Where to eat, drink in Houston

Friday June 30th, 2017

Heading to Houston soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for some chicken stuffed jalapeno poppers or an elk, bacon and cheddar weiner, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

BB's

2710 Montrose Blvd #A, Houston, TX 77006
This review of BB's originally appeared Oct. 12, 2015

Sometimes, I can spot the item on the menu I want above all others. Other times, I can easily spot an appetizer-entrée combo that seems ideal. But sometimes I just can’t choose, and even I can’t down three or four entrees and an appetizer. (OK, maybe I have once or twice.) This happens every time I visit Jacques-Imo’s in New Orleans. I wish I could order every single item on the menu. But even I can’t eat that much, and I certainly can’t afford it.

So bless the folks at BB’s for allowing me to indulge in a solid chunk of the menu without breaking the bank. BB’s is a small (five locations) chain that advertises “Tex Orleans Cooking.” This fusion results in a fajita po’ boy, but shockingly does not result in a brisket po’ boy. You’ll have to go to Pimanyoli’s in Baton Rouge for one of those. Most of the dishes at BB’s are either Texas or New Orleans. One—the grillades and grits—would best be termed “Low Country Orleans,” but let’s not get tied up in conceptual branding. The only thing that really matters is the taste. And four items on BB’s menu were intriguing on the page and excellent on the palate.

Grits and gillades from BB's in Houston.
Andy Staples

I wanted the loaded pollo bullets appetizer (chicken stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeños, wrapped in bacon and served with a side of Cajun cream sauce), the grillades and grits (steak tips cooked in Cajun gravy and topped with cheese grits), the crawfish etouffee (self-explanatory) and the Chalmette macaroni (jalapeño cheese macaroni topped with roast beef debris). Fortunately for me—and for the SI bean counters—half the pollo bullets and cups of the other three wound up costing about $25 and I ended up stuffed and happy.

The bullets were excellent. I’ve made jalapeno poppers (jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) at home for years, but I’ll need to start adding chicken. This is a near-perfect appetizer in a world full of highly flawed ones.

The etouffee was just fine. It won’t compete with the better spots in New Orleans, but it only has to compete with the better Louisiana-centric spots in Houston. By combining steak tips and gravy instead of shrimp with grits, BB’s has made one of my favorite dishes even heartier. Grits and gravy go together just as well as shrimp and grits.

The star was the debris mac and cheese. Debris is composed of the delicious bits that fall off beef as it roasts. These bits then sit in the juice until they become perfect flavor bombs. In New Orleans, places like Mother’s serve roast beef po’ boys enhanced with debris. But Mother’s is a tourist trap. If you’re lucky, maybe Cochon Butcher will have a roast beef and debris sandwich special on the day you come. Or you could head to Houston, where BB’s sprinkles that delicious debris and gravy over jalapeno mac and cheese. Mac and cheese is the king of side dishes, but the addition of the debris turns it into a quality meal. The jalapenos provide an opening kick. The cheese cools it down. And the debris? It makes it sublime.

Carniceria Aguascalientes

​2809 Broadway St., Houston, TX 77017
This review of Carniceria Aguascalientes originally appeared April 24, 2017. 

Growing up, my eating experience could best be described as Suburban Provincial. I ate plenty of Southern cooking and good barbecue because of my parents’ roots in Alabama and South Carolina, but for food from other countries—or farther flung parts of this country—I had to rely on chains’ interpretations. As I’ve gotten older and traveled more for work, I’ve learned how hilariously bad some of those interpretations were. But nothing ever made me truly mad until I ate real gorditas at Houston’s Carniceria Aguascalientes last month.

Now Taco Bell and I need to have a talk. 

At some point, some Taco Bell executive tasted a gordita either in Mexico or in an American restaurant run by Mexican immigrants. “This is a gustatory revelation,” this executive probably said. “Let’s take away everything that makes it great and then sell it to unsuspecting suburbanites!”

I can’t believe I wasted so much money on Taco Bell’s gorditas in my formative years when the genuine article was out there somewhere. Meanwhile, I can’t believe Taco Bell didn’t just make the real thing and hook everyone in America.

This is the description on Taco Bell’s website for the Gordita Supreme:

With a warm, soft, flatbread, the Gordita Supreme® has a bit more of a Greek pita’ish kind of vibe. Which, if our memory of Greek gods serves us right, means that when you eat this Gordita Supreme®, Zeus is staring down from Mt. Olympus and giving you a thumbs-up. As the ancient Greek text says, every bite of the Gordita Supreme® is one step closer to being invited to brunch with Aphrodite, playing paintball with Ares (you better pray you just end up on his team), or going marlin fishing with Poseidon. Heck, enough Gordita Supremes and you might even be able to talk Hercules into helping you move a couch. And you know that dude can move some serious couch.

You know there’s a problem when a discussion of a Mexican dish turns into a riff on Greek mythology. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have understood this when Taco Bell introduced the Gordita during my sophomore year of college. (Nor would anyone have thought to read a restaurant’s website in 1998.) Still, the beginning of the description is fundamentally correct. The gordita shell is a bit like a pita. Perhaps Taco Bell turns it into a thicker soft taco shell to save on overhead or to save time, but this is a huge mistake.

The gorditas at Carniceria Aguascalientes are stuffed like real pitas, but the shell is made of cornmeal instead of flour. Cooks cram healthy portions of al pastor and cheese—or beans and cheese, or carne asada and cheese — into the shell and then finish it on a flat-top grill. The al pastor comes from a tower of pork rotating near the grill. What results is a juicy, cheesy handheld miracle. And it’s only $3.50—just 61 cents more than Taco Bell’s gordita supreme, which, remember, is just one of their already below-average tacos with a thicker flour shell.

A true gordita from Carniceria Aguascalientes will make you regret all the money you've wasted on fake ones from Taco Bell.
Andy Staples

The trickiest part of eating a Carniceria Aguascalientes gordita is finding Carniceria Aguascalientes. You have to walk past the restaurant you think is the one you’re looking for and walk into the Mexican grocery store next door. Then take a hard left and look behind the wall. A counter seems to stretch forever while cooks man parallel flat tops. The gorditas are cooked to order and arrive with the cheese still bubbling. You’ll probably have to wait in line to pay, and during that wait you’re going to have to fight the urge to order 10 more.

Taco Bell blew a golden opportunity here. The execs may have been scared off by a slightly higher price point. But had they introduced gorditas resembling the ones from Carniceria Aguascalientes in 1998, they would have had all my money.

Moon Tower Inn

3004 Canal St, Houston, TX 77003
This review of Moon Tower Inn originally appeared Aug. 28, 2016

You’d better be confident in your food—and your beer—to open a restaurant in Houston with no indoor seating. The summer heat index ranges between 90 degrees and boiling split pea soup, so the offerings had better be special enough to entice people to brave the heat and inevitable flies under the covered patio. The URL for Moon Tower Inn’s website proves the people behind this brew pub/purveyor of sandwiches and tube meats do not lack for confidence.

This bravado comes from an honest place. Just an order of the pimento cheese—with pretzel sausage buns for spreading—appetizer would convince me to sweat through lunch and my shirt. But that was only the beginning. Everything I tried during a visit last week lived up to lofty expectations inspired by that web address.

Let’s start with the pimento cheese. This southern tailgate staple is clearly the hot appetizer of the moment. Since it’s tough to make bad pimento cheese, what separates these dishes typically is the carbohydrate vessel upon which the cheese is delivered to the mouth. Some places use crackers, which aren’t as good as the white bread used for pimento cheese sandwiches before your favorite team’s football game. Some places use toast, which is better than crackers but not exactly transcendent. As noted above, Moon Tower Inn uses halves of toasted pretzel sausage buns. These carb tubes dipped in plain mustard would make a near-perfect appetizer, but spreading hot pimento cheese on them takes away the “near-“ part. I could have left happy after only this.

The elk, bacon and cheddar weiner on a pretzel bun from Moon Tower Inn in Houston.
Andy Staples

But I had ordered more, and I’m glad I did. The elk, bacon and cheddar wiener came in one of those glorious pretzel buns, and it was slathered with Moon Tower Inn’s own spicy stone-ground mustard. The mustard is touted as coming “from hell,” but it isn’t that spicy. If it is indeed from the underworld, it’s one of those outer circles reserved for mild sinners such as the people who think their backpack is far too important to put under an airplane seat and insist on taking up valuable overhead bin space. Does elk taste significantly different from cow or pig? Not in weiner form, but the snap of the sausage, the zip of the mustard and the chew of the pretzel bun blended wonderfully.

I also ordered a sandwich called the Orgasmatron, which features pancetta, bacon, goat cheese and something called hotberry compote. The sweet mix of warm berries cut the tang of the goat cheese perfectly. A milder cheese would have been overpowered by the same compote, but this combination worked. The thick bacon and hunks of pancetta provided the salty counterbalance, and the toasted sourdough soaked it all in.

My only regret is that after that lunch, I still had more work to do. Otherwise, I’d have partaken in the offerings pouring from the formidable wall of taps behind the counter. Those pretzel buns cried out for beer. Sadly, I had to leave them wanting. But on my next visit to Houston, I’ll make sure to clear my schedule and wear fibers that breathe. I can’t imagine a better way to sweat.

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