Saying Goodbye to a Favorite Restaurant: A Last Supper Story

Photos by Christina Uticone
My dad, eating his last supper at Antonina's on January 31. I cried just uploading this.
Three weeks ago, on a trip to my hometown in Upstate New York, I ate my very last meal at my very favorite restaurant in the world -- Antonina's.

Antonina's was my family's go-to restaurant for "no one feels like cooking" night. When it was my turn to choose a special dinner for a birthday or graduation, I chose Antonina's. I've auditioned every boyfriend I've ever had there, including my husband. I once figured out, over a plate of Antonina's pasta, that the boyfriend sitting across from me was cheating on me; years later, during another heartbreak, the only thing that could get me off my parents' couch was the promise of Aglio et Olio with mushrooms, and a basket full of thinly sliced Italian white bread.

Knowing that the restaurant was closing, I had several weeks to think about this meal, which I came to refer to -- mostly jokingly -- as my Last Supper. I thought about a lot of things, from whom I would see to what I would order, but I didn't even think about bringing tissues. Now that was a mistake.

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Steak 'n Shake: Chili, Beans and Great Hamburgers On The Road

Photos by John Kiely
The Jamaican Jerk Double is a wild selection.

Pete Wells became widely recognized for his all-question review of Guy Fieri's restaurant, published in The New York Times. I was more impressed that Wells took on the everything-is-better-in-New-York mentality with a more enthusiastic review of the hamburger from Indianapolis-based Steak 'n Shake than the one he gave to a burger from New York's local favorite, Shake Shack.

A Steak 'n Shake Steakburger is as good as Wells declared, and it's one of the best you'll get from a national chain. The french fries are also exceptional. When it comes to local hamburgers, though, the burgers-are-better-in-Houston mentality does indeed apply, so my family reserves visits to Steak 'n Shake for road trips. This holiday season we stopped at the franchise outside Covington, Louisiana.

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Top 5 Restaurants to Try on South Padre Island

Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Don't miss Dirty Al's on South Padre Island.
Eating on South Padre Island? Don't you just go there to drink? Well, perhaps if you're an early twentysomething on spring break from college. The rest of us are more okay with splitting our money between booze and food. If you're SPI-bound and looking for places to eat, here are my top five recommendations.

5. Mutt Hutt. Their slogan, "Hot Dogs. Burgers. Grinders & Shakes," pretty much summarizes the essence of this very casual, family-friendly dining establishment adorned with blue-checkered tablecloths and Bud Light wall art. But simplicity can be delicious. A "breakfast burger" (a thin juicy patty topped with American cheese and a sunny side-up egg), onion rings, an extra-thick strawberry milkshake, and the ability to douse everything in ketchup are sometimes all you want in a vacation supper.

4. Gabriella's. If you stay more than just a weekend on South Padre, you are likely to get a wee bit sick of seafood (just a wee bit). Gabriella's serves solid red sauce Italian-American fare like chicken parmesan, fettuccine Alfredo and calamari in addition to an assortment of thin-crust, toppings-heavy pizzas. They also offer delivery should you be too tuckered out from lying about all day on the sand.

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This Week's Cafe Review: Jamaican Him Crazy

Categories: On the Road

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
This fish is mysteriously difficult to order, but worth it if you can figure out the system at Caribbean Hot Pot.
I'm pretty sure that when I first walked into Caribbean Hot Pot Restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Monday the owner thought I was a crazy person.

I arrived positively giddy at the thought of eating Jamaican food at Caribbean Hot Pot, the subject of this week's cafe review. I was exceedingly hungry and excited to show my new friends/dinner companions what I do for a living. I had studied the menu before I left, so I had an idea of what I wanted, but I'm no expert on Caribbean cuisine. I marched up the counter and addressed the man behind it (who turned out to be the owner) with maybe a tad too much enthusiasm for a strip center restaurant on a Monday.

"Hi! I have Caribbean ancestry, and I've never had real Caribbean food before, so I don't know what I want, but I definitely want to get to know the cuisine. What should I get? What's good? I know I want jerk chicken and some sort of fish, but which one should I get? What do you recommend?"

He looked at me like I was an alien.

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Deep-Dish Defined at Lou Malnati's in Chicago

Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Deep-Dish at Lou Malnati's

In the days leading up to my trip to Chicago, I spent a good amount of time fantasizing about deep-dish pizza and investigating Houston's own alleged offerings, including the frozen Gino's East version available at Central Market and H-E-B.

Now that I'm back home from vacation, I'm even more motivated to continue my exploration of Chicago-style deep-dish in Houston, if only because of my terrific experience at Lou Malnati's. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a public awareness campaign about the merits of deep-dish pizza in order to generate enough buzz to motivate some intrepid restaurateur and angel investors to start a Chi-town-comes-to-H-town pizza emporium.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to Lou Malnati's. I first tried Lou Malnati's about 18 years ago when I went to Chicago for a family wedding. I don't remember many details of this experience, though I do recall liking the pizza so much that I overate until I almost felt ill. In a subsequent trip to Chicago to visit my friends and sisters, I also visited Giordano's, which I also found very satisfying. These forays into the world of deep-dish pizza were, however, too far apart in time for me to make reasonable comparisons between the merits of these famous chains and their wares.

