Growing up in Houston, Bennigan's was one of those restaurants that I felt was always going to be around. They were a better version of Chili's or TGI Friday's, with all the expected casual dining standards, plus a few signature items. The bar was also a hoppin' happy hour scene, with groups of coworkers unwinding after a hard day at the office.

Over the years, as other restaurants in their segment updated their concepts, Bennigan's stayed pretty much the same. That turned out to be their undoing, because the chain declared bankruptcy in 2008, with most of the stores (including all of the ones in greater Houston) closing shortly thereafter.
I was surprised to hear that Bennigan's was returning to the Woodlands - it would be the second first location to return to the Houston area. They selected a location that has housed several short-lived establishments, most recently Aldo's. The building is on I-45, and was somewhat dark and uninviting.
The new Bennigan's opened their doors last week, and we decided to check them out recently for lunch. Our first impression was a good one; Bennigan's has gutted the building, and the result is much brighter and far more modern.

The Bennigan's dining room
We like how the space was visually divided into different areas - the design is open, but not too open, avoiding the barn-like ambiance that seems to plague many new establishments.
When we've mentioned to friends that we tried the new Bennigan's, we keep getting asked one question, over and over again: "How's the Monte Cristo?" This sweet and savory deep fried sandwich was Bennigan's signature dish, and we couldn't wait to see if it was still as delicious as we remembered.

Monte Cristo at Bennigan's

We're happy to report that the Monte Cristo may be even better than we remembered. Layers of thinly-sliced ham and turkey and American cheese are batter-dipped and deep fried, dusted with powdered sugar, and served with a side of raspberry preserves. The coating was golden brown, delightfully crisp on the outside and tender within, without a hint of greasiness. We approve, although our doctor might not.

But man does not live (long) by Monte Cristo alone, so we sampled some of the other items on the menu. We couldn't resist the Guiness Glazed Bacon burger, a half-pound patty cooked to order (although medium rare was more like medium well, a common problem) and glazed with a Guiness Stout-based sauce, topped with cheddar, thick-cut bacon, and fried onion strings.

Guiness-Glazed Bacon Burger at Bennigan's

Biting into the burger we were first hit by the tangy-sweet flavor of the Guiness glaze; the mild cheddar flavor and the smokiness of the bacon were good counterpoints. The onions added more texture than flavor, but the large patty's juicy beefy flavor came through the melange of toppings. This is a solid burger, and one we'd order again.

A dining companion chose the Irish pot roast, which turned out to be a credible though not memorable version of the classic comfort food. Along with the pot-roasted beef were potatoes, carrots, onions, and a bit of garlic.

Irish Pot Roast at Bennigan's
We were excited to learn of Bennigan's rebirth, and were pleased to see the Woodlands chosen for a  Houston area location. The comfortable atmosphere, friendly and competent service, and well prepared food should pack in the guests looking for a hearty, comfortable meal. The classics are all represented, and they've stood the test of time. We're happy to declare Bennigan's relaunch a successful one, and look forward to returning for another Monte Cristo soon.

Bennigan's | 18450 I-45 South | Shenandoah, TX 77384 |

Bennigan's on Urbanspoon

"Chicken Fried Steak. There's a new place serving good ones." whispered one of my foodie friends.

That's one sure-fire way to get my attention. There are some great chicken fried steaks to be had in the Houston area, but they're few and far between, and there are plenty of mediocre ones that are better avoided. I've been hoping for a great CFS that's closer to the Woodlands than Tomball.

The establishment that generated this comment is the new Texas Beer Garden, located just northwest of the Woodlands, on Hwy 1488 just west of 2978. It's a roomy, comfortable place that's already become a neighborhood hangout. For those concerned with a dark, boozy bar, rest assure that this isn't it -- the focus is more on the food than the beer.

The menu is long on traditional Texas grub - burgers, BBQ, sandwiches, and the aforementioned chicken fried steak all caught our attention. So we sampled a few items on two visits, and here were our impressions.

First up was the burger. It's large, hand-formed, and made with good quality beef. Toppings are generally fresh, but the lettuce looked a bit long of tooth. One snag is that the kitchen insists on cooking the burger to medium well or above - if you like your burgers medium rare, you're not going to be happy. The beef could have also used a touch more seasoning, a minor quibble which is easily fixed.

Next we sampled a BBQ plate, with pulled pork and sausage. The serving was generous, and the pulled pork was good - it had a nice rich smoky flavor, and very little of the sweet BBQ sauce was required to be added. The sausage was unremarkable. They do offer a variety of different sausages, so perhaps more exploration is required.

