Houston Favorites: 5 Places to Eat with Friends

This post was sponsored by Rent.com. You can find Rent.com’s complete guide on life in Houston here. All opinions are completely my own!

Local Foods // The Pancake Princess

As I mentioned earlier this year, I’ve had an increasing number of excuses to explore the food scene around Houston, and it feels like a good time to start sharing my finds here. This is January’s installment of my new Houston Favorites series! Whether you live in Houston or not, I hope these will inspire you to come explore Houston’s phenomenal food scene at one point or another.

There are tons (and tons and tons) of fantastic restaurants in Houston; here are just handful that have caught and held my attention over the last year or so thanks to interesting, varied and crowd-pleasing menus, a gorgeous ambiance, affordability, and really quality or unique ingredients. When thinking about eating out with friends, here are 5 places that always make my shortlist:

Pondicheri // HTX


Pondicheri // HTX
Pondicheri // HTXPondicheri // HTX

Pondicheri 

Long praised among the Houston food community for its inventive Indian fusion cuisine, Pondicheri is likeable in my book for their flavorful herb-sprinkled desi fries, thick and tender carrot roti and wide array of vegetarian fusion curries, dosas, salads and thalis. But my favorite part is the bake lab located upstairs from the restaurant where you can find vividly spiced masala shortbread, chocolate chip cookies spiked with coconut and mint, rosewater soaked doughnuts, or fudgy cookies suffused with basil (plus, the famous chai pie which made Grub Street’s list of Crazy-Awesome New Desserts). At $3-$5 on average per item, the treats aren’t cheap, but the unique flavors are worth it.

With a gorgeously airy and modern interior, Pondicheri is just as good for brunch (they have great $5 breakfast specials like a spicy potato-stuffed roti, spiced oatmeal and a masala egg roti wrap) as it is for a casual lunch with a friend or a small group dinner out (though they don’t take reservations and wait times can be long, particularly during weekend peak times). Additionally, the bake lab is a great place to grab takeaway for lunch, dessert for a gathering, or to spend the afternoon studying.

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Weights + Measures // HTXWeights + Measures // HTXWeights + Measures

Weights + Measures is another beautiful, modern establishment that can serve pretty much all purposes. My favorite part of W+M is the fact that you can select freshly baked doughnuts, croissants, muffins or other pastries from the attached bakeshop to have during brunch (are you sensing a theme?). I also love their variety of brunch toasts—sauteed mushrooms draped in melted brie, loaded avocado, or Nutella-banana-bacon-fried egg.

W+M is also a great happy hour destination—you can start with drinks on their small patio or inside at their long bar or spacious lounge. And drinks can effortlessly transition into dinner—their pizzas are excellent, and the roasted carrot pizza has received much acclaim. I can vouch for the fact that their freshly made “doughknots” are an excellent end to any meal. Note: they won’t split checks here, but they can split group checks evenly or you can do the good old-fashioned write-down-what-goes-on-which-credit-card thing. Or, you know, Venmo.

Local Foods // HTX

Local Foods // HTXLocal Foods // HTXLocal Foods // HTXLocal Foods

If there’s one restaurant in Houston that I’m always craving, it’s Local Foods. Yes, it’s essentially a basic sandwich/salad/soup menu, but they have a fantastic array of fresh, vegetable-driven sides, extraordinarily fresh bread and generally exceptional ingredients and flavor combinations. If I’m not craving their smoked salmon sandwich, jammed with layers of delicate lox and savory onion jam (I leave off the cream cheese) between a dense poppyseed bagel, I’m craving the market veggie sandwich (a mash of roasted brussels sprouts, cauliflower, hummus and avocado, which I always order on a pretzel bun), the arugula shrimp salad or the addictive Tuscan kale side that has converted even the staunchest kale haters.

