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Column: One night in Houston

Credit: Wikimedia

Credit: Wikimedia

A very quick trip to Houston gets me looking for one meal with a sense of place.

My daughter and I planned to spend less than 15 hours in Houston. She would be focused on competing in a fencing tournament, and I would be cheering her on from the parents’ pit on the sidelines. Yet, somehow I felt this weird compunction to mark the visit with a Houston-appropriate meal.

I always need to immortalize any trip, no matter how insignificant, with some bite of food that tells me I am in a particular place at a particular moment. Once I had to make a connection at the Copenhagen airport on a flight home from Italy. The timing was so bad, the terminals so far apart, and the passport control so confusing that the flight attendant basically told us to run. It was a mad dash, and yet by the time we arrived at the gate and were swept onto the plane I was clutching an open-face sandwich.

Houston would be no easier. Though I had done a little research on the Galleria shopping mall area where we would be staying and had even gotten some recommendations from the Houston Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Alison Cook, this would not be a trip that would conform to the requirements of a proper meal.

We arrived at our Galleria hotel at about 9:30 p.m., blinking in disbelief at the grand scale of things. It seemed seemed like how I’d imagine a mega-mall from Atlanta’s dystopian future. We stashed our rental car in the labyrinthine underground parking lot and asked at the front desk if there was any place we might find dinner, traveling on foot.

“You’re in luck!” beamed the receptionist. “The Cheesecake Factory is right next door!”

“And…” I prompted.

“And lots of restaurants,” he continued. “Just keep walking, and you won’t go hungry!”

We hewed to the side of the mall and peeked into a swank Chinese restaurant called Gigi’s Asian Bistro that was just closing. “Slow night,” said the hostess with a pouty face.

We stopped for a moment and soaked up the grand vision of a two-story cow palace called Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. A torch-lit patio fronted the parking lot, and I observed a table of four tipsy, expensively attired fiftysomethings sprawled on the lounge furniture. A woman in a sequined minidress had her stocking feet tucked under her, and when she turned her head to beam at her husband, her exuberant pouf of blonde hair moved in unruffled unison.

“You rather eat at Sullivan’s,” she teased him, naming a less-expensive steak house.

Okay, this is Houston, I thought. But a steak seemed like a lot for a late-night meal. So we ended up eating mediocre sushi at a place called Kona Grill. Anywheresville.

The next day was spent in the confines of a local fencing academy, where we gratefully snarfed slices of lukewarm pizza brought in by local parents.

And then we left Houston. In a minute we were back on the freeway, and I looked with some longing at the billboards hawking oversized Mexican cantinas.

We returned the car, breezed through off-hours security and found ourselves on the concourse, starving, with an hour or more to kill. Then I saw a branch of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen — the Houston-based chain that serves Gulf-style seafood. I remembered very much liking the gumbo at the one in Norcross. This would be our Houston-enough meal. We were here.

“Come on,” I said to my kid. “Let’s get lunch.”

18 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajcdinecritic, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Column: One night in Houston http://bit.ly/b7o1xt [...]

Reds

September 21st, 2010
8:12 am

During crawfish season we spend many a Tuesday or Wednesday night at Pappadeaux.$3.99 for 1.5 lbs of crawfish, potatoes, corn, etc. My bf likes the oysters, and I really like the calamari… especially if you order it “Mediterranean style”. They add feta and capers and fried artichoke hearts, and a lemon sauce. That, with the greek salad, is a great meal. :)

danny

September 21st, 2010
9:45 am

you missed out on amazing chinese and asian food along bellaire; probably better than any city in north america, aside from LA and vancouver

Rick

September 21st, 2010
10:08 am

I don’t know about the Houston version, but the Del Frisco’s in Denver is hands down the best steak I have ever had. Been there 3-4 times, puts Bones to shame (although I’ve only been there once, maybe it was a bad night).

Kar

September 21st, 2010
10:09 am

Isn’t Houston known for it’s Vietnamese community and food? Not to mention the controversial “Texas barbecue” brisket. Too bad you couldn’t find any non-franchise stuff that you could get here just as easily.

ckwill

September 21st, 2010
11:03 am

Not necessarily places that scream Houston, but you were within walking distance of great Churrasco steak and Tres Leches at Americas or amazing sushi at Uptown Sushi…next time…

No, Rick...

