Holiday Season Houston Highlights

31 Jan

I had the opportunity to travel to Houston a couple of times during the holiday season.  The humid and hot sauna of a city is one of my favorite restaurant destinations for all sorts of reasons, not all of which are rational.  First, I’m sentimentally attached to the hip eateries in the Montrose area that I frequented during a summer gig of living in an one-room garage apartment, barely earning enough money at my internship for rent but blowing most of it on food.  Second, I’m in awe of Houston’s ginormous Viet-Chinatown on Bellaire Blvd, where a large Vietnamese population makes authentic and fusion Asian cuisine extremely accessible.  Third, for Mex-Mex and Tex-Mex with a seafood focus, the folks in Houston just do it better.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t give up any of my favorite DFW digs (particularly the BYOB restaurants) to trade, but Houston remains a sentimental favorite.  Below here are some food highlights from recent trips south on I-45.

Montrose, Quirky and Hip

Ok, it’s my favorite neighborhood inside the Loop because it’s where I slept on an IKEA futon for a summer.  But more than that, Montrose is a demographically diverse, bohemian contrast to stereotypical Houston.  It’s home to Houston’s Best Gay Bar (by Citysearch Poll), great art museums like the Menil Collection, the best vintage/antique shopping strip in town, tons of tattoo and body-piercing parlors, and some of Houston’s finest established restaurants like Hugo’s, Da MarcoMark’s, Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen, and more.  A newer shining star in the Montrose dining scene is Dolce Vita (500 Westheimer Rd, Houston), an intimate pizzeria/enoteca in a restored Montrose bungalow.  Featured in Food & Wine and Texas Monthly, Marco Wiles’ (of Da Marco) latest creation offers authentic tastes and a fantastic ambiance for about half the price of Da Marco.  Affordable Italian and a commendable wine list made Dolce Vita the perfect destination for a reunion dinner with a couple of college girl friends. 

Living up to its enoteca name, Dolce Vita’s lengthy all Italian wine list is surprisingly affordable, and almost half of the selections are available by the glass.  When requesting a medium bodied red, our waiter recommended the Cannonau di Sardegna Sella & Mosca ($26, about 2.5 times retail).  Cannonau is a grape native to Sardinia that is similar to the Grenache.  The fruity berry and plum flavors made it an excellent companion to our lighter fare choices.

One glance at the Dolce Vita menu and you’ll immediately know this is no yuppie trendy wine bar.  Starters include veggies like shaved brussel sprouts with pecorino and roasted cauliflower, marinated seafood items like salmon, whitefish, and anchovies, and of course, a spread of salumi and cheese options.  We started with pumpkin goat cheese crochettes ($5) and mushrooms with mint and ricotta rosa ($4).

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Before biting into these little fried balls of delight, I assumed the menu description implied fried pumpkin puree-goat cheese mixture.  I was pleasantly surprised when I bit into the crochette to find a ball of creamy goat cheese wrapped inside a thin layer of pumpkin.  The pumpkin flavor was subtle, but added the much needed earthy balance for this rich dish.  Mind you I was with the same girls that swooned over the fried goat cheese balls with honey from Malaga Tapas and Wine Bar in Austin, so needless to say, we were all big fans of these golden little globes of fun.

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The mushrooms with mint and ricotta rosa didn’t prove to be as popular.  Part of reason was because our waiter had forgotten about this appetizer order until after he brought out our pizza.  Cold, over salted ricotta cheese and slimey mushrooms just don’t fare well when you’ve already moved onto the warm, luscious entree.  But even if the service had been in order, I still think this dish was far too salty to stand alone.  Accompanying crusty bread would have made the intense ricotta more enjoyable.

The salad choice of the evening was arugula with roasted tomatoes ($8).

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The salads at Dolce Vita are meant to serve two, but the three of us had no problem sharing.  It’s amazing how fresh, bitter greens can be so tasty with a simple vinaigrette.  The added flare of the sweet roasted tomatoes certainly didn’t hurt.

For the entree, we split a taleggio pizza ($14).

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Italian native taleggio cheese has a strong smell but a mild, buttery, and almost fruity taste.  The semi-soft cheese provided a rich mouthfeel with its oozy texture.  Combine this richness with soft pear slices, bitter argula, truffle oil, all atop a lightly charred, thin pizza crust, and you have the best pizza I’ve had in my life.  Second place doesn’t even come close.

For dessert, I opted for the dolce latte cake (all desserts are $6):

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Creamy and rich in almost a tres leches kind of way but with a definite coffee zing.  The other girls went for gelato (choice of 3 out of 9 available flavors).

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Cute presentation but my bite had an uneven texture with tiny bits of ice.

Even with the minor mishaps (oversalted ricotta and icy gelato) and somewhat careless service, I am incredibly jealous that we don’t have a restaurant like Dolce Vita in Dallas.  Is anyone aware of a Dallas establishment that’s using taleggio, rapini, bottarga, clams, or robiola on pizza?  At these prices?  Let me know.  Dolce vita is an incredible value for a gastronomical adventure. 

