The last time we rounded up the 10 best places to eat in Memorial was in 2009. CityCentre was still under construction and Memorial City Mall had just emerged from years of redevelopment to rival The Galleria as the city's best shopping center. The Memorial you see today is not the Memorial that I grew up in -- a sleepy suburb where most of the restaurants were mom-and-pop places and where the neighborhood's best bar was owned by my high school English teacher.
But I'm not one to shun this new, vibrant Memorial either; the resurgence (or continued growth, depending upon your perspective) is something that many once-glorious Houston suburbs never get to experience. Look upon Sharpstown or Gulfgate or Alief, ye mighty, and despair. For all the moaning about the "Decepticon"-esque medical tower at Gessner and I-10 or the closure of Town & Country Mall, the restyled Memorial has been a boon to property values in the area and has brought a bevy of interesting dining options that didn't exist this far west even 10 years ago.
And although I love old-school joints like LaHa, Napoli's and Sam's Deli Diner as much as the next Memorial kid, this Top 10 list contains restaurants that can be considered among the best in the city -- not simply the most nostalgic.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, Memorial is defined as north of Buffalo Bayou, west of Loop 610, east of Highway 6, and north of Katy Freeway to Westview. This area includes Spring Valley Village, Piney Point Village, Bunker Hill Village, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village and Hunters Creek Village. Some entries are excerpted from previous Best of Houston® issues, as the reasons we awarded the restaurants such accolades still stand.
The reason I list these three places together and haven't given them individual spots on the list is because they're all grocery stores/specialty markets first and foremost. That said, these three spots are three of my go-to favorites for a quick, simple and [occasionally] healthy lunch. If you love deli-style sandwiches, you'll love these three places.
The second location of Bellaire-based Union Kitchen is warm and inviting, with a full bar to one side and a tiered dining room to the other. You almost wouldn't recognize the revamped dining room as the former location of Chinese haunt Hunan Emperor. Union Kitchen's bar makes some excellent Bloody Marys during Sunday brunch, which are the perfect companion to a seven-layer stack of its buttery pancakes. Lunch and dinner are more scattered affairs, but the burgers -- especially the signature onion ring-topped Angus burger -- are reliably good.
German immigrant Lorene Brenner and her husband, Herman, opened the first Brenner's Cafe in 1936. When their original eatery was bulldozed to make way for the Katy Freeway, the Brenners relocated to a little house with a big garden and changed the format. From the beginning, Brenner's Steakhouse has served only USDA Prime beef. The 14-table main dining room was softly illuminated by antique light fixtures, and the woodwork was installed with the kind of craftsmanship you don't see much anymore. One wall is made of flagstone with a built-in fireplace, and the opposite one is a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over the enormous garden. The charming little cottage with the excellent steaks became a favorite of Houston's new western suburban set, who were building houses along Memorial in the 1950s and 1960s. Herman Brenner died in 1976, and Lorene Brenner operated the restaurant alone for many years. When she retired, Tilman Fertitta's Landry's Restaurant Group bought the place. Fertitta spent more than $1 million to restore Brenner's to its original state. He even brought Lorene Brenner back as a consultant. In a city that routinely razes its landmarks, Brenner's revitalization is nothing short of amazing.
8. Cafe Rita
This Armenian/Lebanese restaurant is a small, one-of-a-kind place run by an elderly Armenian couple, George and Rita Sarikhanian. Eating here makes you feel like you're a guest in their home -- everything is homemade and served with pride -- and there are even pictures of grandchildren stuck all over the sides of the deli case, which is stuffed to overflowing with goodies. Rita prepares traditional breakfast foul -- the ancient fava bean soup -- with lots of lemon and garlic. George and Rita always have something cooking that's not on the menu. "Taste this, we don't make it all the time, you better get some while you can," George will say, stuffing your mouth with something wonderful as you stand in line. How can you say no? Their hummus, mouhammara (red pepper spread) and falafel are excellent, and all of their kabobs -- lamb, chicken, kefta -- served hot off the grill, are scrumptious. Expect a wait at lunch.
