We recently got word of a very interesting project taking place nearby in Spring. On the Rox Sports Bar, an established neighborhood bar, was turning over its kitchen to a talented local chef, Jeff Wetzel. Jeff has a broad background in the kitchen, ranging from casual to fine dining to the country club scene. We've eaten his food before, and Jeff is a very capable cook, but we wondered how his cuisine would translate into a bar setting.
Bars are interesting places for food. Great bars often have mediocre food, and bars that specialize in great food are often not very good bars. Also, bar patrons typically don't want the kind of dishes that talented chefs like to create; they're often too fussy and require too much attention to eat. Bar food needs to be easy to eat, satisfying, and based on something familiar.
How would this talented chef tackle this challenge? We went in to find out. Jeff invited us to sample the food from his upcoming menu; he plans to roll out these dishes on April 6.
First up was a starter, and it got my attention immediately. Naughty Bacon Bleu Cheese Chips consist of fresh, hand-cut potato chips, chunks of applewood-smoked bacon, and chives. It's all covered with a creamy bleu cheese sauce, and chunks of fresh bleu cheese. While similar in concept to the signature appetizer at Jasper's the addition of bacon and chives takes this dish to the next level. We were off to an auspicious start.
Next up was the bar staple - buffalo wings. We've sampled dozens of versions of buffalo wings, and few measure up to the original. For us, the flavor of Frank's hot sauce is a Platonic ideal for buffalo wings, and the farther away you get, the more the dish suffers. Jeff puts his twist on the iconic bar dish by smoking the naked wings, combining a handful of chives, and then dressing them with... Frank's hot sauce. That's a tough decision that goes against the instincts of a man who can create great sauces, but it's the right one. We approve.
After these appetizers, it was time to get to the main course(s). Jeff presented his take on the BLT - he calls it the Bloody Mary BLT. It's built on a foundation of in-house baked rosemary bread, dense and slightly crusty. On this tasty base he layers applewood-smoked thick-cut bacon, celery root slaw, and slices of beefsteak tomatoes marinated in Absolute Peppar vodka. The BLT is finished with chive creme fraiche, and a tangy balsamic syrup. This became quickly one of our favorite BLTs; the layers of flavors formed a complexity that typically isn't seen in this lunch staple. The herbal rosemary combines with the smoky, savory bacon, and the blast of acid from the balsamic, reigned in with a touch of sweetness, was masterful.
The sandwich was served with fresh-cut fries, expertly fried. Good fresh-cut fries are tough to make, and apparently Jeff sold his soul at some point, because he has been entrusted with the secret.
Continuing the sandwich theme, we dug into the Puerco Sucio. The formula is simple: Take seared confit pork belly, dress with chipotle aioli. Combine with slices of baked apples and a bit of celery root slaw, and serve on housemade ciabatta. The resulting sandwich is much leaner than the pork belly you find around town, and we found the better meat-to-fat ratio to be a good one. The smoky pork played off the sweet apples and the creamy slaw, and the result was a very good sandwich.
Our final sandwich was a new twist on the humble chicken sandwich. Called Pollo Loco, an adobo-marinated chicken breast is chargrilled, then dressed with havarti and mango radish salsa and presented on ciabatta. Chicken sandwiches can be boring, but this one was not. The mango radish salsa was an inspired choice; again, a complex, layered flavor profile makes for an interesting dish.
Jeff could sense that we were nearing capacity for the tasting -- it was tough not to finish each of the dishes he put in front of us. So he brought out one last item to try, a simple flatbread. On top of the housemade flatbread were slices of pear, melted brie, and a generous helping of arugula, all drizzled with high quality white truffle oil. This was a refreshingly light dish, refreshing yet hearty enough not to leave us craving something else.
We went into Chef Wetzel's tasting with a good degree of skepticism, but this talented chef dispelled it handily. He showed his chops, and delivered elevated version of classic bar food that would be right at home on the lunch menu of a fine restaurant. We look forward to sampling more of his creations in the very near future.
On the Rox Bar | 8905 Louetta Rd., Spring TX 77379 | 281-320-2911
Photo Credit: ZZ Top's Tres Hombres album, via MyLesPaul.com
It's no secret that we're fans of great Tex-Mex food. And our readers concur; our recent Where to Eat Tex-Mex in the Woodlands is trending as one of our most popular articles ever.
