I feel a little silly admitting it, but I’m sad to be leaving Houston restaurants behind. Not as much as people, of course, but when you live somewhere for a decade-plus, you become attached to not only the food, but the feel of a place, all of the meals you’ve had there, the various phases of your life that can be measured in, say, orders of the #86 coconut curry tofu from Huynh or cups of chai consumed at Pondicheri.
Over the course of this summer, I’ve been trying to visit favorite haunts for a final time, as much as expenses will allow. In appreciation of the places that have come to mean so much to me and my family, I present a completely biased, somewhat arbitrary list of places I’ve loved in Houston. Note: I have not included restaurants of days past, simply in interest of time, but I routinely miss date nights at Foreign Correspondents, solo dim sum outings at Yum Yum Cha, & the bread service at Haven, which, to this day remains my favorite bread service of all time.
COFFEE SHOPS/CAFES/WRITING SPOTS:
One of the ways that my Jill and I built writing time into the school year was to have her pick Shiv up from school on Wednesdays so that I could go straight from work to a coffee shop and get a few hours’ worth of writing in before heading home to do Shiv’s bedtime. As a practice, it worked remarkably well, and had the added bonus of giving me a bit of alone time out in the world, a rarity for me since becoming a parent.
I used this structure to do a bit of exploring of various spots that might serve my somewhat specific purposes: 15-20 minute drive from my school, offering some type of food alongside beverages, quiet enough so as not to preclude the ability to write, open between the hours of 4-7 pm (a harder qualification to fill than you might think), and affordable, which I designated as $25-30 total for a beverage and a small meal, plus tax and tip. These are the places I ended up visiting most frequently:
- Pondicheri: anyone who knows me knows how much I love this place. I must have written fully half of my book either upstairs in the bake lab or downstairs in the restaurant (though the latter definitely pushed my affordability window, and they changed their afternoon/evening hours, so I usually only wrote downstairs if I was there for breakfast or brunch). Both spots boast excellent soundtracks and friendly, welcoming staff who eventually recognized me because I was there all the damn time! You get one free chai refill, which is very civilized, and the baked goods upstairs are unlike any you can find elsewhere in the city—Indian-inspired flavors with a distinct Houston twist, and none of them are too sweet, which I truly appreciate. This is also a great place to take friends (see photo above), because they have gluten-free, vegan, and dairy-free offerings.
I recommend: the chai (obvs) – it’s the only chai I’ll pay for in this town –mawa cake (especially if you’re cardamom-obsessed like me) & chocolate-olive oil cake. Shiv & Jill are big fans of the chocolate-orange brioche buns, which are only available on weekends. When I bring those home, I am a hero.
- Local Foods: Local (as my students refer to it) has become ubiquitous for good reason – it’s consistently delicious and affordable. I usually ended up at the Village location to write, but we’ve had date nights and a couple of family dinners at the Upper Kirby location. Their portions are very generous, as are their pours of wine, which this lady appreciates. It’s the kind of place you can hang around for a while and not feel like you’re in the way, and the menu has enough variety that I could go several weeks in a row and not get bored. The nightly specials are almost always worth having, and the $5 happy hour wine option is an extra bonus.
I recommend: pork banh mi, Mintade, chicken posole, and when it’s in season, the farro/shrimp salad. Shiv is obsessed with their homemade potato chips!
- Fellini: this Rice Village spot quickly became a favorite, once I discovered that make an excellent cappuccino. It’s never too crowded, so I was always able to find a table, and when the weather allowed, I could enjoy one of their outdoor patio tables. Another place with excellent, friendly customer service and their pastry case is a joy to behold. I would often start my afternoon here and then walk across the street to Local Foods when I wanted to eat dinner, but Fellini offers paninis, salads, and wine if you want to hang around here.
I recommend: mini cannoli, pignoli cookies, and tiramisu if you are feeling particularly decadent.
