Some of you might have noticed that we are on a neverending quest to find superb burgers, no matter where they are. One thing that we've noticed on this quest is the gradual creeping up of burger prices in the Houston area. Fortunately, it's not gotten to the NYC/Las Vegas levels of insanity (there's a $36 burger at Daniel Boulud that we hear great things about) but it's not unusual to pay $10 or more for a burger these days.
But what if you're on a budget, and still want a serious burger? One choice is Mel's Country Cafe, the legendary restaurant between Tomball and the Woodlands. While Mel's is known for the insane Mega Mel, the non-linebackers among us will discover that Mel's does a very credible regular burger, and it starts at $2.95.
Our choice this visit was the Bacon Cheeseburger. It's a 1/3 lb patty, hand formed and griddled to medium well (Mel's doesn't do medium rare). It's topped with traditional American cheese, a lot of good quality bacon, and a plentiful portion of the traditional veggie toppings.
This is what a $4.50 burger looks like at Mel's. We think it's an excellent value. Mel's doesn't skimp on the bacon; took about half of it off the burger before we dug in, and enjoyed a very nice bacon appetizer.
The burger is very good; with a nice charred flavor to the meat. The buns are griddled, the cheese is slightly melty, and the veggies are fresh and crisp - onions are chopped, which is our preference.
The only downside was the medium well temperature of the meat. Serving it medium well minimized the ooze factor, and kept the burger from entering the upper echelons of burgerdom in the Houston area.
The cafe itself is delightful. It's a blast from the past, with local families filling up the tables and enjoying the big portions and reasonable prices. It's bright and clean, and the service is friendly.
You'll notice all those names on the wall. Those are the folks who've finished the Mega Mel (a pound and a half of beef, a pound of bacon, a quarter pound of cheese, and all the trimmings) in less than two hours, and who lived to talk about it. Some hardy soul completed this task in nine minutes. We're impressed, but it's a record we wouldn't wish to attempt.
For those of you who live Inside The Loop, Mel's is a half-hour drive into the northwest, out 249 to Tomball. But it's miles away from the slick burger joints in the city, both in its feel and its prices. Try it - we bet you'll like it.
Mel's Country Cafe
24814 Stanolind Road
Tomball, Texas 77375
Mel's is CLOSED on MONDAY
Way back in post-WWII Texas, one nightclub stood above the rest. It offered the best entertainers, the hottest crowds, and the best illegal gambling in the state. It was the infamous Balinese Room on Galveston island, the swankiest spot on the Gulf Coast.
“Deep in the South of Texas
not so long ago,
there on a crowded island
in the Gulf of Mexico
it didn't take too much money,
man, but it sure was nice.
You could dance all night if you felt all right,
drinking whiskey and throwing dice.
And everybody knows
it was hard to leave.
And everybody knows
it was down at the Balinese.”
“Balinese” – ZZ Top – 1975
The Balinese was the jewel in the crown of Sam and Rosario Maceo’s Galveston-based empire. The Maceo brothers were Italian immigrant barbers turned bootleggers, who ended up as a gambling club owners. Their holdings on Galveston Island were immense, and their influence helped Galveston weather the depression far better than most other cities across the nation.
The Maceo empire was the dominant force on Galveston Island during this period. It included the Turf Athletic Club, often referred to as the "Weekend Bank of Galveston". The TAC would cash checks and loan money for its patrons.
The Balinese started its storied history in 1923 as the Chop Suey, at 21st and Seawall. It was closed nine years later for a gambling violation. Four years after that, it reopened as an oriental restaurant and night club, called the Sui Jen. The Sui Jen was a successful enterprise for Maceo, but as with the modern restaurant business, it's often time for a change. Maceo had a new idea for the Sui Jen.
America was in the midst of World War II, and at the time, many Americans were uneasy with all things oriental. Ever the astute businessman, Maceo remodeled the Sui Jen in a South Seas motif, and christened it the Balinese Room in 1942.
In its heyday, The Balinese played host to high rollers from all over the country, including local legends Glenn McCarthy, Diamond Jim West, and Howard Hughes. The showroom featured headliners such as Frank Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny. Long before Las Vegas attracted the big names to the desert, Maceo’s Balinese Room brought ‘em to Galveston.
