Chuy’s – Though Austin restaurants in general are ridiculously overhyped, this old school transplant is still a favorite for no-fuss Tex-Mex. Actually, it would be a favorite stop, but the River Oaks location, the only one somewhat close to me, is seemingly always packed and parking is a hassle. Maybe I am biased because I was visiting the original location when it was still just a single outpost on Barton Springs Road during my very unsophisticated undergraduate days in Austin, but the food is consistently well-prepared, flavorful, and it is a very good value to boot. It can be a fun place, too. I’m still a sucker for their enchiladas, chile rellenos, and the additive creamy jalapeño dip. There are seven area locations.
Del Frisco’s – For some reason I have always felt that the Galleria location of this upscale steakhouse chain from the Dallas area has been quite inviting. It is certainly not the steep menu prices, but maybe the consistency in the quality of the preparation of the steaks, the professionalism of the operation, or maybe the light from the big windows warming the plentiful dark woods for a warmer feel in this appropriately masculine setting. To be honest, the appeal is mostly the steaks, which seem to be worth tariff when dining here. One area location.
Five Guys – Consistency and the juicy, beefy and flavorful hamburger patties are the biggest reasons why I keep coming back to this national burger chain. Noticeably good ingredients like the sautéed mushrooms help, as does the slice of (the processed) American cheese, which really does make for a better burger here. The appeal is the basic burger and fries done very well. Eighteen Houston area locations.
Fuddrucker’s – Another burger concept that churns out quality burgers for a fair price, I’ve enjoyed Fuddrucker’s for years. Freshly made buns are much better than typical and a big plus to making these a tasty treat, but it begins with the quality beef patties that are nicely available for four different hamburger sizes. The condiments bar featuring a wide array of hamburger toppings is also a welcome addition. Nineteen Houston locations.
The Halal Guys – The burgeoning chain’s ninth location and in just the third city outside of New York opened earlier this year near Shepherd Plaza. The chain began life, and continues, as a well-regarded and well-publicized food cart operation in Midtown Manhattan that initially served the Muslim cabdrivers of the city. The gyros here are all-beef – and assumingly halal – and provide a very pleasant, clean taste for the center of sandwich or a plate. That distinctive odd taste often found with many gyros is thankfully absent here. With lettuce, and the addition of chopped onions and bits of bell pepper, a generous dose of the white sauce and hot sauce, all rolled into a fluffy pits bread, the gyro sandwiches are very good, if not quite Aladdin quality. The fluffiness of the fresh pita bread makes The Halal Guys just a different than the most of the other casual, local Middle Eastern restaurants. This might be due to its roots in Egypt rather than the Levant or Palestine, the origins of most of the established local spots. The sandwiches are the way to go here. Just skip the cheap-tasting fries. Just one location, but more on the way.
Houston’s – Better-than-usual comfort food done well in comfortable settings are why these restaurants are always crowded during peak times. Though I have enjoyed eating at Houston’s over the years and I still believe that they do a good job, there is really no reason to eat at Houston’s in its namesake city. There are too many other good restaurant options offering similar, and I believe, better fare. With that, Houston’s has been a great choice when traveling. Two area locations.
La Madeleine – I have been a fan of this French-inspired casual café since it was a single location in Dallas and a hotspot for coeds from nearby SMU. The latter might have affected my affection, but it has been their assertive, very not-French Caesar salad, quiches made with properly flaky crusts, croquet monsieurs, and tomato-basil soup that has had me coming back to the various locations in Houston for years. Their pastries are very good, too, and La Madeleine also does a fine job for the breakfast hours. Fourteen Houston area locations.
Morton’s – Now owned by Houston-based Landry’s – not necessarily a plus, in my opinion – this steakhouse chain began life as a single restaurant in Chicago and provided the show-the-customer-the-pre-cooked-steak-and-barely-moving-lobster that has long been copied by other steakhouses. I have always had a very good experience at Morton’s (which has nothing to do with the fact that a client or company was usually picking up the always considerable tab). The steaks have been tremendously flavorful and cooked as ordered, and the starch or cream-laden sides properly baroque in stature, a perfect complement. There is a location in the Galleria area and another downtown.
The Palm – Expense-account steakhouse chains, with their buying power for prime beef and the straightforward cooking necessary technique for their staple dishes, lend themselves to quality replications. The different upscale steakhouse chains are not terribly different than each other. Some are just better than others, or more consistent than others. The Palm has a few Italian-American items on the menu, but maybe it is more of an emphasis on huge lobsters – steakhouses’ second major protein offering – that helps sets the Houston location apart just a little from its direct chain competitors. One Houston location.
Pollo Campero – I have to admit I was not a big fan when the first of these hit the Houston area from Guatemala (yes, Guatemala). The very first American location might have been the one on Bellaire in Gulfton, and I found the chickens rather scrawny and less flavorful than the African-American chicken places I frequented on a regular basis. Since that time the menu and the concept has expanded from its chicken-centric concept and there are many items suited to local tastes, at least my tastes. The settings are clean and inviting enough and a couple steps above the usual fast-food restaurant. Four Houston area locations.
Smashburger – Where as Five Guys takes a sloppy, but still very commendable approach to the great American hamburger, Smashburger’s offerings are a bit more refined, though just about as tasty, and with more menu options, including healthier ones. The burgers and fries, especially the garlic-rosemary Smash Fries, are consistently quite satisfying and the settings are more comfortable, and much more so than the typical burger joint. Sixteen area locations.
Steak ‘n Shake – Not hamburgers here, but steak sandwiches are the calling card at this fast food-ish national chain. OK, these are really hamburgers, but they taste something much better than the typical fast-food hamburger and the lofty name is kind of warranted here. Three area locations.
A gyro at The Halal Guys: tasty, messy and of dubious nutritional value. Looking forward to my next one.