Where To Eat In West University and Rice Village — From A Resident
Guest writer Jonathan Horowitz is the CEO of Legacy Restaurants, which owns and operates the two Original Ninfa’s locations, Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys restaurants, and newly opened Mama Ninfa’s Tacos y Tortas. He was the president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association from 2016-2018. A Rice University graduate, he moved to Houston from New Hampshire in 1990 and hasn’t lived more than a few miles from the Rice campus for the past 29 years.
When I arrived in Houston as a freshman at Rice University nearly 30 years ago, options for dining out were slim. Back then, Rice Village was smaller, and the surrounding area didn’t have many restaurants. Nonetheless, I explored the area — usually by hitching a ride with upperclassmen who had cars and a bit more disposable income. I remember getting sandwiches at Kahn’s Deli, crushing happy hour at Pizzeria Uno, and occasionally having a brisket plate at Goode Company BBQ. (We’ll gloss over how I spent way too much time at The Ginger Man).
Nowadays, the area features a wide variety of restaurants from fast casual to high-end date-night spots. Just within the Rice Village and West University areas, there are hundreds of options. It would be daunting to try to list them all, so what follows a list of my (and my family’s) favorites in our neighborhood.
Benjy’s / Local Foods, 2424 Dunstan: Founder Benjy Levit has been a fixture in the Houston restaurant community for decades, and his original Benjy’s in Rice Village is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. In conjunction with this milestone, Benjy is renovating the space and updating the menu, bringing in noted chef Seth Siegel-Gardner, from the now closed The Pass and Provisions, to consult. Straddling the line between casual and upscale, both the food and atmosphere are excellent. Try the hamachi appetizer and the Smoked Bone Broth with Blood Brothers Barbecue Dumplings. Also, check out the cocktails at the always-popular bar; try the 25th Anniversary made with gin, cacao, Lillet and mole bitters.
Right next door is Benjy’s sister concept, Local Foods. Now with five locations in Houston, Local Foods offers a broad menu of sandwiches, soups and salads. My personal favorite is the Crunchy Chicken Sandwich, which comes with provolone, crushed chips, pickles, Romaine lettuce, tomato and buttermilk ranch. It has just the right amount of texture and the pretzel bun brings it all together. Paired with a couple of Local’s excellent (and healthy) sides such as the Tuscan kale with golden raisins and pine nuts and sweet potato salad with apples and dill, it makes the perfect lunch. Their newest seasonal sandwich combines duck confit with brie and cranberry sauce — perfect for when the cool weather is here to stay. For salads, Asian Chicken is always an excellent choice. It’s difficult to go wrong with any item on this creative menu.
Brown Bag Deli, 2540 Amherst: Tucked away in a small space on Amherst (opposite the new Shake Shack), Brown Bag Deli is the perfect spot to pick up a quick sandwich, drink and chips. Take one of the brown paper bags at the register and select your ingredients by marking them on the bag. Start with your favorite protein (I generally get the chicken salad) and add on from there. You can choose from a number of bread options, cheeses, vegetables and condiments. My son, the ultimate creature of habit, gets the same ham and cheese on white bread every single time. (I really need to do a better job of expanding his horizons!) We usually make our orders a combo with a drink and chips — it’s more than enough to satisfy two hungry guys. Note that parking can be challenging here — as it is pretty much everywhere in Rice Village — so look for a space that has a meter with some leftover time on it! If we don’t take our sandwiches to go, we’re generally in and out of there within 30 minutes.
Buffalo Grille, 4080 Bissonnet: Buffalo Grille is one of Houston’s most well-known breakfast institutions. Here, the pancakes are as big as dinner plates and the biscuits are light, fluffy and enormous. Drawing large crowds on the weekends (there’s often a line out the front door), diners of all ages come here to get their comfort food fix. Lunch and dinner items also appear on the menu, but it’s not unusual to see people eating breakfast foods at all times of the day. I’m partial to the egg platters in the mornings and tend to get one of the daily specials for dinner, such as roasted salmon with spinach. (Pro tip: this restaurant is a great place to grab a quick dinner on a Friday night — it’s rarely crowded). My wife makes a meal out of the vegetable plate, always choosing the fried okra. Here, it’s just as common to see Little League teams eating as a group after games as it is to see businessmen in suits having a power breakfast before heading to the office.
Chocolate Bar, 2521 University: Every list should include a dessert place, right? The Chocolate Bar has been a fixture on University Boulevard in Rice Village for many years — and for good reason. From freshly made ice creams to giant slices of cake and every kind of candy one could imagine, this place is nirvana for anyone with a sweet tooth. I love the Junkyard ice cream (a hodgepodge of candy bar bites and other candies), while my wife always orders one of the coffee or espresso-flavored concoctions. If I feel like trying something different, I’ll go for one of their mint chocolate chip variations. Of course, we’ll always spend a few minutes tasting new flavors, or trying out the standards all over again (you can never be too thoughtful about your ice cream choices). There’s a small seating area inside, but most people tend to take their goodies to go. This is a great option for dessert after having dinner elsewhere in the Village. It’s an easy walk, weather permitting.
