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Classics Innovated at The Union Kitchen

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I don't quite understand how after four years of living in Houston, I only just visited The Union Kitchen. And it's only five minutes from my school. Shameful, shameful.

My "good restaurant" radar finally picked up on the restaurant after I stumbled on some enticing online photos of its appetizers. Then I read reviews touting its fantastic service, colossal burger, and something called "Hawaiian" tostadas. A visit was in order.

To celebrate the end of the semester, a friend and I crept in one chilly evening for dinner. The dining room was noisy in that comforting sort of way, and casually elegant, with dim lighting and dark wood. I had thought the grown-up libation offerings at Union Kitchen were limited to beer and wine, but our chipper server Justin informed us of a brand-new mixed drink menu and shared some recommendations. Named after one of their loyal patrons, the "Liz's Martini" immediately attracted my attention. A mixture of chambord, vodka, and pineapple juice made for a refreshing, lighthearted cocktail that I was loath to sip patiently. My companion's "Patio Perfection" (Absolut Citron, ginger ale, ginger simple syrup, cranberry and lemon juices, served on the rocks) was tarter, with a more resounding bite.

I'm usually not big on sharing dishes (I'm a Virgo and an oldest child -- what do you expect?), but there was so much I wanted to try on the menu, it seemed foolhardy not to split both appetizers and entrees.

As a literal and figurative warm-up, we ordered the baked brie and the intriguing Lolo Hawaiian Tostadas. Enveloped in a crispy phyllo dough, the tanned brie was warm, soft, and rich. Accoutrements such as mission hill fig jam and water crackers prompted me to make a series of mini-sandwiches. The Hawaiian Tostadas were bolder and more complex in flavor due to a topping of fleshy ahi tuna, tangy coleslaw, pineapple chutney, and spicy mayonnaise. "A lovely bouquet of sea and citrus on a chip," I giggled, before shoveling one in my mouth. So much for being "lady-like."

Union Kitchen offers a host of innovative pasta dishes, two standouts of which include "Paul's Chicken" and the "Shrimp Tiana." Because of its folksy moniker and mundane ingredients, my expectations for "Paul's Chicken" were rather low. My first bite reminded me, however, that impeccable preparation and construction makes even the most pedestrian food divine. In this case, the marvelously tender grilled chicken, milky melted cheddar, sweet-vinegary barbecue sauce, and smoky bacon on a bed of sauteed local spinach considerably elevated this dish.

The Shrimp Tiana, with its elegant sculpture of grilled shrimp, gnocchi, and vermicelli noodles, obviously had loftier aspirations. That particular trifecta of ingredients didn't strike me as inherently flavorful; however, the rich marinade on the plump shrimp made this entree redolent of garlic, pepper, sea salt, and olive oil. Fresh, natural, elegant.

In spite of all this gorging and perhaps because of my nine-mile run earlier that day, I managed to save room for some of Union Kitchen's famed burger. Last year, I embarked on a series of "meatings" with my friend Maggie in which we tasted some of H-town's best burger offerings.

Union's version was on par with some of the best I've had (re: Christian's, BRC, Branchwater Tavern) and pleasantly unique in its structure. Think "layer cake" in burger form: buttery bun, moist beef, crispy lettuce, juicy tomato, savory onion rings, jack cheese, Sriracha aoli, and another buttery bun. These stacked alternating flavors and textures result in a jaw-stretching taste experience that reminds you that a burger, that ostensibly simple sandwich, can rock your taste buds on multiple levels.

After that, I had little room left in my belly for real cake. I did manage, however, to cram in a few delicious forkfuls of a circular tower of marscapone vanilla cream filling and chocolate cake. Even more decadent were the unassuming chocolate peanut butter kisses, which we nicknamed "lumps of joy" for their shape and rich, creamy interior.

I don't always go so hog-wild at dinner, but seasonal celebrations demand some gluttony. Unlike the holidays, my visits to The Union Kitchen won't come just once a year because there's much more I need to sample.

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