Houston Restaurant Week, Literally

For foodies and Houston explorers the month of August is pretty much the second best thing to Christmas. Houston Restaurant Weeks, or HRW, is a month long opportunity to check out some of the best restaurants in our food-filled city at a much more affordable price than normal, plus some of the proceeds benefit the Houston Food Bank.

This year I visited two spots in one week and another by happenstance. My pregnant belly was very satisfied. Hopefully I’m teaching baby girl to appreciate good food while she’s still in utero, hah! So here’s a recap of what I thought was the best of HRW.

First up – Caracol

This was the one that I didn’t plan but was pleasantly surprised when they handed me the HRW menu for my mom’s birthday dinner. I was preoccupied that week and had hardly realized it was August already! I was the only one who chose the coursed meal and it was so worth it! Side note, Caracol is awesome any time of the year and you should go.

Coconut Gazpacho

The coconut gazpacho was my least favorite course but not bad – not sure I got the coconut flavor and I love everything coconut.

Tamale de Langosta – corn and lobster infused tamale, sauteed lobster, lobster sauce

The. Lobster. Tamale. I mean, do I need to say anything else about this? I could eat this all day, it was absolutely delicious. I convinced my BFF to go just for this course haha.

Bistec – wood-grilled ribeye, Texas blueberry mole, garlic sauteed kale, spice rubbed potatoes

The meat was nicely cooked and very flavorful. I enjoy a fattier piece of steak every now and then and the mole paired well. A generous portion and I finished every bite.

Tarta de Queso y Coco – coconut cheesecake, passion fruit sauce, pineapple compote, graham crust, coconut cream

Lastly, the coconut/passion fruit cheesecake. Passion fruit is another flavor I love for its sweet and sour taste. This dessert wasn’t overly dense and the passion fruit and pineapple flavors complemented the coconut perfectly. It was a tasty finish to a very savory meal.

Next up – Americas

This is a Houston classic in my opinion. The aesthetic of this restaurant is so unique and their food is top notch.

Plantain chips with dipping sauces

Everyone knows Texans love their chips and salsa, but plantains are way more up my taste alley. I enjoy munching on these while I catch up with my dinner company.

This tuna ceviche had a Latin spin that left me wanting more. The tuna was tender and the other elements gave a nice crunch to the dish.

Lomo y Mar – grilled beef petite filet, anchiote shrimp, castelvetrano olives, marscapone mashed potatoes, stilton bleu cheese sauce

Love a little surf n’ turf. This fillet was flavorful and well paired with the blue cheese sauced mashed potatoes. Shrimp steps up any dish’s game, in my opinion, so a nice added touch there.

Tres Leches

Americas is very well known for its tres leches, and with reason! Normally this dessert wouldn’t be my go-to at any other place but it’s a must here, or their sister restaurant Churasscos. You can see this was a huge portion and I indulged in every last bite.

Last on my HRW visits was Anejo. This was a totally new spot for me so I wasn’t sure what to expect but my overall verdict was I’d go back. Not to mention, this was a four course meal for $35!

 

Tamale de Cochinita Pibil – anchiote-orange braised pork, pickled onions, salsa diabla

Another tasty tamale. By the way, if you live in Houston there is a Tamale Festival happening on December 3rd!

Scallop Ceviche Estilo Agua Chile – Asian pear, avocado, jalapeno-cilantro vinagrette, scallops


If you haven’t noticed, I love seafood and I feel sad for people who don’t. This was a quick course and refreshingly cold before a heavier next dish.

Shrimp and Chorizo Flautas – poblano crema, queso fresco, smoked black bean puree

Flautas are usually top of my list for Mexican dishes. I just love the crunchy exterior! These were the savory highlight of the meal and another generous portion size.

Mango Panna Cotta – mango puree, chamoy, chile-lime salt

I almost dismissed how tasty this mango panna cotta was until I was looking at photos to recap my meals. This had really great consistency and the chile-lime salt cut down just enough on the sweetness of the dessert. I really enjoyed this!

