Keep It Casual: Houston Summer’s Best Food and Drink Is All About the Chill Factor.

Chef Ryan Hildebrand shifts gears with the casual new eatery FM Kitchen and Bar.
Chef Ryan Hildebrand shifts gears with the casual new eatery FM Kitchen and Bar. Photo by Troy Fields
Your cutoffs are drenched and the shirt on your back is Rorschached with a sweat blob the shape of California. The sun is sinking in the sky, the throat dry, stomach doing its groaning thing. You aren’t going home to change or shower, but forging ahead. You need beer, a cocktail, a plate of food, maybe a friend or two, a seat at a picnic table where nobody will judge you for the fact that the pits of your shirt won’t dry out.

Such is the summer, and the best new spots in Houston right now are quite aware of your need to keep casual and play it cool. In fact, the best new places to eat this summer are actually just awesome bars, albeit bars with the added bonus of chef-driven food and, in some cases, a full-on beer garden.

In terms of trends, this isn’t solely a Houston phenomenon. Beer gardens have been popping up in droves from New York to San Francisco for years now, but Houston does have a deeper tradition of the beloved porch-hang than most cities, with its rich history of neighborhood icehouses, though it’s a legacy that’s steadily changing as the city’s demographics do. In 1998, The New York Times reported on the dwindling icehouses of Houston, along with a new customer base that included “a diverse group from construction workers to downtown office workers with cellular phones.”

By 2014, local food writer Nicholas Hall wrote of the modern icehouse: “Mutability is really its defining character” — the ability, that is, to change, to bring the neighborhoods what they want. In 2017 that seems to still ring true, but now it appears to be bleeding over into Houston’s dining scene more than ever before.

“Even if you’re talking about people with money to spend in Houston,” chef Ryan Hildebrand of newly opened FM Kitchen and Bar says, “it’s still oil money. It’s people who might do a high-end steakhouse a couple nights a week, but the rest of the time they want this.”

This being a casual affair, preferably outdoors.

“I’m not sure it’s necessarily a trend,” Better Luck Tomorrow’s Terry Williams even notes. “We’ve had places like Little Woodrow’s doing that sort of thing for a while. I think a lot of spots doing that have just opened all at once.”

Even so, nothing is more perfectly suited for summer dining and drinking than these five new spots, where you can relax inside or out.

click to enlarge
FM Kitchen and Bar’s patio is kid and dog friendly.
Photo by Troy Fields
FM Kitchen and Bar, 1112 Shepherd

There’s been a big shift to more casual dining,” Hildebrand says. It’s a sunny, breezy day in his brand new restaurant, FM Kitchen and Bar in the Heights. In fact, it’s opening day, but the chef is calm and collected. A woman and her two young kids trickle in, looking for lunch. “You can see it all over America. In New York, and definitely here in Houston.”

Hildebrand closed his fine dining establishment, Triniti, in January 2017 to the shock of the dining community and the restaurant’s regulars, but if there’s any inkling of regret, it remains rather untraceable when he speaks of its closure, shrugging it off with a smile and a kitchen towel slung over his shoulder. He has on an FM Kitchen apron with an FM Kitchen shirt underneath, no button-up required.

Staff buzzes about him. A designer takes measurements for the bocce ball rules signage. A chalkboard notes a few specials. The menu boasts burgers, fried chicken, Salisbury pork chops. 
click to enlarge
Smoked pork ribs are an early favorite among guests of FM.
Photo by Troy Fields

It’s a far cry from the tasting menu at Triniti, a spot that he in fact first turned to New York for inspiration in opening. Chef Daniel Humm’s highly acclaimed 11 Madison Park and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen were two major influences. There weren’t really restaurants in Houston doing that sort of seasonal-tasting, menu-driven dining at the time, he says. “In a way, we were one of the first spots like that to open. When we opened it was just Tony’s and Mark’s. Then within 12 months came Underbelly, Pax, The Pass, Uchi. They just kept coming.”

They still do — high-end dim sum eatery Yauatcha opened just last month in The Galleria, and an upscale Israeli steakhouse, Doris Metropolitan, was announced for the Triniti space itself — and Hildebrand is quick to point out that Triniti’s closure may not be the harbinger of doom that some people want it to be, emblematic of some fine dining bubble that’s about to burst.

“Honestly, we got hit hard by that road construction on Shepherd,” he says. “It was bad. Once you’re off people’s radar, that’s it.”

Hildebrand decided to turn his attention to the FM Kitchen space, which his business partner owns, and bank on a more casual concept that’s family friendly. “Even at these Michelin-starred places in New York you’re now seeing chefs leave to go make pasta or something,” he jokes.

