As the Woodlands grows, we're excited to watch the food scene grow with it. This little 'burb is attracting all sorts of interesting restaurants, from chef-driven bistros to new concepts from national chains. But some things are still hard to find.
The restaurant scene in the Woodlands is growing and thriving. New places open each month, but none have intrigued us as much as the Republic Grille, a new concept debuting in the Panther Creek Village Center in the Woodlands.
The Republic Grill | 281-719-5895 | 4775 W Panther Creek Dr | The Woodlands | TheRepublicGrille.com
Living in the Woodlands spoils you in many ways. The town has grown up since its humble beginnings, and now boasts a population of nearly 100,000, along with a range of upscale businesses dedicated to supporting the highly sought-after demographic. And the restaurant scene is thriving, with some of Houston's best restaurants calling the Woodlands home. There's even a Facebook group devoted to finding great food in the Woodlands and surrounding areas.
For some, the Woodlands is a sort of bubble that never has to be left. But not for me, nor for other dedicated foodies who are always in search of great new places to eat.
What the Woodlands doesn't have is a wide selection of small, ethnic restaurants, particularly the Asian spots that pop up all over the Houston area. The independents that do call the Woodlands home trend toward the upscale, largely due to the rents in the Woodlands proper.
But as someone who loves Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine, especially from small, family run establishments, venturing outside the bubble is a way of life if you're in search of great food. But which way to go?
Fortunately, friends in the Woodlands Area Foodies group are avid culinary explorers, and new suggestions appear on a regular basis. We've learned to trust the recommendations of several of the members implicitly, and when they say "Let's meet here for lunch!" we jump at the chance.
|Proprietor Alex Nguyen talks with WAF members Huy Dang and Tom Nguyen (eclipsed)|
A case in point is Nguyen Ngo 2, an Vietnamese sandwich shop located just south of FM 1960 on Bammell North Houston road. NN2, as regulars call it, specializes in that delicious Vietnamese sandwich that has become iconic in H-Town, the Banh Mi.
Banh Mi is a big deal in Houston, driven largely by our large Vietnamese community. Even Houston's home-grown high-end burger chain, Beck's Prime, has rolled out its take on the Banh Mi.
Nguyen Ngo 2's version of this iconic sandwich is far more traditional. The proprietor, Alex Nguyen, learned sandwich making from his grandfather in Viet Nam - a photo taken in the 1960's showing the elder Nguyen's chicken sandwich shop hangs proudly on the wall.
The formula at Nguyen Ngo 2 is a distillation of the classic Banh Mi, but with subtle adjustments to make it appeal to a broader, modern audience. Gone is the sometimes harshly crunchy bread found in some AsiaTown Banh Mi shops; it's replaced with freshly baked french rolls with just a touch of crunch, and a soft, gently chewy interior. Numerous different meats are available, and Alex is on hand to guide a newcomer toward a sandwich that will appeal to him. All of the traditional veggies are present in extremely crisp, fresh form; the traditional pickled carrots have been toned down, again with a nod toward broadening the sandwich's appeal.
First we tried the slice ribeye Banh Mi, a fusion of the cuisine of Ho Chi Minh City with that of Philadelphia by way of Houston.
|Sliced Ribeye Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2|
This sandwich grabbed our attention with its amalgam of flavors that came together in a harmonious whole. The rich, beefy flavor of the marinated, thinly sliced roast beef was accented by the sharp notes of the fresh jalapenos, the earthy flavor of the fresh cilantro and sliced carrots, and the tang of the housemade garlic mayo, which reminded us much more of an aoli. This sandwich is a great introduction to Nguyen Ngo 2, and made us anxious to try more.
Though we weren't really hungry, another sandwich was calling our name. Tom spoke highly of the combination of Vietnamese meatballs and sausage, and we had to try it.
|Meatball and Sausage Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2|
As much as we loved the ribeye, this sandwich is our new Banh Mi crush. Sweet, savory, gently hot, nicely tangy, with crunch and chew and softness all rolled into one sandwich. A superbly crafted dish from a world-class chef will hit you from several distinct directions at once, and this sandwich easily falls into that category. It is among the best sandwiches we've ever tasted, and at under $4, it represents an unparalleled value.
