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Dec 21, 2010 07:21 AM

Houston Trip Report

... aka "I Too Love Visiting Houston" !

The GF and I have been visiting Houston regularly for 15 years. But recently we'd started to get into a bit of a rut by going to the same old restaurants on every visit, so this time around we resolved to only visit new places.

After eleven and a half hours on the aircraft (including two hours on the tarmac due to "the wrong catering being delivered to the 'plane") both of us were too tired to go out for dinner, so following a couple of ales at the Yard House in CityCentre we retired to the hotel and ordered from Pizza Hut. Not exactly gourmet fare I know, but I rather like their Thin'n'Crispy if it's done right and the branch on North Gessner does a good job. A Cheese Lovers with double Italian sausage hit the spot.

Normally I'd have glossed over this gastronomic faux pas if it hadn't been for the fact that we went to Russo's Coal Fired New York Pizzeria at Memorial City the next night. Ordered a Napoletana Paisano (Pepperoni, Italian Sausage, Red Onions, Peppers, Garlic Sauce) and a Hand-Tossed New York Village (Sausage, Pepperoni, Bacon, Beef, Mushrooms, Olives, Peppers, Mozzarella).

A bit disappointing. The crispy, blackened base on the Napoletana was delicious and the toppings - what there were of them - were tasty enough and obviously of good quality. And while I realise that putting too many toppings on such a thin pizza will work against the crispness of the crust, we couldn't help but think that the pizza was overpriced. There can't have been any more than eight small pieces of pepperoni on either pizza and there was a good couple of inches of crust at the edges with no toppings whatsoever.

If you're going, I'd recommend going for the Napoletana over the Hand Tossed. There was nothing to choose between the two in terms of thickness of crust but the former was larger and they are priced the same.

All in all I'd sooner order from PIzza Hut again. I realise that's probably heresy round these parts.

Breakfast earlier was at Mexico's Deli on Diary Ashford. A pleasant little deli that's easy to miss as it's in a nondescript strip. It was fairly quiet when we arrived but there was a steady stream of customers getting to-go orders and by the time we left there was a queue out the door.

We ordered the Queso Fundido with Chorizo and the Lomito Argentino Torta. The former was okay. A little on the bland side, but it was easily perked up with some of the very tasty red and green salsa on the table. The tiny corn tortillas which accompanied it were nothing to write home about.

But the Lomito Argentino - wow. Two large halves of deliciously soft sesame seed topped torta bread stuffed with steak, ham, cheese, avocado, mustard, jalapeno mayo and two fried eggs, accompanied by a little ramekin of noodle soup. This must be one of the best sandwiches in the city and it's an excellent deal at only $6.75.

In the afternoon we stopped off at Ragin' Cajun to take advantage of their happy hour. Two dozen large and juicy oysters (which somehow turned out to total 27) and a pitcher of Dos Equis came to a grand total of twenty bucks. Good snackin' !

Mexico's Deli
2374 S Dairy Ashford St, Houston, TX 77077

Yard House Restaurant
800 W Sam Houston Pkwy N, Houston, TX 77024

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  1. On a previous trip I'd enjoyed a rather fine Manhattan at Anvil so the first stop on day three was Spec's downtown warehouse to buy bottles of Rittenhouse 100 and Carpano Antica vermouth to recreate it at home.

    What a place ! The deli section was a foodie's paradise. We stocked up on some salmon and lumpfish caviar (to top homemade blinis for a Christmas morning treat), a few bottles of Big Daddy's hot sauce, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salted anchovies. And a jar of Makers Mark cherries for the Manhattans !

    Next stop - Pizzitolas for brunch. The staff were very friendly and the owner popped over to the table to say hello as we scanned the menu. We ordered a half pound of brisket, a half pound of sausage and a rack of ribs.

    Meh. Despite asking for the fattiest brisket they could find, there was no discernible fat and the brisket was a little dry. Luckily the thin, vinegary sauce was tasty and this helped a bit. The sausage was just okay. The owner proudly announced that it had been made by the same Czech family for sixty years. Maybe they should think about updating their recipe, I thought to myself.