There are a few days left for HRW – it runs through the Labor Day weekend. So if you haven’t gotten out to try any restaurants yet, check any of these three out and you won’t be disappointed. And if you have been participating in HRW, do yourself a favor and sneak in one more indulgent meal before we have to wait another year!

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Another Tasting Menu Adventure: Eleven XI

If you know me, you know I cannot pass up a deal on a tasting menu for an up-and-coming Houston restaurant. Tidbits Supper Club led Chris and I to Eleven XI, a recently opened restaurant in Montrose boasting Southern coastal cuisine. And a major plus was that this tasting included plenty of unique adult beverages!

The two story establishment was pretty packed when we arrived but we found a seat at the end of a long table with a hip elderly couple and another married couple around our age. I was a little shy at first, but after breaking the ice, conversation seemed to have a steady flow throughout dinner. This tasting menu was different in the fact that it was mostly family style servings instead of small individual plates, which benefited the “networking” aspect of the event.

I was too busy chatting and scarfing down the hors d’oeuvres to remember to take photos for the first half hour… oops! But there were raw oysters and boiled shrimp along with several different cocktails.

((Please pardon the cellphone camera pics with bad lighting — the boyfriend gets embarrassed when I use flash inside dimly lit restaurants lol))

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Fresh Gulf Coast Ceviche // fish, shrimp, scallops, Peruvian-style with shaved red onions
Tidbits Rita // Patron Silver Tequila, house-infused fire roasted jalapenos, red peppers, garlic, celery, onions & cilantro, with four-citrus infused syrup

This was what was left of the ceviche and the point at which I realized I had completely forgot to document the first part of dinner! You can tell we liked it though! I think I want to try making homemade ceviche soon. It’s fairly simple and very refreshing from this hot Texas summer. Also, this margarita was surprisingly delicious. I’m usually not a fan of spicy drinks but it paired well with the cold seafood.

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Mozz & Tom // Raindrop Farm’s heirloom tomatoes & basil-infused house-pulled mozzerella

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Texas Berry Blitz // Tito’s Vodka, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, basil & aged balsamic vinegar, topped with Prosecco

I am typically not the biggest fan of raw tomatoes but these heirlooms were so sweet and tasty. And it is no secret that I am a cheese fanatic! The berry cocktail was ok, but I think I would have liked it more without the flavor from the balsamic vinegar so that the fruitiness stood out more.

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Apricot Flounder // crispy Gulf flounder glazed with apricot sauce
(not pictured) Yellow Rose // Bright Citrus American Pale Ale from Lone Pint Brewery , Magnolia, Texas

My mom would be especially proud to know that I ate this fish! Head-on, bone-in fish usually freaks me out and I HATE getting the little bones in my mouth for fear of swallowing one (or multiple). However, my philosophy when doing these adventuresome tastings is that I am trying to broaden my taste-bud horizons, so I had to go all in! I’m glad I did because the fish was cooked so perfectly that it came right off the bone and was unexpectedly easy to eat. The glaze created just the right amount of thin, crunchy, apricot-flavored texture while the meat of the fish was very tender and moist.

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Seasonal Fruit Gazpacho // spicy heirloom tomato chilled soup
Grass is Greener // Square One Botanical Spirit, fresh avocado, Himalayan sea salt, English cucumber, freshly squeezed lemon-lime juice, topped with Squirt soda

I am becoming more of a fan of chilled soups lately. This one was particularly good, sort of like a Bloody Mary. The cucumber drink was my second favorite of the night, which was quite surprising considering I don’t really like avocados. I didn’t get much of the avocado taste, fortunately, and the drink was pretty refreshing and felt somewhat healthy which is always favorable.