Lex brought out a small container that he wanted us to try. It contained their house made Vietnamese kimchee. We'd only sampled Korean kimchee before, and were looking forward to trying this different version.
|Vietnamese Kimchee at Nguyen Ngo 2|
We were not disappointed. The traditional sourness and vinegar balanced with a kick of ginger and just the right touch of heat. The result is both refreshing and satisfying; perhaps the perfect side dish for a hot Houston day. If some BBQ joint doesn't talk Lex out of this recipe and add it as a side, they're missing out; it would pair perfectly with some great smoky brisket.
To say we're fans of Nguyen Ngo is to put it mildly. This small, jewel-like restaurant is a perfect example of what makes Houston's food scene so remarkable. Even those on a tight budget can enjoy superb cuisine served by an owner who is both talented and engaged with his customers. You can certainly pay a lot more for lunch in Houston, but you'll be hard pressed to find a meal you'll enjoy more.
Nguyen Ngo 2 | 14015 Bammel N Houston Road | 281-895-8998
This week we're excited to introduce another guest blogger. Dr. Tom Nguyen is an active member of the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and one of the most knowledgable foodies I've met in years. He's constantly on the move trying new and different places, and he recently visited one of Houston's most written-about restaurants, Oxheart. Here's Tom's take on this media darling:
Finally had the chance to check out the hottest restaurant in Houston. Hailed by everybody from the local press to New York Times, wanted to check out the talents of Chef Justin Yu.
|Oxheart. (Photo: Kent Wang)|
Located discreetly in gentrified EaDo (east downtown), Oxheart is in the building where Latin Bites used to be. Look for a place with 2 wooden doors at a corner. Walking in felt like walking into somebody's small loft, no formal host/hostess, but one of the waitstaff running around will greet and seat you. Definitely a casual atmosphere.
We get seated at the kitchen counter where all the action's at. Decor is pretty cozy, again, like you're in somebody's loft rather than a restaurant. First thing I notice, cats everywhere. Chinese lucky cats (Maneki-Neko) to be exact. At the counter, there are drawers near where you sit which contains utensils and napkins. You are expected to get these yourself.
Menu consists of a tasting menu, a seasonal menu (meat) and a garden menu (no meat). Food is locally sourced from wagyu in Wallis near Eagle Lake to veggies from Atkinson Farms in Spring. We order all 3 menus.
Details of the dishes follow. (Photos by Tom Nguyen)
Heirloom carrots cooked in onion bouillon with raw/caramelized carrots, carrot top fritters, speckled trout lettuce. The fritters and carrots in onion were good. Everything else so-so. The pile of green paint in the middle tasted like paint.
Winter citrus (I think oranges) in soy milk/bitter almond custard, fennel, and aloe. This tastes like tofu with ginger syrup dim sum, pretty good.
Radishes poached in whey, kyo-na zuke (pickled/salted collared greens), chrysanthemum leaf, homemade butter. Reminds me of tabouli. Tastes terrible without that butter
Flaxseed bread with homemade butter.
Mesquite-smoked Gulf Cobia with red savoy cabbage, and a roll of mustards and pickles. Good dish. The mustard/pickle rolls are similar to the ones I've had at Fukuda for their shabu shabu.
Layers of scarlet damsel and harukei turnips on top of kombu (kelp) served with farm egg. Terrible dish.
Charred zamboni raabs wrapped in kohlrabi with elephant garlic emulsion and cured gulf blue runner. Translation: Chinese broccoli wrapped in a string made of turnips with a garlic dip. As pathetic as this dish looks, this was incredibly good and one of my few faves here.
Wagyu sirloin, beef sausage, beets, and offal sauce. The sirloin was not tender, terrible. Sausage was meh, lacking in flavor. The burnt beets were good, like bacon. The ketchup made of organ meats was kinda weird. Made this dish look bloodier than it should've been.
Stew of fermented vegetables, fermented kale, crispy braised kale, and horseradish dumplings. It's like a cross between a fermented vegetable stew I can get readily at Xiong's on Bellaire and the kale from Olive Garden's Toscana soup. I couldn't finish this dish.
