Tag Archives: Houston

Mai’s

IMG_1440Mai’s Vietnamese restaurant has been a well-known staple in midtown Houston for over 30 years. For a stretch it was one of the few restaurants open until 4a; I am one of many people who have made a 2:15a run to Mai’s for Bo Luc Lac or Lemongrass Chicken after “socializing” with friends in  Midtown. A fire destroyed Mai’s a few years back but they rebuilt and a swankier incarnation appeared.  Same menu, same prices, same quality only without the 80’s kitsch. Shame, I rather liked the 80’s kitsch.

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Atmosphere
Its a contemporary, high-ceiling feel now. Warm tones and exaggerated  chatter fill the space  almost any hour of the day, night or red-eye morning. Lunch is usually busy with a short wait, dinner can be very crowded with a long wait, particularly on weekends. After 2am its a hilarious mixture of misplaced testosterone, drag queens and ink aficionados.

Food

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I’ve sampled every part of their menu and it ranges from very good to excellent. This round I tried one of their specialty dishes, Bo Luc Lac (Garlic Beef) with a snow peas add-on;  slices of filet mignon marinaded in a fish sauce base, stir fried and served with grilled onion, red bell strips, jalapenos and tomatoes over lettuce.

Service
Despite persistent crowds, which are often unruly in the wee hours, the service here is efficient, courteous and accurate.

Price
On the high side but reasonable just be careful of the add-ons. If you start adding snow peas, mushrooms and egg rolls to your Bo Luc Lac (normally $13) it will quickly go over $20.

I’m glad to see Mai’s up and running again and I’m most happy to know that their reputation for high quality, great tasting dishes remains intact.

Lunch: 20 September 2013

Mai’s | 3403 Milam | HTX 77002

D’Amico

IMG_1434New people at work means a celebratory lunch. Actually, any Tuesday, a wedding, séance or even a successfully clipped toenail means a celebratory lunch in our circle. Today we took our new people out to an old Italian standby in the Rice Village area and I’m happy to report, its still good.

Atmosphere
D’Amico has been around forever. It feels like it could easily blend with its counterparts in Brooklyn; a small, cramped space packed with groceries, homemade raviolis and canolis, restaurant and large to-go contingency blocking every available entry and exit. The only thing missing is some Italian guy born in Brooklyn circa 1945 barking out undecipherable instructions to people who will give him explicit hand gestures in return. It is loud, it is chaotic. I love it.

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Food
Having only eaten here for diner I was curious about the lunch special; choose three items from the lunch menu, eat, pay your $8 and get out – that’s all. I went for Chicken Lasagne, Meatball (singular) and Caesar Salad. All three were good but not excellent. The Chicken Lasagne was very flavorful mostly picking up garlic, oregano, tomato, monz and roasted chicken, however it had dried out a bit, obviously it was made a little earlier in preparation for the lunch rush. Meatball, the one, was excellent; ground beef and probably ground pork in a smaller quantity standing tall in a shallow pool of sauce tasting little-ol-Italian-grandma-dressed-in-black homemade. Caesar was decent but not memorable.

Dinner here is better quality, however if you are on a tight lunch schedule and want to keep costs under $10, D’Amico is a spectacular time-cost play.

Service
Very efficient and good balancing skills, considering the tight space and chaotic environment.

Price
Lunch special – three items, $8. You can order off the regular menu for lunch and those items ranged widely in price: $8-30.

D’Amico | 5510 Morningside Dr | HTX 77005

Indika

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Another Restaurant Week revisit, this time a lower Westheimer Indian Fusion – Indika. I liked Indika the first time I tried it several years back but often times good restaurants turn mediocre. I happy to report this is not the case for Indika.

Atmosphere
Red, orange, yellow and liberal use of sheer fabric dividers set the zen-den tone. Both casual and sophisticated without pretense. Reasonably-leveled Indian themed music allows conversation and focus away from the scruffy chaos that ebbs and flows on the southern edge of the Montrose. Evening is much more energetic, lunch is more reserved.

Service
Efficient, informed, not intrusive.

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Food
Indika is Indian fusion, that is, traditional Indian fare but made with ingredients or techniques not typically used in Indian cooking. My Indian friends either love this place or hate it, mostly the former.

All wins

Sweet Potato Samosa Chaat: I learned that chaat just means a combination of appetizers. This one is a spin on potato samosa over chick peas. The sweet potatoes in samosa gave it a much more distinct flavor which paired well with the mint, cilantro chutney, the cumin spiked yogurt sauce and cumin-coriander-ginger flavors in the chickpeas. A sensory assault to revisit, definitely.