    The ribs were the best of the selection we ordered, with a well seasoned exterior and tender meat. Again, though, they were just a little on the dry side and needed a sprinkling of sauce to perk them up a bit.

    I'd probably have rated the place higher if it hadn't been a bit on the pricey side. With a couple of Buds, tax and tip, the bill came to 68 bucks. They'd even cheekily charged me 80 cents for a couple of small pickled jalapenos !

    Dinner that evening consisted of polishing off the leftover pizza and ribs back at the hotel.

    Back tomorrow with day four !

    3 Replies
    1. re: FarleyFlavors

      I have the same opinions as you have set forth here! Warning: do NOT go to Cyclone Anaya's at CityCentre. Over here on the west side, find some of the very best French food in the city at Bistro Provence (we were there yesterday), Bistro Le Cep and Le Mistral. Don't ignore that little cafe next to McCormick and Schmick's called Pronto Cucinino. Great, fast, reasonably priced Italian food from the owners of the more "event" restaurants, Nino's and Vincent's. Enjoy! Where are you from?

      Bistro Provence
      13616 Memorial Dr, Houston, TX 77079

      Bistro Le Cep
      11112 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77042

      Cyclone Anaya's
      1710 Durham Dr, Houston, TX 77007

      Pronto Cucinino
      3191 W Holcombe Blvd, Houston, TX 77025

      Le Mistral
      1400 Eldridge Pkwy, Houston, TX 77077

      1. re: Lambowner

        Hmm ... my reply to this post seems to have disappeared into the chowhound ether. I'll try again.

        I'm originally from Glasgow and now living in London. Thanks for the suggestions Lambowner, although when I'm in Houston I tend to prefer going for the kind of food I just can't get back home. That means BBQ, Tex-Mex, Gulf seafood, American steaks, decent pizza, CFS, mudbugs. And prime rib. I love a bit of prime rib. When Outback opened over here about ten years back, I was over the moon to find they had it on the menu. But it barely lasted six months as nobody was ordering it.

        Thanks too for the warning on Cyclone Anaya's at CityCentre. It was on my radar to try out. Is it just this location that's poor or are they all to be avoided ?

        1. re: FarleyFlavors

          My favorite prime rib in Houston is Bonnie's Beef and Seafood. It's always very good. Their shrimp are always from the Gulf (not farm raised) and prepared very nicely. The filet is always good too, you can get it topped with crabmeat - yum. It's on I-45 South just inside Loop 610. Their lunch menu used to have a sandwich which was sliced prime rib and that was very good too. Their salad bar is my favorite of anywhere. Their thousand island must be made in house, it is delicious. I used to work not to far from there and we would eat there at lunch and book the rooms for work-related evening events so I'm guessing I've eaten there maybe 100 times. We had our retirement party there 2 years ago and it was great!! We haven't been back since but thinking about it makes me want to head over there now.

    2. Since you're staying at City Centre, how about popping in to Flora and Muse for a coffee or croissant?

      I tried going once, but couldn't find a parking space. I'd like to know if it's worth a second effort.

      In any case, I hope you enjoy your stay.

      We're big fans of Mexico's Deli and the Lomito Anrgentino in particular. I'm looking forward to hearing more.

      Mexico's Deli
      2374 S Dairy Ashford St, Houston, TX 77077

      2 Replies
      1. re: DoobieWah

        Hi DoobieWah - sorry if I gave the impression that I'm still in Houston. I got back a few days ago and was just too busy to do the whole trip report in one go ! I was actually in the Sheraton West a couple of miles north of CityCentre. I went there twice and had no problem getting a spot on the roof of the parking garage at the end of Town and Country Street, off the 1-10 feeder.

        1. re: FarleyFlavors

          Aparantly mi reedin cumprehnshun is not gud.