But sadly, true Tex-Mex cuisine has been fading away, especially in big cities like Houston. Texas Monthly's great writer, John Nova Lomax, takes us through the current state of Tex-Mex in this entertaining and informative article.
Recently, several new restaurants have cropped up that feature counter service - ordering at the counter, instead of having a server take your order. While this style of service has been a hallmark of fast food for years, it's now creeping into more upscale restaurants.
Is this a bad thing?
For several months, we've heard that Houston finally has a source for an outstanding bowl of ramen. Foodie friends have been raving about Tiger Den, located in Chinatown on Bellaire near the Beltway. According to those we trust, no longer is a trip to Austin's Ramen Tatsu-Ya necessary for a great bowl of ramen.
So, on a recent Saturday afternoon, a break in the dreary March weather prompted us to venture down to investigate. Robert Frasier, a good friend who's a serious cook and a very knowledgable foodie was in the mood to take his lime green Jeep out for a spin, so a plan was hatched. The outing combined three of our favorite things: Driving on a gorgeous day, interesting food, and good friends.
The drive down to Chinatown was swift; when you're in a brightly colored, tricked out Jeep, people stay out of your way. By the time we pulled into Dun Huang Plaza, night had just fallen. The magic of Houston's Chinatown was in full force - the colorful neon would not be out of place in Japan. High performance cars were circulating in the parking lot, seeking out the elusive empty spaces, but our driver's neon green Jeep wasn't to be trifled with, and we secured a spot near the restaurant.
Walking up, we were greeted by a packed sidewalk, and the sign-up sheet for tables taped to a window. Adding our party, we surveyed the crowd. Mixed in age, we saw couples and groups, and several large families waiting patiently for their names to be called. After about 30 minutes, it was our turn, and we were led into the bustling dining room. Seating was tight - booths lined the walls, a bar faced the open kitchen, and a large communal table was situated under the retro-tastic 70's light fixtures.
Looking into the kitchen, the well coordinated staff was in high gear amid the steam and smoke from the food being prepared. The energy level in the kitchen was tremendous; Tiger Den is a well oiled machine.
After packing into our snug booth, it was time to order. We had come prepared. We'd gotten expert guidance from Lex Nguyen, owner of the superlative Nguyen Ngo 2 banh mi shop, and one of the most knowledgable people I know about Asian cuisine. Lex had given us a slate of recommendations, and we followed his list religiously.
First up was the Beef Tongue Yakitori. Thinly sliced tongue, perfectly grilled, served with shredded green onions and spicy mustard. The texture was slightly chewy and the combined flavors of the beef, onions and mustard were very good.
Next up was a dish that really wowed us. Roasted Brussels sprouts, cooked in a salty/sweet/spicy chili sauce. These are easily the best Brussels sprouts I've ever tasted, from the slightly crunchy texture to the complex flavors imparted by the chili sauce. As a kid, I hated the boiled Brussels sprouts my mom would serve, but had mom prepared these, I might have been be a vegan today.
Next up is the main event, the ramen. Lex suggested going straight for the spicy Miso Ramen. It's a traditional tonkatsu ramen, with the flavor turned up by the addition of a spicy miso paste. The technique is a savvy one; in some cases, miso ramen can end up far too salty as it simmers for hours; Tiger Den's approach of adding the miso just before serving is an inspired one.
The result is a rich, satisfying broth, with powerful umami and complex layers of flavor. The spicy miso adds just a touch of heat; it's no where near the sort of weapons grade heat that can be found in some Asian dishes, but rather complements the flavors of the rich fatty pork, the firm, flavorful wood-ear mushrooms, and the fresh, zesty vegetables. Hits of ginger and garlic added more layers and complexity.
Going beyond the broth, ramen is all about the noodles, and Tiger Den's do not disappoint. Instead of ordering from New York's Sun Noodles, as many top ramen shops do, Tiger Den goes the extra step of making their noodles in house, just as Houston's top Italian restaurants do. This unexpected touch delivered a superlative Hakata noodle - al dente, slightly chewy, with great mouthfeel and a rough surface that causes the broth to cling and bring the complex flavor along for the ride.