Pork Masala Naan Wrap: The pork tasted slow-cooked and was fall-apart tender, spiked heavily with garam masala and ginger, wrapped with sweet potato and caramelized onion in naan.  The naan worked to contain and subdue the strong flavors in the pork and the crispy texture of the side onion-cauliflower pakora balanced out the softer textures of the wrap.

Price
Indika averages about $20 for entrees at dinner, slightly less at lunch. Its one of the few places  I recommend for dinner over lunch since the atmosphere at dinner is much more lively and I think lively pairs better with exotic fare.

While it might not be the traditional Indian fare ubiquitous to the Hillcroft Ave corridor, I’m glad Indika has survived,  not sacrificed any quality and seems committed to turning innovative ideas into plates that taste great.

Indika | 516 Westheimer | HTX 77006

Beer Can House

Ironically it was my friend, the Hedge Fund Mistress, who does not even live in Houston, who told me about the Beer Can House. When I read her forwarded article from AP, I knew I would have to go; it was just too odd to pass by.

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Apparently, dude who lived here created the Beer Can House from beer he actually consumed over a 20 year span. Good on you Beer Guy, you were ahead of the recycling curve. Its worth a visit since you miss the context unless you are in person. This piece of art is buried in a cluster of McTownhomes, which, to me, makes it all the more appealing.

Beer Can House | 222 Malone | HTX 77007

Haven

Its Christmas in Houston! Other people know it as Restaurant Week, now Restaurant WeekS, IMG_1334considering the event runs  from August 1 through Labour Day weekend. Every city has them  and for me its always a good way to try some new venues or to revisit some past favourites.

Today we did some revisiting. Haven was the IT restaurant a few years back and we were curious if the new-Southern localvore favourite had retained their across-board excellence previously making it one of the most popular dining destinations in Houston. Short answer – yes.

Atmosphere
Haven is one big open area; glass-steel-hardwood modern but with a softer, more in-home feeling. Soundproofing is good, which is critical for maintaining conversation in what could be an acoustical nightmare and the chairs are likely more comfortable that the ones about your dining room table. At lunch the crowd here is almost exclusively Greenway Plaza white collar discussing business. Except for the guy in Wranglers and boots who valet parked his big-ass black-out doolie; it is Houston after all.

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Food
All wins.

Chef takes classic Southern dishes and spins them around until they become dizzy and fall down. Once they regain consciousness they are something new made with local ingredients and arguably, better.

Shrimp Corn Dogs: I don’t have the capacity to remember much about previous dining experiences, hence the blog, however I did remember the one item I consistently order at Haven – Shrimp Corn Dogs. Its exactly what it sounds like – shrimp, butterflied, batter-dipped then fried. Three sticks are served with a Tabasco remoulade and a shot of homemade lemonade. The savory then spicy then sweet taste waves are worth the trip here.

Blackened Catfish on Cheese Grits: Not K-Paul hot but the blackening spices are still warm enough to shine through the creamy base of grits topped with lemon-tinged cheese sauce. Catfish does not have a subtle flavor so despite the other bold flavors in this dish it is still present in the taste spectrum. My favourite at Haven is still the Wild Boar Chili but this is a solid runner up.

Service
Service here is can be spotty in the evening, as the groups become larger and the demands higher, however at lunch it is consistently excellent. Homemade rolls appear instantly on seating. Orders are taken quickly and they seem to appear at lulls in the conversation, just when you want them. I noticed the some of the same servers from my last visit and I believe this set is very good at timing business lunches.

Price
For Restaurant WeekS its $20 for a 2-course lunch and this is a fair deal considering its about a 10-20% discount from the usual lunch prices. Not surprisingly, lunch is a better deal even out of Restaurant WeekS; entrees at dinner are in the $20-$35 range.

Parking
A special note about parking. Algerian Way is now all No Parking. While you could churn butter about Upper Kirby looking for street parking, its probably better just to valet and move on.

Lunch: 13 August 2013

Haven | 2502 Algerian Way | HTX 77098

AKA Sushi

IMG_1305The replicazzi have made sure there is a sushi joint on every corner of the Houston MSA. Fact is, no matter where you live in Houston, you can probably walk to a sushi place and its probably, at least, decent. But there are strata of sushi restaurants, some  high-end with ultra-modern design and presentation, some are old-school run by actual Japanese families and some are  serving sushi-like objects on boats floating down conveyor belts of water. We don’t eat sushi from conveyor belts, call us snobs.

