Restaurant Review

Looking for a Great Neighborhood Restaurant? Try Squable or Roma

In the Heights and Rice Village, these two restaurants fit right in.

By Timothy Malcolm August 26, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The must-order Dutch baby

Image: Jenn Duncan

Right after work on a recent Tuesday, a coworker and I hightailed it from the Houstonia offices to nearby Squable in hopes of scoring a table without a reservation. The place has been packed since opening in May in the former Southern Goods space on 19th Street in the Heights, accepting bookings but leaving a few tables open for walk-ins. As we approached, we almost started running. After a hard day of work, we needed wine and shared plates, stat.

The restaurant—part of Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s mini-empire, which includes Better Luck Tomorrow and the new Penny Quarter—is a modern-day neighborhood joint offering a chef-driven menu and beverage program inside a dining room that looks special without trying too hard. It’s a place where you meet up with friends for late-night burgers, happy hour cocktails, and casual noshing. And if you have to wait 45 minutes for a table, no worries—order a drink and relax.

We got lucky, though, scoring seats right away. And as the custom mid-century tables and turquoise booths filled to capacity, we began to relax, let go of the workday, and anticipate the deliciousness to come. The Squable kitchen is in the capable hands of ex-Oxheart sous chef Mark Clayton and original Common Bond head baker Drew Gimma, who quickly have found their rhythm here with simply named dishes full of big-but-balanced flavors.

The burger at Squable

Image: Jenn Duncan

No matter what you order, make sure it includes bread, whether the light, airy sourdough with a side of lard sprinkled with fennel seeds; the crispy rye topped with creamy pimiento cheese, pickles, peppers, and cooling mint; the soft yet sturdy Dutch baby topped with ricotta, black pepper, honey, and calamansi limes picked from Clayton’s mother’s garden; or my personal standby, the earthy, rustic, smoky marinated mussels, calico beans, and aioli, served on that same sourdough. It’s messy in all the right ways, bar food par excellence

Other small plates worth ordering include fresh crudo of the Hawaiian yellowtail known as kampachi, served in a tangy citronette dressing with spicy kosho paste; peppery, cast-iron-grilled sausage served on polenta cakes; homemade fluffy stracciatella cheese with tomatoes that explode like firecrackers, perfect for scooping with paper-thin crackers; and tasty broiled oysters in lemon vinaigrette topped with salty chicken skin crisps.

Indulgent pain de mie

Image: Jenn Duncan

A server told me the best way for two people to enjoy Squable is to order a bread dish, a couple of small plates, and a big plate to share. That’s about right, although it’s tough when there’s so many tempting big-plate offerings, among them al dente bucatini bathing in a smoky roasted-vegetable Bolognese and sliced pork loin topped with puffed rice and cucumbers. And by the way, if you want to keep it simple and get a burger, you won’t be disappointed. It’s terrific: thick Augustus Ranch beef topped with raclette on a cloud-soft, handsome brown bun. 

Another option is to go straight for one of the attention-commanding desserts, whether the dreamy lemony panna cotta with peach purée and crunchy rye cookie crumbles, or the indulgent pain de mie topped with vanilla ice cream and a sauce made from maple syrup, buttermilk, and sherry. If you try the latter, pair it with a glass of Spanish sherry from sommelier Justin Vann’s well-curated wine list. Need a recommendation? The servers, knowledgeable without being pretentious, are happy to help.

The cocktails, created by bar manager Anna Wilkins, are also spot on. I loved the flawless Terry’s Martini, which is served with a tiny jar of pickled tomatoes, onions, and olives. After mine was on the table for ten minutes or so, a server arrived to pour it into a newly chilled glass. Rarely have I felt so special, or so at home, while dining out. Since I live and work in the Heights, I’m lucky to have Squable as my new neighborhood go-to.

The cacio e pepe is made tableside.

Image: Jenn Duncan

In Rice Village, where families reign and chains like Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Shake Shack, and now Mendocino Farms draw big crowds, it can be challenging for the little neighborhood Italian restaurant to keep the tables full. That’s one reason why, this past January, owner Shannon Scott rebranded Sud Italia, which opened at the corner of Morningside and University in 2015, as Roma.

What had been a Southern Italian fine-dining affair is now a less expensive, more casual spot. Gone is the old farmhouse interior, replaced by a more contemporary look with dark-gray walls and shiny laminated floors. The casual covered patio, however, remains and is still a great spot for families.

The menu now offers plenty of dishes at a price point of less than $20. Chef Angelo Cuppone focuses on classic and modern Roman cuisine while sprinkling in a few tried-and-true Italian favorites. Start with the soft, deeply complex meatballs with marinara, and maybe the delicious, creamy burrata with prosciutto and blood oranges.

Among the pastas, the Bolognese is good, but my favorite item on the list is the tender gnocchi served with shrimp in a smoky, velvety saffron sauce. Never mind that the marble-sized potato pasta dumplings aren’t to be found in Rome, where they’re coaster-sized and prepared with semolina. The version on offer at Roma is heavenly.

A favorite: gnocchi with shrimp in saffron sauce.

Image: Jenn Duncan

There were a few missteps during my visits. Roma’s cacio e pepe stars al dente cocoa-infused fettuccine. The night I tried it, the flavors were nearly perfect, and it was a treat to have Smith mix and serve the pasta tableside, but mine wasn’t warm enough. Bacon-wrapped monkfish fell apart too easily, and while the slow-braised veal shank osso buco was exquisitely tender, the accompanying polenta lacked flavor.

Get the pitch-perfect lemon tart for dessert.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Overall, though, Roma won me over. Attention to detail matters here. Nearly everything is made in-house, with the notable exception of the bread. Sweet potato taro chips add life to a chopped-octopus salad with black olives and potatoes. And for dessert, the lemon tarts, with their toasty, homey graham cracker crust, are pitch-perfect. The crunchy, creamy miniature cannoli, too, is spot-on. 

I suspect there are plenty more tasty surprises to be unearthed at Roma over pleasant nights out in the neighborhood. Here’s hoping this iteration of the place becomes a community mainstay.

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