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  • Houston chefs & restaurateurs share their favorite dishes from local menus

    Houston, Texas Published by Chron.com, Author: Darla Guillen

    Houston chefs and restaurant owners are constantly challenged to innovate their offerings and serve consistently well-executed dishes.


    Although for some, there's one mainstay dish they'd happily order or cook for themselves daily. That led us to wonder, what are those crave-able classics in Houston?

    We asked more than 30 culinary pros in Houston, from chefs to owners — some who even lay claim to various restaurants in town — to name the one item from their menus that they'd order time and again. 

    The rules? They couldn't choose more than one, and it had to be a menu item readily available to all Houston diners. 

    Among the chefs who responded is James Beard Award-winning Chris Shepherd, chef/owner at new Montrose restaurant One Fifth Steak, 1658 Westheimer. Shepherd said that his favorite dish is the Golden Osetra Caviar with housemade English muffins.

    "It offers all the components of traditional caviar service, but it's my interpretation. The English muffins and soft boiled egg provide a really nice texture, which uplifts the flavor of the caviar," Shepherd said.

    Over at The Original Ninfa's Ninfa's on Navigation, 2704 Navigation, executive chef Alex Padilla, who has helmed the iconic Houston restaurant since 2006, shared his pick. Padilla had previously spent 18 years working under James Beard Award-winning chef Nancy Oakes in San Francisco.

    While that establishment is known for its combination of Mexican dishes and Tex-Mex classics, it's the Fajita Burger that Padilla called his favorite go-to dish. It's a ground- and chopped-fajita mix topped with grilled red onions, poblano peppers, avocado, chipotle major and a blend of Oaxaca and Monterrey Jack cheese held together by a Slow Dough brioche bun.
    "Ninfa's is well-known for fajitas, ever since Mama Ninfa (Laurenzo) started serving them here in 1973. What I love about this dish is it takes that history that we have and puts it on a burger," Padilla said. "Everybody loves burgers, and everybody loves fajitas, so you've got a grand slam. It's almost like a good steak sandwich but with fajita meat."

    Chef Hugo Ortega, who co-owns several Houston restaurants with his wife, Tracy Vaught, may be basking in the light of their newly debuted H-Town Restaurant Group's Xochi, 1777 Walker, a Oaxacan restaurant on the ground level of the Marriott Marquis. 

    However, when it came to his favorite dish, Ortega named the Poached Seafood Salad, a shrimp and scallop dish with calamari with celeriac remoulade, lemon-poppy seed vinaigrette, capers, sun-dried tomato mojo and serrano. That's available at H-Town Restaurant Group's River Oaks establishment, Backstreet Cafe, 1103 Shepherd.

    At the Heights' Harold's Restaurant & Tap Room, 350 W. 19th, executive chef Antoine Ware will be ordering the Shrimp N Grits from is menu. 
    "It is a classic and a true tribute to the South and all of the locally-sourced ingredients tell a story," Ware said. "The bacon-wrapped shrimp comes from the Gulf and sits atop grits sourced from South Carolina's Anson Mills mixed with mushrooms from Indian Creek Farm. It all comes together to make a comforting Southern classic."

    Where: Burger Joint, 2703 Montrose 
    Who: Matthew Pak, owner
    What: Kimchi Burger
    Kimchi Burger: Korean BBQ style angus beef patty, lettuce, onion, house made kimchi, cheddar, garlic mayo, topped with a fried egg.

    Where: Lee's Fried Chicken & Donuts, 601 Heights Blvd.
    Who: Lee Ellis, owner
    What: Double Donut Fried Chicken Sandwich
    Chicken tenders between two glazed donuts with choice of sauce: "I love the sweet and savory combo." -Lee Ellis

    Where: Pi Pizza, 181 Heights
    Who: Anthony Calleo, chef/co-owner
    What: Pizza topped with pepperoni, mushroom, chili flakes and Houston Dairymaids cheese.
    "It's everything Pi is, in a way. It's simple, classic but the ingredients we use to make are so good and we put such care into it that's greater than the sum of its parts. It's sneaky-good." -Anthony Calleo

    Where: Saint Arnold Brewing Company, 2000 Lyons Ave. 
    Who: Ryan Savoie, chef 
    What: Amber Ale Bratwurst 
    “My favorite menu item of ours is the Amber Ale Bratwurst. Our Amber Ale brats are made in house now, and they are delicious. We serve it with a Slow Dough pretzel roll and mustard made with our Ale Wagger Brown Ale. It’s a dish using local ingredients that fits perfectly with Houston’s oldest craft brewery.” - Ryan Savoie

    Where: Coltivare, 3320 White Oak Dr.
    Who: Ryan Pera, chef
    What: Swiss chard ravioli with rabbit ragú
    "It's a dish stripped down to its essence. No superfluous ingredients, yet each ingredient being necessary for its success. It utilizes what we grow in the garden and most importantly, it tastes awesome.” -Ryan Pera

