In a recent Food & Wine article, restaurant editor Kate Krader called Houston "America's newest capital of great food" and listed 10 of her favorite dishes/drinks in our city to underscore her point. They included the Vietnamese Wagyu meatballs at Underbelly, the blackstrap rum daiquiri at Charity Saloon and the fatty brisket at Gatlin's BBQ.
The list was the source of much discussion in Houston food circles, and even inspired at least one local blogger -- Albert Nurick -- to write a 10 best dishes list of his own. "My approach focuses on the classics," wrote Nurick. "I'm going for the timeless dishes that describe the dining scene in Houston." To that end, Nurick's list featured selections such as the fajitas at the original Ninfa's on Navigation, chicken and waffles from the Breakfast Klub and the chocolate souffle from Tony's.
While trying to decide what my final blog posts for Eating...Our Words would be before my departure tomorrow, I considered the fact that I won't be around this year for the 100 Favorite Dishes countdown nor for the annual Best of Houston® issue in September. Both are excellent means of recognizing restaurants that may not be the hottest, youngest, newest things in town but are still vital components of our city's dining scene.
So I decided to take my inspiration from Krader, Nurick and all of the other people who chimed in on Twitter while discussing the Food & Wine article last week and write a 10 Best Dishes list of my own. Sort of.
The dishes below are my 10 favorites in Houston -- the ones I'd drag friends and family to eat because they have to try just one bite, the ones I'd take out-of-towners to eat because I like what they say about my city, the ones that I seek out myself when I'm in need of comfort or just a damn good meal.
Honorable mention: foie gras breakfast at Triniti; smoked salmon with "everything" chips at Provisions; menudo at La Mexicana; xiao long bao at Fu Fu Cafe; egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria; lobster roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches; fried chicken at Haven; boudin kolaches at Shipley's and chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven; poisson cru at Cove; creme brulee bread pudding at Killen's; tuna tostadas at La Fisheria; and the yogi thali at Pondicheri.
10. The Shire at Hobbit Cafe
The Hobbit Cafe goes hand-in-hand with some of my best memories: long lunches with my mother in its old Shepherd location with the sprawling oak trees, the one-two punch of a sandwich at Hobbit followed by hours of reading inside the nearby (and now closed) Alabama Bookstop, a first date with a handsome surfer before a trip to the Contemporary Arts Museum.
The Hobbit Cafe has survived where most other Houston restaurants would not. It was a stretch to begin with, opening a vegetarian-friendly cafe with a Tolkien theme in 1972 -- first called "The Hobbit Hole," a name I can't quit calling it even today -- then moving from its long-established location on Shepherd after its red brick building was sold to new owners. That this quirky, vegetable-focused cafe filled with life-size Gollum figurines and witchy-looking carved chairs should survive all this time is a testament to the Hobbit itself and to the loyal Houstonians who kept it alive. Chances are that if you're a fan of the Hobbit Cafe, I can count you as a kindred spirit.
The Shire has alternated with two other sandwiches over the years as my "favorite" -- the Strider and the Thorin Oakenshield being the alternates -- due to the tangy, homemade tabouli on a bed of musky alfalfa sprouts with thick slices of fresh tomatoes on top. In keeping with Hobbit's tradition of serving comically oversized sandwiches, you don't just get a few slices of avocado on top, either -- you get a whole avocado. The Hobbit Cafe is where I go when I want a relatively healthy meal, cheerful service, a lush patio, a full belly and a cold beer (the craft-heavy list is one of the best in town).
9. Roasted cauliflower at Roost
If I had unlimited time and resources, I would probably eat at Roost once or twice a week. I can't seem to get tired of chef/owner Kevin Naderi's constantly shifting seasonal menu, and I love enjoying Roost's food inside the casual, cute, low-slung bistro with its clapboard-and-old-shutter-lined walls. Roost is every bit the low-key neighborhood cafe although its food is anything but.
The melting pot menu pulls influences from all over Houston and the world, mixing Texas-produced ingredients and locally-made foodstuffs with Vietnamese, Persian, French, Cajun, Japanese and other flavors. The short menu is also surprisingly vegetable-focused, with the roasted cauliflower as a personal favorite. The dish is also a favorite with nearly everyone who eats here, and as such is one of the few constants on the menu.
