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

There are hundreds of Mexican restaurants on Houston’s north side. How does a humble writer determine which ones are worth visiting? You can try them all, but that takes an incredible amount of time, even if you love Tex-Mex like we do. You can check Yelp, but its reviews simply aren’t that accurate. You can read blog and print reviews, but what if it’s a new place?

I’ve pondered this for quite a while, and I came up with a good shortcut. I created the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and it’s grown to over 9,000 members, many of whom are incredibly knowledgeable about food. One of the most knowledgeable is my friend Bob Frasier. Bob is an incredible cook, and very well versed in numerous cuisines.

Recently Bob posted about a new Tex-Mex restaurant not far from the Woodlands, calling it “My new favorite Mexican spot in my neck of the woods”. Trusting Bob’s palate, I headed out to Rita’s Cantina, located north of Tomball on Hwy 249, near Hardin Store Road.

Located in a nondescript strip center, the outside of Rita’s could be confused for dozens of Mexican spots in the area. But stepping inside revealed a neat, clean interior, with thoughtful little touches. Clearly, the management cares about the customer’s experience, always a good sign.

But how’s the food? Looking across the spacious dining room, I found Bob and his lovely bride Heidi. Joining them for lunch, we surveyed the menu and made some choices. Bob assured us they were good ones. We believe in Bob. Will this trust be misplaced?


First to come out was the ceviche. The presentation was impressive: A hefty goblet filled with fish, shrimp, onion, and tomato, garnished with cilantro and topped with artfully arranged avocado slices.

The marinade used for the fish was a deliciously zingy citrus-based juice, combining with the fresh tangy onions to create a classic Peruvian-style ceviche… which happens to be my favorite. And this was an excellent example, flavorful, generously portioned, and beautifully presented.

As we were finishing the ceviche, the hot plates started arriving.

Beef Quesadillas

First out were the beef quesadillas, a standard dish that’s popular with adults and children alike. The formula at Rita’s included sliced skirt steak (as found in fajitas), and plenty of melty white cheese, sandwiched between two thin housemade flour tortillas.

Accoutrements were plentiful: A slathering of sour cream, some beautiful pico de gallo, and a scoop of Rita’s guacamole. The quality of the ingredients shone through on this dish, making it one of the more flavorful quesadillas we’d tried in quite a while.

Combo #7: Tamale, Beef Enchilada, Chicken Enchilada

Next up is a combo plate - in this case Combo #7. Consisting of a pork tamale, a chicken enchilada and a beef enchilada, we felt that it gave us a good overview of what Rita’s chef can do with various proteins.

As an aside, Tex-Mex is often difficult to present. It may be delicious, but on the plate it can be yellowish brown and not incredibly appetizing. The presentation here was different and appealing.

Bright colors made the first impression. Beautifully fresh tomato, diced expertly. A sprig of green cilantro, draped over the green and white arrangement of tomatillo sauce and crema that blanketed the chicken enchilada. This burst of color was flanked by the red Colorado-style chile gravy on the beef enchilada, and the more earthy, dark pork tamale.

Looks are wonderful, but tackling this appealing plate proved that the beauty wasn’t just skin deep. From the pork tamale to the chicken enchilada and finishing with the beef enchilada, all of the components were nicely seasoned, distinctly flavored, and were each excellent renditions of their respective dishes. Together they created a very satisfying whole, one we’d order again. Tomorrow, if we’re lucky.

After finishing the last tasty bite of Combo #7, Bob smiled and with a twinkle in his eye, said one word: Dessert.

Cuatro Leches

Bob, you’re an evil, evil man. That’s one reason why we’re friends. A quick consultation with our knowledgeable server resulted in our order of their Cuatro Leches cake. We’d had Tres Leches from numerous establishments, but Rita’s wasn’t going to be satisfied with tres.

Again, the plating tempted our eyes before the fork touched the cake. A rich, saturated slab of cake was laid upon an artful arrangement of strawberries and blueberries, adrift in the four milk solution that had saturated the cake. Atop this was a crown of strawberries and freshly whipped heavy cream, drizzled with caramel and dusted with cinnamon.

And yes, it tasted better than it looked. No small feat.

To say we were impressed with Rita’s Cantina would be an understatement. To find a gem like this in the far northern reaches of Tomball is amazing. The restaurant can hold its own with any hotspot you care to name in the Houston area.