The lauded chicken-fried steak wasn't available on our first visit, but we sampled it when we returned. A nicely crisped crust wrapped a tender but not overly juicy slab of beef. We suspected that this wasn't hand-breaded in-house, and this was confirmed by the staff. The gravy was tasty but a bit under seasoned. We see serious potential here, and hope that the dish will be taken to the next level.

I'd be remiss in pointing out that this is a family-friendly place... perhaps a bit too family friendly. When we visited on a weekend night, the place was literally overrun with kids from toddler to elementary school age running wild around the restaurant.

The outdoor patio was more daycare than dining area, and one couldn't walk around the dining room without the risk of stumbling over an unruly kid. The harried wait staff didn't have time to deal with this, but we think management needs to be willing to talk with parents who won't keep their children seated at the table.

We see great promise for the Texas Beer Garden. The food has the potential to become very good. If the management can get control of the dining room back from the hoards of children that run rampant, we'll be looking forward to returning.

Texas Beer Garden | 2714 FM 1488, Magnolia | 281-356-2337

Texas Beer Garden on Urbanspoon

The opening of a new independently-owned restaurant in the Woodlands is always an exciting thing for us. We look forward to discovering a great new place to enjoy and recommend to our friends and readers.

We were particularly happy to hear about Fielding's Wood Grill, the new project from Cary Attar and chef Edel Goncalves. Cary has a long history in the culinary industry, most recently as founder of Hubbell & Hudson, the organization that operates a gourmet market, a cooking school, and two exceptional restaurants in the Woodlands. Chef Edel opened the Hubbel & Hudson Bistro and the late, lamented Rouge on Westheimer.
Fielding's is Cary's new concept, and it is an ambitious one. It is a cozy, upscale, casual restaurant located on Research Forest near Six Pines, in a small new shopping center. The decor is modern with a rustic twist, and the space is an appealing spot for friends, families, or couples out on a relaxed date.

Housemade is the central theme at Fielding's: Meats are ground in-house, bacon is smoked in-house, bread is baked in-house, ice cream is churned in-house. We applaud this very labor-intensive approach to creating food, and were looking forward to seeing how well Fielding's executes this non-trivial plan.

Cary Attar greets guests at Fielding's Wood Grill
Clever touches are seen all over the space, including something we've never seen before. An iPad bar. Fielding's guests can sit down at one of the iPads and surf the web (we recommend as a good starting point) Facetime with friends, or check their e-mail.
iPad Bar at Fielding's Wood Grill
The kitchen at Fielding's is open to the restaurant. Behind the order counter you'll see a glass-front rotisserie, the cooking line as well as other prep areas. To the sides you'll see the grinding room where all the proteins are prepared, and a charcuterie locker, where the housemade bacon is hung to age.
Open Kitchen at Fielding's Wood Grill
The focus at Fielding's is on burgers - both traditional and extremely creative. Everything from a simple hamburger to exotic meats like buffalo and tuna are available.
We stepped up to the counter, and placed our order with the energetic (and well trained) staff member. When I asked for suggestions there were given without hesitation (and they turned out to be spot on.)
For this first visit, we decided to try something on the traditional side. The Smoke burger is Fielding's take on a traditional bacon cheeseburger, albeit an elevated one. We customized ours by removing the egg (we're not big fans of eggs on burgers).
Smoke Burger at Fielding's Wood Grill
What appeared is a very modern, housemade rendition of the classic bacon cheeseburger. Fielding's sources 44 Farms natural Texas black angus, and grinds it in-house. It's topped with house-smoked, wood-grilled bacon, aged Italian provolone, oven-dried tomatoes, grilled onions, shredded iceberg lettuce, and a housemade truffle bacon mustard, all constructed atop a freshly baked milk bun.
The result was delicious. The high-quality 44 Farms angus was soft and lush, with a smooth, almost creamy beefy swagger, oozing with juices. The mild provolone didn't outshine the beef, and the excellent housemade bacon added its smoky counterpoint. The largeish grilled onions added a hint of acidity, and the rich tomato flavor layered upon that. The mustard wasn't overpowering at all, and used its tanginess to tie all of the different tastes together. The smallish milk bun was a good choice; the meat-to-bread ratio was spot on.
We sampled two different types of fries. The house fries were outstanding. Hand cut in house, fried to perfection with a crisp outer layer and a slightly dense, slightly chewy interior, seasoned delicately with a hint of smoky paprika. We dipped them into the truffled bacon mustard, and the result was superb.
Hand Cut Fries at Fielding's Wood Grill
We also tried the truffled fries. Perhaps due to the different technique of preparation these fries were somewhat lighter and airier than the house fries, befitting the aroma of truffle and freshly shaved parmesan. Another excellent fry. Making great hand-cut french fries is not an easy task, but Cary's team has nailed it.
Burgers are clearly the specialty at Fielding's, but one of the other featured items are their milkshakes. They start with housemade ice cream, and the attention to detail is impressive: Fielding's specified large diameter straws that make imbibing these thick shakes less likely to be hernia-inducing.
We sampled the chocolate malt, Madagascar vanilla, and a unique strawberry offering with basil and bits of pretzel. Our favorite was the chocolate malt - a deft hand was used in the proportions, so the malt flavor complemented the housemade chocolate ice cream rather than overpowering it. We enjoyed the vanilla and strawberry shakes as well, and were impressed by the care taken to move these traditional flavors away from the ordinary, without losing what is elemental about each one.
Chocolate Malt at Fielding's Wood Grill
Madagascar Vanilla Shake at Fielding's Wood Grill
Strawberry Shake at Fielding's Wood Grill
All in all we were very impressed by our experience at Fielding's Wood Grill on opening day. Many restaurants aren't ready for prime time when they open their doors, but Cary Attar and his team of professionals has things running very smoothly. We look forward to returning for a follow up visit soon.
Fielding's Wood Grill | 1699 Research Forest, The Woodlands, TX 77380 |

