A recent conversation in a foodie discussion group bemoaned the lack of a good Southern California-style burrito in Houston. We have burritos, but they tend to be more of a Tex-Mex style, often with rice and/or refried beans among the ingredients; the Southern California-style is a lighter style, highlighting fresh ingredients with an eye towards more protein and veggies, and less carbs and fat.

Imagine our surprise when we stumbled across Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill, a new Mexican food establishment on Sawdust Road, in the space vacated by the recently closed (and greatly missed) Viva Itacate. The homey bakery feel of Viva has been completely renovated into a modern, fast casual space. The new restaurant is the first Texas branch of the original store, located in San Diego.
Could this San Diego import be a source for the kind of burrito that transplanted Californians rave about? We decided to find out.
First impressions were very good. The restaurant is spotlessly clean, and we were greeted by the friendly and helpful counter staff. The kitchen is at the rear of the restaurant, and a large glass window allows diners to look in and observe the cooks as they work. Clearly this is a restaurant with nothing to hide. 
Peering into the kitchen, we saw two staff members making fresh corn tortillas; although we've seen fresh flour tortillas at many of the area's better taquerias, fresh corn tortillas are few and far between.
Ordering from the counter staff was quick and efficient. Before long, my pager went off, and I picked up my burrito from the window.
Being fans of tacos al pastor, we started with the Pastor burrito. Fresh marinated pork (right off the trompo), pineapple, onion, cilantro, and a touch of creamy cilantro sauce are wrapped in a largish corn tortilla. The flavors are bright and tangy; the acid from the pineapple balances the slightly fatty pork flavor, with the onion and cilantro completing the flavor profile. It was very good.
Wanting to try something else, I asked the counter staff for suggestions. The cameron taco was their immediate answer, so I ordered one. In about five minutes this came out.
Beautifully grilled, largeish shrimp were perfectly cooked, and combined with grilled mozzarella, cabbage, tomato, avocado, and finished with chipotle sauce. The flavor profile was unusual to a Texan's palate; I don't recall encountering mozzarella in Mexican cuisine before. But it worked; the big flavors were very satisfying, yet the result was very light. Even after eating a burrito and a taco I did not feel very full, although I certainly had enough to eat.
All in all, I was very pleased with the food from this California import. While still being Mexican, the lighter combinations and bright flavors differ considerably from the Tex-Mex offerings typically found here. Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill is a nice addition to the Woodlands area; we look forward to returning and sampling more offerings from the menu.
Cabo Baja & Mexican Grill | 544 Sawdust 77380 | 281-465-8575

Cabo "Baja & Mexican Grill" on Urbanspoon

Update: As of Dec 16, 2014, guests are reporting a two-hour wait for tables during the week. Combine that with 45 minutes to cook a deep-dish pizza, and you're not going to be eating in a hurry. Caveat diner.

- - - - -

One of the culinary world's eternal battles is between the cities of New York and Chicago, and the topic is pizza. In one corner you have the svelte New York-style pizza, thin and flexible, topped only with sauce and cheese, and perhaps a meat or two. In the other corner is the burlier Chicago-style, a thin, pastry crust piled high with cheese, lots of toppings, and finished with a chunky tomato sauce. It's a classic battle, the scrappy wisecracking dancer vs the heavy, no-nonsense bruiser, both fighting for bragging rights and a place in your belly.

Residents of New York and Chicago will debate endlessly about which is better, with their home town version typically getting the nod. Those of us in other cities often make do with substandard versions of these regional favorites, in many cases showing little resemblance to the original. (Pizza chain "deep dish" pizza, I'm looking at you. No self-respecting Chicago deep dish would have a crust that's thicker than the toppings.)
In this epic battle, there are established combatants who have upheld each town's banner, often for decades. New York has Grimaldi's, Patsy's, Totonno's, Lombardi's, Di Fara, and other classic joints. Chicago favorites include Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, Uno, Pizano's, and Giordano's.
Here in the Woodlands, New York-style pizza has been well represented. Straight from Brooklyn comes an outpost of the Grimaldi's empire. RC's Pizza brings NYC cred due to RC Gallegos's decade in the pizza business in Brooklyn. And local favorite Brother's also serves pizza with a strong New York accent.
But Chicago-style pizza has been sadly missing from our community, and from the entire Houston area. Many years ago Pizzeria Uno opened a couple of stores in the Houston area, but they were disappointing, not coming close to the Chi-town originals.
But one of the big names in the Chicago pizza world has moved outside of Illinois, and their first location happens to be in Texas. Gino's East has opened in the Houston area, and the Woodlands is lucky enough to be the first stop. The brand new Woodlands store, located on I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Sawdust, will be the flagship of the Texas operation, also serving as a training base for future locations.

