Friday, January 30, 2009

Adios, Mi Luna

Mi Luna, the popular Woodlands-area Tapas bar, is gone. We stopped by recently and found the door locked, and a notice from the landlord that they had been locked out because of failure to pay rent.

Apparently the Woodlands location is the only one closing.

The Counter - Another Upscale Burger Chain Targets Houston

Following on the heels of the smashing success of SmashBurger, the California-based The Counter burger chain has Houston in its sights.

The Counter's concept features a design-your-own burger menu that's filled out by the customer. Options go far beyond the usual burger joint, with ten different cheeses, 28 different toppings, 18 different sauces, and three bun choices, totaling over 312,000 different combinations.

Denver's Magazine named The Counter among Denver's best new restaurants for 2008.

Weathering the Economy - Chick-fil-A's Sales Keep Growing

In a struggling economy, there are some companies that succeed. Offer a good product and a good price, and value-conscious consumers will reward you.

Chick-fil-A enjoyed another year of double-digit sales growth in 2008. The company has reported 2008 systemwide sales of $2.96 billion, representing a 12.17 percent increase over the chain’s 2007 overall sales performance. Same-store sales increased 4.59 percent.

Chick-fil-A's record sales performance marked the chain’s 41st consecutive year of systemwide sales gains – a streak that the chain has sustained since its inception in 1967 – and its 16th straight year of double-digit sales growth.

"Chick-fil-A was able to endure a number of challenges that could have been detrimental to any other chain, including targeted product competition among our quick-service rivals and a challenging economic environment, but our restaurant operators and team members remained committed to excellence which resulted in another solid sales year," said Chick-fil-A president and COO Dan T. Cathy.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jasper's - Upscale American Food in the Woodlands

Jasper's features modern interpretations of traditional American cuisine. Owned by Chef Kent Rathbun (one of the rare guest winners on Iron Chef America,) Jasper's delivers excellent cuisine in an upscale, casual setting.

We met a friend recently for lunch at Jasper's, and ordered one of their gourmet hamburgers.

The recipe: A half pound of high quality beef, hand-formed and grilled over a mixture of woods. Cooked to order (medium rare, in our case) and nicely juicy. Topped with your choice of cheese (cheddar for us) carmelized onions, thick cut applewood-smoked bacon, fresh veggies, and served on a barely toasted egg bun. The result is one of the best upscale burgers you'll find anywhere, and the side of housemade potato chips is a great finishing touch.

Other great bets include prime steaks, upscale BBQ dishes, and gourmet pizzas. They have a decadent appetizer of housemade potato chips covered with Maytag bleu cheese chunks and a creamy cheese sauce that's not to be missed. Desserts are excellent as well, and there is a wecome option of mini-desserts offering just a taste or three; perfect after a large meal.

Brunch is excellent as well; our favorite is Jasper's take on French Toast.

Bottom line: Best restaurant in the Woodlands... or anywhere Outside The Loop for that matter.

Jasper's: Market Street Square, 9595 Six Pines, The Woodlands, 77380, 281-298-6600

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Olive Oil - Greek Dining and Entertainment

Opa! That's the traditional Greek exclamation, and it's heard a lot on Saturday nights at the Olive Oil.

From the street, the Olive Oil is a nondescript little storefront in one of the huge strip centers along Sawdust road. But once you step in the door, you're in a warm, inviting restaurant with some of the best Greek cuisine around.

Like many folks, I'm a big fan of gyros, and the Olive Oil's are top notch. The meat is tender, savory and flavorful. And the pita is fresh and hot; no hard, dry pita here. We observed a wide variety of Greek specialties being served, and are looking forward to sampling them on our next visit. (And for the unadventurous, there are some typical American dishes offered, including a chicken-fried steak.)

Service is friendly and professional - lots of staff, and they're constantly in motion.

If you arrive on a Saturday night, as we did, you'll be greeted by a full house (we were lucky to get a table) and some outstanding Greek dancing and singing. A band set was set up in an out-of-the-way corner, and a troupe of dancers were performing in front. The entertainment made for a very boisterous atmosphere; it was fun, and we'll return.

