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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide 2010

The newest edition of the Fearless Critic Houston Restaurant Guide is now available for purchase. The new edition is the first to employ a Council, a group of local foodies and bloggers who assist with rating and reviewing all the restaurants this wonderful city has to offer. In full disclosure, I was a participating council member. Shhh…

New Heights restaurants include Carter & Cooley, Chicago Italian Beef, Chilosos Taco House, Jazzie Café, Pink’s Pizza, Taquería Tacambaro, Vietnam Restaurant, and others that are oh so close to The Heights.

Available at your local bookstore, or from for only $10.85. Cheaper than the chalupas at El Tiempo, and less calories too!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Beaver's: A Love Story

When Beaver’s opened two years ago, I must admit that I was less than impressed. I found the quasi-Carolina barbecue style to be frustratingly inconsistent, expensive, and downright un-Texan with their paltry portion sizes. I know several Carolina apologists who praise the power of the pig and dismiss brisket and everything cow-related as not “real” barbecue. Fine. I can accept regional differences with barbecue, but if you’re going to come into Texas touting a different style, you better bring your A game. Unfortunately, the barbecue didn’t live up to Texas standards. I prefer my ribs to have some chew to them, as opposed to the obviously boiled and crumbly fall-apart versions served at most family friendly chains (you know who I’m talking about). The ribs at Beaver’s had the same mealy texture, although admittedly the smoke flavor was always pretty good. My favorite item on the menu was the burger, but it was hard for me to get really excited. Your best item is a burger? Really?

Things started to change once J.J. took control of the kitchen. The sweet potato fries and cheese dip were immediately dumped, and for good reason. Lunchtime specials (called a Beaver Box) started to include some stellar dishes, including Wednesday’s remarkable fried chicken. All Beaver Boxes are served with a salad to start and a truly extraordinary slice of pecan pie (not too sweet); all together, it’s one of Houston’s best bargains at $12. Sandwiches got a makeover as well. A ho-hum sounding pit boss chickwich gets transformed into awe-inspiring man food: shredded and sauced chicken is topped with a fried egg, onion strings and slaw, all held together with a steak knife (no toothpick would be able to do the job).

The most recent menu additions have elevated Beaver’s to another level. JJ’s epic CFNYS is my new favorite menu item: served stacked on a bed of bitter greens and sweet potato puree, this CFS does Texas proud. The concept is pure genius: take a previously highfalutin cut of cow (avec New York marketing credentials) and chicken fry its ass. Some of my friends have nitpicked over the greens or the vertical presentation, but I think it’s perfect the way it is. Beaver’s is no holds barred Texas food, and the CFS is probably the best example of this philosophy. And that barbecue I was bashing before? It’s better, too. The sampler includes some pretty stellar sausage, pork ribs and brisket that even a Texas barbecue fan could appreciate. Best of all are the beef ribs, which have a fantastic smoke flavor and great texture.

Bacon and Egg Biscuit, available for brunch. Photo courtesy of Houston Foodie (used with permission; view blog)

A week and half ago, my wife and I found ourselves at Beaver’s for the end of the UT/Tech game. To my left sat three UT fans, sipping Bud Lights. To my right sat two couples drinking British brews, eating dinner and getting ready for a night out on Washington. My wife and I shared an order of wings and two cocktails.

“What’s THAT?” said the UT fan to my left, pointing out my Sazerac, with a lemon twist garnish.

“A Sazerac! It’s a classic cocktail from New Orleans.” I replied.

“Oh…. Cool!” he said, and turned to watch the end of the game.

Sidecar and Sazerac

The fact that three completely different groups of people can get their food and drink on and be totally at ease is why I love Beaver’s. There may be better restaurants in Houston, but Beaver’s is my favorite.

2310 Decatur Street

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Booze Find: Wild Turkey Rye

I love the cocktail program they have at Anvil, but rarely get a chance to drop by (especially during the week). Rye whiskey is one of the most significant spirits in classic cocktails, and the Fiesta Liquor on Shepherd and 610 has it for $17.99. For comparison, Specs lists the Wild Turkey Rye for $23.96.

I've also made my own Sazeracs with Old Overholt and Rittenhouse 80, and the Wild Turkey is definitely the superior rye for mixing. Great price and super convenient, although you'll probably have to go elsewhere for the Peychaud's bitters.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet Temptation

On a road known more its collection of famous Mexican restaurants (Airline Drive, in the Eastern section of the Heights) sits Sweet Temptation. The name itself creates even more confusion, perhaps signaling that this concept wasn’t fully thought out.

The best dishes are the bruschetta and the restaurant's version of a spaghetti carbonara. The bruschetta is simply prepared with fresh tomatoes and herbs and served on a fairly generic slice of store bought Italian/French bread. The carbonara is served with an egg yolk inside of a hollowed out egg shell. The best prepared dish was the sauteed chicken breast, which was pounded thin, coated, skillet fried and still juicy. The fact that I was most excited by a fairly generic chicken breast entree should tell you all you need to know about Sweet Temptation.

Misses included most of the meat entrees, which are all served with the same unimaginative duo of mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. The biggest miss was the pork chops, which were overcooked to a shoe leather texture. Desserts include the standard tiramisu, creme brulee and cheesecake.

My dream is for the Heights to land a truly authentic Italian eatery. A few weeks ago I sat in Dolce Vita and split two starters and the best pizza I've had outside of New York City. A simple shaved brussel sprouts starter—served cold and tossed with a slight hint of acid—was one of the best dishes I've had this year. The fact that we got out for less than what we spent at Sweet Temptation is both amazing and depressing at the same time.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Collina's on 19th has been serving even worse fare for several years and still has a line out the door most days of the week. Sweet Temptation has the same BYOB policy, so I would expect it to be a hit as well (both recent visits the room sat mostly empty).