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Fried Citrus Tea Brined Wild Texas Game Hen // brined in Katz Honeybush Apricot tea with fries

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Coastal Sangria // central coast pinot noir, port wine & citrus

Up until this point in the dinner everything had been served family style — several large plates in the middle of the tables to share. When this monster thing came out I was shocked that a plate was set in front of each of us. Of course I was unable to finish it all because I wanted to leave a sliver of room in my tummy for the desserts. The citrus tea brine made a huge difference in this just being any ole’ fried chicken. You could definitely taste the hint of citrus in the meat but not overwhelmingly so. As for the drink, I always love some sangria!

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Funnel Cake // carnie style

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Chef’s Selection of signature desserts // cheesecake, country apple crumble, chocolate bomb

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Espresso Martini // Katz Coffee dark roasted espresso, irish cream & fresh ground nutmeg

Who doesn’t love a carnival-style funnel cake?! The cheesecake was so light and fluffy, not dense and overly rich. The apple crumble was to die for and you can almost never go wrong with chocolate dessert. I could have had one or four more of the espresso martinis too. Heavenly!

I am looking forward to going back to Eleven XI and enjoying more of their menu items. There was plenty of variety just from the tasting menu and the small house-like atmosphere of the restaurant was perfect for a date night.

Dining Bliss: Haven

I had been hearing great things about Haven and had read several good write ups about it so when a Bloomspot deal for a 6 course dinner for two at the chef’s table came through my email inbox, I figured it was something we couldn’t pass up. I forwarded it along to the boyfriend and he purchased it and immediately set up a reservation to celebrate our 6 month anniversary. I know this is a small milestone but we will find any excuse to celebrate with good food around Houston! 🙂

We pulled up to complimentary valet service and upon walking into the restaurant, it felt upscale with a splash of neighborhood casual. While there were white linens on each of the tables, the wood beams and slatted wood walls, along with the large patio off the dining room set a comfortable dining mood.

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We were seated at a two-person bar-like area overlooking the kitchen, directly next to where all the dishes were coming out to be served. We could see everything going on from the chef who was in charge of seafood and sides, to the meat and poultry chef, to the plating area.

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We ordered some wine but were not given a menu because owner and Chef Randy Evans oversaw our entire meal while he simultaneously ran the orders coming in. Within the first 10 minutes I was mesmerized by the organized chaos. The ticket machine was printing table after table of orders, Chef Randy was calling out each menu item and any special instructions, the chefs on the line were dodging each other as they prepared their responsibilities, and runners were busy buzzing back and forth picking up and delivering plates. Seeing all of this first hand gave me a whole new appreciation for the running of a restaurant. We even got to see some “hiccups” and how they were taken care of so smoothly.

Chef Randy Evans sparked the idea for Haven through his desire to highlight the great work of farmers, ranchers, boatmen and artisans in the Texas area. And let me tell you, this farm-to-table concept was very apparent in each of our dishes. Each time one of our courses came out, either Chef Randy or Chef Jean Philippe Gaston took the time to tell us about all of the ingredients, including where they came from. It was really awesome to learn about the many local Texas farmers, ranchers and fishers these guys use as well as how they try to minimize waste by using leftovers for other dishes.

Our meal began with an appetizer from Cove Cold Bar, a raw seafood bar located inside of Haven. The tuna was paired perfectly with the pickled mushrooms and had just enough kick from the dehydrated jalapenos.

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Chicken of the Sea: big eye tuna / pickled beech mushrooms/ jalapeno/ garlic/ radish/ brussel sprout chips

The second and third courses were soup and salad. I wish I had gotten a photo of the soup before it was poured into the bowl. The dish came out with a bed of diced onions and heirloom tomatoes topped w a dollop of lemon-olive oil ice cream. Tomato soup was poured  table-side from a kettle over the ice cream to create creamy tomato goodness!

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Heirloom Tomato Sundae: 1015 onions, lemon-olive oil ice cream, aged balsamic

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arugala, strawberry vinaigrette, candied pecans, pink peppercorn goat cheese and quail

While we were enjoying the first few courses of our dinner I was watching the dishes that were coming out of the kitchen and I noticed corn dogs! When I think of corn dogs I typically associate them with fair food or a kids menu item so I was very surprised to see it come across the line. It was served with a mini glass of what looked like lemonade so I just had to ask Chef Randy about it. I was right about the lemonade, but come to find out they were shrimp corn dogs! He put in an order of them for us to try because apparently it is one of their signature dishes. It was pretty tasty and after trying the lemonade I was half tempted to order a full glass of it!

