Houston gets more than its share of negative press about the fitness of its citizens.  Typically it's written in some fluffy magazine based on dubious methodology, and is generally safe to ignore.

I've often wondered how Houston gets this reputation.  Sure, we have our share of unfit people, but so do many places.

My good friend Marcy Rothman, a Director at Kane Russell Coleman & Logan, noticed something on a recent trip through Hobby Airport.  In her work Marcy travels frequently, and like many travelers, the first glimpse she gets of a city is in its airport.  Here is what Marcy saw on the way to the baggage claim at Hobby.

Photo Credit: Marcy Rothman

Somebody had the right idea by installing a vending machine that reminds patrons to make a healthy choice.  But whoever chose the stock for the vending machine seems a bit irony impaired.

I have to wonder how many writers travel down this very same path on their first visit to Houston, and see a similar sight.  Ouch.  Could this first glimpse of Houston have led to one of those articles?

We were excited to see that Mint.com, the popular financial site, has launched a new public site where spending habits can be researched.  Called data.mint.com , the site is an amazing place to analyze spending habits.  (The data is an aggregate of Mint.com's user base, and doesn't reveal any personal information.)

From this data we discovered how much Houstonians spend a popular restaurants.  The amounts below are averages charges recorded by Mint users during 2010:

Hugo's - $98.51
Back Street Cafe - $83.06
El Tiempo - $79.26
Pappas Seafood House - $70.84
Churrascos - $70.53
Max's Wine Dive - $62.61
Maggiano's - $59.24
Gravitas - $58.59
Fung's Kitchen - $55.06
McCormick & Schmick's - $56.87
Carrabba's - $55.37
Saltgrass Steak House - $54.91
London Sizzler - $51.01
Pappadeaux - $46.46
Benjy's - $44.90
Miyako - $44.31
La Vista - $43.70
El Tiempo Cantina - $43.72
Macaroni Grill - $42.01
Red Lobster - $41.15
Cheesecake Factory - $40.68
Outback - $40.48
Benihana - $40.04
P.F. Chang's - $39.70
Texas Roadhouse - $39.64
Pappadeaux - $39.55
Grand Luxe Cafe - $38.62

The full list can be seen on Mint.

We have no beef about being fans of Chick-fil-a.  Their chicken sandwiches set the standard in the fast food arena, and while some try to duplicate them, no one manages to pull it off.  (I'm looking at you, McDonald's Southern Chicken Sandwich.)

But even more than the food, the service at our local Chick-fil-a totally outclasses the competition.  We frequently find mistakes in our order at Taco Bell and McDonalds, but can't remember one at Chick-fil-a.

To give you an idea just how on the ball the service folks are, all you have to do is to look at the condiment bar.


The Woodlands quickly becoming a full-fledged city, its residents not needing to leave the area when they want to shop or dine. But the savvy diner will notice one distressing fact: Most of the restaurants in The Woodlands are part of a chain that's based elsewhere.

Fortunately, that's starting to change. Now there's a new kid on the independent pizzeria block: Crust Pizza Co.

Crust Pizza Co. is an upscale, family-oriented pizza parlor located in the Panther Creek Village Center, on The Woodlands Parkway at West Panther Creek. It's a true independent — the owners, Mark Rasberry and Clint Price, are on-site and deeply involved. Price is a resident of The Woodlands, and Rasberry is currently making a weekly commute from Dallas — he'll be relocating after the school year ends.

They decided to open their pizza concept in The Woodlands, citing the family-friendly environment as a key reason for Crust Pizza debuting outside both the Loop and the Beltway.

Jamaican Jerk Chicken Pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

The strip-center location has been converted into a warm, inviting spot for lunch or dinner. Custom is the operative word here — custom banquettes, custom countertops, and beautiful custom lighting with exposed copper supports.

The warmth extends to the new staff — a bunch of fresh faces, many of whom have never worked in the restaurant business before. Price and Rasberry are training them to be professional as well as friendly, and from our first impression, we received a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and a growing degree of polish.

