It's been over half a year since we updated our listing of our recommended places to eat in the Woodlands, but we've been eating almost every day, searching for the best spots to recommend.  From burgers and Tex-Mex to handmade pastas, fresh seafood and steaks, these are our favorite restaurants in the Woodlands area.  

Some notable finds:

Crab Fritter at Hubbell & Hudson
Cheeseburger with Garlic Fries at Jax Burgers, Fries and Shakes
Lunch special at Kan's Sushi
The Jerk at Crust Pizza
Chopped Beef Sandwich at Corkscrew BBQ
Mixed Grill at The Olive Oil

This time, we're presenting our recommendations here in an embedded Google Map.  What do you think of this format?

View Where to Eat Now in the Woodlands in a larger map

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

Lately Houston has been the recipient of some notable Austin imports.  On the moderate end, the insanely popular Torchy's Tacos opened their first Houston location to rave reports from diners.  Today we were fortunate enough to take a look at an even more exciting Austin import.

Uchi, the modern Japanese restaurant building a national reputation for its innovative takes on sushi and other Japanese dishes, has opened a Houston outpost.  Located in the old Felix Mexican Restaurant location on inner Westheimer, the team from Uchi has converted a revered house of Tex-Mex into a lovely and serene Japanese dining experience.  How does the innovative cuisine of chef Tyson Cole survive the trip down Highway 290?  We wanted to find out.

We were invited to sample several of their dishes at a recent media dinner, and while this isn't a formal review, we wanted to share our impressions.

Approaching the building, we noticed how the new building doesn't eradicate the old architecture of Felix's, but rather pays homage to it.  The iconic curved windows remain, and their shape is echoed in the striking new entryway.  The result is urban and modern, but with respect for the past, a theme that was echoed throughout the evening.

Entering the restaurant, we were startled at the transformation.  Gone was the Felix experience, and in its place was a stylishly rustic Japanese setting, with clever details everywhere we looked.  One of our favorites was a large communal table, handmade in Austin and lovingly assembled.

With this much attention and respect paid to the setting, we couldn't wait to sample Tyson Cole's food.  Before being served, we browsed the traditional preparation area, and took in the mouth-watering displays of fresh fish and other ingredients, all under the watchful eye of Uchi's kitchen staff.

Watching these masters wield their tako hiki and santoku was like watching surgeons at work.  The speed and precision evident in their work was remarkable.

For this media dinner, small plates were passed by the attentive but unobtrusive staff, who were happy to answer any questions.  Chef Cole circulated from time to time, delivering food himself and anxious to hear feedback from patrons.

First up was a cooked dish - bacon sen.  Consisting of grilled pork belly, green onion, fish caramel, and bonito flakes, the result was a very restrained take on pork belly.  Instead of the often overwhelming richness from this fatty cut of pork, the dish had a solid pork flavor, still rich but balanced by the sweetness of the caramel and the subtle crunch of the bonito flakes.

Next was our first bite of Chef Cole's sushi.  Called machi cure, it begins with smoked baby yellowtail, presented on a small plank of edible yucca crisp, asian pear, marcona almond, and accented with garlic brittle.  This dish was genius.  The essence of the sea brought forth by the impeccably fresh yellowtail was firm without being chewy, and offset by the crunch of the yucca and the subtle snap of the almond.  The flavors danced on the tongue - the rich tuna, the sharp garlic, the tang of the pear, the earthiness of the almond.  The result was spectacular, and speaks to Cole's ability to balance flavor and texture while not compromising on the jewel-like presentation.

Another highlight was the playfully named Jar Jar Duck.  Presented in a lever-sealed Mason jar, opening this clever package released a waft of rosemary-infused smoky duck essence.  Digging into the jar revealed thinly sliced sweet kumquats, pickled endives, thinly sliced bits of roast duck, and crunchy duck cracklins.  Again, the attention to detail is remarkable: The duck is layered so that the milder white meat is below the richer dark meat, so the heavy, flavorful juices marinate the breast meat.  This dish evokes the cleverness of Grant Achatz at his best while leaving behind the fussiness that turns food into performance art.  Again, it's about balance, and Tyson Cole pulls it off masterfully.

