Houston is hands down the best food city in Texas, and we Houstonians are spoiled.  We're used to being able to readily find great examples of pretty much any cuisine.

One area where we've had difficulty in Houston is Bar-B-Q.  Sure, Houston has some amazing BBQ joints, like Thelma's and Burns.  But the typical BBQ place in Houston serves mediocre BBQ, especially if you're looking for a convenient, family-friendly setting that won't challenge the less adventurous among us.

Enter Rudy's.  This San Antonio based chain has established several outposts in Houston, and has developed a reputation for better-than-average BBQ.  Our first visit (soon after the Spring store opened) wasn't memorable, but we'd been hearing good things, so we visited again.

Ordering at Rudy's is different than most BBQ restaurants, but will seem familiar to anyone who's been to any of the meat markets that often offer the best BBQ to be found.  Once you reach the counter, you order your meat by the pound, and it's sliced to order.  We prefer this ordering method.

On this trip, brisket was under investigation.  Rudy's gives you the option of lean or moist brisket; this corresponds to the wet or dry end of the brisket.  Wet, in this case, refers to fat, and that's where the flavor is.  We ordered our favorite: An outside cut from the wet end.

What arrived was some of the most beautiful brisket we'd seen in quite a while.  Moist, fork tender, rimmed with a beautiful 3/8" smoke ring, and encrusted with a perfectly charred pepper and spice rub, this brisket was ready for the cover of Texas Monthly.

And the flavor did not disappoint.  Lush, smoky, with that oak flavor that doesn't come on as fast as mesquite, but which provides a very satisfying BBQ flavor.  And this is real BBQ; sauce (or sause, as Rudy's spells it) is strictly optional.

We also sampled a link of Rudy's "Regular" sausage, the milder of the two offered.  It was good, with a firm texture and smooth smoky flavor.  But it was the brisket that stole the show.

Rudy's | 20806 I-45 North | Spring, Texas | 77373 | 281-288-0916

Recently, Texas Monthly (@TexasMonthly) asked the Twitterverse who they should put on the cover.

Our suggestion? Jonathan Jones (aka @PapaBeav), chef and partner at Beaver's Ice House.

photo: Katherine Shilcutt

C'mon, Texas Monthly. Do it. (And no, that isn't a real Texas Monthly cover. It's a parody. For now.)

Why? Because Jonathan Jones's kitchen is turning out perhaps the best example of real Texas cuisine in the state. Fresh gulf seafood, expertly prepared. Burgers that are among the best anywhere. Excellent BBQ. Mac and Cheese that's considered by many to be the best in town. Their bar even initiated the cocktail revival that's sweeping across Houston. Heck, Beaver's was our Restaurant of the Year.

It's the end of the year, and time for us to recognize the people, places, and things that impressed us the most during the previous year.

Opening of the Year

Haven. Chef Randy Evans has been without a kitchen since Ike did a number on Brennan's, and rumors of his environmentally responsible Modern Texas Cuisine project were buzzing around the foodie community. Unlike many hotly anticipated restaurants, Haven opened with all cylinders firing, delighting patrons with its tightly focused, well executed menu.

Honorable Mentions: Tesar's, Ciao Bello, Chez Roux, Stella Sola

Event of the Year

Tenacity Dinners. Culinary magician and Houston rock star chef Randy Rucker (@greensandbeans) doesn't need a fixed location to practice his art. So he's organized periodic underground dining events, assisted by some of H-Town's top culinary talent. Foodies flock to the events, expecting to be wowed by Rucker's creations, and they walk way with their expectations exceeded. The best measure of their success: Every Tenacity dinner sells out minutes after it's announced, but you can read and drool on Rucker's blog.

Honorable Mentions: Fried Chicken Throwdown, Pork Belly Throwdown, Blogger Trip to the Inn at Dos Brisas

Foodie Accessory of the Year

Apple iPhone. The iPhone lets a foodie roam all around the Houston area and still keep his finger on the pulse of the food community. Apps like Yelp and UrbanSpoon give insight into previously unknown-to-you restaurants, and the map application's traffic display keeps you on schedule. The good enough camera lets you record your dining experience in excruciating detail, so you can share it with the world with a Twitter or blog client. You can even keep tabs on your bank account.

