100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 21, Chicken-Fried Water Buffalo at The Hay Merchant

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once.

I'll be the first to admit that some of the dishes that The Hay Merchant serves are hit or miss. But why focus on that? The amazing thing about The Hay Merchant is that it didn't have to serve food at all -- it could have opened as just a craft beer bar and still made an impact on the city. The fact that it employs a talented chef like Antoine Ware and has carefully curated a menu that's as diverse as its beer list is just icing on the cake.

The menu here is like Underbelly Lite (which makes sense, as the two share a kitchen), where you'll see dishes that reflect the melting-pot nature of Houston cuisines all blending together seamlessly as one. Ware's own roots are reflected in items like gumbo, while Asian influences are felt in popular items such as the addictively snackable sweet-and-spicy pig's ears or the richly flavored Vietnamese chicken wings with a caramelized fish sauce glaze.

The latter of these dishes would have actually made this year's 100 Favorite Dishes list but for two things: One, the Vietnamese chicken wings that inspired the recipe at The Hay Merchant at Thanh Phuong are still better (hey, you can't beat the original thing). And two, the chicken-fried water buffalo that I tried on a whim outclassed everything I've had so far at Hay Merchant (including the spot-on barbecued chicken with mac 'n' cheese).

Sean, the amiable manager, recommended the water buffalo one afternoon when I was there simply to grab some wings and a beer. It wasn't even lunchtime, but his description of the dish swayed me: Sean said it was the best chicken-fried steak he'd ever had, anywhere.

Having devoured a plate of the stuff, I am hard-pressed to disagree with him.

The water buffalo -- which Ware got from North Texas -- lent a sweet, grassy note to the meat which is otherwise missing in most chicken-fried steaks made with straight-up beef. The buffalo meat was also remarkably tender and, although pounded thin, still quite plump. Ware's crunchy breading clung to it heroically, never once becoming gummy or flaky.

The cream gravy on top reminded me of the cast-iron skillet gravy my own mother and grandmother both make, an East Texas-style gravy that's thick with flour, butter and pan drippings, rendered a chamois color by the last two ingredients and -- blissfully -- as far from "white" as possible. The two buffalo steaks were piled on top of chunky, garlic-laced mashed potatoes and a portion of nicely roasted green beans with shallots. It was exactly the meal my own family would serve if they ate water buffalo on a regular basis, and I reveled in the sense of down-home cooking with every bite.

I don't know how much longer the chicken-fried water buffalo will be on the menu at The Hay Merchant, so get it while you can. And once it's gone, that barbecued half-chicken isn't a bad runner-up.

The list so far:

No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac
No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's
No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets
No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito
No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery
No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar
No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch
No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito
No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F.
No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe
No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers
No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay
No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe
No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño
No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen
No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme
No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts
No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge
No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House
No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux
No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar
No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales
No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana
No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's
No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven
No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate
No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill
No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria
No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos
No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen
No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings
No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood
No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood
No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas
No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's
No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La
No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf
No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse
No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo
No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's
No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill
No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk
No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island
No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi
No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel
No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods
No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina
No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House
No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB
No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast
No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck
No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe
No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH
No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A
No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's
No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano
No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub
No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe
No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco
No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs
No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's
No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven
No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami
No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's
No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven
No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen
No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro
No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe
No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's
No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn
No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan
No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria
No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ
No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana
No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade
No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef
No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense
No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's

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Location Info

The Hay Merchant

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Music

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