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Local Spotlight

In the last couple of weeks, we've explored fun and funky Texas wines to drink in lieu of old standbys like Cabernet and Chardonnay, and we've showcased local beers that can be enlisted to help wean your friends off adjunct lagers made by giant corporations. And just like we all have loved ones who won't drink anything other than Cupcake wine or Miller Lite, we — me especially included — all have loved ones who won't roam outside their comfort zone when it comes to restaurants.

Maybe they just really love the Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster (I know I do), or they just don't want to take a chance on venturing into a restaurant and paying for a dinner they might not like. Maybe they're just stubborn. Either way, none of these are excuses for refusing to try something new.

Instead of dragging your friends and/or relatives kicking and screaming to an Ethiopian restaurant, however, try introducing something new gently and kindly. If they just adore Big Macs at McDonald's, for instance, encourage them to try the delicious, fast-food-style cheeseburgers at Liberty Kitchen.

With that idea in mind, here's our list of ten local alternatives to popular chain restaurants. It's a chance for your loved ones to try something new and support their community at the same time.

If you like: Olive Garden

Try: Paulie's

Paulie's makes Italian comfort food classics like lasagna, shrimp scampi and chicken parmesan in an equally comfortable setting. Except that — unlike Olive Garden's — Paulie's pastas are made in house, just like nearly everything else the family-run restaurant serves (which includes inexpensive wine and absolutely terrific coffee and cookies). In fact, it may be even more approachable for someone who's dead-set on Olive Garden: The counter service is relaxed and casual, and the prices are right on point. Alternative choices: George's Pastaria, D'Amico's, Collina's

If you like: Pei Wei

Try: Khun Kay

As at Pei Wei, you order at the counter in this cozy Montrose restaurant owned by Thai expats Supatra Yooto and Kay Soodjai. And like Pei Wei's, much of Kay's food has been Americanized for a broader palate. (While this is one of the main reasons that some people don't care for Khun Kay, it's precisely the reason that others love it.) And just like at Pei Wei, there's a broad selection of pan-Asian dishes to choose from, including everything from pad thai and "Thai tacos" to shrimp fried rice and cashew chicken. Alternative choice: Jenni's Noodle House

If you like: Chili's

Try: Barnaby's

There are several Barnaby's locations scattered throughout town, and all of them feature the kind of wacky decor and menu items — gleefully giant salads, enormous burgers, grilled American standards like salmon and chicken and even baby back ribs — that make Chili's so popular. There's also standard table service here, too, along with appetizers and desserts that put Chili's to shame: Try the waffle fries with blue cheese fondue, bacon and green onions or the Chocolate Addiction Cake for dessert. Alternative choice: Baba Yega

If you like: Red Lobster

Try: Goode Co. Seafood

All right, there aren't any Cheddar Bay Biscuits here. But both locations of this Houston seafood joint offer friendly service and a deceptively casual feel in their respective dining rooms (I prefer eating in the train car portion of the Goode Co. Seafood on Westpark). And you'll find an array of dishes to please the pickiest palate, from fried catfish po-boys to mesquite-grilled rainbow trout. Alternative choices: Bayou City Seafood, Floyd's Cajun Seafood House, Joyce's Seafood and Steaks

If you like: Boudreaux's

Try: LA Bar

The same family that's successfully run Ragin' Cajun since 1974 recently opened a new, slightly more upscale version of the Louisiana classic right next door to the original Ragin' Cajun on Richmond. The Mandola family has taken the same Cajun favorites — boudin, gumbo, grilled oysters and crawfish étouffée — and added them to the menu at LA Bar along with additional entrées like barbecued blue crabs and seafood-topped pasta. It's approachable, fun and — thankfully — not too fancy. ­Alternative choices: Ragin' Cajun, BB's Cafe

If you like: CiCi's

Try: That Pizza Place on Ella

On Wednesday and Sunday evenings, this neighborhood pizza joint in Oak Forest has an all-you-can-eat pizza and salad buffet that includes not just regular pizzas but any specialty pizza you request. Like CiCi's, that buffet holds everything from slices of pepperoni to cinnamon-sugar-topped dessert pizza sticks. And like CiCi's, it has arcade games for the kids and lots of TVs for the adults. But unlike CiCi's, it also has an excellent craft beer selection and live music on the weekends. Alternative choice: Candelari's