The Olive Oil: 373 Sawdust Road, The Woodlands, 77380, 281-367-0114

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Smashburger Scouting other Houston Locations

In an unrelated article, the Houston Business journal mentioned that Smashburger, the Denver-based chain, is scouting sites in the Woodlands, Memorial, and Sugar Land areas.

Smashburger opened its first Houston location near S. Main and Kirby to rave reviews.

Vallone puts River Oaks Italian Spot on Hold

Citing the weak economy, Houston restaurant icon Tony Vallone announced that he's put on hold his plan to open an Italian bistro and wine bar on West Gray.

"I'm going to wait until the economy gets better," said Vallone.

Tony Vallone is the restaurateur behind Tony's, the landmark Houston restaurant known both for its European cuisine and its famous patrons.

Vallone and his son Jeff were going to operate the restaurant together. Jeff currently operates Amici, the popular Italian spot located in Sugar Land's Town Center.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Amici - Serious Italian in Sugar Land

I love this new trend of serious restaurants opening up in the suburbs, and Sugarland benefits from this with Amici, the brainchild of Jeff Vallone and Bruce McMillian.

(For those who don't know the names, Jeff is the son of Tony Vallone, and Bruce was the Executive Chef at Tony's for many years. Both were instrumental in creating the Grotto.)

Amici is an example of how to do a restaurant right. First, the decor: It's a gorgeous space, with doors that open out on to the town square when the weather's nice. It's modern and elegant, but still manages to be inviting; it's not stuffy at all.

But the reason you come is the food. Jeff and Bruce know as much about Italian food as anyone in Texas, and it shows. The menu has wonderful balance -- traditional dishes like chicken parmigiana are there (and among the best in town) but the real magic lies with the more creative offerings, many of which you won't see anywhere else. The menu changes often, and the focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients is refreshing.

Little touches demonstrate the attention to detail: The bread basket has a variety of housemade breads, and they're delicious. A custom blended flavored iced tea is offered, and it's excellent.

Service is casual, friendly, and professional. And their recommendations are spot on.

We live in the Woodlands, but we make the trek down to Sugarland on a regular basis. It's worth it... at least until they open a Woodlands location.

Amici: 16089 City Walk, Town Square, Sugar Land, 77479, 281-242-2800

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Eden Cafe - The Little Cafe that Could

Many of our friends who live ITL (Inside The Loop, a Houston term for the part of town inside I-610) maintain that there's nothing OTL (Outside the Loop) worth the drive. In our experience, they couldn't be more wrong.

We'd been hearing good buzz about a small cafe that had opened in a strip center at the far northwest corner of the Woodlands, and finally got a chance to check 'em out last night.

Eden Cafe is a small family owned establishment that serves a wide variety of cuisine. They're serious about variety: They have daily specials that are based on a specific cuisine. Tex-Mex Tuesdays, Italian Wednesdays, Comfort Food Thursdays, and Seafood Fridays (the day we visited.)

I ordered one of the specials - blackened tilapia. It was a beautiful tilapia filet expertly prepared, tender, moist, and nicely spicy. The sides were ver good as well: A mild Greek salad with plenty of feta, and a scoop of sweet potato casserole, rich, earthy, and loaded with nuts.

We also sampled their chicken-fried chicken, which was superb. Very moist, hand-breaded with a light, crispy breading, it was accompanied by a grilled squash/zucchini side that was delicious.

Another winner was the Pasta Marsala. A large serving of penne pasta with plenty of grilled chicken, mushrooms, squash, and a rich marsala wine sauce.

Prices are surprisingly modest. There's nothing on the menu over $13.

The restaurant was packed on Friday night, but the service was still friendly and professional. The owner, Ulises Larramendi, was greeting guests (many of whom were obviously regulars) and making sure things were flowing smoothly.

Browsing the menu, we discovered that Eden Cafe also has a full breakfast menu on Friday and Saturday ('till 3pm on Saturday.) They're closed Sunday and Monday.

Eden Cafe is a winner. It's a comfortable, casual cafe that serves very well-executed food. It's a worn phrase, but there's really something for everyone.

For those coming from ITL, it's a bit of a hike, but we think it's worth it. There are hundreds of small, family run cafes in Houston, but we've yet to find one that offers such a wide variety of food that is so expertly prepared.

We'll be back.

