Category Archives: Hidden Gems

Barbecue Inn

Notwithstanding the name, we have limited experience with the barbecue at this long-time north Houston restaurant.   This is a family run place that we doubt has changed much over its 60+ years of existence.    The brightly lit booths are vinyl and the waitresses call you honey.  The bread service is crackers and white sandwich bread.  But, once this place started receiving national attention for its fried chicken, we had to try it.  And it’s really good.   Probably the best we’ve had in Houston, although we concede some could question our Houston foodie cred for not having made it to Frenchy’s.  Don’t go to Barbecue Inn for the sides (with the possible  exception of the homemade thousand island dressing that you might want to just eat with a spoon rather than on top of the iceburg lettuce chunks).  Even though folks talk highly about the fried shrimp (yes, we tried it and it was very good), we’ve gone back just for the fried chicken.   They also do a very credible version of barbecue ribs, although we’d skip the insipid sauce.  And likely the chicken fried steak is pretty good.  A friend suggested that you can do BYOB, which we can’t really picture (we take that back, we did see a guy arriving with a wine carrier, best to bring your own corkscrew).  Perhaps better to stick with beer or iced tea.  And, depending on the time of day, you may encounter a wait.  At 5:30 on a recent Saturday evening, we waited 30 minutes standing up in a rather crowded, warm area.  There’s counter space used by diners, so no bar area.  This restaurant isn’t in the best part of town, but there are large parking lots immediately adjacent, and a security guard has been in attendance both times we’ve been. 

116 West Crosstimbers Road
713/695-8112
http://www.thebarbecueinn.com/index.html

Cajun Kitchen


We’re back in crawfish season here on the Gulf Coast and, despite the delay in this posting, we want to go on record that we discovered this restaurant (courtesy of an Asian friend) during last year’s crawfish season.  Well before Allison Cook named it her favorite place for crawfish or Chris Shepherd called out the whole blue crab in Texas Monthly.  There’s nothing fancy about the place but, when you’re the only non-Asians in the restaurant, you know it’s good.  Well, that was last year, and now the place has been discovered, and there may be new management.  But the crawfish were almost as good as last year.  We have had both the garlic butter and kitchen special style and recommend both, although the kitchen special has sauteed onions, oranges, and lemons which add a great taste addition to the basic garlic butter.  We also tried Thai basil which we liked but not as much as the kitchen special.  Medium spicey worked well for us.  Unfortunately, the fried rice had lost something from a year ago.  On the other hand, the grilled oysters (Vietnam style) were better, although perhaps a dollar or so pricier.  The service was very good whereas we’d had a couple nonchalant attitude experiences last year (thankfully, not reflected in the food).

Next up on our agenda is Crawfish House (recommended by the same Asian friend who says it’s better than Cajun Kitchen).  We’ll let you know if we agree.

Cajun Kitchen
6938 Wilcrest
(no website)

Pizzeria Solario


On Wesleyan, right next to Costco, adjacent to a large apartment complex, sits Pizzeria Solario, formerly a coffee shop, now turned casual artisanal wood oven pizza spot.  There’s limited indoor and outdoor seating, with the outside patio quite pleasant when the weather cooperates.  The wine selection, both by the glass and bottle, although limited, is reasonably priced.  Beer is also served.  When busy, parking can be limited, unless you walk from Costco.

Of the various appetizer and salad offerrings, our favorites are the olives al forno (marinated and baked in the oven) and the polpette (meatballs).  We weren’t as impressed with the roasted peppers.  We also enjoyed the tricolore and anchovy salad.

We’ve tried a number of the pizzas, with our favorites being the Carne (you got it, lots of meat) and the Fennel Sausage.  The one of us who likes spinach is fond of the Spinaci (goat cheese, spinach, pine nuts).  We weren’t as excited by the Tartufo (fontina, white truffle oil, truffle puree).  New to the menu are some pasta offerrings that we haven’t tried yet.

Give this place a shot.  We think the pizzas are right up there with Dolce Vita and the like.

3333 Wesleyan
713/892-8100
http://pizzeriasolario.com/

Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana


Not exactly an out of town destination, it did take us a while to get outside the Beltway on Memorial to this much lauded pizza place.  Open for a year or so now, this very casual, BYOB, made such a hit out right out of the box that it was up for best new restaurant in My Table’s 2012 culinary awards.  And, while it didn’t win, it’s been so successful that the owner is looking for locations inside the Loop.