We sampled several other dishes that we thoroughly enjoyed, with interesting ingredients like flash-fried kale, toasted milk, and espelette, a mild French pepper not typically associated with Japanese cooking.  This medling of ingredients brings a distinctively modern feel to Cole's Japanese cuisine.  The respect for the past is evident, but the vision is through a distinctively modern lens.  We're excited about Uchi, and we look forward to seeing what other delights Tyson Cole and his talented staff have in store.

(Other views on the event, from Almost Veggie HoustonCultureMapDr. Ricky and Hank on Food.)

 Uchi | 904 Westheimer | Houston 77006 | 713-522-4808 |

Uchi on Urbanspoon

I just saw a very curious tweet from El Real Tex-Mex, the hot new Montrose-area restaurant:

@ElRealTexMex tweets:
"Come one, come all.  Montrosians eat half-priced with TDL @elrealtexmex for Montrose Mondays!"

While I applaud the idea of a great deal on a slow night, I'm more than a little put off by the exclusionary nature of the offer.  If you don't live in the right neighborhood, you don't get the deal.

To me, this smacks of the worst sort of price discrimination.  If you aren't fortunate enough to live in the right upscale neighborhood, you pay a higher price on Monday nights.

Folks who don't live in Montrose:  How do you feel about this sort of offer, where you're excluded because you live in the wrong zip code?

Update: Our Summer 2012 Map

Updated Nov 30, 2011

The dining scene in the Woodlands is never still.  Restaurants open and close on a regular basis as they try to find the perfect balance of food, service, and atmosphere that will keep notoriously fickle Woodlands patrons coming back.

The Woodlands Market Street (photo credit: The Woodlands Development Co.)

Most suburbs have the reputation of being filled with chain restaurants, and the Woodlands certainly has its share.  But the Woodlands has also attracted more than its share of independent restaurants.  We don't discriminate - we enjoy good food no matter who owns the kitchen.

Here are the best restaurants in The Woodlands right now (May 2011).  In alphabetical order:

The Black Walnut - This locally grown casual cafe has toned down the quirky factor, but it's still like going to a restaurant that's run by your crazy cousin Louie... if Louie could cook.  Breakfasts are very good here, as are the unique sandwiches and salads.  And be sure to save room for dessert; seasonal gelato offerings are rich and enticing.
Capri - The secret is out about this small, family-run Italian cafe.  Barbara Coglianese's kitchen turns out exquisitely handcrafted pastas, and entrees, both featuring sauces made from family recipes brought over from Bologna.  An enthusiastic cadre of very happy regulars calls Capri the best Italian spot in the Woodlands, and one of the best in the Houston area.  This isn't the Olive Garden; it's more a place for foodies in search of authentic, handmade cuisine than for those wanting overly Americanized versions of Italian classics.


Chuy's - The Woodlands is home to plenty of UT alums, and when they want Mexican food, they often choose to visit this Austin export.  You'll find offbeat wait staff, Mexican food that trends as much toward New Mex-Mex as Tex-Mex, and some of the best margaritas anywhere.  Texas Exes will insist on asking for the complimentary creamy jalapeno sauce alongside the light, citrusy salsa.

Chuy's in the Woodlands

Crust Pizza - This new locally-run pizza parlor has been garnering great reviews from everyone who's tried it.  The owners are on-site, the pizza dough is handmade and never even refrigerated, and the creative toppings give pizza aficionados reason to order outside their comfort zones.  We're usually pepperoni traditionalists, but the jerk chicken pizza is something we can't stop ordering.  Crust has proven to us that great pizza isn't about a special oven, it's about massaging all the variables until the result speaks for itself.

Jerk chicken pizza at Crust Pizza

Corkscrew BBQ - This new Woodlands food truck is backed by an experienced BBQ team, and the results speak for themselves.  Delicious brisket, buzzworthy pulled pork, and perhaps the best cobbler we've tasted in years.  Daily specials, too.