So how's the food?
We visited Gino's East as their guest at a friends and family preview, two days before the grand opening. As expected, they were still working out some kinks, but Gino's East has been operating since 1966, so they've got their processes down to a science. For the Woodlands location, they've installed six (!) classic Blodgett deck ovens, the gold standard for pizzerias around the world.

One big difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza is the volume. A hungry pizza lover can easily eat half of a large NY-style pizza, but a small Chicago-style deep dish feeds two people easily, and a large feeds 6 or 8.

So on our recent visit, we ordered a small deep-dish, and selected the Meaty Legend,

one of Gino's East's most celebrated pies, and one that we'd sampled years ago in Chicago.

The Meaty Legend has mountains of pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon, in addition to the thick layer of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and golden cornmeal crust.

These thick pizzas don't cook fast; our server estimated 45 minutes to an hour for it to cook. Since we ordered a small, it cooked a bit faster, but expect a wait when you order one of these pizzas made to order.

Ours appeared in about twenty minutes, and the server wrestled out a slice.

Biting into it, we were brought back to our last visit to Chicago. The generous portion of meats had a swanky, porky swagger; the spicy pepperoni and sausage offset by the milder Canadian bacon and smoky breakfast bacon. The rich mozzarella was smooth and melty, and the mild, chunky tomato sauce added a needed hit of acid to the rich toppings. The slightly crispy cornmeal crust brought a hint of sweetness to the mix, and the result was exactly how we remembered the Superior Street original; rich, flavorful, mild, balanced, and very tasty.
We also sampled a couple of starters from the surprisingly broad menu. Our favorite was the Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Bacon - roast Brussels sprouts seasoned with olive oil and garlic, topped with chunks of very thick bacon.
The dish was nicely earthy and tasty, with the slightly crunchy Brussels sprouts kicked up by the garlic and bacon. We couldn't help but want a little more seasoning; perhaps some kosher salt and cracked black pepper. But as presented, the dish was one we'd order again.
Gino's East is located in a building that has housed several different restaurant concepts over the years; the last was the unfortunate Bikini's brestaurant. But they've done a nice job of renovating the space, turning it into a warm, inviting setting.
Upon entering the building, you're greeted by a prominent bar, which looks to be a nice happy hour spot, or a great place for solo diners to enjoy a Chicago-style lunch or dinner.
We've been fans of Gino's East since we first sampled their pizza years ago in Chicago. We're excited to have an accurate version of this classic Chicago pizza joint in the Woodlands, and plan to return soon.
Gino's East | 25657 I-45, The Woodlands 77380 | www.ginoseast.com

Gino's East on Urbanspoon

Back when I lived in Austin, I dined frequently with my good friend Bruce, a talented amateur chef who was very knowledgable about the restaurant industry. He had one rule he always recommended when dining: Order what the restaurant is known for.