Honorable Mentions: Thermal immersion circulator, bottle of Tums, Randy Rucker's e-mail address

Burger of the Year

Tie: Tesar's Magic and Beaver's Burger. New York and Chicago can fight over who has the best pizza (it's NYC) but Houston stands alone as the city with the best burgers in the country. And while legendary burger joints like Christian's Totem continue to turn out an excellent product, two local chefs have raised the bar considerably in the burger world.

John Tesar has put together a superlative burger. Tesar's Burger Bar (located inside his Woodlands restaurant) offers several different burgers, but the purist Magic is our favorite. It's the iconic bacon cheeseburger taken to its ultimate conclusion with top quality ingredients and meticulous execution.

Johnathan Jones (@PapaBeav) takes a slightly different route at Beaver's, with equally impressive results. Ground sirloin is masterfully combined with brisket and ground bacon, and combines this unique patty with carefully selected components to produce a burger unlike anything we've tasted.

Which is better? We can't say. But we can say that a Houston burger lover needs to try them both.

Honorable Mentions: Christian's Totem, Farrago, Beck's Prime, Jasper's

Foodie of the Year

Katherine Shilcutt. Making the transition from blogger to the mainstream media isn't easy, but Shilcutt did so with style and verve. Her arrival at the Houston Press shook the cobwebs off the food writing at that alternative paper, and her Food Fight articles stimulate discussion (sometimes heated) throughout the foodie community. Her great twitter comments (@she_eats) complete the triple threat.

Honorable Mentions: Jenny Wang, Misha G., J.C. Reid, Jodie Eisenhardt

Critic of the Year

Alison Cook. The explosion of new media and food blogs brought many new voices sharing their opinions about dining, but one voice stands above all the rest: Alison Cook, the Chronicle's food critic. Her flowing prose takes the reader to the restaurant without leaving home, and her insightful analysis delves below the surface and educates the reader as well as entertains. Unlike many traditional journalists, Cook has embraced both twitter (@alisoncook) and blogging, and her Cook's Tour blog is a must follow for any Houston foodie.

Honorable Mentions: Robb Walsh, Ken Hoffman, Greg Morago

Restaurateur of the Year

Tony Vallone. Year after year, Houston's legendary restaurateur keeps his flagship restaurant Tony's at the forefront of Houston's culinary scene, and now he has another out-of-the-park hit with Ciao Bello, bringing authentic Italian cuisine to a packed house since opening day. In an industry where being around five years makes you and old timer, Vallone has been doing this for forty years, and is still at the top of his game. He's even on Twitter (@TonyVallone).

Honorable Mentions: Monica Pope, Bryan Caswell, Mark Cox, Alex Brennan-Martin

Chef of the Year

Plinio Sandalio. While the executive chefs get all the attention, we feel that pastry chef Plinio Sandalio is doing the most creative work at any restaurant in Houston. Patrons are visiting his restaurant, Textile, just to experience Plinio's remarkable dessert tastings, which stretch the definition of dessert beyond what's being done anywhere else in town. His blog always makes us hungry, and he's active on twitter (@psandalio) as well.

Honorable Mentions: John Tesar, Randy Rucker, Jason Gould, Jonathan Jones

Restaurant of the Year

Beaver's Ice House. We loved the concept of a local upscale BBQ joint, and thought the initial incarnation of Beaver's was off to a promising start. But it took the addition of local star Jonathan Jones (@PapaBeav) at the helm to fully realize the possibilities. Beaver's delivers great BBQ, innovative Gulf Coast seafood, and stellar burgers in a setting that would be off-the-charts cool no matter where it was located. Beaver's has become more than a restaurant; it's the unofficial hangout of the Houston foodie community, and a great place to run into one of Houston's top chefs when he's not under his toque.

Honorable Mentions: Tony's, Indika, Tesar's, Feast

Conventional wisdom (for many) in Houston is that the best restaurants are found ITL - Inside the Loop.

We disagree. Houston is BIG, and most of Houston is OTL (Outside the Loop.) Here are out favorite places to eat that lie in the land of dragons beyond 610:

Burns BBQ
Ciao Bello
Christie's Seafood
Hubbell & Hudson
La Baraonda
Mel's Country Cafe
Ocean Palace
Pappas Bro's Steakhouse
Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

Who'd we miss?

UPDATE: Second visit to Beaver's

Over the next days, we kept thinking about that delicious burger, and wondered if it was really as good as it seemed. Beaver's isn't one of the usual suspects mentioned for the best burgers in Houston, and perhaps we just hit them on a great night.

