Foodie frequent travelers know the awful truth: One city's "best restaurants" are often very much like every other city's "best restaurants." That's why, unless an eatery is heavily focused not only on the terroir of a place, but also its personality (think Au Pied de Cochon in Montréal with its signature foie gras poutine), this food writer looks elsewhere. My to-do lists are typically a mix of regional specialties and ethnic foods we don't have in Houston. I spent the last few days in Denver for the City and Regional Magazine Association's annual conference and have a few recommendations for eating right in the mountains.
Sam's No. 3, 1500 Curtis St.
The original small chain of Sam's, opened in 1927, were Coney Island Hot Dog joints. But founder Sam Armatas' descendants updated the third location (plus two satellites outside of town) into what it is today: a Greek diner focused on Colorado-Mex specialties. The menu even includes a breakfast skillet centered around gyro meat drenched in pork chile verde. Another option is a burrito stuffed with chorizo, mac-and-cheese and tater tots, then smothered in the same Kickin' Pork Green Chili.
I chickened out from those dishes, literally, with a pollo burrito slathered in the chili. The thick stew of ground pork and chiles had a hint of spice and more than a hint of cumin. But most notably, it didn't taste anything like a burrito in Texas. Mission accomplished.
Mataam Fez Moroccan Restaurant, 4609 E. Colfax Ave.
Fact: There are no Moroccan restaurants in Houston. Sad, but true. So one evening after a cocktail party at the stunning ART hotel, it was necessary to get some couscous in our lives. What my colleagues and I didn't realize was that Mataam Fez only serves five course meals. We didn't mind.
When we entered the restaurant, the only light in the room came from candles a belly dancer was juggling as part of her routine. The lights stayed dim, but a bit more welcoming in the dining room where we sat on pillows on the floor through lentil soup harira and a variety of salads, all eaten with our hands. The bastilla pictured above was filled with chicken and eggs. A vegetarian diner got one with almonds and apricots that tasted like apple pie. A deeply marinated lamb brochette and a Cornish hen glazed with honey were both served with nut-speckled couscous. Before we were closed our meal with mint tea, a server arrived with rose water to wash our hands and refresh our faces.
Amore Gelato, 535 16th St.
So often, ice cream and gelati with unconventional flavors don't quite deliver on their promises. Amore Gelato does. I was impressed by the pear flavor I sampled. But I was bowled over by the avocado-cilantro one. The smooth base coated my tongue with creamy avocado, then ended each spoonful with a breeze of refreshing cilantro. Houston needs this.
Paella Cuisine from Spain, 16th St. Mall, 720-900-8484
16th Street isn't just the place for outstanding gelato. Though the stores and restaurants are mostly chains, the center of the pedestrian street is dotted with locally owned food carts and stands. I skipped doners and Thai noodles in favor of Spanish fare. Paella Cuisine from Spain serves tapas and tortillas españolas, but the rice dish is a focal point. I knew I was unlikely to find a Thai or Indian-style paella anywhere else, so I had no choice but to order one.
The chef recommended the former, a combination of vegetables and chicken cooked to order with almonds, sunflower seeds, mango-habanero sauce and roasted red peppers. All it was missing was the socarrat, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan. I guess there is no socarrat in Thai-style paella. And anyway, I had a virgin sangria to console me.