Second Chances: We Give Five Houston Restaurants Another Opportunity to Impress Us

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Some new restaurants seem charmed from the start. They open their doors, the food is great, the staff is well-trained and everything simply runs smoothly. Those restaurants, however, are very few and far between. Most need a few months to work the kinks out. Some may need even longer and aren’t prepared when our reviewers sweep through with their critical eyes and high expectations.

The reasons vary. Maybe there was an early change in chefs. Perhaps it was a complicated dining concept that took a while to iron out. They could have been unavoidably understaffed.

We’ve selected five restaurants for an additional visit months after their initial review: B&B Butchers, The Durham House, Peli Peli in the Galleria, Ula’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina on Washington Avenue, and Weights + Measures. Each was revisited by the original critic for the Houston Press. These restaurants were selected for a second chance because, while flawed during the original visits, there were reasons to believe each could do better. 

Here’s how each performed when given a second chance.

B&B Butchers
To say B&B Butchers is a bustling scene on Friday nights would be an understatement. Still, with a reservation it was easy to land a table at the upstairs patio and enjoy a stunning view of the downtown Houston skyline at night. Fair warning, though: smoking is allowed here and a table swap was necessary to escape three guys indulging in their stogies. Cigars might be a pleasure for some after dinner, but the smell certainly interferes with the accurate perception of food.

After calculating price per-ounce, we decided after the first review that the best “bang for the buck” steak value for two people was the porterhouse, not the filets, which aren’t nearly as thick or marbled. It turned out to be an accurate hypothesis. The porterhouse was truly a king among steaks—a hefty, impressive cut with big, beefy flavor that only comes from aging. Cooked at medium rare, the meat had an irresistible ruby-red center. Unlike other steakhouses where steaks come with no side orders at all, B & B Butcher’s includes a few vegetables on the side: thick asparagus, whole roasted carrots and pearl onions. The bases of the thick asparagus could have been peeled more to reduce toughness at the ends, but it was still a luxurious presentation worthy of a date night. The servers carved all the meat from the giant bone, sliced it and served each diner equal portions.

The first review noted that the side dishes needed work. There’s been some improvement in that area, but not enough. The truffle macaroni and cheese is no longer as overburdened with truffle oil. It now supports the other ingredients rather than taking over with its hallmark pungency, but this is not yet a standout macaroni and cheese, being more creamy than cheesy.

Another side dish, the lobster fried rice, lacked substantial chunks of lobster but was hailed for “tons of ginger and pops of flavor from soy and rice vinegar.” The chunks of lobster are bigger now, but the fried rice is excessively sweet, as if it had been commandeered by teriyaki sauce.

Clearly, B&B Butchers has reevaluated the balance of flavors in its dishes and shows some improvement. That said, costs have gone up, too. Every dish ordered was more expensive this time around. As an example, the porterhouse for two was previously $98. Now it’s $104. For most, the cost of a steak dinner and two sides at B&B Butchers constitutes special occasion dining—but throw in a stunning view of the Houston skyline and a reasonably priced bottle of French rosé and it could very well be worthwhile. Phaedra Cook

B & B Butchers
1814 Washington, 713-862-1814, bbbutchers.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (kitchen closes at midnight); 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Porterhouse for Two $104
Lobster Fried Rice $18
Macaroni & Cheese $13

The Durham House

Updated, 6/23/16, 2:54 p.m. Regrettably, only two days after this review published, The Durham House's owner Raj Natarajan, Jr. announced that the restaurant is closing. The final day of service was slated for June 23. 

Whether it was our criticism or the natural drive of a chef to improve his kitchen and food, chef Mike McElroy has made good on the inherent promise of the menu. As a result, The Durham House has become the excellent restaurant we could previously see just under the surface.

Most of the quibbles last time were about fumbles of execution rather than flavor, such as seasoning that barely missed the mark; food over- or under-cooked; and textural issues. Take, for example, the rabbit. Served on a bed of jambalaya and daubed with a sauce piquant, it was the rabbit, the star of the dish, that failed to shine. Dry, stringy and disappointing, it made the already steep-ish price tag feel like that much more of an incline. Now, the dish sings, a throaty serenade in a deep and stirring baritone.

The sauce piquant is a bigger player this time, lapping against the rabbit in a bulwark along the side of the bowl. The rabbit itself, a pair of leg quarters, pulls from the bones in tender, yielding shreds. In other words, it’s what you expect when the menu reads “confit.” Rich in character and mild in flavor, it’s a nice textural backdrop for what’s essentially the glorification of sauce and rice (both of which are indeed glorious).