Deciding where to get deep-dish on this most recent trip to Chicago (and yes, there would for better or worse be only one place because there are far too many other foodstuffs I needed to sample) was at first a daunting task. My blurred memories of my own experiences weren't particularly helpful, and interweb opinions regarding the "best" or "most authentic" deep-dish pizza in Chicago were strongly divided. In the end, I was swayed by you, dear readers, particularly by your comments detailing a love for Lou Malnati's so strong it compelled you to order their pizzas flown frozen to your homes here in Houston.

Also two of their locations were extremely close to my sister's apartment! #mylazinessknowsnobounds

I am happy to report that in this case, proximity also happened to correlate with high quality. After my visit and learning a bit more about the restaurant's history, I know I made a good choice.
Deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's, or any of the more popular pizza joints in Chicago, can easily (and pleasurably) be a three-hour affair. Malnati's does not take reservations, and wait times even on weekdays average 45 minutes to an hour (more during major events, like the city's recent celebrations for the Blackhawks' victory). Deep-dish pizza requires around 35 minutes of oven time and since every pie is made to order, that period starts only after you make your pizza selections. (Malnati's does fortunately offer a system whereby you can place your order while standing in line to expedite your dining experience.)

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The Ultimate Trip to Japan with Carl Rosa

Categories: On the Road

Photos courtesy of Carl Rosa
Travel to Japan with guidance from Carl Rosa like this group.
Sushi Club of Houston President Carl Rosa has taken Houstonians to Japan since 2007. Rosa takes three groups throughout the year to visit the beautiful land of Japan, tour areas you won't find in a typical traveler's guidebook and taste the best cuisine Japan has to offer.

In August, a group of 16 Houstonians will travel with Rosa to Narita, Tokyo, Nikko, Mount Fuji and Kyoto. Each trip lasts 10-12 days and everything the travelers pay for (hotels, meals, travel fare) comes at an economical price. Rosa also caters to the interests of the group so that they can do what they would like to do while they're in Japan.

For example, if the group enjoys sports, Rosa will take them to a Japanese baseball game, or if they enjoy being active outdoors, then they will rent bikes for the day.

"What I really want to do is bring people to Japan and show them how to get around, how to use the bullet train," Rosa says. "I will take them to places they will never find on their own."

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The Czech Stop in West, Texas Hasn't Closed Its Doors Once in 29 Years

Photos by Molly Dunn
Get your kolaches to go and enjoy while you drive down I-35.
Now that the world knows of West, Texas -- and that it is not in fact in the western region of Texas -- everyone should also know about the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery, the famous combination deli/bakery that serves over 600 hungry customers a day.

One of my favorite things to do as a student at Baylor University in nearby Waco was to head to West, Texas, for a midnight road trip to Czech Stop and the Little Czech Bakery. Kolaches, pastries, brownies, cookies and pies are ideal treats for midnight cravings, and being only 15 minutes away makes it super easy to jump in the car and drive down I-35 to enjoy West's famous sweet and savory kolaches.

After the recent devastating fertilizer plant explosion in West, neither the Czech Stop nor the Little Czech Bakery closed their doors.

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Pondering Ramen Across the State, as Houston Finally Joins the Fun

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
A ramen extravaganza at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin.
Although all the wild press coverage of Goro & Gun (my own coverage firmly included) may lead you to believe that ramen -- that national craze and newest foodie obsession -- didn't exist in Houston until last month, that simply isn't true.

As Mai Pham pointed out earlier this week, Soma Sushi has been serving great bowls of Japanese noodle soup for a couple of years now -- the Hokkaido-style broth with a pat of Way Back When butter being my own personal favorite -- under chefs Gabe Medina and his predecessor, Jason Hauck (whose own noodle recipe was used as the template at Goro & Gun). So have several other restaurants, most notably Kata Robata and Cafe Kubo's.

Still, it took a while to get here.

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The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants: Surprising Shut-Outs

Categories: On the Road

Thumbnail image for COVER-WEB.jpg
Haven't had a chance to peruse this week's feature yet? Catch up on our list of the 30 essential Texas restaurants and then meet us back here. Synchronize Swatches!

There have been plenty of questions asked by readers confounded by how some of their favorite Texas restaurants could have been left off a list that's supposedly "seminal" and "essential" and all those other fun words that arbitrarily determine something's importance in our lives. And we've answered some of those questions so far.

See also:
- The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants: What Happened to West, South and East Texas?
- The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants: Near Misses (a.k.a. the Dan Marino Restaurants)

But that doesn't mean we don't have a few questions of our own. Like where's the beef?

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The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants: Nearly Made It (a.k.a. the Dan Marino Restaurants)

Categories: On the Road

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
La Gloria in San Antonio
If you've read this week's feature -- "Eat Here: The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants to Visit Before You Die" -- then you've no doubt already asked why X, Y or Z restaurant didn't make the list. Maybe you've asked this question angrily to your computer, or rhetorically to a coworker who actually tried to answer the question. Neither of these situations will provide satisfactory answers, of course, so maybe this will help.

Below are the 13 restaurants that kept getting mentioned again and again by our food writers and nearly made it, but just didn't get that final vote or two to push them over the top. These are the Dan Marinos of our list -- the Superbowl shut-outs that almost had a taste of sweet, sweet Astroturf.

Alternately, you could think of these 13 restaurants as an extension to the top 30 list, in case 30 just wasn't enough to satiate you. They're arguably as important as some of the others that made the top 30 list and represent an even broader swath of Texas. Tack these 13 on to the end of the top 30 and play the whole list on "expert" level.

Restaurants are listed alphabetically and, as with our 30 list, are not ranked:

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