Fielding's Wood Grill on Urbanspoon

Residents of the Woodlands have no shortage of good burger places in the area. From national franchises to local chains to mom-n-pop stores to chef-driven restaurants, folks in the Woodlands can eat burgers every day for a month and not visit the same joint twice.

And yet the new burger concepts keep coming. As your intrepid servants, we feel that it is our duty to check out the most interesting burger concepts and pass on to you the ones that are worth a visit.

The Woodlands Waterway neighborhood is now home to the Houston area's first BurgerFi location. BurgerFi is a Florida-based burger chain that picks up where other "better burger" concepts leave off.
BurgerFi Woodlands Waterway location
A primary focus is on healthier, all-natural ingredients, including grass-fed, never frozen burger patties. Uniquely, BurgerFi offers different types of patties to choose from, including grass-fed Natural Angus, 28-day dry-aged ground brisket, and crisp quinoa-based veggie. They even offer an all-day breakfast burger, with ingredients such as bacon drizzled with maple syrup and hash browns.
Clearly, this isn't your average burger joint. But how do these interesting creations taste? We find out.
(Disclaimer: BurgerFi was so anxious for us to sample their food that we were invited along with a hundred of our closest friends to sample the food on the day before the opening. BurgerFi picked up the tab, and also wooed us with swag including sunglasses and cool stretchy bracelets. We returned for a second visit on our own dime, and thus this qualifies as an actual review, not a retelling of a media preview.)
As purists, we wanted to sample a basic burger in all its nearly-naked glory. Some burger chains hide a mediocre burger patty behind a lot of "gourmet" toppings, and we think this is like putting lipstick on a pig. (We're looking at you, The Counter.) So we started with a basic double bacon cheeseburger, selecting American cheese from the available varieties.
Cheese is generously applied on the bacon cheeseburger at BurgerFi
What arrived was a petite, 4" bun piled high with two quarter-pound hand-formed patties, freshly cooked thick-cut bacon, and a generous portion of melty American cheese. Veggies were crisp (in the case of the lettuce) or nicely grilled (the onions.)
Biting into the freshly branded (with the BurgerFi brand logo) bun revealed a lush beefy flavor, accented by the mild American cheese. The beef was cooked medium well, but hadn't lost its juiciness; a credit to BurgerFi's process. The bacon added a nice smoky and slightly peppery undertone, and the veggies brought welcome crispness and a zing of acidity to the mix. All in all a nicely balanced burger, which we devoured in record time.

How does it compare to other "better burgers"? I enjoyed it more than Five Guys, but less than Smashburger or Beck's Prime. My biggest complaint was the size. Rarely do I feel hungry after eating an upscale burger, but about one and a half of these would have been perfect. For light eaters this may be a positive.