Roost's cauliflower gets a dual treatment of being roasted and fried, then piled into a satiny miso broth that coats each buttery chunk of cauliflower with a rich, salty, earthy sheen. Delicate flakes of bonito that dance across the top and provide a briny bite while crunchy pine nuts and bright slivers of green onion that provide a final, buoyant boost to the whole dish.
8. Ten spice chicken wings at Bismillah Cafe
Bismillah Cafe is not your average chaat spot -- a casual cafe where one traditionally finds savory South Asian snacks like dahi puri and samosas. You'll find those here, but you'll also find a far broader and deeper menu than nearly any other offered in Houston's Mahatma Gandhi District.
It's a menu filled with chargrilled burgers, spicy chicken wings and homemade pizzas. Not your standard chaat dishes, by any stretch of the imagination, but ones that appeal to a wider range of customers as a result. For this reason, Bismillah is also that rare restaurant that caters to the two opposite ends of a spectrum: neophytes who need a familiar jumping-off point into South Asian cuisine and thrill seekers who are constantly in search of the next new thing.
For an extra shock to the system, I like to add a side of fries coated with Moghul's signature ten-spice blend to my bun kebab for an extra $2. Moghul -- who goes by "Inam" and breaks into a maddening Cheshire cat grin when you ask him about his special recipes -- won't reveal any of the ten spices that go into his "ten chicken" or "ten fries" or "ten chicken wings," but trying to coax out the individual flavors from the pleasant overall burn is half the fun of eating here.
The motto at Bismillah Cafe is simple: "If you can take the heat, we can dish it out." Onwner Inam Moghul will adjust the heat levels if you ask, but he won't reveal the 10 spices that go into his signature "ten spice" blend, which coats everything from his chicken sandwiches and tater tots to my favorite, the chicken wings. All you need to know is that the result is a blazingly, daringly hot blend that mashes up an American favorite with a Pakistani flare.
7. Crawfish pho at LA Crawfish
To eat at LA Crawfish is to experience a microcosm of Houston's great bounty of ethnic cuisines and its friendly, energetic, welcoming charm. Cozy up to the table next to you and start a conversation; let a stranger who knows a trick show you the best way to crack into a king crab leg; spot a few friends across the food court and form a super-table to enjoy your bounty together. This is the kind of dining that LA Crawfish encourages.
It also offers a far wider variety of food than just crawfish. Here, American and Cajun and Vietnamese and Chinese and even Thai all flow together in one jumble of LA Crawfish-brand cuisine. It's as natural a development as Malaysian cuisine, in which the southeast Asian country functions as a crossroads among Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and more and has adopted all the best foods from each culture over the years.
Houston functions in much the same way these days, and second-generation immigrants like the young faces who run LA Crawfish think nothing of co-opting a Chinese five-spice blend or Thai tamarind sauce for their Hong Kong-style crispy chicken wings, or of putting Cajun andouille sausage and crawfish tails into pho.
If regular pho can be compared to a dark roux, thick with the complex, jostling flavors of a handful of various spices -- musky cloves and bitter anise and briny fish sauce -- the crawfish pho broth is its blond sister. It's subtle and graceful, a delicate broth to match the delicate seafood inside. The sweet tail meat of the crawfish is enhanced instead of overshadowed, as it absolutely would be in a heavier, beefier broth. Coins of andouille sausage bobbing in the broth serve to underscore this flavor, the pork adding its own zip of vivid spice while still keeping things light.
I am convinced that this crawfish pho is one of an increasing number of reasons I can never leave Houston. Would I ever be able to find this again anywhere else? Even re-create it at home? Unlikely. I could definitely replicate the boiled crawfish, but never the pho.
6. Snapper al cilantro at Teotihuacan
It's easy to dismiss the bright pink Teotihuacan as just another Heights area Tex-Mex place from the outside. But inside is one of the city's greatest treasures: Teo's wonderful snapper al cilantro. Huachinango al cilantro -- in fact, just huachinango (red snapper) itself -- is a very popular dish in the coastal areas of Mexico, the snapper itself is commonly seen in preparations like huachinango a la veracruzana. And while this vaguely Provençal dish is good, it's the version in a creamy, tangy cilantro sauce that captured my heart many years ago.
