Hubbell & Hudson is one of the organizations that has been pushing the Woodlands food scene to the next level. With three restaurants (Cureight, Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, and Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen,) Chef Austin Simmons has a venue to showcase his creative and innovative cooking at different price points and for different audiences.

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro is on every list of the best restaurants in the Woodlands. Cureight, the tasting menu concept, was one of Texas Monthly's "Where to Eat Now" picks for the state of Texas in 2016. The Kitchen, the most casual concept is often overlooked by the critics, but after running into Chef Austin teaching hands-on with his team on the line, we observed first-hand that it has his attention.

So how does the creative mind of such a notable chef translate into a fast casual menu?

Today we sampled a handful of items from the new menu at the Kitchen. Always willing to sacrifice for our readers, we accepted the restaurant's generous invitation to sample several of the new items.


First up was the Deviled Eggs. (Disclaimer: I don't like deviled eggs.) A very clever spin on this summertime classic, the kitchen tops the pureed yolk with housemade bacon jam, candied jalapeño slices, and chives. The result is a much more interesting dish; one that even appeals to people who don't normally like deviled eggs. That's an impressive feat.


Chef Austin has a reputation for being a wizard with seafood, so we had high expectations for his BBQ shrimp. He delivered generously-sized Gulf shrimp, applewood-smoked bacon, and jalapeño, combined with a housemade apricot BBQ sauce and citrus mayo. The perfectly grilled shrimp and smoky bacon are nicely finished with the sharpness of the jalepeno and the zing of the housemade sauces. Chef Austin knows his shrimp.


Loaded fries are almost a cliche on casual menus, so we didn't have high expectations for this dish. But the Grilled Steak Loaded Fries far exceeded our expectations. Thinly sliced, expertly grilled sirloin was the highlight, and the slightly crispy fries, pickled jalapeño, housemade pico, and smooth creamy cheese sauce elevated this dish beyond the pale. This dish would make a quick, delicious lunch by itself, and at $9, is a significant bargain.


I've often wondered how a top chef feels when he eats at a fast food establishment. Fast food can be a guilty pleasure, but a talented chef is always thinking "How can I make this dish better?"

Apparently Chef Austin has been to Chick-fil-a, and it stimulated his imagination. The result is the Signature Fried Chicken sandwich. A griddled challah bun is the foundation for a gently crispy fried chicken breast, a tangy honey mustard BBQ sauce, and crunchy dill pickles. As much as we appreciate a good fast food sandwich, this signature sandwich exists on an entirely different plane. Moist, delicious chicken is balanced with the smooth heat of the sauce and the zing of the dill pickles. The result is a chicken sandwich that will please the most jaded palate, something its more humble brethren cannot claim to do.


We saved the best for last. Chef Austin has combined his superb grilled shrimp with holy trinity basmati rice and scallions, and finished it with a superlative white wine cajun cream sauce. The result is simultaneously delicate and intensely flavorful. Cajun food is often one dimensional and disappointing, but this shrimp dish would feel right at home on the menu of any top New Orleans restaurant.

We're excited about the new menu at Hubbell & Hudson kitchen. Chef Austin has received numerous accolades, including being named the best chef in the Houston area by The Houston Press. These outstanding dishes emerging from his most humble kitchen demonstrate once again why this talented young man is the chef to watch in the Woodlands. We look forward to sampling more of his creations as soon as we can.

Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen | 4526 Research Forest Drive | The Woodlands 77381 | 281-203-5650


UPDATE Spring 2017: Howie's has changed their food program. And not for the better. The cocktails remain phenomenal, but the food is merely average for a bar.

One of our biggest complaints about living in the Woodlands is the lack of great nightlife. Sure, there are a handful of good choices, but the area isn't exactly overflowing with interesting places to go at night.

Our curiosity was piqued by rumors of a new spot on 2920, just south of the Woodlands. Not just a new bar. A new Tiki Bar. Called Howie's Tiki, it is the brainchild of Mark Voros, a hospitality industry veteran and a big fan of Tiki culture.

