It's been a while since we tackled neighborhood lists on Eating Our Words, yet posts such as "Top 10 Restaurants in the Heights" continue to be perennial favorites with our readers each month. The last time we compiled a Top 10 Restaurants in Montrose list was well over two years ago, at which time places like Underbelly and Uchi weren't even gleams in their chefs' eyes.
And while we still adore places such as Canopy, Brasil and Nippon, it's time to update that Montrose list to include some of the newcomers that have made Lower Westheimer the city's best culinary corridor. It's an all-star list, too; no filler here.
Although it's too new to be ranked on the full list right now, my first (and so far only) visit to Cuchara gives me high hope that this fascinating Mexican restaurant will turn out to be one of the brightest new restaurants in a part of town already saturated with heavy-hitters, including Hugo's. Ditto the even newer Pass & Provisions, which is shaping up to be the Best New Restaurant of 2013 with its casual atmosphere and wildly creative dishes (have you ever had uni on a pizza?).
10. The Hay Merchant
While the food can sometimes be hit or miss at the all-craft beer bar, it's a matter of finding the really terrific stuff on Antoine Ware's menu of jazzed-up comfort classics and sticking with them: crispy pig's ears that are chewy and slightly sweet; half a barbecued chicken on a bed of creamy mac 'n' cheese; Vietnamese-style chicken wings in a caramelized fish sauce; the Butcher's Burger, made with house-ground beef that's some of the best in the city; or the chicken-fried water buffalo on those rare days when it's offered as a special. One thing is for certain whatever you order, however: This is not your father's pub grub.
Whether you're in the mood for all-day Mexican breakfast or just enjoying some of Trancito Diaz's freshly baked pastries with a cup of La Guadalupana's signature cinnamon-laced cafe de olla on the funky patio that shares space with a washateria, this old-school gem always offers you a dose of comfort and familiarity with your meal. Diaz is there every day greeting guests with a smile -- and sometimes a free slice of tres leches -- and the waitresses haven't changed in all the years I've been eating there.
There are two ways to look at Mark's: as a restaurant that hasn't changed its game in years, or as a restaurant that figured out long ago what its customers love and has faithfully stayed that course. If you look at it as the former (and consider the prices, too), you'll be unimpressed -- despite the beautiful location inside a renovated church. If you look at it as the latter, you'll see a chef -- Mark Cox -- who's committed to keeping his customers happy by offering big, swaggering portions of exceptionally well-prepared exotic fare made with interesting seasonal ingredients, such as a coffee-roasted Kurobuta pork loin with bourbon-glazed short ribs (and that's only listing a few of the items on the plate). It's a paradigm not often found in modern restaurants and it works very well for Mark's.