For many years, the Balinese resisted attempts to shut down its illegal activities. According to one former employee, the Balinese was raided on 64 consecutive nights without a single bust.
Its defense was ingenious. The casino was at the far end of the pier at 2107 Seawall, about 600 feet from the entrance on shore. When the Texas Rangers would raid the place, a buzzer sounded in the gaming room, and chips, cards, roulette wheels, and other gambling devices were hidden in the walk-in safe, or in special compartments in the walls. The gaming tables would be set with tablecloths, china, and silver. The band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas”, and patriotic patrons would stand up and start singing, and the crowd would slow the progress of the rangers rushing to catch gamblers in the act.
Local law enforcement looked the other way. Frank Biaggne, sheriff of Galveston County from 1933 until 1957, was asked why he didn’t raid the notorious place. He replied that it was a private club, and he was not a member.
The Balinese Room’s luck ran out on May 30, 1957, when new sheriff Paul Hopkins made a raid. He demanded entrance, and two detectives (disguised as gamblers) who were already in the casino stopped employees from stashing the evidence. The charges stuck, and the equipment was confiscated and destroyed.
The Balinese Room was finally shut down, and sat empty. In 1961, Hurricane Carla tore through Galveston, and damaged the former hotspot. Many of the piers that supported the structure had been washed away, and over the subsequent decades, the building decayed further. No one would have been surprised to wake up and find that the Gulf had swallowed up the old structure after a heavy storm.
Fast forward to 2002. After several false starts, someone has finally resurrected the famous Galveston landmark. Houston attorney Scott Arnold is the man behind the new Balinese Room, and he’s off to a great start.
As you drive up, you notice that the damaged piers have been replaced, the 600-foot long building has been repaired and repainted, and the atmosphere of neglect is gone.Entering the building takes you into the new gift shop, featuring a collection of new Balinese Room merchandise, and some interesting artifacts, such as the original chalkboard ledgers that were used to tally the odds for baseball betting. The faded names of the old Texas League teams could still be read.
Further back along the pier, you’ll pass new businesses along the long, narrow hallway. A hair salon, an internet café, a metaphysical shop (featuring psychics, crystals, and swords) and a massage studio (with a unique glass floor that looks down upon the waves under the building) lead you back to the entrance to the Balinese Room proper. These small shops represent a departure from the original Balinese.
Finally, one approaches the entrance to the first big room. There we met Scott Arnold, attorney and real estate speculator. Scott showed us around, clearly proud of what he’d accomplished. And for good reason. The work that’s been done to the once-decrepit Balinese Room is nothing short of spectacular.
The old South Seas murals looked brand new; according to Arnold, they only required a light dusting after all the years of neglect. The palm trees, resplendent with black neon, fish netting, and an assortment of glass globes and sea artifacts (all original) looked just as they must have before the Rangers shut down the Balinese.
An older couple took to the dance floor and moved gracefully to the music. They were smiling and having a wonderful time. I had to wonder if their parents had done the same thing fifty years ago.
I asked Scott Arnold if I could see the old casino room. He smiled, and led me to a door at the back of the showroom. He unlocked it, and we entered the once forbidden space. “This room required the most work” Arnold noted. And the work was still going on. New flooring had been put down, and a fresh coat of paint lined the walls. Arnold showed me where the gambling machines used to sit. Around the room were panoramic windows looking out into the gulf, and over to the Flagship Hotel on its nearby pier.
Behind me, I noticed some beautiful acrylic drawings. Arnold told me that they were original, and some of the oldest works by Grace John. Many investors would be tempted to sell off this memorabilia, but Arnold plans to keep them right were they are, keeping a watchful eye over the back room.
Scott Arnold has big plans for the Balinese Room. He’s looking for a restaurant tenant, and a nightclub. Unless the laws in Texas change, gambling won’t be returning to the Balinese room, although I get the feeling from many of the folks visiting for brunch that they wouldn’t mind.
We reentered the showroom, and I talked with one of the bartenders; Jose Rey. He told me the story of the legendary Balinese room bartender Santos Cruz, who mixed a new drink for singer Peggy (Margaret) Lee in 1948. He named that drink after the Spanish version of her name: Margarita. You could sense Jose’s pride that he was working in such a historic place.
