I'm what one might call a wine bar aficionado. I hit up spots for vino around town a lot. I usually go out around dinner time, though, and I find myself in an unfortunate predicament. I'm buzzed and starving, and the only food on the menu is a dainty $25 artisan meat and cheese platter.
I get that certain meats and cheeses pair well with wine. I get that many people eat before they go out and might just want a snack later in the evening. I understand all this. But sometimes I just want a damn pizza or burger with my glass of Tempranillo.
Fortunately, there are a number of wine bars in town that emphasize not only good grapes but also good, hearty food, for those of us who realize halfway through the evening that all we really want is some freaking pasta.
10. Camerata It's no secret that Camerata is my home away from home, and while the meat and cheese trays here feature some delightful options, the real draw for dinner here are the leftover sandwiches from Paulie's next door. Leftover has a negative connotation, but don't let that fool you. Before the neighboring restaurant closes, the kitchen prepares pork tenderloin, chicken salad and Italian hoagie sandwiches that Camerata stocks for hungry folks like me. At about $8 a pop, the large sandwiches are inexpensive (less than the average glass of wine), filling and the same high quality diners have come to expect from Paulie's.
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9. Max's Wine Dive In spite of the name, I consider Max's Wine Dive more of a restaurant than a wine bar, but perhaps that's because I'm such a fan of its brunch. The local chain is known for its comfort food like southern fried chicken, grilled cheese with tomato soup and shrimp and grits. At brunch, I like the eggs benedict drizzled with rich hollandaise sauce or the "Max 'n' Cheese," decadent pasta with provolone, Gruyere and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Because the menu is so diverse, you might want to ask a server or bartender which wine to pair with things like wings or shrimp and grits. Or you could just go big with a glass of bubbly. That pairs with everything, right?
8. Sonoma Wine Bar & Restaurant Salads are vastly undervalued as accompaniments to wine, but not at Sonoma, where drinkers/diners can choose from four interesting, unique salads, as well as a whole host of other fairly healthy small plates and vegetarian friendly pizzas. They say wine is good for your heart, so why not eat clean and green to keep that body going strong (even at the bar)? That's always my goal, at least, until I glance at Sonoma's seasonally changing dessert menu. Crème brûlée and Belgian waffles with ice cream aren't as heart-healthy as red wine, but sometimes you've got to throw caution to the wind and eat (and drink) up.
7. Corkscrew Not only does Corkscrew have a famously delicious steak night, but the regular menu is pretty great, too. The 12-inch thin crust pizzas are crisp and unique, with toppings like prosciutto, cranberries and gorgonzola or sundried tomatoes and spicy Italian sausage. If a pizza doesn't sound quite hearty enough to soak up all the wine you've consumed, Corkscrew has recently debuted lamb chops with mint pesto and couscous.
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6. Oporto The Spanish had the right idea when they decided to pair tapas with wine, and Oporto brings that continental concept to Houston with its short but sweet menu of lunchtime small bites or petiscos, as well as its longer dinner tapas list. The portions are larger than the average Spanish serving, and the prices are very reasonable, so it's easy to order three or four dishes to share with friends. The wine, however, you'll want to keep to yourself. It's too good to share.
5. The Tasting Room The local chain from the same folks who brought us Max's Wine Dive has the same relaxed atmosphere as Max's, but with slightly more upscale Mediterranean and Italian food choices. The kitchen closes earlier than the bar, so order plenty of hummus, tuna tartare and pizzas while you still can, then munch on it throughout the evening. The chefs at the various Tasting Rooms around town introduce new specials daily, and though the wine list might not be the best in town, the reasonably priced and delicious food more than makes up for it.
4. Crú Crú offers diners the most substantial dishes of any wine bar in town. I challenge you to sit there and drink without being tempted by the smells of fondue, seared scallops or filet mignon wafting over from nearby tables. There are a number of smaller dishes for sharing, and Thursdays through Saturdays, the kitchen is rolling out these tasty treats until the bar/restaurant closes at midnight. Pair the goat cheese beignet with a dry Riesling or sip a Syrah with some lamb lollipops.
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3. 13 Celsius Two words: Mortadella sandwich. It's a deceptively simple sandwich, but the bright pop of acidic mustard and the little bits of creamy fat in the thinly sliced mortadella add new dimensions to what's arguably a glorified meat, cheese and tomato sandwich. There are, of course, other sandwiches on the menu--and tasty ones at that--but the mortadella sandwich alone puts the menu at 13 Celsius above many other wine bars in town. The bar also has one of the best wine lists in town, and the sommeliers are incredibly knowledgable and helpful, should you have trouble pairing your drink with a sandwich on a pretzel bun.
2. Vinoteca Poscol If you love wine and Italian food, then Vinoteca Poscol is the place for you. Unlike the portions at most Italian restaurants, which tend to overwhelm with their size, Poscol keeps its servings small, so you can order several and share or fill up on wine instead of far too much farfalle. The restaurant is part of Marco Wiles's empire, meaning you get the same great quality of ingredients as you'd find at Da Marco or Dolce Vita only for a fraction of the price and in a lively but intimate setting. The small Italian dishes are simultaneously innovative and comforting, and the menu is designed for ideal pairings with the available wine.
1. Plonk Plonk is at the top of this list of best wine bar food for one very big, very awesome reason: The burger. The ultimate bacon cheeseburger was invented here at Plonk, and it continues to draw me to the chic but relaxed wine bar time and again. Mild Gruyère cheese is melted straight onto the buttery bun, which is flecked with thin strips of shallots, then the part beef, part pork cheek burger is topped with caramelized onions and bacon and sandwiched between those savory buns. There are, of course, other great things on the menu, like mussels and pizza, both cooked in Plonk's stone oven. But it's the burger that really shines. And lest you think wine and burgers don't really go together, have a chat with one of the bartenders, who will surely set you straight. I daresay that after dining on Plonk's burger with a glass of vino, no mere meat and cheese try will ever satisfy again.
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