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Shrimp Corn Dog: lemonade, tabasco mash remoulade

Next up were the two main courses: fish and meat. The queen snapper was dusted in horseradish so it had a thin layer of crispiness on the outside but inside it was tender and flaky — SO good! The wagyu beef was very flavorful and tender as well.

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Gulf Fish & Head-On Shrimp: horseradish dusted, quinoa ratatouille, purple hummus

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Akaushi Flat Iron Steak: leeks, wild mushrooms, sherry glace

At this point I was beginning to feel stuffed but I knew I had to save room for dessert, and I’m glad I did. We got to sample a little bit of everything which was perfect because lately I have been needing to satisfy my sweet tooth after every dinner.

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sorghum – pecan ice cream // coconut tres leche bread pudding: dulce de leche sauce, meringue, toasted coconut // chocolate ice box pie: chocolate cookie crust, mocha cream, cocoa nibs, white chocolate shavings // cheesecake: housemade cream cheese cookie crumb crust, salted caramel

Everything about this meal was fresh, full of flavor and inventive without being too “out there”. I think there is something to be said about a restaurant that can offer traditional dishes with a twist. I would recommend Haven even to my friends who are not as adventurous with what they are willing to try. There is probably something on the menu for everyone.

After dinner, Chef Randy gave us a special tour of their garden. They grow a good amount of herbs and veggies on site which is something you don’t see a lot of around town. The variety of stuff they had growing in a limited space was quite impressive.

Chris and I can seriously not say enough nice things about Chef Randy Evans and Chef Jean Philippe Gaston. It is safe to say that they are the ones who really rounded out this dining experience for us and made it well worth every dollar spent. Despite being busy with a Saturday night dinner service they took the time to explain each dish, answer random questions and just have conversation with us. They are probably two of the nicest, most humble guys. It was an experience all in its own to get to pick their brains about the inner workings of this restaurant.

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So, if you haven’t had a chance to catch a meal at Haven, I HIGHLY recommend that you do!

Restaurant Review: The Pass [& Provisions]

It really should have been my New Year’s Resolution, but instead, in addition to giving up things for Lent I’m also deciding to add a healthy habit to my routine — blogging again! I made too many excuses between my last post and this one as to why I was too busy to write, but I guess better late than never, right?

The past three months have just FLOWN by! Back in November I bought the cutest little Corgi pup and named her Nessie. Little did I know that just when I had sworn off boys, this sweet monster of mine would introduce me to a cute dog and his owner. That’s right, 101 Dalmatians style. HAH!

Fast forward a few months and here I am with the nicest and coolest boy on the planet to call mine on Valentine’s Day. ((Had to squeeze something mushy in!))

Well Chris, the boy mentioned above, planned way ahead (I’m talking January 6!) and made reservations for us at The Pass & Provisions for our Valentine’s dinner. When he told me where we were going I had no clue what to expect until I started reading up on the place. We’re talking top-of-the-line foodie spot. As the days ticked off the calendar I was getting more and more anxious for our date. I knew it was going to be super fancy and adventurous but I was not expecting to be mind blown.

The Pass & Provisions is actually two restaurants in one. The Pass is fine-dining with a prix fixe menu while Provisions is more everyday-casual dining. We arrived to complimentary valet and upon walking inside, the place looked very modern-hipster. We told the hostess the name for our reservation and were escorted into a wall. Yes, I said into a wall. I was very confused as we walked past what I could tell was Provisions dining area and were stopped by a huge, black, floor to ceiling wall. The hostess pushed one area of the wall and BAM! secret entrance into a completely pristine black and white dining room. Just by this grand entrance I am already feeling super important.