      2. Day four began with a drive to Little Pappasito's on Richmond for brunch. We arrived just as they were opening and got seated in the delightful covered patio to the side of the restaurant.

        Chips and salsa arrived as we were checking out the menu. The chips were fine and the warm red salsa was particularly good. It was a struggle not to fill up on the chips before brunch.

        We ordered the Especialidad de Pappasito’s, a combo for two which included Mexican-style benedict, beef and chicken fajitas. Couldn't resist getting a couple of two dollar Bloody Marys too. We asked for them extra spciy and they didn't disappoint. Perfectly fine and although they could have used just a little more booze, this was still before ten in the morning !

        A lovely surprise arrived before the main meal - half a dozen warm, light and flaky sopapillas, dusted with sugar and cinnamon and served with a squeezy bottle of honey for drizzling over.

        We attacked the benedicts first - torta bread topped with ham, poached egg and green chile hollandaise. The poached egg was perfectly cooked, but the ham (although tasty enough) was a little too thickly sliced, there was barely a hint of the advertised chile in the hollandaise and the torta bread was a bit on the dense side. Mexico's Deli needn't worry about the competition here !

        The table was laden down with all the fajita trimmings - a bowl of rice each, a bowl of charro beans each, a plate of guacamole and salad, flour and corn tortillas.

        The chicken fajitas were perfectly acceptable, but they paled into insignificance beside the beef. These were magnificent. Tender enough to pull apart with your teeth but retaining a wonderful chewiness.

        This entire spread was only 16 bucks, which was very good value. Next time - and I'm pretty sure there will be a next time - I'll be checking out their delicious sounding Huevos con Carne - scrambled eggs, beef fajita and chile con queso wrapped in tortillas.

        The plan for dinner that evening was to pop across the road from the hotel to try out the Red Balloon Cafe. We figured that without driving anywhere we could both have a couple of cocktails and some wine with dinner.

        The first disappointment was that the "bar" consisted of a small drinks trolley tucked away in the corner of the cafe. And the cafe itself had no atmosphere whatsoever. Too brightly lit with a few booths and uncomfortable looking metal chairs. A television was tuned to a food channel with closed captioning turned on.

        We'd arrived just before sundown so we went through to the patio and ordered a couple of margaritas, which were watery and overly sweet. We might have followed these up with another drink but we never saw the waitress again. They were understaffed and she had been kept busy showing arriving customers to their tables. Incidentally, I swear that not one of these customers looked under 60. I guess the old crowd was attracted to the comfort food on the menu.

        We briefly discussed driving somewhere else but decided instead to return to the hotel for a couple of drinks then pick up an order to go later on. Since the prime rib on the menu was advertised as having "limited availability", I asked the waitress to reserve me a large portion. More disappointment as I was warned that the prime rib was only served "medium and up". I asked her for the rarest piece they could find.

        Despite the fact that the place was probably three quarters full at this point, when we returned at 8.10 it was deserted. By this point we'd virtually given up on getting a decent meal that evening.

        Well, we needn't have worried. Incredibly, the prime rib was one of the best I've tasted. An inch thick slab, tender, juicy and still pink in the centre. Their Texan burger was also very good indeed. A half pound, hand-formed patty with bacon, BBQ sauce, cheese, jalapenos and grilled onions. The only truly minor complaint was that halfway through eating, the patty collapsed under the weight of the burger and toppings and had to be finished off with a knife and fork. Even the hand-cut fries which accompanied both meals were top quality. They actually tasted of potato, which let's face it is something of a rarity.

        If you're ever in the immediate area, the food at Red Balloon is probably worth checking out. I just wouldn't expect luxurious surroundings or decent service. And mind you don't trip up on all the walking frames !

        Mexico's Deli
        2374 S Dairy Ashford St, Houston, TX 77077

        Red Balloon Cafe
        4410 Westway Park Blvd Ste 300, Houston, TX 77041

        Little Pappasito's
        2536 Richmond Ave, Houston, TX 77098

        1. Day five - a trip to Beaver's BBQ for Sunday brunch. We decided to prop up the bar where we got chatting to an amiable barman named Justin who seemed to really enjoy his job.