Tiki bars are a part of the American bar landscape that seem to keep being reborn every generation, and we find them to be interesting, entertaining, and a break from the typical.

We stopped in one night, sampled a couple of the tropical drinks, and had to pick up food from a local fast food joint because they were still working on the menu. (Pro Tip: Jack in the Box egg rolls go well with rum drinks.) As much as we enjoyed this eclectic combination, we were looking forward to the rollout of the menu at Howie's Tiki, because the bar has a full kitchen, and Voros is a guy who is as passionate about his food as he is about his rum.

We were excited to get a message from him a week later. "We're ready to roll out lunch. Come try it."

These are some of my favorite words, especially from the proprietor of a place as unique as Howie's Tiki. So we hopped into the car, and made a quick trip down Gosling from the Woodlands. Within 10 minutes we were rolling into Howie's Tiki.

We exchanged greetings with Mark, and he made some suggestions for items to try. He zipped back into the kitchen, and a few minutes later the chef emerged.

He presented their signature salad, a tropical mix of citrus fruits, pineapple, and onion accented with feta cheese and served over cold kale. Nicely dressed with a light citrus glaze (we detected a hint of agave) it was one of the better kale salads we'd sampled. The brightness of the fruit and the glaze offset the slight bitterness of the kale, and the result was a clean plate in a matter of minutes. This is a salad I would gladly order again.

Next up was something I'd been eagerly anticipating, the Banzai Burger. It turns out that Mark and I share a passion for burgers, and he joked that he opened a bar so he could serve his own bar burger.

Mark specs 44 Farms natural angus beef, in a 1/2 pound patty. It's topped with a slice of melty cheddar cheese, onion, a slice of roast pineapple, and finished with their housemade teriyaki glaze. Oh joy. Another teriyaki burger, I grumped.

After my first bite, my grumpiness turned to something different. This was a great teriyaki burger... and a superb burger of any kind. The sweetness of the teriyaki glaze was mild, controlled, and well balanced with the tang of the pineapple, the sharp bite of onion, the richness of the cheddar, and the juicy, beefy swagger of the 44 Farms patty, cooked perfectly medium rare. The result was an expertly balanced, interesting burger that highlighted each of its ingredients and melded them into a delicious combination. If you love burgers, you need to try this one.

After the glorious burger, we tried the beef tenderloin kabob. Nicely thick chunks of beef tenderloin are broiled to medium rare, glazed, and skewered with pineapple, red peppers, and onion. The result is a better-than-average kabob that satisfies a craving for meat.

As we were packing up, Voros brought out one final dish - his house fried rice. Fried to order and dressed with Canadian bacon, this subtle creation is a good counterpart to some of the bolder dishes on the menu.

We were excited to learn of the opening of Howie's Tiki, bringing an authentic dose of Tiki life to the Tiki-less wasteland north of Houston. Now we're doubly excited by the promising food coming out of the kitchen, especially the superb burger that represents Mark Voros's take on what a burger should be.

The man knows his burgers. You should get to know them, too.

Howie's Tiki | 4334 Farm to Market Rd 2920, Spring, TX 77388 | (832) 299-6991

FM 1960 is a conundrum for foodies. Driving along the road you'll pass dozens and dozens of restaurants, but very few that are on the radar for Houston's notoriously loop-centric foodie community.

So what is a suburban foodie to do? Venture off the beaten path, and try someplace new.

Our latest discovery is Le' Pam's House of Creole, a small, tidy restaurant located in an unassuming strip center just west of 1960 and Ella. We'd been hearing rumblings from member of the Woodlands Area Foodies group about great food from Le' Pam's, so we looked forward to investigating.

Upon entering the restaurant, we were immediately greeted by the friendly, professional counter staff. The aroma of creole spices filled the air, and we perused the menu board to consider our choices.