- Blacksmith: I have a soft spot for Blacksmith, since it’s where Jill & I went immediately after giddily obtaining our marriage license in the summer of 2015. Once the barista learned the reason behind our flushed grins, she insisted that our order was on the house and put double hearts in the foam of my flat white. Of course I’m going to be a loyal patron after that! Because of their hours, I only visited here on days when we had some sort of early dismissal from school, or I would put an hour or so here before heading across the street to Mala Sichuan (see below). Great music and people watching; one of the few places where Montrose still feels relatively Montrose-y.
I recommend: biscuit with marmalade and jam – I am a good biscuit maker myself, and this is the only biscuit I pay money for. Also, if they have donuts, get one. Shiv recommends the hot chocolate, with a plain croissant for dipping.
- Mala Sichuan: while it may seem an unusual choice for a writing spot, the nice folks at the Montrose location were always very accommodating of my laptop + chopsticks set-up. Sometimes this girl just needs some SPICY FOOD in her life, and Mala does the trick. I could get myself a nice glass of white wine, fill my spice craving, and end up with plenty of leftovers to take home (which Jill always appreciated). On a purely aesthetic note, the restaurant’s interior is killer – lined with dark wood and featuring a gorgeous, two-story mural that covers an entire wall.
I recommend: red oil dumplings, dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, sautéed baby bok choy
- Huynh: I’ve long loved this cozy, family-run restaurant. They’re exceptionally friendly, affordable, and consistent. Because I would get there early, they’d often seat me in a booth, giving me plenty of room to spread out. This is another place where I’d end up with leftovers to take home, always a bonus.
I recommend: the aforementioned #86 coconut curry tofu, with broccoli added. I usually order a pot of jasmine tea on the side—perfection.
- Siphon: this Montrose spot can get crowded, but it’s the kind of place where everyone has set up shop to work and is nice about sharing plugs, juggling space and chairs, etc. I like patronizing this business because they buy cajeta from our friends Lisa & Christian, and carry our friend Becky’s baked goods in their case. And every barista I’ve ever had here takes pains to make sure they know how to pronounce my name before calling it aloud, which may seem like a small thing, but IT IS NOT.
I recommend: the empanadas here are excellent – really flaky and filling, they come with a really good-and-garlicky chimicurri sauce for dipping; add a house salad and you’ve got a light meal.
- Paulie’s: this restaurant gets great light, which is not a requirement, but is definitely a bonus. They also serve both coffee drinks and wine, and also have a great tea selection, something too many restaurants neglect altogether. Given my timing, I often found myself eating with older couples or families with young kids, but the restaurant is big enough that I could always spread out and find myself a table.
I recommend: the shrimp BLT, and the eggplant parmesan when they have. Also, I am not usually an iced sugar cookie person, but the shortbread cookies here are famous for a reason – they are as delicious as they are adorable. The staff is also great to work with if you want to place a custom cookie order; the cookies they did for my friend Megan’s bachelorette weekend were a huge hit!
DATE NIGHT SPOTS:
Some of these include places I/we have taken my mom, or are more like “date afternoon” spots, as Jill and I have discovered that happy hours can make our date outings more affordable. And some of these choices are quirky/unconventional, but hey, we are people who visited the National Museum of Funeral History for our 16th anniversary.
- Coltivare: this is a splurge spot for us, but so worth it. What I love about this place is how the ingredients truly are treated with respect and allowed to shine – I’ll often eat something here and think How did they make ___________ taste like that? If the weather is nice, sit outside and enjoy a view of the lovely garden with one of their distinctive and delicious cocktails. Their pizzas are also fantastic, and many times Shiv and I would call in a to-go order (which you pick up by knocking on a side door, which feels SUPER sketch) and take the pizzas to my friend Megan’s house, meeting her after work for a different kind of date night!
