Houston, it seems, has as many nicknames as it does oil wells, but the one that touches my Texas DNA is THE BIG HEART! Not a bad welcoming moniker for visitors invading the town for Super Bowl Weekend. Houston - The Biggest Heart, Deep in the Heart of Texas - got this particular name from storm victims fleeing the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. No other city opened its doors as Houston did. Houston housed, fed and attended to more than 150,000 survivors, many of whom have chosen to now call Houston their home.
Big Heart - Big Eaters! … and great restaurants! For Mexican and Tex/Mex: Caracol, Hugo’s, Molina’s, Molina’s Cantina. For Texas BBQ: Goode Company BBQ, Luling City Real Texas Bar-B-Que. Fried Chicken: Barbecue Inn, Frenchy’s. Seafood: Caracol, Zydeco Louisiana Diner, Japanese: Uchi, Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ, Uptown Sushi. Indian: Maharaja Bhog and the Bombay Pizza Company.
Treat yourself to the pleasures of well-prepared meals in comfortable settings by starting at the Driskill Hotel, centrally located at the corner of Brazos and Sixth Street. For dinner, the Driskill Grill creates a quiet space behind the busy, noisy Driskill Bar, one of the city’s most popular gathering spots.
The Grill has the look of an early 20th century gentlemen’s club, with dark wood, oil paintings and sconces on the walls. In that elegant setting, the very modern menu draws inspiration from the dynamic world of contemporary farm-to-table dining with a Southwestern touch.
A tasting is a good way to experience the extensive menu. Executive chef Jonathan Gelman’s plates arrive at the table with a painterly touch.
Deep red brush strokes of caramelized beet juice decorate an appetizer plate with tastings of beef tartar, ahi poke, and a Prince Edward Island oyster on the half shell.
Austin has a lot going on. Besides being the state capital, the city has amazing music venues with a great collection of bars and a dynamic food scene. Austin has it all. Upscale, fine dining restaurants as well as affordable neighborhood hangouts specializing in Mexican, Asian, Indian, French, American cuisine and more barbecue and burger joints than you can shake a stick at.
One way to navigate the diverse food scene is to check out the food trucks. Encounter a food truck in most cities and they’re pretty utilitarian. Usually the truck is a step van with a window cut along one side where customers order and pick up their food. To eat your meal, you stand on the sidewalk trying not to get food on your clothes. A web site, Austin Food Carts, keeps track of the comings and goings of trucks, with daily updates.
But the majority of food trucks in Austin aren’t trucks at all. With tires mere props, these trucks are trailers. Since they never move, trailers can offer customers creature comforts like picnic benches and umbrellas. There’s even an ATM machine and a patch of Astro Turf at a trailer called Bar-B-Que-T on South Congress at East Monroe. Some have all but lost their “trailer-ness.”
The Charcoaler in El Paso, Texas, looks like it fell out of time
capsule from the 1950s. That is a good thing. A beautiful glass fronted
open building sits back from busy Mesa Drive with an expansive lawn
stretching to the seriously retro sign out front. This is truly a
classic drive through restaurant.
You pull your 1955 Chevy up to one of four speaker signs depicting a chef holding a big sign with the menu on it. A helpful voice crackles on the speaker asking you for your order. You reply Cheeseburger ($1.95), French fries ($1.00), Onion Rings ($1.55) and a chocolate shake ($1.20). “Sorry, we only have vanilla shakes today.” The voice crackles back. You answer that is fine. “That will be $6.19. Please pull around to the window.”
You oblige and pull up behind three other hamburger hopefuls in the queue. When you get to the window, a neatly dressed young man takes your money and hands you three identical white paper sacks, with the Charcoaler logo on them and a small red cup with your vanilla shake. You thank the man and pull the car under one of two 100-foot long awnings, that will shield you form the Texas sun while you feast.