Although it'd be easy to flesh out this entire list with CityCentre restaurants, I kept it to only the two that inspire me the most. The first, Straits, serves modern Singaporean cuisine with Thai and Vietnamese influences in the type of lounge-like atmosphere that was missing in old Memorial. Hip decor, a large outdoor dining area and swift, friendly servers make it an upscale hangout by night and a relaxing lunch spot by day. The San Francisco-based restaurant has adapted well to Houston thanks to chef John Sikhattana, who runs a tight ship and keeps the food hot, fresh and spicy -- just as Singaporean dishes should be. Standouts include the whole fried striped bass, a creamy-sour laksa noodle soup, fragrant Hainan chicken and the flaky, addictive roti prata.
One of Houston's oldest and most authentic French restaurants is owned by French husband-and-wife team Jean-Philippe and Genevieve Guy, both of whom are as inviting as the cozy restaurant itself. As the name would indicate, Bistro Provence serves Provençal cuisine such as wood-oven pizzas, lamb shank Provençale and seafood specialties made by chef Jeremy Griffin as well as French classics like escargot, rillettes, duck liver and an outstanding poussin rôti cooked in that same wood-fired oven. The wine list is all French, as you would expect, and both lunch and dinner always require a wait -- come early or late if you don't want to stand around, salivating over the other diners' meals.
Partially hidden behind a dry cleaner, this Mediterranean restaurant in a primarily residential area of Memorial doesn't get the credit it deserves. We've never had a meal here that was less than perfect. The authentically Turkish menu ranges from luscious appetizers like the nutty ezme (you'll never go back to baba ghanoush) and the stuffed eggplant dish imam bayildi to savory yogurtlu sis with lamb and more than a dozen mixed grills to choose from. Even better, if you're enjoying a glass of wine at the neighboring Vine Room wine bar, Empire will deliver its delicious food to you free of charge.
4. Sushi Jin
When it first opened, Sushi Jin helped raise the bar for Houston's raw fish lovers. Years later, it's still one of the best sushi restaurants in town. Flown in straight from Japan, the mouthwatering pieces of salmon, tuna and yellow tail are sure to impress even the snobbiest connoisseurs. Wanna walk on the wild side? Jellyfish, sea cucumber and other exotics are hidden away in a secret stash -- all you have to do is ask and prove you're no novice. Private karaoke rooms allow diners to sing and dance, or you can just relax in one of the booths and enjoy the restaurant's simple, elegant decor.
Jonathan Levine is a down-to-earth guy, a good cook and a gregarious host. He buys the very best seafood and high-quality beef and cooks it simply. His prices aren't cheap, but the tiny restaurant is always packed -- and with the recent addition of a sweet little patio, there's even more room for diners to enjoy Jonathan's beautiful steaks and stellar bowls of shrimp and grits. And while the food is great, it's the show that people come for: There just aren't many restaurant owners sweating on the line while cracking wise with the patrons anymore.
2. Bistro Alex
If you don't want to make the drive to Midtown, Alex Brennan-Martin's famed Texas Creole cuisine can be had on the west side of town at CityCentre (making it the second CityCentre restaurant on the list, although spots such as Flora & Muse and Eddie V's were also strong contenders for the top 10). Antique mesquite wood planks line the walls and ceilings of Bistro Alex, and there's an open kitchen where an in-house charcuterie program is churning out such classics as terrine de foie gras, Spanish chorizo and Italian sopressata. The famed Brennan's turtle soup is also on the menu here, as are other fabulous dishes like shrimp andouillete, mussels and some unbelievable flat breads (try the duck and gala apple version). Whatever you do, leave room for the white chocolate bread pudding, the café au lait cheesecake, or both.
The only restaurant in Houston to truly master the Napoletano-style pizza, Pizaro's is all the more wonderful for its unassuming location in a 1960s-era strip mall between a Los Tios and a nail salon. There's nothing fancy about the bare-bones dining room -- especially the disposable plates and utensils -- save the enormous, glowing pizza oven that takes up nearly one whole wall. The pizzas here are cooked at 900 degrees in 90 seconds, using house-made mozzarella and imported San Marzano tomatoes, resulting in a pizza nearly as good as you'd get in Naples itself. As an added bonus, Pizaro's lets you BYOB for the ultimate affordable-yet-extravagantly-delicious night out.
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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 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