It's a rule that has served me well throughout the years. But sometimes, it's a rule that begs to be broken.
Recently, I was contacted by RC Gallegos, owner of RC's Pizza. RC is a native Texan who moved to Brooklyn and spent a decade there learning the pizza business, and who brought his knowledge and experience back to the Lone Star state. What I heard from him was not what I was expecting.
"I've got a new Italian beef sandwich. You need to come try it." 
RC's is one of my favorite pizza places, and serves a very credible NYC-style pizza; perhaps the most authentic in the entire Houston area. But Italian beef is a Chicago thing. What does a guy specializing in New York pizza know about Italian beef?
It was time to find out. It was a cool, sunny fall day in Texas, so the brief drive was a pleasant one. Entering RC's, we grabbed a table, and noticed a good lunch crowd chowing down on his excellent pizzas. It's tough to come into RC's and not order a pizza, but we did it this once. "RC is expecting us" we told the staff member, who whisked back into the kitchen.
In a few minutes the Italian Beef sandwich arrived. Whoa... this is a big sandwich, with lots of beef (probably half a pound), smothered in provolone and bell peppers (an unusual choice). The de rigueur giardinara was served in a small container on the side.

Italian Beef at RC's Pizza
Biting into the sandwich, our initial concern that RC had gone a bit crazy with the peppers was put aside; the flavors melded perfectly. The slightly sharp bite of the peppers offset the creaminess of the high quality provolone, and the thick slices of beef were perfectly tender and richly flavorful. The bread was chewy without becoming too much work, and had a toasty crunch. The chunks of veggies in the giardinara didn't want to stay put in the sandwich, so they became a tasty, tangy side; we dribbled a bit of the juice on the sandwich, adding another layer of complexity to the flavor.
All in all, the sandwich was a success. We suggested to RC that he chop the veggies, and he agreed. This is a sandwich I will be ordering again. Soon.
But RC had one more surprise up his sleeve.
"Have you tried my calamari?"
Over the years, we've had a lot of fried calamari at Italian restaurants, and it ranges from rubbery and forgettable to very good. RC won't serve food that doesn't impress him personally, so we were game to check it out. What appeared was nothing like what we were anticipating.
Fried Calamari at RC's Pizza
To say that this isn't traditional fried calamari is an understatement. Instead of the traditional breaded rings, we were served strips sliced from a calamari steak, hand-breaded and lightly fried. The batter was light and the texture of the meat was perfect - nowhere near rubbery, and evoking the flavor of the sea. 
The sauce was another surprise. RC has a very good house marinara, but he's paired his calamari with a Thai-style sweet chili sauce he makes; the combination of gentle heat and controlled sweetness contrasts beautifully with the slightly briny flavor of the fried calamari. 
While we certainly wouldn't recommend that you ignore the excellent New York-style pizza, the surprisingly good Italian beef and the very clever fried calamari cement RC's reputation as being considerably more than a place to order great pizza.
RC's NYC Pizza & Pasta | 501 Sawdust Road | The Woodlands, 77380 | 281-298-4663 | rcsnycpizza.com

RC'S NYC Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

Out here in the Woodlands, we're fortunate enough to have some very good BBQ. Pits like Corkscrew BBQ and BBQ Godfather serve up excellent renditions of their respective styles; Corkscrew having been named amongst the Best in Texas (and thus the world) by many BBQ aficionados (us included).

But an older BBQ place repeatedly gets "Best BBQ" accolades from a local publication, even ahead of the much-honored Corkscrew. Its name is Pitmaster BBQ, and it's got a checkered reputation out in these parts, largely because of management's fetish for calling the health department out on its competitors, and after that failed, filing repeated complaints to other regulatory bodies trying to get them shut down.

If you've got "The Best BBQ in The Woodlands" why would you resort to such underhanded tactics to thwart your competition? Shouldn't you just let your superior brisket do the talking?

As a food writer who writes a lot about the Woodlands area, I have to admit that I'd not visited Pitmaster in years. My last visit was a dim memory of unremarkable BBQ served in an anachronistic setting... and not anachronistic in a good way.

But fair is fair. I needed to return to Pitmaster, and to determine firsthand if BBQ lovers were right about Pitmaster, or if those who voted in the no doubt scientific polls were right. So when some members of our local Woodlands Area Foodies group mentioned lunch at Pitmaster, I decided to join in.

Service was friendly, if a touch slow at first. On a Monday, with the top BBQ pits in town closed, Pitmaster had some business, but wasn't packed.

I ordered the Pitmaster special; brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, along with two sides. After a longer-than-expected wait, the 'Q came out.