We are seated. Immediately a waitress comes over and asks if we would prefer black napkins over the white napkins that were already placed at our table. What restaurant have you been to that asks your napkin color choice?! After we decide to stick with the white napkins another waitress comes over to promptly fill our water glasses while we decide on the 8 course experience. We had NO IDEA what kind of back flips our taste buds were about to do for the next 4 hours.

There is a sommelier – fancy word for a wine waiter – in the dining room that helps you choose your drink of choice for the evening. Since we didn’t opt for the pairings we settled on a delicious pinot noir rose.

It was literally freezing inside the restaurant and I had left my jacket with the coat check. I guess our waitress could tell I was shivering and offered me a shawl, which actually seriously helped me to enjoy my dinner more.  The service was impeccable, with everyone on staff being super attentive without feeling like they are hovering.

One detail I failed to mention earlier — the kitchen is open to the dining room area and you can see the chefs and sous chefs working diligently in quiet ordered chaos. If we ever go back, we want to request the table nearest the kitchen just so we can watch how they create these artful dishes.

The menu does the description of these dishes no justice. I could not even try to pronounce or repeat even half of the ingredients and techniques that were described to us as they brought each of our courses out. The chefs themselves even came out to present a few of the plates which was pretty cool. So without further ado…

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Tasting Menu [photo taken from http://www.underconsideration.com]

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The most handsome boy in the restaurant.

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EXTRA: Palate Prep: Dehydrated Gulf Shrimp

This was an interesting way to start the meal. It tasted like shrimp but was like a very fragile chip.

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SNACKS: Oyster/Foie Gras ‘ol Fashioned/Nasturtium Soup/Black Olive Pocky

My favorite of these was the pocky followed closely by the oyster.

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HAM & EGGS: Caviar Service

Interesting play on “ham & eggs” — caviar and pig skin. I have never eaten caviar, but if I was going to try it sometime, I am glad it was at The Pass. The seasonings and pudding layers really added to this dish and it was even yummier when you put a glob of it on the crunchy chicharon pictured below.

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Cracklin’ to compliment the Caviar

This came out literally crackling! I watched in awe at some of the HUGE pieces that were served to the larger parties.

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RAW: Nori Bucatini/Tofu/Uni/Clams

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BEEF: Tar Tar/Yolk

I was nervous to try this because of the experience Chris had told me about eating beef tar tar in Europe. He said he felt so sick after taking the first bite and that it was just horrible tasting. But unsurprisingly, the chefs here knew what they were doing because this was one of my top favorites of the night.

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Marrow Brioche to compliment the Tar Tar

This was a little bread roll that you took out and ate with the tar tar. Inside the bone is bone marrow seasonings that you could add as you pleased to the tar tar.

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BREAD: French (onion soup) Toast/Onion Variations

To.Die.For. I love onion. That is all.

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PIG: Headcheese/Bread (blood) Pudding/Candied Apple

I was literally TERRIFIED when I saw headcheese on the menu. For the weeks leading up to this night I was hoping and hoping they would change the menu and take this off. Chris and I had been on our Sunday grocery shopping trip several times and every time we made our stop at the deli counter he would always point out the atrocious looking chunk of headcheese. It looked like gelatin with chunks of God knows what inside. PUKE. But as with the caviar, the chefs somehow made it pretty dang tasty!

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EXTRA: Transition from savory to sweet. White Chocolate Ice Cream with Cocoa Seltzer

I loved the presentation of this. It came with a lid so it looked like a full egg. This ice cream was so delicious but the overall dish was just enough sweetness to move us into the dessert portion of the night.

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FERNET: Milk Chocolate & 27 other secret ingredients

The presentation on this was incredible. It looked like a mini forest on a plate. There was so much going on here. 27 ingredients.

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CHEESE: Macarons

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PETIT FOURS

The 8 course meal, turned into an 11 course meal with the extras that we got. When they brought the bill they gave us two individual lemon cakes for breakfast the next morning! This dinner was definitely an experience unlike any I have ever had before — it takes “foodie” to a whole new level for me.