We also sampled several of the most popular sides: Fresh-cut fries, Parmesan and herb fries, and the ginormous onion rings.
Yes, that is a single onion ring on the left.
Clearly, the highlight was the onion ring. Huge, freshly cut union slabs were divided into rings, generously breaded with a barely-sweet batter, then deep-fried to golden brown crispness. The flavor was superb; the only downside was that the rings were so large that a knife and fork were required to eat them.
The fries were tasty but unremarkable. We preferred the extra flavor provided by the parmesan and herb dusting. We can't help but wonder if the trouble and expense of cutting fresh potatoes is worth it.
We also sampled the interesting brisket burger. Topped with both swiss and bleu cheese, two quarter-pound patties of dry-aged ground brisket brought a very different flavor profile to the table.
Brisket Burger at BurgerFi
The rich, beefy flavor of the regular Angus patty was replaced by a deeper, more earthy and robust flavor, reminiscent of a barely smoked beef brisket. The swiss and bleu cheeses added a lush, tangy tone. It was a tasty sandwich, but the patty just didn't say "burger" to us. We don't think this burger is for everyone, but some folks are going to love the different approach to creating a cheeseburger.
Finally, our favorite. The veggie burger. OK, we're kidding. We didn't try the veggie burger. You should know better.
Downsides? The burgers aren't huge, and the meals are a bit more expensive than we'd prefer, attributable to the slightly pricey fries and drinks.
All in all, we enjoyed the offerings at BurgerFi, and feel that they are a nice new option for burger lovers in the Woodlands. 
BurgerFi | 1501 Lake Robbins Blvd | The Woodlands 77380 | 713-389-5826

BurgerFi on Urbanspoon

As the Woodlands area attracts more international corporations (We're looking at you, ExxonMobil) we're happy to see more restaurants appearing that appeal to more diverse tastes. We love Tex-Mex, but it's hard to get excited about yet another place touting their amazing fajitas and strong margaritas.

A case in point is Tandoory Taco, a new restaurant serving Indian fusion food. Tucked into the sprawling strip center on Sawdust that houses several independent restaurants (including The Olive Oil and Corkscrew BBQ).

Tandoory Taco is a bright, unassuming restaurant, with counter service and ample seating. An owner is on-site and involved, always a good sign. Don't go in expecting traditional Indian decor; casual is the motif, with brightly painted walls adorned with a collection of signs proclaiming a variety of slogans, none of which have anything to do with the food or the concept. It's an endearing and funky touch.

As much as we like less popular (in Texas) cuisines, it's a fact in the restaurant industry that they can be a tough sell in a more conservative market. Tandoory Taco faces this issue head-on:

How do you make Indian cuisine more accessible to the Texas palate?

Alex (Yash) Nagal is a partner, and the general manager. He's an avid foodie, and a chemical engineer. Nagal's concept is to provide an affordable, high-quality meal in an inviting setting. Food is his passion, and his enthusiasm is palpable. His approach is a clever one, and one we've not encountered before. Put freshly prepared Indian dishes into individual portions, and serve them in a soft flour tortilla.

This approach is a clever one. Tortillas are the preferred flatbread in Texas, where Indian cuisine embraces naan, the thicker, fluffier, slightly sweeter cousin. Tandoory fuses the two traditions, serving portions of freshly prepared Indian favorites in a soft flour tortilla.

We love the concept, but as always, execution is the difference between success and failure. A restaurant's success starts in the kitchen, and we were eager to investigate further.

Tandoory's kitchen is helmed by a young 28-year-old chef who knows Indian food, and isn't a man who cuts corners. He prepares all of the sauces from scratch, including Tandoory's signature Agra Tikka sauce, a bright, fresh, creamy tomato sauce that's enhanced with fresh Indian spices. High quality ingredients abound.

At Alex's suggestion, we sampled items incorporating the Agra Tikka sauce. First up was The Patriot. tandoori chicken (in this case, the darker, richer meat from the leg) is marinated in yogurt and spices, cooked in the traditional clay oven, and served with onion, a variety of mild peppers, and avocado. We enjoyed this taco - the traditional Indian flavor of the tikka sauce was balanced by the peppers and the rich tandoori spice.

Next up was The Brit, which swapped the tandoori chicken for a milder version made from the white breast meat, and prepared without the tandoori spices. The excellent tikka sauce was front and center on this taco; we feel it will appeal to those who prefer a slightly milder (but still very flavorful) dish.

We really enjoyed both tacos, and were impressed by the subtle differences between them. Clearly the chef knows his cuisine, and understands how small changes can result in significantly different dishes.

We're looking forward to returning and sampling the other menu items as soon as we can.

Tandoory Taco | 407 Sawdust Road | Spring, Texas 77380 | 281-203-5060 |

Tandoory Taco on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands keeps growing, expanding west from I-45. Woodlands Parkway is currently over nine miles long, running through the heart of the community. And we're finally witnessing the restaurant scene expand slowly backwards. No longer must a diner endure a prefabricated meal from a generic chain restaurant in the newer areas of the Woodlands. While the Waterway and Market Street areas are still the epicenter of dining in the Woodlands, interesting new restaurants are opening further away from the "downtown" area.

