My Houston Bucket List: Ellie Sharp, Food Editor & Writer
New series “My Houston Bucket List” describes the restaurants and bars notable Houstonians chose to visit for their last hurrahs before moving away from the Bayou City. It’s a chance to also discuss thoughts and feelings saying goodbye to the city’s food scene. In this first installment, former Zagat Houston editor and food writer for many local publications for the past four years, Ellie Sharp, writes about the essential dishes she had before moving to South Carolina in February 2018. Sharp will continue writing for Houston Food Finder, using her knowledge to write “straight news stories” that don’t require in-person visits.
Leaving a beloved food city conjures feelings of mild panic when the realization hit that only days remain to enjoy it; the fateful phrase “last meal” rang repeatedly in my mind as I brainstormed where I absolutely had to go in the few weeks I had left. Soon, I’d embark on a move cross-country to South Carolina.
My earliest food memories in Houston date back to 2004 but writing about the restaurant scene for the past four years inevitably pushed repeat visits to old favorites to the sidelines in favor of deadlines and assignments. My bucket list reflected those formative food years and my first forkfuls of local cuisine.
I’m an East Coast native and I always knew that Houston would not be my forever home. That said, knowing favorite haunts would no longer be a quick drive away put a lump in my throat and a tightness in my stomach. I’ve watched the city’s culinary landscape morph for about 14 years. The neighborhoods I frequent — Montrose, Heights, Midtown, West U, River Oaks, Downtown — are now somehow both different and the same. In many ways, food is the continuity amongst change. This is the city where I “grew up” after college and the first place I lived truly on my own, paying my own rent and finding my own path. Because of that, Houston will never be far from my mind, or my kitchen. Its flavors and dishes influence and inspire my cooking now.
While I know there are years of occasional Houston visits ahead, I also know the reality of “restaurant roulette” in a big city. Some mainstays are open and thriving since my first encounters with them while others I was interested in closed before I ever set foot through their doors. Thus commenced my ambitious, two-week, farewell tour in February. I combined social visits with final meals, squeezed in-between a few timely work assignments (dumpling crawl in Asiatown, coffee all over EaDo).
Of course my “to go” list was eons longer than feasible. I only managed to visit a fraction of the restaurants that I’d planned on, but, hopefully, there’s always next time.
Here’s a sampling of where I went, what I ate and why.
Chicken Enchiladas Mole, Horchata and Tres Leches At La Guadalupana, 2109 Dunlavy
I first visited Houston in 2004 as an early 20-something and later moved there in 2005 to be near my then-college-boyfriend who was attending Baylor College of Medicine. He was renting a little house on Michigan Street in Montrose and La Guadalupana was an easy one-block walk away. I still remember his excited announcement about “the amazing Mexican restaurant near the house” that I “had to try.” La Guadalupana served either the first or second meal I ever had in Houston and the mole enchiladas evoke myriad memories and emotions relating to my earliest days and years in the city. (If that meal wasn’t the first, then it was at La Tapatio on Richmond after a late-night flight from the East Coast). A large, creamy-spicy cinnamon horchata and a slice of La Guadalupana’s famous tres leches cake drenched in sweet milk are required add-ons. The cake is my baseline standard for tres leches; the one by which I judge all others. La Guadalupana used to have a copy of the Houston Chronicle on the wall and it was most likely Alison Cook’s inclusion of their desserts on a “best of” list that first inspired me to order it.
At one point in my life, I was going to order a La Guadalupana tres leches as a wedding cake — it’s that good. Here’s a photo from my earliest visits, proof of my longstanding love for documenting my meals. (War was a nickname for then-boyfriend Warren.)
Crawfish, Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy and Hurricanes from Ragin’ Cajun, 4302 Richmond
I’d never eaten crawfish before moving to Houston and my first one was consumed at a backyard boil. A chef at the defunct Strip House Steak House downtown (where a roommate also worked as a cook) infused the boiling water with a super-spicy, addictive blend of spices. I liked crawfish before I learned to like shrimp. Aside from that, my first “Cajun” meal was at Ragin’ Cajun on Richmond. I remember sampling boudin balls, po’ boys, fried catfish and fried shrimp. Later years granted me buckets of crawfish, platters of Gulf oysters and other delights. My husband and I spent many a Fat Tuesday there, enjoying “mudbugs,” hurricanes and live zydeco.