If you are an adventurous eater and have a few hours to indulge, I would HIGHLY recommend exposing your taste buds to The Pass!

Valentine’s Dinner SUCCESS!!

Houston Restaurant Weeks & Other Nonsense

It’s been more than a month since my last post and I have been feeling guilty for not updating. Luckily, I have at least one friend who reads my blog and who encouraged me to get back into writing.

Much like July, I have NO idea where August has gone. I have been in and out of town the last two months and I had unexpected drama in my life at the beginning of July. After a few weeks of being withdrawn from just about everything, I am feeling better and getting my life back on track.

Since midsummer I have been to the beaches of North Carolina, spent a week on the lovely island of Puerto Rico, and attended my best friend’s wedding in Montana. Next Friday I depart for Seattle to spend Labor Day weekend with one of my best guy friends and at the end of September I will be braving the Grand Canyon as my friend Josh and I set out on a hiking adventure.

I definitely can’t say that my life is not blessed! 

Although I have had some great things going on, I have consistently been feeling a bit of turmoil in my heart. I’m not sure how much of it stems from the drama I experienced last month, but I feel that I am in need of some change. I have been tossing around the idea of changing direction a little bit and finding a new job. At this point, I’m not exactly sure where these thoughts will take me but I figure I can at least put myself out there through networking and resume submissions and see what comes of it. I guess we’ll see…!

Anyhoo, enough inner reflection!

Each August, something called Houston Restaurant Weeks gives city dwellers the opportunity to experience a long-list of exceptional local restaurants at only a fraction of the cost. Participating restaurants can offer three and four-course brunch, lunch and dinner menus for only $20 or $35. Not only do you get to excite your taste buds, but a portion of the proceeds are donated to the Houston Food Bank. Definitely a win-win kind of event!

A few weeks ago I met Josh for lunch at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. This restaurant is conveniently located a few blocks from my work. It’s also connected to the Galleria mall, so if you don’t want to pay to valet, expect to spend a bit of time circling around the underground garage to find parking. Entering this place, it’s pretty grand looking!

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We were seated and our waiter was pretty prompt to take our drink order. I decided on the roasted poblano bisque and the filet medallions. The bisque was delicious! It was full of flavor with the right amount of kick. I don’t typically like very spicy dishes, but this had the perfect balance of spiciness that didn’t overpower the integrity of the poblano flavor. My main dish came out perfectly cooked and was pretty good, however the filet had too many spices on it for my taste. I prefer my red meat to be sparingly spiced so that I can enjoy the taste of the cut itself. It wasn’t awful by any means, but I’ve definitely had better. I’m sure if I would have ordered another steak it would have been awesome. I think Josh really enjoyed his filet mignon with chimichurri sauce.

The wait staff was super attentive and friendly — of course, at a high-class restaurant where you are paying good money for your meal, they better be nothing short of stellar! But, my point is, even though we were “coupon-customers” I felt that we were treated just the same.

The only downside to this lunch was that the deal didn’t include a dessert like most of the other Houston Restaurant Weeks menus do. This is no mark against the restaurant on the whole, but it would have been nice to get a little sweet-tooth fix before heading back to the confines of my office. However, this letdown was countered by the company of a good friend and getting to catch up after months of not seeing each other. So, overall, I would give Del Frisco’s four stars. A great choice for an anniversary date, fancy birthday dinner or other special occasion.

Stay tuned for updates on more Houston Restaurant Weeks experiences. On Sunday, Josh and I will be hitting up brunch at Branch Water Tavern and on Wednesday a few of my friends and I are getting together to play dress up and act like “fancy smancy snooty frooty Frenchies” for dinner at Artisans!

Double Feature! The Counter: Custom Built Burgers & Influenster Summer Beauty VoxBox

It’s been a little while since I have updated and I’ve finally made some time to do it. This one might be longer than usual because it will be a “double feature” to make up for lost time. Please excuse that they are completely unrelated topics, but typical postings nonetheless.