If you like: General Joe's

Try: Kam's

You have no excuse for eating at the super-sad General Joe's in Montrose (where I personally had the worst Chinese food of my life) when Kam's is right across the street. First opened by Kam Cheung in 1988, the restaurant was sold to its head chef, Mr. Ho, five years later and has been run by his family ever since. Kam's does a brisk to-go business, but you can also sit down in the charming, elegant space and enjoy Americanized Chinese (as well as Vietnamese and Indonesian) classics from a wide menu, which even includes an excellent version of General Tso's chicken. Alternative choices: Heights Asian Cafe, Kim Son

If you like: TGI Friday's

Try: Shepherd Park Draught House

Like TGI Friday's, Shepherd Park Draught House has a bunch of stuff scattered all over its walls. Unlike TGI Friday's, that stuff is actually cool, such as copies of the owner's personal handbill collection from the 1970s and 1980s. The menu at Shepherd Park Draught House is similar to TGI Friday's in the sense that there's a smattering of everything for picky people to choose from, whether it's Jamaican jerk chicken or Korean short rib tacos, roasted turkey melts or big, beefy burgers. The atmosphere is like a grown-up version of TGI Friday's, too, although you won't find any cocktails here, just good wine and beer. Alternative choice: Gordon Street Tavern

If you like: Maggie Rita's

Try: El Tiempo

It's true: Several Ninfa's locations across the city are about to be transformed into Maggie Rita's. But we all know that Ninfa's went downhill after the Laurenzo family sold it years ago. So don't mourn Maggie Rita's taking over an already dying empire; go visit the original Laurenzo family at El Tiempo, where the Tex-Mex food (and margaritas) are as good as ever. Alternative choices: Spanish Village, La Mexicana, Lopez Mexican Restaurant, Molina's Cantina

If you like: Bennigan's

Try: McGonigel's Mucky Duck

With news that Bennigan's is opening back up in Houston, an alternative to the dire food there is needed once again. So head to McGonigel's Mucky Duck, which is right down the street from one of the now-closed Bennigan's locations. The Irish pub features Bennigan's-style food — a combination of Irish and American pub grub — such as beef Guinness pie and quesadilla rolls. It also features some of the best live music in town at night. Hell, McGonigel's is even more fun to say than Bennigan's. There's no real comparison. Alternative choices: Red Lion, The Bull & Bear Tavern

On the Menu

Rainy Day Comfort Food

Tomato basil soup and grilled cheese.

On rainy days, I always crave something warm and comforting, even in summertime. As the temperature falls to a bearable heat, my mind plays tricks on me and makes me think it's cold and muggy outside, which cues the craving for something that warms my belly and my heart.

Hearty casseroles or potpies usually hit the spot, but because it is summer and most of those meals are wintertime dishes, I crave the best soup-and-sandwich combination known to man, in my humble opinion: tomato basil soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Creamy tomato basil soup that has a strong tomato flavor, along with a crispy, golden and buttery grilled cheese sandwich brightens any rainy day.

As a kid I hated tomato soup; in fact, I hated tomatoes. I was probably one of the pickiest eaters growing up, but I have overcome those childish aversions to what I called "yucky foods" and have learned to appreciate this childhood classic combination. I guess you could say I am reliving a part of my childhood I deprived myself of.

My mom always makes the best tomato basil soup. I've tried to re-create it, but it never comes out like hers — it's close, but missing that magic touch. She always watches Food Network, just like me — like mother, like daughter — and she discovered the Neely's tomato soup recipe where you roast the tomatoes before pureeing them.

When my mom makes this recipe, she always seasons the roma tomatoes with extra sugar to reduce the acidity and bring out a sweeter tomato flavor. Once the tomatoes are toasted and charred, she sets them aside to cool while she melts butter to sauté shallots. She then adds chicken stock, cayenne pepper, heavy cream and, finally, the roasted tomatoes.