Brunch At Empire Cafe, 1732 Westheimer
I managed to sneak in a visit to Empire Cafe in January, knowing my days in Houston were running out. We made the trek on the Sunday of the Houston Marathon and Empire Cafe was packed with hordes of weekend diners as usual. Somehow, standing in a mile-long line at Empire never annoys me the way it does elsewhere. Perhaps it’s the consistently good people-watching (last time we saw a “puppy party” on the front patio,) or the overriding cool-eclectic vibe. I prefer to sit on the side patio enclosed with thick walls and foliage, which helps dim the sounds of Westheimer traffic. Empire Cafe is perfect for solo trips or brunch with friends and visitors. My food selections vary—from the waffle or Italian Toast to the Roma (two eggs on focaccia with basil pesto, tomatoes and mozzarella cheese) or just traditional eggs and breakfast meat—but I ALWAYS get an iced Milky Way filled with espresso, caramel, hazelnut, chocolate syrup and cream. It’s totally decadent.
Houston introduced me to many new dishes. It’s not that I was a sheltered kid growing up, but one wouldn’t exactly call “rural North Carolina fare” particularly diverse (though it certainly can be delicious). I am forever grateful to Houston for my love of chilaquiles. (My nickname for them now is “breakfast nachos.”) My first taste was at Lankford Grocery, bordering between Montrose and Midtown, with friends I met in grad school. At the time, I lived a few blocks away and eventually Lankford became a walk-to favorite, often with a dog or two in tow. I love the slightly slanted floor, mismatched coffee mugs and quirky vibe that is as endearing to the work-week crowd as it is for retired pals meeting for breakfast. I always get my coffee hot, my eggs over easy, sausage not bacon and remember to bring cash.
A few miles away, Avalon Diner in River Oaks also holds my chilaquiles-loving tastebuds captive. Savory-spicy salsa drenches chips heaped with Jack cheese, avocado and oozy eggs. I adore the old-fashioned diner setting and the crowd of loyal patrons. I still remember my first visit years ago when it had a reputation for “rude waitresses”—at least, that’s what I was told. Since the ever-intriguing Antique Pavilion is right next door, “Avalon & Antiques” day evolved as a way to spend half a Saturday with my girlfriends.
Gyro & “Greekfast” From Niko Niko’s, 2520 Montrose
I had to make two visits Niko Niko’s because of the two distinct meals I wanted to experience before moving. Another hangover from my earliest days in Montrose, I admire the family history and how the restaurant evolved from a walk-up counter to the multi-location business it is today. I hit the original Montrose outpost for “Greekfast” (Greek breakfast) with friends a few months ago, knowing it would likely be my last chance to sink my teeth into the Spartan breakfast pita for a while. Like a breakfast gyro, it features savory gyro meat, loukaniko (Greek sausage), tender potatoes, grilled peppers and onions with a sunny-side up egg. It pairs marvelously with the signature Greek coffee. I’m generally a no-sugar gal when it comes to coffee but for this I make an exception, partially because the potent brew benefits from a bit of sweetness. It’s also because I get a kick out of saying “make mine with medium ‘love.’” Later in February, I made a lunch run to the newer location off I-10 for a hearty gyro because, besides the pastichio, it is the epitome of Niko Niko’s for me.
Crunchy Peanut Butter Cups From Urban Eats, 3414 Washington
Over the course of my freelance career, I got to know a few owners particularly well, bonding over shared interests and outlooks. Levi Rollins, owner and culinary director, and Eric Munoz, owner and operations director of Urban Eats in the Washington Corridor are two of those owners. After covering Urban Eats for various freelance assignments, they hired me to take photos for their business use. During those many hours working together, we inevitably shared dreams and life plans. I got acquainted with Levi’s Crunchy Peanut Butter Cups, which have no comparison to other renditions. A mixture of creamy peanut butter, graham cracker crumbs, powdered sugar and vanilla is tucked into thick shells of Callebaut dark and milk chocolate, then topped with toasted peanuts. (Swoon.) I stopped by for farewell hugs the day before I left and they graciously gifted me a few for the long road trip ahead. I’m seriously thinking about ordering a dozen a few times a year if they’ll ship them to me.
When it comes to barbecue in Houston, it’s nearly impossible to play favorites. Like the pitmasters, the restaurants all have distinct personalities. Goode Company was my first taste of Texas ‘cue and where I celebrated completing my first marathon. Luling City Market is where I fell in love with Central Texas-style sauce and Killen’s Barbecue, The Pit Room, Roegel’s Barbecue Co., Gatlin’s BBQ and others all have their own spots in my barbecue-loving heart. This time, I wanted my dad—who was visiting to help with our move—to try Pinkerton’s, a newer love that was also in close proximity to our house in Oak Forest. We spread out on the floor with a big moving box as the “table,” clinked local craft beers and noshed on brisket, ribs, sausage, beans and Pinkerton’s killer jalapeño-cheese rice. Dinner another night was ribs from Pizzitola’s, because we’d driven by a million times over the years and always wanted to try it. The meaty, spice-rubbed racks did not disappoint.
