Grimaldi's Pizza, the legendary Brooklyn pizza joint, has opened its first establishment in the Houston area. Located across the Southwest Freeway from Sugar Land's First Colony mall, Grimaldi's has been delighting local residents with their three types of pizza: Red (traditional margharita) White (with garlic) and Green (with pesto). Prices aren't cheap, but for those seeking NY-style pizza, it's a lot cheaper than a plane ticket to La Guardia.

Closer to town, Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizza has opened their second location on I-10 at Echo Lane. Befitting it's Memorial location this is a higher-end pizza joint, with a beautiful interior that complement the crowd-pleasing coal-fired pizza.

Grimaldi's Pizza, the landmark Brooklyn pizza joint, has been franchising for a while. And now they have their sights set on the Woodlands. Sources report that a deal has been struck to put a Grimaldi's location on the Woodlands Waterway some time in 2009.

Reviews of the chain's locations have been generally positive; here's one from the Dallas Morning News on the McKinney Ave store.

Tomball isn't normally viewed as a dining destination by foodies in the Houston area. But, our recent explorations there have shown us that this is going to change. From Tejas Chocolate's surprise appearance in Texas Monthly's Top 10 BBQ list, to reliable favorites like Gianna's Italian Kitchen and Mel's Country Cafe, Tomball has some very interesting food options that would appeal to anyone who enjoys good food.

UPDATE: Apparently, shortly after we published this review, the owners closed BonFire Grill. They have since reopened with a new chef.

Now, there's a new kid on the block to explore. BonFire Grill, located on Tomball's Main Street (aka FM 2920), is a newish establishment that has been drawing in both locals and those willing to make a drive to the quaint suburban town. BonFire has been enjoying great buzz in the Woodlands Area Foodies discussion group, and any place that this knowledgeable group raves about is worth investigating.

Finding BonFire grill is not an easy task. The sign is tiny. But your investigative skills will soon be rewarded.

The dining room at BonFire Grill in Tomball

Stepping inside, we were immediately taken with the warm, inviting setting. The vintage gas station has been converted into a cozy bistro. On our Thursday night visit, the dining room was packed; we snagged the one available table in the corner. The rustic dining room and connected open kitchen were bustling with energy and activity; this could be a hot new spot in Montrose if you didn't know you were in Tomball.

Perusing the tightly edited menu, we saw several items we wanted to try. We started with the simply named Mac & Cheese. What appeared was a revelation: A large crock of tender cavatappi pasta in a smooth, creamy, Vermont cheddar sauce, topped with a whisking of breadcrumbs and a sprinkle of parsley for color. This is an easy dish to prepare half-heartedly, but BonFire's version was outstanding.

Mac & Cheese at BonFire Grill in Tomball

Rich, creamy cheese, nicely al dente pasta, and the texture of the breadcrumbs made for a very satisfying start. We started devouring the dish, but had to put the brakes on... our main course was on the way.

We had struggled to choose between the enticing options on the regular menu and the specials board, but one item caught our eye. Actually, several items caught our eye, but we kept coming back to one dish that sounded intriguing and delicious.

The Specials Board at BonFire Grill in Tomball

We couldn't resist the Blackened Prime Rib Pizza, so we placed our order. After a reasonable wait, our pizza appeared, and the aroma was incredibly compelling. Pausing to photograph before digging in became a test of will; but we make sacrifices for our readers.

Before us was a medium-sized pizza with a nicely browned crust, topped with large strips of mid-rare prime rib. Atop the fresh housemade pizza sauce was a nice sprinkle of mozzarella, red onion, bell pepper, and a touch of cilantro. The crowning touch was a drizzle of au jus.

Blackened Prime Rib Pizza at BonFire Grill in Tomball

The interplay between the delicious pizza sauce and the phenomenally savory au jus was nothing short of magical; the beefy swagger was front and center, and the zing of the aromatic veggies was accompanied by a umami bomb from the au jus. This is one of the best pizzas we've tried in recent memory.