Pitmaster Special

At the waiter's suggestion, I chose the spicy sausage. Texture was generic, heat was mainly black pepper with a touch of jalepeno. Flavor wasn't bad, but it wasn't memorable. You can get sausage like this at any number of exceedingly average BBQ places.

Next up were the pork ribs. They're the greyish mass in the middle of the photo. Nicely meaty, but with little or no rub, and little or no seasoning. Tender, but with plenty of unrendered fat. They tasted more like poorly trimmed pork roast than like BBQ pork ribs. Again, unmemorable. 4/10

Finally was the meat that defines Texas BBQ, the brisket. Pitmaster's was unlike any I've had in years. Dry, thinly sliced (as if by machine) and pre-slathered in sweet BBQ sauce, this may be the worst brisket I can remember. It had an odd, off-putting, slightly chemical flavor, no actual smokiness that we could discern, and any moisture present was from the overly sweet sauce, not the brisket. 0/10

Pitmaster has a reputation amongst foodies for being a place to avoid. Apparently that reputation is well deserved. Between the dreadful brisket and the questionable business tactics, this isn't a place we'd recommend visiting.

The fact that a local publication repeatedly names them "Best BBQ" has to be based on something other than the BBQ. I'd eat at Dickey's before I returned to Pitmaster. And I am not a fan of Dickey's.

(As an aside, we don't make it a habit of reviewing substandard mom & pop restaurants; we just ignore them. But Pitmaster's constant promoting as "Best BBQ" and their unseemly actions towards competitors made them fair game.)

UPDATE: Other writers who are members of WAF were in attendance, and shared their reviews. Worth reading.

I Chew and Review

Brisket Bastard

Pitmaster BBQ | 343 Sawdust Rd., The Woodlands, TX | 281-419-3644

Pit Master BBQ & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Today we have a review from a guest reviewer, Hirotoshi Mugen. Hiro is a BBQ enthusiast and member of Woodlands Area Foodies, and he recently took the plunge and tried the new, smaller beef ribs (and other meats) at Corkscrew BBQ. He also makes an interesting discovery about the brisket Will Buckman is creating in his new Oyler pit.

Update: Corkscrew BBQ reports that the Dino Rib is back.

In Hiro's words:

Corkscrew BBQ (Woodlands). Review of the mighty riblet. Everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas.

 I was absolutely dismayed when I heard about the shrinking beef ribs here. Killen's used to offer the smaller beef ribs . They wisely upgraded to the dino rib. Between the Mueller brothers, Wayne at Louie Mueller BBQ uses the dino-rib and John at John Mueller Meat Co uses the smaller beef ribs. 

While the best beef rib I've encountered was from John, that instance was an anomaly as every other time the riblets pale in comparison to the dino rib at Louie Mueller. Many of the little ribs I've had simply lacked meat for one.

Between Killen's and Corkscrew, the beef ribs are both on par with each other even though there's different rubs. Both are well rendered and superb. Second only to Louie Mueller. Better than heavyweights Pecan Lodge, Black's, and La Barbecue.

With the new riblet at Corkscrew, I breathed a sigh of relief to find that the meat ratio was still excellent unlike others I've had before. My riblet was well-rendered, but not quite as rich as it's dino rib predecessor. Has a great crusty peppery bark. Very tender and moist although not quite as pot-roast tender as the dino rib. Still an excellent tasty beef rib overall, but I can't help but yearn for the dino rib.

Yes, beef prices are through the roof. Considering I paid nearly $40 for ONE beef rib at Louie Mueller BBQ a few weeks ago, I would gladly pay a premium for a Corkscrew dino rib.

Since the new Oyler pit went in, something magical happened to the meats there. Before, the brisket has always been great. But it was never on the same tier as Franklin's, Pecan Lodge, or La Barbecue. I usually don't eat much of it when ordered with the dino rib. But this time (actually 2 days in a row here), it was tender, moist, smoky, flavored, and expertly well-rendered.

Reminds me of La Barbecue.

Better than Killen's.