The sweet shallots enhance the sweetness of the tomatoes, while the cayenne pepper heats things up. Reduce the amount of cayenne pepper if you're sensitive to heat or you like a sweeter tomato basil soup.

All you have to do now is puree everything with an immersion blender, season with salt and pepper, chiffonade fresh basil leaves and serve.

Now it's time for the grilled cheese — a childhood classic. It's such a simple sandwich, yet so incredibly delicious. Each ingredient plays a crucial role in creating a scrumptious grilled cheese. The bread has to be crispy and buttery and shouldn't overpower the cheese.

I like to use a combo of cheeses for this sandwich. I grew up on American cheese, and I love cheddar cheese, so for a contrast in color I use white American cheese and mild cheddar cheese. Cheddar is my favorite, so after buttering the outsides of the crusty white bread, I add two slices, one on each piece of bread, then place one slice of white American in the middle. The golden cheddar cheese melted with the creamy white American looks beautiful between two slices of toasted, buttery bread.

If the cheddar cheese doesn't melt, split it open after toasting the bread in a skillet, and broil for a couple of minutes; that will do the trick.

A bowl of creamy tomato basil soup and an ooey-gooey grilled cheese sandwich warm me up on a rainy summer day. By Molly Dunn


Accepting Beets

The Diary of an Eight-Year-Old Who Became a Food Critic.

The Internet was abuzz recently over the video that a 32-year-old man made in which he "interviewed" his 12-year-old self. It was cute, clever and perfectly edited to make it seem as if the 32-year-old Jeremiah McDonald was actually conversing with the 12-year-old Jeremiah, who was mostly concerned with whether or not his adult self was still drawing cartoons, still had Star Wars action figures and still watched Doctor Who.

I'm the same age as Jeremiah McDonald, and both the behavior and the questions of his 12-year-old self reminded me of myself at that same age. I would have quizzed grown-up me on whether or not I had a car, if I still played Nintendo and what color my room was painted — serious issues for a 12-year-old kid. The video seemed to have the same effect on millions of other viewers. What is it like to be confronted with the ideas and ideals you carried around 20 years ago as a child?

Quite by coincidence, my mother found my old diary while rummaging around in a closet this weekend. It's a diary she gave me when I turned eight years old, a Ramona Quimby-brand diary (a literary character with whom I was obsessed as a child, back when kids found their idols in books instead of on the Disney Channel) that contained hundreds of prompts to get kids writing.

The questions were designed to make kids think and weren't pithy throwaways like "What's your favorite television show?" They ranged from prompts such as "I was kind to a friend when..." and "I felt grown-up when I read this book..." to "I should not have done this..." and "This is how I felt afterward..."

One of the sections of the diary prompted kids to talk about food. Fittingly, it remains one of the few sections I actually filled out (between complaining bitterly about the favoritism displayed by the day-care van driver and exhorting that "Meghan is no longer my best friend!" over some perceived and long-forgotten slight).

Confronted with what the eight-year-old me liked and disliked, I'm kind of surprised I became a food critic at all.

It's a tribute to the drastic ways in which our palates (and perceptions of food) change over time, to say the least: My favorite food as an adult and the sole foodstuff I have listed in my Twitter bio is beets. I like radishes so much that I eat them nearly naked, save for a little butter and salt. And I incorporate peppers of all kinds, oddly enough, into almost every meal I cook.

I still love spinach, although Italian food has been dethroned by an array of Asian cuisines: Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian. I rarely eat peanut butter, only because it rarely occurs to me to do so, and Reese's? My lack of a sweet tooth as an adult has rendered that one moot, too.

I still love buttered rice, though. Who doesn't?

Rocky Road has been supplanted by mint chocolate chip (if and when I actually eat ice cream), orange soda has been supplanted by black coffee and I eat tongue more frequently than I eat Italian food. To be fair, however, it seems as though I cribbed off Ramona Quimby's own dislike of tongue for that one; I can't recall ever being presented with lengua as a child.

