Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Houston Press’ Top 10 Restaurants in the Heights

The Houston Press recently blogged about their Top 10 Restaurants in the Heights, and the comments quickly deteriorated into a discussion about how they were a bit too lenient in their definition of the Heights. Ok, so maybe the title should have been “Heights Area Restaurants.” Me, I’m less interested in debating official borders. The topic nobody seems to be discussing: how awesome is the restaurant scene in the Heights? We’re smokin’ hot, baby. People from around Houston are actually coming here. We’re the Brooklyn of Houston!

Lists like these are silly, but I think they’re fun. So to keep the conversation going, here’s MY list of the top restaurants in the Heights. I really enjoyed Ruthie’s list, and I think posts like these really get people talking. I just wish people would talk about something other than geographical boundaries.

I’ve expanded my list to 16 because I couldn’t quickly trim it down to ten. Hey, it’s my blog. I get to make my own rules. What did I miss/get wrong?

16. Shade
Shade brings up the rear of my list. I’ve always loved this place, but recently I’ve noticed a few slips. The duck main I loved last year is now missing the awesome duck cracklings, a glass of wine we ordered a few weeks ago was cooked, and the menu hasn’t changed in a year. Shade, I love you, but you’re on notice: I haven’t been to Branchwater Tavern yet.

15. Christian’s Tailgate
Even though the space now has a dozen taps behind a new dark wood bar, the burgers are still huge and the bathrooms are still disgusting. The fries are terrible, but the burger (with pickled jalapenos) is epic. And a bargain.

14. Vietnam
Sure it’s not the most authentic or creatively named Vietnamese restaurant in town, but it’s the only one in the neighborhood and it’s pretty damn good. I always get the Bo Luc Loc, black pepper scallops, and string beans. Bring a cheap bottle of wine.

13. Taqueria Tacambaro
Taqueria Tambaro is a taco truck located (most of the time) at the southeast corner of the farmer’s market at Caninos on Airline. Famous for their mollejas (sweetbread) tacos, I think they’re even better as a gordita. Don’t be scared, it’s cleaner than a hot dog.

12. Taqueria Laredo on Cavalcade
There’s nothing wrong with the Patton location that’s 400 yards south, but I like this location better. Here’s the drill: wait in the line that snakes through the long dining room, pick your fillings from the steam table, and then grab a table. Why it’s on the list: excellent flour tortillas and my favorite breakfast tacos in Houston.

11. Teotihuacan
The hard to pronounce pink place has awesome corn tortillas, cheap breakfast, and solid parrilladas. Steer too far from those and you’re asking for trouble. While the patio always calls to me, the service is spotty, you can’t hear yourself think, and you really only have a view of the parking lot. Skip the patio and grab a tattered booth inside.

10. Rainbow Lodge
The jury is still out whether this is the four star restaurant of ex-chef Randy Rucker, or the frumpy place where they serve Rudolph four ways and a weak duck gumbo. The meal I had before Rucker’s departure was ambitious, so it deserves a spot on this list until proven otherwise.

9. Stanton’s City Bites
If you prefer thin burgers, Stanton’s burgers are not for you. My favorite (the Truck Stop) is the most ridiculous: a large ½ pound cheeseburger with a single thick onion ring.

8. Fratelli’s
I must have passed this place a hundred times before deciding to give it a try. Large northern Italian menu; the best reminds me of Simposio before they moved. Half of the entrees feature unexciting boneless skinless chicken breasts and the wine list needs updating, but there are gems on the menu. Try the decent pizzas and be sure to order the fantastic gnocchi appetizer.

7. Asia Market
I prefer Vieng Thai on Long Point, but my wife prefers Asia Market. We’re lucky to have both nearby. Asia Market is a hoot (buy your lotto tickets while you wait!), and the food doesn’t pull any punches.

6. Catalan
Blasphemy! I know this place deserves to be higher. I love the pork belly and wine program, but I just hate the room. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve dined there, so perhaps it’s time for a revisit.

5. Catalina Coffee
I drink a cup of espresso every morning, so to me, coffee is food. And Catalina has the best coffee around. The place is no frills, but the coffee is serious. If you’re a Starbucks drinker and haven’t tried Catalina, you owe it to yourself to see how a proper coffee tastes (or not, because you’ll be ruined forever).

4. Beaver’s
The past few times the barbecue has been sub-par, but the rest of the menu is STILL improving. This is where I take people from out of town to show them a bit of Houston. Hell, I even took my vegetarian sister here. Great cocktails, and don’t skip the special.