A case in point is the new Blue Mug Cafe. It's an new venture from some established pros (The Altus culinary group). It's located at Woodlands Parkway and FM 2978 - about as far away from I-45 as you can be and still be in the Woodlands proper.

The Blue Mug has been open for about a week, and locals have already flocked to check it out. We've visited three times, and each time has found the comfortable dining room nearly filled to capacity. There's a buzzing energy about the place as friends, couples, and families chow down on the upscale renditions of American comfort food.

(Since the restaurant just opened, this isn't a full review, but rather a first look. We'll follow up later with a full review of the Blue Mug Cafe.)

We've visited during the day, so we've focused our explorations on the sandwiches. First up is the Capone, an Italian cold cut sandwich featuring spicy Cajun turnkey, honey ham, hard salami, and provolone served between two gigantic grilled slices of crusty Italian bread. This is a huge sandwich; I devoured half and was fully sated.

The Capone at the Blue Mug Cafe

Next up is an offering that appears to be on its way to becoming a guest favorite: Jefe's Pot Roast Grilled Cheese. On two slightly more modest slices of the grilled crusty Italian loaf is piled a small mountain of Angus pot roast dressed with a subtle apricot BBQ sauce. Melty cheddar cheese is oozing atop the beef, and the result is slightly messy, rather delicious, and incredibly filling. If you order this at lunch time, you will leave very happy, but in need of a nap.

Jefe's Pot Roast Grilled Cheese

We've not explored other areas of the menu (yet) but are intrigued by a few of the entrees: A tequila lime chicken pasta, served with homemade tomatillo sauce and a seductive chipotle and apricot meatloaf both caught our eye. We observed a mammoth hot fudge sundae (called, logically enough "Sinatra's Mammoth Hot Fudge Sundae") roll out of the kitchen, and concluded that it was easily enough for a family of four. Blue Mug Cafe is not stingy with its portions.

We've also heard very good things about breakfast at the Blue Mug Cafe. They open at 6am, and in-the-know commuters are being drawn in to such creative offerings as sweet potato pancakes, bruléed French Toast, and other American and Latin-influenced breakfasts. We can't wait to sample them.

Service at this fast casual establishment is friendly, and the kitchen is finding its rhythm and getting food to the table in reasonable time. The dining room is comfortable and family friendly, and a glass divider separates it from the bar area, which is already becoming a happy hour hotspot for this part of the Woodlands.

An attractive patio area wraps around the front and side of the building, and a modern pergola provides plenty of shade.  Ample parking makes the visits easy, too.

For a week-old restaurant, things were running incredibly smoothly. We expect small bobbles at this point (you should, too) but we were pleasantly surprised by the staff's execution. We've enjoyed our visits to this promising new restaurant. We'll be back.

Blue Mug Cafe | 30420 FM 2978, The Woodlands, Texas 77382 | 281-292-2583 |

Blue Mug Cafe on Urbanspoon

UPDATE: Sadly, the Rockabilly Diner has closed.

The Houston City Council is making it tough on food trucks.  While many are operating in the city, they face an unaccommodating legal environment that makes it tougher for these creative mobile kitchens to offer a great experience for their customers.

Seating?  No can do.  Shaded seating?  You're kidding, right?

These factors alone put food trucks at a huge disadvantage compared to standalone restaurants.  Eating standing up isn't any fun.  Eating standing up under a hot Texas sun is even less fun.  Yet customers will endure these inconveniences if the food is good enough.

Even with these stumbling blocks, food trucks persevere, and some even thrive.  Hopefully the city council will someday change these anticompetitive regulations and let trucks compete without artificial barriers (that seem to be written by brick-and-mortar restaurant associations.)

Until then, some trucks will take refuge outside the city limits of Houston, where the regulations are based on health and safety, and not make-believe fantasies of back-of-the-truck drug deals and apron-wearing terrorists operating behind the grill.  (You can't make this stuff up.)

Enter the Rockabilly Diner, a food truck located just west of Kuykendall on FM 2920 (the first major road south of the Woodlands.)  Eschewing both the hipsters and the silly regulations found Inside The Loop, Rockabilly converted a vacant spot near a busy intersection into an al fresco location for lunch or dinner that's a real change from the typical suburban restaurant.

Parking is ample, and the bright yellow trailer houses a modern kitchen that would be right at home in a small mom-and-pop restaurant.

