After last week's Top 10 Restaurants in Rice Village kerfuffle, we've made extra-double sure that this week's list is wholly and completely intact. Now, that doesn't mean your favorite restaurant necessarily made the cut -- that's a whole other conversation for the comments section.
What did make the cut this week, however, were some of the city's best restaurants in an area that's increasingly going two ways. Washington Avenue was briefly the center of all things nightlife-y and clubby for a few short years, before -- as always happens in Houston -- the scene began to mutate and evolve into other areas of the city. Some nightlifers have moved back to Midtown, while others have set their sights on the East End as the next great party scene.
What's left on Washington Avenue are two things: (1) the husks of once-popular clubs gone south and (2) bars/restaurants that have either seriously stepped up their food game or are still serving the same great food that made them popular in the first place. At this point in time, Washington Avenue could go the way of the Richmond Strip and become a ghost town. But I think it's far more likely that as the cruising crowds move away, the historic street will become even more of a food corridor and destination than it already is.
In order for that to happen, however, we have to support the restaurants that are currently there -- great places like Soma Sushi, El Tiempo, J. Black's Feel Good Lounge, The Counter, Candelari's, Molina's Cantina, The Blue Fish and Patrenella's. Or you can start with one of our top 10 picks below.
Disclaimer: For purposes of this post, "Washington Avenue" has been defined as the strip of Washington running from Westcott to Studemont, with a few blocks north or south on either side. Anything further west of Westcott and you're running into Rice Military; anything further east of Studemont and you're running into the Old Sixth Ward (which has its own, unique scene with places such as Catalina, Star Pizza, Beaver's, Liberty Station and the upcoming Julep and Cottonwood).
Although the Moon Tower Inn guys have been stymied in their attempts to get up and running again over the past year, you can get your wild game hot dog fix at Sammy's -- and more. Depending on the season, the chili-cheese fries could feature anything from rattlesnake to elk in the chili on top, while wild game sliders see antelope, venison, buffalo, elk and kangaroo in between their buns. And if you're a spice-hound, you'll want to buy some of Sammy's wonderful ghost pepper sauce to take home with you.
I still think that TQLA's name was a mistake -- it leads people to believe that TQLA is only a bar, or only serves tequila -- but the food and the drinks are certainly not. Chef Tommy Birdwell is still turning out the same high-quality food that made me fall in love with TQLA when it opened in 2010, dishes such as crawfish corncakes with lime butter, pumpkin seed-crusted salmon with fried green tomatoes or blue corn-fried oysters with chorizo cream. Southwestern food has never tasted better nor more updated, even in simple adaptations like TQLA's green chile-laced burger with jalapeño cheese and avocado.
8. Sushi Tora
Ken Tanagi rules the roost at his sushi restaurant, backed up by his mother -- Mami -- of the infamous, now-closed Coco's Yakitori. The pair run a tight ship, making excellent rolls and serviceable sushi to a packed house nearly every night. But be warned: It's very loud inside, not only because of the music Tanagi plays but also because of the amount of screaming at his co-workers he does on a nightly basis. It's all in good fun, though, and you'll always get dinner and a show at Sushi Tora.
If it's down-home comfort you seek, look no further than Laredo Taqueria -- one of the last old-school Mexican joints left on a street that was once dominated by the likes of Guadalajara Bakery and Matamoros Meat Market. From the woman behind the counter hand-rolling the softest of tortillas to the Little League photos and ceramic tiles depicting the Virgin Mary on the walls, this cozy restaurant feels like an old-timey taqueria because it is. The steam table boasts simmering troughs of pork, chicken and fajita meats, all of which are falling-apart tender. Plus, at $2 for a taco bursting with this much flavor, the price will make you feel good, too. Just prepare to stand in line -- as with The Breakfast Klub, there's almost no time of day where you won't need to wait. (But it's worth it.)
El Rey is a terrific Cuban/Mexican restaurant masquerading as a fast-food joint. Sure, you eat with plastic utensils on blue plastic cafeteria trays. And yes, the food arrives very fast, but -- as with next door neighbor Pollo Campero -- this is not your average fast food. This stuff has soul. And flavor. Lots of flavor. A huge, old-fashioned rotisserie roasts beautiful, golden-skinned chickens that turn up in soups, sandwiches, tacos and burritos -- and that also stand alone quite well, thank you. There are good accompaniments, too: nicely flavored Mexican rice with good-size chunks of carrot and deeply spiced refried beans that, when spread into El Rey's famous breakfast tacos along with some grease-laced chorizo, make the perfect restorative morning meal after a long night. Also perfect for those mornings? The lattes, which are almost too good to have come from a "fast food" restaurant.
BRC Gastropub is cheeky in more ways than one: Yes, the "BRC" stands for "Big Red Cock" and the menu follows a similar adult playfulness. Don't expect to escape without dropping some bills on the food, but do expect a phenomenal beer (craft and otherwise) selection and some truly fun dishes. The poutine with a confit duck leg is pure decadence, while the skillet-based macaroni and cheese is so good we couldn't help but name it Best Mac & Cheese for two years running. Happy hour is recommended, as the restaurant only gets busier as the night goes on, especially on Friday and Saturdays. And burger nights on Mondays get you a huge, beautiful BRC burger and fries for only $8.
The second location of benjy's is quieter than you'd expect for its Washington Avenue location, without any of the hassle of forced valet or clubby music throbbing in the dining room. Its chic, elegant look is mimicked in the menu, which is full of locally sourced and seasonal food such as free-range chicken with summer succotash, pork rib eye with Texas peaches, or Gulf flounder with white asparagus and English peas. You'll also see Asian-influenced dishes (inspired in part by chef Mike Potowski's half-Japanese heritage) that run the gamut from beef udon to daily sashimi specials. Save room for dessert in the form of benjy's wonderfully geeky beer list and structured cocktails.
This upscale tavern is a great example of a uniquely American restaurant style that features a well-stocked bar and simple meat and seafood dishes that don't have French names. In many ways, the new American tavern is a throwback to early American eateries. The menu under executive chef David Grossman includes oysters on the half shell, crab cakes and smoke-roasted pork chops -- items that were just as common on the menus of American taverns of the 18th century -- as well as more updated items like house-made charcuterie and barbecued bone marrow. Lunch specials are outstanding, netting you a huge meal of fried chicken or a chicken pot pie plus iced tea for $10.
Max's Wine Dive owes its unusual name to the combination of a terrific Texas "dive" menu with chili dogs, cheese fries and mussels steamed in Lone Star beer, and an innovative wine list. These days, however, Max's is far less divey thanks to chef Michael Pellegrino and his inventive menus. This fall, look for modern dishes to fall in love with, like lemon-poppyseed muffins with uni butter; foie gras and escargot with a gremolata crème fraiche and tawny port-macerated blueberries; duck confit tarte tatin and egg yolk with Cheesy Girl goat cheese; and lengua pot roast with mousseline parsnips and green curry carrots.
Coppa Ristorante Italiano is the restaurant you turn to when you want to be assured of a great meal and equally great service; it makes things easy that way. The steady kitchen turns out an endless line of Italian classics under chef Brandi Key -- meatballs al forno, lasagna, spaghetti carbonara -- and an array of more modern dishes that delight in their simplicity, like duck-filled agnolotti with Brussels sprouts or pumpkin ravioli with cranberries. Small plates make for a good entrée size, while large plates are perfect for sharing. Don't miss the burrata, fresh from Puglia, or the signature brick oven-baked sardines. And if you just want a drink, the cheerful bar has an excellent classic cocktail program and nice happy hour prices.
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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 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