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