The kitchen at Rockabilly Diner

At the back of the property is a small seating pavilion, with a pair of picnic tables and a sturdy fan providing a breeze even when Mother Nature isn't cooperative.

Seating area at Rockabilly Diner

The entire property is clean, neat, and well kept, with little homey touches that remind you that Rockabilly isn't a corporate concept cashing in on the food truck craze.

Stepping up to the counter, we're immediately greeted by Chad McMullen, a Brooklyn transplant who's been in Texas long enough to add "y'all" to his vocabulary.  Chad is passionate about burgers, and his enthusiasm comes through loud and clear.  And his excitement is resonating with customers - Rockabilly has recently extended its hours from 11am to 8pm, serving the dinner crowd as well as those craving a burger for lunch.

On this, our first visit, we followed Chad's suggestions, and ordered a Bacon and Cheese Rockaburger.  Based around a hand-formed one-third pound beef patty, it's topped with your choice of several cheeses, generously sliced bacon cooked on the griddle right beside the patty, and the usual array of traditional burger toppings.

Burgers and bacon coexisting on the griddle at Rockabilly Diner

Nothing was started until our order was placed - no precooked patties here.  Or even precooked bacon, something that's very common at even the best burger joints.  We applaud Chad's dedication.  Another interesting observation:  Chad covers the burger patty with a lid on the grill, the same technique that Ricky Craig at Hubcap Grill uses to such great effect.

After a reasonable time for cooking and production, our burger appeared, wrapped in foil and placed within an insulated foam carrier.  This burger is packaged to travel well, but the only vacation in its future was into my stomach.

Bacon and Cheese Rockaburger at Rockabilly Diner

All this attention to detail was put to the test when we bit into the Rockaburger.  The coarsely ground beef was cooked medium well, but the covered griddling technique resulted in a nicely juicy patty, and perfectly melted cheese (pepper jack, as was Chad's recommendation).  The beefy flavor was front and center, seasoned gently with salt and pepper.  The hot-off-the-griddle bacon added a nice smoky counterpoint, and had a firm, dense, chewy consistency.  Veggies were crisp and fresh.  Our only disappointment was a slight one - a rather pedestrian bun that was neither toasted or griddled, but it did it's job holding everything together.

All in all, a very good burger, and one that we look forward to enjoying again.

There was a considerably lunch rush of Houstonians enjoying a burger in the great outdoors, comfortably seated alongside friends and strangers under the pavilion.  It's a shame that every food truck can't offer this sort of experience to its guests, but we're happy that the Rockabilly Diner has picked a location that allows for this kind of great experience.

We'll be back.

Rockabilly Diner | 6149 FM 2920 (Just west of Kuykendahl), Spring

Rockabilly Diner on Urbanspoon

Update: An eagle-eyed reader discovered that the City of Houston Health Department wasn't too pleased with what they found on their last visit to Torchy's, either.
City of Houston Health Department

When a foodie thinks about Austin, what often comes to mind is a quirky, casual spot that serves good food in a somewhat offbeat setting.  Ever since Austin was just a college town and a hippie hangout, it's had its own sensibility that is slightly out of step with the rest of Texas.  In a good way, of course.

As Austin grew to become a high-tech (and hipster) mecca, the quirky Austin vibe went somewhat upscale, with the rough edges polished off.  Some of these interesting concepts make the trip down 290 to the Houston area, where we now have outposts of some of Austin's favorite establishments, like the highly popular Chuy's or the superlative Uchi.
One of the latest restaurants to migrate from Austin is Torchy's Tacos.  Founded in a food truck and based in the salt-of-the-earth South First Street area, Torchy's has been serving up creative tacos to rave reviews all over Austin.  It's as if the humble Tex-Mex staple has been reinvented and elevated to a new level, one that apparently every Austinite craves.  Foodie friends were swooning of the appearance of Torchy's in Houston, giving us grief for not having checked it out.

So how will Torchy's be received in Houston, a town known for its hundreds of family-run taquerias?  We went to find out.

