Finding a good meal in Houston is not a difficult task. Any native can quickly tell you where to go for the best steak, the most authentic tacos or the freshest sushi. But ask Houstonians where to find a killer dessert or a noteworthy cocktail and they’ll most likely pause. Desserts and cocktails are usually an afterthought in Houston, but there are a few local concepts looking to change that.
Uchi has made its name synonymous with pioneering the art of Japanese cuisine. Visitors from around the world come to Texas to sample chef Tyson Cole’s play on warm and cool menu items. But the desserts are equally innovative, and make it worth a trip to the Westheimer location all on their own, thanks to Houston-bred executive pastry chef and director of culinary operations, Philip Speer, and his loyal cooks.
Wildly popular with Houston diners, the Peanut Butter Semi Freddo has become Uchi’s signature dessert, with miso-apple sorbet, sake-steeped golden raisins, apple chips and peanut butter powder. Speer fuses classic techniques, unexpected flavor twists, and some modern tricks, like using tapioca maltodextrin—a fluffy white substance that instantly turns any high-fat food into a powder—to create his desserts. The Peanut Butter Semi Freddo was born from the flavors found in the contents of a child’s lunch box.
Speer believes that local chefs have an edge because of how intimately they know their city’s palate. There may be no better example than Houston’s own Monica Pope, who opened Beaver’s, an icehouse turned- restaurant that has become a local favorite. “We don’t carry any flavored spirits,” says bar manager Michael Riojas. “We infuse our own spirits and only use fresh juice and herbs.” Gin & Jam features Citadelle gin, house-made fig jam, lemon and soda; and Forecast is made with habañero-infused vodka, muddled cucumber, kaffir lime syrup and lemon.
Cloud 10 Creamery
Pastry chef and native Houstonian Chris Leung is another prime example of Speer’s insight; Leung and his business partner, Christopher Balat, honed in on exactly what Houston was missing. “Christopher wanted to have a meeting over a banana split. The next question was, where do we enjoy a good banana split? There wasn’t a spot, so we decided to create one,” Leung remembers. "Within days the concept of Cloud 10 Creamery was created.”
Now the shop sits in Rice Village like a beacon for all ice cream enthusiasts, with a variety of frozen treats like push pops, frozen tarts and 20 creative ice cream and sorbet flavors. Spun in small, half-gallon batches, the ice cream and sorbet are handmade with natural, premium ingredients. The menu, which is almost as rewarding to read as it is to taste, offers 10 permanent selections—vanilla bean and Nutella with marshmallows, for example—with 10 inventive seasonal flavor combinations such as white chocolate tobacco, brown sugar with butterscotch and malted barley with raisin jam.
El Big Bad
What Cloud 10 does with frozen flavors, El Big Bad has done with tequila—possibly the only thing that Houstonians love more than ice cream. At this gastro-cantina, tequila gets the attention it rightfully deserves with more than 60 handcrafted tequila infusions. Think roasted red beet, vanilla habañero and peanut butter. The menu offers feisty drinks like the Cranberry Cinnamon Margarita and the ever-popular Blueberry Jalapeño Cilantro: "A bit spicy and fully balanced … well-known by locals,” says co-founder Lea McKinney. A little modern, a little Mexican kitsch, El Big Bad has struck a chord with Houston bar-goers by mastering the art of distinct flavor combinations.
Mo's ... A Place for Steaks
“There are so many different types of bars to go to. Whether you’re in the mood to be social or relaxed, watch the game or play games, there is a bar for you,” says Johnny Vassallo, owner and founder of Mo’s … A Place for Steaks. Vassallo has seen the consumer trends over the years and believes that a large number of Houstonians will always gravitate toward traditional flavors, no matter how many new and exciting spots come to the area. That’s why Mo’s does the classics—martinis, scotch, bourbon—so well.
Fluff Bake Bar
Pastry chef Rebecca Masson has capitalized on the same sentiment of familiarity, making classic American desserts even better with Fluff Bake Bar. Masson supplies local haunts like Double Trouble and Southside Espresso in addition to taking special orders; her Midtown location is slated to open in fall 2014. “Most of my desserts are items that clients could, or would want, to make at home. They’re approachable,” she states.
Moonpies, snickerdoodles and fluffernutters taste better than they used to, as Masson reinvents these familiar sweets into homemade, premium treats. The Veruca Salt cup|cake—that’s cake served in a cup, not a cupcake—features layers of devil’s food cake, salted caramel butter cream and pretzel crunch, while the malted chocolate chip cup|cake has all the nostalgia of a box of Whoppers.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Perhaps the greatest homage to classic Americana is Anvil Bar & Refuge. Once a mid-century Firestone tire shop, the bar features pre-Prohibition concoctions mixed up by bartenders who treat their drinks like chefs treat their dishes. Notable favorites include Corn N Oil, made of dark Virgin Islands rum, a tropical syrup called Falernum and Angostura bitters, and Pliny’s Tonic, an off-menu choice which features dry gin, mint, cucumber and a habañero tincture made in-house. Manager Terry Williams speaks optimistically about Houston’s up-and-coming bars: “There are new places opening up, being run by talented people who are getting a chance to shine. Houston’s bar scene is in its infancy, but it’s growing up fast. The city is ripe for amazing things to come."