As before, the jambalaya fairly thrums with flavor. Layered and nuanced, deep and resonant, it is joined in chorus by the piquant, which lends a lovely grace note of acidity to the rich chords struck underneath.

The gumbo, the clear standout from our previous review visits, is even better than remembered. At first bite, you think they’ve tipped over the line, as a gently bitter note makes you worry they’ve gone and burned it—an easy thing to do when your roux rides the edge so dangerously. Then, a rush of sweet shellfish brings things back into focus, with the slight, smoky bitterness acting as intriguing foil. After that, the nuanced, vegetal sweetness of trinity adds its own layers, and they just keep building. This is really, really good.

Possibly the surest sign that the kitchen is paying more attention both on the line and at the pass comes in the Coppa di Testa, which suffered only on account of a final accent of crunchy salt that sent the already over-seasoned dish over the edge. Now, there’s a more delicate hand at work that allows the sweet, nutty lushness of the pork to shine through, which also showcases the peppery bite of arugula and zippy ping of pickled watermelon. The latter two elements brace what is essentially slick, yielding pork fat laced with a little bit of meat. If anything, the dish could perhaps have used just a few flakes of salt for pinprick bursts of flavor and texture. It was a good idea before, albeit heavy-handed, and now the kitchen is more firmly in command of its menu’s aims.

Before, we felt The Durham House didn’t quite live up to its potential or warrant the menu prices. This time, we’re convinced that The Durham House is the restaurant it wants to be—and we like it. Nicholas L. Hall

The Durham House 
1200 Durham, 713-864-5600, thedurhamhouse.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays (lunch); 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays (dinner); 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (lunch and brunch); 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays (dinner) and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Coppa di Testa $10
Seafood Gumbo $8/$10
Rabbit $32

Peli Peli Galleria
Based on past experience, we knew to skip the tables in the raucous bar area and reserve one in the main dining room under the circus tent-like structure of LEDs mounted overhead. The lights still glow blue in the evenings—a nightclub-like effect that makes it seem as if at any minute the staff will push the tables and chairs to the sides and turn up the music.

It was on this visit, though, that the liability of the overhead light structure became clear. The curved, parabolic shape catches sound and sends it back down toward the tables along the perimeter of the dining room. While less cacophonous than the bar area, the screeches of a table full of loud women frequently intruded on an otherwise pleasant meal.

Our authoritative waiter, Leonardo, discussed some of the finer points of South African fare with confidence, which helped mitigate the annoyance of the noise issue. Peli Peli Galleria seems to be putting greater emphasis on staff training now. In fact, our server had a trainee under his wing that very evening.

As was the case before, the espetada—a skewer of chunks of juicy beef filet—is still a must-order dish. The skewer dangles from a metal frame, and, as usual, more tables sported one than not. A pleasing side-effect of the suspended grilled beef is that it also drips meaty juices atop accompanying carrot bredie (a mash of carrots and potatoes), which seemed exceptional this time around. The carrots had been cooked to just the right degree of softness and only lightly mashed to allow for some rustic, naturally sweet character. The espetada also comes with sautéed spinach and hunks of skin-on roasted potato. All in all, it’s a great combination of meats and vegetables and still highly recommended.

Kingklip is a cod-like fish common to South African cuisine but rarely seen in the United States. Previously, it was excessively salty. This time around, the salt had been -dialed back, which was a great improvement. For that matter, the fish was better-cooked, more attractively plated and not drowned in butter as it had been before. It comes topped with chopped scallops, and this time around, the chunks were larger and, like the fish itself, less oily. Instead, creamy butter sauce accompanied the dish, a better complement to the kingklip. It’s $3 cheaper now than it was last time, too. (The espetada is the same price as before, and well worth it.)

Perhaps because it was so perfectly executed, the true nature of kingklip was revealed. It’s kind of bland, actually. After much discussion on flavors, prices and noise levels, we decided we’d definitely return for the espetada, at least — but maybe take advantage of the smaller lunchtime portion and lower price. Either way, when given a second chance, this Peli Peli location showed substantial improvement both in food execution and staff training, and that’s about all anyone can ask for (except maybe quieter dining neighbors). Phaedra Cook

Peli Peli Galleria
5085 Westheimer, Suite B2515, 281?257?9500, pelipeli.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Espetada $39
Kingklip & Scallops $34

Ula’s Mexican Restaurant
Some readers were surprised at the negative review of Ula’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina on Washington Avenue. For many, the original Missouri City location is a favorite Tex-Mex haunt, which made the rather harsh take on the newer location come as something of a shock.