The lively conversation at the table stopped as we each devoured our ramen, alternating between relatively delicate bites of the pork and vegetables, sips of the addictive broth, and slurps of the superlative noodles.
After devouring the ramen, one of Lex's recommendations remained. Fresh donuts with Pandan cream. The donuts were quarter-sized chunks of fluffy, flaky fried dough, deceptively light, and the bright green pandan cream was sweet, smooth, and rich, the perfect finish to a delicious meal.
We're very happy to report that Tiger Den lives up to it's lofty reputation. The lines at the door are the direct result of the well-choreographed kitchen's outstanding work.
If you're looking for ramen in Houston, look no further.
Tiger Den | 9889 Bellaire Blvd | Houston TX 77036 | 832-804-7755
One of the questions we're asked most often is "Where should I eat".
Here is our list of our favorite Tex-Mex restaurants in the Woodlands area. This list is of full service Tex-Mex restaurants that offer a complete menu; taquerias have their own list.
Alicia's - This local chain excels at its grilled entrees. Our favorite is the Cowboy Steak - a slab of skirt steak, three shrimp, and two very good cheese enchiladas. The energetic bar serves up potent cocktails to thirsty patrons. Alicia's Mexican Grille - 20920 Kuykendahl Rd, Spring TX 77379 - 281-350-8383
Casa Medina - This deceptively low-profile jewel on I-45 impresses discerning foodies with well prepared Tex-Mex classics, solid chips and salsa, and gotta-try-it avocado margaritas, which taste much better than they sound. If Old School Tex-Mex is what you crave, look no further. Casa Medina - 28777 I-45, The Woodlands TX 77381 - 281-298-9866
Guadalajara - The upscale, family-friendly dining room is a great place to enjoy out-of-the-ordinary dishes. Excellent ceviches and outstanding roast chicken enchiladas highlight the diverse menu. Guadalajara Hacienda - 27885 I-45 N, The Woodlands TX 77386 - 281-362-0774
Chuy's - Locals flock to this Austin Icon for reliable Tex-Mex and strong margaritas. Skip the fajitas and go directly to the more unique options, like the Chuychanga and huge combination plates. Insiders know to ask for the complimentary creamy jalepeño dip with the chips and salsa... it's addictive. Chuy's - 18035 W I-45, Shenandoah TX 77385 - 936-321-4440
Lupe Tortilla - Fajitas are the entree of choice at this local chain. The lime marinade's signature flavor keeps regulars coming back, but creeping prices are causing some rumbles on social media. Bring your gold card. Lupe Tortilla - 19437 W I-45, Shenandoah TX 77385 - 281-298-5274
We popped into the new Levure Bakery, in the Woodlands Creekside Park village center for a pre-opening run-though. The bakery was in training mode; the fresh-faced staff eagerly helping the handful of customers invited for the preview. The bakery is scheduled to open on Thursday, March 12.
A limited menu was in effect for the run-through. We selected a grilled sandwich: Brie + Apricot + Ham. It was served with a house salad of arugula, orange, and walnuts, topped with a champagne vinaigrette. The crusty Leuvre bread had a satisfying crunch, and the creamy cheese was the dominant flavor. We enjoyed the sandwich a great deal.
We also picked up one of the bakery's baguettes, which were beautifully crusty and brown. It will be devoured later today.
We think Levure will be a great addition to the neighborhood, and look forward to returning for a full review when they're up and running.
From our opening day visits (as seen in this review) we've been big fans of The Republic Grille. From the award-winning Chicken Fried Steak to the signature Chicken Woodlands to the huge burgers, we've enjoyed all of the well prepared American comfort food that comes out of the kitchen.
But on a recent visit, we realized it was time to try something a bit healthier. Consulting with the experts in the Woodlands Area Foodies Facebook group, the consensus was that the TRG Salad was a must try.
Juicy, flavorful grilled chicken grabbed our attention first, and the mild goat cheese balanced the beautifully seasoned protein. The combination of fruits, nuts and vegetables sealed the deal - mixed greens, strawberries, dried cranberries, grapes, and slightly sweet spiced pecans. We selected their strawberry vinaigrette dressing at the suggestion of our server; it complemented the salad very well.
This is a salad that doesn't make you feel like you're missing out on anything. Highly recommended.
News Flash: The Woodlands has no shortage of high-end steakhouses. It's hard to get excited about yet another one.