The atmosphere is casual, an order-at-the-counter type of deal (which is great if you don’t want to deal with splitting bills among a large group). While both the Village and Kirby locations have a wide selection of craft beer, parking lots for easy parking and a variety of small or large table seating indoors, the Kirby location also has a spacious patio and generally has a bigger and better dessert selection (the menus are chef-driven and differ slightly). The massive chocolate cupcakes are derived from the same recipe as Benjy’s famous mom’s chocolate cake (another great spot for happy hour or a ritzier dinner and run by the same parent company).

Piola // HTX

Piola // HTX

Try all 10 varieties of gnocchi during Piola's all-you-can-eat Gnocchi Day during the 29th of every month.

Try all 10 varieties of gnocchi during Piola’s all-you-can-eat Gnocchi Day during the 29th of every month.

Piola

This trendy Italian joint actually has locations all over the world, but only one in Texas—and it happens to be right in the heart of midtown, which makes post-dinner nightlife venturing easy. The pizza competition is fierce in Houston and Piola stacks up fairly well with an almost overwhelming variety of thin- (but not too thin) crust pizzas, but what sets it apart for me are the solid offerings from the rest of the menu: from loaded salads (I love the Toscanini, which comes with olives, tuna, shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, arugula, brie, etc) to antipasti, pasta dishes, meat-based entrees, and a long wine list.

Drinks can be enjoyed at the bar before moving to a table either on their patio or inside under a collection of their funky colored light fixtures, where you can also watch freshly made pizzas emerge from the brick oven in their partially open kitchen. My favorite part about Piola, however, is their Gnocchi Day. On the 29th of every month, they do an all-you-can-eat gnocchi special (you don’t want to see how much I can eat) for $15. It makes for a great group outing, and reservations are highly recommended for Gnocchi Day. If you have room for dessert after, Dolce Delights is right around the corner.

Oporto // The Pancake Princess Oporto // The Pancake Princess

 

The mushroom tartine ($11 on the lunch menu): hummus, grilled mushrooms, mozzarella, avocado, arugula, and parmesan with a side of batatas fritas.

The mushroom tartine ($11 on the lunch menu): hummus, grilled mushrooms,
mozzarella, avocado, arugula, and parmesan with a side of batatas fritas.

Oporto Fooding House & Wine

Not to be confused with its older location, this relatively new midtown hang out is a gorgeous destination for a tapas-style dinner with friends. The seafood-heavy menu ranges from risotto balls to smoked salmon crostini to mini shrimp and pesto pizzas to cod and potato croquettes to mussels. Their happy hour (3-6:30pm Monday-Friday) makes for a particularly economical way to munch on fluffy pizettes and sandwiches for under $10 and various bites that range from $5-$8. Oh, and lots of drink specials. A totally gorgeous space to hang out, nibble and drink wine. I would not be opposed to being taken on a date here.

Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie (vegan, gf)

Today, I present to you this vegan lemon meringue pie* in honor of…

Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie // The Pancake Princess

Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie // The Pancake Princess
Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie // The Pancake Princess
Sarah of Snixy Kitchen’s virtual baby shower!! Yay babies!!

In honor of her baby girl (coming soon in February), Todd and Alanna are hosting a virtual Cheese & Sweets-themed baby shower (also in honor of things Sarah loves) with a fantastic group of bloggers. See the bottom of the post for a zillion INCREDIBLE cheesy, sweet, and cheesy AND sweet recipes! (Mostly all gluten-free in honor of Sarah!)

In a stroke of great luck, I’ve gotten to meet Sarah in real life before! Last year when I was home in California over winter break, Alanna hosted a potluck for a few local blogger friends in her lovely home. What struck me about Sarah (aside from her adorable glasses and bangs) was the fact that she was not only an incredibly talented gluten-free food blogger and photographer, but also a blog design back-end whiz AND getting her PhD in math education. WOWOWOW. Her baby is lucky to be sharing those star-packed genes.

Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie // The Pancake Princess

So this pie, I’ve tried making it before. Because ever since I found out you can make billowy, fluffy, snow-white, honest-to-marshmallow MERINGUE from aquafaba (aka the magical chickpea brine), lemon meringue pie has obviously been on my to-do list. (Even though I’ve never really been a huge lemon meringue fan.) (It still had to be done.)

Many lessons were learned in the second making of this pie. Like:

  • Juicing lemons by hand takes a lot of time.
  • You should have a crust recipe in mind before making the pie.
  • In terms of fun level, swirling meringue is on par with eating a bite out of twenty different cookies (or close, anyway).

But I’m sure you’re wondering: how does it taste?

To me, the satiny, glossy, lightly toasted and sticky meringue tastes just like the real deal. The tofu-based lemon curd is quite tart and bursting with fresh lemon juice, which completely dominates any tofu flavor. I think the thin layer of curd is well offset by a fairly thick layer of meringue so that the sweet, relative blandness of the meringue cuts the tartness.

The crust is what I might change if I made this again. It’s thick, hefty and nutty where a lighter crust that almost shatters in your mouth might be a better fit. I made this previously with a non gluten-free crust (a simple vegan olive oil/all-purpose flour crust like this), which was flakier and more delicate. I was still happy enough with this version to post it, but if you have a favorite pie crust, feel free to use it in place of the one that’s written and please report back! Let’s crowdsource this until we make it perfect!

Aquafaba Lemon Meringue Pie // The Pancake Princess*PS. I realize this was made in a tart pan, so it’s technically a tart, but you could also make this in a deep-dish pie pan to make it an actual pie. That would be ideal since I had excess filling after making this in a 10-inch tart pan.

Congratulations Sarah!! I look forward to seeing photos of you and your beautiful cheese baby girl!!

A few notes about aquafaba:

  • While you can make aquafaba meringue using chickpea brine straight from the can (alternatively, some have had success using the liquid from boiling dry beans), I find that reducing the aquafaba first makes for a stronger, stiffer meringue that is less likely to weep and disintegrate into foam after sitting in the fridge.
  • Also, you must use chilled aquafaba during the whipping step; I tried using it warm from the stove and it never reached the stiff peaks stage. This is why the recipe is written so that you reduce the aquafaba in the beginning, and then chill it as you work on other components. You can also reduce and chill the aquafaba the night before.

If you’re looking for more recipes with aquafaba, I’ve also used it successfully as an egg replacer in these waffles and these cookies!

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Kitchen Lessons: Avgolemono

One small and very attainable-feeling goal (in addition to these) I have this year is to be more proactive and adventurous in cooking–e.g. instead of letting the intriguing I-don’t-know-who’s-going-to-eat-this mushroom bourguignon and the terrifyingly finicky croquembouche (okay, good thing I have almost a year until ’tis the season to tackle that one) languish on my Pinterest board, I’m going to just COOK THEM!

Avgolemono // The Pancake Princess

Quick tangent, bear with me: as a food blogger, it can be tough to balance the abundance of wondrous food we get to eat with also not blowing up like a balloon. The delineation between tasting recipes and meals is often blurry at best, and when my hobby is being in the kitchen…surrounded by food…a lot more food can end up in my mouth than I originally bargained for.

Last year, deep in year 3 of blogging, I finally felt like I had fallen into a groove of eating normally and exercising healthfully despite an influx of more opportunities to eat out than ever before. After a lot of trial and error in terms of trying to get my diet under control, I finally realized that what’s helped the most is tracking what I eat through My Fitness Pal (not a paid endorsement, I just really like that app) and switching up what used to be an almost daily running schedule (which literally ran my knee out of commission for a good 1.5 years) with interval training interspersed with running. If you’re on instagram, chances are good you’ve come across Australian fitness megastar Kayla Itsines, so I won’t bore you with details but I’ve been following her interval training plan since late 2013 and have been really satisfied with my results.

