"Chicken Fried Steak. There's a new place serving good ones." whispered one of my foodie friends.

That's one sure-fire way to get my attention. There are some great chicken fried steaks to be had in the Houston area, but they're few and far between, and there are plenty of mediocre ones that are better avoided. I've been hoping for a great CFS that's closer to the Woodlands than Tomball.

The establishment that generated this comment is the new Texas Beer Garden, located just northwest of the Woodlands, on Hwy 1488 just west of 2978. It's a roomy, comfortable place that's already become a neighborhood hangout. For those concerned with a dark, boozy bar, rest assure that this isn't it -- the focus is more on the food than the beer.

The menu is long on traditional Texas grub - burgers, BBQ, sandwiches, and the aforementioned chicken fried steak all caught our attention. So we sampled a few items on two visits, and here were our impressions.

First up was the burger. It's large, hand-formed, and made with good quality beef. Toppings are generally fresh, but the lettuce looked a bit long of tooth. One snag is that the kitchen insists on cooking the burger to medium well or above - if you like your burgers medium rare, you're not going to be happy. The beef could have also used a touch more seasoning, a minor quibble which is easily fixed.

Next we sampled a BBQ plate, with pulled pork and sausage. The serving was generous, and the pulled pork was good - it had a nice rich smoky flavor, and very little of the sweet BBQ sauce was required to be added. The sausage was unremarkable. They do offer a variety of different sausages, so perhaps more exploration is required.

The lauded chicken-fried steak wasn't available on our first visit, but we sampled it when we returned. A nicely crisped crust wrapped a tender but not overly juicy slab of beef. We suspected that this wasn't hand-breaded in-house, and this was confirmed by the staff. The gravy was tasty but a bit under seasoned. We see serious potential here, and hope that the dish will be taken to the next level.

I'd be remiss in pointing out that this is a family-friendly place... perhaps a bit too family friendly. When we visited on a weekend night, the place was literally overrun with kids from toddler to elementary school age running wild around the restaurant.

The outdoor patio was more daycare than dining area, and one couldn't walk around the dining room without the risk of stumbling over an unruly kid. The harried wait staff didn't have time to deal with this, but we think management needs to be willing to talk with parents who won't keep their children seated at the table.

We see great promise for the Texas Beer Garden. The food has the potential to become very good. If the management can get control of the dining room back from the hoards of children that run rampant, we'll be looking forward to returning.

Texas Beer Garden | 2714 FM 1488, Magnolia | 281-356-2337

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As the Woodlands grows, we're excited to watch the food scene grow with it. This little 'burb is attracting all sorts of interesting restaurants, from chef-driven bistros to new concepts from national chains. But some things are still hard to find.

Growing up in Meyerland, I took for granted the ability to find examples of great Asian cuisines nearby. Moving to the Woodlands was a shock; there were plenty of Chinese and Japanese places, and a smattering of Thai and Vietnamese, but very few were out of the ordinary.
A recent conversation with a chef friend of mine directed me to Atsumi, a new Asian restaurant on College Park. My friend spoke very highly of Henry, the chef at Atsumi. Apparently they've become friends and talked shop, and Henry turned him on to some sources for Asian ingredients that turned out to be very high quality, and they traded tips on techniques. Clearly, Henry was someone I had to meet.
So with this recommendation we drove up to Atsumi for dinner. We found a modern, clean strip center restaurant with attractive decor and a good crowd for a weeknight.
I spoke briefly with Henry (who was busy in the kitchen) and learned that he prepares his own sauces in-house, and doesn't use the typical frozen ingredients you find at strip-center Chinese restaurants. I asked for some suggestions, and here's what came out.
First, my bride loves "crab puffs", the traditional appetizers you see at every Americanized Chinese restaurant. We tried Atsumi's, and had the first surprise of the evening.
Instead of the typical cream cheese filling with bits of "crab", we found a light, creamy filling with a bit of heat; Henry had chopped in tiny bits of gently spicy pepper. And in place of the generic orange sauce was a lighter housemade sauce with a bit of citrus tang and a touch of heat. All in all, a very pleasant surprise.
Next up was one of my bride's favorites: Orange chicken. What arrived were large hand-cut chunks of chicken breast meat, hand-breaded with a lightly crispy crust, and served with a rich citrus glaze, accented with plenty of pepper.
Henry suggested one of his specialities - Black Pepper Steak on Sizzling Platter. 
What arrived was superb. Thinly sliced high quality beef, generously spiced with pepper and scallions, served in a rich but not overpowering brown sauce, delivered on a comal to insure that it was sizzling hot. Delicious.
We enjoyed Atsumi, and found Henry's cooking to be far superior to most of the Chinese food we've sampled in the Woodlands. When thanking Henry on the way out, we mentioned that this was some of the best Americanized Chinese cuisine we'd tasted in a while. He smiled and told us to come back - he's got the "real" Chinese menu, as do many of the restaurants way out Bellaire.
We can hardly wait.
Atsumi | 3335 College Park Dr | The Woodlands | 936-242-0044 | atsumiusa.com

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UPDATE: Chef Stone has left Vallone's to pursue other opportunities.

Vallone's, the hot new steakhouse project from the team behind Tony's, has named Jay Stone as its Chef de Cuisine.  Vallone's is a collaboration helmed by Tony's executive chef Grant Gordon and Tony's GM Scott Sulma. Tony Vallone, Houston's legendary restaurateur, is rumored to be consulting on the project as well.

(Tony Vallone has a storied history of discovering and nurturing great culinary talent, including top Houston chefs Mark Cox [owner and executive chef of Mark's], Marco Wiles [owner and executive chef of Da Marco] and Olivier Ciesielski [owner and executive chef of L'Olivier], who all perfected their craft under Tony's watchful eye.)

Chef Jay Stone

Chef Stone was formerly executive chef at Spectrum Catering, and was the driving force behind the Wicked Whisk food truck, cited by Houston Mayor Annise Parker as her favorite food truck.

(He also collaborated with Corkscrew BBQ's pitmaster Will Buckman on the groundbreaking Wicked Corkscrew pop-up experimental dinner, the first to combine the techniques and recipes of a classically trained chef with the award-winning meats of one of Texas's top BBQ joints.)

We've been big fans of Jay's innovative cooking since we first got to sample it, and are looking forward to seeing what he'll produce in collaboration with the consummate culinary professionals of the Vallone organization.

Having Jay Stone and Grant Gordon collaborate in the kitchen reminds me of the friendship (and rivalry) between the two great 20th century artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The collaboration and creative tension that can result from having this much culinary talent under one roof promises to make Vallone's one of the city's most exciting kitchens.

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 | tandoorytaco.com

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Recently Alison Cook asked me to pick ten dishes that define dining in Houston. That's a tough assignment - Houston's cuisines are incredibly varied, and there are so many great choices.

My approach focuses on the classics. I'm going for the timeless dishes that describe the dining scene in Houston - great examples of dishes that have appealed to Houstonians for years, and will continue to do so. Characteristic dishes that represent what I think of when I think of Houston cuisine. Some are from tried-and-true restaurants, some are from those who've raised the bar.

Is every dish the best example of the genre? That's certainly open for discussion. Have I missed something important? Tell me in the comments.

Fajitas from Mama Ninfa's

Cheese Enchiladas from El Real

Fried Chicken from Frenchy's

Bacon Double Cheeseburger from Hubcap Grill

Prime Ribeye from Pappas Bros

BBQ Brisket from Corkscrew BBQ

Banh Mi from Les Givral's

Fried Shrimp from Cap'n Benny's

Chicken and Waffles from the Breakfast Klub

Chocolate Souffle from Tony's

Others have weighed in on this topic.
Katharine Shillcutt's 10 Favorite Dishes in Houston
Food & Wine's Houston in 10 Plates
Eater Houston's 20 Most Iconic Dishes
Houston CVB's 15 Iconic Houston Meals

It's no secret that we're fans of Hubbell & Hudson, the gourmet grocer, restaurant, and cooking school located in the Woodlands Waterway district. Whether we're searching for gourmet ingredients for a special dish or a great meal prepared by the Woodlands best chef, Hubbell & Hudson is our go-to destination for all things foodie.