The Counter: Custom Built Burgers

Last Tuesday was actually my second time to eat at The Counter, which technically violates the rules of Tuesday Dinners, but I bought a Groupon knowing my mom and Billy had never been so it still counts. I know everyone probably has their go-to place when craving a good hamburger (for me it’s Whataburger) but let me tell you, The Counter isn’t just any old fast food burger joint. If you’re feeling creative and want a burger that’s gonna fit your mood, this is the place to go. They boast 312,120+ different burger combinations. Ridiculous, I know! The cool thing is they have all the typical burger toppings but they also offer many out of the box ingredients to spice up your burger style.
Although you do have a waiter, there are clipboards at your table so you can build your burger to order. Their options are almost endless!

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If you aren’t feeling so adventurous, no reason to fret, they offer Signature Burgers already built to order that are probably just as good. Since the menu offers so many options, I won’t go into detail about what we ordered but if you do try this place, I would definitely suggest using your creativity! The parmesan fries and the onion strings are must-order sides though.
Other items to note: 1) There is indoor, bar and patio seating. 2) They serve beers and wine (and maybe alcohol?). 3) The waitstaff was very friendly and helpful. 4) There is a parking garage or street parking.

Influenster Summer Beauty VoxBox

(Disclaimer: I received each of these products complimentary from Influenster for testing purposes.)

As you know, based on some of my previous posts, I am signed up to receive a $10 BirchBox on a monthly basis. I am always super excited to get this small “gift” to myself in the mail each month because it’s fun to get new beauty products to test out. Well imagine my excitement when I got an email from Influenster.com saying that I qualified to participate in a similar program they were starting called VoxBox, cost-free?! I haven’t been a member of Influenster for more than a few months so it took me by surprise but I was like “SIGN ME UP!”

[Sidenote: For those of you who don’t know, Influenster is a website you can join, especially if you do any kind of blogging or are big into social media and sharing, where you can earn badges, share reviews and information about popular products and brands that you use and gain access based on your “influence” to deals that are personalized to your lifestyle.]

Before receiving the VoxBox, I was a little skeptical of the products that might be included, but upon its arrival I was very pleased to see that they didn’t skimp out on the samples and that all of the products were very usable for my day-to-day routine. BirchBox caters more to high-end beauty items which are sometimes out of my budget, so VoxBox was a nice change in that it allowed me to sample products I could pick up at Target or a local grocery or drugstore on my normal errand runs.

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So here is what the Summer VoxBox included:

Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30. Typically when I opt for body sunscreen I go with Coppertone or Banana Boat, so I was interested to see how I would like this Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen. On first impression (before applying it), I thought the bottle was summery and feminine and it smelled really good — not the usual sunscreen smell. I think this was what I liked most about it. It works like any other lotion sunscreen and kept my skin feeling moisturized without being really greasy like most sunscreens. I will definitely be taking this with me to Puerto Rico this week!

Tampax and Always Radiant Collection. Although this isn’t a product everyone wants to hear about it, I actually really liked it and thought it was a very nifty idea. This came with a cute little wristlet to carry “lady items” in so you don’t have to tote your entire purse to the restroom during your workday or be walking down the hall with a tampon in your hand (awkward). I’ve restocked the bag and it fits nicely at the bottom of my purse for next month instead of taking up room in my side pocket where I keep my other daily makeup items.

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Sally Hansen Magnetic Nail Color. If you know me, you know I LOVE nail polish. This was definitely my favorite product included in the VoxBox. I had been wanting to try this new nail trend, but couldn’t convince myself to buy it or get it done at the salon, so I was excited to get a full-size bottle for free! The instructions on the back of the bottle are really simple and tell you to first apply a coat to all of your nails and then go back and apply a second coat to one finger at a time as you use the magnet. I honestly liked the color of the polish without even using the magnet, so that was the first plus and the polish seemed to dry pretty quickly, which was the second plus. After I was done my nails looked 3D and holographic, not to mention they had a tiger-ish feel to them *reow*. LOVE LOVE LOVE this product, props to Sally Hansen.