To say we were pleasantly surprised by BonFire Grill is an understatement. We walked in expecting a quiet, neighborhood pizza joint. We left feeling like insiders who knew a new secret, and that secret was one of the most exciting new restaurants in the Houston suburbs. Even if Tomball isn't a usual haunt of yours, you owe it to yourself to make the drive and check out the delicious cuisine at this hidden gem.

BonFire Grill | 425 West Main Street | Tomball | 281-844-7559

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.

Gino's East, the renowned Chicago pizzeria, is in the process of opening it's first location outside of Illinois. They ran into a big problem, and RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza, an established pizzeria located near the new restaurant, stepped in to save the day.

Gino's East was in the process of training the staff for the grand opening when their huge Hobart mixer died. Almost every pizzeria has a Hobart; it's used to mix the pizza dough, and without one, you're not going to make dough in commercial qualities. Repairs for these big machines are neither fast nor cheap, and Gino's East was facing days of downtime, jeopardizing the opening.

A broken Hobart Mixer

Phil Nicosia, owner of Pallotta's Italian Grill, describes what happened:

"They (Gino's East) were having issues with their dough mixer and RC let them come over to his place a borrow his and prep their dough in his place. He also set them up with local vendors and repair guys to help with the issues they had. I gotta say, that is pretty awesome of him! Whether he serves deep dish pizza or not, they are direct competition and he stepped up and helped them out of a huge bind. THAT'S what supporting local and being a good business person is all about! Hats off to RC!"

To us at HTownChowDown, this is a great example of the type of act the world needs to hear about.

RC Gallegos, owner of RC's NYC Pizza

RC's Pizza is the type of business that is a valuable member of the community; if you've not been lately, go enjoy a great NYC-style pizza and thank RC for doing what he does. They have locations in Kingwood and the Woodlands area.

H-Town Chow Down is written by a small group foodies who live in the Houston area, and enjoy sharing their experiences, both good and bad.  We feature a mix of news, rumors, opinion, and reviews, and hope that our work is something that you enjoy.

We were honored by the Houston Press as one of their 2010 Blog Stars. We were honored again in 2013 as their Best Food Blog. They like us. They really like us.

When we're not eating and writing about it, we design web sites for some of Houston's best companies and organizations.

In the hospitality industry, we have designed and hosted websites for Tony's, Ciao Bello, Caffe Bello, Amici, The Grotto, La Griglia, Samba Grille, Hubbell & Hudson, The Salt Lick, BBQ Godfather, Manuel's, Serrano's, Two Chefs Bistro, the Houston Racquet Club, Crust Pizza, RC's NYC Pizza & Pasta, Tularosa Southwestern Grill, The Republic Grille, The Blue Mug Cafe, Howie's Tiki and other fine establishments.

We are not compensated in any way for mentioning them on the blog. But we don't ignore the great work being done by these establishments because they've been web design clients, either.



Publisher and Managing Editor
Albert Nurick

Contributing Editors
Kim Bellini
Susan Harris

Tom Nguyen

Nutritional Anthropologist
Paul Purcell

Culinary Pathfinder
Russell Wing

In Memory of
Chuck Pena
1963 - 2013

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

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

We have sad news to report during National Burger Month.  Coal Burger, the coal fired oven burger concept from the folks at Grimaldi's, has closed.  We were fans of the burger, but will admit that there were consistency issues:  Sometimes the burger was perfect, sometimes it was dried out.  Apparently cooking ground beef in a 1000+ degree coal-fired oven requires a very deft touch.

Combine the consistency issues with the notoriously dicey parking situation at the Woodlands Waterway, and Grimaldi's decided to close this restaurant after less than a year.

According to our sources, Grimaldi's plans to expand its pizza operation into the Coal Burger space.

We have no word on whether other Coal Burger locations in Arizona are closing as well.

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

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

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

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

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

The dining room at Zunum

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

Little kids' play area at Zunum

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

Big kids' play area at Zunum

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

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

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

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

Bruschetta at Zunum

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

Tuna Tartare at Zunum

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

Parmesan Crusted Chicken at Zunum

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

Zunum Burger

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

Inside the Zunum Burger

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

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

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

Zunum on Urbanspoon

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