We've enjoyed each menu that Executive Chef Austin Simmons has rolled out in the upscale Bistro, but we'd heard rumors of more humble changes that piqued our interest. The Sandwich Bar, located in the Market, has been undergoing changes, and we were anxious to check out the results.

Sous Chef Fiorella Casteel and a member of her kitchen staff

The changes start at the helm, with Sous Chef Fiorella Casteel serving as Chef Simmon's field marshall at the Sandwich Bar. Chef Casteel brings a wealth of east-coast kitchen experience to the Woodlands, and appointing a sous chef to head up this casual spot shows how serious Hubbell & Hudson is about the quality of their sandwich (and burger) offerings.

The chefs have rolled out a slate of new dishes, and at a recent tasting we sampled several of the new hot signature sandwiches.

We started with the Prime Rib sandwich. Thickly sliced, medium-rare Angus prime rib is used, and it's cooked to a beautiful medium rare and then seared to give it a tasty char. Fresh red peppers, caramelized onions, greens, and an intriguing roast red pepper hummus finish off this sandwich, and it's constructed on a gently toasted slice of garlicky tomato bread. The chefs have a winner here - it's easily one of the best prime rib sandwiches I've ever tasted, and the unexpected spicy hummus is a clever counterpoint to the rich beefy flavor of the generous slab of prime rib.

Next up was the Crab Cake sandwich. A generously sized lump crabmeat cake is dressed with wasabi mayonaise, lettuce, and chunks of bright red tomato, and the result is served on an English muffin. As you can see from the photo, Hubbell & Hudson doesn't skimp on the crab cake, and we think this dish will please any seafood fan.

We now travel south to the Caribbean for the Not So Cuban Cuban, a modern take on the traditional Cuban sandwich. Both freshly roasted pork and black forest ham are joined by baby swiss and the de rigueur pickle slices, dressed with a spicy Asian sauce and slid between two slices of ciabatta bread. We loved the sandwich and were in awe of the stellar Slow Dough ciabatta, but felt that the spicy Asian sauce overpowered the sandwich. We'd suggest asking for light sauce for a more balanced dish unless you crave hot sauce.

The final offering was perhaps the most unique. Named the Seoul Pork sandwich, it is an Asian spin on a chopped BBQ sandwich. Shredded Asian bacon slaw, wasabi mayo and chopped roasted pork are combined with a sweet honey sesame glaze and served on a toasted challah bun. It's an unexpected combination that works - the rich roast pork and smoky bacon are complimented by the crisp slaw, and the spicy wasabi mayo is offset by the sweet glaze. The combination works - this is a sandwich we will order often.

We think that these sandwiches highlight the creativity and attention to detail that is the hallmark of Hubbell & Hudson's restaurants under the leadership of Chef Austin Simmons. As always, the chef both surprised and delighted us with unexpected flavor profiles that work on the plate even better than they do on paper. We're looking forward to sampling the next offerings from this talented chef.

Hubbell & Hudson Burger Bar | 24 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-203-5600

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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 | BlueMugCafe.com

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Defend Whataburger
Never put beans in chili
Argue about the best BBQ
Eat Tex-Mex
Drink Dr Pepper

Goode Company is known around Houston for its award-winning BBQ, but did you know that they're also famous for their pies? The Food Network visited Goode Company to find out more:

Whether you're in the mood for pie, BBQ, or one of their other delicious offerings, our friends at Goode Company are extending a special offer for our readers.

With the holiday season is in full swing, Goode Company is offering our readers 10% off any order from their on-line store.  This includes their famous BBQ meats, sauces, and their delicious pies.

You can place your order directly at their on-line store, and use the code CHOWD12 when you check out.

Thank you to Goode Company for extending this generous offer.

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

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