I ate more of it than the beef rib. This was not the same brisket I had a month ago before the hiatus. Sausage has been a bit weak in the past, but there's so much more flavor and spices now. It's still a little dense and would be nice if it was a bit more coarse. I almost never order sausages. Now it's must here (ask for a whole unsliced link).

Does Corkscrew have what it takes to be Top 5 BBQ in Texas? I laughed at that seemingly impossible notion in the past. Dunno if Daniel Vaughn would see it that way, but they're definitely in the same league as the heavy hitters. Bring back the dino rib!

Corkscrew BBQ on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands has a reputation for chain restaurants. And while that reputation isn't totally deserved, it does have some merit. For every great independent out here, like Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, Republic Grill, Pallotta's, or Fielding's, there are five restaurants owned and managed from afar.

So we were particularly excited to attend the recent Chingu Preview Popup, hosted by Chef Jay Stone. Jay is an incredibly talented chef, and we've been fans of his cooking ever since he convinced us that peanut butter and jalapeño jam make sense on a burger, at the late, lamented Wicked Whisk food truck.

The event is a preview for the Chingu restaurant concept that Stone has been developing to bring to the Woodlands area. It's being funded via Kickstarter, and I encourage all foodies to support this talented chef. And the pledges represent very good values; anything from $20 worth of food and a t-shirt for $20 to an entire catered meal for a large group.

For this event, Jay prepared several of his Korean-influenced American comfort food dishes that will appear at Chingu. First up was one that has become legendary around here: Korean fried chicken.

Served with sides of Korean vegetables (including a superb kimchi and excellent spicy housemade pickles) this chicken was perfectly prepared; moist, tender and encrusted with a mildly spicy, beautifully crispy breading. Everyone raved about the chicken; it was a real crowd pleaser.

Next up was another dish that we were anticipating with great interest; Jay's spicy short ribs.

Nicely balanced between beefy, tangy, slightly sweet, and moderately spicy, this was perhaps my favorite dish of the night.

Next up is the old Korean favorite, poutine. OK, poutine is Canadian, not Korean, but Jay puts a distinctively Eastern spin on this north-of-the-border cult favorite.

Poutine is rarely spicy, but this version is, and it adds a new dimension to the dish. Normally we don't think of poutine as an entree, but this one was hearty and filling.

Being a pop-up event at a venue without a liquor license, several enterprising foodies improvised. Growlers of craft beer were brought over from the new local favorite Hop Scholar, and the beer nerds present seemed very pleased with the pairing.

Other foodies brought bottles of wine, and very stylish disposable aperitif glasses. We are in the Woodlands, after all.

Want to check out this unique and delicious Korean-influenced comfort food? Right now, you can't. But if you support Jay Stone's Kickstarter project, you'll help him open up Chingu as a venue where this food can be devoured on a daily basis.

C'mon, foodies. You say you want more non-chain, chef-driven restaurants. It's time to put up, or shut up.

A few days ago my phone rang. Caller unknown. I answered. "Lake Conroe. I know a guy out there. He makes great hero. Like in the old neighborhood" the caller said, in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. Then he hung up. Could this lead be worth following up? 
I've always been a fan of what I think of as Houston-style po boy sandwiches. A long, slightly crusty baguette filled with Italian meats, cheeses, and some sort of spread. The iconic version was created by Antone's, the late, lamented Houston chain of imported food shops. But Antone's sold out a long time ago; the family-owned locations now a memory, and the remaining franchised stores a sad shadow of what the original locations used to be. Worthy competitors like Andros' are gone, too. And while I enjoy the Louisiana-style seafood or roast beef po boys, they're a totally different sandwich.
A sunny Saturday morning found us cruising out to Highway 105, in the convertible with the top down, in search of this elusive deli. Almost to Montgomery, across from the entrance to April Sound in a small strip center, we noticed a sign that resembled the Italian flag. A quick left turn brought us to the parking lot for Tony's Deli, a charming little delicatessen that looks like it might belong on a side street in Brooklyn.