"Don't look at the menu." said a musical voice. It turns out it was from Miss Pam, aka Chef Pamela Graham, the powerhouse behind Le' Pam's. Her husband, Lee, was manning the register. Miss Pam is a force of nature - a classically trained chef who was raised in the kitchen and has the love of food you find of a native of New Orleans... or Houston.


"Today is Sunday dinner. Here's what I'm cooking." Miss Pam ran down a list of enticing options, but two items stood out for us: Shrimp and Grits, and what Miss Pam calls her Trio.

The Trio is an enticing marriage of three delicious parts.

The base is a dark, lush, rich example of the Louisiana favorite, dirty rice. Miss Pam's version is darker, moister, and more flavorful than any we can remember sampling. Miss Pam's creole seasonings carried a subtle heat that accented rather than overpowered; it was a masterful example of restraint delivering a delicious result.

Next is a breaded, perfectly fried catfish filet. This is not your run-of-the-mill catfish; it's moist, tender, and delicious. The light cornmeal breading is light and crisp, and the seasoning again accents rather than overpowers.

Topping things off is a crawfish etoufee that's fresh, rich, and an excellent counterpoint to the lush dirty rice and the flavorful fried fish. The result is a very successful dish that we can't wait to eat again.


Our other entree was Miss Pam's take on the iconic dish, shrimp and grits. Large, beautifully sauteed shrimp are served barely al dente. These well-prepared crustaceans are perched atop the creamiest, smoothest grits we've tasted in Houston. I don't know what sort of voodoo Miss Pam uses to prepare these grits, but the result is nothing short of spectacular. These are grits that will delight people who don't normally like grits.


During the meal, members of Le' Pam's staff were back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room ("My living room" says Miss Pam, and the comfortable, homey setting is far more evocative of a living room than a strip center) filling our drinks, and offering to let us sample other delights. We didn't have room for dessert, but Le' Pam's cobblers, bread pudding, and banana pudding are treats we can't wait to sample on our next visit.

FM 1960 has a new destination restaurant. Le' Pam's House of Creole is as warm and inviting as its chef. And the food left us full, but wanting more. We'll be back soon.

Le' Pam's House of Creole | 1644 FM 1960 W | Houston | 281-444-1464

The Woodlands has become a popular location for successful Houston establishments looking to branch out into a new market. The combination of an attractive demographic and plentiful (if pricey) retail space brings many successful Houston restaurateurs to this bustling suburb to the north.

The latest group to make the drive up I-45 are the team behind several successful bar and restaurant locations in Houston, including Pub Fiction, Celtic Gardens, Third Floor, Shot Bar, Bear Market, and Cook and Collins. They've brought their successful Heights restaurant concept, called Crisp, to the Woodlands.

Crisp is an upscale, casual restaurant concept that is built around craft beer, a curated wine list, and chef-driven, but not stuffy, cuisine.

Crisp is located in the original Black Walnut space on Research Forest. The cozy but dated Black Walnut interior was gutted, and a new, sleek, inviting interior was constructed. Several distinct spaces were created; an energetic bar area, a quieter, cozy dining room (divided from the bar by a wall of wine that is a beautiful focal point) and a comfortable covered patio.

Lighting is subdued and cozy; it's a comfortable setting for dinner with family and friends. We predict it will also be a popular location for date night. To this end, Crisp has eschewed the current trend of upscale counter service for traditional, full-service dining. We shudder at the concept of asking a date to wait in line to order, and applaud Crisp's decision.

The wine list is broad without being encyclopediac, and the staff is poised to make helpful pairings. A dozen craft beers are on tap, more are in bottles, and unlike the Heights location, Crisp offers a full bar in the Woodlands.

There are some interesting details, including one of the amazing Enomatic wine delivery systems, allowing guests to pour glasses of specialty wines typically not available by the glass, and in three serving sizes, including one-ounce tastings.

An inviting setting with all the latest technology is great, but success in the restaurant business hinges on the food and the service. How does Crisp's measure up?