So, in the interest of science, we returned over the weekend for a late lunch, and ordered the burger.

We were not disappointed. We were again blown away by the superb combination of meats in the patty; this time, armed with the knowledge of the ingredients, we were able to appreciate the individual flavors even more.

We tried to recall a burger we enjoyed more. Even the legendary Christian's Totem paled in comparison.

Folks, we have a new champion for Best Burger in Houston: Beaver's. Congratulations to Jonathan Jones and his staff for raising the bar even higher in America's best burger town.


We enjoy great BBQ. And we love a great burger. We've been hearing good buzz about Beaver's for months, especially since Chef Jonathan Jones took over the helm there, so we ventured out on one of the first cool nights of fall, perfect for BBQ.

Tucked away off Washington Avenue, Beavers was very easy to find. We parked and ventured in to a very cozy setting: Funky, modern, warm and comfortable. Immediately we were grabbed by the laid-back vibe; the feel was vintage Austin before it became too self-conscious.

We settled in at the bar (seemed appropriate here) and perused the menu. Both my dining companion and I decided to sample the Beaver Burger - he was taken by the description, and I'd been wanting a good burger for days.

It was a great decision.

The Beaver Burger is a hand-formed patty of ground sirloin, ground brisket, and bacon. It is cooked to order (the chef had no problem with medium rare, a situation which is, um, rare these days) and was perhaps the juiciest burger we've sampled in Houston. Topped with a very nice white cheddar (maintaining a superb beef/cheese ratio) the patty is perched on an excellent eggy Kraftsmen bun, and topped with very interesting veggies, including house-pickled carrots, cauliflower, and cucumbers. (We ate these veggies on the side.) At $9 it's a steal.

The result was nothing short of spectacular. The bun held up well to the supremely juicy patty, and its slightly sweet flavor was an excellent counterpoint to the savory meat, smooth, creamy cheese, and tangy purple onions. Clearly this was a burger designed by a chef who understand how to meld a variety of flavors into a whole that is greater than the sum of its excellent ingredients.

Beavers may very well have great BBQ, but I fear we'll never try it, because we already want to go back for another one of these superb burgers.

Beaver's - 2310 Decatur Street 77007 - 713-854-BEAV - beavershouston.com

Beaver's on Urbanspoon

Labor Day weekend found us on a much-needed weekend jaunt to San Antonio, and we were fortunate enough to be in Luling around lunch time. So a stop at City Market was mandatory.

We'd never been during the lunch rush, and we were not the only folks with BBQ on the brain this day. The line was long (stretching throughout the restaurant, almost to the far door) but it moved quickly, and we discussed 'Q with some other hungry travelers.

After about twenty minutes, we entered the holy of holies, and approached the altar/counter. As always, the pit room is 20 degrees warmer than the rest of the restaurant, and the meaty, smoky aroma almost overwhelms you when you enter this remarkable space.

After we had received our BBQ, we searched for an open table, or even a spot at one of the big community tables. We finally located one in an out-of-the-way corner, and were able to dig into the BBQ.

As always, it was the pork ribs that stole the show. Meaty, juicy, and perfectly smoked, the rich pork flavor was superb, and the meat was so tender that it pulled from the bone effortlessly. We've eaten pork ribs all over the state, and we've never found any that compare to those here at City Market.

Brisket was excellent as well (especially the outside cut that we specified) with a beautiful 3/8" smoke ring and an infusion of smoky flavor. The only disappointment was the sausage, which was too mild and had a somewhat mushy texture.

After engorging ourselves on BBQ, we headed out of town, stopping for fuel and snacks at the big Buc-ee's store located on the main road. We realized that we envied the folks here in Luling, and are looking forward to our next trip to City Market.

City Market on Urbanspoon

Let's get this out of the way up front: We're not huge fans of large restaurant chains. We are all about small family owned restaurants where the chef and owner is intimately involved with everything from the cuisine to the decor.

But in our modern world, most folks dine regularly at chain restaurants. So it's helpful to find out which ones deliver, and which ones confirm the stereotypes.

Consumer Reports did a recent survey of over 70,000 subscribers making over 150,000 visits to over a hundred different chains. And the results are interesting.

Patrons gave 21 chains top marks for food. Included were The Original Pancake House, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Texas Road House, Bone Fish Grill, Morton's the Steakhouse and Abuelo's.

