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Hidden gems

I've been in Houston almost two years now, having arrived from New York. While I was initially excited by the thought of moving to a city that was increasingly being noted for its food, especially its ethnic food, I have to say that I've been somewhat disappointed. I've been to the three restaurants that have received the most accolades recently -- Oxheart, Underbelly, and Uchi -- and I've found all three to be very anticlimactic and underwhelming. They are all expensive and over-hyped.

The best restaurants I've found in Houston have generally been tucked away in strip malls and noted only by a few culinary cognoscenti. A few have been mentioned at times on this site -- places like Peking Cuisine, Mexico's Deli, Al Aseel, and Pollo Bravo, to name a few. These are places with delicious, inexpensive food that fly beneath the radar.

I'm curious to hear if others have their favorite "hidden gems" that are deserving of more notice. If so, please share! I realize that in sharing, we all run the risk of having our favorites overrun. But know that at least one hungry fellow who is eager to change his view of the Houston culinary scene will appreciate your views.

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  1. I agree that so many upscales end up disappointing when you can get better and more varied food for much better value at so many mid-priced locations around town.

    For sushi try Blue Fish House on Richmond, not to be confused with Blue Fish (two locations). BFH is in the difficult to navigate parking center along with The Hobbit, which by the way is also a good rec for guilt-free but tasty sandwiches and platters of health conscious fare.

    Thai food - V's Thai on Dairy Ashford (nightclub later at night, try it at lunch) or the ever popular "dive" Vieng's on Long Point.

    Vietnamese - I like Van Loc best.

    Too many to mention and too many others know more about where to find them, so I'll let them finish the list!

    1. This is a tough one; I've been thinking about it for a couple of days but the problem is there are so many frickin' foodies out there these days there are very, very few places that are not discovered or 'hidden,' or known only to 'a few.'

      But as far as places that are good but don't have a full-time publicist or aren't mentioned almost daily in the Press you have already mentioned a couple of mine - Al Aseel and Pollo Bravo. Peking Cuisine is only blocks from me but I just have never been able to get into Chinese cuisine that much, a serious character defect, I guess, in this city. Mexico's Deli has been mentioned many times on this board but although I agree it's good, I think it's over-hyped.

      I am very fond these days of Maharajah Bhog, in the same center with Peking Cuisine. It's gotten at least one rave revue and I've mentioned it on this board but it's still very little known or patronized by people outside of the ex-pat community and cognoscenti.

      I like Sammy's Wild Game Grill but for the sausage dogs much more than the burgers. Also like the Good Dog Food Truck for the best hot dogs in town.

      I like both Radical Eats and Mainely Sandwiches. The former is well known by cognoscenti but since it has been strictly vegetarian or vegan there are many people who would never go and it is/was quite simply a dump.. Although Mainely has received several rave reviews, it's location has probably really limited it. Both places are moving into the dreaded and over reported on and gushed over Montrose and RE is adding meat dishes to the menu so we'll undoubtedly be hearing tons more about both.

      I have not been eating out much for about a year now but among the new places I have tried not already mentioned I think the most interesting one was a place called East Africa and Middle East Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall in a trashy strip center on Hillcroft, a couple of blocks south of 59. The cuisine actually was Somali which proved to be much more interesting that i expected. Because of its colonial history and location on a major trade route, Somali cuisine over the centuries has been influenced by Italian, Turkish, Ethiopian, Chinese and Indian cuisine. The specialty of the house was goat and the guy did some very good goat dishes.

      I wrote a very positive report on my blog and then within a few days the place changed names to Mandi Halal Cuisine. I haven't been back to see if more than the name changed.

      I will probably think of more.

      Now, please, don't be one of those who only comes here to ask for help and never contributes otherwise, Tell us of your other discoveries, both likes and dislikes.

      7 Replies
      1. re: brucesw

        Sad to say, Houston is pretty much a lousy town for top end cuisine. Especially compared to New York. Dallas used to be better at the top end than Houston, but in the last three or four years, it's gone to seed at the top end and have very little to offer there, too.

