Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pappa Geno's

5 out of 5 Stars

1801 Ella Blvd
Ste C

Houston, TX 77008
(713) 863-1222



Pappa Geno's is the ultimate celebration of the Philly cheese steak...arguably my favorite hot sandwich of all time (with the reuben trailing right behind).

The shop is small and simple proudly displaying Sam's Club size tubs of Cheese Whiz, Geno's most prized condiment, at the counter.

They offer an assortment of hot sandwiches and a few sides ( fries, fried mushrooms, etc), but I knew exactly what I came for: glorious thinly shaved slices of beef, grilled onions, shrooms (add 50 cents - but you gotta), and of course, cheese whiz.

Don't get it twisted, I've never been to Philly, and have never experienced the real deal sandwich of brotherly love, but I do know they rock that cheese whiz and I wanted in.

Having been a Texadelphia fan since high school, it was hard to resist the swiss, but I wanted authenticity.....and it was awesome.

I took that piping hot beauty of a sandwich to go (after a breezy 5 minute wait) and could not wait to get into it.


Thank goodness I don't have thin walls, or my neighbors would be convinced something else was going down in my apartment....

....every bite evoked a "hmmmmmmmmmm" and an "ooooooh".....

....I'm utterly smitten.

Geno's philly is what heaven must be like. The smooth mushrooms blended beautifully with the sweet and slippery grilled onions. Meanwhile the steak was cooked to perfection with cheese whiz dancing throughout the sandwich all held together with bread that may as well have been created by G-d himself.


I think you get the point.

Know before you go: This is definitely more of a takeout place, but they do have a few tables if you can't manage making the drive home.

Lastly, come with an empty stomach....this guy is HUGE (no side required).

Monday, March 21, 2011

El Real

3 out of 5 Stars
1201 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77006
(713) 524-1201

El Real. Saturday night of their opening weekend. Party of 4. I'm going to be forgiving.....that's no easy feat, even for Houston's famed Bryan Caswell (ESPECIALLY for Caswell - fresh off his spotlight on Next Iron Chef - that's mucho pressure).

Not accepting reservations, I was pleasantly surprised by  the reasonable 30 minutes wait. My crew ordered a round of weak Mexican martinis (tear), and munched on some fresh chips and salsa at the front full bar (complete with your favorite Mexican beers (Modelo and Pacifico).

El Real boasts a friendly, bustling atmosphere - think a modern day Ninfa's with enormous ceilings and old westerns playing on a large screen.

We were seated at the front outdoor patio on Westheimer which made for a great scene, especially once the former Chances strip gets redeveloped.

It's my understanding that the concept of El Real is a nod to old school tex don't go looking for unique menu won't find them here (unless you count the flying grasshopper that landed on our table, but that's neither here nor there).

In my book, a cardinal rule to tex mex feasting is kicking off a meal with queso, and if you don't share that sentiment, well.....that just sounds like a personal are at El Real.

Not to knock Velveeta queso....but let's leave that recipe for house parties. Our bowl of electric yellow Velveeta + Ro-tel did not cut it. I take that back - it was served SO THICK, it CUT my chip in half...every dip. Within 5 minutes, our bowl had become the consistency of GACK! No Bueno!

Out came our order of beef nachos, piled with healthy cuts of well seasoned fajita meat, refried beans, tomatoes, guac, sour cream and shredded cheese. A nice rebound from the the queso, but nothing to melt over either.

The grand finale was the pound of fajitas (half chicken, half beef). We requested our meat to be served medium......which made for DELICIOUS, TENDER beef, but our chicken came out undercooked and as a result, untouched. All four of us thoroughly enjoyed the beef dressed with great guac salad, garlic butter, and sizzling onions wrapped in fresh tortillas. It has to be said that side of rice was sinfully overcooked and underflavored....needs a complete re-haul.

Despite our lack of silverware and plates (they were very late, but we made due), the staff was all smiles and helped make the overall meal enjoyable.

I know Caswell's team has the brains and talent to make El Real a success, but they won't be able to rely on its general charm, Montrose location and reasonable prices too long.