ANYWHO the very long-winded point I’m trying to make is that at one point, Kayla kept talking about avgolemono, this Greek chicken soup that her grandparents used to make and I kept thinking WHAT IS THAT PLEASE MAKE THAT MINUS THE CHICKEN until, months later, my lovely classmate sent me a recipe for a fish version of avgolemono. Which finally inspired me to give this a go.
Avgolemono // The Pancake PrincessAvgolemono // The Pancake PrincessAvgolemono // The Pancake Princess




One extra-large pack of Costco tilapia purchased later, I finally brought the soup of my dreams to life. Aaaand it was nice. I heavily undersalted it the first time around, but adding the correct level of salt really helps highlight the gentle fish broth, which is thickened with lemons and egg. Because the recipe I used was vague about how much water and wine to use, I also ended up adding more liquid than I probably should have, resulting in a fairly thin soup that I think could have benefited from an extra egg and more lemon. Avgolemono // The Pancake Princess

This is a really light, clean-tasting soup. The unusual tang of lemon in the broth adds an interesting dimension of flavor, yet it’s about as soothing as any bowl of chicken noodle soup I had growing up. Making the stock from scratch is a bit of work, but you’ll be rewarded with a pile of very soft vegetables and fish that make either a good accompaniment to the soup, or delicious fritters fried up with some egg, dill and breadcrumbs–if you’re in a rush, a store-bought version of fish stock should work just fine!

P.S. For my Houston readers: The 8th Annual Artopia event is happening on January 30th from 8-11pm, and they’re having a flash sale starting today through January 17th with $20 tickets (normally $55). You can find out more about the event here and enter my giveaway to win a pair of tickets on Instagram!

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Family Classics: A to Z Bread

Family Classics is a series that features some of the classic recipes I grew up with, slightly adapted to adhere to my current pescatarian, dairy-free diet. Say hello to all the flavors of nostalgia!

A to Z Bread // The Pancake Princess I’ve had a luxurious three weeks at home before my last and final semester of business school begins, and baking up two hefty loaves of this childhood favorite was a perfect afternoon activity in between…well, eating and more eating. And planning and baking and long walks and meeting up with old/new friends. And watching BABIES EATING LEMONS HOW DID I JUST FIND THIS. All in all, a solidly relaxing and rejuvenating break. How has your new year been treating you?A to Z Bread // The Pancake Princess


A to Z Bread // The Pancake PrincessI asked my siblings for help in coming up with ideas for this series and banana bread! was unanimous, instantaneous from both. Fitting, since it was probably the recipe my mom baked the most as we were growing up. For me, it conjures up a kitchen enveloped in a warm haze of buttery banana scent and toasted nuts (even though we abhored the nut-topped loaves as kids and always pleaded for a just-plain chocolate chip loaf), leftovers kept moist and plush in a deep orange container and barely crisp, toasted slices for breakfast.

A to Z Bread // The Pancake Princess

In my years of baking away from my mom’s plastic roladex of handwritten recipes, I’ve found that Smitten Kitchen’s zucchini bread recipe is nearly identical to this recipe except that this recipe bumps up the vanilla to a full tablespoon, omits the nutmeg, and REQUIRES chocolate chips–they’re practically a birthright in banana bread in my family. The original recipe calls for a full cup of oil and 2 cups of sugar, but I find that subbing in almond milk for a portion of oil leaves it just as moist and delicious as I remember, and cutting down on the sugar leaves more room for the chocolate chips to shine. If you’d like to halve the recipe, I’ve made this successfully using only one egg and subbing 1/2 tablespoon of flax or chia seeds with 1.5 tablespoons of water for the “half egg.”

Ironically, we have never used this recipe for anything other than banana bread, but the good friend and neighbor who gave my mom this recipe listed a bunch of other ingredients you can use as add-ins in place of banana–from A to Z, the ingredients range from apples to eggplant to peaches to zucchini.

