I am often asked what good restaurants have I eaten at recently. Though quick to give recommendations to others, I often stumble trying to remember where I had eaten recently, unless it had been unduly memorable, for good or otherwise. So, I thought it might be a fun exercise to go through my notes and all of the places I had eaten in the last three months – from the start of June through the end of August – and highlight the restaurants where I had notable meals.
Prompted by a need to do research to compile a list for a forthcoming Zagat survey and Houston Restaurants Weeks, I dined at more restaurants than I usually would have during a three-month period. The restaurants were:
Beaver's, Berryhill Baja Grill, Bombay Pizza Co., Bradley's Fine Diner, Brasserie Max & Julie, Café Brussels, Café Pita +, Candelari's, The Cajun Stop, Common Bond, Cove, Danton's, Eatsie Boys, El Real, El Taquito Rico, Five Guys, The Funky Chicken, Giacomo’s, Haven, Hugo's, Kata Robata, Kolache Factory, Kuu, La Fisheria, La Guadalupana, La Madeleine, Lacey's Deli, Liberty Kitchen, Little Bigs, Local Foods, Lola's, Luigi's, Luigi's Pizzeria, Maine-ly Sandwiches, Maria Selma, Mission Burrito, Molina's, Nam, Pappas Bar-B-Que, Pax Americana, Pico's, Pollo Campero, Pondicheri, Prego, Punk's, The Queen Vic, The Red Lion, Saldivia's, 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, Tampico, Taqueria Arandas, Thien An, Tila's, Tiny Boxwoods, Tortas El Angel, Vertskebap and Whole Foods.
Listed alphabetically, the baker’s dozen of restaurants that impressed during the past three months were:
Bradley's Fine Diner – Just down the street from my office, this is an easy lunch option for a nicer-than-usual lunch, and a terrific meatloaf sandwich and fries is why this place on the list. I don’t remember ever having a meatloaf sandwich as good, and the crisp fries were also very enjoyable. Unfortunately, subsequent visits were not as good. Maybe displaying their Midwestern roots, two different seafood entrées with two different fish featured oddly mushy and bland-at-best fillets that are something that you do not expect in restaurant with its prices, or any independent restaurant in Houston, for that matter. The two disappointing fish dishes were in contrast to excellent black cod and scallop preparations I sampled during a media dinner, so there hope in the future for other seafood orders.
Common Bond – I have only ordered a couple of their somewhat pricey sandwiches, but the bread that comes with these is stellar, and the displays of croissants and other baked goods are stunning. Bread from Common Bond was also clearly the best item I had at opening night at Pax Americana.
Giacomo’s – Predictably packed on a Friday night, I went in just to enjoy some wine from their well-chosen and enticingly priced wine list, when proprietor Lynette Hawkins impressed on us crostini with a trio of toppings. Relatively simple, but excellent, and perfect with wine, the best of the toppings was probably the chicken liver pâté, a Tuscan favorite. All three were worth ordering and the quality baguette is better bread than the dense saltless bread you would be served in Tuscany.
Haven – Now dearly departed, the pan-seared golden grouper was clean-tasting, and accompanied by a medley of familiar local flavors, the dish was very enjoyable. I hope that Chef Randy Evans and team find a new home soon.
Hugo’s – It had been too long since I visited Hugo’s, which provided the best meal among the half-dozen or so I enjoyed from the Houston Restaurant Weeks menus. The highlight was probably the duck and huitlacoche enchilada, but the other two courses, a grilled strip steak with sautéed strips of pepper and chocolate crepes for dessert were also very good. Maybe a little too loud and too bright, but excellent cocktails, even a little cheaper than at other top restaurants, help make a visit and wait much more enjoyable.
Kata Robata – The second-best meal I had this summer, mostly sushi, but also a light and vibrant ceviche with albacore tuna, almonds, bits of citrus and greens. Unusual for Houston, the restaurant was packed when we walked in at 10:45, but deservedly so. This remains one of the top spots around for seafood.
La Fisheria – Straightforward refreshing ceviche began a meal with excellent food and piquant cocktails. High-quality fish prepared with a deft touch, especially the huachinango pibil, and a welcoming atmosphere made it easy to overlook the sometime slow service and not-so-hard-working air conditioning.
La Guadalupana – This quaint little spot makes this list for both the mole poblano enchiladas filled with chicken and their breakfast tacos. The latter are some of the very best in the city, and the former are always very satisfying.
Maria Selma – Long a favorite, I am quick to overlook the occasional average meal, but I always enjoy the thick fresh chips made from their house-made corn tortillas, a treat these days. Their enchiladas filled with moist roast pork and topped with a green mole sauce was something a little different for lunch, and, better, quite tasty.
Pico’s – I have had good luck since Pico’s has moved from its longtime Bellaire location. My recent conchinita pibil – achiote-marinated pork baked in banana leaves – was at least as good as ever and the house margaritas made with reposado tequila are some of the best house margaritas in the city, both the frozen or rocks versions.
Saldivia’s – The best meal I had this summer was at Saldivia’s, long the home of the best-value steak in Houston. The entraña, a tender grilled marinated strip steak, was somehow even more flavorful than usual, as were the other cuts served, the vacio and asado de tira. The steaks were absolutely delicious, especially when bolstered by some of the zesty chimi-churri sauce and accompanied by a bold red wine.
60 Degrees Mastercrafted – Their Akuashi beef carpaccio was excellent, the best part of my enjoyable Houston Restaurant Weeks menu. My entrée of sous vide lamb shoulder was a little bland by I got sample the steak that the rest of the table ordered. Also featuring Akuashi beef, it was tender and flavorful, and very satisfying even if the harried wait staff did not ask them how they would like it cooked.
Tampico – I had forgotten about his humble Mexican seafood restaurant that also sells uncooked seafood to go for too long. Excellent shrimp en brochette and shrimp grilled on flat grill were prefaced by the aguachiles, raw shrimp marinated and served in an incendiary sauce of pureed jalapeños that was as enjoyable as it was tear-inducing. Always fresh seafood that more than makes up for the setting.