The warm, inviting dining room at Crust Pizza Co.

The experience, however, is behind the counter. Crust's pizzas are hand-built by a pizza chef who was brought in from New York, and his East Coast sensibilities are baked right into his work.

Each pizza features a handmade thin, crispy crust with house-made sauce. The fresh toppings range from the traditional pepperoni and sausage to the exotic, like cashews and muffaletta-style olive relish.

Preparing a pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

"So how's the pizza?" you ask.

I'm typically a pizza traditionalist, so I started by sampling a margherita pizza. The crust was light and crisp but not hard, and its faintly sweet flavor was a solid base for the savory roma tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh chopped basil.

The crushed garlic added a bit of swagger, and the result was both fresh and bold. (Bold is a recurring theme at Crust Pizza Co., and one that is a welcome change from the often bland offerings at chain restaurants.)

Margherita Pizza at Crust Pizza Co.

Next was a walk on the wild side. We tried The Jerk, featuring Jamaican jerk chicken, caramelized onions, red, green, and yellow bell peppers, thick-cut bacon and a mixture of cheeses.

This was, again, a bold pizza, the jerk chicken's spicy bite offset by the sourness of the bell peppers and the smoky undertones of the nice quality bacon. I didn't expect to like this pizza (I'm not a big bell pepper fan) but it turned out to be my favorite.

We also sampled their sandwiches, including a memorable Spicy Link sub, with hot Italian link sausage, a variety of peppers, caramelized onions, and a blend of cheeses over the housemade pizza sauce.

Spicy Link Sausage Sandwich at Crust Pizza Co.

Not to be trite, but this, too, was a bold piece of food art. The Italian links were nicely spicy, and the peppers' gentle sourness made for a very savory combination.

We were impressed by the food coming out of this new kitchen, and feel that it's only fair to overlook any pre-opening jitters, which were few and far between. Rasberry and Price are pros, and they've brought their distinct style of upscale, high-quality pizzas to the central Woodlands. And they're doing so at very reasonable prices.

The verdict? We'll be back.

Crust Pizza Co. - 4775 West Panther Creek Dr. - The Woodlands 77381 - 281-298-8844

(This entry first appeared on CultureMap.)

Crust Pizza Co. on Urbanspoon

Back in the 80's, I lived in Austin, and there was a chain burger location I really enjoyed.  Called Carl's Jr., it was a west-coast burger chain that had recently expanded into Texas.  Their burgers were good; considerably better than the big fast-food chains, and even going so far to give local favorite What-a-burger a run for your money.  Sadly, the economic downturn caused Carl's Jr. to pull out of Texas entirely.

Now, over twenty years later, they're coming back.
Carl's Jr is our kind of burger chain.  They have healthy options for those preferring low carb, vegetarian, or gluten-free meals.  They also have more indulgent offerings, including several burgers that weigh in at over 1,000 calories.
The first location in the Houston area will be on the west side of town, near the intersection of Hwy 6 and West Road.  The location opens for business on Friday, January 14.
But before the opening of the new store, Carl's Jr. is planning three special events, and H-Town Chow Down readers have been invited.  Each event features FREE Western Bacon Cheeseburgers.

(That's the Western Bacon Cheeseburger pictured above.  When I first tried one over two decades ago, I thought they had hit upon perhaps the perfect cheeseburger formula: a charbroiled beef patty, American cheese, bacon, crisp onion rings, and BBQ sauce on a toasted bun.)

On January 11, they'll be giving away lunch from 11am to 1pm in Jones Plaza downtown.
On January 12, dinner will be served from 5pm to 7pm at the Discovery Green ice rink downtown.
On January 13, a pre-opening lunch will be served from 11am to 1pm at at new store: 8491 Hwy 6 N.
If you've never had a Carl's Jr. burger, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.  And if you have, you know why we're excited to see this chain expand back into Texas.
We'll see you there.
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