3. Barbecue Inn
Barbecue Inn is a blast from the past, with awesome fried chicken, fried shrimp, and a mean CFS. In other words, everything fried here is awesome. Has anyone actually had the barbecue? Let me know.

2. Stella Sola
I’m in love with Stella Sola, from the well thought out cocktails in the bar, to the meat-centric mains and specials. The wine list—with its fair markup ala REEF and Catalan—is enough for Stella Sola to make any best of list. Too often, Italian food in this country falls into the Olive Garden template. Stella Sola nails the ethos of true Italian cuisine (simple, but fresh high quality ingredients).

1. Plinio Sandalio’s Dessert Tasting at Textile
This one was a no-brainer for me, but it’s probably a curious choice. How do I reward dessert at a restaurant number one? Simple: it’s A-MAAAAA-ZING. To dismiss this and say “it’s just dessert” is to miss the point. A year ago, my wife and I sat at Textile’s uber-tiny bar (seats 2!) for Plinio’s 8 course dessert tasting and were treated to one mind-blowing dish after another. Bacon ice cream, deconstructed strawberry shortcake, sweet potato beignets… each course more outrageous than the previous.

Lemon Sorbet w/ Shortbread | Photo: melanie campbell-tello | flickr

Plinio’s creations challenge your comfort zone; he’s a master at mixing sweet and savory, and his dishes are as beautiful to look at as they are to taste (I think at the time I said the strawberry shortcake looked like a MirĂ³ painting). In Houston, this is about as close as we’ll get to the Top Chef experience.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Stella Sola, or how I learned to love food again and start blogging

9:30pm. 9:45pm. Those were my options.

I sat in my Dallas hotel room last Thursday night, attempting to book a table at Stella Sola for Saturday night. I originally put in an 8pm request to Open Table and I assumed 48 hours was enough time to get my pick of times. Wrong.

My vegetarian sister visited for Christmas, and I was tempted by a tweet from Alison Cook that pronounced their gnocchi as one of the best vegetarian dishes in Houston. The rest of the menu appeared to be an herbivore’s worst nightmare, and after a twitter exchange with @tastybitz, I wimped out and we ended up at Beaver’s. Stella Sola would have to wait.

I could list a dozen reasons why it took me so long to finally visit Stella Sola. Even without visiting, it was obvious that Stella Sola was THE restaurant story of the year in the Heights. So yes, I’m blaming my unplanned blog sabbatical on Stella Sola. I’m only half kidding.

“Oh my god, that’s incredible.”

The first bite of suckling pig just fell apart in my mouth. The pork meat was insanely moist and tender, complimented by a crispy, oh-so-thin pork skin. My wife and I ran into two friends sharing the suckling pig for two at the bar and they were nice enough to share a small sample with us. Offered as a special (call ahead for availability), the suckling pig not only equals, but exceeds, my recollections of the version served at the venerable Cochon Restaurant in New Orleans.

Our other dishes were equally impressive. Polenta and Shrimp (their version of shrimp and grits) was small in size but huge in flavor, with a 1 square inch hunk of fork tender pork belly plopped right in the middle. The meat market plate was a fantastic display of thinly sliced piggy parts and shows off the kitchen’s strength with charcuterie. Wide and thick handmade pappardelle pasta with wild boar meat sauce was large enough to share, and was nicely paired with a very mild house made ricotta.

Meat Market Plate | Photo: houston_foodie |flickr

Have you noticed a pig/pork theme? If REEF is Caswell and Co’s temple to gulf coast seafood, Stella Sola is their house of pig. With Feast and Catalan, can Houston support three pig focused restaurants? My take: YES. All three restaurants have completely different concepts and don’t really overlap. Plus, the pig is probably the greatest culinary animal ever. I say it deserves all three.

My criticisms with Stella Sola are minor: most of the pappardelle was pleasantly al dente, but a few areas of the large pasta sheets clumped during cooking and were unpleasantly tough. Towards the end of the night, someone changed the in house music to 94.5 and we were all treated to some angst ridden mid-90s gems. Lastly (a question directed at the previous tenants), who designed and signed off on the floor plan of this place? The footprint of the place takes up an entire city block, but the usable space is surprisingly small. There appears to be a lot of outdoor space that will probably be used for al fresco dining for the 7-10 days of nice weather we have coming this Spring.

I must admit I was skeptical of the Texas/Tuscan concept, as I imagined some ill-conceived higher end version of Spaghetti Western. After my visit, all doubts are gone. The icing on the cake: the top notch house cocktails and a wine list to make the cork dorks weep for joy.