That doesn’t mean preparing a menu of comfort food favorites isn’t as difficult as busting out a nightly tasting menu. “People have ideas about what a burger or fried chicken is. It has to be executed perfectly. There’s a lot that goes into prep.”

His burger actually garnered attention during its debut on Triniti’s bar menu, and in fact, Hildebrand had originally planned to open a burger restaurant inspired by Shake Shack, but realized that FM could allow for much more. The menu reads like the best hits for day drinking accompaniments — queso, frito pie, tots — and the bar itself is ready for high volume with both beer and cocktails on tap, and affordable wines at $7 a glass.

The space is a former graphic shop that was more recently known as a graffiti landmark. Colorful bricks salvaged from the building’s previous life line the entrance and walkways. There’s a graffiti mural in the yard. Another heading to the bar area, and the restaurant space itself has huge warehouse-style windows that roll open, which give it all an open, laid-back feel.

FM Kitchen will likely be known for much more than its burgers. Wonky Power Records is booking live music and DJs for the weekends. Even now, a toddler makes a break for the yard, aiming for the cornhole beanbags.

“I look at it this way,” Hildebrand says. “I live in Oak Forest. I have kids. There are a lot of people who want to bring the family and enjoy some drinks and food. It’s a thing now.”

If you’re not into that family thing, there’s still another gem to look forward to here.

“The smoked ribs are an unexpected hit,” Hildebrand says.

click to enlarge
The Pit Room uses its leftover brisket lard to make exceptional flour tortillas.
Photo by Troy Fields
The Patio on Richmond,1205 Richmond

Across town in Montrose, it’s a scorcher of an afternoon, but Michael Sambrooks and Bram Tripp stand in the sun, overlooking construction that’s set to fully connect the covered seating areas of their barbecue eatery, The Pit Room, and watering hole, The Patio, by the end of May.

Sambrooks and Tripp originally met each other while working at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette in River Oaks. Sambrooks then went on to work for Goode Co., while Tripp worked at Coltivare, but the duo jumped into the barbecue business eight months ago, after purchasing the Patio on Richmond and subsequently opening their adjacent restaurant.

“We just went for it,” Tripp says, noting that they had time to work on their barbecue due to delays with the restaurant’s opening.

Today, crowds line up for the incredible chicken, pork and brisket tacos on flour tortillas, made in-house with the restaurant’s own leftover brisket lard, which does sound like one very delicious way to eliminate food waste. The tacos are a dish that’s been setting it apart from other barbecue outposts in town, among Houston’s food-obsessors anyway. The chicken taco is particularly good, and comes smothered in thick, griddled cheese and topped with soft roasted garlic. If this is where barbecue and tacos are heading in Houston, it’s a very good indication of things to come, a beautiful marriage.

The same can be said for the union of barbecue restaurant and open air bar. In terms of the perfect porch for summer, this is as good as it gets. There are no pretenses here, just great barbecue, weekend crawfish boils (while the season lasts) and cold beer.

“And fireball,” Tripp says. “We sell a ton of fireball.”

click to enlarge
Michael Sambrooks and Bram Tripp relax at their Montrose bar, The Patio.
Photo by Troy Fields
Soon the entire bar will be shaded by a new metal overhang extending from the bar’s wall, and there will be new sleek seating instead of the old picnic tables. The new seating area will likely help with the daily lunch crowds. On the weekends, the duo notes, the people come in waves. It may be 3 p.m. and they’re getting a rush.

“We sell something like 150 two-meat dinner plates a day,” Sambrooks says. Despite the tacos’ acclaim, the huge beef ribs — which the pair admit they’re most proud of — and brisket and sausage remain the best sellers, a testament to the duo’s devotion to the pit and craft. They’ve drawn heavy influence from Austin barbecue meccas, including Franklin’s and Valentina’s, and obviously spend long hours at the restaurant trying to perfect consistency on the meats coming off their two barrel-style offset smokers, which is one of the hardest parts of running a good barbecue establishment. Long nights have been common, and in the beginning so was falling asleep at the restaurant.

“We even had a cot,” Sambrooks says. “I slept in my car a few times.”

Apparently the two are into it, though. “At the Houston Barbecue Fest, we were part of that core group that spent the night out there. It was fun.”

