There's a certain unique appeal to an upscale beachside resort. The sun, the sand, and the tropical breeze combine to form a relaxing backdrop for doing absolutely nothing... but doing it in style. Here in the Woodlands, we've got plenty of sun, occasional breezes, but no sand to speak of.

But what we do have is the only Tommy Bahama outpost in Texas.

Tommy Bahama is a beach resort lifestyle brand, offering casual clothing, swimwear, accessories, and more. Basically everything you'd need for a quick trip to St. Maarten. They also operate a group of restaurants at a dozen or so of their resort locations, including the prime spot on Market Street overlooking the central park.

Inside the building is the clothing boutique, a busy bar, and a meandering restaurant complete with a shaded patio overlooking dancing water fountains. You'll find an energetic crowd of well dressed locals relaxing, sipping mojitos, and enjoying the resort-style setting.

The scene is definitely upscale and very engaging, but we were skeptical about the food. We'd visited shortly after the restaurant opened, and were distinctly underwhelmed by the offerings. But we'd heard rumors of a new chef running the kitchen, so it was time to reevaluate.

A recent balmy summer evening seemed like the perfect time to find out if the kitchen had upped its game to keep up with the hopping bar. So we donned our favorite tropical resort-wear and headed down to Market Street.

We were greeted by an elegant young hostess who apologized for a half-hour wait. After about ten minutes we were shown to our table. We perused the drink menu, wanting to get fully into the tropical resort spirit. Many of the drinks were enticing, with interesting ingredients that invoked memories of the islands. Looking around, it appeared that the de rigueur libation was indeed the mojito, a favorite of ours.

Our energetic waiter confirmed that the mojitos were not only popular but were very good, so we followed his lead. We placed our dinner order, and watched the sunset through the louvered windows.

In short order our appetizer appeared. We'd sampled this appetizer a while back at a Market Street restaurant tour, and our remembrance was very positive. A generous disk of goat cheese was encrusted with chopped macadamia nuts, drizzled with a soy glaze, and served over a rustic mango salsa.

The appetizer was as good as we remembered - the lush, creamy goat cheese was complemented by the sweetness of the fresh mango, and the soy provided a subtly salty counterpoint. The appetizer was devoured in short order, and it took great restraint not to order another one. But our entrees were on the way.

We were intrigued by the parmesan-encrusted (Tommy Bahama is big on encrusting) chicken. It was thematically served in a seaside diorama complete with a mashed potato beach, green bean rushes, and the casually landed encrusted chicken breast, the slightly spicy red pepper cream sauce lapping gently at the shore.

Doing our best impression of a resortwear-garbed Godzilla, we dug into the dish, and were pleased with the restrained, surprisingly complex flavors. The red pepper cream sauce was a well conceived adjutant to the encrusted chicken, adding just a hit of bite to the moist, tender chicken and the barely crispy toasted parmesan.

Tropical resorts are about indulgence, and we found an old-style indulgence on the daily menu. Steak Diane is something we've not seen on a restaurant menu in years. We were drawn to this classic dish, and wanted to see how Tommy Bahama's kitchen styled their interpretation.

We believe that classics become so for a reason, and disagree with critics who deride a restaurant for not jumping on the food trends of the moment. The nicely marbled strip steak was cooked as requested (medium rare, as we prefer) and topped with the traditional black pepper and garlic. Rather than cooking it in butter, a smoothly buttery/cream sauce featured lump crabmeat was spread over half the steak, giving us just enough of the essence of the sea to suit the tropical setting.

In the past, we'd dismissed Tommy Bahama as being strong on scene and weak in the kitchen. If this visit was any indication, we had severely underestimated the establishment's talented chefs. We're looking forward to a return to Tommy Bahama to explore the rest of the menu.

Tommy Bahama | 9595 Six Pines Road | The Woodlands | 281-292-8669

Tommy Bahama's Restaurant & Bar 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 |

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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 |

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Even if you love to try new things, it's easy to fall into a rut.  For years I was in a pizza rut - every time I'd order a pizza, pepperoni would be the key topping.  Sure, I'd occasionally augment things with some Italian sausage, onion, or bacon, but it wasn't a pizza for me without pepperoni.

Crust Pizza changed all that for me.  Just before the grand opening I stopped by to see how construction was coming, and Clint Price, one of the partners, offered me a peculiar looking slice to sample.  There was no pepperoni to be found... heck, there wasn't even any red sauce.  But it was delicious.  The pizza was later named The Jerk, and it's become one of my favorites.  Jamaican jerk-seasoned chicken, caramelized onions, a variety of peppers and chunks of bacon are scattered over cheddar and mozzarella cheese stretched over their delicious crust.  A tangy Jamaican jerk dressing replaces the red sauce.  It works.
Later Clint devised the Old Smokey, another unique pizza that isn't based on the traditional red sauce.  It's become another favorite of mine.  Spicy link sausage and jalapenos, a tangy ranch dressing and smoked mozzarella cheese are the dominant flavors.  Again, unusual for a pizza, but the result works.
Yesterday I noticed a new monthly special pizza, and it's perhaps the most creatively bizarre option yet.  Called the Mr. Potato Head, it features an ingredient I've never seen on pizza - Idaho potatoes.  I've learned to trust Clint, so promptly ordered one to test out.
What arrived again changed my perception of pizza.  Bits of bacon are the only meat topping.  Prominent atop the alfredo sauce, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses are thin slices of Idaho potato, accented with said bacon bits and fresh chives.  It's a slightly Italian spin on baked potato skins, but much lighter and with the richness of the alfredo sauce making this an indulgent choice.

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

One of the ongoing battles I hear in the food community is whether one has to stay ITL (Inside The Loop, aka Loop 610 around central Houston) in order to enjoy great food.  Historically, that's where Houston's elite lived, and and it's where Houston's best restaurants were located.

(A quibble: At the time, Tony's was located OTL (Outside The Loop) near the Galleria, and Houstonians gladly braved the dragons of South Post Oak to dine there, but that's a fact that's conveniently overlooked.)

Now that the Houston metropolitan area extends from Sugar Land to the Woodlands, the concept of staying ITL seems rather quaint.  The Woodlands in particular is becoming a dining destinations, with restaurants as varied as Capri Pasta, Corkscrew BBQ and Crust Pizza calling the Woodlands home.  These casual spots compare favorably to any place in their respective categories, and all have garnered a loyal following.

But what about a high end, chef driven restaurant, scouring the earth for amazing ingredients, and putting together unique creations?  Surely places like this are only found ITL.

Challenging this conventional wisdom is Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, the upscale-yet-comfortable restaurant attached to Hubbell & Hudson Market, located at the Woodlands Waterway.  Hubbell & Hudson has become the Woodlands epicenter for all things food, with a superb high-end market, a Viking cooking school, a well regarded catering operation, and the Bistro.

Several months back the Bistro elevated Austin Simmons to the position of executive chef, and this talented man has been gradually putting his mark on the menu.  Simmons first gained notoriety in the Woodlands as sous chef at Tesar's Modern, being elevated to co-executive chef (with Jeromy Robison) at Tesar's when John Tesar parted ways with his eponymous establishment.  When Tesar's imploded, Chef Robison ended up at La Colombe D'or in Houston, and later at Uchi in Austin.  Fortunately for the Woodlands, Hubbell & Hudsons scooped up Chef Simmons and soon promoted him to Executive Chef.

We've been fans of Chef Simmons's cooking ever since we sampled his creations at Tesar's, and have enjoyed the work he has been doing at Hubbell.  For those who've never visited, Hubbell & Hudson Market scours the world for unique ingredients to offer to gourmets, and Chef Austin has leveraged this purchasing expertise to secure ingredients for his kitchen.  He recently invited us to sample several of his creations for the new fall menu.

First up is the Crab Fritter, a unique spin on the crab cake.  A healthy portion of lump crabmeat is accented with marinated tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus, and it's finished with a jaunty ginger vinaigrette.  Absent is the filler that often overwhelms pedestrian crabcakes, and the result was terrific -

Crab Fritter at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Chef Simmons then presented his ricotta ravioli.  Created entirely in-house (housemade pastas are a new focus at Hubbell & Hudson, and one we applaud) the al dente pasta is pillowed with slightly sweet ricotta, and sauced with an intriguing soy-orange reduction, fennel pollen tomato compote, and topped with crispy prosciutto di parma.  This past fused Italian and Asian influences expertly, and really showcased Chef Simmons's deft touch.

Ricotta Ravioli at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Next up is a fascinating dish, Chili Rubbed Pork Tenderloin.  A generous slab of fork-tender pork tenderloin is rubbed with a mild chili seasoning, and served over hand-rolled cous cous and tangy peach chutney.  Drizzled on the pork was a complex Moroccan jus - I detected hints of nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon, and several other flavors that I couldn't isolate, but greatly enjoyed.

Chili-rubbed Pork Tenderloin at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

I received an eye-opening surprise when I bit into the fried vegetable served with the tenderloin.  The sharp, fresh flavor of pickled okra burst forth from the crispy breading, an unexpected flavor that paired masterfully with the earthy pork.  This is an incredibly successful dish, and one that I hope remains on the menu for a long time.

I didn't really have room for dessert at this point, but I've learned never to refuse the suggestions of a chef as talented as Austin Simmons.  The waiter whisked out a unique pie - an apple / almond crumble. French vanilla gelato topped a slice of heaven - a dense pastry crust with rustic apple filling, a cinnamon crumble upper layer, and a hint of rum-spiked almond cream.

Apple Almond Crumble at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro

Chef Simmons's new creations are demonstrating a mastery of complexity and a sense of focus and pairing that we've rarely seen.  I believe that he is one of the upper echelon of chefs working in Texas today, and I look forward to sampling future examples of his superlative work.

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro | 24 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands 77380 | 281-203-5641

Hubbell & Hudson Market & Bistro 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 |

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Wine bars are a big deal in the Houston area.  It seems like every week we hear about a new one popping up somewhere.  And there's a reason for this - Houstonians can't get enough of the laid-back, upscale atmosphere that is de rigueur at most wine bars.  They're a notable alternative to more common adult venues, especially if you're in the mood to explore some new and interesting wines, since with that focus comes trained and helpful staff and a great selection.

But man does not live by wine alone.  Most wine bars offer some sort of menu, and here's where most of them stumble.  The menu exists as a necessary evil to keep patrons inside and drinking wine, and it shows.  Typical tired bar food is offered, perhaps with some sort of upscale twist designed to mesh with the upscale atmosphere.  But it's generous to say that it often falls short.  If you're a foodie, precious few wine bars will hold your attention.
Enter The Tasting Room.  Run by the same group that brings us the popular Washington Avenue hangout, Max's Wine Dive, The Tasting Room operates several locations around town, each with its own feel and neighborhood-specific personality.  
It's not a brand new establishment.  We'd heard good rumblings about The Tasting Room, but we'd swung by to check it out.  Recently, the persistant efforts of their social media team tempted us to check out this venue for a recent lunch.  (Note to other restaurants:  Their approach to social media is outstanding, and one you should strive to emulate.)  We accepted their generous offer to host us for lunch, and to sample their offerings.
We zipped down to Uptown Park on a recent sunny spring day, and quickly located the cozy, shaded entrance.  The Tasting Room is considerably bigger than we imagined, their success has driven them to expand into adjacent spaces as they've become available.
And succeed they have.  From this original Uptown location they've expanded east to River Oaks and west to CityCentre, covering a good part of the geography that upscale Houston calls home.  We went inside to discover why.