Pistachio Pound Cake | Photo: houston_foodie |flickr

1001 Studewood, Houston, TX
Dinner Tue-Sun, Brunch Sunday

Monday, November 30, 2009

Restaurant Websites: Stop the Madness

I know this post is a bit off topic for this blog, but I've seen a bunch of comments on Twitter complaining about various restaurant websites and I think it's time we all have a talk. I've searched and searched and found little to nothing in terms of written guidelines or best practices when it comes to restaurant websites, so no wonder everything is so messed up. Thankfully, most restaurants are simply small businesses, so a simple, static website should cover the essentials.

Web-enabled smartphones (like the iPhone and Blackberry) have changed the game. A large percentage of my frustrations come from badly formatted or poorly programmed sites on my Blackberry. Finding a specific restaurant's address, hours, or menu can sometimes be infuriating. Don't feel bad. Try navigating most e-commerce websites on a Blackberry, and they spend a fortune.

First, let's address the most important question: Do I even need a website?

YES you absolutely need a website

This isn't meant to sound like an ad for a web marketing company, but you really do. Take my example from above: if a user is quickly searching for a specific restaurant, they will type the name of your restaurant into Google, with perhaps the city. For those restaurants without websites, you'll probably get a local city guide site at the top of the list (i.e., Yelp, Citysearch). For those WITH sites, I guarantee you'll be the first one in the Google search list because each and every local city guide will link to your website. With Google, the more links to your site, the higher your ranking.

In my research, I used Textile as an example partly because they redesigned their site a few months back, but also because they did a lot of simple things right. Try typing Textile Restaurant Houston and check the results. Without a site, a user would probably visit Citysearch. Jenny's overview is nice, but it's followed by the three latest reviews, none of them very complimentary. I'm not criticizing Citysearch, but promoting your restaurant is not their top priority. They're not officially representing you, so why let them?

Nobody likes music on a website

Maybe I'm being too harsh. Let me rephrase: sound has a purpose for certain websites. Your website is not one of them. Trust me. There are few things more annoying than coming across a site with blaring music, especially at work. It basically eliminates any doubt as to whether you're working on that spreadsheet or researching a place to eat for the weekend.

List your location, hours, and phone number...

These three elements—along with your menu (more on that later)—are the most important things to include on your site. The Textile site has this information front and center, right under the main navigation (minus their hours; BOO!). Unless your restaurant is ridiculously hard to find, embedded maps aren't necessary. Link to a Google map instead.

...and make sure it's TEXT

When a site is animated in Flash or generated as a fancy graphic, all site content is inaccessible. Smartphone users depend on simple HTML in order to interact with elements such as a phone number. Even better, phone numbers should be tagged as a link in order for an iPhone to see it as clickable. Equally important, Google indexes the content of your site. If it's text, it'll show. As a smartphone user, I can get all the important information without even visiting your site. How cool is that?

Textile result in Google on my Blackberry

Make the title of your site relevant

Each of the pages in your site have a title. It's what displays at the top of your browser bar, and it's also the first line of each Google search result (see Textile Restaurant above). I suggest including the name of your restaurant, the city, and a (very) brief description of your restaurant. For example, Textile Restaurant | Houston, TX | Modern American Cuisine. If your restaurant is trying to market itself as family friendly, go ahead and put that in the title. Google gives the most weight to the title. Putting something descriptive increases your chances of being found by someone searching.

The "best" restaurant in Houston?

A few months ago, I had a back and forth twitter conversation about the website of RDG, the new Del Grande restaurant in the Galleria. Someone noted that their title included the phrase "Best Restaurant in Houston," a claim so boastful I called it conceited (my exact words). A friend commented that this was most certainly the work of a SEO (search engine optimization) specialist. SEO reminds me of Economics 101, with concepts so ridiculously common sense that it's hard for me to take it seriously. True, this concept initially worked; the new RDG site ranked towards the top of the "Best Restaurants in Houston" search results. This may work for a few visitors on expense accounts, but I never believe self proclaimed bests of anything. Unless this is backed up by an actual award (say, a Houston Press best of award), I'm not biting. So perhaps "conceited" is too strong. I'll go with unnecessarily boastful. Two months later, RDG is stuck in the upper teens of search results, on page two of Google (the equivalent of Siberia).

Include a menu

I think it's important that every restaurant site have some sort of menu, preferably in text format (see above for reasons, they still apply). I know this will probably be difficult for restaurants that regularly change their menus, but there are ways around this. Include a sample menu, especially if it's a tasting menu. PDF menus are annoying for smartphone users, but they're quick and easy, and satisfies the inquisitive wine dork types that research everything. It's a different persona (researcher) than the smartphone user (just the essentials, please).