- Helen Greek Food & Wine: another worthy splurge, I absolutely love the aesthetic of the Village location’s interior – it reminds me of a New York restaurant, which I personally find charming. I appreciate that the menu is limited – they do a few things, and they do them really, really well. Because of their vegetarian offerings, I’ve brought my mom here as well. I adore their meatballs, and the loukoumades are like the best doughnuts holes you’ve ever had in your entire life. The wait staff is super-knowledgeable and will help you navigate the all-Greek wine list, which results in fun discoveries.
- Hugo’s: this is a family favorite, particularly because they have an entirely separate vegetarian menu for my mom to order from. I rarely end up ordering an entrée, because their small plates are so interesting and a wonderful way to try and share a bunch of things. Funny story—my mom and I have had a subscription to the Alley Theatre here for the last several years, and only once have we ever walked out of a show at intermission. We decided to go to the bar at Hugo’s instead! If you find yourself in the same position and it’s the right season, order a blackberry mojito. You won’t be sorry.
- State of Grace: we haven’t been here as often as I’d like, but the few meals we’ve had have been so memorably delicious that I had to mention it. This is another restaurant whose interior transports me—in this case, to New Orleans. They carry an amazing oyster selection, which Jill and I appreciate because we are raw oyster people, and their bread service is probably my second-favorite to the aforementioned, bread service at Haven, which is now long-gone. I also recommend State of Grace’s Sunday Supper, which is ridiculously affordable for the amount of food it offers—a really nice way to celebrate a special occasion.
- Night Heron: I lived literally one block away from this location in college, back when it housed Café Artiste; my house-mates and I used to walk over in our pajamas and bring our own coffee mugs. Now, it’s hard to recognize this swank-but-not-pretentious spot with its bright-red patio umbrellas and international music soundtrack. Jill and I found the happy hour here fed us well for a very reasonable price, and we both loved the frosé, which is super-refreshing and a perfect balance of tart & sweet. Also: get the crispy potatoes.
- LA Crawfish: we love crawfish. For the past few years, our Valentine’s Day date has been pounds of crawfish plus BYOB champagne at the LA Crawfish location near our house; we also take our dear friend Courtney here when she’s visiting, as she left Houston for places where crawfish is not a thing. (We are, I now realize, doing the same. ) Our friend Christian tipped us off to the garlic noodles, which are addictive, and I like the crawfish fried rice doused in hot sauce.
- Kata Robata: we have a long history with this place. When Jill was being treated at MD Anderson, there were very few decent food options nearby (this was pre-Rice Village revitalization). If you’ve ever spent a lot of time in the hospital, you know that simple things like a nice restaurant and sunlight can go a long way, so we several times found ourselves at Kata for lunch. Though dinner here can get very expensive, lunch is super affordable; they have bento box specials, sushi specials, and DELICIOUS ramen. That ramen was my comfort food while Jill was sick, and the day that we learned Jill wouldn’t have to do radiation, we went straight to Kata and sat on the back patio to celebrate.
More recently, we’ve hit up Kata’s super-generous happy hour, which allows us to fill ourselves up and splurge, but not too much. This is where we introduced Shiv to sushi, which was maybe a mistake. He’s also a big fan of the salmon carpaccio, and we all love the fried fish collars.
- 100% Taquito: Jill and I go way back with this place, and we recently returned for old time’s sake and I was reminded that their guacamole is my favorite version, outside of my own. Jill loves their elotes, Mexican-style corn off the cob, with crema, chili powder, and lime, and I have many fond memories of their tortas serving as a cheap college dinner. Also a fan of the shrimp sopes, and the frozen margarita is solid, and comes in a not-small cup! We did some World Cup watching here the other day, and the atmosphere was so fun.
- 13 Celsius: I love, love, love this wine bar so much. It manages to be intimate and feel special without being snobby or pretentious, as I find most wine bars are. The staff are knowledgable and always happy to recommend something based on my clumsy attempts to talk in wine-language, and Jill and I find that some wine and a cheese plate is a wonderful satisfying combination to fuel conversation or just quiet time together on the sweet back patio. Also, they have half-off bottles on Sundays, which is the perfect excuse to get together with a couple of friends and day drink.