Bottom line: Come to El Real if you are looking for a casual, fun atmosphere with your buddies, but leave the fajitas and ritas for El Tiempo (at least for now).

Canyon Creek Cafe

3 out of 5 Stars

6603 Westcott Street
Houston, TX 77007-2040
(713) 864-5885

Preface: This review speaks more to Canyon Creek as a restaurant and less as a bar. Proceed.

Per usual, my pal and I came to squander all of our boot camp efforts at the sinfully close-by Canyon Creek Cafe for some good ol' bar food.

In the midst of March Madness, parking was shockingly easy (but it was only 8pm.....can't say the same for what happens at 10).

Being a GORGEOUS night, we opted for patio seating and snagged a bench. Blame it on our low blood sugar from our workout, but it took a good 15 minutes for us to figure out we need to get menus and order at the bar.....but in all fairness - that's not made clear at all at Canyon Creek...foul 1.

The menu reads like an upscale bar with quirky names for "sammiches" and trendy items like chipotle mayo and fried egg toppings (which clearly speak to me).

We settled on fried pickles for apps and the Luckenback Burger (which to no surprise, was dressed with chipotle mayo and a fried egg, as well as bacon) and a side of onion rings and sweet potato fries.

Our order was finally placed at the BUSY bar, and 20 minutes later, our food came out.......but what happened to our fried pickles that we  purchased? It will forever be a mystery. (foul 2).

Thankfully, they never came because our burger proved to be massive and our sides were heaping.

I was hoping that the first bite from my burger would be much like my first bite from the Rancor at Petrol Station....but it wasn't. I totally missed the fried egg climax.....the part where it bursts and the yolk dresses the rest of the burger like the ultimate accessory. Maybe the meat was too thick, maybe the bread stole its thunder? I barely even got a taste of that chipotle mayo and the bacon needed to be a little more cremated. The burger definitely had to be a little less cooked.

WOAH. I'm spending way too much time on a burger that simply has the potential to be FAR better. (foul 3).

The sweet potato fries were on par with all good sweet potato fries....thin, but not shoestrings. Onion rings were style.....the highlight for me, personally.

Another fail.....their silverware service....or lack thereof, since it took 3 attempts to get any. (EJECTED!!!!!!!)

Enough with the debbie downers. Canyon Creek has some things going for it....

Like the daily drink specials complete with fat free frozen libations (mojitos and margs).

The mural of folks tubing down the river on the patio wall will capture any true Texan's heart.

Bottom line: Cheers to beers (and other drinks at CCC), jeers to dining here...unless you are too tipsy to care.

Sidenote: I hope you appreciated the basketball theme, although I have no idea if it complies with NCAA or NBA rules. :)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jus' Mac

3.5 out of 5 Stars

2617 Yale St
Houston, TX 77008
(713) 622-8646

If I were to sum up my childhood as a meal it would easily be Kraft Mac and Cheese (original) with a 1 bunless hot dog.....sliced.

Then I went to Jus' Mac......and right there on the menu....was The Homerun........

Jus' Mac put a price on my childhood....just under $8! My parents were ROBBED!

Yup, Jus' Mac serves hot dog mac and cheese......with a bread crumb topping.

But I wasn't feeling like a kid on my first trip to the restaurant that serves Jus' Mac (and now paninis).

I went with the Blue Cheese Mac instead, you know, because I'm an adult.....eating at my childhood fantasy....a mac and cheese restaurant.

Confession: If mac and cheese is on a menu....I WILL get it. It doesn't matter where I am either. I got mac and cheese at a Jewish deli in an idiot.....because, I clearly have a problem.

The sad part of all of this is, I am usually unimpressed with it. Restaurants all to often overcomplicate mac or even worse, make it soupy.....ew.

Which is why it took me this long to go to Jus' Mac. I couldn't bare another disappointment. I approached a daunting menu of mac in EVERY variety barring durian fruit mac and cheese - but that would be weird.

I wearily ordered my blue cheese mac at the counter and started making deals with G-d. "Please, please....don't let me down."

10 minutes later my party and I were served with personal sized cast iron skillets (NICE TOUCH) filled to the brim with baked cheesy goodness (mine, topped with crunchy bread and blue cheese crumbles).

