10 Places I Liked as a Photographer, Want to Try as an Eater
Last week, I wrote about my experiences photographing 100 restaurants for the Houston Press online restaurant guide. During the month I was shooting, I shot eateries both familiar and not so much. Given my time constraints, I didn't have the chance to stop and enjoy the fare at the majority of these places, but I made notes on places I'd like to visit as a patron. The list got rather long, so I decided to combine them with the establishments I also enjoyed photographing.
Photo by Jeff Balke Steak and cheesy grits at Plonk Beer and Wine Bistro
After the jump, find my list of the ten places I enjoyed shooting and now want to visit sans camera.
Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro 1214 West 43rd Street
There were two things I thought upon arriving at this sparkling little Oak Forest restaurant and bar. First, I thought it would be easier to find if it had a bigger sign outside. Second, I thought the light inside on this late Sunday afternoon was fantastic. Scott Miller, the owner, must have seen my camera and met me outside the door with his card. He then gave me a tour, introduced me to his staff and friends who populated the restaurant and offered to buy me a beer, which I politely declined with another couple hours of driving ahead of me.
The kitchen staff fixed up a delicious-looking steak and plated it for me to shoot. Everything in the place, from the comfortable lounges to the gregarious patrons to the surf documentary playing on the wide screen above the bar, just screamed laidback, like a very upscale surf shack. I'll definitely be back for a beer and a sampling of that flank steak.
Since writing this, I did make it to Plonk for dinner and several glasses of wine on the patio. There was a lively crowd inside and out, and the food and drink were fantastic.
Mikki's Soul Food Cafe 10500 West Bellfort
I got to try my first soul food when I was still in middle school. My dad, a teacher in the Houston Independent School District who visited kids at their homes, took me on his rounds in the summer. One visit was to a wonderful family in Acres Homes, where I was treated to things I wouldn't normally have liked as a kid, like greens, black-eyed peas and breaded pork chops. But then there was the macaroni and cheese.
Mikki's brought those memories streaming back. The steaming mound of macaroni and cheese next to simmering steak and onions made my mouth water. This little blink-and-you-miss it restaurant in Stafford had friendly and outgoing staff, who were more than accommodating, but it was the food that had me adding this to the list of favorites.
The Big Mamou 903 Studewood Street
As a Heights resident, I'd driven past The Big Mamou countless times before I strolled inside to get a photograph of the interior. It was quiet and empty on the weekend afternoon I visited, but the staff were happy to have me. They cleaned up a few tables in the dining room, and I managed to take what I honestly felt was my favorite interior photograph of this assignment. Light streamed in through the windows of this old house, casting long shadows from tables and reflecting gently off the wood plank floors. It was ideal for a photograph.
Photo by Jeff Balke Interior of The Big Mamou
When I glanced at the menu, I immediately noticed the po'boys. Since Jazzie's died an unfortunate death, I've missed a good po'boy place in the Heights. I'm hoping this can be a regular stop for me now.
Crepe Paris Cafe 16870 Stuebner Airline Road
When I scoured my list of restaurants and ran them through Google maps, I noticed that Crepe Paris Cafe was just a couple miles north of where my band records and rehearses, and I hoped it would be an interesting place so I could add an additional justification for the long drive in traffic.
Putting a French cafe (a chain one, no less, with locations in New York, LA and Chicago) deep in the suburbs, particularly in an unremarkable corner of an old strip mall, seemed to me either ballsy or stupid. But when I walked inside this tiny little restaurant, it was easy to see the charm. The cafe was a darkly lit corridor with a scattering of tables bathed in candlelight and a stage that looked like it could barely hold a solo acoustic musician. The food on the menu, which included, not surprisingly, an array of crepe offerings, looked as inviting as the charming interior.
Riva's 1117 Missouri Street
I've driven past Riva's in Montrose on numerous occasions, but I had never stopped in until this assignment. The cozy, darkly lit, multi-level interior was illuminated in part by strands of Christmas lights, and from the bar you could hear a good dose of hearty laughter. The whole place smelled like an Italian restaurant should with the aromas of garlic, baked bread and grilling meat.
