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The trendy crowd at Houston's is so good-looking that for a few scary moments, I thought someone might tap my pal Bob and me on the shoulder and ask us to leave.
A wildly successful night spot ever since it opened about four years ago, Houston's is always packed, even on weekdays. Gals seem to favor short, skin-hugging dresses and lots of hair. Guys strut around in pinstriped shirts, Wall Street haircuts and wire-rim glasses. Everyone here looks like a finalist from a high school popularity contest. And the place is brimming with energy.
It's kind of a big, art-deco barn, with lots of curves, angles, wood, brass and Venetian blinds. Nifty lights gently illumine the bustling bar. Those uninterested in the human comedy unfolding before them can peer into the busy open kitchen at the rear. A glowing, pink-and-green clock helps with time management, enabling veterans of the singles wars to keep track of how long they've spent chatting up uncooperative brunettes. Houston's doesn't take reservations, so if you've come to eat, you'll wait, with a house beeper in your pocket. Instead of blaring your name over a loudspeaker, the hostess gives you a buzz when a table's finally ready. It's hard to judge which is the greater thrill--getting vibrated or getting seated. The appetizers don't break much culinary ground, but they're pleasing companions to Anchor Steam beer on tap and potent margaritas. The rich, spinach-and-artichoke dip is draped with cheese and served with a basket of fresh, light and crunchy tortilla chips.
2425 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: East Phoenix
Pizza is another pleasing starter option. Mounted on a crisp cracker crust, the fragrant eggplant, artichokes, sausage and fresh basil of the pizza rustica keep the good-time mood rolling.
While heavily focused on the dip and pizza, Bob couldn't quite keep his eyes off the attractive crowd. He got married right out of college 20 years ago, and a return trip to the singles scene was obviously too intense for him. I haven't seen a head swivel like that since The Exorcist.
The main dishes, though, won't turn anybody's head. The menu says the prime rib is aged. Actually, it's positively doddering, fatty and chewy while extremely lean on beefy flavor.
There's a daily fresh-fish special, swordfish the night we visited. The line cooks must have been surveying the action instead of tending to the grill, because it arrived in ruins, cooked so far beyond redemption that even a weekend in Lourdes wouldn't have helped. It came with an arresting side dish of couscous flecked with parsley and peanuts. Unfortunately, the dish arrived ice cold, apparently just out of the refrigerator. Perhaps the kitchen meant to serve it that way; it ought to reconsider.
The bread scam should also be reconsidered. Say "yes" to the waitress's offer of bread and you'll find another buck tacked onto your tab.
Burgers are a more satisfying choice than the pricier entrees. The meat is quite juicy, and there's a heapful of fixings on the cheeseburger. I had to scrape off the mayonnaise--why this dreaded Midwestern touch?--but I have no one to blame but myself, since I neglected to read the menu description thoroughly. The accompanying beans quickly cheered me up, with their sweet and hearty barbecue taste.
Desserts seem pretty much an afterthought. If you're desperate for one, you're better off hopping over to RoxSand or Christopher's Bistro across the street. You might not meet the man or woman of your dreams there, but you won't wake up the next morning with the cloyingly sweet taste of apple-walnut cobbler on your lips, either.
With Houston's energy, looks and party-time feel, it's easy to go home thinking the food is a lot better than it was. So what if you're wrong? Men and women, it's clear, do not live by bread alone.