Sweet Temptation should be defined as an Italian American restaurant. Italian American is never going to be Dolce Vita, nor does it need to be. I would be happy if Sweet Temptation could equal the highs of Patronella's, which is located just a few miles south. Sadly, Sweet Temptation is more in the style of Birraporetti's. You'd be better off just opening a jar of Prego.

1504 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

An open letter to HEB

Dear HEB,

Congratulations on the opening of your new Buffalo Market (on Buffalo Speedway and Bissonnet). From what I’ve read over the last few weeks, your new store looks mighty impressive. Your cheese and wine selection look just as extraordinary as Central Market’s selection. I’m sure the residents are quite pleased that they will no longer have to drive the extra two and half minutes it would have taken to get to Central Market.

HEB's grand new store | Source: Swamplot

Forgive me if that sounds sarcastic. I currently reside in the Heights area, an area you have ignored for far too long. Presently, you have one store in the area, an HEB Pantry Foods that has seemingly been there since the dawn of time. The floors are grimy and the entire place has an odor of meat that is past its prime. The selection is limited to the bare essentials, which I guess is the concept of the Pantry Foods line.

Orange-colored "vine ripe" tomatoes (lower right) and overripe/spoiled tomatoes (upper left)

Grocery shopping in the Heights is getting better, but still needs some help. Fiesta on Shepherd is a great place to shop for every cut of meat imaginable, but lacks the quality in upper end cuts of meats and mainstream produce selections. Kroger has been doing a fairly poor job of servicing the area (the store on 20th is pathetic), but is at least attempting to improve the situation by revamping the tired store on 11th and Shepherd.

I know you can do much better. Your Bunker Hill location is one of my favorite places to shop. Prices seem fair, the store is clean, the selection is top notch, and you don’t need one of those annoying shopper cards in order to get the sale price. Quite frankly, I’m puzzled why a decision was made to open a store in the saturated 59 corridor, while other areas are grossly under-represented.

The typically empty membership only Restaurant Depot, next door to HEB Pantry: What could have been a perfect new HEB

Thank you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Carter & Cooley: Best BLT and Other Outlandish Claims

Carter & Cooley is located in a historical building right in the middle of historic 19th Street. The entire operation oozes history, with framed black and white photographs of Houston’s past lining the walls. High ceilings and cute antique furnishings round out the attractive space.

Bear with me for one small tangent. A few weeks ago, Cameron Diaz was on Jimmy Fallon and contributed to a ridiculous segment where they attempted to break made-up records. Ms. Diaz was placed in a hammock. Late Night Show staff then placed about 50 bunnies on top of her in an attempt to break the record for "most bunnies snuggled" record. Predictably, this made-up record was broken and hilarity ensued. Or something like that.

Snuggling Bunnies

Carter & Cooley's BLT is advertised as the best in town and we find this claim to be bit preposterous considering the dearth of quality delis in the city. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with their conclusion. For a few cents more, you can upgrade your sandwich to BALT status (with avocado). Hardly a stretch given Houston’s fascination with throwing avocados on pretty much everything, but the resulting sandwich somehow works. Keep in mind that they do not toast their bread by default, so all BLT purists would be wise to remember to ask.


Other decent sandwiches include the reuben, which has a bit too much Russian dressing. The hot pastrami sandwich was the clunker of the group as it was obviously just reheated pre-sliced pastrami (hardly a flattering impression of the legendary New York delicatessens). Prices are also a bit on the high side. Three sandwiches with drinks will set you back $30, and one of those was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (a damn fine one I should add). I've heard that the hot pastrami at Katz's in NYC is close to $15, but that monster can feed two people. And let's be honest, that's a work of culinary art.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Road Trip: Burns Bar BQ and Pierson &Company

I'm prefacing my post with "Road Trip" after I realized that I clearly gone past "The Heights." The drive isn't far (6.4 miles from the center of "Greater Heights" according to Google Maps), and if you haven't explored the areas just north of the Heights on Shepherd, you're really missing out. This drive will put you right past B&W Meat Market on North Shepherd, which is always a great stop for those looking for every cut of a cow imaginable, although I wouldn't go there looking for a well marbled ribeye.

Only 6.4 miles!

Houston really should have a better selection of barbecue restaurants. The Heights is actually lucky in that we have Pizzitola's nearby (much better than average), but I've been disappointed by the others in the area. Burns and Pierson are the class of Houston, and we're blessed to have them so close to the Heights.

At Burns (8307 De Priest St, 77088), the ribs and brisket are the class of the meats. Both are moderately seasoned with an aggressive smoke flavor. The brisket is extremely tender and flavorful; it’s probably the only brisket in Houston that can compete with some of the most hallowed barbecue purveyors in Central Texas. The pork spare ribs are just as exemplary as the brisket; flavorful, with a slight chew.

The hand-drawn and smoke-stained menus at Burns

At Pierson & Company (5110 T C Jester Blvd, 77091), the brisket is the best of the meat offerings. All of the meats are smoked with mesquite, and the brisket benefits the most from this treatment. Tender, smoky, and with a nice seasoned crust, the brisket is some of the best in town. The ribs aren’t quite as solid as the brisket, but are above average.

Both restaurants have above the same style sauce, with Burns having more bite and acidity. The sauce served at Pierson is too sweet for my tastes. I would probably recommend getting it on the side at both places as they tend to drown the meats with the stuff. Both establishments serve the same style of sausage links that have a processed flavor and texture.

