Foodie Field Trips: Houston!

It seems ridiculous to write a Foodie Field Trip post about Houston, given that it’s one of the nation’s best cities for dining out. But I thought I’d share our experiences dining out as a family with two picky eaters on our recent trip to Houston.

When I lived in the Bayou City about 10 years ago, I had my favorite haunts, from Cafe Adobe to the Hobbit Cafe to Barnaby’s and The Grotto. And Mai’s and Mo Mong and Niko Niko’s and, and, and … the list goes on. This time around, I wanted to check out some restaurants that had popped up since I left Houston since we don’t make it down there very often.

We arrived around lunchtime on a Saturday and, after a few false starts, wound up at Shiva, which was a favorite place of mine back in the day. I won’t say much here other than I reckon that absence makes the heart grow fonder. I wish we’d gone to one of the more legit/less dubious places on Richmond/Hillcroft. Moving on.

After our trip to the Natural Science museum, we met some good friends for dinner at El Real, which is co-owned by Robb Walsh. Walsh is the food critic for the Houston Press (where I got my start in this crazy, mixed-up alt-weekly world) and is an expert on all things Tex-Mex. In fact, a friend of ours got us his Tex-Mex cookbook as an engagement present.

Despite the fact that it is probably a touristy-kind of location (it’s right on Montrose in the space right next to Mo Mong; it used to be a Hollywood Video store and there was a gay bookstore right next to it), I found El Real to be pretty awesome. I got the puffy tacos with black beans and guacamole (being off beef, white flour, and dairy sort of limits one’s options, but corn masa is your friend) and really, really liked them. The Big Kid had his first-ever Frito Pie, although he eschewed the traditional Frito Pie consumption methodology of just dumping everything into the bag of chips (please forgive the low quality of this photo; I took it with my phone and the lighting was craptacular):


Our friends got some very sexy-looking enchilada plates, including the Roosevelt, which features a fried egg on top. Decadent! I decided to go out on a limb and order a “behaving myself” margarita called La Flaca, with tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar and it didn’t taste any different than a regular margarita (I will resist the temptation to suspect that this means I didn’t actually get a skinny margariata). My one suggestion is that you avoid filling up on chips because 1.) they are pretty average and 2.) there will be less room in your belly for your delicious puffy tacos or enchiladas. Why waste valuable stomach real estate on mediocre chips?

The next morning, we went to the Avalon Diner in River Oaks. Despite the fact that it’s in a pretty chichi ‘hood, the Avalon was very comfortable and VERY kid-friendly. It was also VERY busy; we were lucky enough to arrive ahead of the Sunday-morning rush and were seated immediately, but there was what looked to be a very long wait by the time we left. It has a pretty retro feel from the booths down to the milkshake machine behind the lunch counter. The portions were generous and quite delicious, and the price point, while reflecting the neighborhood, was pretty fair considering the linebacker-pleasing amounts of food piled onto our plates.

My “behaving-myself” breakfast of dry whole wheat English muffin, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon (much of which was poached by the Little Kid).

The Little Kid’s silver-dollar pancake plate.

Finally, before heading out to the Woodlands for an obligatory visit to Trader Joe’s, we stopped by Pondicheri, just around the corner from the Avalon in the Upper Kirby district, for some pastries to take home. We had wanted to eat there for lunch the day before, but after checking out the menu, we decided that our kids wouldn’t really go for anything there and we’d end up not enjoying ourselves. Stopping for pastries on the way out of town was our compromise. I was disappointed to not get to try a frankie, but there’s always next time.

The space at Pondicheri is sleek and elegant, and the air smells like chai spices. There is a large chalkboard at the entrance listing all of the local farmers from which they source their ingredients, which is an ethos close to my heart. The two adorable guys behind the counter were effusive in their recommendations (and really, really, really wanted me to take home a piece of chai pie, but I feared it would be dead by the time we got back to Austin).

I ended up with a couple of brioche, a dote cookie (oatmeal and dates and DELICIOUS), and some luscious pistachio cookies redolent of cardamom. Oh, and a blueberry scone for Mr. Rubberbandball, which made his Monday breakfast very special indeed. Pondicheri, we will definitely be back.

So, since we only had 24 hours in Houston, we weren’t able to sample much of the city’s culinary wares. But it’s comforting to know that some really top-notch food is right down the road in a city that’s busting with cool things to do (and eat).