By the dance floor, the same piano that Duke Ellington used to play was being put to good use by a jazz pianist. She sang and played a selection of jazz and Big Band hits, and her voice filled the showroom with magic. In many settings, the music would have felt retro, almost silly. But here in the Balinese Room, it felt right. I was sorry I’d left my tux at home.
Over the years, I’d often talked with friends about the glitzy history of Galveston, and how the island is a shadow of its storied past. We talked about how amazing it would be to see the notorious Balinese Room brought back to its former glory. And now, thanks to Scott Arnold and his vision, it's happening.
On this Sunday during Mardi Gras, I found myself standing in the storied showroom of the Balinese Room, listening to my father’s music, and loving it. For a moment, I lost myself in the music and if I squinted just right, it was Saturday Night, I was back in the 40’s, at the swankiest joint on the Gulf Coast. Duke was on the keys, Sinatra was singing, and I was tappin' my toe, living the Delicious Life.
For those folks who'd like to experience the Balinese Room in person, the club is currently (as of March 2003) open most Friday and Saturday nights with live music, as well as the Sunday lunch. Look for the hours to expand as summer approaches.
(21st @ beach)
409 762 9696
"The infamous Galveston landmark rises from the dead"
was written by Albert Nurick, March 4, 2003
HOUSTON --Tony’s Restaurant, the product of Tony Vallone’s life-long devotion to fine dining, will be honored at the Galleria Chamber’s annual Texas Legends Gala at the Omni Riverway tonight, Friday, February 19, 2010, at 7:30 p.m. Energetic and entertaining radio personality Sam Malone will serve as MC for the evening, alongside New York food critic and Esquire magazine columnist John Mariani, who will offer a colorful keynote address. Mike & Betty Tapick, owners of Martin Foods, along with Ileana Trevino, CEO of Memorial Hermann Foundation, and husband Michael Trevino, of Reputation Management Associates, will serve as Honorary Co-Chairs for the event. “We are thrilled to be part of this Texas Legends Gala and to recognize the Vallones contribution to Houston’s culinary scene,” said Ileana Trevino. A “Friend of Tony’s” and local legend herself, Yvonne Washington will perform standards to contemporary fare for gala patrons.
Tony Vallone is a master of the arts. His paintbrush - some of the world’s tastiest ingredients; his canvas - cuisine. Tony is a patriarch in the restaurant business, both locally in Houston, TX and around the globe. His talents in the kitchen and creation of brilliant, exquisite meals can be expressed simply as innovative. Houston has given Tony and his family so much as a city, and he won’t stop at returning the favor. An entrepreneur at heart, Vallone built a well-established eatery empire including establishments such as the famous Tony’s (coming up on its 45th year as one of the world’s most admired fine dining locales), Anthony’s, Vallone’s, La Griglia, the Grotto restaurants, Los Tonyos, and his latest endeavor, creating an exceptional old-world Italian menu at CIAO BELLO. From the posh to the casual and fun, Tony’s kingdom of restaurants is governed by one rule: Our guests become our extended family and our new friends. Pamper those guests with exceptional, innovative food, excellent wine and impeccable service.
This restaurant mogul’s impact extends far beyond the business of food. Vallone supports many civic and national philanthropic causes. He currently sits on the board of the Texas Heart Institute, M.D. Anderson and the University of Houston Conrad Hilton School of Restaurant and Hotel Management. Feeling right at home in the spotlight of the Nation’s fourth largest city, Houston, TX, Tony was the first Texan inducted into the National Restaurant Association Hall of Fame in 1982 as well as the first American-born board member of the famed Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani of Italy. He authored the highly successful tony’s…the cookbook. Tony has been a guest speaker at numerous civic and collegiate events and has appeared on behalf of his restaurant on national and local television. Among his many recognitions and awards, Tony has been inducted into the Nation’s Restaurant News “Hall of Fame” and was elected to the Culinary “Who’s Who of Texas.”
In December of 1998, Southern Living name the Vallone family “Houston’s Dining Dynasty,” calling Tony the “Taste-master of Texas.” He has served six U.S. presidents and numerous foreign presidents and dignitaries. Tony’s heart is in his restaurant. He enjoys working with his chefs and loves a culinary challenge. “Attention to detail” is the common denominator of his restaurant, and his entire staff is privy to his favorite motto: “You’re only as good as your last meal.”
