The Five Best Hidden Restaurant Gems in Westchase

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You know how sometimes people complain about having to leave the 610 Loop? I used to be one of them. I used to bitch and moan about leaving the comfort of Montrose or Midtown, even if it meant exploring something new and awesome, just because I hated fighting the inevitable traffic on the Southwest Freeway or I-10.

Now, when someone says, "Hey let's go eat outside Beltway 8," I reply with, "Awesome, I'll drive." Now I know that some of the most exciting and interesting food in Houston is found outside of my safe little urban bubble.

So I was pleased to tour Westchase recently and find some truly awesome eats a good half hour away from my house. The neighborhood is home to just about as many South American restaurants as fast food chains, but that's not all it has to offer. I also discovered Indian, Caribbean and Middle Eastern restaurants to which I'm eager to return.

I don't think of driving that far for food as a chore anymore. I think of it as a mini vacation.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, Westchase is defined as bordered by Westpark Tollway to the south, Gessner to the east, Dairy Ashford to the west and roughly Buffalo Bayou to the north. Yes, that's larger than it appears on Google Maps.

5. Cafe Caspian If you want Persian food, Cafe Caspian is the place to dine. It's certainly one of the best looking Persian restaurants in town, with tablecloths that look like Persian rugs, decorative hookahs and a ceiling painted to resemble a cloudy summer sky. Koobideh--two juicy strips of seasoned ground meat rolled around a skewer and charbroiled--is one of the most popular and best dishes, and it comes with rice, grilled tomatoes, fresh herbs, feta cheese, and hot taftoon bread. It's all you need for a Persian feast. For an appetizer, try the mast-o-moosher, a delightfully cool yogurt and shallot dip.

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4. Caribbean Flavor Restaurant & Bar This little spot hasn't been open quite a year, but it's already drawing crowds of Caribbean expats eager for a taste of home. In fact, when I dined there recently, I was the only person without that signature island lilt to my voice, which told me the place it pretty authentic. The escovitch fish is particularly wonderful (and spicy!), but it takes 20 minutes to prepare, so plan accordingly. It's a whole tilapia pan fried until the skin is crisp then topped with the pickled onions and peppers that give the dish so much heat. It's served with rice mixed with coconut oil and beans, a vinegary cabbage salad and a fried plantain. I didn't get to try the jerk chicken fried rice when I was there, but I'll definitely be back for that.

3. Eatwell Bakery Cafe Like Caribbean Flavor, Eatwell is also fairly new, and it, too, has quickly become a neighborhood favorite. Nearly all of the food--a mix of sandwiches and Italian/Mediterranean dishes--is made without any preservatives, lard, margarine or hydrogenated corn oil, and many of the ingredients are local. Smoothies and limeade are made with real fruit right when you order them, and the bakery items (a little more decadent than the lunch offerings) are prepared fresh every day. Try the homemade yogurt for breakfast or falafel sandwich for a healthy lunch. Oh yeah, many of the dishes are vegetarian friendly. In a neighborhood full of South American and halal meats, that's a rare find.

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2. Saldivia's Saldivia's opened in 2010 under the name South American Grill, but it was actually the second incarnation of a South American restaurant for the Saldivia family, who owned Chimi Churri's Restaurant on Bellaire in the 1990s. Today, the spot is still known for serving some majorly large portions of meat at majorly reasonable prices. The mixed grill or parrillada completa is the best bet, featuring pretty much every meat on the menu. It comes with morcilla and sweet breads, of course, as well as chorizo, skirt steak, beef ribs, roasted potatoes, grilled veggies and delectable chimichurri sauce. Just note: regardless of what it says on the menu, this is not a dish for one person. Maybe not even for two people. Go with a crowd to get the full meat-lover's experience.

1. Emporio Brazilian Cafe I only recently discovered Emporio, and it's already a new favorite. The restaurant is a little more upscale than you might expect from a busy strip center off Westheimer, with white linen tablecloths and a well-dressed waitstaff in chic striped aprons. The prices don't reflect the atmosphere, though, perhaps partially because the restaurant is a mix between dining establishment and tiny general store off to one side. Robb Walsh reviewed Emporio back in 2002 (yes, it's been around that long, and still many people don't know about it), and in his review he highlighted a dish that I, too, love: feijoada. It's a black bean and pork stew intended to be spooned over rice and sautéed kale. It's salty and rich, with the pork infusing flavor into the beans and the beans coloring everything else in the dish a luscious black. In his review, Walsh writes, "Legend has it that feijoada was invented by African slaves who took pigs' knuckles, snouts and other odd pieces unwanted by their masters and stewed the cuts slowly with black beans and seasonings. The resulting dish was so delicious it went on to cross all lines of race, class and income and become Brazil's national dish." Fortunately, you need only to head to Westchase to experience this piece of Brazil for yourself.

And here's a handy new feature...a map with all the info. Happy exploring!

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