I think Burns is the stronger of the two, but that's not a knock on Pierson & Company. Burns consistently serves great barbecue and, in my opinion, is the best barbecue restaurant in Houston. The last time I ate at Pierson, the brisket was roughly sliced and excessively fatty. Half of our ribs were surprisingly undercooked. In the place of an attractive smoked crust was a sludge of rub seasoning that made the ribs inedible.

The one area where Pierson wins is with service. Clarence Pierson and his staff are eager to engage in conversation. Newcomers are always treated to a sampling of brisket. Nice touch. A trip to Burns always takes longer than it should, and the convoluted hand-drawn menu doesn't help. Our first trip early last summer resulted in an hour wait after we ordered, only to discover they were out of brisket. On another trip last July, the owner was on vacation and his fill in staff substituted their own menu, hand-drawn on a torn paper grocery bag. Burns is also only open Weds - Sat and is cash only. Pierson is my pick when I have a wild hare and want barbecue NOW. Burns takes some planning as I'm looking to go at a less busy time, usually early lunch on Weds -Fri.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

MAM'S House of Ice Snoballs

I originally decided to visit MAM's when I heard about their issues with their landlord (Fiesta, more forthcoming), but was so blown away by the quality of their New Orleans style sno-balls I decided it needed to move to the front of the line.

For those only familiar with the pedestrian "snow cone," the Sno-Ball will be quite a shock. The ice—unlike other inferior snow cone varieties—is pillowy soft. All the syrups are homemade and are completely incorporated with the ice. We purchased three different varieties, all of which were excellent. We added condensed milk to the blackberry version, which cut the sweetness and added a smooth dairy richness. For $0.50, the condensed milk is a no-brainer; get if for a true Hansen's Sno-Blitz (a New Orleans institution) experience.

Blackberry Sno-Ball with Condensed Milk

Late last week, I found MAM's Facebook fan page and learned of their lease issues. Recently, a resident in the area complained to Fiesta, and Fiesta decided to pull their lease with only 10 days warning. On Friday, the future of MAM's was up in the air, so it was with this sense of unpredictability that we decided to visit and get the scoop.

Part of my reason for starting this blog was to encourage more quality food providers to come to the Heights. With 10 days warning and all the restrictions the Heights enforces, I certainly wasn't hopeful.

This story will have a happy ending. I talked with the owners, and they were overwhelmed by the support from the community (several people offered their driveways). They also informed me they have secured a new lease and will be moving there at the end of next week. This news, and the beautiful sno-ball in my hand, just made me smile.

MAM's still has a few kinks to work out. The storefront is mobile, and they're not too much in a hurry to make it by their published 12 noon opening time. We arrived at 12:15 only to find their allotted spot empty. Our advice: save the experience for late afternoon or evening. MAM's closes at 9pm, which is way better than Hansen's, where you'll be lucky to get anything past 7pm.

The Heights is lucky to have a place like MAM's. It gets my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Barbecue Inn and Doyle's: Party like it's 1959

We're going to take a trip to 018 for this post to visit two north Houston institutions. Both Barbecue Inn (116 W. Crosstimbers) and Doyle's Restaurant (2136 W. 34th St) have been in business for well over 50 years; however, both restaurants have taken strikingly different approaches.

I’ve heard people describe Barbecue Inn as the type of place that never changes. This is certainly true, but I feel it deserves a disclaimer. The entire restaurant, from the interior to the grounds outside, is immaculate. The carpet is always spotless and the Formica tabletops show few signs of wear or tear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover they have a giant storage space filled with the same 1940s interior products.

This traditionalist mentality extends to the menu, which is famously unchanged for decades. In fact, the vintage 1965 menu hangs just to the left of the second interior door. Finding the differences is like solving a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle. The fried shrimp, chicken fried steak, and fried chicken (which takes 20 minutes and is fried to order) are still some of Houston’s finest. On our last visit, the chicken was just as good as ever: well seasoned, crispy, and not at all oily. The CFS was a bit too well mannered for my tastes: the crust lacked the peaks and valleys of some of the grungiest CF steaks, and the gravy needed a bit more oomph of flavor. Ironically, I’ve never had the barbecue; in fact, I’ve never met anyone who has. Anyone out there ever try it?

Vintage menu and prices

It’s probably important to mention that the prices are a bit high compared to other fried food places, but you really get what you pay for. Obviously, a lot of Houstonians think its worth it as there is typically at least a 20 minute wait for a seat. I recently read on a Houston Chowhound posting that Barbecue Inn turned down an inquiry to be featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” a decision that makes perfect sense to me. They’ve been doing it the same way for decades and they obviously don’t need the publicity, especially from some freaky loudmouthed television personality. Dive? How dare you!

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Doyle’s Restaurant of Oak Forest started as a deli back in 1954 (source,, but in the decades since has added pastas, pizzas, soups, and (most recently) burgers. The interior is just as dated as Barbecue Inn (if a bit less “proper,” if that’s possible), and just as well kept. Reading the menu today is like reading a summary of the casual culinary trends of the last fifty years. No doubt they added pizzas and pastas 30-40 years ago as they became ubiquitous. Now, Angus hamburgers are the latest addition to the menu. Although hardly new, this is the renaissance for burgers as there are now devoted groups and bloggers devoted to the subject.

The pizzas will do in a pinch, as will the pastas, but they’re nothing to write home about. I’m remembering a visit a year ago where a man sitting at the table next to us shook salt onto his spaghetti for at least 30 seconds. If he couldn’t taste it after that, I’m not sure anything could help. Soups are surprisingly good, but they’re all over the map (chicken noodle shares the stage with a seafood gumbo and a whole assortment of various soups).

