All of Houston's original six wards are rich with history, but none captivate me quite as much as the Third Ward. Once home to the city's wealthiest residents, the area just southeast of downtown has gone through a tremendous amount of change since it was first established in 1836.
The Third Ward has been called "the elite neighborhood of late 19th-century Houston," home to "a silk-stocking neighborhood of Victorian-era homes" that changed drastically with the construction of Union Station -- now Minute Maid Park -- in 1911. The area quickly became less residential and more urban, and the first "flight" of residents took place as the neighborhood became saturated with hotels and other businesses catering to travelers.
Another significant flight took place in the 1950s, when neighborhoods such as Riverside Terrace underwent forced integration. The formerly Jewish neighborhood off MacGregor Way -- constructed in the 1930s at a time when Jews were forbidden by an unwritten gentleman's agreement from building or living within the WASP-y enclave of River Oaks -- saw its wealthy residents depart as blacks moved in. A second wave saw those wealthy blacks leave as Highway 288 was carved through the neighborhood in the 1960s.
Today, the Third Ward possess a dynamic mix of old and new as the area slowly undergoes a slow gentrification process: beautiful brick homes abutting wonderfully divey restaurants like Chief Cajun Snack Shack, 80-year-old meat markets turned into vegan coffee shops, non-profit arts organizations such as Project Row Houses side-by-side with still-occupied row houses. The University of Houston and Texas Southern University both call the Third Ward home, and so do a diverse mix of restaurants to suit every taste.
Note: The Third Ward is defined as southeast of Highway 288/59, southwest of Interstate 45, west of Highway 5/Calhoun and north of Wheeler/Blodgett. However, for the purposes of this post, the southern boundaries have been extended to MacGregor Way and the western boundaries have been extended to Almeda for historic reasons.
Chief serves three main things at his burger shack on Southmore at Live Oak: burgers, barbecue and nachos. Although the three may seem incongruous, it's a combination that's remained a popular trio here for years. Everything comes in huge portions -- including the "small" nachos, topped with crumbled, finely-seasoned hamburger meat -- so come hungry, but be prepared to take your food to-go. There's no A/C in here and the smoke from the grill can get a little overwhelming, especially on a hot day.
This cafeteria-style restaurant on Almeda is like a smaller version of This Is It, with all of the heart and soul intact in a comfortable, homey setting. Standouts on the steam table here are the oxtails, chicken and catfish, as well as the bacon fat-laden green beans and cabbage, all of which are served with a genuine smile. Portions are immense, so beware: You won't be walking out of here hungry, or with room for dessert. Luckily, Alfreda's packages its desserts (try the banana pudding) to go, so you can enjoy them later.
Perhaps the only Nation of Islam-run restaurant in town, Conscious Cafe is also the only place in town to get some bean pie, that cross between sweet potato and buttermilk pie which uses navy beans in place of sweet potatoes. Under Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad's dietary restrictions, sweet potatoes and most beans are verboten, but navy beans are kosher. Meat is also banned. Adhering to those guidelines, the cafe specializes in healthy pescatarian food like a grilled wild salmon burger and a savory eggplant hoagie. Owners Andrew Lewis, Shondra Muhammad and Nicole Hudson ensure that customer service is tops at this little neighborhood joint, which also serves as a community center of sorts for this Third Ward neighborhood; you'll feel right at home in no time, even if you don't know Farrakhan from Marrakesh.
7. Bobbie Que's
Chef Bobbie Patterson moved to Houston from Akron, Ohio in 2006, but despite his Yankee pedigree knows plenty about meat. His barbecue sauce line has won awards at food shows and barbecue conventions and sells very well at retail stores and online. Patterson opened the barbecue restaurant on Scott as a sideline to the sauce business. The creamy potato salad, homemade coleslaw, macaroni and cheese and fluffy cornbread are all outstanding. Patterson also prides himself on his fried catfish and his fresh-ground, hand-formed hamburger, but it's his ribs that we like most.
Spanish Village evokes everything people love about the comfort of Tex-Mex cuisine: a sprawling but cozy set of dining rooms that reminds you of your aunt's house at Christmas with all the cousins and the noise and family photos and the tacky colored lights strung from room to room; gooey cheese that wraps your stomach and your heart in warmth (and perhaps cholesterol, but who cares?); simply constructed guacamole salad without any fuss or pomp, served with idiosyncratic bits of carrot and celery stuck on top; a hot plate of enchiladas with nothing else but ground beef, plenty of cheese and raw white onions telling you that even if everything else in the world is in a state of disarray and chaos, this one thing will always be here and always be the same and you'll be okay.
5. This Is It
This Is It, one of Houston's oldest and most recognizable soul food restaurants, started in Midtown but has since picked up and moved down the street from Texas Southern University. Originally opened in 1959 under Frank and Mattie Jones, This Is It is run today by grandson Craig Joseph Sr. and his wife. The family-run restaurant still turns out classic Southern comfort food and still makes my favorite plate of oxtails in town, stewed until the tender, fatty meat falls from the bones with a breath. It's packed to the plate glass windows at lunch, and good luck finding a parking spot along Blodgett. My advice: Wait until the lunch rush is over around 1 p.m., or head out early and get there when it first starts serving at 11 a.m.
4. Doshi House
This Third Ward coffeehouse/art space also offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, most of it vegetarian and all of it delicious. Along with Conscious Cafe and Green Seed Vegan, it's one of the increasing number of vegan or vegetarian options in a part of town not historically known for such granola pursuits. Breakfast at Doshi features Greenway coffee, pastries and other goods from local bakers (including gluten-free options), while lunch offers a small selection of panini, soups and salads. Dinner offers a rotating selection of one filling, vegetarian meal per night -- a Thai red curry one night or Indian butter "chicken" the next -- and is always inexpensive. Fresh juices and smoothies are available throughout the day, and the cozy space invites you to kick back, relax and enjoy the calm, quiet atmosphere.
3. Cream Burger
The little burger shack just on the edge of the University of Houston campus has been serving cheeseburgers and shakes made with real ice cream for dozens of years. In fact, the name "Cream Burger" comes from the two most perennially popular items at the shack: deliriously thick ice cream milkshakes and malts and classic Texas roadside-style burgers. Prices are almost comically cheap, but pay heed to the "rules" posted around the ordering window. "SPEAK LOUDER" exhorts one sign, while countless others basically warn you -- on pain of death -- to get the hell off your cell phone while ordering. And if you think they're kidding, just test the woman behind the counter. She'll slam the mesh screen shut on you so fast it'll make your head spin.
The brick-and-mortar location of popular Third Ward-area food truck Green Seed Vegan serves all of the food truck's popular items -- and more. Juices and "elixirs" made with wheatgrass, fruits and veggies are made to order. All of the menu items, including the juices, are vegan -- and many are entirely raw. But your best bets are the tempting Dirty Burque, which is good enough to stand up against any meat-based burger, and the spicy Tosh panino with maple-jerk tempeh made in-house with garbanzo beans instead of soy.
Crispy, spicy and hot. That's how you'll find the fried chicken at this Third Ward institution, which is consistently namechecked by everyone from former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh to rapper Chamillionaire and singer Beyonce as one of Houston's greatest culinary treasures. Most people get their Frenchy's Chicken to-go, although a few metal tables and chairs are available in this open-air spot. Sides include Creole basics like red beans and rice, dirty rice and jambalaya, all of which are superb, as are the flaky biscuits. The po-boy made with a spicy Creole sausage makes for a wonderful change of pace if, for some reason, you've tired of fried chicken (God save your poor soul).
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