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Sally Hansen Nails and Cuticles Hand Creme. I used this product before my mini manicure with the magnetic nail polish, and to be completely honest, I didn’t think it was anything special. Sure it left my hands feeling moisturized, but so does the little tube of hand creme I already carry in my purse. So, not much to say here. Maybe I will like it better with repeated use?

Clear Scalp & Hair Beauty Therapy. I had seen commercials for this new brand, and am all for trying new products, but seeing as I already have half bottles of shampoo and conditioner in my shower, I didn’t have the need to go buy a new brand to try yet. This product smells really good, which is obviously a huge must have for something I wash my hair with. I only wash my hair every 3-4 days and use dry shampoo between washes, otherwise my hair gets too oily from washing it too often. But the downside to that is that my scalp can sometimes get dry and itchy. I enjoyed this combo because it left my hair feeling clean and soft and my scalp feeling hydrated enough so that between washes I didn’t have any problems with dry scalp. Once I run out of my current shampoo and conditioner, I’m not sure that I’ll switch to the full size product, but it is a viable option. For now though, I will also definitely be taking these samples with me on vacation.

Quaker Soft Baked Bar in Banana Nut Bread. I ate this right up as soon as I saw it was banana nut bread flavor, lol! It tasted yummy, chewy and not terribly sweet. I also felt like it was a little more substantial than the Quaker granola bars I normally buy for on the go. I read a few other reviews of this product that suggested putting it in the microwave for a few seconds, so on my next grocery run I will have to pick up a box of these for those mornings I don’t have time to make my smoothie or eat a bowl of cereal and try heating it up.

So that’s that! Overall, I would rate my first VoxBox a success! Influenster gave me some nice products to consider on future purchases. I really hope I get chosen for the next batch they send out!

Have you tried any of the above products? I would love to hear your take on them.

Dining in the Heights

I will rank tonight’s family dinner among the top of the list. My mom chose Zelko Bistro in the Heights and it did not disappoint.

It is a fairly small establishment but there was a small parking lot behind the restaurant and plenty of room to park on the street, which was convenient enough. It is an old converted house that probably sits about 50 people max inside. But, they also have a pretty good size covered patio area for some extra space. They do not take reservations and I wouldn’t suggest going with more than four people.

On first impression, the tight space between tables kind of turned me off but after being seated and taking in my surroundings I realized that the atmosphere was neighborly. Looking around I saw people who were genuinely enjoying themselves, in food and company. Although some may view the tight seating as a con, I think the intimate atmosphere added significantly to the experience.

After reading through many delicious sounding dishes on the menu I was having trouble choosing between the fish tacos, the blue crab cake or the shrimp and grits. Ultimately, I decided on the fish tacos because they came topped with queso fresco and mango salsa with a side of fried plantains. My mom ordered the Captin’s chicken and Billy ordered the Rueben sandwich with parmesan fries. We decided to take the advice of some Yelp reviews and ordered the fried pickles to start. They came in a deceiving bowl that seemed kind of small but ended up being more than plenty. The pickles weren’t chips, but mini halves that were piping hot, salty and crunchy with a refreshing homemade ranch dip. The food was all very fresh and flavorful. We had to save room for dessert because their options seemed too good to pass up, so we ordered the lemon icebox cake. It was the perfect creamy, tangy finish to the meal.

Typically when I hear “bistro” I think of high-end prices for less-than-filling plates. This was not the case at Zelko; the serving sizes were not overwhelming but certainly not stingy.

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The wait staff was friendly and we even got to speak to the owner for a bit, who was also very sweet. Although we didn’t take advantage of their great wine selection and pairing, Zelko is definitely a place I’d recommend to any fellow foodie.

It seems as though they change the menu seasonally, but I will definitely be back to try some of their other menu items. Too bad the boyfriend is currently 1,400 miles away because this is a perfect place for a date! Overall, 4.5 stars in my book!