Eden Cafe: 33418 Egypt Lane, Suite 16, Magnolia, 77354, 832-934-2800,

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Grimaldi's Pizza Inks Woodlands Deal

Grimaldi's Pizza, the landmark Brooklyn pizza joint, has been franchising for a while. And now they have their sights set on the Woodlands. Sources report that a deal has been struck to put a Grimaldi's location on the Woodlands Waterway some time in 2009.

Reviews of the chain's locations have been generally positive; here's one from the Dallas Morning News on the McKinney Ave store.

Mel's Country Cafe - Behold the Mega Mel

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

The List: Houston's Best Burgers

Here is our list of Houston's Best Burgers (January 2009 edition)

10. Barnaby's (Montrose)
9. The Tavern (W Gray)
8. Mel's Cafe (Tomball)
7. 2-M's (Rosenberg)
6. Beck's Prime (multiple locations)
5. Jasper's (Woodlands)
4. Farrago (Midtown)
3. Smashburger (Reliant)
2. CJ's Cafe (Woodlands)
1. Christian's Totem (I-10 W, ITL)

A newcomer to town jumps on the list - Smashburger, the Denver-based chain, bumping Jax Grill out of the top 10.

Someburger - Blast from the Past

Someburger is the classic walk-up hamburger stand that's miraculously survived into the 21st century.

It's another blast from the past: Old-school thin-patty hamburgers, lovingly prepared on a classic flat griddle. All the usual toppings are available, and they're fresh and tasty.

The staff at Someburger are great; many have been there for years. These folks know burgers, and take pride in what they do. And it shows.

Sides are quite good: Best are the onion rings, which are fried properly, only slightly greasy, and have a nice snap to them.

There's no dining room, but there are a handful of picnic tables outside the hamburger stand. Many folks choose to eat in their vehicles, especially during a hot Houston summer.

By today's standards, the burgers are downright cheap. $6 buys a burger, fries, and a Coke, and a slice of Texas history to boot.

Someburger is another place that every Houston burger lover needs to try for himself. I'll bet you go back again and again.

Someburger: 745 E 11th St, Houston, 77008, 713-862-0019

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One's A Meal - New Upscale Digs, Same Down-Home Greek Food

The Bibas empire as moved the idiosyncratic West Gray store to some upscale new digs on inner Westheimer. Located in the slot occupied by the late-but-not-terribly-lamented Rouge, Bibas has moved uptown in more ways that one.

The new location is lovely; much more upscale than the funky old spot. And the staff seems to have brought their attitude upscale to match the new digs - on our recent visit the service was prompt and professional.

Fortunately, the better-than-average Greek food as made the trip. Gyros are very good; the high volume assures that the meat is very fresh, the veggies are crisp, and the pitas are right off the pita-making-thing. Other Greek specialties are good as well: I often order the kotopita, the savory chicken dish served in flaky, layered pastry.

But my favorite thing at One's A Meal remains the pizza. The crust is hand tossed and chewy with a crunchy exterior, and the toppings are fresh and flavorful. My fave is the standard pepperoni, Greek-ified with the addition of feta cheese. It comes out chewy and gooey, and is one of the best pizzas in town.

Prices seem to have climbed slightly with the new fancier digs, but it remains a real bargain, especially for the neighborhood.

If you'd rather not wait in Niko-Niko's line, drive a block and enjoy both better service and better food.

One's A Meal: 812 Westheimer, Houston, 77006, 713-523-0425

Rise & Dine Opens in the Woodlands

Rise & Dine Restaurant has opened its first restaurant in the Houston area, choosing the Woodlands as its location. The company is based out of Columbus, Ohio.

Rise & Dine is open from 6:30am to 2:30pm for breakfast and lunch, and specializes in fresh, wholesome food and friendly service.

The restaurant also offers catering for large or small events.

Rise & Dine

Jimmy's Egg - OK Breakfast Spot Targets Houston

Jimmy's Egg, the landmark breakfast spot in Oklahoma City, has set their sights across the Red River and into Houston. They announced today they they'd signed an area development deal that includes all of Harris County.

Jimmy's Egg started as a 50-seat restaurant in 1980, and has expanded into a small chain in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area.

The Houston location will be the first venture outside of Oklahoma.

Press Release

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Restaurant Closings

A few significant restaurant closings in the Houston area:

Azzarelli's, Katy
Backdoor Sushi, River Oaks
The Brownstone, River Oaks
Chocolata, The Woodlands
Hunan River, River Oaks
Little Hip's Diner, Washington Ave.
La Mesa Bistro, The Woodlands

Christian's Totem - Houston Burger Royalty

This, my friends, is a serious burger.

This unassuming Texas icehouse, located on I-10 inside the Loop, has been grilling a spectacular burger for years. It's arguably the best in Houston.

A great burger starts with the meat, and Christian's is superb. It's moist and tender, but not dripping with grease... the ooze factor is just about perfect. The meat has a nice char-grilled flavor, and it's complemented by wonderful fresh vegetables. The bun is browned on the grill; nothing fancy, but it completes the burger with zen-line balance.

This is a big burger. The single fills me up easily; the double should be reserved for professional athletes who are breaking training.

Christian's doesn't skimp on the fries, either. They're well-cooked, crisp on the outside and tender inside; again, just right.

If you're a burger fan, and haven't tried Christian's, go right now. We'll wait 'till you get back and tell us about it.

Christian's Totem: 7340 Washington Ave, Houston, 77007, 713-864-9744

Monday, January 19, 2009

Smashburger - Burger Chain Arrives in Houston

I like burgers. I love good burgers. I adore great burgers. When I heard about Smashburger, I said to myself, "Self, another foreign (i.e. from out of Texas) burger chain has invaded Houston. Maybe it'll be OK, but I don't have high hopes. It's a chain, so it's going to be lame."

I was dead wrong.

Smashburger makes an excellent hamburger. It starts with a hand-formed patty (1/2 pound in this case) smashed fairly flat. It's topped with a slice of thickish American cheese, and remarkably fresh veggies -- we're talking truly crisp here. The assembled product is perched atop a fresh eggy bun, and the burger hangs over the bun about 3/4" on all sides.

Interestingly enough, this burger doesn't come across at all as an upscale burger. It's more of a traditional, down-home griddled burger, but prepared with remarkable balance and attention to detail.

How's it taste? Superb. The beef is griddled expertly, with plenty of ooze left. The cheese/beef combination approaches the Golden Mean; the combined flavor was about as dead-on as could be. The super fresh veggies added their flavors to the mix, but everything stayed distinct.

Christian's Totem, Beck's Prime, and the rest of the top notch burger joints in town now have a new, serious competitor. I'd have to give Beck's a slight edge for more flavorful meat (the mesquite taste is excellent) but Smashburger nails the beef/cheese ratio and the combined flavor is really excellent. I think this is the best chain burger in town. I still have to give the overall edge to Christian's Totem... but the mediocre experience that is Christian's Tailgate in Midtown demonstrates just how impressive Smashburger's consistent approach really is.

There may be better burgers in Houston, but I'd not fault anyone for naming Smashburger as his favorite.

(Update: A friend pointed out that I'd not mentioned the fries, and that is a mistake that should be corrected. The Smashfries are unique and delicious. It's cone of paper (artfully presented in an iron holder) filled with thinish, machine-cut fries, probably thawed and fried. The magic is in the execution: They're fried perfectly; crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and then seasoned with rosemary, olive oil, and sea salt. Very unique, and a wonderful counterpoint to the great burger.)

The biggest fault? The location. They're at Kirby and S. Main. Although I do see property values rising in that neighborhood now.

When's that Woodlands location opening?

On the Road - City Market in Luling

Texans love to argue about BBQ. Each of us has a short list of favorite places, with the very best usually located in small towns, far away from the commercial pressures that lead to "City BBQ" which is a compromise at best.

When you talk to enough folks about BBQ (and we love to talk BBQ) a few places keep coming up over and over again. City Market in Luling is one of them. And for good reason.

City Market serves up some of the best BBQ you'll find anywhere. The sausage is very good. The brisket is superb.

But the ribs are spectacular. Among the best anywhere. Meaty, perfectly smoked, fall-off-the-bone tender, and seasoned with a dry rub that imparts an unmatched sweet / savory flavor that has to be experienced to be understood.

Sauce is available, but is wholly unnecessary. The meat stands on its own. That is the mark of stellar BBQ, and Luling City Market delivers.

There are only two negative about this place: It's closed on Sunday, and it's about 140 miles from Houston.

(And please don't confuse "Luling City Market" in Houston with this establishment. Different owners. By comparison, the food in Houston can barely be called BBQ.)

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Food for Your Brain:

Live comedy is something we've enjoyed for years, and we especially like comedians who make us think as well as laugh.
Brian Malow (Earth's Premier Science Comedian) makes us laugh really hard, and he'll make you laugh too, as long as your IQ is above room temperature.

His humor is truly unique. You may have caught his act on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, on A&E, or on the Discovery Channel. He's also peformed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and before the Texas Crime Prevention Association, although the crime rate in Texas did spike slightly higher after his show. (Brian assures us that the events are not related.)

Sirenuse Euro Bistro - What Are They Thinking?

There's a new place hidden in the Woodlands' Waterway Square: Sirenuse Euro Bistro.

We stopped by recently on the way to a film. After browsing the menu and listening to the waiter, we were put off by the level of pretentiousness, especially from a brand-new restaurant. The menu is filled with prose describing the wonder that is Sirenuse... and they've just opened.

Example: There were some interesting pastas on the menu, such as a butternut squash mezzalune, for $12. When I expressed interest, the waiter said that it was an appetizer portion, and that if I wanted it as an entree, he'd double the size... and of course, double the price, he added helpfully.

I asked how big the regular portion was: "Four ounces" was his reply. I was shocked. It's not as if pasta is a particularly expensive ingredient, so why the miniscule portion? (And if they knew the tiny portion was a problem, why not address it, without doubling the price to the customer?)

Another example: Their web site has an "About" page, with a "Background & Story" section. I'd hoped to learn something about the team behind the restaurant; perhaps their culinary credentials, or where they'd come from?

Nope. But here's the useful stuff I did find:

A lesson on how to pronounce the restaurant's name (if you've gotta teach this to your customers, you've picked the wrong name)

A story about the Roman legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and the Sirens that tempted them.

Oops. Jason was a part of Greek mythology, not Roman. And this confused story tells me nothing about the restaurant

So we've got dreadfully overpriced pasta, an undisguised sheen of pretentiousness, and a back story that the owners don't seem to have bothered to research.


I've never had this sort of surreal experience in a restaurant before, and hopefully never will again. I thanked our waiter for his time, and we headed over to the Goose's Acre for a good meal without the attitude.

Side note: The OTHER brand-new restaurant in Waterway Square, Hubble and Hudson, had an hour wait for a table. Sirenuse was 80% empty. Just a coincidence?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slider Surprise: Reef disappoints, Hooters (Hooters?) delights

Sliders have become so trendy that just about every casual dining establishment has added them to the menu. It seems that every time we sit down, we're confronted with sliders.

And that's not a bad thing. We like hamburgers, we love good ones, and we crave great ones.

On a recent lunch outing, we gave Reef's sliders a try.

They're three plump little hamburgers placed on a nice egg-y bun, topped with carmelized onions and served with a side of fries. We'd heard great things about these sliders, and honestly, we were underwhelmed. The hand-formed patties were thick but overcooked, and the only notable flavor was from the onions. These sliders were begging for some thick-sliced bacon and a gentler touch on the grill. The generic fries were clearly out of a bag.

Yesterday, a very pleasant surprise. We were waiting for car repairs, and Hooters was in walking distance. Normally this place isn't on the radar, but perhaps that bit of prejudice has now been corrected. Hooters is known for their chicken wings, but their sliders are among the best we've tried.

The formula is simple: Hand-formed beef patty, fluffy white bun, melted American cheese, pickles, raw onions. But the execution was excellent: The beef was cooked medium, with a nice pink tinge at the middle of the tiny, thickish patty. The cheese was nicely melted and the quantity was just right, and it fused the veggies to the patty. And the bun was light and fluffy, sealing the deal. Two order sizes are available: Four sliders in the standard order, or six in the large order, which we found perfect for sharing. And the crisp onion strings were a nice alternative to the generic fries.

If someone had told me that we'd prefer Hooter's sliders to Reef's, I would have laughed. But tasting is believing. If there's one rule when you chow down in H-Town, it's that you should throw your preconceptions out the window. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised.