On the Menu
To say that Koreans like beef is an understatement. To say that Koreans love their beef as much as Texans do is getting closer. South Koreans eat about 20 pounds of beef per person per year, and although that number is much lower than the average U.S. consumption of 60 pounds per person, it's a number that's steadily increasing.
South Korea imports roughly $500 million of American-raised beef every year, and beef consumption in the country is rising by about 30 percent each year, too. Beef is expensive in Korea, as imports usually are, but it's cheaper over here. For this reason alone, Korean food and the Texas landscape pair up well.
There's more to Korean food than just beef, of course, but it's a great jumping-off point for Texans eager to explore a cuisine that's exploding on the national scene. Kimchi — the fermented cabbage that's eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Korea — has been topping dishes from cheese fries to ramen. The fiery red chile paste called gochujang crops up in dishes like the popular Korean braised goat dumplings at Underbelly. And Korean fusion food can be found across Houston in restaurants such as Kobecue and food trucks like Chi'Lantro, Oh My Gogi, Miso Yummy and Coreanos.
But let's start with the basics. Here are a few dishes and drinks to help you build a base for understanding and appreciating Korean food, kicking off with that fermented favorite...
Kimchi is most commonly fermented cabbage — think of a spicy version of sauerkraut if the cabbage weren't quite so shredded — but can actually be made with a variety of other vegetables, such as cucumber and daikon radish. It's Korea's national dish and can be eaten on its own or as an ingredient in everything from soups to fried rice. Kimchi has a pungent odor owing to its fermented nature, but tastes quite different. I find it both sweet and spicy, with a briny note underneath that keeps it from being cloying. The crunch and kick of heat from kimchi are addictive — to me, at least — and I can justify eating far too much in one sitting because it's good for you.
It's not a real Korean meal without banchan, the numerous side dishes of dizzying variety that are either presented along with your main entrees or offered on a help-yourself-style cart/mini-buffet (depending on the restaurant). Banchan is the Korean version of lagniappe in this way: a little something extra. The most common banchan you'll find delivered to your table include kimchi, various namul dishes and jeon (described in more detail below). The namul are my favorite: bean sprouts, radishes, spinach, seaweed and a wealth of other vegetables that have typically been steamed or stir-fried with sesame oil, vinegar, garlic, green onions, soy sauce and chile peppers.
Jeon are proof that "crisper drawer frittatas" existed long before Good Housekeeping and other magazines made them into a thing. Typically served as part of your banchan array, jeon can consist of nearly any meat or vegetable battered in rice flour and thrown into a hot skillet with some eggs. You know those scallion pancakes you like so much at Chinese restaurants? Imagine those pancakes if they contained kimchi or squash or tofu or liver. You never really know what jeon you're going to get with your banchan spread; the surprise is half the fun.
Do you like Sriracha? Meet its bolder cousin, with a robust swagger that comes from fermentation (yes, more fermentation!) of the chile peppers that make up most of the scarlet paste. Along with ganjang — a fermented soy sauce — and a soybean paste called doenjang, gochujang is the most important condiment in Korean cuisine.
Bulgogi is most often referred to as Korean barbecue, although that's simplifying matters a bit. The word "bulgogi" itself just means "grilled meat," and that meat can be anything from chicken to pork — but over here it's almost always beef. The thin slices of beef are marinated in soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, sugar and other spices — not unlike a barbecue sauce — before being placed on a hot griddle. At many Korean restaurants in Houston, such as Seoul Garden, you cook the beef yourself on a grill that's built into your table — so it's your own damn fault if the beef is too well-done. This is also the first of many reasons that it's so fun to go out to eat Korean food with a big group.
See above, but with short ribs. You will find galbi in stew and other dishes, but the way to go is really to cook it yourself, caveman-style, at your own table. What's better than gnawing with friends on juicy, tender ribs you grilled yourselves?
Soju is another reason going out for Korean food can be such a fun time. This is the Korean version of vodka, simply stated. It's made from rice and is slightly sweeter but goes down with the same initial burn. Soju is consumed throughout your meal, and this is where the Korean practice of sequestering large parties into their own separate rooms comes in handy. Loud, raucous dinners are common due in part to the mass quantities of soju imbibed at a meal. And at 20 percent alcohol by volume, you'll find the volume of your own voice shifting after a few glasses, too.
Personally, I view bulgogi as more of a dinnertime affair — I like to linger with friends over the hot grills and cold soju — and dishes like bibimbap as more lunch-friendly. Even then, however, dolsot bibimbap (my favorite kind) requires a little bit of patience to enjoy. This isn't a dish you can rush through. White rice and stir-fried vegetables — the base of any bibimbap dish — are served in a blistering hot stone bowl, which further cooks rice that's touching it until it achieves a delightfully crispy, chewy texture. (Regular bibimbap, it should be noted, is served in a standard bowl and doesn't crisp up your rice.) Once you've left the rice alone long enough to crisp up, stir the whole thing together with gochujang and devour. There's typically an egg yolk on top, which will cook into the dish as you mix it up.
Jjigae is another lunchtime favorite. Like bibimbap, this stew is served boiling hot. The jjigae broth is typically thin and spicy. It can be filled with a variety of ingredients, but my two favorite versions of the stew are kimchi jjigae and sundubu jjigae. The latter, made with soft tofu, is a standard Korean dish and therefore common at Korean restaurants around Houston. This tofu stew typically contains seafood and shellfish, too, which gives the hot broth a sweet, salty kick.
Pescetarians rejoice: Hwe is where it's at. This is basically the Korean version of sashimi, with a few notable differences: The hwe is usually sliced off a fresh, live fish, for one. This means the flesh (flounder and salmon are most commonly found here) retains that almost crunchy texture of super-fresh fish — a texture that most people aren't familiar with if their only contact with raw fish has been through sushi. The bones and other parts of the fish that weren't used for hwe are boiled into a spicy maeuntang soup so that nothing is wasted. And unlike at Japanese restaurants, you'll eat your hwe by dipping the fish into chogochujang (a more sour version of gochujang) and then wrapping it in lettuce leaves (or perilla, if you're at a really legit place). For a full hwe feast in Houston, gather up at least five of your friends and hit Dadami.
Houstonians hold Sunday sacred for brunching.
After the third out-of-towner in a week asked me why Saturday brunch wasn't a "thing" in Houston, I got curious. Once is a blip, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend.
The problem is that — as far as I know — Saturday isn't the traditional brunching day of choice in Houston. Saturdays are our "get shit done" days. We can't afford to fall into a pitcher of mimosas on Saturdays. They're the days of kids' birthday pool parties and errands you couldn't get done during the week and soccer matches and mowing the lawn. During football season, they're also our sit-in-front-of-the-TV-with-friends-and-yell days.
"Tailgating is Saturday brunch," as my friend Lennie Ambrose at Saint Arnold Brewery puts it. "Break out the smoker — or at least some extra cheap hot dogs, a Bloody Mary and a lawn chair in a college parking lot."
The rest of our drunken debauchery and binge eating is reserved for the Lord's Day, naturally. Most of the city's best brunches — like those at Triniti, Quattro and Danton's — can only be found on Sundays. This could be a key to why Houstonians traditionally reserve brunch for Sundays — or, as we like to call them, Sunday Fundays.
First of all, Saturday Funday does not rhyme and sounds ridiculous. Second, the whole point of Sunday Funday is to celebrate the fact that you got shit done on Saturday and are now doing one of two things (or both):
1) enjoying your day off by occupying a patio with your friends until the sun starts to set; and/or
2) recovering from the night before with restorative "breakfast cocktails" and eggs.
Sunday couldn't be a more fitting day for these activities. It's also ideal for the city's large post-church crowd, who can transition their Sunday finest into an elegant meal at Brennan's or Rainbow Lodge. Even when I was growing up, brunch was a Sunday-only routine that went: Sunday school, church, brunch at Rio Ranch, home, football (again, in season), The Simpsons, dinner, bed.
For these reasons, brunch on a Saturday seems suspiciously gimmicky to me. But those on the coasts — and in cities such as Austin, where folks from the coasts have taken over — maintain that Saturday brunch is tradition.
