Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Houston's Cult Classics

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?


tshu said...

Yeah, that list is lame. Franklin in Austin or Snow's in Lexington should be on there.

The only place that comes to mind is Breakfast Klub. Ninfa's on Nav would work as well. Oh and that horribly long line for crepes at the farmer's market. Insufferable lines, that's my angle.

We'll agree to disagree on El Rey. It's not great, but it's not dog food. That's Pink's. I kid I kid.

Glad you're blogging again.

Ruthie Johnson said...

Thanks, Theo :) And ohhhh, Breakfast Klub is a good one to add to the Houston list.

I was totally annoyed with the line for a crepe today, too!! Gotta get back to Mango's, where it's usually not bad. I'm so happy he's doing well, though!

cjitsu said...

Great blog! I'm dying to try your picks. :)

Adam Hill said...

Great post! You've convinced me to try the original Ninfa's that I've heard so much about.

I definitely would go for Chuy's as a cult-like phenomenon. It's one of the only restaurants that offers t-shirts that I've seen random people on the street wearing! Looking on their website, it seems like they may have too many locations to qualify, but it definitely has a cult following from me!

I agree that the burger battle is raging, so I just have to push my favorite: Bubba's Texas Burger Shack. Not fancy enough to have its own website, the other ratings-based websites all have glowing reviews. The only criteria its food does not fulfill is that the wait time is ridiculously short!

Thanks for the post, and I hope your data day was as productive as mine ;)

Anonymous said...

After Ninfa's changed owners a couple of years ago they made two major mistakes, changing the salsa and then changing the margaritas. I wouldn't take anyone here as an example of quality food.

Ruthie Johnson said...

Anonymous -- I agree that the red salsa isn't great, but the green version is dynamite. I can't comment on the margaritas b/c I'm a beer drinker, myself. However, you say that you'd never take anyone to Ninfa's on Nav as an example of quality food, yet neither of your slights are actually food. It's all good if you just don't like it, but do you have anything to suggest as a cult restaurant in its place?

Albert said...

I'd add Last Concert Cafe to that list.

Ruthie Johnson said...

I've never been to Last Concert Cafe! I'll have to head over now that it has re-opened. Thanks!

Eric said...

I know you referenced the burger joints generally, but I'd submit that Lankford Grocery belongs on that list. It's in an obscure, hard to find location and has the appropriately colorful servers and regulars. Especially since it was on TV, that wait is frequently lengthy. Go on a Wednesday for the enchiladas or Thursday for the chicken fried steak. It's worth it.

Eric said...

Of course, as soon as I wrote my original comment, I realized I'd forgotten one other place worthy of consideration: Barbecue Inn.

Obscure location, been around forever, big crowds, best fried chicken in the city.

Ruthie Johnson said...

Both good ones... They are certainly cults within Houston, but I'm not sure they meet the out-of-town factor. Which begs the question of whether or not we should create a list of Houston institutions. Thoughts?

Tai S. said...

I'd like to throw my vote in for House of Pies, with a few caveats:

-the Kirby location
-at any time between about 1 am and 4 am.
-especially, but not necessarily, on the weekend.

Having spent every second Saturday of the month for two years waiting up to half an hour for a table after Rocky Horror, along with hordes of other people come from the surrounding clubs, seeing the same people month after month--I'd say that qualifies the place for some kind of cult status.

Anonymous said...

Blogger Ruthie Johnson said...
Anonymous -- I agree that the red salsa isn't great, but the green version is dynamite. However, you say that you'd never take anyone to Ninfa's on Nav as an example of quality food, yet neither of your slights are actually food. It's all good if you just don't like it, but do you have anything to suggest as a cult restaurant in its place?
The green salsa changed too. Definitely a downgrade. As for the rest of the food, I would only eat the pork tacos a la Ninfa because the rest of the food is just so mediocre. Tortillas though have been getting more greasy, making them unedible as well. As for cult, I would say Telwink. They were just on the CBS morning news last Sunday.

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