We started by ordering both sides of a traditional charcuterie tray - the Dairymaid's Cheese Board and the Shady Acres Picnic Platter. The cheese board features a small loaf of crusty bread drizzled with honey, a selection of four cheeses (presumably from Houston's Dairymaid cheesemakers), apple slices, and honey.

While we admire the choice of a local source for cheese, we were a bit underwhelmed with the choices here. None of the cheeses were bad, but flavors are muted and mild, and there wasn't a "wow" cheese on board.

As mild as the flavors were on the cheese board, we were pleasantly surprised by the bold flavors on the picnic platter. Very good proscuitto and salumi are presented with a selection of delicious pickled vegetables. The pickling brine is far more interesting than a traditional vinegar solution; sweet, spicy and complex, these vegetables outshine the very good meats and make this a craveable platter.

Pizza is a big deal at Crisp, and we sacrificed for our readers and sampled several of them. Crisp cooks its pizza in a very clever hybrid oven - it's a stone-sided conveyor oven, offering the benefits of the intense heat of a stone oven alongside the consistency of a conveyor. We think it's a great solution to problem of improperly cooked pizzas coming out of fancy ovens (hello, Grimaldi's, we're looking at you). But to us, it's all about the results, so we started tasting some pizza.

First up was The Dragon's Pizza Pie, an outside-the-box creation topped with Gulden Draak poached apples, gorgonzola, prosciutto, arugula and balsamic syrup. We're fans of this style of sweet/salty/smoky creation, as long as the ingredients are balanced and the kitchen executes a properly cooked pizza.

The kitchen didn't let us down. The result was successful; light, tangy, with the zing of the poached apples balancing the slightly sour gorgonzola and the smoky prosciutto. The bitter arugula and sweet balsamic completed the flavor profile. The crust was light, crisp (pun intended) and very tasty. We approve.

Next up was another signature pizza, San Fran's North Beach. Setting the stage are high quality pepperoni, rosemary ham, fennel sausage, olive, a hint of chili flake, small tomatoes and their housemade red pizza sauce.

The seasoned meats are the centerpiece here; they elevate Crisp's take on a meat lover's pizza to the next level, with complex flavors that meld together masterfully.

All in all, we're big fans of Crisp's pizzas. Clever combinations of unique ingredients, a flavorful crust, and careful execution are a winning formula.

Even though we were nearing a food coma, we wanted to sample a few more options on Crisp's menu. Next up was a southern specialty with a Crisp twist - Shrimp and Polenta. The formula: Nicely sized grilled shrimp, crispy polenta with smoked bacon, fresh basil, and roasted garlic tomato sauce.

This dish highlighted the kitchen's deft touch - the perfectly grilled shrimp and the savory, smoky, bacon polenta were balanced by the zing of the garlic tomato sauce. As much as we enjoy traditional shrimp and grits, we find Crisp's riff on the classic to be a delicious variation.

Another interesting spin on a classic is Crisp's Baked Texas Goat Cheese & Marinara. A bowl of Crisp's tangy marinara is topped with a mound of creamy goat cheese, and served with their Drunken Garlic Bread, which is soaked in wine, topped with mozzarella, then lightly baked.

The tangy marinara sauce is eclipsed by the flavorful drunken bread; the combination of both is tangy, creamy, rich and flavorful.

Finally, we sampled an intriguing entree. Called Surf & Turf Risotto, it consists of caramelized scallops, short rib risotto, with asparagus, spinach, and a veal stock reduction.

Again, Crisp's deft handling of seafood is apparent. Scallops are gently caramelized and have a great texture; the chewiness that overcooked scallops can exhibit is blissfully absent. The beefy flavor of the smooth risotto is front and center, and the result is a nicely executed entree that we can easily recommend.

Throughout our several visits to Crisp, we've been very pleased with the service from the friendly, well-trained staff. Everyone from the quirky yet charming hostesses to the smoothly professional wait staff to the chef and management team are helpful, engaging, and enhance the experience at Crisp.