September 21st, 2010
1:31 pm

…your assessment of Bone’s after just one visit is absolutely correct – they now suck, they used to be good, but they really suck now.

Regarding steak in Houston, too bad, John, that you only had one night (and a late one at that) for dinner – as you may or may not know, the Pappas family has a steak house, too, in Houston, and it is just down from the Galleria where you were staying. There is a Pappadeaux there, too, with both restaurants sharing a parking lot, or at least they are not far apart. Pretty good steaks, too, but I found their seafood, for which they became famous, to be their most consistent servings at all locations.

cus

September 21st, 2010
1:37 pm

Next time go to the Goode Family Barbecue restaurant on Kirby.

Laurie

September 21st, 2010
1:39 pm

Houston has many great places to eat. Next time, ask someone who lived there before planning your trip. Star Pizza, Chuy’s, or Cafe Adobe in the Kirby area are just a few I can think of off the top of my head. The Galleria area is old and tired. Try staying in the Montrose or Rice University area is you visit again.

Missed Opportunity

September 21st, 2010
1:48 pm

You missed some of the best eating outside of New York and San Francisco, all within a few miles of the Galleria! Next time, consider Goode Company Seafood, Tilas, Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, La Griglia, Grotto, Escalantes…….

Lane

September 21st, 2010
1:56 pm

I spent about three years traveling regularly to Houston–maybe 60 trips or more. Houston is mostly a burger and donut town (one of each on every corner). But there were two great restaurants I dined at. Not too far from the Galleria, is Simposio–an excellent Italian restaurant. Their oxtails with marrow were fantastic. This place has been open around 20 years, family operated. If you want more of the authentic Mexican style, Hugo’s in Montrose (sort of near Galleria) is terrific. Their duck tacos were delish.

Annie

September 21st, 2010
2:15 pm

Ditto on the Goode Co. BBQ on Kirby. It has a giant mirrored armadillo with longhorn horns in front – can’t miss it. Grab some kolaches for breakfast (does Community Q here have them yet? I read they would). If you want Mexican, Chuy’s is the best. Lai Lai’s on Bellaire has amazingly cheap and authentic Chinese, and if Mai’s hadn’t burned down, that’s where you go for Vietnamese along the light rail line. I miss the bubble tea too, but that’s not really a Houston thing in particular.

Ken

September 21st, 2010
2:17 pm

I moved back to Atlanta a couple of years ago after living in Houston for 2 years and some of the best mexican food I’ve had in my life was at Irma’s SW Grill. The queso sauce with scallions, ground beef and paprika caused me to gain about 20 lbs after I got there. Thank goodness I lost it all by the time I left.

Some national magazine voted them the best mexican food in the country.

Elmer Dinkley

September 21st, 2010
2:30 pm

Some of the other comments are right on… I still travel out here to Houston from Atlanta twice a month and some of the best spots are Cyclone Anaya and Irma’s for Mexican food, if you are craving steak it doesnt get any better than Papa’s Brothers Steakhouse, Ribs / BBQ you need to hit up Pizzatola’s and Goode Co. It is hard to stay on a healthy diet in this town with such a great selection of food to choose from.

Paulus

September 21st, 2010
3:27 pm

Try Ringo’s Rib Tips in Jesuit Park

Art

September 21st, 2010
5:51 pm

I travel a great deal and agree that it’s always nice to eat something that’s “location indigenous” and maybe even a local favorite. My smart phone has access to TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google Maps, etc. I find that they are invaluable for finding something good to eat.. I prefer that my find is within walking distance but am not adverse to getting a cab or hopping on the subway if the place is really a must… I’ve even considered getting a ZipCar membership just to broaden my area of operation but I haven’t pulled the trigger on that one yet. If I’m really beat and not in the mood to head out, I’ll order delivery; you’d be surprised some of the great little Mom-n-Pop places that I’ve stumbled upon in many cities that deliver… Beats the heck out of a lot of room service menus. Airport restaurants are a whole other topic… The nicest ladies to be found are the crew at Popeye’s Original Louisiana Chicken on B concourse in ATL… “What’ll you have sweetie pie?” gets me every time.

John Kessler

September 21st, 2010
6:31 pm

Now y’all have me wishing I had planned this trip a little better…

Movin' to Houston

September 22nd, 2010
8:55 pm

You were just 2 miles from Da Marco (think Sotto Sotto + ) and instead you wandered the mall …. Next time ask for advice before your trip and you won’t be disappointed.