When I ran into Eater National Editor Raphael Brion on a recent Saturday night, he told me he was shocked to learn that Saturday brunch wasn't widely available in Houston. In both his original home base of New York City and his new home base of Austin, Saturday brunch is a given.
"We've always had Saturday brunch," explains Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema, "but fewer take advantage of it. The meal is a restaurateur's ploy to sell you eggs and curdled Hollandaise at elevated prices, but most especially to get you drinking heavily in the afternoon." As suspected.
LA Weekly's Christine Chiao reports that "[i]n L.A., brunch isn't necessarily a must on Saturdays, but there are plenty of restaurants offering the menu in addition to Sunday."
"Just from empirical evidence," Chiao says, "people tend to opt for Saturday brunch to avoid the crush on Sundays." Oh, but the crush of humanity during Sunday brunch is what makes the meal such an occasion! What would brunch at the old La Strada have been without the mad crowds? What would brunch at Saint Genevieve be without the amateur fashion show parading past your table every 15 seconds?
There are restaurants that offer Saturday brunch in Houston (and I'm talking about a full-court-press Saturday brunch, not just breakfast that's served past noon), however. And if the Saturday brunch crowds at places such as Down House, Ouisie's Table and Backstreet Cafe are anything to judge by, the trend may be working its way into our city, too. Even Baba Yega — Montrose's brunching headquarters since 1975 — has expanded its sprawling Sunday brunch into a smaller Saturday service.
Sean Beck, sommelier at Backstreet Cafe and its sister restaurant, Hugo's — where the elaborate Sunday-only brunch buffet is the stuff of legends — notes that there are typically "300 or 400 people who brunch at Backstreet most Saturdays." Regardless, Houston may still be behind the curve when it comes to novel brunch trends.
"The new frontier in New York is everyday brunch," says Sietsema. "In other words, the menu served seven days but still functioning as an alternative to the Walk of Shame."
I still maintain, however, that brunch on Saturdays is an unnatural affair. And at least one person on the West Coast agrees with me.
"Obviously, the only reason folks brunch on Sunday is otherwise they'd never get out of bed after Saturday night," says food critic Hanna Raskin at the Seattle Weekly. "Nobody really wants a crab cake on a sourdough biscuit."
Pies and Pints
The 5 best bar pizzas in Houston.
Responsible drinking is important. It's imperative to always have a designated driver, know when you've had a few too many and make sure you're at a bar that bakes a good pizza to soak up that premium booze.
Fortunately, crave-worthy post-drink pies abound in this city. And although the line between bars that offer pizza and restaurants that offer drinks is nebulous, with places like Crisp and Witchcraft Tavern serving up great pizza with standout craft beer menus, this list is made up of places that serve up serious food offerings wherever you go for a stiff drink.
Because when you've had a few too many, forks are just too fussy and Pizza Hut is a no-go because there are plenty of better-than-they-have-to-be pizzas baked up fresh at your favorite bar.
While this Montrose hangout is relaxed and laid-back, its food is anything but. This spot really blurs the line between bar and restaurant with Rishi Singh upping his menu, from winter's bone-warming curries to this impressive lineup of pizza made to suit spring and summer herbs and attitudes.
The return of a revamped pizza menu has caused much excitement after a hiatus forced upon this little Fairview favorite by city permitting problems, which temporarily shut down the major pizza operation. The standout for me, and one that I'm starting to crave as I write this, is the Dutchie, an addictive pie made of Sriracha, aleppo, fresh basil and toasted ribbons of pancetta. Also, the atmosphere is hard to beat on the patio or in the red-hued interior.
Kenneally's Irish Pub
Don't question the authenticity of this Irish hot spot; just give in to the melted cheese that melds into the crispy thin crust so well, you'll think you're having a pancake. It also won't make you feel guilty in the morning when you realize you never did share a slice with anyone else. While the pizza here is a thin-crust-lover's dream, the bar isn't known for its diverse or particularly fresh ingredients, so simple is best when ordering your pie here. But it's definitely the best pub pie I've had in town — and the only one that offers corned beef as a topping.