The movie industry has the Oscars. TV has the Emmys. The food industry has the James Beard Awards, and four Houstonians are nominated for the prestigious national awards, presented by the James Beard Foundation.
Plino Sandalio of Textile is nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Plinio has built a name for himself with his innovative, often surprising dessert creations. He was a recipient of one of our 2010 Chow Down awards.
Justin Basye of Stella Sola is nominated for Rising Star Chef.
Jim and Levi Goode, of Goode Company Seafood and Goode Company BBQ, are semifinalists for Restaurateur of the Year.
The award ceremony takes place on May 3, 2010 in New York City.
The Chronicle's restaurant critic, Alison Cook, posted an amazing account of an unpleasant experience at Jonathan's The Rub, a small, high-end restaurant in the Memorial area.
You should read the entire account, but to summarize, Ms. Cook ordered a steak medium rare, it came out overcooked, and she sent it back. Instead of graciously handling his kitchen's mistake, the restaurant's chef/owner, Jonathan Levine, confronted Ms. Cook, and ultimately threw her out of his restaurant.
As you can imagine, there was a great deal of discussion about this, both in the food community and among the Chronicle's readers.
It was astonishing to me to hear folks actually defending a restaurant for serving an improperly cooked steak, and criticizing Ms. Cook for not smiling and accepting what was delivered.
Many businesses deliver products that have expensive components. When the business screws up and delivers a defective product, the customer is well within their rights to reject it and request what was ordered. The business eats the cost of the component, and hopefully learns how to improve their process so they don't turn out as many defective products.
(And yes, there is skill involved in cooking steaks. If you can't reliably cook a steak to order, you probably shouldn't be cooking steaks in a restaurant.)
Businesses that survive recognize this. A mistake is the time display amazing customer service, and turn a customer into a fan. Apparently Mr. Levine doesn't realize this; he'd rather alienate a patron and then make excuses about being a New Yorker when he discovers the patron is the Chronicle's food critic.
A $15 piece of meat is dirt cheap compared to all the negative publicity a dissatisfied customer can bring in this modern age of the citizen reviewer. There are a lot of places to eat in Houston, and I see no reason to spend my money at a place that won't stand behind the product they put on the plate.
There's a reason that Tony's has been in business for 40 years; they know how to keep their customers happy. Restaurateurs who complain about an empty house would be wise to emulate this approach.
After a 17-Month Renovation Post-Hurricane Ike, Houston's Beloved Culinary Gem Once Again Welcomes Guests on February 16, 2010
Beginning on February 16, 2010 Brennan's will be open for dinner from 5:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
On Monday, February 22, 2010 Brennan's will begin serving lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
As of February 27, 2010 brunch will be offered every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Brennan's legendary Sunday Jazz Brunch will kick off on February 28, 2010 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Forty-three years ago (incidentally, about the same time the New Orleans Saints began playing in the NFL), the Brennan family of New Orleans embarked on a journey to bring its renowned culture of Southern hospitality to the people of Houston and opened the doors of Brennan's of Houston, one of America's most beloved dining destinations and the forerunner in serving Texas Creole Cuisine.
In September 2009, a two-alarm fire that occurred during Hurricane Ike engulfed the historic building in flames. After 17 months of renovation, Brennan's of Houston once again invites its friends, old and new, to gather around its tables on Tuesday, February 16, 2010 to celebrate its re-opening. "We didn't burn down, we burned up," says co-owner Alex Brennan-Martin. "We are thrilled that we were able to save more than 75 percent of the original structure and can't wait to welcome our guests back to our historic home. We're looking forward to another 43 years of creating lasting memories for our guests."
Led by Commander's Palace Family of Restaurants co-owners Alex Brennan-Martin, his sister, Ti Adelaide Martin, and their cousin, Lally Brennan, Brennan's has survived floods, hurricanes, and economic downturns, has taken a direct hit by a tornado, and has been engulfed by a major fire. Throughout its existence, Brennan's has weathered each of those storms by remaining focused on the family's heritage and staying passionate about its signature Texas Creole cuisine and creating memories for its patrons. To that end, Brennan's 17-month restoration reflects family's soulful belief that tradition truly matters, including the replacement of a 40-year-old oak tree which was destroyed by the fire, with new twin oaks, so that Brennan's guests will continue to be shaded on the restaurant's welcoming courtyard.
