100 Favorite Dishes 2012

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100 Favorite Dishes

This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, which came out last week, we counted down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprised our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once. Here's our No. 1 pick.

I don't think it's any secret that Underbelly is my favorite restaurant in Houston at the moment. I'm completely in love with the highly unique "Mutt City" cuisine that chef Chris Shepherd and his talented team are creating and re-creating every day, and equally in love with the overall accessibility of it all.(I'm far more comfortable with the John T. Edge-coined term "Mutt City" than "New American Creole.")

Underbelly is not a fancy restaurant. You don't have to wear a tie and jacket and you don't have to spend an entire paycheck to eat well. You can drop in nearly any time of day or night — the bar, which serves only beer and wine, is open until 2 a.m. every day of the week except Sunday and serves an assortment of the restaurant's most popular dishes — and you can always feel at home in the big, open dining room that showcases the equally wide-open kitchen. There's a sense of comfort and community here that is unexpected in such a hyped-up, over-talked restaurant, but — while it's easy to see where all the well-deserved hype comes from — I've never quite gotten the feeling that any of this has gone to Shepherd's (or anyone else's) head.

Instead, Shepherd is content to keep turning out dishes that are reflective of his personality and of Houston itself: boisterous, warm, welcoming and highly diverse. Just as Houston takes all comers, so does Shepherd embrace all of our "native" cuisines in his cooking — Vietnamese to Middle Eastern, Mexican to Korean, German to Thai. And his Korean braised goat and dumplings is, to me, the dish that's most reflective of this open-arms attitude.

Is it a spicy Korean twist on old-fashioned, Southern-style chicken and dumplings? Sort of. Is it a nod to the tender cabrito found in old-school Mexican joints like El Hidalguense? Sort of. Is it a spin on the ruddy, sesame-studded Korean goat stew found at places like Bon Ga? Sort of. Is it all of these and more? Yes — and that's the point.

But even if you don't care about the backgrounds and influences that went into creating the braised goat and dumplings (and you shouldn't have to in order to enjoy a dish), you'll care about the tingle that sparks across your lips and tongue like Black Cats as you take your first few bites of the shredded goat in deep red gojuchang sauce. Once that tingling sensation settles down into a low hum, you'll start noticing the rich, dusky flavor of the goat and the sweet, nutty pops of sesame seeds that are scattered across the top of the dish.

And when you get to the "dumplings," prepare for something that's quite unlike traditional Korean mandu and more like thick, tube-shaped gnocchi that's been pan-fried until slightly crisp at the ends. Get through that initial crunch and the dumplings have a complex texture that's both enjoyably chewy and slightly tough. Complex and thought-provoking textures are as appreciated in Asian cuisines as the flavor of the food itself, and to see this so well translated into an American dish makes me grin every time I eat it — just as I can't stop smiling over every dish at Underbelly, a restaurant which has captured the Houston culinary zeitgest of the moment in the most charming and disarming of ways.

Season's Eating

Bring on the Cool Weather
Five fall foods we're looking forward to the most.

It's fall, you guys. We made it. In the words of noted pot roast and red cabbage fan Gerald R. Ford, our long national nightmare is over. At least until April.

Granted, the autumnal equinox only just took place this past Saturday. And it's still pretty damn hot outside. But the cooler air has been sneaking into town in the mornings for the last week or so, tempting us all with a hopeful taste of the lower temperatures we didn't get to fully embrace last year.

And with those brisk, stirring breezes come visions of the fall foods that simply aren't as enjoyable during Houston's almost eternal summer: pecan pies, pumpkin pies, Starbucks lattes flavored like pumpkin pies (shut up), buf bourguignon, bun bo hue, pozole, coq au vin, roasted butternut squash, roasted acorn squash, roasted apples (try them; trust me) and so much more.

Besides the bounty of cool weather produce that will start showing up in farmers' markets — spinach, kale, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin and more — these are the dishes we're looking forward to eating the most once the temperatures finally drop.

5. Pot roast

Like former president Ford, I love a good pot roast. I love coming home to one even more — the scent of slowly braised beef, roasted potatoes and sweet carrots hitting you with a welcoming thickness the moment you open the front door — so thank God for Crock-Pots. If you want to cook your pot roast in the oven the old-fashioned way, all the better in cold weather, too: There's nothing quite so icky as heating up the house with a full-tilt oven in the summer.

Best place to enjoy: The Raven Grill

4. Chicken pot pie

Tender chicken, sweet carrots and peas, creamy gravy, flaky pie crust: Chicken pot pie is warm, filling and comforting in the same way that visiting your grandparents' house and finding not a single dish or rug to be out of place after 30 years is. It's not a mature or elegant dish, but it's hearty and delicious — and that's all that matters.

Best place to enjoy: Daily Grill

3. Oyster stew

Oysters are at their best during cold weather and the cooler it gets in the Gulf this year, the plumper and sweeter our Texas oysters will be. (The other two coasts can keep their tiny, ugly, super-briny runts, please-and-thank-you.) And while oysters on the half shell are tasty in any kind of weather, cream-thickened oyster stew is far too heavy for a summer meal. It's even better if you throw a little smoky tasso into the mix — the meatiness of the pork cuts through the heavy broth and the salinity further perks up those buttery oysters.

Best place to enjoy: Danton's

2. Hot Pot

One of the greatest ways to enjoy a communal meal with friends is to gather around a butane-fueled hot pot and spend the evening cooking your own dinner together. Do you want your hot pot to be all spicy? All mild? Half and half? With chicken? Beef? Seafood? A combination of all three? You can completely customize your meal to nearly everyone's liking, although spicy hot pot with beef is my personal fall favorite. At the end, don't forget to crack that egg into the remaining broth to create one last bowl of egg-drop soup.

Best place to enjoy: Thai Spice Express

1. Gumbo

One of the highlights of my year is attending the Christmas gumbo party at the childhood home of one of my best friends. Her deeply Cajun mother starts making the stock for the gumbo each year right around this time — last year, it was a lobster stock — and ends up with enough gumbo to fill an oil drum. A big pot of gumbo is just as good as hot pot for bringing people together, and there's nothing like enjoying good, warm food with good, warm company.

Best place to enjoy: Liberty Kitchen / Brennan's (tie) Katharine Shilcutt

Wine Time

Aggressive pricing makes wine go down easier in Houston.

As a Texan transplant (by way of southern California and New York City), I have always been impressed by Houston's across-the-board aggressive wine pricing in restaurants.

A few weeks ago, when I visited Osteria Mozza, the swank Los Angeles outpost of the Bastianich empire, one of the wine buyers told me that "$14 a glass is a sweet spot" for his city.

Compare that with a tide of Houston by-the-glass programs that start at $7 per glass and rarely exceed $12, including some of the most glamorous dining spots in town, and you realize that we have some of the most consumer-friendly pricing in the country.

There are also a number of wine directors who are finding creative ways to get their patrons to step outside the dreaded "Napa Cab" comfort zone where so many of our high-rolling residents sadly reside.

At L'Olivier on Westheimer, wine director James Watkins will pour any wine on his list by the glass if a table will commit to two glasses. And once a bottle has been opened and poured by the glass, other guests can order it by the glass as well, like the superb Marqués de Murrieta 2006 Rioja Blanco Cappellanía he suggested last night at $12.

This oxidative white, made from 100 percent Viura grapes, may not be an easy sell for James, especially when the majority of his crowd tends to go for the infamous "oaky, buttery 'Chard.'" (Man, I just cringe every time I write Chard. Feh!) But his innovative pricing allows him the luxury of serving a tasting pour here and there and saving a glass for a wayward wine writer who happens to stop by for an aperitif. I loved the wine.

At Underbelly, Houston restaurant scene veteran Matthew Pridgen pours any and all of his by-the-glass selections in half pours, like the superb Domaine du Salvard 2010 Cheverny for which I paid $5 ($10 by the glass).

This fresh, bright, acidity-driven Loire Valley expression of Sauvignon Blanc was the ideal pairing for my Gulf snapper crudo (above). And a half pour was just the right amount of wine to accompany me as I slurped down the dish.

For the record, the by-the-glass programs at both venues start at $7.

Like many wine professionals in Houston, both James and Matthew have told me that aggressive pricing is the key to getting a relatively close-minded restaurant crowd to move beyond their comfort zone.

In the nearly four years that I've lived in Texas, I've found that sommeliers and wine directors generally have to face a disconnect between their personal interests and their guests' middle-of-the-road tastes.

One man's "Napa Cab" may be another man's poison, but Houston wine professionals' creative approach to this gap makes the city one of the most wine-friendly towns in the U.S.

Ain't that America? Just a little Viura for you and me... Jeremy Parzen

Keep on Truckin'

In-N-Out and Down the Road
Five chain food trucks we wish existed.