Even when we gave the place a second chance, though, it was obvious that additional calibration is necessary. It’s not a matter of simple adjustment. Ula’s flat out misses the mark.

That benchmark of Houston Tex-Mex fare, the mighty fajita, is still bad enough to cause teeth-gnashing and garment-rending when it winds up wan and watery, sizzling comal or no. I’d make no small wager that they pre-cook the beef, hold it in a hotel pan, then flash it across the grill for service. This is not as it should be.

To the kitchen’s credit, they managed to cut the meat across the grain this time, avoiding the pre-chewed look of the previous visits. Instead, it just looks as if it’s been run over by a padfoot soil compactor, pockmarked with neat rows of overly tenderizing punctures. A diner should not be able to draw comparisons between fajitas and road-grading equipment. Tucked into overly thin, leathery tortillas, a Ula’s fajita is a rage-inducing travesty that threatens to rob one of Houston’s most worthy foods of its basic dignity.

Not even the shrimp brochette, which offered some measure of enjoyment last time around, could salvage one of the most dismal meals of recent memory. Where before the shrimp were flavorful and succulent, the three perched alongside those dismal fajitas were watery and bland. No shellfish sweetness, no pluck of spice from the jalapeño, not even a bloom of porky salt from the bacon, the flabby texture of which did nothing to help matters. To take such flavorful ingredients and render them moot is almost impressive.

It’s important to note that there was one spot of improvement, though. While the chicken enchiladas in a zippy salsa verde were about as enjoyable as last time, and still likely the best bet on the menu, it was the cheese enchiladas that came as the biggest surprise. Of course, they are only improved in that they no longer taste like a pumpkin spice latte.

Now, they just taste like the Patio frozen dinners I ate growing up in South Bend, Indiana, before I knew better. While it’s good that the kitchen has stayed its hand with the spice rack, Ula’s should be better at Tex-Mex than an 11-year-old Hoosier with access to his parents’ chest freezer. Nicholas L. Hall

Ula’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina 
5555 Washington Avenue, 832-491-0510, texmexicanfood.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays (brunch until 2 p.m.), 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays (brunch until 2 p.m.).

One-half order Beef Fajitas w/ 3 Shrimp Brochette $28.90
Cheese Enchilada Combo plate (2 items) $12
Chicken Enchiladas $11.95

Weights + Measures
Despite an impressive dinner on our first review visits, Weights + Measures served an unforgivably mediocre lunch that included a lackluster tuna sandwich and a burned burger strangely surrounded by mountains of pickled cucumbers and cabbage.

Fortunately, our second-chance lunch visit found the flavorless tuna sandwich replaced by a far superior smoked salmon and lightly truffled egg salad rendition. A few more slices of smoked salmon would have been appreciated, but that’s one of those ingredients that inspires pure greed. Is there ever enough smoked salmon? Either way, the in-house smoked slices were sufficient to impart companionable smoke and salt to the creamy egg salad, of which there was plenty—so much that it wanted to escape between the slices of toasty pumpernickel on occasion. Of course, smoked salmon demands a bit of dill, and a light spread of mascarpone infused with it does the trick. Thin crescents of red onion was the final, classic accent on a timeless combination of ingredients.

The bread at Weights + Measures—whether it be pumpernickel, croissants, pizza crust or brioche—has always been outstanding. It’s all thanks to the talent of Slow Dough’s Heath Wendell. We warned in the previous review that it was entirely possible to fill up on bread here, and that is still the case, only because it is so tempting.

Add to the list of covetable breads the pillow of a burger bun dotted with sesame seeds that encased a burger patty, dripping with juices and cooked an exquisite medium-rare as requested. That’s right: This time around, Weights + Measures burger featured a perfectly cooked, hand-formed patty. The rectangular, thin slices of slightly blue-veined Red Rock cheddar, left with a bit of the edible rind intact, were just sharp enough to be a positive influence, as well as slightly melted thanks to the steamy burger patty. As far as the house-made pickles go, which were always a pleasant, tangy addition: These have been reduced from Devil’s Tower proportions to a few reasonably-sized stacks. Golden brown, housemade potato chips accompanied both sandwiches — the kind that inexplicably disappear even when people intend to only have a few. Conversely, an order of haystack onions — battered, deep-fried, wispy onion strings — arrived under-salted and at room temperature; cool enough to be greasy.

Overall, though, lunch at Weights + Measures was a far cry better than before. It definitely deserved a second chance. Phaedra Cook

Weights + Measures
2808 Caroline, 713-654-1970, weights-measures.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Wood Grilled Cheeseburger $16
House Smoked Salmon Sandwich $15

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