Though I’m excited to explore new restaurants in Phoenix, one of the things that I’ll miss is having a list of reliable restaurants where I know everyone in our family will enjoy eating. We are lucky to be in the position where eating out a few times a month is feasible, but a restaurant meal for 3 or 4 is expensive enough that we tend to return to the places we know we can count on. These are our tried-and-true:
- Dolce Vita: beloved by all, our family has spent much time in this remodeled house and on its patio. From the crazy-good pizzas to the delicious vegetable sides (we especially love the beets), this is the place where Shiv ate mussels for the first time, and once ate as much food on his own as Jill and I did combined! Our favorite pizzas are the Margherita, Siciliana, Romana, & Melanzane.
- Fluff Bake Bar: owned by our awesome friend Rebecca Masson, this midtown spot is one that Shiv will often request when offered the opportunity to have a special treat. It’s become a tradition to head here after attending performances downtown, or to fuel up at one of the Saturday morning bake sales before heading downtown for a protest. Shiv swears by the birthday cake, while I love Becky’s financiers and black-and-white cookies. We usually take a peanut butter cookie home for Jill! Bonus: parents can get coffee drinks OR beer/wine drinks here, plus there’s a courtyard in the back for running off sugar!
- Giacomo’s: one of the first restaurants we ever took Shiv to, he just appropriately requested it for his sixth birthday dinner. We love everything about this cozy spot, from the friendly staff (who remember Shiv and make him feel special) to the affordable bottles of wine to the favorite small plates that we look forward to ordering: gnocchi alla Romana, eggplant involtini, gamberi al diavolo, ratatouille, mozzarella in carrozza. All of the pastas are divine, but our favorites are the tortelli di bioleta (Jill’s favorite), cavatappi al cinque formaggi (Shiv’s favorite), and the paccheri pucchini (my favorite). We’ve always finish off our meal with scoops of gelato, and an affogato for Jill.
- Good Dog: I wouldn’t have expected this to become one of our favorite spots, but with two locations close to great Houston parks (Heights location/Donovan Park; Montrose location/Levy Park), we end up here often. It’s kid friendly (coloring sheets and crayons) but also grownup-friendly (great beer selection), and the food is consistently great. The irony is that we actually never order hot dogs here! Shiv’s obsessed with their tomato soup, which comes with a mini-grilled cheese, and I am always trying something new, from their thoughtfully-composed salads to tasty sandwiches like a fish po-boy or roast beef. Shiv wishes to recommend their lavender lemonade, while I am a big fan of the mint limeade. And the Heights location has a resident kitty on the patio!
- Morningstar: it’s probably best that we live nowhere near this place, because their doughnuts are the best I’ve ever had. I am not even a doughnut person, but I crave their sea salt & olive oil doughnut – to me, it is the Platonic ideal of what a doughnut should be. We have a family tradition, whose origins are somewhat indeterminate, of buying Morningstar doughnuts when we an out-of-town visitor arrives or when a family member comes back into town – an opportunity for celebration, I guess. I’ve also enjoyed doing writing here a few times, and their shaken beef salad is delicious!
- Pico’s: another restaurant that Shiv has been frequenting since a young age, all four of us enjoy dinner here, and have our standard orders: my mom gets cheese & onion enchiladas, Shiv gets the same, but kid size, I order shrimp Tampico, and Jill gets the ceviche. (We can also recommend the spinach quesadillas, smoked salmon quesadillas, chiles en nogada, & cochinita pibil.) We order guacamole for the table, and then Shiv proceeds to eat basically all of it. With a spoon. Since he could sit up in a high chair. I adore the house salsa, and their Perfect Margarita (which comes it its own shaker) really is perfect. Shiv would like to add that there are musicians who play inside the restaurant, starting around 6 pm, which is part of why Shiv loves this place so much.