A few weeks ago, I was riding my bike past an otherwise quiet hotel parking lot on the edge of EaDo when I spotted it: a Taco Bell-branded food truck. The truck was dormant, its driver perhaps holed up in the cheap hotel, and I've yet to see the truck since. I wonder if it was just passing through Houston on its way to a market that's more welcoming to food trucks, although I admit I wasn't eager to sample its fare. Once you've made a late-night, half-drunk, face-size dent in a box of Doritos Locos tacos, you've pretty much experienced Taco Bell to its fullest.

Chain and/or fast-food restaurants have been entering the food truck game in larger and larger numbers each year, with Taco Bell as only one example. Applebee's and Sizzler both have their own branded trucks now, and the Huffington Post has recently proclaimed that it's only a matter of time before corporate food trucks "kill mobile dining's street cred for good."

The editor-in-chief of our paper even spotted a McDonald's food truck hawking Big Macs and fries outside of the Alley Theatre one odd night downtown — although the truck has since disappeared. McDonald's corporate office was of little assistance in trying to track down the ephemeral food truck, saying only:

"Approximately 85 percent of McDonald's restaurants are owned and operated by independent businesspeople. As independent owners, McDonald's franchise owners have the authority to make certain operating decisions as they relate to their McDonald's restaurant operations. As such, decisions regarding the use of a food cart are at the discretion of the Owner/Operator of each location."

Well, you know what, McDonald's? I didn't want to eat at your dumb food truck anyway. (No matter how much I like a quarter pounder with cheese every few months.) Thanks for nothing.

On the other hand, there are a few chains and fast-food restaurants I wouldn't mind seeing enter the food truck market, the Huffington Post be damned...

5. White Castle

There are no White Castles in Houston, which is enough of a travesty — the damn place invented sliders, show a little respect — but this oversight could easily be rectified by sending some of those tasty little squareburgers down Texas way on a truck. Think of the business it would do in potheads alone.

4. Red Lobster

Cheddar Bay biscuits. Outside of a bar, after a long and fruitful night of Lone Star consumption. Outside of a coffee shop and stuffed with sausage, eggs and cheese for the best breakfast sandwich ever created. On the edge of a park, where you could picnic on buttery biscuits and whatever else Red Lobster sells to your heart's content. The point is: Cheddar Bay biscuits. All day and all of the night.

3. Whataburger

What's better than a fast-food restaurant that's open 24 hours and serves super-amazing breakfast items like taquitos and chicken biscuits for a good chunk of those 24 hours? A food truck that's open 24 hours, stopping only to hit the commissary before getting back to the business of driving Whataburger Juniors with cheese and grilled jalapeños straight into my mouth.

2. The Cheesecake Factory

Forget the rest of the War and Peace-length menu here. I just want the cheesecake. All 56,092 flavors of it. On a truck. Preferably a tractor trailer-sized truck to hold all that fatty goodness, called "The Cheesecake Tractory."

1. In-N-Out Burger

The lines. Dear God, the lines. You'd need an entire parking lot just to hold the lines and the cars. This reason alone places In-N-Out Burger in the No. 1 spot. Katharine Shilcutt

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
Picking a new name for Calliope's Po-Boy.

Starting off the week was news that chef Erin Smith is leaving Plonk. Her last day will be October 13 and after a brief trip to visit family, Smith will be back in Houston looking for her next adventure.

Eater Houston reported that the old NABI space finally has a new tenant confirmed: Pistolero's, from the same owner — Shawn Bermudez — of Royal Oak. According to editor Eric Sandler, Pistolero's will offer "a menu of Latin and Mexican flavors that will delight and pair well with tequila and lime."

Oh, and City Council members, guess what? Bermudez — a restaurant owner — is also a partner in popular food trucks Golden Grill and Koagie Hots.

Third Ward restaurant/culinary art gallery The Eat Gallery is moving, leaving behind its digs at 4420 Almeda and joining the co-working space at CoInside as the building's newest tenants.

"We have 11 days of food art during operating hours and seven curated experiences left at 4420 to laugh, eat, dream and party our way into new opportunity," wrote Eat Gallery owners/curators Danielle Fanfair and Marlon F. Hall. "Beginning October 1, our new homebase will be CoInside, Houston's progressive shared co-working space! Located at 1919 Houston Avenue in a beautifully restored firehouse, The Eat Gallery will continue to nurture dreams among innovative dreamers, believers and doers in The Heights!"