Homemade butterfingers. Picture a slightly saltier Butterfingers. There were 2 other desserts before this, but my wife was angry about me taking pics since nobody else in the restaurant was doing this. Mine was a honey cake with honey-soaked carrots...soooo good! Wife and kid had chocolate mousse, Olive oil ganache, and pickles. They loved it, I hated it, felt like I was eating a bowl of Cocoa Puffs except
I wasn't going cuckoo over it.
In general, I was not too impressed with the plating of the dishes. Wasn't bad, but I was expecting a more whimsical take on plating like at Pass&Provisions.
Many of the dishes were reminiscent of common Asian dishes. The raab was nothing more than Chinese broccoli. The kale soup had fermented vegetables commonly used in many Chinese and Vietnamese soups. The soy/almond custard was not too far removed from the tofu/ginger syrup snack found at many dim sum restaurants.
The menu is heavily focused on vegetables which can be a problem if you're a carnivore like myself.
With all the fanfare of the restaurant, had a hard time whether to consider it fine dining? If it's to be considered as such, I would've expected the service to be on par with The Pass, Triniti, or Mark's as opposed to say Dolce Vita for instance.
The price of the menu is very reasonable. Food wasn't bad at all, but wasn't blown away. While Oxheart is putting Houston on the national map for American dining, I don't see what all the buzz and hype is about. Pass&Provisions has a much better repertoire IMO.
My wife's assessment: glorified Souper Salad. Ouch...
Oxheart | 1302 Nance Street, Houston 77002 | 832-830-9592 | oxhearthouston.com
Tom Nguyen grew up in SW Houston and currently resides in Conroe. He's been eating escargots since he was 2. He describes himself as the typical Asian who photographs everything he eats and proclaims it to the Woodlands Area Foodies. He's also a BBQ snob who's been known to carry Corkscrew BBQ brisket in his pocket, and a pho nazi, Tom also likes to walk around with his shirt off, and hates balut.
In the breakneck-paced Houston food scene, new restaurants often appear, get hot, cool off, and ultimately disappear in a matter of months. Universal foodie acclaim doesn't prevent this vicious cycle -- witness the demise of media darlings like Feast and Bootsie's.
Certain parts of town seem to present even more challenges. Inner Westheimer has tremendous competition. The Heights has archaic liquor laws. Downtown can offer a strong lunch business, but is deserted on weeknights, and this combination has thwarted great restaurants like Samba Grille, Laidback Manor, and other high-profile, critical success stories.
Yet some restaurants endure, and do so for decades. Instead of embracing the hottest food trends, they find a formula that satisfies their customers, and they refine and perfect it.
A textbook example is China Garden, located downtown across the street from the Toyota Center garage. China Garden has been serving Chinese-American food for lunch and dinner from this location since the 1970's, and we've heard reports of good food from trusted friends.
We ventured downtown for lunch to try to find out why China Garden has thrived so long in the tough downtown restaurant market.
Stepping inside was like stepping into a time machine set to 1985. The space is charmingly dated, with nary a window to be seen in the main dining area.
And yes, that's a bar in the dining room, something we don't normally see in today's sanitized concept restaurants.
Service was charmingly old-fashioned as well. Regulars were greeted warmly by the staff, and newbies (like us) were made to feel welcome immediately. The house was full, and the staff was in constant motion, efficiently serving the hungry crowd.
Guided by a friend's recommendation, we tried two different classic choices - sweet and sour chicken, and spicy chicken, AKA General Tso's. Somehow we resisted the throwback Chop Suey that was the first offering on the lunch menu; some childhood memories are best left unrevisited.
While we were waiting, a small basket appeared without explanation, holding something handmade and fried.
We bit in, and discovered the China Garden version of hushpuppies. These were bite sized versions of the fried biscuits that used to be found at every Chinese-American restaurant, but that we've not run across in many years. They were tasty and slightly heavy.
Our entrees appeared shortly. First up was the Spicy / General Tso's Chicken.
