Work took me back to Texas, this time to the near-Gulf metropolis of Houston. I was pretty eager to partake of a city known for its great dining and fresh seafood with plenty of Texas flair. The city itself was less than comfortable. Non-stop rain produced stifling humidity, the kind that fogs your glasses when you go outside. (Camden, SC is the only other place I've been where that happens.) A big bonus of this trip was a chance to see family. My aunt Ellen lives in Missouri City (a burb) with her husband John, so we met up on one of the nights at one of Houston's finer dining establishments. It's rare that I'm not eating alone on this trips, so the opportunity to see a familiar face was right up my alley. Maybe I can get some on-site work in Las Vegas or Montgomery sometime soon.
10005 FM 1960 Rd W
Humble, TX 77338
The Pappas chain of restaurants in Houston is somewhat of a local legend. The story I hear is that a Greek family started a restaurant offering up the best of their native land. Their success lead to creating chains for Tex-Mex, steak, seafood, creole, burgers and BBQ. With that kind of pedigree (and deep local roots), I acted on the recommendation to try out their Tex-Mex chain. If you've ever been into a Chevy's or similar restaurant, you know the decor: stereotyped Mexican with bright colors and wood furniture. Despite the all-too-typical decor, the food served is excellent. I'll forewarn you to come hungry: the portioned are built around big appetites. I actually ended up with more food than I could eat and took some back to the hotel for a snack.
It's a typical menu: fajitas, tacos, tamales and so forth. There's at least one thing, though, that's not found on many Mexican menus: ceviche. For those that don't know, ceviche is a par-cooked seafood dish where fish has been marinated in an acid, usually vinegars or lemon/lime juice, and served chilled. This particular variety was made with shrimp, scallops, red onion, tomatoes and avacado. Being a big fan of sushi, I'd always been intrigued to try it and decided that a coastal city is just the place to take the plunge. It was excellent, the kind of dish I'd expect from a place with linen tablecloths. If you're a fan of sushi or just adventurous in your eating, you have to try this appetizer. (The "medium", FYI, should be enough for a table of 3-4.)
The entree was a fairly standard combo platter with a taco, an enchilada and a tamale with rice and beans. I should note that a common problem with shredded chicken is a tendency to get dry and be smothered in some kind of salsa or other sauce to hide the fact. This chicken was juicy and tender, just perfect on all counts. The beans were a little on the boring side, but that's forgivable since it's such a minor thing. As expected, the large portions lead to slightly higher prices, but you're definitely getting a good bang for your buck. I'd give this dining experience a 4.5 out of 5 for the great food and good value and look forward to trying out some of the other Pappas chains should I end up in the area again.
8321 FM 1960 Rd W
Humble, TX 77338
I spotted this place on my first night and decided it was worth checking out in order to complete the BBQ/Tex-Mex combo that defines the state's cuisine. It was a little bit later on Thursday evening and the place was a ghost town, but I knew that it was probably seeing some action on weekends. The menu is pretty standard BBQ fare (ribs, chicken, brisket, etc.) with sides to complement it. I opted for brisket and sausage with macaroni salad and dirty rice.
What really weirded me out is that the brisket, while good, didn't come with any kind of sauce. There was none to be found on the table or at the condiment bar either. It's a good thing the brisket was still pretty juicy, though it was close to being dry enough to need help. The sausage was pretty standard and the sides didn't make that much of an impression on me either. I can't even say that the price was anything but middle-of-the-road. I'd say this is a 3 out of 5 star experience because of the lack of being memorable at all.
9705 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77042
This recommendation is where I met Ellen and John for dinner. It's a South American-style restaurant featuring steaks and seafood with Latin American styling. I've been informed that there are two locations, this one being on the west side of town in the Westchase area, a fairly well-to-do neighborhood. Rumor has it that the downtown location is not as consistent in the quality, so go at your own risk.
I knew things were getting off to a solid start when I spotted the plate of plantain chips with chimichurri on the table to get things started, a welcome departure from the "chips and salsa" started that dominated Mexican cuisine. We followed up splitting some appetizers, a plate of "crab fingers" and a sampler of various kinds of South American-style sushi and some more ceviche. I'm rather picky when it comes to crab. Much like sushi, it's really easy to have the bad stuff and really hard to have something tasty each time. This crab was excellent, probably caught that morning out of the gulf. The sampler plate was also very, very tasty, a tribute to the chef's ability to handle fish.
Not to stop my seafood kick there, I followed up with a dish of salmon served with charred shrimp on tomato and onion. The salmon ranked amongst the best I've had and the shrimp was an excellent complement. As part of the meal, the table has a family-style dish of rice, potatoes, plantains and vegetables that go well with the meal. Nothing felt very rushed either and we were able to take our time eating, a rarity in many eateries. For dessert, we split the fuego de chocolate, a rich chocolate ganache with an orange habanero glaze. There was just enough heat on the sauce to go well with the intense sweetness of the cake without the capsaicin stealing the show.
This is a rarity: a perfect 5 out of 5 stars for wowing me with a perfect execution of delicious food. The pricing is on the higher end, but it is oh so worth it.