Take Five: Dining in Houston

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Take Five: Dining in Houston

The rodeo is not the only thing to garner yee-haws and expressions of joy in Houston—the food here is riling up folks just as well. And while it is a city has many James Beard Foundation awards, it still remains under the radar and in the shadows of culinary behemoths like New York, San Francisco and even Austin. But these gems take the cake when it comes to artisan eats.

Tiffany Leigh is a food, drink, and travel writer. She is a James Beard Foundation Scholarship Recipient and always travels with her companions #PinchietheLobster and #PJthelobster.

1. A State of Grace

The dinosaur-sized rib is a carnivorous showstopper at State of Grace, owned by James Beard nominated chef, Ford Fry. Chef Bobby Matos oversees the kitchen brigade and menu. For the 6LB caveman sized rib, the meat is slowly braised and glazed with Korean gochujang demi sauce—which intensifies the flavors and makes for a lacquered, sticky exterior and swoon-worthy sweetness. On the side, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, shaved radishes, Thai chilies, watermelon rind, and shaved cucumbers are tossed with kimchi vinaigrette. Sour and spicy, the salad jolts your senses awake with a vinegar twang. Mop up juices and all with housemade Roti bread. While you're channeling Fred Flintstone, don't forget to lap up the ambiance: it's burly huntsman meets cocktail bar with an ample amount of southern hospitality.
Photo courtesy of A State of Grace

2. Common Bond Bakery

Isigny Ste Mere (French imported butter), elbow grease, and ample amounts of talent are what make all the pastries so divine here. You can thank the leader of the pack, chef Jillian Bartolome, for the gush-worthy goods. She helms the kitchen's flour-slinging brigade and fosters a strong sense of community within her team. In fact, she will hire people who lack a pastry background; as long as they're spirited and wield a willingness to learn, they're fair game to play. And the results of this philosophy? Utterly delicious. When you arrive, the line appears overwhelmingly long, but you move swiftly to the front within minutes. Once at the counter, the array of buttery beauties will make it difficult to select just one pastry to inhale at Common Bond Bakery. If you only have room for one item, make it the Kouign-amann; with its accordion folds, caramelized ridges, and crisp golden bottoms, it is tongue-twisting pleasure in every bite—as if Breton cake and puff pastry decided to have a baby together. Inside, the tender, soft crumb is balanced with a delicate sweetness. Get them fast and early in the morning—they're known to sell out.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Leigh

3. The Hay Merchant

Double your pleasure and double your fun with The Hay Merchant's beefy eats and 80-plus craft beers. The buxom Cease and Desist burger comes with a special: a side of infamy. It was initially called the Double Double—a double meat, double cheese burger. In-N-Out also has a burger called the Double Double (Chef Chris Shepherd was unaware; they don't have In-N-Out in Houston), so the chain sent him a cease and desist letter. Since then, the burger has been appropriately renamed the "Cease and Desist." Nothing like a juicy story to make a burger extra tasty … and hot damn—does trouble taste good. Two 3-ounce beef patties with cow meat from 44 Farm Meats are ground in-house and seared a la plancha; they're topped with two slices of gooey American cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles, then sandwiched between soft and squishy buns. Magic happens in your mouth as juices slide down the hatchet with glorious ease. The pleasure continues as you cram your face hole with as many hot crispy fries as possible (it's best to devour them while piping hot). The fries are given a lot of love: blanched, chilled, and fried twice.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Leigh

4. Mala Sichuan

Some may like it hot, but numbing, too? Sure, bring it on. Not being able to feel your face from tingling spices and peppers is the addictive consequence of slurping the aromatic broth from Mala Sichuan's Green Peppercorn Fish fillet dish. It will have you sweating chills of pain and pleasure. The basa fish fillets are tender, sweet morsels that have been braised with baby bok choy, king oyster mushrooms, and thin strands of sweet potato vermicelli. An ocean's amount of sauce and broth comes with these goodies and the dish is finished with a generous drizzle of green peppercorn oil. With a heady blend of spices, this Southern Chinese specialty packs some mind-numbing sensations on your mouth and tongue. But you'll still be able to pick up the vibrant herbaceous and citrus notes of the green peppercorns themselves.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Leigh

5. Pondicheri

Pondicheri's Pondi bar is a Rice Krispies Treats' cousin but accented with attitude and flavor. It's more like a pimped out bar from their Bake Shop & Lab with hints of chili powder and warm spices: turmeric, fennel, amchur, and garam masala. Audible snaps and crunches within the bar are courtesy of their housemade chevda—a sweet and spicy Indian trail mix that includes a toss and tumble of crisp rice, peanuts, raisins, pumpkin seeds and marshmallows. After a bite of this canary-hued beaut, you'll never be able to return to plain Jane rice cereal and marshmallows. The chef and owner herself, Anita Jaisinghani—who has been nominated for two James Beard Foundation awards—opened Pondicheri with an aim to make traditional fare more healthy and accessible, for instance, including fried eggs and French toast on the menu but paired with items like beet roti or carrot paratha.
Photo courtesy of Tiffany Leigh