During that festival, the Pit Room smoked Iberico pigs and cabrito on a custom-built rig. They’ll smoke a whole pig at The Patio on May 28, when the bar’s renovations will finally make their debut. The all-day party will also feature free crawfish, live music and drink specials. Furthermore, those incredible housemade flour tortillas will be on hand for building your own free pork tacos, and the bar will have plenty of shade, perfect for taking a snooze if needed.
click to enlarge
King’s BierHaus is a rowdy new dining compound on the outskirts of the Heights.
Photo by Troy Fields
King’s BierHaus, 2044 East T.C. Jester

It’s not every day you’ll hear “Margaritaville” played on an accordion by a man in lederhosen, but at King’s BierHaus in the Heights — on the edge of Garden Oaks — such is the norm. There is something almost Epcot-esque about the place, an over-the-top beer hall feel, female servers in satiny, revealing dirndls. People do come here to get rowdy. Every few minutes a tiki toki chant erupts from the beer hall. “Oi, oi, oi,” the people yell. Adults wear birthday hats, while kids silently attend to iPads while swinging in one of a handful of hanging chairs out back.

It’s quite the scene, and a far cry from when owner Phillip Sitter was selling cars to get himself through LSU, back when his father, Hans, was making the transition from selling bratwurst at a carwash in Pearland to opening one of the area’s largest dining attractions, King’s BierGarten, a veritable castle with its own Quasimoto hanging off the side.
click to enlarge
The Weinstephaner Vitus and a beer pretzel hit the spot.
Photo by Troy Fields
The new King’s BierHaus is home to what Sitter calls a “50-50 experience.” Revelers can get rowdy inside the boisterous beer hall or families can head out back to the garden, where hammocks, yard games and picnic-style seating lend themselves to the sunset.

The new spot, like its Pearland predecessor, is inspired by the beer halls you’ll find in Vienna and Munich, Sitter says, including the strangely modern lederhosen adorning all the male servers.

“It’s actually a big thing in Germany now,” Sitter says. “They’re huge into denim lederhosen, so that’s what we’ve been ordering.”

What else does a modernized beer garden entail? Hard-to-find monastery brews, a huge whiskey and schnapps list, and craft cocktails, one of which, the rather Cosmo-like 99 Luftballoons, actually comes with balloons attached for those already wearing party hats.

Despite all the trappings of a modernized beer mecca, including a demographic that does include more of a young family following, King’s BierHaus isn’t trying to break the mold really. “I mean you go to all these outdoor spots that have food trucks now. Or Yardhouse has sushi, which is kind of weird. We’re not trying to do that,” Sitter says.

Here, you’ll find food that is definitely not chef-driven, but relies on the classics: sausages that snap, soft pretzels sourced from Slough Dough, served with a dreamy beer and bacon cheese dip. Many recipes come from Sitter’s oma — including the goulash and fried chicken. “It’s not like American fried chicken. It’s cooked in a vegetable stew, and then gets schnitzel breading and is lightly fried, about 25 seconds. It’s so good.”

People seem to already know this though, because the BierHaus gets packed out already, and this likely isn’t to let up anytime soon.

“Usually summer is our busiest with sales,” Sitter says of the Pearland location, and he anticipates the same in the Heights. “We’re really event-oriented too.”

In June, that will mean a Beer Fest, a weekend built around educating guests on German beers on the cheap ($1 and $2 drafts will likely be the norm, as will a trip to Austria giveaway). On top of Oktoberfest and a WurstFest, the new beer garden will also host a Christmas market for families this year that will entail over 200,000 pounds of snow.

Until then, Sitter suggests coming in for a Weinstephaner Vitus, the best-selling beer in the world, a hefeweizen that he says pleases beer nerds and neophytes alike, thanks to its being “so smooth,” along with an American Sampler plate to share with your friends — because this is so not the type of place you’d want to go to alone.

click to enlarge
The Early Start and the Salty Cat at BLT.
Photo by Troy Fields
Better Luck Tomorrow, 544 Yale

Better Luck Tomorrow, on the other hand, has the perfect small bar for ducking in alone. It’s 4 p.m. on a nearly 90-degree day and I’m slouched over The Early Start, an aquavit and sorrel cocktail, with herbaceous notes of carraway and lemon. It rather tastes like a frothy absinthe, to be honest, and I can’t imagine a better drink to kick off summer.

At this new bar in the dry Heights, you’ll have to hand over your license and become a member. You’ll want to anyway. This is the newest bar from Anvil founder Bobby Heugel, and a cast of his stellar employees — operations director Terry Williams, bartender Alex Negranza, and chef Matt Boesen actually run the place. It’s a neighborhood joint certainly, but definitely worth a trip for craft cocktails, wine, beer and a menu of bar snacks that’s been co-created by a James Beard award winner, co-owner Justin Yu.

