Vicinity of Houston
Burger fans take note: Becks Prime (2615 Augusta Dr., 713/266-9901, www.becksprime.com, $6–17) is as good as it gets. Upscale burgers with top-quality meat and sensational seasonings are typically found only in fancier restaurants with tablecloths and wine menus. Not here. The fast-food vibe tricks your senses with lowered expectations, but the massive burger you hold in your hands has all the makings of a classic: thick, juicy high-quality ground beef and fresh toppings on a soft sweet bun. You’ll never want to bite into a chain-store burger again. Becks also serves equally tantalizing steaks and milkshakes. The restaurant has several downtown-area locations, but the Augusta Drive location has especially astounding scenery, thanks to several colossal outstretched oak trees on the grounds.
Meat is also the main attraction at Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue (1703 Shepherd Dr., 713/227-2283, $8–15), a legendary barbecue joint with a lackluster exterior and name. This old-fashioned locale has been around since the 1930s, when it was known as Shepherd Drive Barbecue, and the decades of hickory-smoked goodness have lingered ever since. Tender ribs and brisket are the big draw here, and the spicy sauce subtly enhances both. Another bonus: Warm towels are available for post-eating sauce removal. Be sure to save room (or place a take-out order) for the amazing desserts, particularly the coconut pineapple cake and banana pudding.
Those craving fresh seafood won’t regret the 30-mile drive to Top Water Grill (815 Ave. O in the small town of San Leon, 281/339-1232, $7–22). Nestled in an unassuming building on the bay, Top Water is high on the list of fishermen’s favorites, thanks to the quality fresh catches and understated yet effective seasoning and preparation. Start with the plump and flavorful peel-and-eat shrimp (or fried, or grilled), and complete your feast with the snapper, swordfish, or redfish.
Houston has a sizable Chinese population, and the plethora of restaurants provides an impressive representation of the various styles of national cuisine. Topping most foodies’ lists is Fung’s Kitchen (7320 Southwest Fwy., 713/779-2288, www.fungskitchen.com, $10–36), a haven for fresh seafood. This is fancy stuff, so don’t be surprised by the somewhat lofty yet completely worthwhile prices. Many of the seafood items are still swimming in tanks when you order them, including the soon-to-be lightly seasoned and heavily flavorful lobster, crab, and cod. With more than 400 items to choose from, the menu is somewhat overwhelming, but ultimately tantalizing in its impressive array of options.
Less distinguished yet more appealing to the masses is Yao Restaurant & Bar (9755 Westheimer Rd., 832/251-2588, www.yaorestaurant.com, $9–25), run by the parents of Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming. This upscale establishment focuses on the classics—Peking duck, Szechwan prawn, and mu shu pork—in a modern Asian setting with several large-screen televisions broadcasting sporting events. The food isn’t very adventurous, but it’s high-quality stuff. In fact, it may be one of the best meals you’ll experience while watching a game on TV.
The best place to go for dim sum—the traditional Chinese custom of ordering individual items from roving carts—is Kim Son (12750 Southwest Fwy., 281/242-3500, www.kimson.com). Though it’s technically a Vietnamese restaurant, the dim-sum custom, like many families in Houston, crosses cultures. If you’ve never experienced this unique approach to enjoying a meal, this is the place to do it: Pan-fried and steamed seafood dumplings, sticky rice, seaweed-wrapped shrimp, and mushroom-capped meatballs are just a few of the dozens of enticing items awaiting your selection at Kim Son.
Not too far away from downtown is the fantastic Picco’s (5941 Bellaire Blvd., 713/662-8383, $9–21). Billing itself as “Mex-Mex,” Pico’s offers interior Mexican food with some flair. Specialties include the bacon-wrapped shrimp with poblano pepper stuffing, pollo pibil (marinated chicken wrapped in banana leaves), and smooth yet spicy mole sauces. Things get a bit festive here, especially on weekends, when diners enjoy margaritas and mariachis on the palapa-covered patio.
For a more traditional Tex-Mex experience, head to Doneraki Restaurant (300 Gulfgate Mall, 713/645-6400, www.doneraki.com, $8–19), a classic joint complete with a massive Diego Rivera mural. The taste is huge here too, especially in the perfectly seasoned meat dishes. Try the beef fajitas and chicken enchiladas, and appreciate the fact that the chips, salsa, and bowl-scraping chili con queso are free at lunch.
For some of the best Mexican homestyle-cooking in Houston visit Otilla’s Mexican Restaurant (7710 Long Point Rd., 713/681-7203, $7–17). What Otilla’s lacks in atmosphere (it’s housed in a former fast-food drive-in), it makes up for in spectacular-tasting food. Like most interior-leaning locales, the velvety mole sauce is outstanding here, but it’s the a la carte items that make a visit to Otilla’s imminently worthwhile. Load up on gorditas, chile rellenos, cochinita pibil (marinated roasted pork), and the tres leches cake for an unforgettable experience in a forgettable building.
Houston is more about beef than veggies, but there are a few safe havens for vegetarians. The most acclaimed spot, Baba Yega (2607 Grant St., 713/522-0042, www.babayega.com, $7–20) is not exclusively vegetarian, but the meat-free dishes are considered some of the city’s finest. The salads, pasta, and sandwiches here are legendary, including the tasty veggie club (turkey style gluten, fake bacon, and provolone) and Tuesday Italian Special (pasta and wine combo). The owner’s adjacent herb shop is the source for many of Baba Yega’s fresh and flavorful seasonings.
Also not technically a full vegetarian restaurant, the popular Hobbit Cafe (2243 Richmond Ave., 713/528-3418, $7–15) serves earthy fare in a forest-like setting surrounded by a white picket fence. Soups and salads are the specialty here, including the ambrosial fruit salad and tropical chicken salad, and the veggie burgers are as charming as the mystical décor. The Hobbit Cafe also has a well-deserved reputation for serving delicious desserts, including moist carrot cake and tangy key lime pie.
For a cheap and flavorful veggie meal, drop by the magnificent Shri Balaji Bhavan Pure Vegetarian Restaurant (5655 Hillcroft Dr., 713/783-1126, $3–10). This is hot stuff, but for the price—most entrées average around $5—you can’t go wrong. The cuisine is primarily South Indian, including spicy yet well-balanced dishes such as rasam (a South Indian soup), chole (a tasty chickpea dish), and dal (spicy bean stew).
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition