Friday, March 21, 2014

First Look Review: We Say Hello to Hello Taco

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?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Guest Blogger: A Visit to Oxheart

This week we're excited to introduce another guest blogger. Dr. Tom Nguyen is an active member of the Woodlands Area Foodies group, and one of the most knowledgable foodies I've met in years. He's constantly on the move trying new and different places, and he recently visited one of Houston's most written-about restaurants, Oxheart. Here's Tom's take on this media darling:


Finally had the chance to check out the hottest restaurant in Houston. Hailed by everybody from the local press to New York Times, wanted to check out the talents of Chef Justin Yu.
Oxheart. (Photo: Kent Wang)

Located discreetly in gentrified EaDo (east downtown), Oxheart is in the building where Latin Bites used to be. Look for a place with 2 wooden doors at a corner. Walking in felt like walking into somebody's small loft, no formal host/hostess, but one of the waitstaff running around will greet and seat you. Definitely a casual atmosphere.

We get seated at the kitchen counter where all the action's at. Decor is pretty cozy, again, like you're in somebody's loft rather than a restaurant. First thing I notice, cats everywhere. Chinese lucky cats (Maneki-Neko) to be exact. At the counter, there are drawers near where you sit which contains utensils and napkins. You are expected to get these yourself.

Menu consists of a tasting menu, a seasonal menu (meat) and a garden menu (no meat). Food is locally sourced from wagyu in Wallis near Eagle Lake to veggies from Atkinson Farms in Spring. We order all 3 menus.

Details of the dishes follow. (Photos by Tom Nguyen)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Hubbell & Hudson Popup Dinner - Inside the Loop with Chef Austin Simmons

We're unabashed fans of the food Chef Austin Simmons creates at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. From his incredibly creative seafood presentations to his world-class burgers, we've not seen a misstep from this talented young chef.

Last night the chef took his formidable talent and a section of his kitchen staff inside the loop for a pop-up dinner. The location was a stunning historic Museum District home, recently renovated by Pasternak Custom Homes, and offered for sale by John Daugherty Realtors.

For the event the meticulously restored interior of the home was converted into an intimate bistro. In attendance were members of the print, broadcast, and on-line media, all anxious to sample what was ahead.

As the culinary team prepared the eight-course tasting menu, craft cocktails were passed, accompanied by a surprising appetizer: A quick-fried morsel of battered and breaded foie gras, cooked to the point of liquidity. This burst of liquid flavor was a playful tease of what was to come.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Going Beyond the Pie - Calzone at Crust Pizza Co.

We've made no bones about being fans of Crust Pizza Co., the independent pizza empire that has announced the expansion to a third location in the Woodlands. Their focus on fresh ingredients, innovative recipes, and rock-solid consistency makes them our go-to place for a great pizza.

But we'll let you in on a secret. The outstanding pizza may not be the best thing on the Crust Pizza menu. That honor belongs to the superlative calzone, which takes the already outstanding crust to the next level.

Behold this delicious creation. The flaky, hand-tossed dough is folded around freshly cut fillings, in this case a carnivore's delight of pepperoni, bacon, Italian sausage, beef, and Canadian bacon. Melted with the meats are a mix of freshly cut mozzarella and cheddar cheese. The crust is baked to a perfect golden brown, then brushed with butter and fresh garlic. 

The result is, hands down, the best calzone we've ever tasted. Try it.

Crust Pizza Co. on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 17, 2014


We were saddened to hear of the closing of the venerable website, one of the oldest food review sites covering Houston since the mid-90's. They'd survived the rise of Citysearch and Yelp, and continued with their bare-bones format and ad-free approach.

Thanks for all your hard work, guys. You'll be missed.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

2nd Annual Houston BBQ Festival Announced

Update: More Information!

WHAT: The 2nd Annual Houston Barbecue Festival will celebrate and recognize what is unique about Houston barbecue. Specifically, we want to:
  • Recognize the talent, hard work, and dedication of the owners and pitmasters that make Houston barbecue great.
  • Make the citizens of Houston (and Texas, and the U.S., etc.) aware of the long history of barbecue here and that the quality of Houston barbecue is comparable to other regional styles of barbecue.
  • Make Houstonians true connoisseurs of barbecue by offering samples of great barbecue so they can choose to patronize those barbecue joints committed to only the highest quality of barbecue.
  • Celebrate the diversity of Houston barbecue by including the many styles of barbecue found here.

WHEN: Sunday, April 6th, 2014 from 1:00-5:00pm. VIP Admission at 12pm.

WHERE: Reliant Park, Purple Lot. Parking entrance on South Main Street.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

China Garden - A Houston Classic

In the breakneck-paced Houston food scene, new restaurants often appear, get hot, cool off, and ultimately disappear in a matter of months. Universal foodie acclaim doesn't prevent this vicious cycle -- witness the demise of media darlings like Feast and Bootsie's.

Certain parts of town seem to present even more challenges. Inner Westheimer has tremendous competition. The Heights has archaic liquor laws. Downtown can offer a strong lunch business, but is deserted on weeknights, and this combination has thwarted great restaurants like Samba Grille, Laidback Manor, and other high-profile, critical success stories.

Yet some restaurants endure, and do so for decades. Instead of embracing the hottest food trends, they find a formula that satisfies their customers, and they refine and perfect it.

A textbook example is China Garden, located downtown across the street from the Toyota Center garage. China Garden has been serving Chinese-American food for lunch and dinner from this location since the 1970's, and we've heard reports of good food from trusted friends.

We ventured downtown for lunch to try to find out why China Garden has thrived so long in the tough downtown restaurant market.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Beck's Prime Sums Up Houston with New Banh Mi Sandwich

As our readers know, Houston's vibrant food scene isn't limited to Tex-Mex, BBQ, and burgers. As our nation's most multicultural city, dining options span the list from African to Vietnamese, with pretty much everything in between.

And Vietnamese is a big deal here. Houston is home to one of the nation's largest Vietnamese communities, and these immigrants have brought the delicious foods of their culture along with them. Vietnamese restaurants thrive in Houston, and range from tiny mom-and-pop pho shops to thriving local chains like Kim Son.

Imagine our surprise when we got a note from Houston's home-grown upscale burger empire, Beck's Prime, talking about the Banh Mi sandwich they were adding to their menu. We received a generous invitation to visit any of the Beck's locations and sample this interesting new offering (along with a couple of others).

Burgers and Banh Mi. If that's not 21st century Houston casual dining, I don't know what is. But we had to wonder how good a Beck's Prime banh mi would be. To determine that, we put together a crack tasting team and ventured over to the Woodands' own Beck's Prime location.

Befitting this multicultural offering was our multicultural team, consisting of your humble editor and real estate guru / celebrity foodie Huy Dang, the man behind the stunning @uberbites Instagram account. His knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine far exceeds mine, and he has a very keen palate. He's also a sharp dresser, adding a badly needed touch of class to our dining party.

On a blustery February at noon we converged on Beck's Prime on Grogan's Mill in the Woodlands, skillfully avoiding the road construction that rendered the parking lot all but inaccessible. Even with the construction Beck's was doing a strong lunch business. Woodlands residents know their burgers, and Beck's are among the best. But we weren't here for the burgers.

Beck's staff demonstrated their usual flawless hospitality, and we ordered and grabbed a table. In short order the food came out. Front and center was the new banh mi.

Banh Mi at Beck's Prime

No, this is not your Aunt Thuy's banh mi. The traditional french loaf is replaced with one of Beck's signature egg buns, the fatty mystery pork usually found has been replaced with lean, chargrilled, generously-sliced pork sirloin, and the vegetables were crispy, very fresh, and freshly cut.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tasting Their First Burger

This fascinating video from 2008, sponsored by Burger King, chronicles people around the world who are tasting their first hamburger.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Tet Festival Houston 2014 showcases Vietnamese culture

The Tet FESTival Houston 2014 is a fun, free, family-friendly event on January 25th from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Discovery Green that will showcase the Vietnamese culture’s food, dance and fashion in a Lunar New Year celebration.

Tet FEStival Houston 2014’s celebrity Pho Eating Contest will be held on Jones Lawn at 2 p.m.  This speed event will require participants to slurp NAM Noodles and More’s traditional pho with beef, brisket, meatballs, bean sprouts, rice noodles, beef broth, and all of the delicious garnishes including thai basil, bean sprouts, coriander, lime, jalapenos, hoisin sauce and sriracha faster than the competition. The contest will test celebrity contestants from the East vs. West to see who will be the “NAM Noodles and More Pho Eating Champion.”

After Ice Skating at the ICE at Discovery Green, attendees will be able to warm up with Pho variations at the NAM Noodles and More booth, as well as and a cup of the Vietnamese signature coffee, Cà Phê Sữa.  Traditional Vietnamese food presentations and fruit carving will be available throughout the festival grounds as well.

For more information, browse the festival website.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Guest Blogger: A Preview of Black Walnut Cafe at Lone Star Executive Airport

Today we're exited to bring you a pre-opening preview from Kim, the woman behind the terrific Chewandreview instagram account.   Kim checks out the new Black Walnut Cafe, located atop the Galaxy FBO facility at the Lone Star Executive airport in Conroe. Official opening to the public is today.

I was so excited to attend a preview service for the new Black Walnut location at the Lone Star Executive Airport in the new GalaxyFBO hangar. I know what most of y'all are thinking. You're full of preconceived notions about the Conroe Airport (and Conroe in general). I've heard things like, "That Black Walnut won't be as good," "The menu is going to be very limited…all they will have is sandwiches and they'll just focus on catering." Well, I'd like to proudly tell you that you all are wrong. Sure, you have to drive by the old dump that closed in 1996 to get to this little gem, but just pretend those big piles of grass covered trash are rolling hills. The location is on the 3rd floor of the new hangar. I was really impressed when I first walked in. There are a ton of windows, so there's a lot of natural lighting, but it still has that "Black Walnut" feel with the belt-driven fans and dark wood accents. It's much more roomy and open than The Woodlands location, and I really like that. They retained the traditional Black Walnut counter-service style, but thankfully, the layout is so much better. Oh, and the outdoor seating. I was so excited to see that. Once again, not many places in Conroe where you can sit outside and enjoy a meal (I don't go west to the lake very often). Anyway…

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Korean Food in Magnolia? We Taste Umami

The Woodlands is surrounded by small towns and somewhat rural areas, and the influx of people to the area is causing the entire region to develop. A case in point is Umami, a newish Korean restaurant located in Magnolia, which is the town to the immediate northwest of the Woodlands.

Located in a nondescript strip center on Highway 1488, from the street Umami looks like a generically disappointing Chinese buffet. But a tip from a trusted friend (Thanks, Michael) sent us to check out the Korean cuisine offered by this family-run place.

Pulling into the center, we were greeted by a behemoth of a sign, which we later found out was left over from a previous incarnation of the restaurant. It's big, it's brash, and it doesn't bode well for what's inside.

One thing the sign accurately coveys is the size of the restaurant. It's big, taking up the entire building. Heading inside, we walked through a small foyer into the restaurant proper, and were surprised by what we found.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bennigan's Begins Again - Our Review

Growing up in Houston, Bennigan's was one of those restaurants that I felt was always going to be around. They were a better version of Chili's or TGI Friday's, with all the expected casual dining standards, plus a few signature items. The bar was also a hoppin' happy hour scene, with groups of coworkers unwinding after a hard day at the office.

Over the years, as other restaurants in their segment updated their concepts, Bennigan's stayed pretty much the same. That turned out to be their undoing, because the chain declared bankruptcy in 2008, with most of the stores (including all of the ones in greater Houston) closing shortly thereafter.

I was surprised to hear that Bennigan's was returning to the Woodlands - it would be the second first location to return to the Houston area. They selected a location that has housed several short-lived establishments, most recently Aldo's. The building is on I-45, and was somewhat dark and uninviting.

The new Bennigan's opened their doors last week, and we decided to check them out recently for lunch. Our first impression was a good one; Bennigan's has gutted the building, and the result is much brighter and far more modern.

The Bennigan's dining room

We like how the space was visually divided into different areas - the design is open, but not too open, avoiding the barn-like ambiance that seems to plague many new establishments.

When we've mentioned to friends that we tried the new Bennigan's, we keep getting asked one question, over and over again: "How's the Monte Cristo?" This sweet and savory deep fried sandwich was Bennigan's signature dish, and we couldn't wait to see if it was still as delicious as we remembered.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Corkscrew BBQ upgrades its brisket

From a very strong beginning, Corkscrew BBQ, the small, family-run BBQ joint on Budde road near the Woodlands, has drawn numerous accolades for it's world-class brisket. Many think it's the best in Greater Houston, and can hold its own against the hallowed pits of Central Texas.

So do they rest on their laurels?

Apparently not.

Will Buckman, the pitmaster who personally oversees the smoking of each brisket, has selected an even higher quality brisket: Pasture raised Black Angus Prime Brisket.

This premium beef promises to elevate Corkscrew's brisket beyond its current highly awarded (and highly delicious) state.

Aaron Franklin, better keep looking over your shoulder.

Friday, November 15, 2013

First Look at Texas Beer Garden

"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

Texas Beer Garden on Urbanspoon