Brisket at Corkscrew BBQ

Eden Cafe - Located in Egypt (literally, it's the name of the area just behind the northwest border of the Woodlands) this family-run cafe surprised and impressed us with its well edited menu and daily specials.  The talented kitchen turns out excellent work in a variety of cuisines (we're particularly fond of their chicken entrees), but their Cuban dishes stand out among the best in the Houston area.
The Goose's Acre - This pub, located on the Woodlands Waterway, features a beautiful deck perfect for al fresco dining on the water.  The kitchen turns out considerably better-than-average pub food; can't miss items include the half-pound burgers, creative salads, and well executed pub favorites.  A spirited weekend crowd keeps the parting going.
Grimaldi's - The second Houston-area outpost of this iconic Brooklyn pizzaria calls the Woodlands Waterway its home, and locals are raving about the coal-fired NY-style pizzas.  We're fans of the savory Italian sausage, rich with fennel.

New York-style pizza at Grimaldi's

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro - This upscale American bistro is attached to the Woodlands' largest gourmet market, guaranteeing access to some amazing ingredients.  And Executive Chef Austin Simmons makes the best of them, turning out impressive seafood dishes, entree salads, and a variety of design-your-own steak dishes designed to please the pickiest Texan.  He's even added an epic Wagyu Burger to the menu, and it blew us away.

Wagyu Burger at Hubbell & Hudson

Hubble & Hudson Kitchen - The more casual cousin to Hubble & Hudson has been packing them in since the day they opened.  Patrons wait in line to order superb burgers and outstanding sandwiches, and the brunch offerings on weekends are among the best in the Houston area.  Thank goodness for the outdoor patio, because the dining room can be packed during peak hours. Hubble & Hudson Kitchen combines perhaps the best fast casual concept we've experienced with a small gourmet market, giving home cooks the perfect place to stop for ingredients, inspiration, and a delicious quick meal.

Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen

Jasper's - Upscale backyard cuisine is how this Dallas export describes its fare, and we think that fits it to a T.  This is Texas cuisine as imagined by Kent Rathbun, an Iron Chef contestant who's known for his innovative takes on hearty food.  Great bets include the prime steaks, excellent pork loin, and half-pound burgers.  We're always impressed with the care that goes into the excellent side dishes, and their desserts are some of the best in the Woodlands.  But you simply cannot miss the housemade potato chips with Maytag bleu cheese.  Addictive.

Maytag bleu cheese-topped potato chips at Jasper's

The Olive Oil - Suburbs aren't know for their ethnic food, so we were pleasantly surprised to find an excellent Greek restaurant in a nondescript strip center location along Sawdust road.  All the Greek standards are well represented on the menu; the gyro is one of the best we've enjoyed anywhere.  The restaurant turns into a party on weekend evenings, with belly dancers, Greek dancers, and live music, so be sure to make a reservation to guarantee a table with a view of the festivities.
Perry's Steakhouse - There are plenty of steakhouses in the Woodlands, but Perry's stands apart for three reasons.  First, it's located away from the "downtown" area, making parking a breeze.  Second, it's a local business, albeit one with several locations.  And most importantly, the grilled meats are very satisfying, and handled with an expert touch.  Those in the know go for the absurdly thick pork chop, which is perfectly prepared and rubbed with seasonings that really bring out the flavor.
Rico's - Tex-Mex in the Woodlands is popular, and it seems that every second Tex-Mex place is now a Rico's.  This local empire has been growing rapidly thanks to its deft handling of traditional Tex-Mex favorites.  The fajitas are very good and offered with some tasty embellishments (melted oxaca cheese and chunky bacon are our pick) and the margaritas are strong and tasty.

Schilleci's - The Houston area has become the home to many New Orleans expatriates, and the Woodlands is lucky to be the new home of the Schilleci family's eponymous restaurant.  This New Orleans-style restaurant serves up outstanding etoufee and gumbo, and the authentic po boys are as good as you'll find outside of the Crescent City.  The secret?  The Schillecis import bread from New Orleans for that authentic chewy crunch.

Schilleci's New Orleans Kitchen

There you have it.  Our favorite places to eat in the Woodlands.  If we've missed yours, tell us about it in the comments.

The Woodlands area is not lacking for choices when you're in the mood for Tex-Mex.  From Chuy's to Los Cucos to the Rico's empire, there's a Tex-Mex spot on just about any corner.

So you can imagine my indifference when I learned that the large restaurant being built at the intersection of 2920 and Kuykendahl was going to be another Tex-Mex spot.  I enjoy the cuisine, but feel that the area would be better served by just about any other type of restaurant.