Still, my eight-year-old self displayed at least a little prescience when I said that I'd love to have a meal where I could eat all the rice I wanted. All of the Asian cuisines I adore so much as an adult feature — what else? — all the rice I could ever want. By Katharine Shilcutt

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings

Guess what women won't care about? Food.

As we mentioned a few weeks back, Roots Bistro has been planning to open up a little sister spot next door. That spot — a juice bar — is now open. Roots Juice is a fast-casual juice bar as well as a cafe, offering a small vegan menu that partner Rebecca O'Brien calls "the crunchy little sister" to the bistro next door.

That menu includes items such as vegan zucchini muffins; a selection of gluten-free and grain-free pastries; granola with coconut yogurt and seasonal fruit; raw "squashta" with shredded carrot, cilantro, tomato, pumpkin seeds and almond sauce; cold soba salad with cashew, sweet corn, cucumber and Korean BBQ dressing; fresh vegetable nori rolls; chevre, avocado and sprout sandwiches on house-made foccacia; plus chocolate fig mousse.

As for the juices, look for selections like the Alchemy with carrot and ginger; Green Age Dreams with spinach, celery, parsley, cilantro, lime, fennel and cucumber; Beet It with carrot, jalapeño, cucumber, celery, spinach and beet; Kale Take with kale, cucumber, spinach, pear, apple and lime; and Elixir #1 with orange, apple, ginger and cilantro. There are even smoothies available, such as the Up with peach, strawberry, orange, ginger, agave and maca; Kombu-cha-cha with banana, ginger, vanilla, cherry and kombucha; and OMGoji with Goji berry, strawberry, agave, coconut oil, vanilla and almond butter.

Roots Juice is currently open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with extended hours to come.

Only a few blocks away down Westheimer, look for Rosemont Social Club to open soon. According to CultureMap, the old Prive space will now host a lounge intended to cater to the crowds streaming in and out of Uchi each night (and, soon, Southside Espresso and Brande). Says Sarah Rufca, Rosemont is "planning a menu of light bites and a cocktail program" but is still looking for a head mixologist to bring it all together.

Meanwhile, Bayou Place's restaurant row is whole once again: Little Napoli has opened in the old Mingalone space downtown, between Samba Grille and The Blue Fish.

Elsewhere downtown, the Chronicle reports that a new location of Houston chain Barnaby's will be moving into the old Convey space on Market Square. If any restaurant has a chance of making it at the tough location, it's Barnaby's, which plans to open in August.

More details have emerged about 024 Grille, the steakhouse that recently replaced Trattoria Il Mulino in Memorial. A press release calls it a "classic steakhouse with an intimate bistro feel" that will be offering "28-day wet-aged steaks, ocean-fresh seafood, Colorado lamb and lighter local favorites" from executive chef Dagan Lynn.

The new restaurant plans to be open breakfast, lunch and dinner — a smart move if you're located in the lobby of a busy hotel — and is also offering something it calls "SuperFoodsRx items" at breakfast, including dishes made from "powerhouse ingredients and antioxidants, including berry, apple and granola muesli, organic egg white and all-natural turkey omelet, steel-cut cinnamon-scented oatmeal and blueberry and orange granola pancakes." But that's not all: Head next door and you'll find 024 Lounge, which will have "spirited libations and light bites until late into the night."

If you love Little Bitty Burger Barn but were always disappointed you couldn't get a beer with your burger, prepare to rejoice. Owner Ricardo Luna has opened a companion bar for his burger joint: Crazy J's Icehouse. The bar is located two short blocks away from LBBB on Pinemont and is currently open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to midnight.

The best thing about Crazy J's isn't the fact that the neighborhood now has an awesome little icehouse nor the fact that it has a daily happy hour from 2 to 7 p.m. The best thing about Crazy J's is that you'll be able to order from LBBB's menu while you drink, which means some of the best burgers and wings in town with your craft beer.

In restaurant takeover news, three items have set tongues wagging in the past week...

First is word from Randy Rucker himself via Twitter that he'll be opening another restaurant — this one to be called Briar and Bramble — after plans for his Museum District restaurant, conat, fell through. As other publications have noted, this is Rucker's third attempt at opening a restaurant in the last couple of years after a planned companion restaurant to Bootsie's never materialized either.