Not surprisingly, the sandwiches are still king. Most are served in a slightly chewy sub/po’ boy roll and are simply prepared. The best of the best include the Old World (Italian meats and cheese) and the chicken salad. The Reuben falls short, with way too much Russian dressing. I would guess that the Reuben was added later (like the other menu categories) as it strays from the simple cold cut sandwiches.

Surviving 50+ years in the restaurant industry is no small feat, and Doyle’s and Barbecue Inn should be celebrated for the accomplishment. For obvious reasons, Barbecue Inn is the stronger of the two (how many restaurants can you think of that have three separate dishes that deserve mention as “The Best” in town?). Doyle’s has tried to evolve with the times, and it shows. Thankfully, the sandwiches are still impressive.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I just found out yesterday that Pizzitola's won second place in the Great Taste of the Heights audience vote. Barbecue is a controversial subject, especially in Houston. For some reason we have a very small number of quality barbecue joints. I was glad that Pizzitola's was at the event; the fact they were recognized is just a bonus.

Pizzitola’s is rightly proud of their pork spareribs. Seasoned with a liberal dousing of black pepper and smoked with east Texas hickory, the undersized ribs have an ideal balance of tenderness and chew. While other establishments buy and smoke the larger and more common racks, Pizzitola’s consistently serves the more tender and harder to procure smaller sized ribs. This attention to detail is barbecue jackpot.

I've been consistently underwhelmed by pork ribs in Texas, probably because I always smoke my pork ribs Memphis style with hickory, a dry rub, and a mustard mop sauce. I think Pizzitola's is about the closest I'm going to get to my ideal ribs in Texas as I think hickory compliments pork so well.

One last item to mention: the lunch crowd can be overwhelming, but the sliced to order meat is worth the wait. During dinner, I've been the only patron and the meat was obviously sitting around.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Great Taste of the Heights Twitter Frenzy

I have a lot of thoughts on the Great Taste of the Heights event tonight, most extremely positive. I twittered throughout the whole thing, and instead of me taking several days to summarize, here it all is in all its tweety glory. My problem with Twitter is its lack of narrative. The 140 character is its appeal, but it lends itself to being snarky, and unfortunately I'm sometimes guilty of this behavior.

17:04 Off to the Heights feedy thingy.

17:37 Just arrived at All Saints, $25 to get in gets you a sample of ten restaurants (out of 20+) and one drink. Not bad.

17:39 The scantily clad waitresses at Brick House are on the beverages. Beer: miller lite and bud light. Wine: "red" or "white." Ummmm... great...

17:41 I think the skies are about to open and these outdoor tables with no tents are not gonna work.

17:48 Waltrip Jazz Band in pre concert warmup sounds like Sun Ra. I'm digging, but I'm thinking the cacophony free jazz is unintentional.

18:14 Max's wine dive first: fried gator with cream gravy. Interestin take on CFS I imagine. Great gravy.

18:20 Rainbow Lodge serving duck gumbo. Not bad, not great. Overly salty imho. Like the wild rice.

18:26 Bedford is serving a thai risotto with pomegranates. Best dish so far, and bonus points for the chef actually being here.

18:27 Pom a nice flavor/texture balance to the risotto.

18:35 Soma serving a seafood salad. Liked the pinwheel beet condiment.

18:40 OH: are you still Catholic???

18:43 Waltrip Jazz Band playing stormy weather. That's pretty funny.

18:44 Kojak's has a decent gyro in a cup. What's a food festival without gyros? That would be downright un-Houstonian.

18:46 Me: "I'm always confused about your hours." Kojak: "yeah I know it's confusing." Ummm fix that maybe?

18:51 Passing on Pink's, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who follows me.

19:02 Hickory Hollow sausage was decent, brisket just awful and the chef boyardee sauce didn't help.

19:14 Pizzitola's bbq waaaaaay better than hickory hollow. Ribs don't have the same pepper punch from last week, but still great.

19:16 Shade has an asian chicken wonton. Love how they have no fear of fresh cabbage, something I failed to mention in my review.

19:23 Forgot to mention carter & cooley muffaletta. Eh. That probably explains why I forgot it.

19:24 Dry Creek bacon blue slider too dry to eat. Tossed it, but not before snagging the bacon. Priorities, I'm sure you understand.

19:29 Cakes from Dacapo's very good. Wanted to save room because of Jodie E's good review. Italian cream cake the better one. Wish I had espresso.

19:31 We have four more dishes left but no room. Thinking tamales to go.

20:05 In the drink line, I think someone said something incredibly inappropriate about the waittresses. Dude, church parking lot!

20:06 Well, that's it. We ran out of steam and have four tamales for tomorrow. Surprisingly large turnout.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Great Taste of the Heights: Does Anyone Care?

I say this rather sarcastically, because OF COURSE I care.

I found a blog posting on the Chronicle's site which is riddled with errors. Did someone throw this together in 30 seconds? Items in bold are my emphasis to show obvious errors.

"Participating restaurants include Bedford, Berryhill, Carter Cooley's, Chatters, Collina's, Dacapo's, Dry Creek/Cedar Creek, Hickory Hollow, Houston, Tamales Factory, Kojak's Cafe, Max's Wine Dive, Molina's, Onion Creek, Pink's Pizza, Pizzitola's, Shade, Soma, Sushi, Spanish Flowers, Thai Spice and The Rainbow Lodge."

Perhaps the most egregious FAIL was the actual site for Great Taste of the Heights. On May 12, 2:13PM:Bandwidth Limit Exceeded.

Despite these blips, I'll be there this Saturday. It looks like an excellent opportunity to sample some of Houston's best restaurants, even if the press and twitter exposure has been lacking.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Antidote Coffee

My Waldo's Coffee post got a lot of comments, mostly from those recommending Antidote. Hey, I'll take requests! Especially when we're talking about coffee.