Our work-lunch-sushi crew has a standing bi-monthly outing to AKA Sushi. The offerings here are good to excellent, its close and it has Tony, our absolute favourite server in all of Houston.

Atmosphere
AKA is in a strip near the Whole Foods in Upper Kirby. Outside boring, inside is small, modern with plenty of natural light. The mood is always upbeat zen with the usual 80’s mixed with current modern music played at levels allowing conversation. It’s typically crowded for lunch after 12p but there’s always drop-in space. Comfy padded booths next to the glass front but our group is too big for those. Tables are close-spaced but comfortably so and  there are several tables in nooks for a feeling of separation.

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Food
I’ve tried everything and everything is at least good, most great and some excellent. Highlights for me are –

Agedashi Tofu: It was actually at AKA that I tried this for the first time. Flash fried  tofu cubes in a light soy-mirin-dashi broth topped with green onion. I like the crispy out, silky in texture play. The taste is mostly delivered through the broth which reminds me of the sauce served with tempura.

Spicy Cajun Tiger:  Tony refers to this as my “usual”. And it is my usual 3-roll lunch special order: Spicy Tuna, Cajun and Tiger Eye rolls. These are basic rolls but the ingredients are fresh, the rice has flawless consistency and flavor and the assembly is expert.  Typically at AKA when they say spicy they mean it, so if you have low heat-tolerance, tell them to turn it down or order the non-spicy version.

Service
This is reason we keep coming back even though there are loads of other sushi restaurants closer to work. At AKA, the reason has a name, Tony. He has been putting up with our group shenannigans for years and he is excellent. He remembers all of our previous orders, what we do IMG_1312and don’t like, what we usually have to drink including nuances like one of us takes 3 slices of lime in iced tea; he immediately notices if one of our crew is missing or if we’ve thrown a new person into the mix. You are going to be called either “Honey”, “Dear”, “Sugar”, “Sweetheart” or “Darling”. I’m “Honey”, so you’ll need to request a different name.

The preparation area is small so orders for our group of 6-8 do not always come out together but they will come out in quick succession. Tony will politely harass sushi chef if he notices its taking too long for the table’s order to be complete.

There is no need to ask for water, tea, extra wasabi or pickled ginger – the staff here circle like sharks, usually any low levels are replaced without your knowledge.

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We have no idea what the a la carte menu prices are because we continue to order the 2-roll or 3-roll lunch special. $13.95 for 3 rolls, one salad with creamy-ginger or miso-vinagrette and one soup. $9.95 for the 2-roll version.

Until next time, thanks Tony!

Lunch: 8 August 2013

AKA Sushi | 2390 W Alabama St | Houston, TX 77098

Bao Z Dumplings

I  heard downtown Houston had a tunnel system that connected all of the skyscrapers together as well as the some of the performing arts building on the West side. Well, its true, about 7 miles of underground tunnels exist and within those tunnels is what might be Houston’s best dumpling. Jury is still out but today’s excursion to Bao Z Dumpling was at least encouraging.

To get to Bao Z, just go to the Lamar St side of First City Tower at Fannin St, enter, take the big escalator to right down to the basement and viola, you have just entered the tunnel system. At the bottom, turn right and you will see the surprisingly long line in front of Boa Z.

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Atmosphere
You’re in the basement of a skyscraper at a kiosk in what is loosely a food court, what do you think? Grab your dumplings and either head outside to one of the shady parks or try to wedge into one of the few tables spread out in that part of the tunnel system.

Food
I’ve been spoiled by Chinese in NYC and San Francisco so I’m usually disappointed with Chinese elsewhere. However, these are good dumplings, particularly the pan-fried pork variety. The filling for the pork dumpling is relatively simple – pork,  lightly spiced. The casing is firm, holding itself together through my spastic chopstick maneuvers but not thick nor too chewy. The one sauce which is basically soy, vinegar with a varying amount of chili flake comes in three strengths: regular, spicy and “I dare you”

There are other items on the menu besides dumplings, like the requisite Chinese soups and a green onion pancake but who cares? The dumplings come in 4 flavors: chicken, pork, shrimp and veg. You can get them steamed or pan-fried. You can get them in a 6-pack, 12-pack or 18-pack. When you order a 12-pak you can mix 2 flavors, an 18-pack buys you 3 flavors. A 12-pack of steamed chicken dumplings has 300 calories, according to their menu.