It's the only thing I even order at Teotihuacan, even though the rest of its food is good too (grilled shrimp and El Pastor, a plate of amazing short ribs for only $10). This is an extreme rarity for me, especially in this profession. And that's how great the snapper is.
The egg-battered fish is always cooked to a nice medium well, never overdone, and covered in a butter-based sauce that's slightly tart from a generous amount of lemon juice and white wine. Those who hate the "soapy" taste of cilantro won't find it here, where the sauce takes that edge off the herb and instead enhances its sweet, vegetal flavor. A few pieces of fish and sauce tucked inside one of Teo's freshly-made flour tortillas, and you might never order anything else here again either.
5. Enchiladas a la Taylor at Spanish Village
Spanish Village has a long and complex history, as tends to happen when a restaurant is more than 50 years old. Houston used to have two Spanish Village restaurants, born of a feud that lasted for years -- one at 4811 Lillian and one at 4720 Almeda. The Christmas-light-covered Almeda location eventually outlasted the Lillian location and is the only remaining Spanish Village today, serving what Robb Walsh once called "vintage Tex-Mex at its finest."
The enchiladas a la Taylor are the best example of that vintage Tex-Mex, topped with plenty of chile con carne, chili gravy and raw white onions, while the margaritas and their signature dagger-like ice shards remain the stuff of Houston legend.
The rambling, papel picado-strung Spanish Village evokes everything people love about Tex-Mex, everything we find comfort in about the cuisine: a sprawling but cozy set of dining rooms that reminds you of your aunt's house at Christmas with all the cousins and the noise and family photos and the tacky colored lights running from room to room; gooey cheese that wraps your stomach and your heart in warmth (and perhaps cholesterol, but who cares?); simply constructed guacamole salad without any fuss or pomp, served with idiosyncratic bits of carrot and celery stuck on top; a hot plate of enchiladas with nothing else but ground beef, plenty of cheese and white onions telling you that even if everything else in the world is in a state of disarray and chaos, this one thing will always be here and always be the same and you'll be okay.
4. Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong
Since I first visited Thanh Phuong in July 2011, the little family-run Vietnamese restaurant in Pearland that specializes in Texas game meat has enjoyed a wave of success. Chris Shepherd staged there before opening Underbelly, learning Vietnamese tips and techniques that he's employing deftly at his "Mutt City" restaurant that explores Houston's many different ethnic cuisines in blended dishes such as his Vietnamese-style meatballs with fish sauce. You can see the influence of such dishes as Thanh Phuong's addictive caramelized fish sauce wings in the Vietnamese chicken wings at The Hay Merchant, the craft beer bar that adjoins Underbelly.
But for as much as I love Thanh Phuong's own caramelized fish sauce chicken wings, it's the herb-laced pile of ribbon-thin deer carpaccio that is the most intriguing and delicious Texan-Vietnamese hybrid on the menu. Thanh Phuong's venison carpaccio makes excellent use of the soft, ruddy deer meat. The thin, opaque ribbons of deer are marinated in citrus juices and pungent fish sauce, served with strings of red onion and shallot woven throughout and liberally doused with crushed peanuts for a sweet, nutty crunch that plays off the sweet venison.
There's nothing new about using game meat in Vietnamese cuisine, but it's hard to find even in Vietnamese-heavy Houston. And because venison is one of the game meats that so many Texans grow up eating, it's fun to see it in a different capacity than simply backstrap or deer sausage.
3. Smoked beef leg with aspic at Oxheart
You don't come to Oxheart for a steak dinner and a nice bottle of Cab. You come for an experience - and only you can determine whether or not that experience is ultimately worth it. This is what New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells meant when he recently wrote that Oxheart is "one of the growing number of places around the country that are rearranging our notions of what fine dining means."
Oxheart is not simply one of the best restaurants in the city, but also one of the most distinctly Houstonian. It challenges people -- both within and without -- to reconsider the way they view our rapidly-growing city, or simply the way they view sunflower seeds or tomatoes. It takes all comers with an egalitarian attitude, and offers civility and culture in an unexpected setting. It's stubbornly idiosyncratic and committed to a vision all its own. There's sprawl here, too, but in the extended rhythm of a seven-course meal instead of the physical space itself, which is all whitewashed walls and tall, airy ceilings.