My first visit to Antidote was last summer during the White Linen Nights festivities. We enjoyed listening to a truly outrageous band, complete with banjo, trash cans and coffee can string instruments. I clearly remember that it was a typical steamy night, so I ended up with a cold beer inside with the air conditioning. Coffee was probably the last thing on my mind.

This past weekend, we made a return visit and got to experience a more relaxed Antidote. We ordered an espresso and a Cajeta latte. The espresso had good acidity, but not enough body. The latte was extremely good. Served with skim milk, the latte still had great richness and flavor. Antidote serves a wide assortment of breakfast pastries, almost to a fault. There are at least 10 different croissants, muffins, and other varities of baked goods, none of which are labled. It was obvious to us that we were holding up the line of regulars who just wanted to get their caffeine on. We quickly ordered a chocolate croissant and turkey croissant.

Cajeta latte, right

Seating was adequate, although the free wi-fi attracts single campers who occupied every two seater table inside. We found a picnic table by the parking lot with a good view of the Civic Hybrids and Subarus.

We were quite pleased with Antidote. It's obvious that they've taken the good of Starbucks (comfortable seating and decent coffee) without any of the bad (focus group determined hip CDs for sale). The baked goods are also an improvement, although that's not really hard to do. We do wish the croissants had a more crispy than doughy texture. Although we still prefer Catalina for its no-nonsense superior coffee, Antidote would be a good addition to any neighborhood. The Heights is lucky to have it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pink’s Pizza / How to Resurrect a Pizza and How to Make Your Own

The Chronicle pretty much took all the wind out of my sails on Pink's. I had been working on a Pink’s post for over a week now, but that’s what I get for taking too long (the reason for my delay should be evident in the size of this post). I think most of my post is still valid, so without delay, here goes!

We ordered the Deuce, which includes goat cheese, spinach, portabella, sliced tomatoes, garlic and pesto. Pink’s consistently violates my number of toppings rule (1 meat, 4 total TOPS), but the Deuce gets a pass because the pesto, tomatoes, and garlic are sauce-like ingredients.

I like the fact that Pink’s has more gourmet ingredients on their pizzas (goat cheese, prosciutto), but they just skimped on the most important one: the crust. I just can’t take any pizza place seriously that uses one of those conveyer pizza ovens. It’s like a burger joint using preformed frozen patties. It’s just wrong. Predictably, the pizzas come out singed on the top, sorta cooked on the bottom, and nowhere near done in the middle.

How to Resurrect a Pinks Pizza

Alas, there is hope. We took the rest of the pizza home, placed a pizza stone in the oven and cranked the temperature to 500 degrees. Once preheated, leave it be for 10 minutes so the stone gets hot, then place directly on the stone and cook for 3 minutes. The cheese should be talking to you (sizzle sizzle) and the crust should have a slight crisp to it. Perfecto! If you’re dealing with a refrigerated Pink’s Pizza, lower the temperature to 400 and cook on the stone for 8 minutes. It won’t be as good as the lukewarm to 500 degree version, but it will be an improvement over the “fresh” Pink’s Pizza version.

As you can tell, I’m not too enamored with Pink’s. Asking the home cook to rescue a dish is a big no-no in my book. I see great promise with Pink’s, but they have to get rid of that cheater oven and the plastic shiatsu massage rollers before I take them seriously.

How to Make Your Own

I decided to post the recipe and technique I use to make a decent pizza at home. It takes a bit of work and requires lots of gadgets, but I think the results are well worth it. I use a modified dough recipe from the Dean and Deluca cookbook.

You will need the following cookware: stand mixer, pizza stone, flour sifter, digital food scale, and thermometer.

For the ingredients, you’re going to have to get out of the heights and head to Central Market (Westheimer and Wesleyan) for the flour. CM is the only place in town that I’ve been able to find Tipo 00 flour. Apparently in Italy, they grade flour on grind, not on gluten content, and Tipo 00 is a very fine grind, but with high gluten. The only substitution that works is cake flour, but that is a compromise due to cake flour’s low gluten content. You can mix AP flour to bring the gluten content up, but that won’t have the fine grind or the optimum gluten level. I’m not a trained baker, so I’ll leave it to others to comment on a good cake flour/AP ratio that might work.

About ten years ago I was able to find live active yeast in a number of grocery stores, but no more. They have it in CM, but it’s too expensive at $2.19 per block (you would need three!). I just use the jar yeast and get decent results.

Sift into a bowl:

  • 350 grams of sifted Tipo 00 flour
  • 25 grams of sifted AP flour
  • ¾ tsp of fine sea salt

Heat in microwave for 60 seconds (that’s what mine takes), or until reaches 105-115 degrees:

  • ¾ cup milk
  • ½ cup water

Stir in 2 tbsp dry yeast. Wait for 5-10 minutes for the yeast to foam.

Combine dry with wet ingredients in stand mixer (with dough hook) and turn it on to medium. Add spoonfuls of Tipo 00 flour every 30 seconds until the dough no longer sticks to the bottom of the mixing bowl. The dough will be extremely sticky. Form the dough into a rough ball and add 1 tablespoon of Olive Oil to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and leave in a corner for two hours minimum. The dough should double in size.

Preheat the oven (with pizza stone) to 500 degrees. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and divide into four quarters. Form each dough quarter into a 10 inch circle by flipping the dough (flouring each time with AP) and pushing the dough from the center to the edges. Do not use a rolling pin! Transfer to a pizza peel/cutting board that has been coated with a layer of corn meal. Let rest to rise for at least 10 minutes, covered with a kitchen towel.