In the meantime, The Eat Gallery will continue to host its "culinary artists" in the Almeda space until the big move — at which point the same artists will move along with Fanfair and Hall. They include:

• Ella Russell of Edubalicious Treats

• Keisha Bocage of Bocage Catering

• Robert Lopez of Kickin' Kombucha

• Matthew Toomey of Boomtown Coffee

• Sabali Mpozi Earth of Vegan Comfort

The downtown location of Morton's the Steakhouse has a new look and a new lunch menu, according to a press release. The restaurant has added new carpet, artwork, booths, seating and lighting to a renovated dining room as well as a renovated bar. The similarly renovated lunch menu allows guests to enjoy a three-course meal starting at $29, served Tuesday through Friday.

Over at CultureMap, Ralph Bivins is reporting that two longtime Houston restaurateurs will be opening new restaurants in the BBVA Compass building that's currently under construction. Long rumored to be looking for a second location, Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe is one of those two restaurateurs. John Sheely of Mockingbird Cafe is the other. Sheely plans a 4,000-square-foot osteria, while Ortega has leased 8,000 feet of space.

Lastly, get ready to help EaDo favorite Calliope's Po-Boy find a new name. Owner Lisa Carnley is letting the new Calliope's Po-Boy on West Bellfort have that name, and she's asking customers at her location to help rename her po-boy shop.

"Instead of coming up with a name myself — because it was so tough last time — I wanted to let Houston decide on the name of the business," Carnley says. "We thought it would be fun." In fact, if you check out page 83 of the 2012 Best of Houston® issue, you'll see Carnley's smiling face and details on the renaming contest, the winner of which will receive recognition for their contribution as well as a party for ten of their friends.

As far as the perfect new name, Carnley says she's looking for something that signifies a "Cajun restaurant in Houston" as well as one that she "can trademark and market well." It's especially important now that she's planning on renovating and expanding the space — even adding to-go daiquiris just like they do in New Orleans.

If you've got the perfect name picked out, e-mail Carnley at poboyshop at gmail dot com. Katharine Shilcutt

Top Five

Welcome to Houston, TJ
Five of Trader Joe's best products.

If you haven't been living under a rock, you know Trader Joe's opened up its first Houston location in the historic Alabama Theater the weekend before last.

A friend of mine, a longtime TJ fan, was so excited, she threw a Trader Joe's-themed party — Hawaiian shirts and all — Saturday night. The shtick: Everything — food and drinks — must be purchased from Trader Joe's.

Since I had to brave the store opening weekend anyway, I found myself reminiscing about my all-time favorite Trader Joe's Products.

Here are, in my humble opinion, Five of TJ's Best Items (salmonella coated Valencia Peanut Butter not included):

5. Edamame Hummus

It's two of our favorite snacks in one, for only $2.49. TJ's replaces hummus's traditional chickpeas with green soybeans to make an incredibly smooth, creamy dip mixed with just the right amount of sesame tahini, garlic, lemon juice, blend of oils and sea salt. I like serving it with toasted flatbread, sesame pita chips or crudités.

4. Habanero Hot Sauce

TJ's habanero hot sauce has a really nice kick to it — a punch of heat followed by a subtle touch of sweetness and hint of garlic. For me, the $2.99 bottle lasts a while, as a little splash of it can go a long way (so I'm a bit of a wimp) — but even the biggest spice lovers seem to enjoy this one.

3. Organic Wood Fired Sicilian Pizza

As far as frozen pizzas go, this one's pretty top-notch. For starters, the dough comes out light and airy, but still crisp due to a pre-blackened (or wood-fired) crust. Pearls of creamy mozzarella, tangy provolone and roasted red peppers top a sweet marinara sauce. It reminds me of a pizza I'd make at home, so for $4.99, it's a nice shortcut for lazy nights. It even comes with a red pepper flake-infused olive oil to drizzle on for a spicy kick.

2. Almondictive Bits

There is no shortage of chocolate-covered treats at TJ's, and while I haven't met one I didn't like, the Almondictive Bits may just be my favorite. Caramelized almonds are dipped in smooth, slightly bitter dark chocolate, resulting in an addictive combination that is sweet, salty, nutty and rich all at once. Not bad for $3.99.

1. Two-Buck Chuck

Okay, so at $2.99 per bottle, it's more like three-buck chuck, but I stick with what I know. The infamous Charles Shaw wine, made primarily from California grapes, is priced so low, there's really no harm in picking up a bottle or five just to have on hand. Add a splash of the Cabernet Sauvignon to your next Sunday gravy; use the White Zinfandel to make a sweet peach sangria; and the Shiraz — it's just perfect for a cheap-ass, dreamy night under the stars. Sure, the wine may be generic, but the price is right. Brooke Viggiano

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