Torchy's is located on South Shepherd Drive, a stone's throw away from both the tony River Oaks shopping strip and Westheimer.  This is an area quite a bit less funky that South First Street in Austin, but that hasn't stopped Torchy's from bringing in the crowds.  It isn't unusual to see lines snaking out the door, and on our off-peak mid afternoon visit, we waited for a table after ordering at the counter.
Dining room at Torchy's Tacos
The crowd trended young, hip, and noisy.  Torchy's dining room is bare to the point of austerity, and in its usual full state, quiet table conversation is a challenge.  The setting doesn't invite lingering, which meant that tables turned fast enough so we didn't have a lengthy wait.  This was good, because right after we snared a table, our food came out.
We had followed the suggestion of the friendly Torchy's staff member at the counter, and picked a handful of their most popular selections.
First up was the Green Chile Pork taco.  The closest we found to a traditional taqueria taco, it featured slow-roasted carnitas, cilantro, onions, and some crumbly queso fresco.  Curiously, the promised wedge of lime was absent.  Astonishingly, the tortilla was clearly out of a package.  Store-bought tortillas are a huge strike against any taco joint.  They simply don't compare to the hot, soft, fresh tortillas 45 seconds off the comal that can be found at small, family run taquerias dotting every corner in Houston.  And at Taco Cabana, too.
Green Chile Pork taco at Torchy's

Our first surprise was the relatively small size of the tortilla, which was generously overflowing with fillings.  The second surprise was the tremendous amount of cilantro - no folks, that's not lettuce in the photo.  Biting into the taco confirmed the over-abundance of cilantro, not surprisingly.  When we raked off 3/4 of it, we were left with a fairly bland taco; the mild pork flavor was lost beneath the onions and the remainder of the cilantro.  We can think of a number of taquerias around town that put this semi-traditional taco to shame.  On to the next one.

For many folks, Tex-Mex means fajitas, so next up was Torchy's Beef Fajita taco.  The ingredients are right out of Tex Mex 101: Marinated, grilled skirt steak, grilled onions and peppers, shredded cheese and pico de gallo.

Beef Fajita tacos at Torchy's

Biting into this taco, we were impressed by the tender quality of the fajita beef, but we found ourselves wishing for a bolder marinade; the beefy flavor was very mild.  At the suggestion of staff, we added their avocado hot sauce - a creamy combination of tomatillos, avocados, and roasted jalapenos.  This certainly added some heat, but now all we tasted was the sauce.  We think the solution is a bolder marinade, not a saucy disguise.

Our final taco was the one we'd repeatedly heard great things about:  Torchy's Trailer Park taco.  Fried chicken chunks, green chiles, shredded cheese, pico, and lettuce are the standard toppings, and at the advice of a Torchyphile we know, we ordered it "Trashy", with the lettuce removed and a dollop of melted queso on top.

Trailer Park taco at Torchy's

This taco was a hot mess.  Good quality fried chicken, but utterly bland pico de gallo and a morass of cheese made me think of a KFC chicken bowl, not Austin's most-talked-about taco.  A dab of Torchy's poblano hot sauce helped, but we're firm believers that you shouldn't have to fix a dish by smothering it in sauce to make it good.  The result was certainly edible, but it's not something we'd seek out again.

To say we were disappointed with Torchy's would be an understatement.  Like many things from Austin, the reality doesn't live up to huge level of hype.  On the plus side, the ingredients seemed to be high quality, but on the minus, Torchy's can't be bothered making fresh tortillas.  The individual tacos look good on paper, but spotty execution and weird proportions of ingredients leave you with a taco that just tastes bland.  The result is a mediocre experience by Houston taco standards.

That may be good enough in Austin.  In a Tex-Mex mecca like Houston, Torchy's is going to have to up their game.

Torchy's Tacos | 2411 South Shepherd Dr. | 713-595-8226 |

Torchy's Tacos on Urbanspoon

Food trucks are one of the hottest trends in urban dining.  If you're in central Houston or Austin, you have dozens of options for fast, affordable street food that puts fast food chains to shame.  But if you're in the suburbs, your choices are far more limited.

Pioneering the food truck culture in the Woodlands is the Wicked Whisk food truck, a new truck from ninja chef Jay Stone.  Jay's truck is a big, black Mercedes van, decked out with a state-of-the-art mobile kitchen, plasma screen menu, music, and exterior lighting.


But as cool as the truck is, we're here for the food.  Our attention was immediately drawn to the Texas Melt, a hefty burger featuring hand-formed Angus beef, applewood-smoked bacon, a schmeer of peanut butter, and housemade jalapeño jam, all on a fluffy cheddar roll.

Biting into this substantial burger revealed a perfectly prepared medium-rare patty, rocking an aggressive char.  It was juicy without being runny, and comported itself with a bold, beefy swagger.  The crispy applewood-smoked bacon added a nice accent, and we were pleasantly surprised by the creamy peanut butter flavor, which melded beautifully.  The mild jalapeño jam was a wonderful finishing note, with plenty of flavor but only a smidgen of heat.  Even burger purists will enjoy this outstanding burger.

We really enjoyed our first visit to the Wicked Whisk, and are looking forward to returning.  Is it lunchtime yet?