The manager was very helpful and encouraged me to take all the photos I liked. While it was tough to get a shot in the darkened interior even in the afternoon, I found the place to be really comfortable and imagined how nice it would be to sit on the vine-covered patio on a fall evening wolfing down a plate full of linguini.
Ginza Japanese Restaurant 5868 San Felipe Street
Walking into Ginza, located in a non-descript strip center on San Felipe, I will admit I was concerned. The staff didn't look thrilled to see a photographer in their restaurant as the dinner crowd began filing in, but the manager cautiously gave me permission to shoot the dining room so long as I was careful not to include patrons - a common request from other restaurants.
Photo by Jeff Balke Not sure if the photo was clap worthy, but the sushi sure appeared to be.
I was happy to get the opportunity, as Ginza has a beautifully decorated interior with a long, L-shaped sushi bar. The sushi chefs and traditionally dressed waitresses seemed happy to help and even plated a delicious-looking sushi roll for me to photograph. After I took the shot, one of the waitresses asked to see it. I gladly obliged, and she said "Oh, beautiful!" while gently clapping. Needless to say, I wanted to stay for dinner.
Fiesta en Guadalajara 3522 Irvington Boulevard
As I arrived at the hostess station inside Fiesta en Guadalajara to ask for the manager, a familiar-faced waiter asked me, "Do you eat at Spanish Flower?" Apparently, he used to work at the well-known Heights eatery and recognized me. I asked him if he liked this place better, and he nodded vigorously, which led me to believe I'd found yet another great Mexican food haunt to add to the rotation.
The colorful building and nice patio felt wonderfully out of place in the middle of what is a fairly rough neighborhood. The whole fried catfish sitting out in front caught my eye, and I knew I would be back, especially since it's located about five minutes from my apartment.
Olives Martini Bar & Grille 2268 Texas Drive
My trip to Olives began with poor directions courtesy of my iPhone Google Maps app. It took me about 10 minutes in the wrong direction and dropped me near a Walgreen's and some broken down icehouse. When I managed to find my way to the correct location, it was a decidedly different scene.
Olives is in a swank new shopping development in Sugar Land reminiscent of City Centre. The bar has a large patio and an interior typical of an upscale wine bar. Despite its location, Olives had a distinctly urban feel. The staff was particularly nice in helping me get a good shot, my first reason for wanting to return, and the food looked amazing, providing yet another reason to visit.
Himalaya 6652 Southwest Freeway
I've heard from several people that this is their favorite Indian food restaurant. I have yet to try the food, but this little strip center on Hilcroft and 59 definitely warrants another visit. It is packed with Indian and Middle Eastern stores and restaurants, with Himalaya smack dab in the center.
The gentleman I presume to be the owner was very accommodating, cleaning up tables and helping me find the best location. A group of what appeared to be regulars laughed and wanted me to get them in the shot, asking if they were going to be in the paper. Best of all, it smelled unbelievable, the air rich with curry and Indian spices. It was difficult to walk out without at least a to-go box in my hand.
Dumar's Mediterranean Grill 4518 Texas 6
When I saw Dumar's on my list of restaurants, I immediately thought two things. First, it is a perfect word spoken with the Jimmy Fallon Boston accent popularized on Saturday Night Live. His accent on words like "You Ahhhhh" and "Nomahhhh" morphed into "Dumahhhh's," and I said it out loud many times on my drive to the Sugar Land eatery because, well, I'm weird like that.
Photo by Jeff Balke Say it with me, "Dumahhhh's!"
Secondly, I thought that despite the fact that Houston is unfortunately known for sprawl and strip malls, Dumar's managed to put a unique spin on their grocery store shopping center location by enclosing the covered sidewalk in a wrought iron fence and filling it with outdoor seating and potted plants, like a strip center oasis.
Inside was about half dining room and half grocery. The friendly wait staff and manager were happy for me to take pictures as I looked around and browsed the menu. The case of flaky baklava was seriously tempting. Not only was this place worth the drive, it gave me a way to annoy my friends when telling them I want to go to "Dumahhhh's."