Served on the classic dragon-pattern dishes, the slightly crispy breaded chicken pieces were tossed with onions, scallions, and small mild peppers, then dressed in a brown sauce with a confident bite of freshly cracked black pepper. Not spicy by modern standards, it was flavorful with only slightest hint of heat. Served with a barebones but tasty scoop of fried rice and a gigantic old-school egg roll, this dish was considerably superior to the generic stuff served at most Chinese-American spots. The sauce had slightly softened the crust, but enough stiffness remained to make it a very enjoyable lunch.
Next up was the sweet and sour chicken.
This dish was less complex, and less successful. The sweet and sour sauce was more like a honey glaze, with no sourness to be found at all. The chicken's breading had gotten soft and lost most of its texture; we suspect a large batch had been sitting in the sauce for a while. If you like sweet chicken dishes you may enjoy this, but we found the spicy chicken to be a much more satisfying dish.
As we were taking the photos of the food, our waitress came by with a smile, asking why we were photographing our food. I honestly don't think she'd seen that done before, which is an amazing concept in 2014, but this reinforces the fact that China Garden is well off the map for critics, bloggers, and the majority of foodies.
That's a shame, because there's a lot to like at this Houston classic, as the busy lunch crowds attest. If you like Americanized Chinese food, give 'em a try.
China Garden | 1602 Leeland, Houston TX 77002 | 713-652-0745
The Woodlands is surrounded by small towns and somewhat rural areas, and the influx of people to the area is causing the entire region to develop. A case in point is Umami, a newish Korean restaurant located in Magnolia, which is the town to the immediate northwest of the Woodlands.
Trader Joe's opened its doors in Texas this morning, and the residents of the Woodlands showed up in droves to welcome this newest import from the West Coast. This fabled grocer is known for quality food, an interesting, well curated selection, and affordable prices. We joined the crowd to see what all the fuss was about.
Amazingly delicious "Cookie Butter" - creamy gingerbread spread. I'm anxious to try this on waffles, bagels, plywood...
A sample of TJ's Mandarin Orange Chicken - one of the best frozen Chinese entrees we've tried.
And last but not least, one of the Charles Shaw wines, aka "Two Buck Chuck". (Now $3, thanks to inflation.)
The assembled masses were scooping up items left and right, and the lines for checkout were easily 30 shoppers deep. But Trader Joe's friendly staff was doing a great job of keeping the line moving, and doing so with a smile.
If opening day was any indication, Texas has a great new addition to the grocery store scene. Trader Joe's combines an interesting product selection with great prices, and that's a winning combination that will draw in foodies for years to come.
We'll be back.
Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group has leased 5,821 square feet at 25 Waterway Avenue, located on the southwest corner of Lake Robbins Drive and Waterway Avenue, for Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill, according to Dan Leverett, vice president of commercial for The Woodlands Development Company. This will be the first Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill in Texas. It is expected to open in May.
Stir Crazy is a full-service Asian restaurant that offers a diverse menu of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food. The Asian fare is served in a fun, vibrant atmosphere with a focus on fresh, quality ingredients and bold flavors to deliver a truly unique casual dining experience for its guests. Prepared from scratch with no added MSG and minimal oil, Stir Crazy’s menu features more than 65 “mouth-watering” appetizers, entrees, desserts and its popular Market Bar, where diners can create their own Stir Crazy wok-tossed dish from more than 20 fresh ingredients and eight sauces.
A Stir Crazy highlight is the full-service bar featuring an extensive drink menu with a list of 35 quality and award-winning wines available by the glass or bottle. Beer, sake and several signature drinks are also available.
The restaurant will also include a large, outdoor patio.
"We are truly delighted that Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill will have its first new location in 2011 built at Waterway Square in The Woodlands, Texas," said Greg Carey, president and COO of Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group. "The entire community of The Woodlands has such a beautiful, upbeat, yet relaxed feel to it that we couldn't think of a more perfect place to open our first Texas restaurant. Stir Crazy is about fresh, quality, upscale casual dining and we think the residents of The Woodlands will agree that Stir Crazy is a great fit."
Flat Out Crazy operates 30 restaurants in eight states – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New York, Missouri and Wisconsin - consisting of 14 Stir Crazy locations and 16 FlatTop Grill locations. For more information, visit www.stircrazy.com.