Once inside, we entered into an open, airy space with plenty of light spilling in the windows.  A substantial bar dominates the room, surrounded by tables to accommodate everything from couples to happy hour groups.  We were impressed to find out that The Tasting Room has several private spaces that can accommodate parties of up to 500, making it a great alternative to the often tired and boring hotel scene.
One other thing.  We found wine.  Lots and lots of wine.  One wall of the building looked more like an upscale wine shop than a bar, complete with small cards giving neophytes helpful information about the bottles they described.  (Even if you're not a wine expert, these cards let you fake it and impress your date.)
We like that wines at The Tasting Room can not only be purchased for enjoyment at the bar, but can also be brought home.  This is very convenient when the knowledgable staff steers you toward a bottle that captures your heart.
But enough about the wine.  Let's talk food.
We were seated at a comfortable table near the bar, and in short order, the chef appeared.  And not just any chef, but Steve Marques, known to many of our readers as one of the geniuses behind The Burger Guys.  While many wine bars make due with a line cook running the kitchen, The Tasting Room has hired an innovative talent, and they're giving him free rein to turn out unique dishes that work in the wine bar setting.
Since it was lunch, we focused on lighter dishes.  First up was an appetizer; Steve's take on the now-traditional spinach artichoke dip.  The often-seen dip was cleverly elevated into a queso flameado, warm, silky queso infused with a touch of craft beer and dotted with plentiful fresh spinach and artichoke bits.  Served with crusty bread, this was a great way to start our meal.
Next up was a soup, and one of the offerings was a favorite of mine - potato leek soup.  The smooth, creamy potato base was topped with lightly crisped leeks, and the flavors and textures formed a delightful combination.  Had it been a chilly day, I could have happily crawled into the bowl for the afternoon.
Now it was time for the entrees.  First up was Steve's clever spin on the club sandwich.  Instead of turkey, lightly grilled salmon was used, and it was a masterful decision.  The slightly crisp, grainy bread played background to the firm, flaky salmon, with just enough thick bacon and fresh veggies to round out the offering.  I've had dozens of club sandwiches, but I can't recall enjoying one as much as The Tasting Room's version.
My dining companion ordered the pulled pork sandwich, a beautiful mountain of slow-smoked pork topped with house-made cole slaw.  It must have been very good, because while I was talking with Steve, the sandwich disappeared before I could snare a bite.  I was impressed with the decision to dress the sandwich in the traditional way, with the cole slaw inside.
With Steve's pedigree, I had to sample a burger, and he did not disappoint.  A thick, house-ground patty of high quality beef was cooked to a delightful medium, cloaked in the masterful char that showed a deft hand at the grill.  Topped with lightly peppered, thick-cut bacon and swaddled with beautifully melted cheddar cheese, this is a burger that can hold its own with the best H-Town has to offer.  If you love a great burger, The Tasting Room is a place that will make you very happy.
Finally it was time for dessert, and even though my stomach protested, Steve conjured up a light finish to this hearty meal.  It was a gentle, delicate spin on coffee ice cream, house made using some sort of wizardry that is far beyond my comprehension.  But the result was etherial, gentle, and intoxicating.  Steve Marques was the brain behind the addictive shakes at The Burger Guys, and he's brought his knowledge and skill to bear here.
The kitchen of The Tasting Room far surpassed my expectations.  Instead of an afterthought created to sell more alcohol, it is a central part of the experience at this Uptown spot.  Even non-drinkers should check it out, and that's a rare recommendation for a bar.  My only regret was that I didn't have the chance to discover more of the delicious flavors that were no doubt hiding somewhere in the room.
I'm looking forward to meeting the chefs at the other Tasting Room locations, and seeing how each of them is putting his imprint on this successful formula.  
But they've got a lot to live up to; Steve Marques and the staff of the Uptown Park Tasting Room have set the bar very high.
The Tasting Room | 1101-18 Uptown Park Blvd | Houston, Texas 77056 | 713-993-9800 | @TheTastingRoom

The Tasting Room Wine Cafe 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

[box type="note" fontsize="14"]Update: Things have changed at JerryBuilt, and we take another look.[/box]

It wouldn't be unfair to say that a great burger is one of my favorite things. There's something essentially American about the hamburger - it's portable, filling, and available in every big city and tiny hamlet from coast to coast. Some burgers are inexpensive, some are very pricey. Many are uninspiring; a few are extraordinary. The search for extraordinary burgers was one of the original motivations for creating this blog, and it's an obsession that continues to this day.

A few weeks ago, we attended a media preview of the brand-spanking-new JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers location on Holcombe. It is the prototype store, and after chatting with the owners, I was thrilled to discover that a second location would follow shortly, this one being in the Woodlands.