    Where: The Union Kitchen – Memorial, 12538 Memorial Dr.
    Who: Henry Hopkes, executive chef
    What: Double Bone-In Pork Chop 
    "My favorite dish is the Double bone-in Pork Chop. It's marinated, sous vide and served with a wild mushroom Madeira sauce and paired perfectly with sautéed spinach and yukon gold potato puree. All of the flavors work well together and the pairings complement the protein." -Henry Hopkes

    Where: Original Ninfa's on Navigation, 2704 Navigation Blvd.
    Who: Alex Padilla,  executive chef
    What: Fajita Burger 
    Ground and chopped fajita topped with grilled red onions, poblano peppers, avocado, chipotle mayo and a Tex-Mex blend of Jack and Oaxaca cheese, served on a Slow Dough brioche bun. "Ninfa's is well-known for fajitas, ever since Mama Ninfa (Laurenzo) started serving them here in 1973. What I love about this dish is it takes that history that we have and puts it on a burger. Everybody loves burgers, and everybody loves fajitas, so you've got a grand slam. It's almost like a good steak sandwich but with fajita meat." -Alex Padilla

    Where: State Fare Kitchen & Bar, 947 Gessner
    Who: Jim Mills, partner at Cherry Pie Hospitality
    What: State Fare Gumbo

    Where: One Fifth Steak, 1658 Westheimer
    Who: Chris Shepherd, chef/co-owner
    What: Golden Osetra Caviar with housemade English muffins. "It offers all the components of traditional caviar service, but it’s my interpretation. The English muffins and soft boiled egg provide a really nice texture, which uplifts the flavor of the caviar.” -Chris Shepherd

    Where: Beaver's, 6025 Westheimer
    Who: Arash Kharat, chef
    What: Philly Cheesesteak 
    A salute to Texadelphia, the sandwich is made with seared 44farms Beef, carmelized onions, bell peppers, crimini mushrooms, fresh jalapenos, provolone & herb infused 3-cheese spread.

    Where: Kata Robata Sushi + Grill, 3600 Kirby
    Who: Hori (Manabu Horichi), chef
    What: Foie Gras & Duck Chawanmushi 
    "Of course I love sushi and sashimi but on the cooked side of the menu, I love the Foie Gras and Duck #Chawanmushi ~ Japanese-style egg." - Chef Hori

    Where: Cuchara, 214 Fairview
    Who: Ana Beaven, owner. Pictured: One of the chefs at the restaurant.
    What: 4-maiz tortillas
    Each quarter of the new tortillas offered at the Montrose authentic Mexican restaurant represents a different maiz. 

    Where: MKT Bar, 1001 Austin (ground level at Phoenicia Specialty Foods)
    Who: Ann-Marie Tcholakian, co-owner 
    What: Veg-Out Pizza 
    All green: $14 roasted squash, zucchini, artichokes, carrots, asparagus, crispy Brussels sprouts leaves, goat cheese and basil pesto on hand-tossed ciabatta crust.

    Where: America's, 2040 West Gray
    Who: David Cordua, chef/co-owner
    What: Smoked Lamb Lollichops
    "My favorite dish at Americas is our Smoked Lamb Lollichops. We smoke a rack of lamb with dried corn husks. We then grill them individually with Peruvian aji panca chiles, vinegar, garlic, cumin and vinegar. The result is smoky, spicy, briny and something like nothing else on our menu that converts people that have never been lamb fans before." -David Cordua

    Where: Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, 2327 Post Oak Blvd. and 5172 Buffalo Speedway
    Who: Ziggy Gruber, chef/owner
    What: Blintzes
    "My favorite menu items at the deli are the blintzes, Hungarian goulash and stuffed cabbage. It has taken me 25 years to get my blintzes the way that I like them, to get the recipe down-pat. Because my family owned kosher delis in NYC we didn’t have any dairy products, so we would visit our friends who owned Ratner’s Deli – they had the best blintzes! Over the years I have worked and worked to either equal or better their blintzes and I think I have surpassed Ratner’s blintzes. They are crispy on outside, creamy farmer’s cheese on inside … delicious and light as a feather." -Ziggy Gruber

    Where: Backstreet Cafe, 1103 Shepherd Dr.
    Who: Hugo Ortega, chef/co-owner 
    What: Poached Seafood Salad 
    This new-to-the-menu salad is made with shrimp, scallops and calamari with celeriac remoulade, lemon-poppy seed vinaigrette, capers, sun-dried tomato mojo and serrano.

    Where: Weights & Measures, 2808 Caroline
    Who: Richard Kaplan, chef/co-owner
    What: Smoked Lobster Fettucine
    The dish consists of hand-cut fettucinem oak smoked lobster, spinach, cabernet tomatoes, rosemary lemon butter and toasted panko.