Barry’s Special from Barry’s Pizza and Italian Diner, 6003 Richmond
When my husband was a kid, Barry’s was his favorite place to eat pizza. When he moved back to Houston to be with me in 2010, it became a regular haunt. We rarely got to eat at certain places due to the specific demands of my food writing work (usually assignments focused on specific food categories or the latest restaurant openings) but we made the effort for Barry’s whenever we could. It represented consistent comfort fare. The Barry’s Special is the deep-dish supreme of my dreams, featuring layers of pepperoni, mushrooms, ham, bell pepper, onion and Italian sausage bordered by super-crispy, almost-buttery edges. Plus the atmosphere is laid back and funky, the service is good and it has an air of rustic longevity lacking in more polished parlors.
Cacao + Chocolate Caliente at Xochi, 1777 Walker
Barbecue, Tex-Mex and cocktails get a lot of the attention in Houston, and for good reason, but did you know the chocolate game here is also quite remarkable? Cacao & Cardamom in the Galleria area, Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue in Tomball, The Chocolate Bar in Montrose and Chocolat Du Monde in Rice Village are just a few sources for quashing chocolate cravings. I checked Cacao & Cardamom off my bucket list over the holidays with a 48-piece jewel box to share with family over Christmas. On the same day, I ordered a Chocolatta from The Chocolate Bar (their answer to a frozen hot chocolate).
Two weeks before our move, I spent a Sunday afternoon with a friend fueling up on phở and beer at Conservatory, took a self-guided walking tour of downtown and finished with cocktails and dessert at Xochi. For over a year, I have salivated at every photo of chocolate from Ruben Ortega’s dessert menu, so we did it right. We split the Cacao (a life-sized white chocolate cacao pod filled with endless “textures of chocolate,” like cake and bon bons) and the housemade hot chocolate with sugar-coated churros. Each nibble and sip was pure delight and one of the sweetest sendoffs I could hope for.
Happy Hour At Star Fish, 191 Heights
The butter fries at Star Fish—a more recent addiction—called to me and implored “once more, once more” and so I answered, not the least bit grudgingly. I met a friend for happy hour, taking turns slurping briny Gulf oysters, sipping crisp gin & tonics and sharing a large bowl of hot, salty, just-right crispy Kennebec Butter Fries. (Star Fish maintains an entire vat filled with butter for the sole purpose of frying these fantastic potatoes, as well as the shallots used for the steak tartare). Worth. Every. Calorie. Photos don’t do justice or adequately portray the rich texture and balanced flavor. Go, taste and believe.
Beer at 8th Wonder Brewery, 2202 Dallas
We have a lot of ties to this homegrown hoptastic hideout so a “see-you-later session” was inevitable. I met co-founder Ryan Soroka in 2014 while covering a beer blog story for Bayou City Magazine during my earliest months as a food writer. I learned the origin of Alternate Universe (a German-style brew called an altbier) and watched the then-fledgling brewery before it blossomed into the ginormous outpost it is today.
Later, my husband took courses taught by co-founder and professor Aaron Corsi during his studies at the University of Houston. He interned for a time at 8th Wonder Brewery, getting up close and personal with beer production. We genuinely enjoy the brews as well as the hometown spunk of Houston’s hippest brewery. For our last visit before moving, we spent a few hours hanging out in the beer garden with friends, tipping back brews, saluting memories, and toasting to the adventures ahead.
“Goodbye Pie” from House of Pies, 3112 Kirby and The Flying Saucer Pie Company, 436 W Crosstimbers
House of Pies, how do I love you? Let me count the ways. I can’t remember a time in my Houston life when “HOP” wasn’t the scene of celebrations, commiserations, “just because” and for treating out-of-town visitors to a slice of local indulgence. From 3 a.m. breakfasts after going clubbing in my 20s to the countless Bayou Goo pies I schlepped from Houston to my family in Virginia, well, lets just say House of Pies fed my soul in a myriad of ways. On our final night in Houston, we hosted a little “Goodbye Pie” night, eating slabs of strawberry cream pie from The Flying Saucer (whole strawberries smothered in a sweet filling inside a melt-in-your-mouth crust and topped with whipped cream) plus pecan, apple and French Silk from House of Pies brought by friends. We stood around the kitchen holding paper plates, enjoying the break and fortifying ourselves for the over 15-hour drive ahead.
Food is essential nourishment for sustaining life, but is equally critical to making that life worth living. Over the years, the cuisine of Houston fundamentally changed me through knowledge, friendships and connections, plus exposure to different cultures, flavors, experiences and perspectives. On a professional level, I’m most proud of my writing when it allows readers to make their own connections — perhaps a favorite date spot, where they went to celebrate a milestone, or sharing experiences with visiting family. Personally, it connects me to MY places for those very same occasions.
Thanks, Houston, for feeding me in every sense of the word. I’ll always be hungry for more.