For those that want a doughy soft crust (like my 8 year old stepson), you’re ready to go once the oven is preheated. You really get best results when the stone has been heated for at least 30 minutes (one hour would be better). Jiggle the pizza crust on the peel to make sure it isn’t stuck then quickly apply toppings. Slide onto the stone and cook for ~8 minutes or until the cheese on the top is a bubbly.

This technique does a fair job of producing a good crust, but it won’t be crispy. The problem is that the stone doesn’t get hot enough to cook the dough at the same speed as the toppings and cheese. The stone really needs to be blazing hot, and a 500 degree oven won’t get hot enough.

For those that want a true New Haven style crust experience, I’ve had great results cooking the dough before I apply the toppings. Make sure you have your toppings ready, cook the crust for 3 minutes, take the crust out of the oven and QUICKLY apply the toppings, cook for another 5 minutes or until the toppings are bubbly.

Topping Recommendations

I’m picky with my toppings (see topping rule above). For the crispy crust, I generally only apply mozzarella cheese, gorgonzola cheese (just a small smear every three square inches) and basil strips. I always salt and pepper the pizzas before they get cooked and apply a tsp of olive oil after they come out.

I steer clear of the following toppings/condiments: pre-sliced pepperoni, hamburger, Canadian bacon, chicken, green peppers, raw onion, and ranch dressing. I generally only use fresh tomatoes (chopped or sliced), roasted garlic, cremini mushroom slices, and basil.

Happy pizza eating!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

News: Block 7 Wine, Opening Soon!

Thanks to Jenny for the news... it appears Bizarro Heights is about to get another wine bar type thingy, but this one looks a little different.

I'm curious to see if the area can support this many wine bars.

Chilosos Taco House

The discussion on Twitter today seems to be about breakfast tacos, so now seems like the appropriate time to mention Chilosos.

Chilosos sits in a converted bungalow on the north side of 20th Street. The space is warm and welcoming, although the ordering process is a bit convoluted. I would recommend going in with a plan: just order what looks good at the steamtable.

The breakfast tacos are enormous and priced ridiculously low. One taco is large enough for a meal, but be advised that any and all additions (save the green or red salsa) will cost you extra. Doctoring your tacos with cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, cilantro, or guacamole will quickly send the price per taco way above the original price. Breakfast tacos come in six varieties, with egg and chorizo, egg and bacon, and egg and potatoes as the best varieties. The flour tortillas are homemade; large in size and strong enough to hold the contents, yet light in texture.

Chilosos has the best flour tortillas that I've tasted in Houston. With Teotihuacan and their corn tortillas just a few short blocks away, it appears that this small area of Houston has both sides of the tortilla market covered. Is this a wonderful town or what?

I've heard others talk about how the tortillas at Lupe Tortilla are the best. Interesting how both Chilosos and Lupe serve tortillas the size of hubcaps, although the ones at Lupe are much larger. Is there something about flour tortillas where bigger means better?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Waldo's Coffee House

Waldo's sits in a converted bungalow on Heights Blvd, just south of 11th. It's an interesting place to say the least. The front porch was occupied by the slacker/dog owner/smoker contingent, while the inside was quiet and subdued. Inside, there was a cozy sitting area to the left that was completely packed with this adorable group of elderly ladies. A lone barista manned the coffee station (uh oh), dispensing the obligatory caffeinated beverages and preparing the breakfast sandwiches.

The "uh oh" needs some explanation. When I moved to the Heights a few years back, there was not a good cup of coffee to be found. Anywhere. Seriously. Then, a new coffee shop opened on Yale that served a decent cup o' joe, had good muffins and other baked goods, and I thought "hells yeah this isn't so bad." Well, then things went downhill. Fast. Orders took forever to get delivered. Another occasion, they ran out of lids and handed me (I kid you not) a cup of coffee through the drive thru with no lid. Last straw, the guy behind the counter threw a fit (and a carton of cups across the store). I vowed never to return. A month or so later, I wasn't surprised to see it shuttered.

Back to the "uh oh." You're going to try to serve coffee AND make breakfast with one guy behind the counter? Really? I just don't see this ending well, although to give Waldo's credit, getting two cups of coffee didn't take long.

We purchased two espresso drinks. The vanilla latte and plain espresso drinks were just ok; the espresso lacked that essential espresso bitterness that is essential to a truly great coffee drink. I would rate it below Starbucks, and certainly way below Catalina Coffee in the Bizarro Heights.

Which brings me to the controversial subject of Starbucks. I know this seems counter to the manifesto, but I actually like Starbucks. Sure, it's not great coffee, but Starbucks has done more to advance the woeful state of coffee in this country than pretty much anyone else. I'm not suggesting that I would want Starbucks on Heights Boulevard, but there isn't one to be found between the one on the North Loop and the one on I-10. This in a city where there's one on every corner (sometimes two). How about classing up Shepherd (northbound), replacing one of the nasty fast food joints? Certainly, the new one on the North Loop classed up that area.

Rant over, Starbucks probably isn't coming (no more rapid expansion). An even BETTER idea: Catalina, open a location up here. Everybody wins!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Shade (Spring 2009)

Back in 2003, Shade opened to critical acclaim in the restaurant-starved Heights area. The restaurant has stayed with the formula of serving well prepared, modern American interpretations of Southern classics. A recent change in executive chefs has only (so far) resulted in modest changes to this blueprint.