Five chains earned exceptional scores for value: Black-eyed Pea, Sonny's Real Pit BBQ, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, and First Watch.

At the other end of the spectrum, with lower marks across the board, were Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Joe's Crab Shack, and Friendly's.

For good meals on a budget (less than $20,) respondents recommended Mimi's Cafe, Abuelo's, Cheddar's Casual Cafe, Elephant Bar Restaurant and Texas Roadhouse. Those restaurants earned better-than-average marks for food and value. First Watch and The Original Pancake House were also standouts for food and value, but are limited to breakfast and lunch fare.

When choosing a chain for a special occasion, Houston's, J. Alexander's, Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Maggiano's Little Italy, Il Fornaio, Bonefish Grill, McCormick & Schmick's, The Capital Grille, Morton's the Steakhouse, Ruth's Chris Steak House and the Melting Pot all earned the highest marks for food, mood, and service.

Respondents weren't shy about discussing problems. Noise (from loud customers and crowded tables) was the complaint cited most often. The Texas Road House, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, and Hooters were among the chains cited with higher than average noise complaints. Sloppy service (waiters or waitresses were inattentive or slow to bring food or the check) was next. The Rainforest Cafe, Friendly's and
the Cheesecake Factory were among the eight chains with above average
complaint rates.

Friendly's, Shoney's, and Logan's Roadhouse were among the chains cited for lack of cleanliness (bathrooms or floors were dirty, tableware was grimy). On average food-prep problems complaints (dishes were under- or overcooked, had too much or too little seasoning, or looked unappetizing) were low--only about 7 percent

There were also complaints about long waits, which were more likely than average at The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Texas Roadhouse, Houston's, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, and Outback Steakhouse. At those restaurants, 6 to 14 percent of respondents waited 30 minutes or more to be seated.

One of our trusted sources just informed us that Thelma's has reopened. Houston BBQ aficionados can breathe a sigh of relief; some of our city's best BBQ is available once again.

Another year at Houston's annual rodeo has drawn to a close, and we survived another visit. As always, the rodeo was home to some truly bizarre and not remotely healthy choices, including a wide variety of truly mediocre bar-b-que, a selection of unremarkable hamburgers, a plethora of items impaled on stick, and an assortment of things we never thought could be fried.

In other words, business as usual in Rodeo food.

We're Texans. We enjoy haute cuisine, but we love a great burger or a slab of BBQ just as much. And when the burger isn't up to snuff, or the BBQ is mass produced instead of lovingly smoked, we console ourselves with the necessary accompaniment to fast food in Texas: Dr Pepper.

But we were surprised by one small fact that has been overlooked in the numerous reviews we've read:

We couldn't find Dr Pepper at the Rodeo.

Apparently Coca-Cola has an exclusive with the Rodeo, and that extends to the supposedly independent concession stands. We searched the midway, and all we found were Coca-Cola products.

Why is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo giving an Atlanta company an exclusive, locking out the Texas-based Dr Pepper?

Jasper's features modern interpretations of traditional American cuisine. Owned by Chef Kent Rathbun (one of the rare guest winners on Iron Chef America,) Jasper's delivers excellent cuisine in an upscale, casual setting.

We met a friend recently for lunch at Jasper's, and ordered one of their gourmet hamburgers.

The recipe: A half pound of high quality beef, hand-formed and grilled over a mixture of woods. Cooked to order (medium rare, in our case) and nicely juicy. Topped with your choice of cheese (cheddar for us) carmelized onions, thick cut applewood-smoked bacon, fresh veggies, and served on a barely toasted egg bun. The result is one of the best upscale burgers you'll find anywhere, and the side of housemade potato chips is a great finishing touch.

Other great bets include prime steaks, upscale BBQ dishes, and gourmet pizzas. They have a decadent appetizer of housemade potato chips covered with Maytag bleu cheese chunks and a creamy cheese sauce that's not to be missed. Desserts are excellent as well, and there is a wecome option of mini-desserts offering just a taste or three; perfect after a large meal.

Brunch is excellent as well; our favorite is Jasper's take on French Toast.

Bottom line: Best restaurant in the Woodlands... or anywhere Outside The Loop for that matter.

Jasper's: Market Street Square, 9595 Six Pines, The Woodlands, 77380, 281-298-6600

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