It's that time of month again. Time when we wrap up all of the best restaurant food we've found our way to in the past month. And yes, January is the diet month but you don't want to starve yourself, right? Here's a few ways to give yourself a break in the coming winter days.
When I was 13, a church youth group minister tried to explain the risks and rewards of dating through the lens of pizza. “Pizza Love,” he told us, was a transactional sort of love, a passing affection based on instant gratification. The scratching of an itch. Whether or not you agree with the moralism inherent in this metaphor, it’s hard to deny that pizza, at its best, is capable of delivering some of the best bang-for-the-buck culinary thrills out there.
Right now, my personal pizza itch is best scratched by the Bianca pie at Cane Rosso, the Dallas import that has quickly become Houston’s newest pizza heartthrob, photo-posters of its lovely pies gracing the ceilings and lockers of pubescent pizzaphiles across the city. I’m not sure if there’s more to the relationship than the momentary rush of cheese- and pepper-infused dopamine that floods my senses at the mere thought of another bite, but, man, the few, flushed moments required to polish one off sure do get me worked up.
A visit to Night Market Curry & Grill, the newest joint in Bellaire's Chinatown, proved to be a feast for all the senses. The garlicky aroma of the freshly baked naan arrived before the server placed it on the table; chunks of roasted garlic could be seen scattered and baked into the flaky, fluffy piece of dough, and right away we knew this was going to be the real deal.
Night Market opened the first week of December after months of posting food pics, teasing Houston eaters and spice lovers with shots of fries smothered in ground brisket and Thai peppers, red and green curries and stews. Mike Tran, the mastermind behind Tiger Den, the über-popular Japanese ramen house, teamed up with the former chef/owner of Ambrosia, Rikesh Patel, to create an Indian eatery that pulls its inspiration from traditional Indian cuisine, as well as Thai and Persian flavors.
Who would’ve thought that the star of a butcher’s-haven restaurant would be the bird? Brown-sugar-glazed and basted in red pepper oils, four larger-than-life pieces of fried chicken perched atop a mildly sweet waffle pillow of cornbread came out of the kitchen, led by a waft of fiery fried-ness. The Angry Bird at Ritual is a shareable plate diners will not want to share. The spices inside and on the crust of the moist, tender chicken were just hot enough, the corn in the waffle batter brought a fluffy freshness to the mix, and the thinly sliced, lightly pickled cucumbers were a delightful addition of texture and tang. A forkful of all the components dipped into the spiced maple syrup made for one heavenly, sweet and spicy bite.
Ritual opened in June of this year in the space where El Cantina Superior’s classic car could be seen high above the former restaurant’s rooftop. Primary owner and Delicious Concepts CEO Ken Bridge closed the troubled Tex-Mex spot in August of 2015 to rebrand and reopen a brewpub in the same space. Since opening, the restaurant has seen a few iterations of its menu and kitchen management. Currently on its third executive chef — Crash Hethcox — Ritual seems to have finally found its groove.
The crispy whole red snapper at Le Colonial was presented standing up, twisted artistically on a bed of spring salad leaves of arugula, lettuce and baby spinach. A syrupy glaze glistened atop the fish, with confetti-colored bits of red and yellow pepper and green onion accenting the effect. The ca chien Saigon was filleted tableside and the carcass was taken away, which left the crunchy, crispy tail and head to complete the presentation of the fish. The sauce was garlicky, sweet and tangy, and the snapper was cooked to perfection. A whole fried fish in a typical Vietnamese restaurant would more likely than not be doused with nuoc mam pha or nuoc mam cham, a dipping sauce composed of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, garlic and chile sambal. Le Colonial’s take on the sauce for this fish was refreshing and sophisticated, introducing different layers of flavor in each bite.
This 1920s French-Vietnamese colonial-themed restaurant is the fourth one of its kind to open in a major city. Restaurateurs Rick Wahlstedt and Joe King opened the first Le Colonial in Manhattan in 1993. Under the guidance of chef Nicole Routhier, a menu was developed that would reflect authentic Vietnamese cuisine re-imagined for fine dining. When Wahlstedt and King brought the concept to Houston, Routhier was tapped to join the team, cooking alongside chef Dan Nguyen. Together they created a menu that they hoped would capture the eyes, appetites and hearts of Houstonians in the upscale River Oaks District.
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When Killen’s Burgers first opened, I approached it with some trepidation. First there was the pre-opening hype. Hype is a dangerous thing. Counterpoised to the hype were early reports of dry burgers, backed up by unappetizing photos splashed across social media. On my first visit, back in June, I got that mostly sorted out. It’s all a matter of knowing the ropes. At Killen’s, those ropes favor a clientele who favor a little less moo left in their meat.
By the time my first visit rolled around, the staff was asking customers how they’d like their burgers; the house standard is medium, tending toward medium well. That first burger I requested medium rare, and I was met with a gloriously gushing and broadly beefy patty, trimmed out with just the right touches for what may well have been the best burger I’ve had this year.