Nevertheless, a recent weekend found us shopping at Lowe's (across the big parking lot) and hungry.  Alicia's building was inviting, so we walked over and entered.

We were immediately impressed by the beautiful setting and attractive decor.  The proprietor had clearly invested some money in his new establishment, and the result was impressive.  Dining areas were in different rooms (we tire of the single, huge cavern that seems to be popular with many restaurant designers) and an inviting bar was off to the side.

One of the dining rooms at Alicias (Unused at the time)

We were led to our table, and fresh housemade chips and salsa were quickly brought.  Chips and salsa are one's first impression of a Tex-Mex spot's cuisine, and we think they're very important.  Alicia's did not disappoint - the chips were thin and crisp, glowing with a thin sheen of oil that didn't result in a heavy taste.  The salsa was light, fresh, and had the bite of citrus, an excellent choice for a hot Texas summer.

Perusing the menu, we saw all the traditional Tex-Mex favorites, plus an emphasis on grilled meats.  My eye was drawn to one of their combinations.  Called simply "Cowboy Steak", it featured a 6 oz. black Angus outside cut of skirt steak, grilled and topped with three chipotle shrimp.  A pair of cheese enchiladas, and the de rigueur rice and beans completed the dish.

Cowboy Steak at Alicia's Mexican Grille

What came out was impressive.  An aggressively-charred, lime-marianated slab of honest-to-Robb skirt steak, topped with larger-than-expected, perfectly grilled shrimp.  The chipotle sauce provided a nice, smoky counterpoint to both the skirt steak and the shrimp, forming a delightful Gulf Coast / Border version of central Texas BBQ.  It was a fusion that worked.

Perhaps even more remarkable were the cheese enchiladas.  I consider this dish to be another benchmark for measuring a Tex-Mex spot, and Alicia's did not disappoint.  Fresh tortillas rolled around melted, oozing yellow cheese, topped with a very nice housemade chili gravy.  None of the mystery red sauce that some places substitute... a revelation.  These may be the best cheese enchiladas in the Houston area.

We're looking forward to returning to Alicia's in the very near future.  But it's going to be tough to order anything else on the menu.

Over the past few years, The Woodlands has developed a strong dining scene. While it still has more than it's share of generic chain restaurants, there have been several notable independents calling the area home. Hubbell & Hudson, Eden Cafe, Capri, and Crust Pizza Co. are examples of the kinds of places that would be notable wherever they opened, and are causing foodies to make the trek out past 1960.
What the area has been lacking is the kind of tiny ethnic restaurants that one finds all over the Houston area. We were excited to see someone bucking this trend - a tiny taqueria / taco truck on Gosling called Casa del Sol.

We'd passed Casa del Sol several times driving down Gosling, and finally stopped in to check it out. We were immediately taken by the quaint, relaxed atmosphere. Seating is in a covered outdoor pavilion, very inviting on a comfortable spring day.

The kitchen is housed in a food truck parked semi-permanently beside the pavilion. The feel of the spot reminded me of one of the tiny cantinas in Mexico's costal towns... a welcome change from the slick atmosphere that even the independents build in The Woodlands.

Having never visited before, we wanted to sample a variety of tacos. A brief chat with the proprietor gave us our game plan: One each of al pastor, barbacoa, and beef fajita.

I first dug into my benchmark - the taco al pastor. Served on a freshly-made corn tortilla, quarter-sized chunks of roast pork were liberally sautéed in a deceptively spicy chile pepper sauce, and topped with the traditional fresh chopped onion and cilantro. Biting into this taco was a revelation - the tender chunks of pork were considerably larger than what we typically find in an al pastor taco, and the seasoning was kicked up a notch, starting with a savory, rich note and building to a slow burn. The cup of horchata provided a welcome relief from the heat; I said a silent thank you to the friend who first suggested this beverage with Mexican food many years ago.

Tacos al Pastor at Casa del Sol

Next up was the barbacoa. Prepared in the traditional manner using the cheek meat, it was incredibly tender without venturing anywhere near mushiness. After the tang of the al pastor, the barbacoa's subtle smokiness was almost lost, but a quick shot of the housemade red salsa got my tastebuds' full attention.
Finally the beef fajita was up. Knowing The Woodlands, this is probably the most oft-ordered taco, and it does not disappoint. Beautifully charred beef, still moist inside, was accented with a hearty squirt of lime juice and the chopped onion and cilantro. This taco will please the Tex-Mex aficionado, and will remind him just how boring the tacos are from the big national chains. Yo quero, indeed.