Goode Company, four locations: Armadillo Palace (5015 Kirby), Barbecue (5019 Kirby), Seafood (2621 Westpark Drive), Taqueria (4902 Kirby): Just north of Rice Village on Kirby is a cluster of options from Goode Company, a venerable family-owned Houston-restaurant dynasty. No visit to the area is complete without at least sampling the barbecue from Goode Company BBQ. You can choose from the à la carte selection of meats (brisket, sausages, chicken, etc.) or make a combination plate with meats and delicious sides. Since my college days, I’ve been ordering a two-meat platter with brisket and turkey sausage with jambalaya and potato salad on the side. Each plate comes with a slice of the famous jalapeño-cheese bread, perfect for sopping up the sweet and tangy barbecue sauce. There are a few tables inside, but the real fun is sitting on the picnic tables on the patio and people-watching the diverse crowd around you.
Across the street from their barbecue joint is Armadillo Palace, the Goode’s version of a honky-tonk/restaurant. With a massive mirror-clad armadillo out front, this location features live music, traditional bar food, and strong drinks. Recently expanded, there’s now space for large private parties (the venue can hold up to 800 people inside and out).
The first Houston restaurant I ate at was Goode Company Taqueria. This Tex-Mex outpost has all the traditional tacos, fajitas and enchiladas you would expect, along with beers and margaritas for the adults. Family-friendly, the restaurant has a fountain on the patio where you’ll often find kids running around and tossing in coins. Start with the chips and queso and move on to the enchiladas verdes or a plate of tacos al carbon. We find ourselves here on the weekends for brunch, which usually involves their addictive pecan waffles.
Finally, the Goode family has its famous seafood establishment on Westpark, just west of the Taqueria. Incorporating an old rail car, this family-friendly restaurant features all manner of Gulf-coast seafood, from stuffed crabs to mesquite-grilled trout or redfish to platters of fried catfish and shrimp. The most iconic dish here, however, is the campechana extra — a delicious mixture of shrimp and crab in a tangy pico de gallo with chunks of avocado. Served with tortilla chips on the side, we often make this a meal in itself. While my son never misses an opportunity to have his favorite fried shrimp and French fries. There are other kids’ items to choose from as well.
Fresco Café Italiano 3277 Southwest Freeway: In a typical Houston strip mall along the feeder road of Highway 59 north sits a tiny sliver of a restaurant. With only 15 tables, this shotgun-style restaurant consistently puts out some of the best handmade pasta in town. Get there early to order at the counter and snag a table. It’s BYOB, so don’t forget to bring your favorite bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. Staffed by real-deal Italians, the simple menu is easy to navigate, and it includes some excellent pizza options along with the pastas. The Spaghetti Bolognese is always a favorite, along with the Tagliatelle with Texas-raised Lamb Sauce. Salads are basic but perfectly adequate: Caesar, house and arugula with quinoa. My son enjoys the cheese pizza — plain, of course.
100% Taquito 3245 Southwest Freeway: Sharing a parking lot with Fresco is 100% Taquito, which serves Mexican street tacos in a casual setting. Ordering is done by number at the counter — choose from a variety of traditional Mexican tacos, quesadillas, tostadas and tortas. You can get a side of chips and guacamole, which is chunky and heavy on the onions and tomatoes. Try a housemade horchata or an agua fresca, if it’s hot outside. My favorite order is the #16, which includes three tacos: mole chicken, beef fajita, and beef tinga (spicy shredded beef brisket with chipotle sauce). You can choose between corn or flour tortillas; I always pick corn. For dessert, don’t miss the award-winning tres leches. It’s one of the best in town. This is a great spot to pick up a bag of tacos on the way home or mid-day on the weekend. The service is quick and the food is always consistent.
Kenny & Ziggy’s 5172 Buffalo Speedway: If you’re in the mood for giant sandwiches, matzoh ball soup and housemade pickles, head over to the West University location of Kenny & Ziggy’s. The second outpost of this well-known Jewish-style deli (the original is on Post Oak in Uptown) is a smaller version of its older brother, but the menu and the food are the same. One of their massive deli sandwiches can feed a small family (and the prices reflect the portion sizes). Try a traditional pastrami (made in house) on rye bread, with spicy brown mustard — it’s our favorite for a reason. The stuffed grape leaves make regular appearances on our table, as do the massive orders of French fries. I take my son there just about every weekend for early breakfast (which is served all day). The breakfast menu is massive and there’s a great kids’ menu (eggs, waffles, sausage, etc.). I alternate between eggs with a bagel and cream cheese and the steel-cut hot oatmeal with berries. One of my other favorites is the mixed-deli omelet (chunks of corned beef, pastrami and salami cooked into the eggs) for dinner.