          Given that the menu proudly announced that they'd been twice awarded "Best Bloody Mary" by the Houston Press, we had to try them out. We shared three.

          First up, the Beaver Mary, containing bruised celery, garlic, wasabi and hot sauce. A very finely balanced combination of flavours making for a terrific drink.

          Next up, the Smokin' Mary, made with smoked rye whiskey. Holy Toledo. I've downed a few Bloody Marys in my time but this was probably the finest I've ever tasted. I asked Justin how they smoke the whiskey and as luck would have it he was just about to prepare some. He poured the Rittenhouse Rye into a wide shallow metal bowl, sat this bowl into a larger bowl of ice and placed it into the maple-fed smoker. The ice prevents the whiskey heating up too much and evaporating some of the alcohol. The result is quite wonderful - if you're at all a fan of Bloody Marys, you really need to check this out.

          Finally, we tried the Squealin' Mary, made with bacon-infused vodka and served in a candied bacon fat rimmed glass with a rasher of bacon taking the place of the traditional celery stick. If I'd tried this before the smoked whisky version I'd probably be more enthusiastic (and maybe my taste buds were overwhelmed by the smokiness of the previous drink), but the bacon flavour didn't really shine through and the sugared fat rim just tasted like sweetened lard. I couldn't help thinking that replacing the tomato juice with Clamato would work well here, given that clams and bacon is a classic combination.

          Alongside this booze-fest we did of course order some food - a portion of wings, mac'n'cheese and their seafood Po-Boy. The wings had an excellent crispy, blackened exterior and were moist and juicy inside. The mac'n'cheese was also terrific, with a fairly thin but wonderfully cheesy sauce which stuck to the roof of your mouth. Only the seafood Po-Boy disappointed slightly. It could have used a bit more seafood (or a smaller loaf), as the bread-to-fish ratio wasn't quite right. On the plus side, it was served with a mound of delicious thick, salty, rosemary-flavoured house-made chips.

          None of this was cheap, mind. With tax and tip the bill came to over 80 dollars and with the smallish portions it was verging on the overpriced. I'd certainly return for the cocktails, though. There's a Smoky Julep made with that wonderful smoked rye on the cocktail menu with my name on it, and I'd also love to try the Chicken Fried Chicken Livers on their happy hour menu.

          Back soon with the final day and a half !

          4 Replies
          1. re: FarleyFlavors

            Yes, Claire and her bar crew at Beavers do come up with some quite innovative, interesting and tasty libations. My personal favorite lately has been the "Jackson Square" which is a variation on the Manhattan.

            The bacon flavor in the squealing mary is kind of overwhelmed by the spiciness of the bloody mary mix. The taste of the candied slice of bacon that's used as the garnish more than makes up for it, though.

            Regarding the food, if you went for brunch (the only time that the smoky mary and the squealing mary are available), I would have recommended the more breakfast-y items. The migas and Texa-quiles are both very good, as is the Beaver Slam, and all are reasonably priced at 10 bucks. Last week on their brunch they had a special item -- two pulled pork tamales topped with two over-easy fried eggs, salsa, sour cream and green chile sauce that was delicious!

            Regarding the portion size, you'd ordered one appetizer (Wings) one entree (Po-Boy) and one size (mac and cheese) for how many people?? :) I find that when I'm eating for one person, that JJ's portion sizes range from just-right to too much.

            1. re: grbroderick

              yeah, that's a first for me as well. everything at beaver's is huge.

              1. re: grbroderick

                Point taken ! And I guess I wouldn't have batted an eyelid had I been charged eight bucks for a small ramekin of mac'n'cheese at, say, Del Frisco's or similar.

                Thanks for the breakfast suggestions. I'll almost certainly be back to Beaver's for brunch on my next trip so I'll check them out.