Pizza making is practically a competitive sport nowadays, with so many new places opening or old ones putting in pizza ovens.  While a wood burning oven seems to be a requirement, beyond that each place has its special preferences (frequently researched in the motherland, giving the owners an guilt-free opportunity to eat their way through Italy) for flour, tomatoes, cheese and, even, water.  We don’t profess to understand the nuances in flour types, but we do know what tastes good (at least to us).  And Pizzaro’s is pretty darn tasty.

Turned out in 90 seconds from the wood burning oven that heats up to 900 degrees, these pizzas are thin, slightly crispy and lightly topped.  Pizzaro’s does not do delivery, and they recommend against take-out.  The pizza is best eaten immediately out of the oven.

Four of us concluded that four bottles of wine (the value of BYOB cannot be overstated) paired quite nicely with four different pizzas.  (Salads are offered and likely are quite fine, but we’d made the trek for the good stuff.)  The favorite of two of us was the Fino (olive oil, cured fennel sausage, goat cheese, garlic and mozzarella).  But we also very much enjoyed the Polpette (tomato sauce, meat balls, ricotta and mozzarella); Campania (tomato sauce, roasted crimini mushrooms, artichokes, proscuitto, black olives and mozzarella); and Calabrese (tomato sauce, spicy sopressata, pepperoni, mozzarella and basil).  The crust on the pizza is thin and delicate,  a great taste,  with just a slight softness in the middle and crisp around the outside, perfect for edge-eating and not just leaving on the plate as an afterthought.  All ingredients were quite fresh and the toppings were well balanced on the pizza, not over-weighting the pizza but also not skimpy.

On the Friday evening we visited, the place was pretty busy, but the owner told us it was a quiet night.  So, do as we did, get there early, open your wine, and eat a bunch of pizza.  You’ll be glad you did.

14028 Memorial Drive
281/589-7277
http://www.pizarospizza.com/

El Hildaguense


Having indulged in a lot of upscale dining on our recent trip to Great Britain, we were looking for a very casual spot one recent Saturday evening.  We remembered that Chris Shepherd (formerly Catalan, now Underbelly) raves about the cabrito at a Mexican place on Long Point (home to many wonderful ethnic retaurants).  It didn’t take much research to identify this as El Hildaguense, which also gets raves from other Houston foodies, including Houston Press awards for best cabrito.

Although we arrived early in the evening, the two-piece combo was in full swing entertaining the entirely Hispanic crowd.  It was quite helpful that one of us speaks Spanish, although the menu is in both English and Spanish.  This is a casual place, even by Houston Mexican restaurant standards.  If you’re put off by old formica tables and less than perfect bathrooms, don’t make the trip.  You’ll be missing out on great food, but your dining sensibilities won’t be offended.

This is not Tex-Mex.  Beer only, no margaritas, no tequila.  And no chips and salsa.  Everyone gets a complimentary chicken flauta which, although a little dry and greasy, perked up immeasurably in the wonderful ancho chili based salsa.  Although we’d come for the cabrito, we wanted to try a few other dishes.  The queso fundido knocked our socks off; we don’t think we’ve ever had better, and it was all about the chorizo.  (A steal at $3.99.)  Served with corn tortillas (be sure to pay a little extra for the “handmade”), this stuff was fabulous.

When we looked around the room, many parties were ordering plates of chunked and shredded meat that was clearly not cabrito.  It was lamb barbacoa, which we’ve not typically seen in Mexican restaurants.  We ordered both the roast cabrito (cooked on a large grill that opens to the restaurant) and the lamb.   While the cabrito was very good (and not inexpensive at $20), it was the lamb that we really enjoyed.  Not heavily seasoned, but very tender and moist, shredded and layered in one of those homemade corn tortillas, with some of the salsa, it was quite delicious.  We didn’t realize until after we’d finished that, on weekends, they also serve the lamb cooked in foil with a chili sauce.  We’ll be back for that soon.  The cabrito was served with a charro bean soup (very tasty, particularly when doctored with some onion, lime and cilantro), and the lamb came with a very spicy lamb consomme with hominy, which we didn’t care for as much as the charro beans but still quite good.   The lamb was also sided by a nopales (cactus) salad which was a very good version of this classic dish.

No question this is worth a trip.


(no website)
6917 Long Point
713/680-1071

Au Petit Paris


We fell down on the job, earning a foodie demerit for not having heard about this new Houston restaurant, which opened in late November.  We first read about it in Allison Cook’s end of the year list of the best new restaurants in 2007.  Apparently, so did the rest of Houston as the place has been hopping ever since.  Reservations are definitely advisable and appear necessary on the weekends.

We love French food, so any addition of this genre to the Houston restaurant scene is a cause celebre.  Located in a house on a residential street near Shepherd and Richmond, the place is cozy and charming.  We were warmly greeted with “bon soir” by one of the chef-owner’s wifes who serves as hostess.  She was gracious and accommodating when we asked for a different table.  The restaurant has two small dining rooms, and a very small bar area.

The menu is somewhat limited and has a fair sprinkling of the classics, such as goat cheese salad, french onion soup, rack of lamb, and duck confit.  As a small operation, be forewarned that they run out of items or certain dishes may be unavailable if the chef doesn’t like the quality of the ingredients at market that day.  Neither the skate wing entree or crab appetizer was available the evening we were there, and the snapper went quickly after we arrived.  We heard our waiter telling a nearby table that the chefs are quite particular about what they serve, shopping daily for just what’s needed each evening.   Judging by the size of the toque on one of the chefs making the rounds in the dining room, he’s also quite particular about his headgear.  But that’s a French chef thing.

No escargots appeared on the menu, but that was fine with us.  We shared the foie gras terrine appetizer, which was delicious although perhaps a little skimpy given the $19 price tag.  We moved on to the sautéed snapper with green apple sauce and the chicken fricassee on wild mushroom risotto.  The snapper was nicely flavored, and the chicken dish was great comfort food for a cool Houston evening.  We ran into friends who were also there for the first time.  They dined on the “signature” seared scallop entrée and the duck confit; they reported that both dishes were very good, but the scallops were better than the duck.  They did remark that the dollop of cauliflower puree served with the scallops was tasty enough for them to want a big scoop.

The service was fine.  Our bread basket (only two slices were served initially) could have been refilled, but it was probably better for us that the water glasses were regularly refilled.  The wine list is limited and reasonably priced, and we appreciated that our waiter had some knowledge about it.   And, unlike many French restaurants, they offered both French and non-French wines.

We remain big fans of Cafe Rabelais and Max & Julie’s, but Au Petit Paris deserves a try.  It’s nice to see that the Houston restaurant scene has room for new places that are small and intimate as well as big and trendy like Reef and The Grove.


2048 Colquitt
713/524-7070

http://www.aupetitparisrestaurant.com/

 

Just Dinner [Closed]


You wouldn’t know this small house on Dunlavy was a restaurant if you hadn’t heard about it, likely through word of mouth.  There’s no name on the door, only a neon sign with the house number.  The former owner of Tutto Bene, which went the way of urban renewal, has opened this small dinner only venue.  Make a reservation as there are only about a dozen tables.  And bring wine, which is encouraged and uncorked for a small fee, since they don’t have a liquor license.

The charm of this restaurant is the intimate atmosphere, the genial owner, and the BYOB policy.  You feel like you’re being welcomed into someone’s home, and lingering is fine.   Larger groups should probably look elsewhere as the place doesn’t appear to accommodate a large table.

The food is very good, but not great.  A complimentary hummus style spread with pesto started us off.  We shared the country pate, which was very good and clearly homemade, appropriately served with mustard and cornichons.  We then moved on to one of the night’s specials, Osso Bucco served with parmesan risotto, and pork tenderloin with mango salsa.  Both were quite tasty.  With all due respect to Osso Bucco, it’s basically a marginal cut of meat turned into Italian comfort food.  It’s frequently a huge portion that looks impressive on the plate.  That being said, Tuto Bene’s dish was as good as most others we’ve tried, including Tony’s version.  The pork tenderloin was a very serviceable dish, nothing troublesome but no real wow factor.  We didn’t try any desserts, but we appreciated the complimentary cashew brittle that finished the evening.

If you’re looking for a different experience in the big city (or have your grandparents in tow), give this place a try.

1915 Dunlavy
713/807-0077

Divino Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar

Given the many Italian restaurants in Houston, we aren’t sure how many people know about Divino, located on Alabama across from the Chocolate Bar.  But we doubt this family owned restaurant minds at all that they are not among the see and be seen Italian places.  They are happy to serve great food and wine in a relaxed setting without a lot of fanfare.  Thus, our designation as a Hidden Gem.

