The Upside Pub in Garden Oaks is a Fun Haven With Beers, Cocktails & Great Food
When a pub opens at 11:30 a.m., it’s a good bet that it offers a great lunch. That’s the case at The Upside Pub, located at 3402 North Shepherd in Houston’s Garden Oaks neighborhood. My visit followed five whirlwind days of events and preceded a flight out of George Bush Intercontinental. Nothing sounded better than a laid-back pub meal, maybe with a beer (or two) alongside — and simply had to be better than airport food and airplane Bloody Marys.
The Upside Pub’s thumbs-up logo is everywhere; an irresistible sign of good cheer. A smattering of patrons — most likely regulars — all seated at the bar in the glow of the afternoon sun gives further assurance that you’re in a good place.
The pub is in the space that was the short-lived, ZZ Top-themed Tres Amigos Café y Cantina. That was perhaps the case of a good idea in the wrong spot. Everyone loves a good ZZ Top homage, but the shotgun space seems best suited for a fast food restaurant — or a pub. Actually, the predecessor to Tres Amigos was a pub — Shepherd Park Draught House. So, The Upside Pub essentially brought the space back to what it was supposed to be.
The owners are Paige and Andy Lujan. Paige is minding the store on this day, and I like her immediately. She’s open, warm, friendly and disarmingly honest. The Lujans relocated to Houston from Southern California, and Paige brought a great deal of experience as a craft beer professional with her. The Lujans dived immediately into restyling the former Tex-Mex restaurant back into a pub, but one that’s uniquely their own. A wall above a shuffleboard table is covered in framed photos that tells the story of the extensive remodeling and backbreaking work needed to turn it from a restaurant back into a gastropub. The Upside Pub debuted in January.
As I suspected it would be, the food is really good. Paige tells me the Potato Latke Balls are the most popular appetizer. These emerge gorgeous from the fryer; nubby and golden brown on the outside, yet so creamy in the center that I had to ask if there was a secret extra ingredient. Was there a dollop of cream cheese, perhaps? “Nope, that’s just the way they come out of the fryer,” said Paige. As is proper, the latke balls come with sides of applesauce and sour cream. Pick your pleasure, sweet or cold and creamy. I like alternating between both.
I wasn’t expecting the “fried pretzel bites” alongside the beer cheese queso to be a huge, soft, salted pretzel, but it was, and I couldn’t have been happier about the vaguely heart-shaped twist. The ends were crispy, as were the edges, which made it better than a typical soft pretzel. It was ideal for breaking apart and dipping into the thick “beer cheese queso”, an apt description as it clung to the pretzel like queso and avoided the dreaded wateriness that plagues so many beer cheeses. The Upside Pub actually landed top honors for its tangy, mustard-inflected concoction at the Eureka Heights Brewery’s Annual Queso Bowl. (I didn’t know this competition existed, but they can consider this an offer to help judge.)
Next was the main event: the SUPER BOMB Patty Melt featuring a smash-burger patty, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, horseradish cream, Dijon mustard and pickles on Kraftsman marble rye bread. Paige says she knows there’s huge competition for burgers in Houston — but there aren’t many patty melts to be found. The Upside Pub’s has a fun feature I’d not seen before: cheese wings. Swiss cheese slices are baked until crispy, then, while still soft enough, carefully adhered to the edges of the sandwich wedges. It’s like getting an extra treat in your basket. While the beef, melted cheese and caramelized onions are evenly balanced within the sandwich, I wanted a little more meatiness. Next time, I’ll get an extra patty.
The Upside Pub’s patrons get some say in the menu, as there’s a weekly Tasting Tuesday for research-and-development purposes. The week I visited, the dish under consideration was “Pub Thai”, in Paige’s words, a pub-ified take on traditional pad thai.
The spirits selection is dive-bar-sized but has the essentials — a few well-known whiskies and rye such as Whistlepig and Elijah Craig, gins from Tanqueray and Hendricks and a few special items, like rye and coffee liqueur from local William Price Distilling. Frozen margarita spins in a machine (there’s a non-frozen mocktail margarita option, too, that uses Ritual Tequila Alternative), and there are a few other cocktails on draft: a coffee martini that incorporates the aforementioned coffee liqueur and an old fashioned made with Evan Williams. Those with simpler tastes might opt for the shot of Jameson and a pickleback. I’m tempted, but I opt for the coffee martini instead. It’s not going to win any beauty contests — there’s no garnish and it’s a bit foamy from the tap — but it’s lightly boozy without killing the coffee flavor. It hits the spot as a late afternoon cocktail.
With Paige’s background in craft beer, it’s unsurprising that several fine local breweries are represented on the tap wall. On my visit, some selections included Lone Pint Gentleman’s Relish, Eureka Heights Mini Boss IPA and Equal Parts Intermezzo, along the pub-requisite Lone Star.
I can easily envision returning to The Upside Pub with a group of friends to amuse ourselves with darts, shuffleboard, cornhole or one of the many board games nestled on a shelf, and stuff ourselves silly on patty melts and beer cheese. It’s the type of warm, communal comfort that everyone deserves, whether to take a break before jumping back into the fray of life or to simply shake off the stress of the week.
View more of Phaedra Cook’s photos from The Upside Pub online.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.