Don't let your web designer self advertise

You know what this looks like: the designer puts a "designed by..." hyperlink in the footer or a restaurant's website. I'll probably catch some flack for this, but I think it's lame for a design firm to include a link to their home page on your site. It's YOUR site, not a vehicle to deliver them more sales.

Use Twitter!

Twitter is one of the best ways to promote your restaurant, and it's easy to include a widget on your site that broadcasts your tweets. In Houston, the foodie community is downright fanatical about supporting and following local restaurants. Heck, I follow places I don't even like! Go get a Twitter account, and use it. Start off simply: just tweet your weekend specials. Even better, engage in two way conversations. Best of all, it's free.


Whew. Even though I intentionally left out graphics and photos as topics, this was by far my longest post. There's a lot to digest here, although I'm fairly confident that there's a lot more. Any disagreements? What have I missed?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stanton's City Bites

I would normally consider Stanton's outside the Heights, but hey if Heights Blog considers it part of the Heights, that's good enough for me. A couple of my friends went to Stanton's for the first time and were fairly impressed, so Stanton's has been on my mind today. I originally wrote this review for the Fearless Critics, but it didn't make the cut. I think that's a damn shame, but Stanton's is starting to get the following they deserve. The burger market sure is crowded in Houston, but I truly believe Stanton's serves one of the best burgers in town. Here goes.

Houstonians are used to finding some of the best hamburgers in the dingiest of locales, and Stanton’s certainly qualifies. Stanton’s City Bites occupies a non-descript grocery store in the shadows of downtown Houston. The tattered storefront is reminiscent of a classic New Orleans neighborhood convenience store, complete with a well worn interior and uneven foundation. It’s the kind of place where a handful of dropped marbles would congregate in the front corner. Your instincts may say “stay away,” but if you stick to your guns, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best burgers in this burger crazed city.

Stanton’s cheeseburgers are a tour de force. The meat is fresh ground and (thankfully) cooked to order, although they tend to overcook (order medium rare for a pink medium burger). The hand-formed burger patty is substantial, thick, juicy, and well seasoned. Ordered all the way, the burgers come with a slice of tomato, crisp romaine (not iceburg) lettuce, and fresh sliced red onions. Condiments (for flavor only) include a small swipe of mustard and mayo. As with every great burger, the sum is greater than its individual parts.

Regrettably, the sides don’t live up to the burgers. The French fries are previously frozen, with an unfortunate manufactured crunch on the outside. The tots are a slight improvement, but are still only school cafeteria quality. The onion rings are the class of the sides, which isn’t saying much. Like the burgers, all of the sides are served in to-go Styrofoam containers and will turn soggy if not opened within a few minutes. Drink options are surprisingly good, with various bottled sodas (including Mexican Cokes), teas, and other pedestrian beers. Also present are an assorted selection of questionable 40 ounce beverage options, all individual selections chilled, many available in cases to go.

Run by a hospitable Asian couple, the restaurant does an admirable job of fulfilling orders. While all items are cooked to order, there is usually little wait. Keep in mind that there are no tables to eat inside the store and everything is strictly To-Go. Burgers this good are best enjoyed super-fresh, so we suggest taking your order to a nearby park, or better yet, just go to it in the comfort of your automobile. And remember, take plenty of napkins.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Flying Saucer Pie Company

I must confess: I'm a pie guy. I love cake too, but if I had to choose, it would totally be pie. True, bad pie is an abomination (if you've ever had a crappy apple pie from a grocery store, you know what I'm talking about), but unlike bad cake, bad pie can sometimes be saved. I once resurrected a crappy pecan pie from Kroger by taking a slice and slapping it upside down on a hot cast iron skillet a la Camellia Grill (even better with vanilla ice cream). Cake tends to get churched up in all sorts of whacky, crazy dessert lists, but pie always reminds me of the holidays.

If your preference for pie leans more towards the Good Housekeeping Illustrated vs the French Laundry cookbook, then the Flying Saucer Pie Company is for you. Fruit pies are thickened with cornstarch and cream pies are layered with an inch of whipped topping. These are the pies your mother and grandmother would make if she still made pies. All pies are supported by a uniform crust with a great crumbly texture, and just a hint of salt.