Stepping inside, we were immediately impressed by the busy yet cozy feel of the deli. Items were piled up, fresh food was on the counter for sale, and meats and cheeses were proudly displayed in the refrigerated case.
Craving a traditional Italian po boy, we browsed the menu. Sandwiches are named after prominent Italian-Americans: Sinatra, Pacino, Deniro, Danza, and many others were in attendance. We zeroed in on the Stallone, featuring capocolla, salami, ham, provolone and house made pesto. After a quick wait, it appeared.
This sandwich is substantial. Approximately a foot long, and stuffed with generous portions of the meats, cheeses, and veggies selected, slathered with a schmear of tart pesto. Biting into it was like a quick trip to NYC; the bread was chewy but not tough, and the meats had a bright, fresh flavor. (We later learned that Tony's uses Dietz & Watson meats exclusively, a decision we applaud.)
This, my friends, is a taste of Brooklyn in Montgomery county. A New York City Italian-style po boy from a small shop west of Conroe near the lake. How is this possible?
The answer is Tony Nicoletta, the transplanted New Yorker who could be straight from central casting for a Sopranos episode. But Nicoletta's business dealings are far more aboveboard. Born in Brooklyn, this ex-Marine attended culinary school in Hyde Park, and has owned a number of restaurants in the New York area. His years of experience are obvious in the food he hand crafts; this isn't a sandwich thrown together by a teenaged "sandwich artist" - it is the work of a chef whose chosen palette is the Italian po boy.
Tony Nicoletta is the real deal, and his sandwiches are both authentic and outstanding. We've often bemoaned the lack of good food near Lake Conroe, but we're happy to report that our new favorite Italian sandwich shop is open for business. Think you're gonna find a better Italian po boy anywhere near here?

As Tony would say, "Fuggedaboutit."

Yes sir. We'll be back. Often. 
Tony's Deli | 16283 Texas 105 | Montgomery, Texas | 507-743-0535

Tony’s Italian Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

We were excited to hear about new restaurant projects from Johnny Carrabba, a scion of the famed Mandola restaurant family, and founder of one of Houston's great Italian spots, Carrabba's.

So on a recent weeknight, we met friends before a concert for a meal at Mia's Table, the new fast casual comfort food concept from Carrabba. Mia's is named after his daughter, a charming tradition that continues with his other new spot, Grace's, named after his grandmother.

Mia's is a casual, inviting space, reminiscent of an older (but meticulously maintained) Hill Country home. Patrons order at the counter, and are presented with an eclectic menu of Texas comfort food: Sandwiches, tacos, burgers, and an assortment of fried entrees, from chicken to chicken-fried steak to fried shrimp and snapper. We ordered at the counter from a helpful and friendly teenaged staff member, and were off to find our seats.

The sprawling dining room was filled with families and small groups enjoying an early dinner; the organizer of our gathering had reserved a semi-private space in the rear, away from the hustle and bustle. The room had a distinct energy; patrons were enjoying their meals, laughing, and seemed to be in a boisterous mood. Mia's is not the spot for a quiet, intimate dinner, but it's a great place to hang out with friends and family.

Our food arrived shortly.

No one will be surprised that we had to sample Mia's cheeseburger, an interesting architectural diversion from this classic American staple. The de rigeur beef patty, slightly melted cheese, and fresh veggies were placed on a distinctly oval bun - the two patties were essentially side-by-side, instead of stacked. This is an unusual arrangement, and resulted in a lot more bun than we prefer; we were essentially eating two smallish burgers instead of one big one. The patty was cooked medium well and was slightly dry; the veggies were fresh, and the bun had a nice texture but very little flavor.

All in all, a solid burger, but not one we'd go out of our way to order again.

Next up was the Chicken Fried Chicken, a generous chicken breast breaded in the style of a chicken fried steak (the more traditional Southern Fried Chicken is also available) and topped with cream gravy seasoned with bits of jalapeño.

This dish was a winner - moist, juicy, well-breaded chicken, with a nice peppery kick, accented by just enough cream gravy and a mild jalapeño burn. Balance was the word that came to mind with the chicken; good balance between the meat and the crust, good balance between the fresh chicken flavor, the creamy gravy, and the spicy counterpoints.