            2. Next stop after brunch was Christian's Tailgate for a quick beer, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of their famous burgers, which I've never tried.

              Yup, I drove to a bar just to catch a glimpse of some food. I should probably seek help :o)

              They did look rather good though, I'll have to try one out some time.

              Dinner that evening was at El Tiempo on Washington. It's a very pleasant dining room, nice and colorful but with subdued lighting.

              Thanks to James Christinian of this parish for recommending the skinny margaritas. They were potent and delicious, and not marred by that cloying sweetness which ruins the drink in too many places.

              The warm red salsa served with the chips was excellent, with a strong tomato taste. The green sauce was even better. Rich and smooth with little pillows of sour cream throughout. I could happily die face down in a vat of this stuff.

              We ordered crab quesadilla, three mixed flautas and sides of guacamole and black beans. It was all absolutely delicious and I'm struggling to pick any faults with the meal. The mix-to-your-taste guacamole, with perfectly soft, chunkily mashed avocado was a standout. So too was the crab quesadilla - thanks to texasredtop for the recommendation. If you're reading, I have no idea how you manage to make one of these last three meals. It was way too tasty not to devour at one sitting.

              El Tiempo obviously isn't the cheapest Tex-Mex in town but I thought it was worth every last penny.

              Final day and time for one last meal before the flight home. We visited El Rey Taqueria on the I-10 and ordered five assorted breakfast tacos. Very average. They were all pretty bland and the meek salsas on the table didn't help much. Even the freshly squeezed orange juice was watery and tasteless. Cheap enough though, so I can't complain much - and maybe our tastebuds were still spoiled from the previous evening's dinner.

              We made one final stop at HEB to pick up some chorizo, Velveeta, Rotel, canned chopped chillies and corn tortillas. I'm getting some chile con queso with added onion, garlic and sour cream in the crock pot tonight for a Christmas Eve treat.

              Hopefully it won't be too long before our next visit. I'm aiming for April when the crawfish season will be in full swing, although I'm gutted that my favourite place for them - Magnolia Bar and Grill - has closed down. Any recommendations for an alternative ? I hear the Boiling Crab is very popular.

              Boiling Crab
              8300 W Sam Houston Pkwy S Ste 268, Houston, TX 77072

              6 Replies
              1. re: FarleyFlavors

                During crawfish season, drive out into the countryside near Brookshire and stop at Repka's. Just an old roadhouse with a bunch of Harleys out front and good crawfish, steaks, and catfish inside!


                1. re: zorra

                  Thanks for the tip, sounds like my kind of place. They announce on their website that crawfish season starts "February 10th" which seems strangely precise !

                  1. re: FarleyFlavors

                    Crawfish are too small and utterly worthless until at least mid-March, so I pay little attention to when the season starts - I pay attention to the size of the mudbugs.

                    1. re: FarleyFlavors

                      Dammit Zorra, you've been holding out on us. Where was this info last year during the season? I checked out the menu and it looks more than reasonable. Twenty four fried oysters for 15.95, a deal if they're good. I'm on a constant search for the best fried oyster. FarleyFlavors, if you can't make the drive to Brookshire, Mardi Gras Grill on Durham and Washington has good crawfish, plus a bonus, the best fried oysters I've found so far. By the way, I'm glad you enjoyed the skinny margaritas at El Tiempo.

                      Mardi Gras Grill
                      1200 Durham, Houston, TX 77007

                  2. re: FarleyFlavors

                    Everybody raves about El Rey, but I've never had any real good food there, although my friend says the tortilla soup is very good, and I trust him. We got a rotisserie chicken on the way to an Astros game once, (to avoid outrageous prices for cold hot dogs), and it was dried out and had no flavor.

                    1. re: James Cristinian

                      In my opinion, the best things to get at El Rey are the tortilla soup and the cuban tacos, and maybe the shrimp tempura tacos if you want to mix it up. Whenever I have deviated from those things I have been disappointed.

                      El Rey
                      9924 Jensen Dr, Houston, TX 77093