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Service
The line is long but the ordering process is NYC efficient. From the time I entered the line, there were about 15 people ahead of me, until the time I received my 12-pack was 15 minutes.

Price
12-pack of pork/chicken dumplings – $6
12-pack of pork/chicken dumpling plus a hot&sour soup and a medium drink – $7.50

Times
A special note about operating hours – like most everything in the downtown Houston tunnel system, Bao Z is only open for lunch M-F, 11a-3p.

The downtown Houston oil crowd might think they have a lock-down on Bao Z but us kids from the Medical Center are coming back and we’re bringing our friends.

Lunch: 24 July 2013

Bao Z Dumplings | 1001 Fannin, Underground | Houston, TX 77002

Bistro 7

Today my inner New Yorker refused to be contained so I headed to downtown Houston. Make no mistake, downtown Houston is not a busy place on a Sunday but its the only area of the city that feels urban to me. Urban kids know exactly what I mean. I’ve grown to like downtown Houston. During the week the energy and law industries keep it insanely busy; when you consider that 70% of the world’s oil transactions go through Houston, it shouldn’t surprise. Shiny, happy skyscrapers seem to materialize overnight. New restaurants, lounges and residential follow. The new sports arenas and park anchoring the east end have spawned the EaDo neighbourhood, which seems to be the destination residential corridor for the early career set.

If only they could do something about the rental prices downtown. Its fine to charge Manhattan prices. In Manhattan that is.

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Bistro 7 is a satellite of the Table 7 brand located in the Club Quarters Hotel. Table 7 restaurants  have replicated a bit recently, from one location to four, all in the downtown area. Its been on my (growing) list of places to try for a year now.

Atmosphere
I find hotel restaurants outside of Las Vegas and NYC rarely depart from a vaguely, pleasant IMG_1271middle of the distribution curve feel and Bistro 7 is no different. However, the contrast of bright yellow and red colors against the dark woods combined with the sunlight streaming in from the glass front facing Rusk St gave it a much more vibrant feeling. For the hour or so I was there I heard almost exclusively Spanish language and South American themed music. Its not often I hear the group Otros Aires outside of Argentina. I noticed during lunch that all the other patrons were Spanish speaking, on the way out I heard only Spanish in the lobby and while exiting,  a gaggle of 20-something girls waiting for a taxi were deep into superficial boy chat. In Spanish.

Was there a Latin American convention in town?  Or is this a new, fun demographic reality previously unknown to me?

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Food
Wins, all.

District 7 Side Salad. Side? Really? This is more on par with a meal salad and it was only a $2 add on. Volume bonus, definitely. The salad foundation itself is ubiquitous – romaine, chopped tomato, purple cabbage but with some roasted pecans, newly minted Parmesan and spears of jicama. Dressing was trying to decide if it wanted to be ranch or caesar.

Teriyaki Mahi Mahi “Burger”. Seriously, a big slab of Mahi Mahi for $11? The construction is simple and meant to enhance the fish. Have to respect that since Mahi Mahi deserves to take center stage but it is light and slightly sweet so its easy to clobber it unrecognizable with sauces and over preparation. Grilled medium, assembled with some purple cabbage and cilantro, bolted together with a creamy red pepper sauce on a big ass bun. The bun itself looks intimidating but its airy and compresses nicely; I liked the slightly crisp outer shell of the bun contrasted with the pillowy internals.

The drink selection here is limited to a few wines and beers; there are more local beers than otherwise. They do have a full bar and it seemed well stocked.

Service
Great, however there were only 6 people here on Sunday afternoon so its probably not a good litmus test for what it would be like on Tuesday noon when the pushy, hyper aggressive oil execs descend.

Price
The prices are extremely reasonable for a hotel restaurant and on par or less expensive than other venues serving comparable fare. I think this is why the Table 7 brand is gaining momentum in downtown Houston.

I’ll definitely be back to Bistro 7; good food, reasonable prices and only 2 blocks from the Main St. Square subway stop.

OKRA Charity Saloon

IMG_1192Candy isn’t her real name, its a moniker bestowed one night at a party when her subtle toe-tapping and head-bobbing to the background music slowly morphed into a modified pole dance. I mentioned this to Candy – “Hey, nice pole dance, we should start calling you Candy the stripper”.

A star is born.

We don’t see Candy often, busy girl with her dispersed family and high pressure job, so when she calls for a happy hour, we answer. I always try to find a central location for happy hours since we all work and live in just about every far reaching corner of this ever-expanding maze of freeways we call Houston; this time OKRA Charity Saloon.