Sides were a mixed bag. Mashed potatoes were very good; creamy, smooth, with just enough pepper to be interesting. Green beans were uninspired, limp, and lacking in flavor.

All in all, Mia's is a nice addition to the Kirby restaurant scene. It's a great spot for families and groups looking for a quick bit of Texas-style comfort food in an upscale but casual setting.

We'll be back.

Mia's Kitchen | 3131 Argonne Street | Houston, Texas 77098 | 713-522-6427 | miastable.com

Mia's Table on Urbanspoon

Living in the Woodlands spoils you in many ways. The town has grown up since its humble beginnings, and now boasts a population of nearly 100,000, along with a range of upscale businesses dedicated to supporting the highly sought-after demographic. And the restaurant scene is thriving, with some of Houston's best restaurants calling the Woodlands home. There's even a Facebook group devoted to finding great food in the Woodlands and surrounding areas.

For some, the Woodlands is a sort of bubble that never has to be left. But not for me, nor for other dedicated foodies who are always in search of great new places to eat.

What the Woodlands doesn't have is a wide selection of small, ethnic restaurants, particularly the Asian spots that pop up all over the Houston area. The independents that do call the Woodlands home trend toward the upscale, largely due to the rents in the Woodlands proper.

But as someone who loves Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine, especially from small, family run establishments, venturing outside the bubble is a way of life if you're in search of great food. But which way to go?

Fortunately, friends in the Woodlands Area Foodies group are avid culinary explorers, and new suggestions appear on a regular basis. We've learned to trust the recommendations of several of the members implicitly, and when they say "Let's meet here for lunch!" we jump at the chance.

Proprietor Alex Nguyen talks with WAF members Huy Dang and Tom Nguyen (eclipsed)

A case in point is Nguyen Ngo 2, an Vietnamese sandwich shop located just south of FM 1960 on Bammell North Houston road. NN2, as regulars call it, specializes in that delicious Vietnamese sandwich that has become iconic in H-Town,  the Banh Mi.

Banh Mi is a big deal in Houston, driven largely by our large Vietnamese community. Even Houston's home-grown high-end burger chain, Beck's Prime, has rolled out its take on the Banh Mi.

Nguyen Ngo 2's version of this iconic sandwich is far more traditional. The proprietor, Alex Nguyen, learned sandwich making from his grandfather in Viet Nam - a photo taken in the 1960's showing the elder Nguyen's chicken sandwich shop hangs proudly on the wall.

The formula at Nguyen Ngo 2 is a distillation of the classic Banh Mi, but with subtle adjustments to make it appeal to a broader, modern audience. Gone is the sometimes harshly crunchy bread found in some AsiaTown Banh Mi shops; it's replaced with freshly baked french rolls with just a touch of crunch, and a soft, gently chewy interior. Numerous different meats are available, and Alex is on hand to guide a newcomer toward a sandwich that will appeal to him. All of the traditional veggies are present in extremely crisp, fresh form; the traditional pickled carrots have been toned down, again with a nod toward broadening the sandwich's appeal.

First we tried the slice ribeye Banh Mi, a fusion of the cuisine of Ho Chi Minh City with that of Philadelphia by way of Houston.

Sliced Ribeye Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2

This sandwich grabbed our attention with its amalgam of flavors that came together in a harmonious whole. The rich, beefy flavor of the marinated, thinly sliced roast beef was accented by the sharp notes of the fresh jalapenos, the earthy flavor of the fresh cilantro and sliced carrots, and the tang of the housemade garlic mayo, which reminded us much more of an aoli. This sandwich is a great introduction to Nguyen Ngo 2, and made us anxious to try more.

Though we weren't really hungry, another sandwich was calling our name. Tom spoke highly of the combination of Vietnamese meatballs and sausage, and we had to try it.

Meatball and Sausage Banh Mi at Nguyen Ngo 2

As much as we loved the ribeye, this sandwich is our new Banh Mi crush. Sweet, savory, gently hot, nicely tangy, with crunch and chew and softness all rolled into one sandwich. A superbly crafted dish from a world-class chef will hit you from several distinct directions at once, and this sandwich easily falls into that category. It is among the best sandwiches we've ever tasted, and at under $4, it represents an unparalleled value.