We confirmed two important rules: Great food can be found all over the Houston Area. And when Bob says to try a place, try it. Now.

Rita’s Cantina Mexican Kitchen | 32015 State Highway 249 | Pinehurst, TX 77362 | (346) 248-5097

We were recently out in Tomball and looking for something comfortable for dinner, and we weren't in the mood for Goodson's.  A quick scan through Yelp brought us to Gianna Italian Kitchen.

What a great neighborhood place.  Warm, inviting environment, even though it's nestled in a strip center.  Very friendly staff.  The kind of place where you're a regular on your second visit.

And there's excellent Italian food - nothing trendy, but the type of Italian-American cuisine that comes to mind when most folks think of Italian.  A superb Caesar salad, with a spicy dressing made with actual anchovies.  Delicious pastas, and a deft hand on the grill with meats.

Something we love:  Many of the dishes are available in either a full or an appetizer portion.  This lets kids (or those who aren't too hungry) dig deeper in the menu while not being stuck with a huge portion they won't finish.  More restaurants should consider doing this.

Gianna is exactly the type of Italian restaurant we'd love to have in the Woodlands.  But we'll be driving to Tomball regularly to enjoy it.

(Apologies for the lack of photos - it was dim in the restaurant, and none came out.)

Gianna Italian Kitchen - 28301 Hwy 249 - Tomball, Texas 77375
281-290-6676 -

Gianna Italian Kitchen on Urbanspoon

We received an interesting tip this week about a new place that had opened on Kuykendahl, a couple of miles south of the Woodlands.  Called South Street Dining, it's an ambitious new restaurant located in a strip center in Tomball.

We drove down yesterday for lunch, and almost missed the place.  From the outside, it's unremarkable, although there is a pleasant deck overlooking the parking lot.  But once you open the heavy wooden doors, you're in for a surprise.

Inside you'll find a gorgeous, upscale dining room, finished in woods and natural stone, decorated in soft hues of taupe and tan, elegantly lit and very inviting.  A slightly more casual bar area is to the left, with flat screens showing various sporting events.  It's a very inviting interior, and considerably more elaborate than we expected.

It was also cold.  We decided to lunch on the patio, enjoying the gorgeous Spring day in Texas.  We visited for a late lunch, and there were only a handful of patrons scattered throughout the establishment.

Iced tea appeared promptly, and our waiter offered to bring us some bread.  The bread service was simple but quite good, warmed french and herb bread, served with two flavored butters - honey cinnamon and chipotle.  The bread was very good, and the attention to detail boded well for the upcoming meal.

Now on to the entree.  We scanned the lunch menu, and noticed a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and some more ambitious beef, chicken, and fish entrees.  Our eyes locked on to the chicken-fried steak, offered with some interesting sides, including garlic mashed potatoes and fried corn fritters.  Very southern.  Having found one of our very favorite chicken-fried steaks at Tomball's Goodson's Cafe, we ordered.

After a brief wait, the dish appeared.  It was plated tall; the mashed potatoes served as an easel for the chicken-fried steak, and the dish was garnished with parsley and an odd, blue corn tortilla chip.  Artistic, but somewhat awkward.

We cut into the chicken-fried steak, and applied a bit of the brown gravy.  The steak was flavorful and not terribly overcooked, but the breading was a bit soft.  The housemade brown gravy had a lush bacon flavor and a rich fatty texture; it was miles ahead of the white gravy served with most CFS plates.  The size of the steak was good but not overwhelming; a nice choice for lunch, when taking leftovers is often not an option.  This wasn't the best CFS we've ever tasted (or even in the top ten) but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Less successful were the mashed potatoes.  They were whipped, smooth, creamy, but nearly flavorless.  We'd venture a guess that they came from a box; there was no sign of any skin or chunks of potato in the smooth presentation.

The corn fritters (also served with a garnish of corn chips) were a bit better; soft yet slightly gritty, with a gentle corn flavor coming through the fried surface.  We kept finding ourselves drawn back to them as the meal progressed.

All in all, we enjoyed our visit to South Street.  Clearly, the owners are planning something ambitious here.  The interior is beautiful, the service is friendly, and the food is generally good.  We don't think the kitchen currently lives up to the promise of the marketing or the decor, but we still found the experience to be quite enjoyable.