When successful Houston restaurants venture up I-45 to open a Woodlands location, the results can be mixed. In many cases, the Woodlands outpost doesn't live up to the reputation of the original. Under the watchful eye of Chef Franz Garcia, Crisp's kitchen turns out a variety of interesting appetizers, entrees, and pizzas, and executes them with verve and the all-important consistency. Service is professional and friendly, and the environment is cozy and comfortable.

In short, Crisp is an excellent addition to the Woodlands dining scene, and we expect that the staff will soon tire of seeing us frequently in the future.

Crisp | 2520 Research Forest Dr. | The Woodlands, Texas 77381
832-562-2520 |



Note: HTownChowDown contributor Kim Bellini has also reviewed Crisp, in her excellent I Chew and Review blog. Here's Kim's review of Crisp.

Tacos are one of the foods that defines the state of Texas. From the largest city to the tiniest towns, tacos are one of the foods that are enjoyed by everyone young and old. And with this sort of demand, tens of thousands of taco spots have popped up, all promising Mexican goodness wrapped in a hard or soft shell.

We'd been hearing rumblings about a great spot not far from Old Town Spring. Chycho's Tacos is located on Aldine Westfield Rd., in a lightly commercialized area that was bustling with activity when we visited mid-week at 8pm.

The festive exterior was welcoming, as was the proprietor, Edwin Santos. We were greeted with a smile, and when we enquired about his al pastor tacos, he insisted on offering up a sample of his roasted pork. It was very good - dark, savory, with gentle heat from an ancho chile rub. We were sold, and ordered. On a whim, we decided to sample one of the fajita tacos, remembering that it is one of the most popular choices among our readers.

We then retired to the adjoining pavilion, a festive, spotlessly clean place with holiday lighting and a beer garden vibe. In short order a staff member called our name and delivered our tacos.

The plate of tacos appeared, and we were immediately greeted by a delicious, smoky aroma. It was time to dig in. The tacos al pastor were as we anticipated - rich, savory pork flavor, just enough heat to add interest, a very well prepared meat. On top, the typical fresh onions had been replaced with sweet, lightly grilled onions, a substitution we applaud. A sprinkling of cilantro and a dash of lime completed what are very good tacos al pastor.

After demolishing these tacos, we dug into the remaining fajita taco. As good as the al pastor is, the fajita is the star of the show. The beef had the signature flavor of charcoal broiling, with a subtle hint of mesquite to add complexity. This is superbly prepared fajita meat, and combined with the grilled onions, cilantro, and a spritz of lime it created a delicious taco, one we'll be trying again very soon.

We generally don't focus on cost at HTownChowDown, but we'd be remiss if we didn't discuss it here. Regular price for the tacos is $1.49, but on Tuesday, they're $0.99. That's easily one of the best bargains in town for high quality, delicious tacos.

If your idea of tacos begins and ends with a certain high-profile Austin import, you owe it to yourself to visit Chycho's and discover how good real tacos can taste.

Chycho's Tacos | 23206 Aldine Westfield, Spring TX 77373 | 832-566-3022

One of my least favorite things to do is to write a bad review about a new, locally owned restaurant. So our review of JerryBuilt burgers was a tough one to write. We loved the concept, we loved their attention to detail... but we didn't love the burger. We visited several times, and the odd beef patty that so put us off the burger was apparently by design. So we shared our impression, which wasn't a good one.

We'd recently heard that there had been some changes at JerryBuilt, first and foremost being a new, improved burger patty. We were invited by JerryBuilt to come sample the new burger, and in the interest of fairness, we decided to give 'em another chance.

We visited the JerryBuilt location in the Woodlands, located just off the ring road surrounding the Woodlands Mall. The location is bright and airy, with ample parking.

Stepping inside, we see that the interior of the restaurant has undergone a subtle refresh since our last visit. But the formula is still the same; counter service, fresh food, lots of options. 

