This time of year, conversations at Chow Bella staff meetings tend to turn to who's eaten what and where. With the summer travel season in full swing, we bring you Food Tours, our writers' suggestions of what to eat and drink out of town.
Though Houston is better known as a business center than a tourist destination, there's plenty to see, do, and eat here. As is the case with everything Texas-related, this place is large -- in both square miles and volume of worthwhile restaurants. What that means for most visitors is that you aren't going to get to taste it all.
For a short visit with enthusiastic gastronomic aims, we'll recommend focusing your energy on the Montrose neighborhood, located in the heart of Houston. It's a food lover's paradise, where you can stand on the steps of one excellent eatery while staring at the windows of another. It's also where we did most of our dining on our recent summer getaway. (P.S.: The nightlife in this and the surrounding areas is a blast.)
See also: 7 Things to Eat and Drink in Flagstaff
Machi cure Uchi 904 Westheimer 713-522-4808 www.uchirestaurants.com
If you've heard about Uchi and imagine it to be a high-end contemporary Japanese restaurant where reservations are a must, then you're right. But that doesn't tell the restaurant's whole story. Transplanted from Austin, courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole, this hip eatery has another side that's more approachable and much less expensive. To catch it, you'll have to show up early -- as in, before the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. At that time, even without a reservation, you can snag a seat at the sushi bar (and we do recommend the sushi bar, where you can chat it up with the friendly and knowledgeable staff) and partake in what they call "Social Hour." The special menu, which is available from 5 to 6:30 p.m., features some of the restaurant's most popular dishes at considerably reduced prices. You can order off the dinner menu, too, so you don't feel like you're missing out. The machi cure is a delightful dish featuring smoked yellowtail topped with Asian pear, almond, and garlic brittle that's enjoyed nacho-style on yucca chips. It's just $6 during Social Hour, normally $12. We also recommend the walu walu, oak-grilled escolar with candied citrus, yuzupon and myoga; the ham and eggs roll, katsu pork belly sushi with yolk custard and espelette; and (because why not), the foie nigiri, which is exactly what it sounds like -- and darn tasty.
Cocktail Anvil Bar and Refuge 1424 Westheimer Road, Suite B 713-523-1622 www.anvilhouston.com
We enjoyed a Pimm's Cup when we stopped in, but there's no way to go wrong when ordering at this bar. And calling it a bar doesn't feel totally right; it would feel more honest to call it a temple to all things cocktail. The menu offers dozens and dozens of drink options, each meticulously made to the highest standard. The bartenders at Anvil are obsessed with details like the type of ice (crushed or cubed, according to the drink), style of glass, and precise measurements. They have an arsenal of housemade beverage accouterments and liqueurs, and they change their menu seasonally. It's impressive, regardless of whether you know anything at all about how to make a drink. Pro tips: Parking is a pain, so expect to valet; it will be crowded so don't count of having a seat; and be prepared to wait, because these bartenders aren't going to rush their process for anything.
Sausage and cheese kolache The Kolache Factory Multiple locations www.kolachefactory.com
A friend from Houston (who was living in Phoenix at the time) casually suggested one morning that we pick up kolaches for breakfast, at which time we learned that though the Eastern European pastries are super-popular and widely available in Texas, they are mostly unheard of in Arizona. Said Houston native went on to describe them as "bread filled with meat and cheese." Though accurate, that description doesn't capture the slightly sweet character of the pastry that makes it such a delicious treat. When you're in Houston, you can find them at nearly every doughnut shop, and there's plenty of debate about where to find the best ones. But for an easy, inexpensive drive-thru breakfast, the Kolache Factory, founded in Houston, will do just fine. Kolaches, about the size of a hockey puck and best-enjoyed warm, come in a variety of flavors such as sausage, ham, bacon, and chorizo. And if you are already familiar with kolaches be warned that these are not the same as the tradional Czech pastry. They're an almost exclusively Houston invention and quite good.
Sweet & Spicy Pig Ears (with a local beer) The Hay Merchant 1100 Westheimer Road 713-528-9805 www.haymerchant.com
The Hay Merchant is mainly a beer bar, which means in addition to enjoying a pile of crispy fry-like pig ears, you can get a taste of authentic Houston brews. The Hay Merchant is to beer fiends what Anvil is to cocktail enthusiasts, and it's actually owned by the same two dudes, Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floy. They're on the way to building an empire on Westheimer Road and also own award-winning restaurant Underbelly, located next door. As far as beer goes, you'll have more than 50 options of beer on tap but for Houston beers, you'll be choosing between Karbach and St. Arnold's. The pig ears are a must-have snack that arrive at your table thin-cut, crispy, and sweet in a brown paper bag. More sweet than spicy and with a perfect crunchy/chewy balance, we're betting you won't have trouble polishing the hearty serving. Provided you're willing to eat pig ears at all.
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Teddy Camp S'mores ice cream The Chocolate Bar 1835 West Alabama 713-520-8599 www.theoriginalchocolatebar.com
One step inside The Chocolate Bar, located in a small strip of shops on a mostly residential block, and you're already going into sugar shock. It's got a roomful of quirky novelty chocolates (think chocolate cell phones and cowboy boots), a case full of assorted truffles and chocolate-dipped sweets, more than a dozen chocolate-based ice creams, and, most impressively, layered chocolate cakes that produce single slices as big as your head. In addition to a large scoop of Teddy Camp S'mores, decadent white chocolate ice cream with cinnamon cookie bits and marshmallows, we stocked up on novelty Texas-themed chocolates for souvenirs and took home a box of assorted candies including chocolate covered Pringles and Oreos, champagne truffles, and hazelnut chocolates. Next door, you'll find a vintage style candy store making this a power spot for dessert in Houston. Next time, we'll be back for cake.