early June as previously reported, Pico's Mex-Mex Restaurant is looking at opening around July 11.
Swamplot reports that the old Queen Burger location on West 18th Street will become Hughie's Tavern and Grill, an Asian fusion restaurant. From the looks of the restaurant's Facebook page, Hughie's is close to opening.
Another location of Spaghetti Western is coming to West T.C. Jester, but Swamplot reports that a restaurant employee says it won't be open for a few more months due to renovations.
Midtown will also host another bar. CultureMap Houston says 3rd Floor Bar is an elevated club on the...drum roll, please...third floor at 2303 Smith Street. It will feature American-made craft beers and 50 wines by the glass from its wine-preservation system. Check out 3rd Floor's Facebook page for photos of the view and progress on the location's construction.