And it was goooooooooooooooooooood. Real Good. It was just the way a mac and cheese-centic restaurant should serve their namesake.....RELIEF!

Not too pungent, not too soupy......"jus' good". It would definitely hit the spot if you were hankering for the home-style variety.

Notice I'm not overselling you....good is the perfect adjective for a place like Jus' Mac.

Other good things:

Environment: casual, but hip. Very Heightsy, minus Washington nightlife.

Price: It's getting harder and harder to find a filling, tasty meal under $10, and that small skillet satisfies me just fine (no apps required).

Drinks: Keepin' it local with St. Arnold's by the bottle.

But if you are the owner......think about:

Mini skillets or "halfsies".  With SO many varieties of mac, am I seriously expected to choose just one? It can't be that hard to find a way to serve me 2 styles without having to buy 2 macs? Who's with me?

New garnish: The bread served on the side is appreciated, but a Parmesan crisp seems more appropriate. I'm such a critic.

Noodles: All macs are served with mini elbows. Why so serious?

Bottom line: You won't be blown away by Jus' Mac, but your curiousity for options like the Homerun Mac will having you coming back for more

Monday, February 7, 2011


4 out of 5 Stars
4705 Inker St
Houston, TX 77007
(832) 673-0400

The Great Arctic Freeze of 2011 had me craving pho! The dilemma: I was nowhere near Van Loc - my "pho-to".

Solution: Pagoda - as I had no issue spending a extra $2 on "fancy" pho so long as it's delicious and nearby (since I was in The Heights).

You know that feeling when your friend has described someone for weeks, months or years and you finally meet them and they sound / look nothing like what you built up inside your mind?

That's what happened with me and Pagoda. I have passed what I realize now is an upscale, trendy Vietnamese hot spot more than 100 times thinking it was a quaint, random bungalow turned Vietnamese Ma and Pa restaurant.

And why wouldn't I - it looks like a typical Heights house.


To my surprise, Pagoda's got it going on, but it appears nobody knows it as we were one of 2 tables in this 2 story gem (maybe it was the weather).

Pagoda boasts an asian-zen decor with grand chandeliers and a gorgeous bar.

Mind blowing and extremely contrary to my imagination.

Many Vietnamese fanatics would criticize its menu much like others criticize Gigi's Americanized Asian fare in the Galleria. You are not going to find $5 noodle dishes here like you might at more authentic spots in Midtown. What you will find is a rather large selection of Vietnamese inspired dishes that will make your taste buds dance in excitement.

My trio started out with the spring rolls that came with shrimp and pork. I went sans pork and thoroughly enjoyed each bite with an excellent peanut dipping sauce.

Intrigued by the menu, my friends deviated from the pho plan and went with a pot roast and beef noodle dish, Dragon Noodle.

I however, stuck to my initial plan. The second I ordered my bowl of pho, I began having buyer's remorse. Should I really be ordering pho from a place with a live DJ on Thursdays????
My fears subsided after just one sip of broth and slurp of noodle. My craving quieted, my body temperature defrosted - heaven. I dressed my otherwise excellent beef broth with a little hoisin and a dash of Siracha in pure delight. I'll admit that the beef slices could have been a little less tough, but at $8, this was no deal breaker.

My friend's pot roast, the Bo Kho was the actual envy of the table. This was one of those "stick to your bones" stews that looked as delicious as it tasted. Served in a deep bowl of dark brown sweet and savory gravy with a fresh baguette on the side to dip with, it's a dish not to miss.

I did not make room for the Dragon Noodles, but my friend noted the freshness of the Chinese broccoli in the dish and cleaned his plate.

In addition to their excellent cuisine, Pagoda doubles as a lounge I would not mind having a drink or two in. As I mentioned, the bar itself was beautiful and produced an appetizing cocktail list. I passed this time, but would return for $5 martinis on Wednesdays or reverse happy hour on Thursdays.
Their upstairs doubles as an excellent spot for private events, mixers, and even a unique rehearsal dinner location.

