There's more to Clear Lake than just NASA, the sadly rotting Jim West mansion and that hotel where a woman mowed down her husband in the parking lot. And there's also more to the area than overly-fancy eateries like Cullen's or old mainstays like Villa Capri and the Seabrook Classic Cafe. (Not that we don't cling to nostalgic memories of those last two places, but there's better food to be found in Clear Lake now.)
Below is a list of our favorite restaurants in the Clear Lake area. If we missed any of your favorites, let us know in the comments section.
10. BJ's Brewery
515 W Bay Area Blvd, Webster
BJ's isn't going to win any awards for its food. It's your typical Chili's-style fare (it is a chain, after all), but with a bit more panache. The food is broadly appealing to any and all dining companions you bring, no matter how picky they might be. The great thing about BJ's is the beer. Although the brewpub doesn't actually brew their beer on-site, it's still brewed locally at Saint Arnold. And the beer list contains great selections like the super hoppy Piranha Pale Ale and the rich, malty Tatonka Stout. And if drinking a chocolate-y P.M. Porter isn't your idea of dessert, BJ's pizookie -- a hot-from-the-oven deep-dish cookie topped with two scoops of ice cream -- is a gift from the dessert gods.
316 W Nasa Road 1, Webster
Although a bit lacking in ambience, Chabuca's is a carnivore's dream. And if you're like most slavering carnivores, you don't really give two shanks about a restaurant's decor. You're here for the meat! Chabuca's has nearly every type of meat available for consumption: Alligator, lamb, frog legs, three different kinds of sausage and six different cuts of Angus beef are just some of the meats on the menu. The full rotisserie comes with Chabuca's excellent buffet and your choice (unlimited, naturally) of 20 different meats. For more conservative eaters, the less expensive half rotisserie comes with the same buffet and a smaller, yet still comprehensive, selection of meat. Come hungry. Seriously; we mentioned the word "meat" at least five times just now.
8. The Egg & I 557 W Bay Area Blvd, Webster
Yes, another chain. But before you rake us over the coals, consider that The Egg & I is what every breakfast establishment should aspire to be: as cheap as Denny's or IHOP, but with the kind of food your Grandma would proudly turn out of her own kitchen. Don't bother waiting in line for an hour on a Sunday morning when you can head to The Egg & I and get fluffy pancakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, a selection of four freshly ground coffees and a menu that explores dozens of different ways to crack an egg. Give Grandma a break and take her with you, too; The Egg & I offers great senior citizen discounts.
4106 Nasa Parkway, El Lago
For a little bar that's mostly hidden from the road, just off Nasa Parkway, Boondoggle's serves up amazing pub grub and even better beers. While the pizzas here are the real winners, with over a dozen different options to choose from such as the creamy Quattro Formaggio and the Cajun-inspired Jambalaya, there are excellent lighter options, too. Check out the ceviche (yes, ceviche!) with fresh shrimp and scallops or the snow crab and crawfish while they're still in season. Boondoggle's beer selection would put most Inner Loop bars to shame, too, with a constantly rotating lineup of seasonal beers and microbrews as well as a core of solid selections such as Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and Left Hand Milk Stout.
6. Sudie's Seafood House 352 Gulf Freeway N, League City
It's hard to miss Sudie's from 1-45. The log cabin-esque restaurant has a gigantic catfish hanging from a pole, instantly advising potential diners that, yes, seafood is served here. And lots of it. The first Sudie's is located in Pasadena, and was opened by the Bailey family in 1983. This League City outpost was opened 20 years later and has proven just as popular as the original. In a nod to the clientele in this area, Sudie's offers a 10 percent discount on Sundays if you bring in a church bulletin. As expected, the catfish is excellent, as are the crawfish -- while they're in season -- and the banana pudding, which gets our vote for Best Banana Pudding Ever. It's that good.