Kiran’s 2925 Richmond: While technically not in West University, I’m making an exception because we love chef and owner Kiran Verma, plus her restaurant, located on Richmond Avenue in the Greenway Plaza area, is close to the neighborhood. After more than a decade on Westheimer, Verma moved her restaurant to its current location in the summer of 2017. A beautifully designed interior creates a lovely setting for an evening out or an important business lunch. Featuring high-end Indian fare and well-crafted cocktails, Kiran’s continues to delight its loyal following of foodie fans. We have enjoyed dinner at the bar — there’s an excellent happy hour menu for both food and cocktails — and we’ve had wonderful dinners in the plush dining room. To start, try any of the kebabs (the lamb and chicken are favorites) or the Crab and Corn or Mushroom and Feta Samosas. Then, move on to Gulf snapper or Duck Two Ways from the tandoori oven. Pair them with a selection from Kiran’s extensive wine list. Dining here always feels special.
Marquis II 2631 Bissonnet: While not a restaurant, I wanted to give a shout-out to local watering hole, the Marquis II. This former dive bar has been around for decades just west of Kirby on Bissonnet and has been a favorite of Rice and U of H students for many years. After a recent change in ownership, proprietor Al Jara refurbished the interior, spruced up the exterior, fixed the parking lot, and added a patio in front. The whiskey and bourbon selection is top-notch, and there is plenty of comfortable seating inside. Although the famous Texas Tea (the Marquis II version of a Long Island Iced Tea) is still available, the days of rowdy college-aged 20-somethings drinking multiple glasses of alcoholic “tea” are gone. However, Al is working hard to draw neighborhood residents into the “new” Marquis II. It’s my favorite spot in the area to grab a beer or just spend some time talking to the regulars.
El Meson, 2425 University: El Meson, run for 40+ years by chef and sommelier Pedro “Peter” Garcia, is that unique restaurant that manages to be casual, elegant, family-friendly and sometimes raucous all at the same time. With a menu of Spanish, Cuban and Mexican dishes, El Meson works just as well for a date night as it does for a business dinner. We’ve been taking my 13-year old there since he was in diapers and have always found something for everyone. Currently, we gravitate towards the tapas — particularly the gambas al ajillo (jumbo Gulf shrimp with garlic and red pepper in olive oil) and the champiñones al ajillo (brown mushrooms sautéed in olive oil with serrano ham and garlic). I also enjoy the albondigas al Jerez (lamb meatballs in brandy de Jerez). Our older kids always seem to order ropa vieja (Cuban-style braised skirt steak with white rice and black beans) and enchiladas al gusto (beef or cheese enchiladas with refried black beans and a crispy beef taco). Garcia also has an extensive wine selection, with some extraordinary bottles. Be on the lookout for his extremely popular wine dinners, held in a private dining area off the main dining room — they always seem to turn into a party.
Prego 2520 Amherst: In its quaint Rice Village setting, Prego has been a stalwart for solid Italian food for three decades. Operated by chef John Watt along with by H-Town Restaurant Group, which is co-owned by James Beard Award-nominee Tracy Vaught, Prego hits all the high points for a traditional Italian dinner. Don’t miss the sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter and sage and the veal scaloppini with tomato and basil fettuccine and spinach. The wine selection here is well-curated (more than 200 selections) and the service is always affable. Be sure to make reservations, especially for dinner later in the week. The small space fills up quickly during peak hours — it’s not uncommon to see folks waiting outside with glasses of Chianti in their hands.
Skeeters Mesquite Grill, 5529 Weslayan: Tucked into a strip center on the corner of Weslayan and Bissonnet is this family-owned restaurant that features wonderful American comfort food. Recently renovated and featuring an expanded menu, this is a great place to come with the kids after a ball game or for an early family dinner. Known for its burgers, salads and weekend buffet breakfasts, Skeeters now offers grain bowls and steak nights. Featuring a small bar with some great local beers, parents can grab a drink while the kids run around or watch the game on of the the numerous televisions. My wife enjoys the classic crispy tacos, while I generally get the Skeeters Bowl with vegetables, grains and chicken (added to the menu from the family’s other concept, Adair Kitchen). There are plenty of salads and other Tex-Mex favorites to choose from. Of course, my son gets the burger and fries — every single time. Skeeters has a local neighborhood “Cheers” quality to it, and the food makes you feel just as comfortable as the casual atmosphere.