…I think carrot will probably be my next adventure. I’ll leave the eggplant to you–let me know how it turns out, will you?

A to Z Bread // The Pancake Princess Continue reading

2016: Goals

This year, we’re going into the fourth year of The Pancake Princess.

YEAR 4.

That's me (and two of the greatest ladies I've met this year) on the most incredible sugar high I've been on all year.

That’s me (and two of the greatest ladies I’ve met this year) on the most incredible sugar high I’ve been on all year.

It’s amazing to think about the different mindset and life space I occupy now compared to the starting line. In mid-2012, I was freshly graduated: in the slightly isolating post-college world with friends dispersed to all corners of the globe, a full-time corporate job that wasn’t quite fulfilling, and more free time outside of work than I knew what to do with, I turned to over-exercising to the point of a long-term knee injury and experimenting in the kitchen, which eventually led to documenting my results in a very humble wordpress.org blog.*

Over time, thanks to the incredible support of you, both new and long-time readers, this blog has evolved into a portfolio I’ve been able to use to launch freelance writing gigs with the Houston Press and Urban Swank, my ticket into the newly formed Houston Food Blogger’s Collective (founded only this past January by the stunningly awesome Claire of The Petite Professional), and most importantly, continued to be a haven to share food and recipes I love with the incredibly supportive online food community. For all of this, THANK YOU.

Over time, however, I’ve also realized that my priorities and preferences have shifted. While my main interests when I started this blog were creating healthy desserts and pursuing my ideal pancake recipe, I’m no longer as interested in creating droopy, low-cal chia seed muffins as I am in creating beautiful loaves of mostly indulgent pumpkin bread that deeply satisfy with one slice instead of three half-sweet slices. I’m more interested in finding meals that keep me excited about eating healthy when I’m not eating out OR tackling difficult recipes for the technique. I’m more interested in food that will delight and bring people together. I’m gaining more interest in refining my cooking skills and techniques through learning from others rather than struggling to create my own hackneyed recipes. And possibly most importantly, I recently developed a dairy allergy, which means there will be a significant shift in focus to dairy-free recipes from here on out (sob, goodbye cheese).

To focus on these new preferences and to help you know what to expect in this space, here are some posting goals I’m setting for 2016:

  • Monthly Houston Restaurants Round Ups: Between my extraordinary fortune of joining the Houston Food Blogger’s Collective and freelancing, I’ve had excuses to try more restaurants than ever before. I’ve been wanting to share my (very unscientific, vegetarian-biased) perspective on my favorite finds of Houston’s food scene. My hope is that whether you’re based in Houston or not, these will inspire you to come explore Houston’s phenomenal food scene at one point or another! I plan to do round ups at the end of each month.
  • Kitchen Lessons: Every month this year, I want to try a new recipe that either a) expands my technique, b) is something I’ve never made before or c) I’ve had my eye on forever. I’ll share the results with you in step-by-step photos, videos, or just a (typically lengthy) review.
  • Insta-recipesI’ve been really enjoying Izy’s insta-recipes, and I’d like to do a similar series that features quick and easy recipes that I incorporate in my daily life at least once a month.
  • Family Classics: The longer I blog, the more incomplete my blog feels without documenting some of the family recipes I grew up with, no matter how overdone they are in the blog world (banana bread, wine cake). This will also be a monthly series.

I think that should keep us busy for 2016, don’t you? Tell me about your goals (if you have some in your back pocket) that you’ve set for this coming year? I’m still mulling over my personal goals. Goals or not, I’m feeling like we can make this year a great one.

Whole Wheat Stuffed Pancakes (vegan) // The Pancake Princess

*But my 2016 self has made it three-quarters of the way through business school with the prospect of entering a potentially exciting post-graduation and is feeling closer to figuring out what long-term goals and has gotten into a groove with a highly likeable workout routine and has encountered too many great people to name them all in the past year. #thedarkdaysareover

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