Beef Fajita Taco at Casa del Sol

We really enjoyed Casa del Sol, and recommend that anyone who loves Mexican food stop by. For what you'd spend at Taco Bell, you can enjoy something far more authentic, and most importantly, far more delicious.

Casa del Sol | 22507 Gosling | Mo-Sa 7a-6p, closed Su
(4 mi south of Woodlands Parkway, just past the train tracks) 

March means many things - the return of spring, NCAA basketball, and spring break.  We were itching to get out of Houston, and wanted to explore a new part of the country, so we decided it was time for a road trip.

As Texans, we've done road trips all over the state, so we decided on a new destination:  Tennessee.  Far enough away to be different than what you'd see in Texas, but close enough so that we could complete the journey in a week.  So we did some reasearch, plotted our course, packed up and headed to the Volunteer state.

Our journey out of Texas was taken down US 59 toward Texarkana.  Since we were leaving Texas, we decided to grab Tex-Mex as our last meal in the Lone Star State, and ended up consuming some forgettable enchiladas in a forgettable small town along the route.

Before long we were in the great state of Arkansas, heading east on I-30.  My memory of Arkansas was that there is nothing interesting to see along the entire stretch of I-30.  And that's a shame, because for many driving through the state, that's all they'll see.  We passed through Little Rock and merged with I-40, and took that highway into our first destination:  Memphis.

Memphis is perhaps the prototypical southern city.  Known for the blues, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King,, Jr. Sun Records, and Beale Street, Memphis has a rich history and a strong tradition of friendly southern hospitality.

Memphis is a town that's on the short list for BBQ lovers, so we knew we'd have to try the city's specialty: Pork ribs.  But our research also revealed that Memphis is known for two other comfort foods:  Burgers and fried chicken.  So we planned to investigate each of these offerings, with the goal of learning how Memphis compared to Houston for these three Southern favorites.  Knowing that schedules can be fluid for some hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we targeted a couple of recommendations from locals in Memphis for the best places to visit to sample these dishes.

First up is fried chicken, and one place kept being mentioned: Gus's Fried Chicken.  This humble spot downtown near the Mississippi River is beloved by locals and visiting foodies alike, so we decided that dinner there was a must.

Gus's was within a mile of our downtown hotel, and on-street parking was available about a block away.  We parked in the slightly sketchy neighborhood, and walked up to this Memphis landmark.

Upon entering Gus's, we made our way past the clot of people waiting for their tables; the line was almost but not quite out the door.  The friendly counterman put our name on the list, and we ended up waiting about 30 minutes for a table. Gus's is a slightly dingy but homey chicken joint filled with everyone from families to couples to business types, and apparently they were all in the mood for fried chicken.  The juke box played a good selection of Memphis blues, making us feel at home and setting the stage for our meal.

Once we were seated, we placed our order and waited for another 20 minutes or so.  Gus's is clearly not a place for folks who are in a hurry.  Locals were split on the merits of white meat vs dark meat at Gus's, so we ordered a piece of each, along with seasoned fries and dirty rice.

After a brief wait, our chicken arrived, and it was time to dig in.  The crust was golden brown and very smooth, and was fairly thick - no one would confuse this for fast-food chicken.  Fried to a golden brown, locals assured us that this was chicken that we would remember.

Our first bite of the breast was a revelation.

The crust was indeed thick and crunchy, and nicely seasoned with just enough heat to keep this Texan's attention.  The chicken within was perfectly cooked and remarkably juicy; I can't remember ever experiencing fried chicken that was this moist.  The spicy seasoning permeated the chicken, and I happily gobbled down every bite.

Next up was the drumstick, also coated with a nice, thick crust.  Biting into it was a slight letdown after the stellar breast; it too was juicy, but almost too juicy as the natural oil of the dark meat was present in copious quantities.

Sides were excellent.  The dirty rice was moderately spicy and had a delicious, earthy flavor.  The fries were frozen but well cooked, with a crispy snap, good fluffy potato flavor, and lightly seasoned.

