It wasn't too long ago that the Houston Chronicle called Oak Forest "the new West University." The neighborhood just north of Loop 610 and to the east of Highway 290 has been attracting young families in spades -- families who are helping to reinvigorate the subdivisions that make up Garden Oaks and Oak Forest. Along with the influx of residents is a slow influx of new restaurants, which is making the area a hotspot for both new and old coexisting side-by-side.
Lance Fegen and Lee Ellis are opening Surfing Cowboys soon in the vacant space that recently housed That Pizza Place on Ella, and there's a full-sized restaurant planned for its neighbor across the street: Facundo Cafe, which serves burgers and breakfast tacos inside a car wash. Meanwhile, spots such as Cottonwood Bar and Shepherd Park Draught House are drawing people north of 610 with craft beer, cocktails and above-average pub grub.
And just a bit further south -- while not technically in the Garden Oaks / Oak Forest confines -- restaurants such as El Gran Malo, Pappa Geno's and the Rainbow Lodge give the larger area personality and a wide range of options. But for today, we're just focusing on the spots that make GOOF great.
Note: For purposes of this post, Garden Oaks / Oak Forest is defined as north of Loop 610, east of Highway 290, south of Tidwell and west of Shepherd.
Ron Roznovsky has been grilling old-fashioned burgers and making homemade chili for more than 40 years, so he's had plenty of time to perfect his technique. Step back in time, admire the gimme cap collection on the walls, crack open a longneck and enjoy a hot, juicy burger topped with cheese or bacon. Seasoned fries and onion rings are the only sides, and the Frito pie comes highly recommended.
And with the departure of Mytiburger this past August, Roznovsky's is one of the few truly old-school burger joints left around here. Note: Mytiburger was heroically rescued by local restaurateur Shawn Salyers, who bought and reopened it two weeks after it was closed.
9. Facundo Cafe
Could food from a car wash be any good? Facundo Cafe and chef Danny Harper prove that it can be, with a small but capable kitchen that turns out everything from omelets and sandwiches to gourmet burgers and fish tacos with mango slaw. As a bonus, you can get your car's oil changed, get it detailed, or have your inspection sticker updated while you wait. In a hurry? Call ahead and they'll have your food ready and waiting for you to pick up, curbside, although it's far more fun to eat inside at the perpetually busy grill.
A new addition to the Garden Oaks family of bars, Cottonwood is sure to be a hit in the coming years. The bar -- from the folks that brought you Liberty Station on Washington Avenue -- is packed almost nightly. The list of beers is massive, which suits the neighborhood surroundings (the area already includes craft beer mecca Petrol Station as well as equally beer-heavy spots such as Plonk and Shepherd Park Draught House) and make it a destination spot for beer snobs all over the city. The menu is short and sweet here, but the Jamaican jerk wings are a favorite as are the BBQ oysters and pork belly corn dogs -- fun dishes that perfectly match the quirky icehouse atmosphere.
Opened in 1954, Doyle's is a vintage Houston institution where many Houstonians ate their first spaghetti and pizza. As befitting its legacy, spaghetti and meatballs are the house specialty; Robb Walsh even called the dish "the kind of spaghetti dinner that once defined Italian food in America." The time capsule atmosphere is great -- and so are the lasagna and the oven-baked sausage po-boy with red gravy and mozzarella. And in keeping with the neighborhood, this is a very family-friendly joint, so bring the kids with you.
The last of the Cafe Red Onions that once dotted the city, this Highway 290 location was always the best spot anyway. Chef Rafael Galindo's cuisine is still as good as it ever was, with dishes such as his signature Chicken Brazil (marinated in beer, jalapeño and honey before being grilled and served with queso and fried eggplant) drawing rave reviews.
5. Pho Dalat
You don't go to Pho Dalat for the pho. You go for everything else: the head-on shrimp hot pot, the crispy whole-fried catfish, the bun with chargrilled pork and the welcoming atmosphere tucked into an unlikely strip center location just off Tidwell and 290. Pho Dalat is BYOB and the friendly service encourages you to pack a cooler of beers, unwind and enjoy your Vietnamese feast at a leisurely pace (and for a low price).
Shepherd Park Draught House specializes in above-average pub grub and local craft beers, which is becoming a welcome trend in the GOOF area. Happy hour specials let you enjoy beer and wine on the cheap, while late-night hours ensure that locals don't have to venture inside the Loop to find something good to eat on a weekend evening. Burgers are your best bet here, as is the Sunday morning brunch that's perfect for fighting rock star-size hangovers. The walls are covered in rock paraphernalia, including a section plastered in classic punk and hardcore flyers, some from Houston's own sweaty shows.
The name doesn't lie -- the place itself truly is little bitty, but the burgers aren't. Little Bitty Burger Barn is known for big, juicy, two-handed burgers and for its wings. Both the burgers and wings can be made with the scalding hot, housemade Nitro sauce, which will singe the hairs right off your chest (and once left me in tears for 30 minutes after eating only one wing). The wings are truly best here when tossed in the house-made here Buffalo sauce and cooled off with a thick chocolate malt. As an added bonus, if you're drinking a pint at Crazy J's across the street -- also owned by Little Bitty Burger Barn -- you can order food from LBBB and have it delivered to you for no extra cost.
Houston's first full-scale craft beer bar is still its most respected, if a little worn around the edges from years of cask-tappings and vertical tastings. And though it's greatly expanded from its initial days as a beer bar tucked into a converted neighborhood gas station, Petrol is still as friendly and cozy as ever -- even though the backyard and the menu have both grown. Under chef and partner Darren Greenwood, that menu is better than ever and includes new favorites like a grilled Gouda and crab sandwich and beef stew cooked with Left Hand Milk Stout.
Despite the departure of chef Erin Smith a few months ago, Plonk has remained at the top of our list for several reasons: Owner Scott Miller's tremendous wine list, its status as the unofficial clubhouse of Garden Oaks / Oak Forest and continually good food. A patio that beckons in hot or cold weather draws neighborhood residents every night of the week, while the quirky interior boasts two private dining rooms and a wine locker out of every oenophile's dreams. And oh, that food: pizzas straight out of its 3,600-pound stone oven, Cataplana mussels with freshly baked foccacia bread and one of the best burgers in the city.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown Top 10 Restaurants in EaDo Top 10 Restaurants in River Oaks