One of my favorite places to satiate my sweet tooth is La Duni in Dallas. La Duni Latin American café and bakery has several locations. Not only is the atmosphere feminine and romantic, the pastries and tarts are sinfully delicious.
And, what better way to spend Valentine’s Day than at this romantic café enjoying the delectable coffee menu with a cream filled tres leches cake for dessert. Yes, there is something about La Duni that is dreamy and otherworldly.
Buffalo Gap is only a few miles south-west of Abilene. The small town (population 463) has a fascinating Historic Village, a must for any western history buffs.
The jewel of Buffalo Gap is Perini Ranch Steakhouse. Located down a twisting dirt road, the steakhouse is in a converted barn with an outdoor patio cooled by lazily turning overhead fans.
Perini's is the brainchild of Tom Perini, born and bred a Texas cattleman. He loves cattle ranching but confesses there is no money to be made that way.
Faced with losing the ranch because he couldn't earn enough raising cattle, his mother told him to turn to cooking, something he had been doing for years on cattle drives. Everyone loved his down-home, ranchhand-pleasing dishes.
That's what you'll get at Perini's. Steaks, fried chicken, ham, chicken fried steak, hamburgers, catfish, and ribs come out on huge plates, designed to satisfy the hungriest of cowboys.
Caracol is not my idea of a Mexican Restaurant. My idea of a Mexican restaurant is that small family owned local café in Toluca Lake or Carmen’s on 3rd St. that we would go to on Thursday night, and I would chow down on buttered tortillas with beans and rice while the rest of the family ordered the ”regular.”
In Houston where my grandmother lived, we would go to Felix’s, but by then I was eating everything on the menu. Their décor was tipico (and we all know the painted plates and over sized sombreros that hung on the walls). Cozy and dark, familiarity bred joy and a deep sense of comfort – not contempt. (Let’s not discuss the ubiquitous swinging singles Mexican bars with their multi-colored chips that proliferate the landscape.)
No, Caracol is definitely not tipico! The painted plates have been replaced by a 16 foot contemporary painting of a giant red squid – the main focal point in a bright, relaxed but sophisticated white and black interior, and while you can get beans and rice, don’t expect a “regular” anywhere on the menu.
If you're in Texas, you'll be tossing your fears about high cholesterol levels out the car window. This is cattle country, after all, and nothing is as good as a steak cooked on a hot-as-hell grill or a breaded piece of beef that's been fried to perfection. A favorite of locals in the area and always crowded, the Beehive Restaurant has locations in Abilene and nearby Albany.
Primarily a steak house with steaks cooked on an open pit, mesquite fired grill or as chicken fried steak, the Beehive has an upscale, clubby feeling, the kind of place that attracts friends wanting a big meal and some cocktails, families with their kids, and couples out on a date. 10-14 ounce filets, ribeyes and New York strip steaks are grilled with smoky flavor on the blazingly hot pit in the kitchen.
Owned by the Esfandiary brothers, Ali and Neiman, who arrived from Iran decades ago and, incongruously, decided to open an American-style country cafe.
Though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I have Texas DNA in my bones! And, though I love California Mexican Food, my heart sings when Bill and I have the opportunity to dine Authentic Tex-Mex somewhere deep in the heart of Texas! If I could, like Tex-Mex expert, Robb Walsh, I would wander the state checking out every small eatery in every town. So, on a recent trip to Houston, we – like homing pigeons - made our way to the oldest Mexican Restaurant in that town, Molina’s and to their Enchiladas de Tejas!
Californians love fresh healthy food; accordingly they top their cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese enchiladas with tomatoes, green onions, sour cream and shredded lettuce. Texans, on the other hand really do love dark n dirty! Chili ‘gravy’ tops their Kraft Velveeta or Land O’Lakes Extra Melt stuffed enchiladas! “Velveeta? Land O’Lakes? You ask, shocked? Yes, my dear. Processed cheese melts differently - more elegantly – and is the real ‘authentic’ cheese of choice (irony intended). Still shocked? Bless your heart!