Make no mistake about it though. This is not a restaurant. It’s a 3:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. drinking destination, seven days a week. Though a few babies are squirming in the arms of my fellow bargoers on the day I enjoy a drink or two under the neon lights, which cast their fanciful squiggly colors onto the back bar’s glassware, there are in fact plans to implement a 21 and older policy here in the coming weeks.
“This is the place where you can go when you want to escape,” Williams says.

But mostly it is the place you can go when you want to drink rosé. “We purchased what we thought was a three-month supply of it, and have gone through it in a month,” Williams notes.

click to enlarge
BLT’s glorified patty melt, The Party Melt, is Houston’s it sandwich.
Photo by Troy Fields
The rosé factor is rather stupefying, considering this bar comes from an extremely high-profile cocktail group, with establishments including Anvil, Tongue Cut Sparrow, Pastry War and Nightingale Room. That’s until you realize who is behind the rosé — sommelier Justin Vann, whose wine list for Public Services won Best of Houston honors in 2016. His list at BLT is short and mighty, perhaps the best, albeit most concise, selection in town this summer, especially considering the pairings available. Australia’s Elderton shiraz, perfect with the Party Melt — one of Yu’s favorite dishes on the menu, a salty, cheesy, oniony and crisp-in-parts patty melt that’s a must order — as well as a Tuscan Stew. A muscadet lends itself to the Not a Pizza, a scallion pancake topped with burrata, spring onions and anchovy-garlic bagna cauda — a warm dip, not to be confused with the honors your overachieving sibling graduated college with. And the rosé?

“It goes with everything,” Williams says.

BLT is a little bar that can actually fit four bartenders in the sticks if needed and 200 guests at capacity. That’s thanks to covered outdoor seating, which has been packed to the gills every day of the week.
If you take to the outdoors here, one refreshing libation to try is the Salty Cat, a riff on a Salty Dog that embraces the nation’s unflinching farm-to-glass trend. Pretty impressive for a city that doesn’t really have seasons. The drink is basically a Salty Dog that’s met its match in a salted plum soda. The bar relies on the kitchen, helmed by Boesen and two cooks, to create the salted fruit used in this drink, whether it’s pickled plum or strawberry.

Or just go for the rosé. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Williams says. “It’s delicious. I’ll definitely be drinking it long after it’s popular.”
click to enlarge
There are numerous ways to chill at Heights Bier Garten.
Photo by Troy Fields
Heights Bier Garten, 1433 North Shepherd

Back on the Shepherd strip, in a former used car lot, is a new compound where you really should go for the ice. It’s not an icehouse. It’s Heights Bier Garten, the newest drinking establishment from the Kirby Group, masterminds of Midtown cocktail hub Wooster’s Garden.

The new bar is actually two bars in one: Heights Bier Garden, which offers more than 90 beers and wine on tap, and Worcester’s Annex, which serves cocktails and will soon roll out a Dewey decimal system for its ever-growing booze selection. In between the two bars resides the reason people have been coming out in droves to the weeks-old venue: an inviting patio, with hanging chairs and picnic tables shaded by umbrellas and awnings.

But for serious cocktail geeks, the main reason to show up is the Clinebell, a machine that cranks out two giant blocks of ice, which the bar staff then uses a small crane to lift from their frozen lair, before cutting them down into perfectly sized crystal clear servings, just a touch smaller than a Rubik’s cube, via chainsaw and table saw.

Needless to say, whiskey drinkers will find a perfect pour here.

click to enlarge
Claim a hammock and relax with a low proof, watermelon-forward Fino Fresca.
Photo by Troy Fields
While HBG does cater to beer drinkers — day drinkers can stick with a lighter Stiegl Radler, a refreshing grapefruit beer with an ABV of 2.5 percent — the cocktail program stands out as one of the most approachable in the city. Iterations of Pimm’s cups and mules are in store, as well as plays on Old-Fashioneds; housemade Fireball; and a smoky Bloody Mary. The Belini Fizz upgrades the classic peachy brunch drink with gin, allspice, ginger and egg white, and in fact, the bar does offer food, including brunch, with one really incredible fried chicken biscuit from chef Brandon Silva, though it’s the snappy sausage — made at a temperature-controlled 38.5 degrees — that’s the talk of the food menu.

If you aren’t into hipster ice, and aren’t the type to throw prayer hand emojis at the ethereal light pouring in from Worcester’s Annex via skylight windows onto your lemon drop shot, there is again, always, the
promise of a near-perfect ice cold beer. The kegs here are stored in three separate coolers, each kept at a different temperature to lend the correct “chill” for everything from stouts to IPAs. Chill, but not the chillest thing about Heights Bier Garten.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gwendolyn Knapp is the food editor at the Houston Press. A sixth-generation Floridian, she is still torn as to whether she likes smoked fish dip or queso better.