100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 21, Chicken-Fried Water Buffalo at The Hay Merchant

This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises 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.

I'll be the first to admit that some of the dishes that The Hay Merchant serves are hit or miss. But why focus on that? The amazing thing about The Hay Merchant is that it didn't have to serve food at all -- it could have opened as just a craft beer bar and still made an impact on the city. The fact that it employs a talented chef like Antoine Ware and has carefully curated a menu that's as diverse as its beer list is just icing on the cake.

The menu here is like Underbelly Lite (which makes sense, as the two share a kitchen), where you'll see dishes that reflect the melting-pot nature of Houston cuisines all blending together seamlessly as one. Ware's own roots are reflected in items like gumbo, while Asian influences are felt in popular items such as the addictively snackable sweet-and-spicy pig's ears or the richly flavored Vietnamese chicken wings with a caramelized fish sauce glaze.

The latter of these dishes would have actually made this year's 100 Favorite Dishes list but for two things: One, the Vietnamese chicken wings that inspired the recipe at The Hay Merchant at Thanh Phuong are still better (hey, you can't beat the original thing). And two, the chicken-fried water buffalo that I tried on a whim outclassed everything I've had so far at Hay Merchant (including the spot-on barbecued chicken with mac 'n' cheese).

Sean, the amiable manager, recommended the water buffalo one afternoon when I was there simply to grab some wings and a beer. It wasn't even lunchtime, but his description of the dish swayed me: Sean said it was the best chicken-fried steak he'd ever had, anywhere.

Having devoured a plate of the stuff, I am hard-pressed to disagree with him.

The water buffalo -- which Ware got from North Texas -- lent a sweet, grassy note to the meat which is otherwise missing in most chicken-fried steaks made with straight-up beef. The buffalo meat was also remarkably tender and, although pounded thin, still quite plump. Ware's crunchy breading clung to it heroically, never once becoming gummy or flaky.

The cream gravy on top reminded me of the cast-iron skillet gravy my own mother and grandmother both make, an East Texas-style gravy that's thick with flour, butter and pan drippings, rendered a chamois color by the last two ingredients and -- blissfully -- as far from "white" as possible. The two buffalo steaks were piled on top of chunky, garlic-laced mashed potatoes and a portion of nicely roasted green beans with shallots. It was exactly the meal my own family would serve if they ate water buffalo on a regular basis, and I reveled in the sense of down-home cooking with every bite.

I don't know how much longer the chicken-fried water buffalo will be on the menu at The Hay Merchant, so get it while you can. And once it's gone, that barbecued half-chicken isn't a bad runner-up.

The list so far:

No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F. No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's

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Katharine Shilcutt