    Where: Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella
    Who: Mark Schmidt, executive chef 
    What: Scallop Risotto
    "The scallop dish is one of my favorites: Seared Sea Scallops, Morcilla Piquillo Risotto, Parsley, Parmesan." -Mark Schmidt

    Where: Harold's Restaurant & Tap Room, 350 W. 19th St.
    Who: Antoine Ware, executive chef
    What: Gulf Shrimp 'n' Grits 
    "It is a classic and a true tribute to the South and all of the locally-sourced ingredients tell a story. The bacon-wrapped shrimp comes from the Gulf and sits atop grits sourced from South Carolina’s Anson Mills mixed with mushrooms from Indian Creek Farm. It all comes together to make a comforting Southern classic." -Antoine Ware

    Where: Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, 3201 Louisiana 
    Who:  Mark Holley, chef/owner
    What: Thai Snapper for Two

    Where: MKT Bar, 1001 Austin (ground level at Phoenicia Specialty Foods)
    Who: Haig Tcholakian, co-owner
    What: Curried Vegetable Pot Pie 
    This is a $9 seasonal vegetable stew in a rich curry topped with a flaky crust.

    Where: Antone's Famous Po' Boys, multiple locations
    Who: Jonathan Horowitz, Legacy Restaurants CEO
    What: Turkey & Swiss Po' Boy
    One of Antone's four traditional po'boys, this one's made with roasted turkey, swiss cheese, mayo and bread & butter pickles served on toasted Italian bread by Royal Bakery. "It’s simple and the epitome of comfort food. The crunch of the pickles is probably my favorite part – they provide the perfect texture and flavor contrast in the sandwich." -Jonathan Horowitz

    Where: Bosscat Kitchen + Libations, 4310 Westheimer (opens Feb. 22)
    Who: Peter Petro, chef
    What: 12-Hour Beef Short Rib 
    Braised beef short rib, black pepper sauce, potato gratin.  "It's a really nice, clean piece of beef. We cook it until all the connective tissue is broken down, until it's super soft and tender and we can really get some great flavors imparted into it. It's served on a bed of potato gratin with crispy fried onions and a black pepper garlic sauce that has a hint of sweetness. The sauce is based on an Asian recipe that I used at several Asian restaurants in Southern California before we opened Bosscat in 2014. Everything about this dish just goes well together, and people always tell us how much they love the tenderness of the meat." -Peter Petro

    Where: Third Coast, 6550 Bertner Ave., 6th floor
    Who: Jon Buchanan, executive chef
    What: Red Snapper with curry
    Gulf snapper with green curry and veggie slaw: "My favorite menu item is the Red Snapper with green curry, vegetable slaw, cashews and lemongrass-ginger rice." -Jon Buchanan

    Where: The Union Kitchen, multiple locations
    Who: Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality Gr8 Plate Hospitality 
    What: The Union Burger 
    "The Union Burger has it all. A burger with cheddar, bacon, onion rings, BBQ aioli and our house made chips. It's really everything you could want in a burger." -Paul Miller

    Where: Relish Restaurant & Bar, 2810 Westheimer
    Who: Dustin Teague, executive chef/co-owner
    What: Fried Chicken
    This hearty Southern meal, $22, is served with hot honey & maple Brussels sprouts.

    Where: Le Mistral/Rouge Wine Bar Rouge, 1400 Eldridge Parkway
    Who:  David Denis, owner
    What: Farmer's Pizza Chef
    Topped with pancetta, onions, brie and black olives paired with a glass of Domain de la Suffrene form Bandol.

    Where: Upstairs Bar & Lounge at Hungry's, multiple locations 
    Who: Ashkan Nowamooz, owner
    What: Crab Cake Bites 
    For $8: blue crab cake bites served on a bed of jalapeño mac and cheese.

    Where: 13 Celsius, 3000 Caroline
    Who: Ian Rosenberg, co-owner
    What: Italiano Panini
    For $12: Hand-cut slices of salumi and cheeses with olives and arugula. Served with chips and cornichons.

    Where: Hungry's, multiple locations 
    Who: Sue Nowamooz, executive chef 
    What: Anaheim Chile Grilled Chicken 
    All-natural chicken, roasted Anaheim chile cream sauce, herb basmati rice, seasonal vegetables and warm pitamac and cheese, $17.

    Where: Baba Yega, 2607 Grant
    Who: Fred Sharifi, owner
    What: Roasted Quinoa Salad 
    Roasted zucchini, broccoli, red bell pepper, red onion, cauliflower with arugula, lemon zest and roasted garlic vinaigrette, $14.

    Where: A Fare Extraordinaire, 2035 Marshall
    Who: Ryan Bouillet, executive chef
    What: Boneless Braised Short Ribs 
    "Although difficult to name my favorite dish, the boneless braised short ribs is a continuous crowd stunner. This southern dish is often paired with jalapeno cheddar cheese grits, a nod to my New Orleans culinary background. I top it off with bright rainbow carrots and thin sweet potato threads to add a playful pop of color." -Ryan Bouillet

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