In the summer of 2008, David Luna joined the kitchen of Shade, replacing longtime executive chef Jeb Stuart. Described by the bartenders as being "from Hawaii," it is not surprising to see an appetizer such as Ahi Poke (the dark red tuna is served raw over a bed of seaweed salad); or a main course like the gulf snapper, served over a bed of stir fried asian vegetables with a Thai red chili sauce. The flavors are bold, and certainly a departure from what we consider the classic dishes that Shade traditionally offered.

As was the case when it first opened, meat dishes trump everything else. You won’t go wrong ordering any of the heartier meat dishes, especially those served with traditional southern greens. A duck two ways entree (breast and leg confit, served over collard greens and polenta) was simply incredible. We're all for cooking meat medium rare, but were glad to see the breast was cooked through. Duck that tastes like duck; what a concept! A simple red wine reduction, with crispy duck skin pieces (a la bacon crisps) made it sing.

Pork chop, thyme gruyere bread pudding, swiss chard

In an area with a shortage of good cocktails, the bar is an underutilized gem. In a part of town known only for beer bars, it’s refreshing to find a place that can actually serve a well made martini, cosmo, or mojito.

Which brings me to my last point: where the hell is everybody? We walked in on a Friday and were immediately seated. The next weekend, the bartenders were going crazy for the First Saturday crowd, but informed me the place was dead the night before (they closed early). I'll only play booster when I see the need. Best to support places like this, or you'll be sorry when they're gone.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Beer/Wine Find: Screw Kappa Napa

Apparently it's going to drop into the 30s here tonight (remember those pets and plants!), so I'm thinking we're going to stay in and make a good beef stew with a hearty red wine to celebrate the last use of central heat for the season.

I picked up this bottle at Roma's Liquor (1531 W 18th St.) for $11.99. Roma's is much better than I expected, and certainly has a much better wine selection than Fiesta. As for the screw cap, don't be a hater!

Jazzie's Cafe

Jazzie’s signature item is the authentic New Orleans po-boy, served with your choice of fried seafood (catfish, oyster, shrimp, or soft shell crab) in a sliced French roll. The key to a great po boy is the bread, and Jazzie’s nails it: an ideal blend of crusty and chewy, never doughy. The chef cooks the fried seafood with a very light flour crust, with generous portions. For those avoiding fried foods, the “jazzed up” grilled tilapia po boy is more than an adequate substitute (the jazzed up version adding a blackened Cajun flavor, with mushrooms). In addition to po-boys, the restaurant offers the same stellar seafood in a variety of different platters. All platters come with their Cajun spiced French fries, all enough to share. Rarely is the restaurant crowded, so it is likely you will get samples of other menu items while you wait. Beverages are strictly canned sodas and bottled teas, but you are welcome to bring your own wine and/or beer.

Softshell crab po-boy. Like a five dollar foot long, except good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Beer/Wine Find: Markham 2006 Sauvignon Blanc

I made a quick stop at the Kroger at 11th last night to pick up two cartons of milk. On the way to the register, I walked quickly through the booze aisle and found a Markham 2006 Sauvignon Blanc:

$13.99 is not a bad deal for a decent wine, and Markham is a quality winemaker known mostly for their reds. A good rule of thumb to follow is to buy a wine for a reputable winery, and Markham certainly qualifies. It's not cult wine/knock your socks off, but you could certainly do a lot worse.

The ever-so-helpful sign (probably unreadable on my blackberry photo) says "Pair with a spicy Asian dish" and I concur. How about the H4 at Thai Spice on 19th (Sauteed Spicy Seafood, $13.99)?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Washington Avenue: Bizarro Heights

Washington Avenue: Bizarro Heights

For better or worse, Washington Avenue now provides all the elements that the Heights traditionally could not: trendy bars, restaurants, and large apartment complexes. Please see the table below.

Bizarro Heights

The Heights

No trees

Lots of trees

Bar after trendy bar for miles

Two barstools at Textile

Liquor store next to a school (the chutzpah!)

What’s a liquor store?

Street after street of three story townhomes

Vehement opposition to any demolition

The explosive growth along Washington can be partly attributed to the support from the neighboring Heights area. The Heights has benefitted, but clearly there have been negatives associated with this brisk development along Washington.

What’s your take?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tia Maria's

For some reason, Tia Maria’s gets no love. Why is that? Located where Mangum, Dacoma, and US290 all converge, Tia Maria’s has been serving decent Tex Mex cuisine for at least 20 years. Force me to categorize even further, Tia Maria’s falls squarely in the category I refer to as “goopy Mexican.” Enchiladas smothered in cheese, Queso with pickled Jalapenos, Quesadillas stuffed with lots of cheese. Add to that cold beers and cement thick Margaritas and you have a template for classic, no fuss Tex Mex.

If this all sounds strangely familiar, you must be a Tony’s Mexican fan. Located just a few short miles from Tia Maria’s, Tony’s Mexican has the same blueprint: Add one part comfort food cheese enchiladas, one part stupid strong margaritas… boom, lines out the door and waits aplenty.

I’m not here to be a hater, but rather to provide perspective. There are many styles of Mexican and Tex Mex available in the Heights area. On Airline, Tampico and Connies serve fantastic Mexican seafood, while Teotihuacan excels at an amazing variety of Parillada dishes. Tony’s has built a loyal following on their cheese enchiladas alone.

Up the road at Tia Maria’s, the cheese enchiladas hold their own. Stuffed with an unsophisticated gooey cheese, smothered in chili gravy and topped with even more cheese, these are Houston’s answer to a cheez whiz covered Philly Steak and Cheese.

Second half of the Acapulco special: Cheese enchiladas, tamal, rice, and beans

Monday, March 23, 2009

Teotihuacan Mexican Cafe (Breakfast)

Sometime last week, one of the Houston Chowhounds asked on Twitter: If you had to pick one Tex Mex restaurant in Houston for one night, which would it be? I answered the original Ninfas on Navigation, but Café Teotihuacan was my 1a.