Gus's World Famous Fried chicken lives up to its reputation.  I've eaten some good fried chicken in Houston, but none measured up to Gus's stellar chicken breast.  So if you're craving the best friend chicken, it's time to drive Outside the Loop and head to Memphis.

Score:  Memphis 1, Houston 0

Next up:  Burgers

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken - 310 S. Front Street - Memphis, TN 38103 - 901-527-4877

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

As 2010 draws to a close, it's time for us to look back at this remarkable year, and recognize the people, places, and things that we'll most fondly remember.

Trend of the Year

Burgers, burgers, burgers.  The humble hamburger represents a full-fledged trend in the Houston dining scene.  Always a popular choice, we've seen it elevated to new heights by both fine dining establishments and neighborhood joints.  It seems that every other new restaurant features a signature burger, and the result is that diners can enjoy a superb meal for an amazingly modest tariff.

Annoying Trend of the Year
Foodie Backlash.  During 2010, we saw an increasing number of pundits attack foodies and their enthusiasm for great meals, talented chefs, and the whole experience of dinner-as-theater.  Granted, some foodies brought this upon themselves, but we thought it was a bit disingenuous to attack an entire group based on the antics of a few overly self-serious standouts.

Closing of the Year

Tesar's.  One of the most promising restaurants outside the loop fell victim to the slow economy, a seemingly hexed location, and inexperienced management.  But out of the ashes of the restaurant's failure arose two talented young chefs who will be making their mark on the Houston restaurant scene in the coming years.

Honorable Mentions: Amici, Sabetta, La Trattoria, The Rockwood Room

Opening of the Year

Caffe Bello.  Tony Vallone has been the master of fine dining in Houston for decades, and many an eyebrow was raised when he announced plans to open a restaurant in Montrose.  This was not the playground of his usual crowd, but Tony, son Jeff, and savvy young partner Scott Sulma quickly charmed the denizens of Montrose with their spin on modern Italian cuisine, including the tasty, thin-crust pizzas that left all the critics swooning.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, The Burger Guys, Cinq.

Burger of the Year

Hubcap Decker at Hubcap Grill.  This category was a tough one in 2010 - we sampled dozens of fantastic burgers, and didn't even work our way to the end the list of places we wanted to try.  But one burger stood out for us among all the rest - Ricky Craig's superlative Hubcap Decker, perhaps the finest incarnation of a traditional double cheeseburger we've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille Burger, Bleu Cheese Burger at Hubble & Hudson Kitchen, Beaver Burger

Foodie of the Year

Dr. Ricky.  Anyone following the Houston food scene knows that Houston has no shortage of people who are willing to share their experiences and opinions about food and dining.  But we think that Dr. Ricky goes above and beyond, and educates his audience with every post.  His knowledge of food is vast, and we had the pleasure of dining with him and learning that the man is just as insightful and interesting in person as he is online.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, J.C. Reid, Nishta Mehra

Critic of the Year

Katharine Shilcutt.  When Robb Walsh stepped down as critic for the Houston Press, a vacuum was formed, and we were very curious to find out who would fill it.  Enter Katharine Shilcutt, a popular local blogger and foodie who had recently started making great contributions to the Press's Eating Our Words blog.  Shilcutt had big shoes to fill, but her engaging writing style, quick wit, and genuine love of exploring new places made her the right choice for the Press.

Honorable Mentions: Alison Cook, Sarah Rufca

Restaurateur of the Year

Bryan Caswell.  We've watched Bryan Caswell expand his sphere of influnce from the kitchen of Hotel Icon to the living rooms of foodies across America.  Along the way, he's opened what many consider to be the best seafood restaurant in the United States (REEF), an outstanding slider joint (Little Bigs), and a unique spin on Texas Italian cuisine (Stella Sola).  Between all this he had a chance to represent Houston on The Next Iron Chef, and explain to up-and-coming cooks why they need to work in a Waffle House.  Next up?  Opening a classic Tex-Mex place in Montrose with Robb Walsh.  After that, we expect a run for the Governor's Mansion.