In November, any discussion about Flying Saucer absolutely must include the madhouse that is the few days before Thanksgiving. For those who haven't experienced it firsthand, think mad dash to Space Mountain when Disney World opens its gates. The line inevitably winds down Crosstimbers, and nerves begin to show. Last Thanksgiving, I watched a view of the line from the local news helicopter and laughed at the play by play tweets from those in the trenches.

A few words of advice from my wife, who has experienced the line every year from the last decade: DON'T attempt to cut the line or fistfights will occur. DO wear warm clothes if the temps drop. DON'T wait for an hour plus and buy one pie. That's just stupid talk. Best to draw straws and have one person buy for your group of friends/family. DON'T have your heart set on one kind of pie. Have a backup plan in case the pie(s) you want sell out. It will happen, so be prepared. DO bring your patience.

436 W. Crosstimbers
Monday, November 23 7:00am to 7:00pm
Tuesday, November 24 7:00am to 7:00pm
Wednesday, November 25 7:00am to 5:00pm

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Breakfast at Lola (preview)

I normally don't post anything about a restaurant until it's been open for a few months, but Lola has been getting a lot of publicity recently, so why not? Consider this posting more of a one visit observation. There's been a lot of chatter over the world wide interwebs about Lola, you would think it's the most significant restaurant to open in the Heights in the last year. I won't quite go that far, but consider this: its shtick is the woefully under-represented mid-tier food market and it's smack dab right in the middle of the Heights. None of this Washington Ave nonsense. 11th and Yale: doesn't get much more definitively "Heights" than that.

The wife and I visited for breakfast last Sunday. I ordered the chicken and waffles and my wife ordered the skillet (chicken fried steak and eggs). Order at the register, pay, receive your drink cup and number on a stick and go grab a table. In a few minutes, your food is delivered to your table for consumption. Much has been made over the prices and how this doesn't jive with the counter service model. Didn't bother me. Coffee was decent, and juices looked fresh squeezed.

We experience some highs and lows. First, the chicken and waffles were a huge disappointment. The chicken (breaded and fried boneless chicken breast) was incredibly salty and inedible, although incredibly juicy (no small accomplishment with white meat). The waffle itself was soggy and depressing as it lacked a crunchy exterior. Included extras (bacon and fruit) were actually quite good.

While the chicken and waffles were left half eaten, the chicken fried steak is probably the best in the Heights area at that price point. Think about that for a minute: Barbecue Inn, Triple A, Hickory Hollow. I know it's a bold statement, but they're all inferior. Included cheese grits and eggs were nothing special, so I'm thinking the dinner serving of the CFS is where it's at. Both the breading on the CFS and chicken looked eerily similar, so I'm a little perplexed how the results could be so different.

All in all, I think Lola shows promise (lots of people appeared to be enjoying the pancakes; anyone have them?). We look forward to eating here again in the future and hope the mentioned execution problems get rectified. Remember folks, it's still a young pup.

1102 Yale St.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Call for Entries: Notable Heights Burgers

I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

I was in Las Vegas for a conference last week and had dinner one night at Burger Bar at the Mandalay Bay Casino. For those not familiar, Burger Bar serves a large variety of burgers, many obscenely expensive (there is a Kobe burger with foie gras on the menu for $60; only in Vegas!). Burger Bar is a favorite of mine for its beer selection; however, the burgers are pretty good. We ordered the American Classic (cheese and bacon), medium please. On the plus side, the burger was cooked a perfect medium, with a pink center. On the minus side, the fries were pretty terrible and there was no mayo on the bun or in the condiment trays on the bar, although they did eventually bring some when we asked.

Here in Houston, we are both blessed and cursed on the burger front. Blessed, because we have a ton of quality burger shops who understand how we like it. "All the way" means what we all expect. Cursed, because the number of places that will cook a burger to order is the rare exception rather than the rule (no pun intended).

A Hamburger Today has come up with a much more extensive categorization for burger styles, but for simplicity sake, I've come up with two categories: thin and thick. Note to all burger shops, if you serve a big thick burger and either refuse or just plain fail to serve it under well done, you're really screwing up.

I also judge a burger place by its container (the bun, extra points for a slight griddle crunch) and its fries. The french fried potato... why is it so hard to get a good burger AND fries? Consider this list: Lankford, Christians, and Hubcap. All serve crappy fries. Why? Why?!?!

I know there are some great burgers out there in the Heights. What are your favorites? Pros and cons? There are quite a few great burger spots just north of 610, so I'm adding that area to the discussion, but let's keep it somewhat close (note the gradient).

I'll start. Stanton's. Pros: Great hand formed burger, bun, and condiments. One of Houston's best. Cons: was cooked past requested medium rare and the fries are awful.