When opening day arrived (no pre-opening events for this now seasoned team) we made a trek to the Woodlands Mall parking lot to JerryBuilt's new location. Unlike the standalone Holcombe location (in a converted bank building) the Woodlands store is located in a small strip center on the north side of the Mall's ring road. Parking is ample, and there's even shade; an important consideration around lunchtime in Texas.

The Woodlands store is a larger location, with plenty of seating. The interior has a similar design ethic as the gorgeous Holcomb location; clearly the owners care about proving a pleasant, family-friendly setting. Being a new restaurant in the Woodlands the place was packed; business types, teens out shopping, and plenty of families. The well-trained staff was handling the deluge of hungry diners with ease, we were impressed with the smoothness of the operation on opening day.

We ordered at the counter, grabbed our cups, and went to find a table. On the way, we spent some quality time with the Coke Freestyle machine, a hulking red behemoth that's touchscreen operated and a big draw with the iPad generation. Over 100 possible combinations can be concocted.

After filling our beverages, we headed back towards the seating area, and glanced into the open prep area. This is something we love about JerryBuilt - they're proud to show the world where and how they prep their food. We saw hardworking staff members laying out mounds of Three Brothers Bakery dough, ready to be baked into buns.

This brings us to a key part of the JerryBuilt philosophy: Great ingredients, locally sourced when practical. From the aforementioned Three Brothers dough to Niman Ranch beef to high quality produce, it's clear that JerryBuilt cares about putting a high quality product out for its customers. They go as far as to list the source of their ingredients on a blackboard wall in the main room.

As many high end burger places do, JerryBuilt cuts their fries fresh in house, but they take it one step further: They have a device that crinkle-cuts fresh potatoes. We don't know what sort of wizardry is behind such a device, but we approve heartily.

Attention to detail is an operational philosophy, and it shows everywhere you look. A highlight is an automated handwashing station at the side of the dining area. We saw preteen boys voluntarily washing their hands, a miracle as any parent can attest.

On our first visit to JerryBuilt, my bride was frustrated because there was nowhere to pour ketchup for her fries. She mentioned this to one of the owners, and lo and behold there was a dispenser by the new ketchup pumps, and it was stocked with tiny disposable cups to hold condiments. Many restaurateurs listen to customer feedback, but these guys were acting on it. Bravo.

We snared a good seat near the middle of the room, and in short order our burgers appeared. The packaging is unique - both burgers and fries are presented in small cardboard boxes, adorned with thoughtful sayings from sources as diverse as Albert Einstein and singer-songwriter Steve Forbert.

Looking inside, we were presented with a compact burger, carefully assembled from quality ingredients. The petite (by today's standards) quarter pound patty was placed atop the stunningly fresh veggies, nestled in the just-baked Three Brothers bun.

Biting into the burger reinforced the feeling of freshness. But it also revealed our lone disappointment with JerryBuilt... and unfortuately, it is a big one. We were underwhelmed with the flavor and texture of the beef. We noticed this first on our original visit to the Holcombe store, and wrote it off as a pre-opening snafu. But the impression was confirmed on two subsequent visits.

The Niman Ranch beef was cooked to medium well, and remained moderately juicy, a coup. But the texture was somewhat mushy, and the flavor of the beef was unappealing. Instead of the rich, beefy swagger we identify with the best burgers in town, we tasted a softer yet distinct flavor, one that we didn't find appealing. We experienced the same flavor on all three visits to JerryBuilt, so it must be by design.

Discussing the food at JerryBuilt with several friends who'd visited revealed a dichotomy of responses. Some friends loved the burgers. Others didn't, and all of those (including the Chronicle's esteemed food critic Alison Cook) commented on the flavor of the beef. Considering how seriously the owners of JerryBuilt are about listening to customer feedback, we have high hopes that this issue will be resolved promptly.

Other than this one shortcoming, we are very impressed by both the concept and the execution at JerryBuilt Burgers. We expect great things from them, and look forward to sampling more of their offerings in the near future.

JerryBuilt Homemade Burgers | 1335 Lake Woodlands Drive (in the Mall parking lot), The Woodlands  77380 | 281-367-2874 |

Jerry Built Burger on Urbanspoon

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