18033 Upper Bay Road, Clear Lake
Don't waste your time or money at Dimassi's if you're looking for good Middle Eastern food in Clear Lake. Head to Mediterraneo, incongruously located in a mostly-deserted strip center that resembles the ancient Tudor shopping centers of Cheshire. Despite the jarring juxtaposition (or perhaps because of it), Mediterraneo's is endlessly charming and inviting, with one of the best patios in Clear Lake that doesn't have a water view. Inside, you'll find a grocery store that stocks all the Middle Eastern items you could ever need, as well as a wealth of celebrity photographs lining the walls. The restaurant is very proud of the fact that it caters to astronauts and rock stars as they pass through the greater Houston area. Relax on the patio with some tangy hummus and creamy moussaka and you'll almost forget you're in Texas (although quite where you have ended up is still a bit of a mystery).
4. Oaxaca Meat Market 4339 FM 517, Dickinson
We were first turned on to Oaxaca Meat Market by intrepid carneceria explorer J.C. Reid, who wrote about its many delicacies last May. And if you've never had Oaxacan tamales, you're missing out on one of the greatest foods Mexico has ever produced. Fat, plump tamales are made with much smoother masa than your traditional tamales, and the meat inside is cooked in typically cooked in a rich, complex mole. The whole thing is steamed inside of a banana leaf instead of a corn husk, which imparts an entirely different flavor to the dish. Eat it with some of Oaxaca's homemade salsa and wash it down with a Mexican coke before heading to the back to pick up some freshly butchered meat or temptingly crunchy chicharrones.
3. Masa Sushi
977 Nasa Parkway, Clear Lake
It's counterintuitive to think that the farther away from the ocean you get, the better sushi you generally find in Houston. But the truth is that almost all the fish served in sushi restaurants comes from Japan or other waters -- not the Gulf of Mexico. So it's odd to find such an excellent sushi restaurant in Clear Lake, but Masa Sushi fits the bill. When Robb Walsh reviewed it back in 2006, he found that he preferred Masa Sushi's "new-style sashimi" over that of the revered Nobu -- a shock to both Walsh and the restaurant's pleasant chef/owner, Michael Zhou. The quality hasn't slipped since then, so surprise yourself with a visit to Masa to see that you don't have to go to Houston (or Dallas) to get great sushi.
2. Bailey's American Grille
2320 Nasa Parkway, Seabrook
Bailey's was established by the same family that runs Sudie's, when they decided to open a more upscale version of their popular seafood restaurants in 2007. The emphasis at Bailey's is not only on creating a community restaurant with excellent food, but also on supporting other area businesses by purchasing only local produce, meat and seafood as well as growing its own herbs in a newly-planted garden. You have to respect this commitment to sustainability so far outside the inner sanctum of chef-driven restaurants in Houston who've pioneered the concept of slow food, but Bailey's has more than just commitment to show for itself. Chef Roland Soza's excellent menu includes favorites like fried green tomatoes, lump crab cakes and shrimp and grits -- and those are just the appetizers... Don't miss the desserts, either, as the revamped menu now features creations from one of Houston's most talented pastry chefs, Rebecca Masson, who consulted with the Baileys to bring their sweet side in line with the creativity on the savory side.
1. Gilhooley's 222 9th Street, Dickinson
Yes, we realize that Gilhooley's is not in Clear Lake. But neither are most of the other selections above. And the truth is that Gilhooley's is closer to Clear Lake than it is to Galveston, and it's worth every second of the 15 or so extra minutes it takes to drive down to the San Leon peninsula and eat the best seafood (and the best oysters) in the greater Houston area. Remember a few important pointers before you go, however: Do not bring your children. They are not allowed at Gilhooley's (no, seriously). Go to Joe's Crab Shack if you must dine with your kids in tow at all times. And if cigarette smoke bothers you, sit outside. There aren't any pesky no smoking laws down here, and the locals will likely break a beer bottle across your face if you ask them to put out their Marlboro Red. Then sit back, relax and enjoy tray after tray of oysters Gilhooley, baskets of fried chicken gizzards and the sweet, salty breeze blowing off Galveston Bay. Although oyster season may have come to a close this year, mark your calendars for January 2011 and get ready to head down to Gilhooley's to welcome them back.