We ordered our traditional classic cheeseburger in order to avoid being distracted by too many toppings. In short order the burger arrived, and the presentation had changed since our last visit; gone was the clever but somewhat unwieldy vertical delivery of the burger.

Biting into this burger was a revelation. Gone was the weird texture that ruined the old burger. Front and center was a handmade beef patty, slightly juicy, with an aggressive char and a big, beefy taste. The nice quality American cheese (our choice) and the fresh, crisp vegetables completed this classic burger.

Comparing it to the old, flawed burger was like night and day. This is a very respectable burger, and one we'd not hesitate to order again. We're very pleased that JerryBuilt addressed their problems; they're now an establishment that we can fully recommend.

If you'd given up on JerryBuilt, give them another try. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers | 1335 Lake Woodlands Dr. (on the mall ring road)
The Woodlands, 77380 | 281-367-2874 |


JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers on Urbanspoon

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.

(Photo Credit: Robert Frasier)

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

Tiger Den on Urbanspoon

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 |


Robard's Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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.

Imagine our surprise when we stumbled across Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill, a new Mexican food establishment on Sawdust Road, in the space vacated by the recently closed (and greatly missed) Viva Itacate. The homey bakery feel of Viva has been completely renovated into a modern, fast casual space. The new restaurant is the first Texas branch of the original store, located in San Diego.
Could this San Diego import be a source for the kind of burrito that transplanted Californians rave about? We decided to find out.
First impressions were very good. The restaurant is spotlessly clean, and we were greeted by the friendly and helpful counter staff. The kitchen is at the rear of the restaurant, and a large glass window allows diners to look in and observe the cooks as they work. Clearly this is a restaurant with nothing to hide. 
Peering into the kitchen, we saw two staff members making fresh corn tortillas; although we've seen fresh flour tortillas at many of the area's better taquerias, fresh corn tortillas are few and far between.
Ordering from the counter staff was quick and efficient. Before long, my pager went off, and I picked up my burrito from the window.
Being fans of tacos al pastor, we started with the Pastor burrito. Fresh marinated pork (right off the trompo), pineapple, onion, cilantro, and a touch of creamy cilantro sauce are wrapped in a largish corn tortilla. The flavors are bright and tangy; the acid from the pineapple balances the slightly fatty pork flavor, with the onion and cilantro completing the flavor profile. It was very good.
Wanting to try something else, I asked the counter staff for suggestions. The cameron taco was their immediate answer, so I ordered one. In about five minutes this came out.
Beautifully grilled, largeish shrimp were perfectly cooked, and combined with grilled mozzarella, cabbage, tomato, avocado, and finished with chipotle sauce. The flavor profile was unusual to a Texan's palate; I don't recall encountering mozzarella in Mexican cuisine before. But it worked; the big flavors were very satisfying, yet the result was very light. Even after eating a burrito and a taco I did not feel very full, although I certainly had enough to eat.
All in all, I was very pleased with the food from this California import. While still being Mexican, the lighter combinations and bright flavors differ considerably from the Tex-Mex offerings typically found here. Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill is a nice addition to the Woodlands area; we look forward to returning and sampling more offerings from the menu.
Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill | 544 Sawdust 77380 | 281-465-8575

Cabo "Baja & Mexican Grill" on Urbanspoon

Update: As of Dec 16, 2014, guests are reporting a two-hour wait for tables during the week. Combine that with 45 minutes to cook a deep-dish pizza, and you're not going to be eating in a hurry. Caveat diner.

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One of the culinary world's eternal battles is between the cities of New York and Chicago, and the topic is pizza. In one corner you have the svelte New York-style pizza, thin and flexible, topped only with sauce and cheese, and perhaps a meat or two. In the other corner is the burlier Chicago-style, a thin, pastry crust piled high with cheese, lots of toppings, and finished with a chunky tomato sauce. It's a classic battle, the scrappy wisecracking dancer vs the heavy, no-nonsense bruiser, both fighting for bragging rights and a place in your belly.