The Road to the Reopening
Long before the Brennan's put their name on the building in 1967, it was a Houston landmark. Designed by architect John F. Staub to house his architectural offices downstairs and the original home of the Houston Junior League upstairs, the building's façade was intended to evoke an image of the Vieux Carré, representing an almost identical replication of Don José Faurie's mansion in New Orleans that houses an unaffiliated branch of the Brennan family's eponymous restaurant that is still there today. Brennan's of Houston's building is recognized as one of the city's most beautiful structures, having inspired the neighboring development of an area that is often touted as Houston's French Quarter.
The Johnson Studio of Atlanta - in partnership with Houston-based companies Studio RED, Linbeck Construction, and Pin Oak Interests - lovingly restored the original John F. Staub 1930 structure.
"As we began the clean-up of our beloved old home after the fire, we uncovered many of the original design features that were covered in the 1966 remodeling of the building by our family," says Brennan-Martin.
"Our goal was always to preserve the historic structure but we also wanted bring it 'back to the future,' as it were."
Though the interior of the building had to be gutted and refurbished, including a new roof, floors, and windows, the most iconic building elements were maintained. The Terms of Endearment Room, the restaurant's columns, its vaulted ceilings in the second floor ballroom, and the popular chef's table and dining room have been restored.
Ninety percent of the exterior façade was maintained, and some of the original design elements from the 1930 building were rediscovered. The design exposed the original brick in much of the building, as well as opened up many of the arched windows that had been shuttered in the original family renovations, creating a brand new dining room on the entrance corner (which is now called the Staub Room, after the famous architect of the building) in addition to The Courtyard Bar, a new addition that overlooks the restaurant's original courtyard fountain.
Above the Courtyard Bar is the Solarium and Little Room - new dining rooms that take their inspiration from rooms in Bayou Bend (a historic home, also built by Staub, that is now part of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts) - featuring aerial views of the Courtyard Bar and wood floors painted with a deep chocolate brown and white checkerboard pattern.
Upstairs, guests will find recreated versions of the Wine Room and Ballroom (now called The Garden Room), both of which have retained much of the Old South feel and flair for which Brennan's has long been known. Downstairs, Brennan's famous Kitchen Table remains the centerpiece of the kitchen. Each of the rooms offers a distinctive décor that harkens back to some of the Brennan family's original dining rooms, though all are executed in a contemporary manner, further reinforcing the restaurant's new, "back to the future" atmosphere.
In the Kitchen: Executive Chef Danny Trace
Brennan's of Houston evokes the Crescent City in not only its architectural details, but also its cuisine, which is both inventive and traditional, and its culture of hospitality that radiates from the inside.
The Brennan's kitchen has explored the vast spectrum of Creole's evolution in the "Bayou City". Cultural influences in South Texas and an abundance of fresh produce unique to the region have provided more than a few opportunities for delicious Texas variations on time-honored Louisiana themes.
Danny Trace was appointed executive chef in November 2009. An integral, ten-year veteran of the Commander's Palace Family of Restaurants, Trace most recently served as executive chef of the group's newest outpost, Commander's Palace & the On The Rocks Bar at HarborWalk Village in Destin, Fla. and was previously at the helm of Café Adelaide in New Orleans.
At Brennan's, Trace has artfully balanced his menu with modern Creole cooking and Brennan's signature, ever-evolving Texas Creole cuisine. In so doing, he digs into his well of knowledge with the playful and spirit-influenced cuisine he honed at Café Adelaide in New Orleans, and the "Floribbean" style he created in Destin.
"Guests will still be able to enjoy their longtime favorites but I hope they'll try some of our new things, too," says Chef Trace. "I've been so fortunate to have rare opportunities come my way and I feel as though it has all led up to this."
Brennan's of Houston's menu, bursting with passion for local and regional product, offers a distinctive take on Texas Creole fare.