OKRA caught my eye some months back while trekking about downtown. I liked the concept – 100% of the profit goes to charity, hence the name. Local bartenders, chefs and otherwise good people donate their time and personalities to the effort. The patrons vote on which charity they’d like their drink money to be applied and at the end of the month, the money is donated to the winner. Patrons also vote for next month’s charities.

Every city should have an OKRA.

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The interior reminds me of every shot gun bar in New Orleans;  more tall than wide with a clear view of everything and everyone. The difference being the large skylight, which really brightens up the place anytime before 8p. Mixture of tables and fabric-covered booths are comfortable and spaced well. The music is good; the standard mix of current and past – what was that I heard – Madonna’s Like a Virgin followed by Vampire Weekend’s Unbelievers? Yep, it was.

Mixed drinks are great in my limited experience here – I had several Pimm’s Cups, both were great however one was more lemon heavy and the other was more orange heavy – different bartenders yield different results. The beer selection is decent, the wine selection is limited. I noticed just about everyone in the bar was doing shots of Cinnamon Whiskey; curious but not curious enough – maybe next time.

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I’m not sure how the crowd changes as the evening wears on but between 6-8p it was a mixed bag, probably heavy on the 25-35 crowd but even they were mixed casual pre-4th shorts/serious just off work suits. The mood was very social and upbeat, singles mixing it up at the large central bar, groups into light-hearted conversation with the occasional table bang of emphasis. OKRA does not feel pretentious nor does it seem a place attracting the see-be-seen.

I’m liking OKRA an evening launch off into other downtown venues. After our cocktails and voting we migrated next door to Batanga for tapas (and even more drinks) however, it would be equally enjoyable to scoot across the street to Hearsay, La Carafe, Macondo or Hotel Icon or even Sundance Theatre in Bayou Place to catch up on the films you meant to see before they roll over to Netflix.

Sucky photos courtesy of my dirty lensed iPhone and lack of focus, you’re welcome!

The Waffle Bus

Food trucks seem to be the new black of trendy cuisine in just about every city I’ve visited recently. Here in Houston there is a food truck festival, where if you are a really hungry average person or just a mildly peckish Texas bubba, you can try 20 or so food trucks in one afternoon. I find food trucks parked at museum and gallery openings; they even show up in swanky neighborhoods as catering service to oil executive’s house parties.

Its completely out of control and I love it.

A dish popped onto my radar last week in conversation with a friend about The Waffle Bus. A dish so Southern it almost begs to be spoken aloud with a exaggerated drawl – Fried Chicken &  Waffles. Go ahead and practice holding the “i” in Fried Chicken until you run out of breath, then you will have the pronunciation down pat.

If everyone would please pull your seats forward, place your tray tables in their upright and locked positions,  prepare the crash cart and call in your Lipitor prescriptions, we will now make our final descent into completely ignoring FDA guidelines for daily intake of saturated fat.

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Atmosphere

Its a food truck so just make your own atmosphere. Today they were parked at Inversion Coffee in the Montrose. At Inversion there is plenty of outdoor seating set back from the main drag and since its in the heart of Montrose, there will always be a good crowd for people watching.

Food

Fantastic. I had the Chicken & Waffle Fryders which is exactly what is sounds like – sliders made IMG_1184from fried chicken and mini waffles. They asked which sauce I wanted and I asked for all of them. The chicken is pounded thin before frying but it was incredibly juicy. And spicy, very spicy, so be careful not to dip into the spicy mayo without testing your heat tolerance first. Of all the sauces (Spicy Mayo, Ancho Honey, Buffalo Ranch and something else I forgot to write down but it tasted like Tobasco), my favourite was the Buffalo Ranch; still flavorful but it worked to balance the heat in the chicken. The waffles are dense; crispy on the out, fluffy on the in. I’m definitely coming back to Waffle Bus again, next time for the Salmon, Cream Cheese and Caper Waffle.

Service

10-15 minute wait for me although I have heard when they park at Rice University it can be upwards of 45 minutes. Happy and efficient staff.

Price

Everything is less than $10; my sliders, which quite frankly were enough on own were $6. I think they prefer cash but there is a iPad on board for credit purchases.

Sure, it doesn’t rank high on the health meter but I had a vegetarian lunch yesterday so the FDA limits on saturated fat can just bugger off today.

Lunch: 30 June 2013

Waffle Bus @ Inversion Coffee | 1953 Montrose Blvd | Houston, TX 77006