Much has been written about Teotihuacan (or ta-HOO’-a-HOO’-a as we lovingly call it) that it almost seems redundant to mention. The corn tortillas, the bargain parilladas… all are worth the attention they have received.

9 out of 10 times I find myself at Teotihuacan, it is breakfast time. In fact, last September, just 14 short hours before Hurricane Ike would strike, there we were. Teotihuacan was eerily quiet that morning, not surprising as it wasn't a Kroger with its shelves picked clean or I-45 to Dallas. The world was about to end, and I wanted me some eggs and corn tortillas!

Oh man those corn tortillas rock the house, and this just in, they go just as well with their breakfast dishes. For some reason I have yet to figure out, breakfast at Teotihuacan doesn’t get any press. The prices are ridiculously low and the portion sizes have returned (thankfully!) to their previously unmanageable size. For the last year or so, I have noticed some subtle changes for the worse: prices have inched slightly higher, the dining room (and outside seating areas) has become more crowded, portion sizes and quality was down. Last Saturday, I was glad to see a return to form.

"Dear corn tortilla, I love you."

Service can be an issue, which might explain the drop in quality. Hopefully the major issues have been recently addressed, but you should be advised that the service can be curt and the wait for food can seem unusually long. Make sure to ask for the red salsa before your breakfast arrives, or you may be consuming lukewarm eggs several minutes later.

Bonus: For those looking for a more authentic experience, Teotihuacan also serves Menudo for breakfast.


1511 Airline Dr
(713) 426-4420‎
8AM-10PM 7 Days

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Beer/Wine Find

I was at Fiesta Liquor (Shepherd just south of 610) on Saturday and spotted this crazy deal: $3.99 for a large bottle of Stone IPA or Arrogant Bastard Ale. The manager informed me that the $3.99 price was the regular price, they just felt like spotlighting it a bit more. Both beers are fantastic, but I think the Stone IPA is the more food friendly choice. An IPA would make the perfect complement to a spicy Indian curry. As we have no Indian restaurants in Northwest Houston, how about the Duck Pineapple Curry dish at Thai Lanna (18th and the West Loop, BYOB!)? The dish is listed as mild, but I'm sure they can add some more spice to it if you ask.

Collina's Italian Cafe

So many options for my first restaurant post… why choose Collina’s? Their printed menu and website list about a half dozen critical quotations, all dated over a decade ago. Not a good sign. I admit Collina’s is a questionable choice, but follow me for one minute.

Centrally located in the Heights? Check! (19th Street, does not get more central Heights than that)

BYOB? Yes, oh yes.

Packed? Most definitely.

It would be more than a stretch to call Collina’s a great restaurant. Despite this “glowing” assessment, Collina’s has a special place in my heart. Not for the pastas, which tend to be the smothered in tomato sauce classics so common on “traditional” American/Italian restaurants. Not for the 1.5 crowd, which tend to overrun the place on the weekends. And certainly not for the service, which is criminally overstretched.

They had me with that artichoke.

Stuffed artichoke to be exact. The stuffed artichoke served at Collina’s isn’t haute cuisine, but it is the definition of comfort food for me. For those that have read Sara Roahen’s Gumbo Tales (highest recommendation for those who love the city and cuisine of New Orleans), you already know the effort required to construct this dish. Breadcrumbs, herbs and a ton of olive oil are slammed into the crevices of half an artichoke, which is then broiled and served bubbling.

Obviously the artichokes are prepared beforehand; this is a dish that can’t be made to order. Eating this whacky pinecone is another challenge. The outer leaves are scraped between your front teeth, leaving most of it to waste. The inner portion can be eaten whole: slightly tart and just the perfect texture. Unfortunately, I wish it was consistently as good as I described. Occasionally, the cooking process is rushed and the breadcrumbs taste like the boxed variety.

As for the rest of the dishes, the specials are usually skip-worthy. The pizzas are above average, especially if you stick to the simpler versions on the menu. Avoid the small pizzas as the dough thickness ratio is way off.

If you’re in the mood for something a little different, head to Collina’s and get the artichoke. Artichoke is famous for messing up every wine that gets served, so perhaps jug wine IS the best choice.


502 W. 19th st.

Mon - Thu 11am - 10pm
Fri - Sat 11am - 11pm
Sun 4pm - 9pm

Feed the Heights Manifesto

For too long, the Heights has been negligent in providing its residents (and surrounding city) with good quality dining options. This blog is my open attempt to influence the restaurant scene in the Heights.

Part of the problem with the Heights as a restaurant destination is its status as a dry neighborhood. Typically, restaurants make a significant percentage of their profits on booze. No booze = no profit. Hogwash. Other cities (like Philadelphia and Chicago) have more BYOB places and prove it can be done.

On the upper end, the opening of Textile and the recent of Rainbow Lodge prove that the Heights is improving. Bedford, the Glass Wall, and Shade only strengthen the argument that the fine dining establishments can not only make it in the Heights, they can thrive. Shade has been turning out top quality fare for years.

Houston is filled with great, moderately priced restaurants, a segment that is woefully underrepresented in the Heights. That’s where we all come in. The more types of restaurants that succeed, the more we have a case for filling in the gaps. We must celebrate, praise and support those establishments that get things RIGHT. Conversely, we must fairly criticize establishments that insult us (overtly or covertly), lack vision, or lack a simple business plan. For too long, our culinary options have been diluted by individuals and corporations that attempt to satisfy the lowest common denominator. We can do better. We must do better. Feed the Heights, we’re hungry!