Over in the Galleria area is a red-tile-roof patio bar with live music most nights of the week and well-mixed cocktails that are enough to lure almost anyone into a Loop 610 traffic jam they won't soon regret; however, the pie alone is worth the drive, too.
The standouts here are the Steakhouse with gorgonzola dressing, skirt steak and bleu cheese crumbles; the Pina Picante Spicy with Tabasco-infused pineapple, barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda and cilantro; and last, the Capone's with prosciutto, d'Anjou pears, drunken goat cheese and a drizzle of white truffle oil — my favorite of the bunch. Ranging from $12 to $18, these are on the higher end of the pie price scale, but the menu is the most extensive and diverse I've seen at a bar. And the live music is a definite pairings winner.
Considering that this absinthe bar is next door to the owner's other spot, Bowl, bar patrons will be able to enjoy the fresh salad toppings baked into their pie late at night. Artist-inspired names and a satisfying hand-tossed crust that isn't too bready will fill you up after one slice or two. All of the pizzas are made with different flavor profiles in mind; from the pineapple and smoked Gouda on the Renoir to the salami and prosciutto with olives on the Gaudi, there's a pie on the menu for any one of your friends. At $11 a pizza, you'll be able to sip on more than one Czech-prepared glass of Pernod and munch on a few rounds of pies.
Pi Pizza Truck
I'm going to get called out for including this in a bar pizza roundup, but I'm willing to read the scathing comments on here because this food truck delivers pizzas to bars all over the Inner Loop — primarily Montrose — that I'd drive out of my way for. It's technically there for you at most bars you frequent, and it doesn't merely "do the job"; this spot impresses even the most discerning pie critics.
For those who complain that the prices are too high for a food truck: Lamb isn't cheap, dudes. And neither is the creativity behind the menu with options like the Herbivoracious for vegetarians, which is topped with roasted garlic oil, almond pieces, lemon zest and chile flakes. My personal favorite is the Arabian Nights with pistachio and mint pesto, spiced lamb, feta and tzatziki sauce. Plus, the humor they inject into their menu and attitudes is hard to beat and makes them the cool "older brother [who] smokes and drives a Camaro."
Openings and Closings
Pico's Mex-Mex is moving on up.
If this week's roundup of openings and closings had a theme song, it would be "Movin' on Up" from The Jeffersons.
Pico's Mex-Mex is doing just that by vacating its old Bellaire location to move into the recently closed Maggie Rita's at Richmond and Kirby. The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook broke the news last week that owner Arnaldo Richards will open the new-and-improved Pico's in about eight months.
Richards had long been looking to move his popular Mexican restaurant inside the Loop, but our own tipster tells us that the old Bellaire location won't be abandoned completely; Richards will likely use the space to house the massive Pico's catering operations.
Cook also broke the news that Karanchos — the Channelview taco trailer that recently topped our list of Houston's ten best tacos — is opening a second location in Seabrook.
Last week we reported on the news that Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta of the newly formed Clumsy Butcher restaurant group would be opening a tequila bar at 310 Main. But if you paid attention to that post, you should have noticed an additional blind item: a dessert and coffee cafe that's slated for the old Cielo space at 300 Main.
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Elsewhere downtown, the second location of Korean fusion restaurant Kobecue is now open at 1001 Texas. The old tenant, Napoli Ristorante Italiano, has opened in a swank new spot at Bayou Place next to new wine bar The Wine Cellar — both at 540 Texas. And another downtown watering hole is now open: Bad News Bar at 308 Main, which served its first drinks two weeks ago.
Swamplot reports that beloved south Houston diner Frank's Grill is moving — but not very far from its old Telephone Road digs. The grill is "closing and moving south about a tenth of a mile," says the real estate Web site, into "the recently completed strip center on Telephone and Fairway."
The Web site also reports additional Telephone Road activity closer to town. A new ice cream shop is moving into the Tlaquepaque Market next to Bohemeo's and Kanomwan: Scoops, which is replacing a nail salon at 724 Telephone.
And in a final bit of sweet news, it's been confirmed that the first Inner Loop location of Dunkin' Donuts is headed into the old Arby's spot at Shepherd and Fairview. An additional 15 locations of the chain are planned for the greater Houston area.