        I'm afraid I don't have a lot to offer on the "hidden gems" side of Houston as I don't get down for business that often. However, I had a decent dinner (roast pig) on a Sunday at Vinoteca Poscol on Westheimer about six or eight months ago. Seemed a decent enough casual Italian restaurant. Very nicely selected (and semi-reasonably priced) wine list.

        1. re: brucesw

          Thanks for the great responses. I'm sorry that it has taken me such a long time to reply since my initial post; I haven't been on Chowhound in a while and was pleased to see the various responses to my initial thread.

          I don't have all that much to update since my initial post. I've been back to Al Aseel a few times since and sampled some of their other fare -- pomfret fish and lamb chops. Both were decent, though neither approached the chicken.

          I also went in search of some good Chinese dumplings and tried to track down a place I visited when I first arrived in Houston -- Dumpling King in Belliare Chinatown. It turns out that the Korean restaurant next door (Arirang) has absorbed the place. They still make dumplings, which are pretty tasty, but the place lacks the "diviness" (and hence authenticity) of the original a bit. It feels strange to be eating Chinese dumplings in a relatively hi-tech Korean restaurant.

          Another poster recommended Hunyh. I've been here twice. I know the place is universally beloved, but I just can't seem to see what is so great about the place. The same with Van Loc. The food is okay, but I don't see what the big deal.

          I've been to Radical Eats as well and agree that the food is great and much under-hyped. I haven't been to the new meat incarnation on Montrose but hope to get there soon. I've heard mixed things about Mainely Sandwiches -- particularly that it is expensive and that you don't get much bang for your buck.

          A few other places that I've enjoyed:
          (1) Red Lion pub (food isn't amazing, but it is fun to sit outside with a drink, and portions are large)
          (2) Himalaya (good Indo-Pak, atrocious service)
          (3) Kata Robata -- I wouldn't go for the sushi, which is okay. Instead, go for the bone marrow. And sign up for an angioplasty afterwards. But it is worth it...:)
          (4) Giacomo's -- Recommended by another poster. I forgot about this place. Need to get back there.

          I'll definitely check out Mandi Halal Cuisine. Thanks for the recommnendation. I also want to check out Lucy Ethiopian.

          Something I really miss from New York is a place for great sandwiches. Potbelly and Jimmy John's just don't do it for me. Local Foods was good once or twice, but their menu is limited and boring. (How many times can one eat a crunchy chicken sandwich?) Kenny and Ziggy's is exorbitantly expensive. Any ideas? Also, what about great pizza places?

          1. re: bert123

            Get to Mala for Sichuan, the red oil dumplings and Dan Dan noodles are superb (among everything else on the menu). Head to Pondicheri and/or Indika for Indian (nothing in NYC or here comes close). Instead of Batalli's pizzeria in the Village, head to Dolce Vita on Westheimer. Try Phonecia for some serious fresh lamb or chx wraps..Fun downtown grocery store to explore. Try Irma's Southwestern Grill on TEXAS St. Only open for lunch,,, as good as it gets! Njoy is a favorite for Thai and the lunch specials at Thai Spice in the Heights is terrific. U might also order the "Mish Mash" bowl of soup at Kenny and Ziggy's w/your killer deli sandwich (I actually prefer over NYC Katz'. Don't forget Hugo,, best Mex/Mex in the city and the brunch is legendary. Gatlin's for BBQ in the Heights,, go early and expect a line. Benjy's for happy hour or any hour! Jersey Mikes if your in the mood for a sub. And hit Central Market for a terrific sandwich, any way you like it, Barnaby's on West Gray or Shepherd for a very tasty burger. Paulie's,,, as an intro, ck out the portabello mushroom sandwich or the shrimp blt.. they also make a nice cesar/w chx. the nightly specials are terrific and the chx parm, pretty nice. Do the w/e breakfasts at Empire Café and save room for a slice of cake.. Spk'ing of sweet deserts, head over to the chocolate bar on W.Alabama after dinner at DiVino's across the street. Sit at the food bar at Carrabba's on Kirby and order the "off the menu" shrimp and crab appetizer if your cholesterol is in check and enjoy the show! The lasagna is awesome btw! To be honest, i'm from NJ/NYC and always enjoy my once/twice visits/yr. But i'm always glad to get back to the Houston restaurants and food scene.