For something not so new, we headed to Niko Niko’s (2520 Montrose Blvd, Houston) for lunch the next day.  Niko Niko’s classic gyro sandwich has been a Montrose neighborhood favorite since the restaurant’s inception in 1977.  Over the years, the restaurant’s popularity has outgrown the neighborhood and become somewhat of a Houston institution.  Even Niko Niko’s renovation and expansion a couple of years ago can’t catch up to the growing crowds, the expanded dining room is still perpetually packed and parking is still a challenge.  You’re better off finding off street parking a couple of blocks away than trying to squeeze into that tiny lot next to the restaurant. 

Parking issues aside, it’s hard to argue with the appeal of eating a warm, fluffy pita stuffed with perfectly seasoned lamb and beef roasted to tender perfection, topped with fresh tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce ($7.95) amongst the hustle and bustle of this crowded counter service joint. 

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Did I mention the plate also comes with Niko Niko’s oven potatoes?  Well, you actually get a choice of potatoes, rice, or French fries.  As good as Niko Niko’s seasoned fries are, I’m a sucker for these olive oil drenched, Greek seasoned oven baked potatoes.  Carbolicious!

When you’ve been around for as long as Niko Niko’s has, you get your share of fans and critics.  Most serious foodies tend to be critics of this pseudo-Greek/semi-American establishment.  Even though I know Niko Niko’s isn’t the best authentic Greek restaurant in town, I’m a fan.  Niko Niko’s is a one show pony, the gyro is by far the best item on the menu.  The other items range from passable to average, like the loukoumades (honey balls, $5.75 for full dozen) we had on this visit.

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These honey balls weren’t even spherical and had definitely been overfried.  I’ll stick to the ones from the Greek Food Festival instead.  But, like many Niko Niko’s devotees, I don’t come here for a full service elaborate Greek meal reminiscent of a past trip to Athens.  I come here for the comfort of that perfect gyro sandwich for a lazy early afternoon weekend lunch or killer late night munchies (Niko Niko’s is open until 11:00pm on weekends).  Besides, Niko Niko’s has been popularizing Greek food to the masses in Houston long before the craze that came with My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and you have to give them credit for that.

Chinatown, Old and New

Speaking of popularizing ethnic cuisine to the masses, I paid homage to the downtown (old Chinatown) location of Kim Son (2001 Jefferson St, Houston) for lunch. 

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In 1993, when Kim Son relocated from their original Houston downtown site, this 22,000 square foot building was the largest Asian restaurant in Texas.  Since then, Kim Son has opened two more monstrous Kim Son restaurants and six Little Kim Son (a quasi-fast food concept with a limited menu) locations in the Houston area.

Kim Son’s expansive 16-page menu ranges from Americanized Chinese cuisine (a la Orange Beef and Kung Pao Chicken) to traditional Vietnamese and Cantonese Chinese dishes to fusion-esque plates that combine influences from all three cuisine styles (if Americanized Chinese cuisine can truly be considered a style).  It’s not the best authentic Vietnamese cuisine in Houston (not by a long shot), but the menu variety appeals to a wide range of tastes, evident by the packed parking lot and dining room on this Friday lunch visit.  Just like Niko Niko’s, Kim Son deserves credit for popularizing Vietnamese cuisine to the masses in Houston, making it as approachable as Tex-Mex for those with less adventurous tastes.

For lunch, I chose an order of Bo Nuong Xa ($12.95), grilled beef with lemongrass and garlic, which Kim Son’s menu has nicknamed “Vietnamese Fajitas” to make more approachable to the masses (and the translations has gained popularity on Vietnamese restaurant menus all over Houston). 

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The form of the thin grilled slices of beef are not traditional (Bo Nuong Xa is typically cubed lemongrass beef) but Kim Son has transformed the traditional flavors into a format Texans are more comfortable with.  Take a moistened spring roll wrapper and fill it with the grilled sliced beef, top with the typical fresh accompaniments (sprouts, herbs, and pickled carrots, not photographed), add some fish sauce for flavor, and roll it all up.  Why bother giving operating directions with this entree when the descriptive “fajita” name explains it all?

But if you’re looking for a truly authentic Chinatown experience, leave downtown behind and head southwest to the Beltway 8/Bellaire Blvd area.  With half a dozen large Asian grocery stores anchoring strip malls filled to the brim with restaurants, boba tea shops, and bakeries, new Houston Chinatown is Texas-sized indeed.  To sample every restaurant in the area would probably take over a month’s work.  Though I have some favorite places for full blown dinners, this time I was briefly passing through and needed a quick late lunch.  For the wintry weather conditions (well, wintry for Houston), nothing sounded better than a bowl of dumplings in hot broth at San Dong Noodle House (9938 Bellaire Blvd, Houston).

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San Dong has recently found a new home in Chinatown more presentable than its old digs further east.  The cleaner, brighter space remains simple and offers basic counter service.  San Dong serves their ground pork stuffed dumplings in a beef broth, a reflection of northern style Chinese cuisine.