Maybe this one will be different.
We'd been hearing lots of buzz about Robard's, the new freestanding steak house that was built as part of the multimillion-dollar expansion of The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center. But we had our concerns - hotels are rarely known for interesting cuisine, typically taking the safer route over the more adventurous.
So on a recent evening, we stopped by Robard's to sample their cuisine. On this visit we purposefully avoided the signature steaks, instead focusing on the intriguing appetizer options.
We ordered a selection of appetizers. Chris Perry, GM of Robard's (and our host) supplemented our choices with the appetizers he thought we should investigate. Here are our impressions.
First up was the beef tartare. Beautifully presented on a large slab of wood, a half-pound of chopped prime filet is garnished with house-pickled vegetables and crostini drizzled with sriracha. The beef was wonderfully lush and rich, with just enough zing from the capers and onions to keep things interesting. This is easily one of the best beef tartare we've tried, measuring up well to our benchmark at Tony's.
Next up was the seafood cocktail flight. Large shrimp, lobster chunks, and lump crab meat are served in a quartet of different preparations, from a fresh take on the traditional cocktail sauce to a guacamolito to two zesty and creamy preparations. This is a great way to sample the kitchen's expertise with seafood - everyone in our party had a favorite, and none of us agreed on which one it was.
Crab cakes are de rigueur at any self-respecting steakhouse, and Robard's did not disappoint. Jumbo lump crab meat is mixed with only enough binder to provide form and stability, then lightly breaded and fried. The crab flavor comes through confidently, and we applaud the result of more crab and less cake.
Now things get really interesting. Candied bacon on french toast with maple syrup. This sounds like an incredible breakfast indulgence, but the inclusion of bits of pungent bleu cheese balanced the sweet/smoky bacon, the gently crisp toast, and the decadent maple syrup. We'd have never considered adding bleu cheese, but it was a masterful stroke.
Finally, the seafood tower. A cornucopia consisting of two cold boiled lobsters, huge boiled shrimp, cold jumbo lump crab meat, lobster claws, and oysters on the half shell, this beautifully presented, towering bounty of the sea is sure to impress any serious seafood lover. We were very pleased with the preparation of each individual component; clearly the kitchen at Robard's knows how to handle fresh shellfish.
We walked away from this tasting anxious to come back and sample the other offerings. If a steakhouse takes this care with the preparation and presentation of its appetizers, we can only imagine how much attention the dry-aged prime steaks must receive.
We'll be back.
Disclaimer: We dined as the guests of Food and Beverage Director Michael Hammes and General Manager Chris Perry. Their generous hospitality didn't lessen the impressiveness of the food that was served.
Robard's | 125 Autumnwood Way | The Woodlands | 281-364-6400 | robardssteakhouse.com
We love burgers. We love restaurants that specialize in burgers. But sometimes we try to be healthy. Tonight was a case in point. After considering several options, we decided to sample a salad at Grub Burger, remembering how surprised we were by the non-burger "snacks" on the menu.
At the suggestion of Sam, the very friendly and helpful bartender, we started with the Napa salad. Mixed greens are topped with goat cheese, strawberries, mission figs, and toasted almonds. A subtle hazelnut vinaigrette finishes a savory / sweet salad, and at Sam's suggestion we topped it with a grilled chicken patty.
The result was a tasty salad we'd order again. The chicken patty had an interesting texture; it was very coarsely ground, and the chunked texture made the provided knife unnecessary.
Now it was time for dessert. Continuing the nontraditional / healthy theme, we went with a side of tabbouleh.
Bulgar wheat, chopped parsley, to,arose, mint, and cucumber are dressed with lemon juice, and the result is a light, zesty flavor that finished the meal nicely.
It's doubtful that we'll abandon the very good burgers at Grub Burger, but it's good to know that when the mood strikes, choosing healthy options doesn't mean that you're going to have to endure an unpleasant dinner. Give 'em a try.
A recent conversation in a foodie discussion group bemoaned the lack of a good Southern California-style burrito in Houston. We have burritos, but they tend to be more of a Tex-Mex style, often with rice and/or refried beans among the ingredients; the Southern California-style is a lighter style, highlighting fresh ingredients with an eye towards more protein and veggies, and less carbs and fat.