Last week Poor Taste came out with a list of the Top 100 Cult Restaurants in America. What elevates an eatery to that God-like status? Here’s how they measure success:
“First, the restaurant must have a highly devoted customer base and should appeal to locals and tourists. Second, the food must obviously be stellar and unique enough to produce a dedicated clientele. Being home to ‘The Best’ or ‘The Original’ of something helps. Third, the wait is almost always unbearable -- but worth it. Fourth, multiple locations are okay, but not too many. Finally, a single meal should be relatively cheap. Less than 20 bucks per person is ideal.”
It’s not surprising that the list is big-city heavy… But while California accounts for a whopping 32 of the 100 (including 26 of the top 50), only three Texas restaurants make an appearance: Smitty’s in Lockhart (26), El Rey here in Houston (79), and Salt Lick BBQ outside of Austin (80).
While I’d like to rage against the pub for quashing Houston, I can’t actually think of many restaurants around town that meet their criteria. The thing about our fair city is that it really doesn’t have two or three of those restaurants that capture the precise amalgamation of taste, touch, and tenure as to be considered cultish. What we have instead is the luxury of so many great places that there’s not one or two that truly stick out as cult phenomenons.
That said, here are a few things that strike me as cultish from Houston:
1) Ninfa’s on Navigation. Poor Taste chose El Rey as Houston’s lone cult restaurant, but that place doesn’t fit the mold nearly as well as the original Ninfa’s. Yes, El Rey has a devoted customer base and the menu is somewhat unique, but the food is definitely not stellar. In fact, it’s actually dog food disguised as Cubo-Mexican. Or something like that. Only Ninfa’s inspires as much love from in-towners as it does from out-of-towners, has an often unbearable wait, and makes outlandish claims to be the original creator of the fajita. Perhaps most endemic to the list, they offer some of the best Tex-Mex around, including fantastic iterations of stuffed quail, Shrimp Diablo, and softshell crab. While the franchised versions imitate the original, they never come close to equaling it, which makes Mama Ninfa’s my cult favorite.
2) Bryan Caswell. Even before his run on The Next Iron Chef, Bryan Caswell had a semi-Koresh-like following around town. And it’s easy to see why: Each of his three restaurants (REEF, Stella Sola, and Little Big’s) is unique, offering fresh foods in interesting combinations that glorify the local and the seasonal. Even more interesting is that these places all managed to avoid the sophomore slump so common in the industry. True, the Little Bigs in Hermann Park closed recently, but the original location on Montrose still packs ‘em in. Don’t expect Caswell’s Midas Touch and rockstar status to plummet with his next venture, either -- a new take on Tex-Mex with Houston’s other favorite son, Robb Walsh.
3) The debate over the best burger. Houston’s Burger Battle happens often and happens crazy. Mmmmhmmm, it’s been known to incite the kind of feud that can resurrect wrestling or separate a family. Touchy stuff. Rumor even has it that the cult-like In-and-Out Burger chose Dallas over Houston for its first Texas location to avoid competing with the Bayou City’s proliferation of solid burgers: Hubcap, Sam’s Deli Diner, Tornado, Christian’s Tailgate, Becks Prime, etc, etc, etc, and it’s easy to see their point. As for me, I generally try to avoid the debate -- not because I don’t have a dog in the fight, but rather because I really don’t care. Too many awesome burger joints is a problem I’m happy to have. Let the debates rage on!
What do you think? What else is cult-like in Houston’s culinary pantheon?