Wicked Whisk Food Truck | 713-897-8272 | @wicked_food

6/3/2012 Update: We've been getting overwhelmingly negative feedback from our readers about Zunum. Caveat diner.

We'd read cryptic press releases about a new restaurant being developed in the Woodlands, and wondered what was behind all the mystery.  Called Zunum, it's a new concept being launched on Research Forest within the city of Shenandoah.  The team behind Zunum isn't new to the restaurant business, owning Russo's Pizzeria.

The concept is a unique one.  Zunum is a place for families, catering to both children and adults while not expecting either to compromise.  For the adults, Zunum offers them a place to "relax and enjoy a gourmet meal in an adult environment", while the kids can "play, be active, and behave as kids in a safe environment".

That's the promise.  Short of attaching a Chuck E. Cheese to Tony's, how would you pull this off?  On a drizzly Tuesday, we went to find out.

Zunum's execution is tasteful, and shows a clear vision.  The front of the house is a modern, airy restaurant, featuring dishes aimed at an adult palate.  It's a bright, attractive space, featuring modern decor and muted earth tones.

The dining room at Zunum

Behind a glass wall are multiple supervised play areas designed for kids of different ages.  Cleverly avoiding the one-size-fits-none issue, the first play area features soft surface, active toys, and a bright, fun environment for toddlers and early school-aged kids.  The area is themed with creatively imagined creatures, each with its own back story; I expect that at least one will appeal to every young child.

Little kids' play area at Zunum

The bigger kids (up to age 12) have their own space, with an active climbing area and a zone featuring multiple state-of-the-art game consoles.  There's also a private party room complete with an interactive projection game system sure to fascinate both kids and adults.

Big kids' play area at Zunum

Parents can keep an eye on the little darlings via a panoramic window between the play areas and the dining room; thankfully there's a door that should keep the roar to a minimum.

Unlike other places that cater to kids, Zunum has a wide variety of inventive dishes that won't make the grown-ups think they're in the penalty box.  Beer and wine are available.  From seafood to salads, panini, burgers, crepes and pastas, there are dishes to appeal to almost anyone.  There is, of course, a dedicated kids' menu with the usual suspects and also a variety of healthier options.

On their recent soft opening, we sampled several of their dishes, and management graciously picked up the tab.  Since the restaurant isn't officially open, this isn't a full review, but rather a preview of what's to be offered when the doors open.

We started with a couple of appetizers.  Our favorite was Zunum's unique spin on the traditional Italian bruschetta.  The crunchy Italian bread was topped with a generous portion of marinated tomatoes and shaved parmesan cheese, but the flavor profile was more southwestern than Italian, a surprise that we found delightful.

Bruschetta at Zunum

Next up was Zunum's tuna tartare.  Chunks of fresh tuna were bound in a creamy dill sauce with avocado, with wasabi drizzles on the plate to spice things up.

Tuna Tartare at Zunum

We then ventured into the entrees.  Zunum's version of parmesan crusted chicken caught us by surprise; instead of breaded chicken with the traditional marinara, the grilled chicken breast was topped with artichokes in a creamy mushroom sauce.  It was served with chunks of potato and gently grilled asparagus.

Parmesan Crusted Chicken at Zunum

We couldn't avoid a the epic, 1 pound Zunum Burger that was featured on the menu, even though it contains two or three times the amount of meat we usually prefer in a burger.  Up for the challenge, we put in our order, and this behemoth appeared:

Zunum Burger

Yes, folks, that's a 1 pound burger patty parked on a bun the size of a personal pizza.  We'd forgotten to mention cheese, so a quick spin back into the kitchen resulted in a lovely glaze of melty, high-quality American cheese.  The burger was so huge that we cut it in half for maneuverability, and we were impressed by the meat's perfect medium preparation.

Inside the Zunum Burger

Other than its enormous proportion, the burger was exactly what we hope for in a burger; nicely handled and seasoned beef, good quality cheese nicely melted, and fresh, crisp veggies.  The only flaw was a bottom bun that simply wasn't up to the task of supporting a pound of juicy beef; we wonder if Mrs. Baird's will consider titanium reinforcements.  Maybe not.

All in all, we're intrigued by Zunum's unique concept.  We believe that a restaurant that offers to delight both kids and parents has a bright future in the Woodlands, and we look forward to the grand opening and seeing how crowds react to this unique restaurant.

Zunum | 1620 Research Forest Drive | The Woodlands, Texas 77381 | 281-419-5400

Zunum on Urbanspoon

Copyright 2023 Nurick + Associates