Residents of New York and Chicago will debate endlessly about which is better, with their home town version typically getting the nod. Those of us in other cities often make do with substandard versions of these regional favorites, in many cases showing little resemblance to the original. (Pizza chain "deep dish" pizza, I'm looking at you. No self-respecting Chicago deep dish would have a crust that's thicker than the toppings.)
In this epic battle, there are established combatants who have upheld each town's banner, often for decades. New York has Grimaldi's, Patsy's, Totonno's, Lombardi's, Di Fara, and other classic joints. Chicago favorites include Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, Uno, Pizano's, and Giordano's.
Here in the Woodlands, New York-style pizza has been well represented. Straight from Brooklyn comes an outpost of the Grimaldi's empire. RC's Pizza brings NYC cred due to RC Gallegos's decade in the pizza business in Brooklyn. And local favorite Brother's also serves pizza with a strong New York accent.
But Chicago-style pizza has been sadly missing from our community, and from the entire Houston area. Many years ago Pizzeria Uno opened a couple of stores in the Houston area, but they were disappointing, not coming close to the Chi-town originals.
But one of the big names in the Chicago pizza world has moved outside of Illinois, and their first location happens to be in Texas. Gino's East has opened in the Houston area, and the Woodlands is lucky enough to be the first stop. The brand new Woodlands store, located on I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Sawdust, will be the flagship of the Texas operation, also serving as a training base for future locations.

So how's the food?
We visited Gino's East as their guest at a friends and family preview, two days before the grand opening. As expected, they were still working out some kinks, but Gino's East has been operating since 1966, so they've got their processes down to a science. For the Woodlands location, they've installed six (!) classic Blodgett deck ovens, the gold standard for pizzerias around the world.

One big difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza is the volume. A hungry pizza lover can easily eat half of a large NY-style pizza, but a small Chicago-style deep dish feeds two people easily, and a large feeds 6 or 8.

So on our recent visit, we ordered a small deep-dish, and selected the Meaty Legend,

one of Gino's East's most celebrated pies, and one that we'd sampled years ago in Chicago.

The Meaty Legend has mountains of pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon, in addition to the thick layer of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and golden cornmeal crust.

These thick pizzas don't cook fast; our server estimated 45 minutes to an hour for it to cook. Since we ordered a small, it cooked a bit faster, but expect a wait when you order one of these pizzas made to order.

Ours appeared in about twenty minutes, and the server wrestled out a slice.

Biting into it, we were brought back to our last visit to Chicago. The generous portion of meats had a swanky, porky swagger; the spicy pepperoni and sausage offset by the milder Canadian bacon and smoky breakfast bacon. The rich mozzarella was smooth and melty, and the mild, chunky tomato sauce added a needed hit of acid to the rich toppings. The slightly crispy cornmeal crust brought a hint of sweetness to the mix, and the result was exactly how we remembered the Superior Street original; rich, flavorful, mild, balanced, and very tasty.
We also sampled a couple of starters from the surprisingly broad menu. Our favorite was the Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Bacon - roast Brussels sprouts seasoned with olive oil and garlic, topped with chunks of very thick bacon.
The dish was nicely earthy and tasty, with the slightly crunchy Brussels sprouts kicked up by the garlic and bacon. We couldn't help but want a little more seasoning; perhaps some kosher salt and cracked black pepper. But as presented, the dish was one we'd order again.
Gino's East is located in a building that has housed several different restaurant concepts over the years; the last was the unfortunate Bikini's brestaurant. But they've done a nice job of renovating the space, turning it into a warm, inviting setting.
Upon entering the building, you're greeted by a prominent bar, which looks to be a nice happy hour spot, or a great place for solo diners to enjoy a Chicago-style lunch or dinner.
We've been fans of Gino's East since we first sampled their pizza years ago in Chicago. We're excited to have an accurate version of this classic Chicago pizza joint in the Woodlands, and plan to return soon.
Gino's East | 25657 I-45, The Woodlands 77380 |

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