We'd recommend the spot for either a date or an outing with friends, and we plan to return in the future.

South Street Dining
24914 Kuykendahl Road
Tomball, TX 77375-3381
(281) 255-3141

Some of you might have noticed that we are on a neverending quest to find superb burgers, no matter where they are. One thing that we've noticed on this quest is the gradual creeping up of burger prices in the Houston area. Fortunately, it's not gotten to the NYC/Las Vegas levels of insanity (there's a $36 burger at Daniel Boulud that we hear great things about) but it's not unusual to pay $10 or more for a burger these days.

But what if you're on a budget, and still want a serious burger? One choice is Mel's Country Cafe, the legendary restaurant between Tomball and the Woodlands. While Mel's is known for the insane Mega Mel, the non-linebackers among us will discover that Mel's does a very credible regular burger, and it starts at $2.95.

Our choice this visit was the Bacon Cheeseburger. It's a 1/3 lb patty, hand formed and griddled to medium well (Mel's doesn't do medium rare). It's topped with traditional American cheese, a lot of good quality bacon, and a plentiful portion of the traditional veggie toppings.

This is what a $4.50 burger looks like at Mel's.  We think it's an excellent value.  Mel's doesn't skimp on the bacon; took about half of it off the burger before we dug in, and enjoyed a very nice bacon appetizer.

The burger is very good; with a nice charred flavor to the meat.  The buns are griddled, the cheese is slightly melty, and the veggies are fresh and crisp - onions are chopped, which is our preference.

The only downside was the medium well temperature of the meat.  Serving it medium well minimized the ooze factor, and kept the burger from entering the upper echelons of burgerdom in the Houston area.

The cafe itself is delightful.  It's a blast from the past, with local families filling up the tables and enjoying the big portions and reasonable prices.  It's bright and clean, and the service is friendly.

You'll notice all those names on the wall.  Those are the folks who've finished the Mega Mel (a pound and a half of beef, a pound of bacon, a quarter pound of cheese, and all the trimmings) in less than two hours, and who lived to talk about it.  Some hardy soul completed this task in nine minutes.  We're impressed, but it's a record we wouldn't wish to attempt.

For those of you who live Inside The Loop, Mel's is a half-hour drive into the northwest, out 249 to Tomball. But it's miles away from the slick burger joints in the city, both in its feel and its prices.  Try it - we bet you'll like it.

Mel's Country Cafe
24814 Stanolind Road
Tomball, Texas 77375


Mel's Country Cafe on Urbanspoon

Houston's rock star chef, Randy Rucker (of Tenacity Dining, Rainbow Lodge and Laidback Manor fame) has announced his latest venture.

Bootsie's Heritage Cafe is scheduled to open this February in Tomball, at 112 Commerce St. Details are scarce, but we expect Rucker to wow local foodies with his creative takes on local seafood and superbly crafted comfort food.

Particularly exciting are rumors of the Mother Rucker burger. We're looking forward to sampling the hamburger that measures up to Rucker's exactling standards.

Mel's is a little country cafe with a big dose of charm. It's a place where you can take the family (or the softball team) to get a down-home meal. It's located in Tomball, on the outskirts of Houston, a reasonable trek from the Loop (and a short hop from the Woodlands).

Mel's is know for their outstanding hamburgers, and they are superb. Hand-formed patties are juicy and delicious, and the toppings are plentiful and fresh. This is one of the best traditional Texas burgers you'll find anywhere.

NBA linemen, sumo wrestlers, and masochists can try their luck with the Mega Mel: Six hamburger patties (totaling a pound and a half of beef), a quarter pound of cheese, a pound of bacon, and a veritable mountain of fixin's. If you can finish this monument to burger excess in under two hours, you earn a place on Mel's Wall of Fame -- and probably a trip to the ER via LifeFlight.

Those with more modest appetites are well served by the regular Mel's burger. The chicken fried steak is also worth sampling; it's offered in "small" (a half pound) and large (a pound). Nicely hand-breaded, and served with a cream gravy that's moderately peppery and quite good.

Service is prompt and friendly, the dining room is clean. If you've not tried Mel's, round up your appetite and hit the road. You'll be back.

Mel's Country Cafe: 24814 Stanolind Rd, Tomball, 77375, 281-255-6357

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