My favorite dish to come out of my visits at Oxheart is one that challenged me the most: cubed beef under a large, jiggly coin of aspic. I've always viewed aspic warily, noting with disdain that there's a reason the consomme-based gelatin hasn't been a prominent dish since before I was born. But you could very well be witnessing the rebirth of aspic at Oxheart right now, thanks to a dish of smoked beef leg and kombu aspic that's currently showing on the $79 tasting menu.
The tiny cubes of cold-smoked beef are served tartare-style, except that there's no mustard or raw eggs to be found here. Instead, the sweet-hot spike of mustard is replaced with a scattering of brightly flavored Vietnamese herbs and vegetables: basil, rau ram, cucumber. Acid comes courtesy of lime juice, and all of it is bound up in a crystal-clear aspic with a final sea-sweet, briny note of kelp from that kombu. It's a truly masterful display of how to combine so many disparate influences into one dish, elevating each one in turn and leaving the diner gobsmacked by it all.
2. Barbacoa at Gerardo's
No list of Houston dishes would be complete without tacos or barbecue, right? Personally, my favorite barbecue comes from my dad's smoker and nothing -- I mean nothing -- in Houston can touch it. He's getting a new custom smoker delivered this weekend and I am already itching for him to get it good and seasoned.
As good as my dad is, though, he draws the line at smoking entire cow heads. It's just too messy and too much work (and my mother probably wouldn't allow it). That's where Gerardo's comes in -- because that's where true barbacoa comes from. Almost every taco truck and restaurant that serves barbacoa is buying pre-cut beef cheeks and stewing them down. Not so at this Northside landmark, where the cow heads are still smoked the old-fashioned way every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
I love the fact that you can only get these tacos three days a week, just as much as I love walking the patterned linoleum floor along the same, time-worn track that thousands of others have walked before me: straight up to the meat market's counter to order a couple of barbacoa tacos de harina, para aqui. The wonderfully slippery shreds of beef are rich with the thick musk of smoke and sheen of fat. Squeeze a little lime on top and you've got one of the best tacos anywhere in the United States -- not just Houston.
1. Wild game burger at Rainbow Lodge
Like Hobbit Cafe, I have nothing but fond memories of Rainbow Lodge, both at its former home on Buffalo Bayou and its "new" location on Ella. My parents were married there; that's how much my family -- and I -- love this Houston treasure set on the lush banks of White Oak Bayou.
Rainbow Lodge is best known for its beautiful view onto the verdant, rolling banks of the bayou, its bountiful gardens and its menu of wild game and Gulf Coast favorites, dishes such as buffalo tartare with quail eggs or Southern-fried quail with cheese grits and a bourbon-bacon gravy. The timber-framed lodge is refined and business-friendly by day, while the fireplace and ski resort feel impart a deliciously romantic allure by night. This is my special occasion spot sine qua non.
It also happens to be where you'll find the best burger in Houston. And just as no list of Houston dishes is complete without Tex-Mex or barbecue, it's certainly not complete without a burger.
A lot of love goes into these studiously constructed burgers, which are only served on Fridays at lunch. Instead of being wasted, tasty scraps from all the wild game the lodge goes through for a few days' prior are saved and thrown into the meat grinder. The result is a patty that can be a blend of antelope, boar, buffalo, venison and anything else the restaurant uses that would taste good on the griddle. Onto each hand-formed patty go even more house-made ingredients: roasted garlic mayonnaise, whole-grain mustard and thick-cut pickles (all made on site) along with a blend of three Cheddar cheeses. Each burger is served on Slow Dough buns made specially for Rainbow Lodge.
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The burger recently won the 3rd annual Houston Press Burger Bracket in a contest that could be politely described as a bloodbath. Those who'd had Rainbow Lodge pegged as just a fancy-schmancy date place were blown away by the arm-soakingly juicy burger and its lovingly made ingredients. What started as a way to use perfectly good wild game has grown from a few burgers at lunch every week to a stampede to get the 60 patties the restaurant turns out on Fridays.
As with Gerardo's, however, this limited availability ensures the highest quality and makes you appreciate the burger all the more. Familiarity breeds contempt. Trust me on this one, and on this: Get to Rainbow Lodge early on Friday afternoon before all those lovely burgers are gone.