The owner who greets you at the door and the waiters could not be more gracious.  (Note, we said waiters as we didn’t see any women working there, but who cares when your waiter looks like a younger Mick Jagger without the smugness.)  Reservations are available but not after 7:30 on a weekend.  On a recent Friday night, there were a few tables available when we stopped in around 8:00.  If there are no tables, you can wait (and eat, if you want) at the bar, enjoying one of the many reasonably priced, well selected wines.  When we told Mick that we liked full bodied reds without a lot of fruit, he suggested a very good Vino Nobile from Tuscany.   We hear from friends who consider Divino one of their favorite Houston restaurants that they have private wine sales on occasion. 

We had tried Divino once before during our Calamari Travels.  The crunchy stuff here is very good, warranting a top five ranking on our list.  We didn’t indulge in the calamari on our latest visit, wanting to save room to try some of the other items on the primarily northern Italian menu.  As a starter, we shared the wonderful homemade goat cheese ravioli in butter sauce with pine nuts — a combination that’s hard to beat.  We moved on to entrees of a winter special of boar stew with polenta and parmesan crusted veal scallopini.  Both dishes were very good, particularly the veal, which was one of the best versions of this classic dish that we have ever tried.

Although we love the unpretentious feel of the place, you won’t find any red checked table clothes or wine in a basket.  Divino serves upscale Italian food at reasonable prices in a contemporary setting.  And, unlike many restaurants, you can hear yourself talk, and they don’t rush you through your meal.  All in all, a very enjoyable experience.

1830 Alabama (near Shepherd)
713/807-1123
www.divinohouston.com

TopWater Grill

We had heard this restaurant was written up in Southern Living, and friends who live in the Clear Lake area had recommended it.  It took us an hour to get to this hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant in San Leon, Texas.  We figure an hour one-way road trip warrants categorization as an Out of Town Destination.  Be sure to go on MapQuest to get directions or look at the map on the website, or you’ll likely get lost.

Housed in a ramshackle wooden structure, with lots of outdoor seating, the restaurant is located directly on the water.  To suggest there’s no dress code is an understatement.  Anything goes.  The dress of the hostesses and wait staff was so casual, we couldn’t figure out who they were.  We hear bathing suits are just fine when the weather permits.  Boats can dock right at the restaurant.
 
The menu is quite large and varied.  Although seafood predominates, there are choices for non-fish lovers.  We started with the 2+2+2 baked oyster sampler.  There are a number of styles from which to pick and we liked all the ones we selected — garlic butter, rockefeller, and crab au gratin.  We then tried the seafood gumbo which was the only disappointment of the evening; nothing to write home about, stick with Goode Company.  We moved on to the Florida stone crab special — 10 meaty claws for $20, which was quite a bargain.   Served with a remoulade sauce, they were delicious.  We then shared the whole stuffed flounder.  Topped with a pink creamy sauce (called Pontchartrain on the menu), the fish was wonderfully fresh and flavorful, although we would have preferred a stuffing that was less gooey with more discernible ingredients (i.e., the billed crab).  The mixed vegetables were fresh and appropriately cooked.

We had good service, even though the waiter seemed a little anxious to take our order, asking us a few too many times.  And the place wasn’t crowded.  That being said, the food arrived hot from the kitchen.  And the waiter and manager were quite helpful when the clutzy one of us slashed her finger on a stone crab claw.

If you find yourself in the Kemah area or you’re looking for a restaurant on the water and want an alternative to the commercial and crowded Kemah Boardwalk, this place definitely deserves a trip.

815 Avenue O, San Leon, Texas
281/339-1232
http://www.topwatergrill.com/

 

Yum Yum Cha

You can’t beat this place for great dim sum, which is all they serve.  We eat here all the time.   It’s small and very casual (shorts and flip flops), and you don’t even need to venture out the Southwest Freeway.  Yum Yum Cha is right in the Rice Village.  For two persons, it’s very difficult to spend over $20, and that includes hot tea.  The place doesn’t have a liquor license, but they would probably let you BYOB.  We haven’t tried that since tea seems to work better with the food.  All the dumpling selections are great, as well as the turnip cakes (just try them) and the shrimp stuffed eggplant.  We also really like the noodle crepes with bbq pork, although we weren’t big fans of the same pork in the steamed buns (too much bun, not enough pork). 

This restaurant is family owned and operated, and, if you happen to be there at the right time, you may catch some free entertainment by watching the brother and sister (they serve as the wait staff) squabble with one another.   Although recently they’ve hired some new servers, and the service seems a little smoother.

2435 Times Blvd.
713/527-8455