Lex brought out a small container that he wanted us to try. It contained their house made Vietnamese kimchee. We'd only sampled Korean kimchee before, and were looking forward to trying this different version.

Vietnamese Kimchee at Nguyen Ngo 2

We were not disappointed. The traditional sourness and vinegar balanced with a kick of ginger and just the right touch of heat. The result is both refreshing and satisfying; perhaps the perfect side dish for a hot Houston day. If some BBQ joint doesn't talk Lex out of this recipe and add it as a side, they're missing out; it would pair perfectly with some great smoky brisket.

To say we're fans of Nguyen Ngo is to put it mildly. This small, jewel-like restaurant is a perfect example of what makes Houston's food scene so remarkable. Even those on a tight budget can enjoy superb cuisine served by an owner who is both talented and engaged with his customers. You can certainly pay a lot more for lunch in Houston, but you'll be hard pressed to find a meal you'll enjoy more.

Nguyen Ngo 2 | 14015 Bammel N Houston Road | 281-895-8998

Nguyen Ngo 2 on Urbanspoon

Taquerias are a big thing in Houston, thanks to our vibrant Latin American community. Even the worst ones are pretty good, and the best ones are excellent. They're almost all family run, small operations, and in many cases the ability to speak Spanish is very helpful when you visit. We think it's part of the charm, but some less adventurous souls are put off by this.

For these folks, fast food tacos were created. From Jack in the Box tacos (which we admit to liking) to Taco Bell to Taco Cabana, different approaches to offering tacos to the terminally unadventurous have been tried, with mixed results.

Our biggest complaint: None of these chains offers a truly excellent taco.

Enter Hello Taco. Combine the traditional flavors of a great taqueria, wrap it in a slick package that won't scare gringos away. Offer a variety of tacos with both traditional and Americanized options. Sounds like a good plan. How does it work?
Hello Taco is located where Sawdust Road curves into Grogan's Mill, the busy commercial strip that connects to the south edge of the Woodlands. It's a smart location; lots of lunch business, and easy access to the Woodlands populace without paying Woodlands rents. Located conveniently next to a Baskin-Robbins store, parking is easy. Entering the store, you're met with a bright, clean environment that is so professionally decorated that it could easily be a nationwide franchise.
But it's not. Hello Taco is the brainchild of Armando and Susan Ocampo, a couple with years of experience in the restaurant biz; he in the back of the house, she in the front. Their expertise is evident in the slick presentation and bright colors that make Hello Taco an inviting place to visit.

But how's the food?
As with any good taqueria, the food is very fresh, and everything is prepared in-house. A tortilla machine works tirelessly stamping out fresh tortillas from hand rolled balls of masa, and a cook is grilling the meats and veggies.
Unlike some other Americanized taco concepts (like Torchy's and Texas Taco) Hello Taco doesn't feature signature tacos, predesigned with specific ingredients. It's a make-your-own approach, more like Subway or Freebird's. If you don't know what you like, this might be a problem, but the helpful folks behind the counter can certainly suggest some options.
Even though there was a line when we entered, service was brisk. Four different meats are offered on the menu - chicken, pork, and two types of beef. We chose pork and sliced fajita meat, and opted for the traditional chopped onion and cilantro toppings, with a slice of lime on the side.
What came out was a very credible taco - fresh, soft tortilla, nicely seasoned and marinated meat, bright, fresh, crisp veggies. Flavors were bold but not overpowering.
In short, these are damn good tacos.
Word got out quickly. By the time we were leaving, a line stretched to the door as hungry folks queued up. It moved quickly.
We're impressed with Hello Taco. They have a solid concept and are executing well. The only glitch is the lack of signature tacos to make ordering easier for the neophyte, but the excellent tacos more than make up for it.

We'll be back.

Hello Taco | 25114 Grogan's Mill Rd. | Spring, TX 77380 | 832-819-4MEX | hellotaco.com

Hello Taco on Urbanspoon

Copyright 2023 Nurick + Associates