I had three meals out in Houston, one plus, one solid-average, and one fringy. The plus meal was a reader recommendation on Twitter when I put out a call for Q joints. Pierson & Company, a two-year-old restaurant up on TC Jester north of downtown, made a stir when they finished first in a local competition for best brisket and second to Luling City Market* for ribs. When I asked the woman behind the counter what she recommended, she asked if it was my first time at the place, and a few moments later I had a sampler plate in front of me with a small chunk of brisket, a shred of pulled pork, and a hunk of house-made beef sausage – probably close to a quarter pound of meat, gratis. All three were outstanding, with the sausage really standing out for its mix of flavors (beef, smoke, and hot pepper), but I went with the brisket since that’s Pierson’s main claim to fame. I could eat the bark of Pierson’s brisket all day long; the sliced brisket sandwich came with easily a half pound of meat, more than the roll could hold, with a deep pink smoke ring and the perfect mix of smoky flavor and internal moisture. (They’re known for closing early if they run out of meat – the mark of any great barbecue shack, because it says that they’re smoking meat daily and won’t serve anything that’s been stored and reheated.) Their cole slaw was freshly made but a little oversauced, although anyone familiar with the use of a fork could get around the issue, since the vegetables were still extremely crisp. Skip the peach cobbler, though, as it tasted of the can. All that including a bottle of water ran about $10.
*I have read many times over that Luling City Market in Houston is but a pale imitation of Luling Bar-B-Q in the city of Luling, west of Houston. If any of you can vouch for this or contradict it, I’d love to hear about it.
The solid-average meal was a recommendation from a scout who’s worked Texas for a few years: Dolce Vita, a pizzeria/bar on Montrose in what I think is Houston’s trendy-restaurant district. Dolce Vita does a respectable Italian-style pizza, with a thin crust and a mix of traditional and non-traditional pizzas. (I don’t believe you can do toppings a la carte, although I didn’t ask since they offered something I liked.) The prosciutto and arugula pizza was generously topped with both items and properly sauced underneath, which is to say there wasn’t much tomato sauce at all – deconstructed, it was a sparsely-topped margherita pizza with a significant helping of arugula and several slices of prosciutto added after the underlying pizza was cooked. The roughly twelve-inch pizza ran about $13 and I inhaled it despite ripping through more than half of an appetizer, the grilled broccoli with pecorino romano, which despite coming cold (a shock to me, since it didn’t say anything about it on the menu and “verdure” more often refers to hot vegetable dishes) was one of the best broccoli dishes I’ve ever had. The broccoli was grilled and then chopped or shredded and tossed with salt, lots of fresh black pepper, and thick short ribbons of pecorino romano, so in every bite you’re getting salty, bitter, sweet (from the caramelized parts of the broccoli), and umami (from the cheese). Total bill without a drink was $25 including tip.
The fringe-average meal was around the corner from Dolce Vita, a place called Little Big’s. One of a handful of restaurants from Bryan Caswell, a Houston native who’s both a chef (his higher-end restaurants are Reef and Stella Sola) and a sports fan, Little Big’s combines two recent food trends, sliders and gourmet burgers, with middling results. You can order their three-inch-diameter sliders individually, but the standard order is three sliders in any combination of four types – beef with caramelized onions, southern-fried chicken, pulled pork (smoked for twelve hours), or black bean. In the interests of serving you, the reader, I ordered one of each of the first three types. The beef burger was dominated by the flavor of the caramelized onions, which were brilliantly sweet with just a hint of their natural acidity, but the beef itself ended up in the background – and, worse, it wasn’t hot, just warm when I got it. The pulled pork was similarly lukewarm, although I can at least understand why Q might not be served piping hot (it’ll dry out if you smoke it and then hold it too long), but the smoke flavor was strong and it was only slightly sauced so the smoke could come through. The chicken was boring and the crust, while very crispy, had no intention of staying anywhere near the meat and half of it slid off the first time I picked the slider up. Their hand-cut fries are on a par with Five Guys’ (that’s good) and maybe 2/3 the cost, although sitting in a basket they started to steam themselves and became a little soggy. The chocolate milkshake was thick and creamy and redolent of chocolate syrup stirred into vanilla ice cream. I do really like what Caswell’s trying to do here, and with better execution – quality control on the burgers, serving the fries in a paper bag or just a wider basket, using actual chocolate ice cream instead of syrup – it could be plus, but this time out it fell short.
Unrelated to food but worth a mention: I was very impressed by Rice’s baseball field, Reckling Park. I’ve been to minor league stadiums that weren’t that nice and I can see why the NCAA might love to have regionals there when the Owls earn it through their play. I know college baseball is still a poor cousin to its big-revenue brethren on campus, but Rice should be able to convert their history of good clubs and a beautiful stadium into fan support from outside the campus. After all, would you rather go see Anthony Rendon … or Brandon Lyon?