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The beef broth wasn’t as rich on this visit as it has been in the past, but nonetheless provided soothing comfort on this relatively cold day.  The bok choy and the pickled mustard greens gave a nice crunchy texture contrast to the al dente dumplings.

If you find yourself at San Dong, don’t overlook the prepackaged “deli” items sitting on the shelves next to the cashier’s counter.  There are steamed bao zi (buns) and jao zi (dumplings) with various fillings and my favorite San Dong “snack,” Pearl Balls.

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San Dong is the only Chinese restaurant in Texas that I’m aware of that serves these glutinous rice balls filled with ground pork and chestnuts.  Pearl balls are a popular New Year’s treat in China, but they’re available year round at San Dong.  If you’re interested in making these at home (since I don’t know where they are available in DFW), try this recipe.

A Tex-Mex Guilty Pleasure

It seems only fitting that after all my foodie adventures in Houston, I would stop by the most non-foodie restaurant of all time on the drive home.  Los Cucos, a regional chain of Tex-Mex restaurants with a dozen locations spread throughout Houston and San Antonio, became a regular guilty pleasure in college.  With a metabolism that I now miss greatly, I indulged in Los Cuco’s greasy quesadillas, green sauce (a sour cream based salsa verde-ish dip), and cheap margaritas all too often.  Driving back to DFW from Houston on this trip, I gave in to my craving and had lunch at the Conroe location (2000 I-45 North, Conroe).

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The Conroe location, like many other Los Cucos restaurants, is located in a run down strip mall with more potholes than parking spaces.  Upon seating in a generic restaurant booth, I was relieved to find that Los Cucos had finally removed the non-professional photographs of the food from the menu.  The photos were so discolored and faded after the copying and laminating process that the food looked extremely unappetizing.  Who wants some mystery gray-colored grilled meat for lunch?  But rest assured, Los Cucos serves up some delicious and unabashedly rich Tex-Mex.  The photos were misleading and I’m glad they finally took them off the menu.

My lunch comprised of a stuffed avocado with a cup of chicken tortilla soup.

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The chicken tortilla soup at Los Cucos has a broth so rich that you actually need a drink of water in between bites to re-set your tastebuds (and to wash out some of the all-too-rich mouthfeel from the broth).  It’s an amazing cup of stewed tender chicken, soft onion slices, and tender avocado slices.  But, like all dishes at Los Cucos, the soup needs to be consumed in moderation.  The star of this plate, however, is not the chicken tortilla soup, but rather the golden fried ball that stands for everything the American Heart Association is against.  The avocado is peeled and cored, then stuffed with fajita beef strips and cheese, then rolled in batter and deep fried.  A peek inside the avocado:

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Though the photo is blurry, you can get an idea of the oozy cheesy deep fried “oh man I have to run a marathon to burn off these calories” state of guilty pleasure.

My partner, appearing rather appalled at my cholesterol-induced euphoria, enjoyed a slightly less (just slightly) guilty pleasure, beef quesadillas.

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If you think the gringo-fied nature of quesadillas makes them largely the same at all Tex Mex establishments and thus not worth trying, I would generally agree with you.  The ones at Los Cucos, however, are different (and crave-worthy).  Los Cucos tortillas, made fresh on-site, are doughier (less cooked) than those at other restaurants.  The tortilla is super stretchy, so a bite into the quesadilla pulls on both the cheese and the tortilla.  I can’t logically explain why this makes the quesadilla better, but it certainly has made an impression on me.

From sophisticated to everyday, grand to hole-in-the-wall, these highlights are the reason why I always enjoy a trip to Houston.  Oh, and if you’re wondering why any self-proclaimed foodie would publicly confess her love for Los Cucos, you should really try a deep fried stuffed avocado first.  Just one bite.

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3 Responses to “Holiday Season Houston Highlights”

  1. foodczar 02/01/2008 at 5:34 pm #

    Yes, readers, Donna is back! Glad to see you poked your head out of the computer lab long enough to see the sunshine. (My guess as to why you haven’t posted in a while; grad school can be quite demanding!) Of all the places you mentioned, Los Cucos intrigues me the most, simply because the Rock Star and I are planning a Roadtrip this month and will be staying in New Braunfels. I see on their website that Los Cucos has a New Braunfels location. Question: Have you been to this particular location, and if so, what would you recommend???

  2. donnaaries 02/02/2008 at 12:04 am #

    Czar, never been to the New Braunfels location. Like I said, Los Cucos is more of a guilty pleasure than foodie find. I would definitely recommend the stuffed avocado and the quesadillas (they have a shrimp and spinach version). Fajitas are decent, and there’s a platter (I believe it’s called the Bonita) that comes with a fried pastry puff topped with queso that’s cravable as well. Skip the enchiladas, not Los Cucos’ strong point.

  3. TG 02/05/2008 at 8:05 am #

    awesome report with food good enough to make me wish i lived there. arugula salad + taleggio pizza = heaven. sigh

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