To put a bow on this package, Pagoda's service was outstanding as well, starting with the warm hostess down to our friendly waiter.

Bottom line: Don't dismiss Pagoda as just another pretty Heights restaurant lacking true flavor. It's actually a date friendly bistro giving a gracious nod to Vietnamese cuisine in a surprisingly sexy setting.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Azuma Sushi & Robata Grill

2 out of 5 Stars

5600 Kirby Dr
Houston, TX 77005
(713) 432-9649

In a city filled with ridiculously delicious sushi spots, it amazes me how a chain like Azuma can survive. I've frequented Azuma for years at their Kirby, Downtown, and Soma (Heights) location and leave underwhelmed every time.

My last experience at the Kirby location was no better, and it all started with the greeting.

WHERE'S MY FREAKING "Dou itashimashite!!!"?????

I'm not trying to be picky nor stereotypical here, but this is what my pal and I got instead.

"Hi! We are here for happy hour!!"

In the hostesses' best "Mean Girls" voice: "We don't have happy hour."

****I don't understand the words that are coming out of your mouth****

"But....but... Downtown Azuma does?????" imagine protruding puppy dog eyes...fully  aware that we are not going to get what we came for.

"But we don't."

"Alright, well there will be six of us coming".

"Do you have a reservation?"

I look around the half empty restaurant thinking....are you for real, lady?

Eventually she seated us like she was doing us a favor...

Bloop! Bloop!

I proceeded to order edamame, spicy tuna and their famous Crazy Irishman roll accompanied by a necessary Kettle One Martini (after our sordid welcome).

Per usual, the chefs at Azuma assume that because we are near Mexico, it makes sense to over spice the salmon to the point where all you taste is Tabasco. Even worse, they cheat with that red pepper powder (you know, to cover up the salmon even more). Total Fail.

Then there was the Crazy Irishman. I've tried to understand the love affair with this roll, but to me, it defeats the point of sushi. I'm not saying I'm a sushi purist; you can add a little crunch to my roll (if you know what I mean).....

......but Azuma flash fries this roll in a way that the raw fish we are trying to enjoy has now become the texture of chicken. Meanwhile the crunch is comparable to the texture of stale funyuns. Need I say more?

The only saving grace to my latest meal was our sweet server who charmed us with jokes, remembered our names and left us with a special red envelope promising us of free food, so long as we return with it still sealed.

Whatever, it takes to keep us coming back, I guess....

I for one, am not interested. I'll leave my Japanese dining to the pros at Sushi King, Toyama and Miyako-thank you very much. At least they have happy hour, fun greetings and most importantly, GREAT SUSHI.

Russo's NY Pizzeria

4 out of 5 Stars

4870 Beechnut St
Houston, TX 77096
(713) 349-8787

Image courtesy of

Russo's New York Pizzeria:

It's not new. It's not hip. I wouldn't even call it quaint.....but it's Meyerland's true neighborhood pizza joint and it's stellar!

One bite of their New York style pizza, and you forget Russo's is even a local chain.

Growing up in Meyerland - this was my go-to pizza place. They sell by the slice, by, the pie, and in the right circumstance by the ton.

By the ton? Not quite, but they do offer an XL that could feed the Texans Football Team - a slight exaggeration. 28 inches of fresh, garlicky, pizza squares under $30 (toppings are extra) will barely fit in your trunk. The good news is...THEY DELIVER! Good luck getting it through your front door though. I kid.

Russo's offers pizza in all shapes, sizes and flavors.

I've yet to explore their pasta or specialty menu because I pine for their pie, but it's long and varied (lobster ravioli, anyone?).

Keep in mind that Russo's is more than just pizza delivery. A party of any size can dine comfortably and casually in this family friendly restaurant. You'll be just as pleased with thier counter service as you are with the pizza.

I recently placed an order for an XL (half margarita, half veggie-complete with artichokes) as well as a bulk house salad.

30 minutes and $75 dollars later, I was hosting a party of 12 very satisfied ladies. The craziest part, I still had enough leftovers to feed a family of 4! That's value.

So when you are ordering for Superbowl, don't forget your neighborhood Russo's: New York flavor, Houston prices.