What's the planned location for his new restaurant? Rucker is mum for now, but sources indicate that the now-closed Tart Cafe at 4411 Montrose will be the eventual home of Briar and Bramble. The very wee space seems as though it would lend itself well to an almost omakase-style eating experience, or perhaps the intimate service seen at Oxheart.

In other news, Frank's Chop House was put on the chopping block recently — so to speak — and was purchased by father-and-son restaurateur team Michael and Chris Shine, who bought it off Frank Crapitto himself. As reported by Cleverley Stone, the chef at Frank's Chop House — Albert Estrada — will stay on, although the menu will see a few new additions. Crapitto's itself, Frank Crapitto's other restaurant, is absolutely not for sale, though it does plan to expand soon.

The last and worst news was reported by Eater Houston, which got the scoop that Maggie Rita's — partly owned by comedian Carlos Mencia — will be taking over three Ninfa's locations around town. Eric Sandler spoke with Maggie Rita's other owner, Santiago Moreno, about the planned changes for the three locations (1650 Post Oak, 3601 Kirby and 8553 Gulf Freeway).

Moreno rather mystifyingly explained that Maggie Rita's would be placing more emphasis on its cocktails than its food, as "consumer decisions are made by women." And that "what makes a woman decide where to eat Mexican food, it has to do with margaritas. It has nothing to do with food."

And here I thought that women only cared about shoes. By Katharine Shilcutt

Wine Time

Perfect with Ribs

Top five red wines to serve chilled in summer.

Some are more apt to reach for white than red wine during summer months, and it's perfectly understandable: White wines are generally served chilled, red wines generally not.

But when summertime arrives at our house, I find myself craving earthy red wines to pair with the smoked ribs we are offered at backyard parties, my mother-in-law's excellent Crock-Pot pulled pork, and the myriad hamburgers and hot dogs I will joyfully consume between the summer solstice and Labor Day.

Here's a list of five grape varieties that you might find chilling in my fridge on any given summer day:

5. Lambrusco: Riunite tried to ruin Lambrusco's good name by pushing it on the "misery market" back in the 1970s. But today, thanks in part to a few courageous New York importers and restaurateurs, there is more genuine Lam­brusco available in the U.S. than ever before (Spec's has the best selection). Look for dry Lambrusco (wines made from the Sorbara clone of Lambrusco are my favorites), and avoid wines produced in the U.S. but labeled as "Lambrusco."

4. Barbera: More Barbera is consumed at the Northern Italian dinner table than any other grape variety. Arguably the most food-friendly grape of all, Barbera's bright fruit, zinging acidity and low tannin make it pair well with nearly anything. I love bringing a chilled bottle of Barbera to summer cookouts and potlucks — always a winner.

3. Gamay (Beaujolais): No, I don't mean the crap that Georges Duboeuf tells you you should drink every fall (one of the greatest marketing scams in the history of wine). I'm talking about awesome, single-vineyard (cru-designated) Beaujolais, oozing with plump red and berry fruit and balanced by earthiness and acidity. Morgon is the cru most readily available in our market, but there are many others as well. Just ask your favorite wine seller.

2. Agiorgitiko (Nemea): We're lucky to have a tightly knit Greek community here in Houston and an abundance of Greek wines in our marketplace. Agiorgitiko (pronounced ayh-yohr-YEE-tee-koh) is a light-skinned, gently tannic grape grown primarily in Nemea on the high plains of the Peloponnese — a high-altitude, cool-summer-evening growing zone that delivers fresh wines high in acidity. I love this stuff.

1. Cabernet Franc (Loire Valley): Chinon, ­Anjou, Saumur...These Loire Valley townships are the appellations to look for (and "Jim's Loire" is my number one resource for all things Loire-related). Cabernet Franc is traditionally served chilled in summer, and its high acidity combined with its tannic potential makes it my ­favorite wine for grilled or smoked meats during the summer. Earth, acidity and fruit? I can't think of anything better to pair with my black-and-blue Porterhouse. By Jeremy Parzen

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