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Jeff Vallone, Cary Attar

Chef of the Year

Cesar Rodriguez.  Houston is a town with a lot of churrascarias.  But one, Samba Grille, stands above them, with an impressive slate of composed dishes alongside the savory grilled meats.  Chef Rodriguez has brought his years of experience (with both the Vallone and Cordua organizations) to this new restaurant, and right out of the gate the new kitchen was firing on all cylinders.  We attended the soft opening, and can't remember a new organization ever executing so well.  The result was that after being open for only a month, Samba was on every critic's short list for 2010, and deservedly so.  From unique soups to a top-notch burger, the kitchen at Samba Grill delivers, thanks to Chef Rodriguez's watchful eye at the helm.

Honorable Mentions: L.J. Wiley, Jeramie Robison, Austin Simmons, Bryan Caswell

Restaurant of the Year

Hubcap Grill.  There are tens of thousands of restaurants in Houston, and the safe choice would be one of the city's superb fine dining establishments.  But to us, Hubcap Grill sums up what a great restaurant is all about: A superlative product delivered with vision and passion, making its guests very happy.  A tiny location in the shadow of the tall buildings downtown, Hubcap Grill has become Houston's go-to spot for great burgers, due to the hard work and brilliant insight of Ricky Craig, the chef and proprietor.  Ricky's approach to designing a burger is as meticulous as the work of any Cordon Bleu-trained chef, and the results speak for themselves: Hoardes of satisfied guests, and a list of accolades including three coveted stars from Alison Cook.  We concur with the esteemed Ms. Cook; Hubcap Grill has succeeded, and is among the very best restaurants to be found in the city.

Honorable Mentions: Samba Grille, RDG+Bar Annie, Chez Roux

We make no secret that we think Tesars is one of the best restaurants in the Houston area, and that it stands head and shoulders above its competitors in the Woodlands.  But we have to confess a problem:  We are so taken with Tesars fantastic burgers that it's tough for us to sample other offerings on the menu.  But that changed last Sunday.

We'd heard that Tesars was serving brunch, and we were very curious to see what Executive Chefs Jeramie Robison and Austin Simmons would offer for this popular meal.  So we made our reservations (always a good idea) and headed down.

We were seated, and relaxed enjoying the view and their wonderful iced tea.  Shortly after, our appetizer appeared.

We're generally not big fans of cool soup, but Chef Robison has put a very interesting twist on the classic Spanish Gazpacho.  Centered in the sea of moderately spicy tomato/onion/garlic soup was an island of tangy housemade ceviche - shrimp, fish, several different mild peppers, avocado, and onion.  The flavors danced around each other, each being highlighted while still working together to become greater than the sum of their parts.  This is a superb Gazpacho, and the one by which we'll be measuring others we sample.

After the refreshing soup, we were ready for more traditional brunch fare.  We started south of the border, moving from the Catalan coast to the border towns of Mexico, and delved into the Tesars version of Huevos Rancheros, the staple of the Tex-Mex breakfast.

The presentation was one we'd not seen before.  A base consisting of quadrants of of black beans, pico de gallo, roasted pepper salsa, and guacamole (all housemade) was covered by a crispy corn tortilla, and topped with two fried eggs.  The combination was a study in balance; the rich, earthy flavor of the beans contrasted beautifully with the sharp, fresh taste of the pico, the slow, smoky heat of the salsa, and the smooth, creamy guacamole.  The composition of the dish reflected the kind of care that we've become accustomed to at Tesars; clearly these two young chefs are sweating the details.

Next up was a traditional American breakfast - eggs, breakfast meats, grits, potatoes and toast.  On paper, it sounded similar to the full American breakfast that you can get anywhere.  But what showed up pretty much sums up what's so special about Tesars:

The artfully composed plate included smoked ham, two different types of smoked link sausage, applewood smoked bacon, perfectly prepared eggs, chopped breakfast potatoes cooked with a melange of peppers, coarse-ground cheese grits, and grainy whole-wheat bread.  It was plenty of food for two people, and each component was considerably more interested than we dared expect.

It's as if the chefs at Tesars view every item on the plate as a composer views instruments in a symphony - they must stand alone and yet work together, playing off each other to create a piece that the audience will remember long after the performance.  We've enjoyed many American breakfasts, but we can't recall when we've devoured one where we were singularly impressed by each component on the plate.  We left very happy and very full, and can't wait to try the brunch here again.

Copyright 2023 Nurick + Associates