            1. re: bornie

              I've heard the recommendation of Jersey Mike's a couple of times. I'm not an expert on East Coast subs but if that's a good example then I'm not missing anything. My first bite I almost gagged on all the vinegar. Best thing about JM's was the size of the sandwich for the price. Best thing about Jimmy John's is the speed.

              I realize our 'Houston style sub,' the Antone's po'boy, has gone downhill and there are only 2 places left to get a fresh made one, but I'll take that any day (though mostly for the chow-chow).

              Best Italian sub I've found, for my taste, is at Airport Italian Deli on W. Airport a couple of blocks from Hobby. Family run, small, made to order. Can be very busy. Get the super - more than twice as much meat and cheese for less than twice the price. Antone's style roll, which I realize is not what is used back east, but with lettuce, onions, oil and vinegar and herbs instead of chow-chow. I wouldn't say it's worth a drive all the way across town but if you're in the area.

              I had a really good 'East Coast Italian Sausage and Pepper Hoagie' at Luigi's one time, a daily chalk board special. I've never had any of their regular sandwich menu.

              If you want that general type of sandwich with better quality meats and cheeses, go to a sit-down place like d'Amico's or Candelaria's. Really not much more expensive (except for the tip) and not as speedy as a sandwich shop, though.

            2. re: bert123

              I checked out the Montrose location of Mainely. I thought the sandwich was smaller with less meat and the roll was different and not as good. One visit to each location and I may be remembering the original visit too fondly but I'm not as excited about this place as I originally was.

              1. re: bert123

                I like Piola for pizza here--- its the most authentic Italian style pizza I have found in Houston. Any recommendations on great Italian food would be great!

                1. re: bert123

                  Sandwiches, Carter and Cooley in the Heights does a good, if unremarkable reuben. Pizza, Antonio's on Hillcroft, I've been going for decades and hear actual Italian and New York spoken by the patrons. Also Verona on Gessner and Ramono's on W. Gray. All three are Italian owned.

              2. Dude, what's your blog? We'll check it out.

                3 Replies
                  1. re: Lambowner

                    I knew this and I didn't, as I had to reset the computer and lost a lot. His, or her name may be something quite different as I have more than a few fakes. Anyway thanks for the quick update it was already starting to drive me crazy remembering the blog, which is excellent and will be added again to my favorites.

                    1. re: James Cristinian

                      Thanks for the kind words you two. There isn't much going on the blog these days as I don't do much exploring and I'm very tired of blogging. I never would have lasted long as a professional writer. I'm more likely to post here or just post a picture without commentary on Sonovabob.

                      Chili Bob is a made up name because I thought it sounded better that Chili Bruce or just Bruce's Houston Eats. I was very into perfecting a recipe for chili around the time I started the blog and inspired by that Fort Worth CW niteclub Billy Bob's I thought 'Hey, Chili Bob would be a good name.' My real name is Bruce.

                1. I think the "Bosnian Pizza" at Cafe Pita is excellent. I'd be interested in hearing what others think of it.

                  1. Hello,

                    Agree completely on Underbelly!

                    Some favourites:

                    Sichuan Cuisine - 9114 Bellaire Blvd - great Ma Po Tofu and the shredded duck is great too - you have to find your favourtites because the menu can be uneven

                    Giacomo's Cibo e Vino 3215 Westheimer - a nice place to get a glass of wine and a selection of starters - the main menu is more banal, but the starters are yummy.

                    Huynh - 913 Saint Emanuel - great Vietnamese - bring your own booze

                    Marini's Empanada House - 10001 Westheimer, behind Chili's - the fugazetta with sauteed onions is a dream and their chocolate empanada is unspeakably good.

                    Shepherd Park Draught House - 3402 N Shepherd - good burgers, fun place.

                    I can't wait to try some of the places mentioned & I hope more people will share their favourites.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: antinea

                      Welcome to the Houston board. Looking forward to hearing more of your finds.