100 Favorite Dishes 2012: No. 24, Kinilaw at Reef

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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.

It's tempting to put the crispy skin snapper at Reef on this list -- it's the dish that more or less put chef Bryan Caswell's restaurant on the map -- as it's a classic that simply refuses to disappoint. Robb Walsh put the dish at No. 10 on his own list of 100 Favorite Dishes two years ago, and five years after his rave review of "the fabulous snapper chicharrón," it's still the dish to get at Reef.

But as much as I love the snapper, it's one of the many items on Reef's menu that stays there permanently -- never changing, caught in amber. And this year, I've been more captivated by the few things on the classics-dominated menu that aren't quite so static. Among them, the kinilaw.

Kinilaw (pronounced "ken-ee-lau") is the Filipino version of ceviche, although the word itself actually means "to cook in vinegar." Just as ceviche is "cooked" with lime juice, the fish used in kinilaw is cooked with vinegar. Both liquids are acidic enough to cure the raw fish so that actual application of heat is unnecessary. You're left with a refreshing seafood dish for the summer that is both cool to prepare and eat. It's no wonder raw fish applications such as these are popular in hot places -- Houston included.

The kinilaw that Reef serves changes with the week's catch. In past weeks, it's held bluefin tuna and wahoo. When I went recently, the kinilaw had been made with Gulf-caught grouper. The soft, flaky fish doesn't hold up to the vinegar as well as tuna would, I imagine, but I was too impressed by the flavors to care much about the texture: snappy ginger, lime juice and cool coconut water (which, by the way, you can make yourself at home). Reef decorates the pile of fish with more tropical touches: bites of orange and daikon, lotus root slices that have been fried to a gentle crisp.

It may not be terribly traditional kinilaw, but it's also the only place in Houston I know of that serves the Filipino fish dish on the regular -- as well as a fun twist on the standard raw fish preparations we're starting to see at every Houston restaurant with a seafood supplier.

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

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Location Info


2600 Travis St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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Nothing from BRC or Zelko Bistro???  Crazy Talk! 

FattyFatBastard topcommenter

I went with a couple of previous Press reviewers to try the snapper, as well as the smoked pork chop.  We were all unanimous that the pork chop is THE thing to get at Reef.  If you haven't tried it, you need to immediately.

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