Soups and gumbos, such as the famed Turtle Soup ($8.50), are true to Brennan's heritage,
with reinvigorated classics like:
Bourbon Molasses Lacquered Bobwhite Quail with Foie Gras Apple Stuffing, Tasso Braised Sprouts,
Sunny Side Up Quail Egg and Basil Hayden Bourbon ($36)
Blue Crab Stuffed Texas Flounder with Herb Roasted Oyster Mushrooms, Melted Leeks, Triple Cream Brie and Chardonnay Fumet ($39)
Veal Chop Tchoupitoulas with Herb Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Caramelized Shallots, Swiss Chard and Oyster Mushrooms with Honey Green Peppercorn Glaze ($39)
Blue Crab and Leek Bread Pudding with Blue Crab Saffron Cream, Herb Roasted Oyster Mushrooms and Atchafalaya Basin Choupique Caviar ($12)
Dirty Duck and Foie Gras Sliders with Chicory Coffee Braised Duck Debris, Mirliton Pickles and Foie Gras Fondue with Sweet Potato Chips ($13)
Desserts evoke traditional Louisiana style, which is to say they are rich, velvety creations of pure indulgence. Banana's Foster (a Brennan family invention, $7) leads a list so tempting, diners are wise to plan their preceding courses accordingly.
Classic New Orleans cocktails from Courtyard Bar and wine selections from the restaurant's award-winning selection - some of which was salvaged from the pre-fire inventory - will complement the dining experience.
About Brennan's of Houston
The Brennan's of Houston kitchen has explored the vast spectrum of Creole's evolution in the "Bayou City."
Cultural influences in South Texas and an abundance of fresh produce unique to the region have provided ample opportunities for delicious Texas variations on time-honored Louisiana themes. Along the way, the passionate Brennan's team has received accolades establishing the restaurant as one of the finest in the city. Awards such as Exxon Mobil's Four-Star designation in 2000, and a nod from restaurant reporter John Mariani in 1997, who called former Executive Chef and General Manager Carl Walker "one of America's most influential chefs", are just two such accomplishments Brennan's counts on its list of accolades. Brennan's has also been regularly rated among Houston's "Best" and "Most Popular" restaurants in the Zagat Survey.
BRENNAN'S OF HOUSTON
3300 Smith Street
Houston, TX 77006
(Source - Brennan's Press Release)
Houston is hands down the best food city in Texas, and we Houstonians are spoiled. We're used to being able to readily find great examples of pretty much any cuisine.
One area where we've had difficulty in Houston is Bar-B-Q. Sure, Houston has some amazing BBQ joints, like Thelma's and Burns. But the typical BBQ place in Houston serves mediocre BBQ, especially if you're looking for a convenient, family-friendly setting that won't challenge the less adventurous among us.
Enter Rudy's. This San Antonio based chain has established several outposts in Houston, and has developed a reputation for better-than-average BBQ. Our first visit (soon after the Spring store opened) wasn't memorable, but we'd been hearing good things, so we visited again.
Ordering at Rudy's is different than most BBQ restaurants, but will seem familiar to anyone who's been to any of the meat markets that often offer the best BBQ to be found. Once you reach the counter, you order your meat by the pound, and it's sliced to order. We prefer this ordering method.
On this trip, brisket was under investigation. Rudy's gives you the option of lean or moist brisket; this corresponds to the wet or dry end of the brisket. Wet, in this case, refers to fat, and that's where the flavor is. We ordered our favorite: An outside cut from the wet end.
What arrived was some of the most beautiful brisket we'd seen in quite a while. Moist, fork tender, rimmed with a beautiful 3/8" smoke ring, and encrusted with a perfectly charred pepper and spice rub, this brisket was ready for the cover of Texas Monthly.
And the flavor did not disappoint. Lush, smoky, with that oak flavor that doesn't come on as fast as mesquite, but which provides a very satisfying BBQ flavor. And this is real BBQ; sauce (or sause, as Rudy's spells it) is strictly optional.
We also sampled a link of Rudy's "Regular" sausage, the milder of the two offered. It was good, with a firm texture and smooth smoky flavor. But it was the brisket that stole the show.
Rudy's | 20806 I-45 North | Spring, Texas | 77373 | 281-288-0916