Let's say it was any year up until 2008, and you were a tourist in Houston, staying downtown, and it was Saturday afternoon, and you had got your kids with you. (Bear with us here, we're on a roll.) What was there for you to do? The tunnels are closed weekends, as were most of the restaurants, and there are no museums worthy of note downtown. In fact, until this year, outside of the ungodly expensive Fertitt-arium, there wasn't a thing to do at all other than stroll parking lots and dodge crackheads. But now a vast prairie of little-used parking lots has been replaced by Discovery Green, a dozen or so acres of green space, bocce courts, lakes, water parks, performance spaces and restaurants. Sure, the name of the place is meh and they got a little sponsor-happy, but when you take in a concert at Discovery Green, you really feel like Houston is giving Chicago a run for its money as America's third city.
These shows are all about hidden treasures. First, there's the venue: Shady Tavern is a 69-year-old icehouse that's every bit as nice as the Alabama Ice House, if one-tenth as popular or overcrowded. Then there are the bills at the Secret Saturday shows: Since the talent is never announced beforehand, you never know if you're gonna hear rap, folk, blues or rock, or even if the show will be held indoors or outside in the bar's ramshackle beer garden. All you know for sure is that you are in for a pleasant afternoon of cheap beer, warm weather and music.
Poison Girl (PG if you're texting) gets a nod from us for its diverse clientele, entertaining decor and alcohol-heavy drinks. You're as likely to see a local musician enjoying a cheap drink on the patio with a one-legged Cabbage Patch Kid as you are a lawyer playing vintage pinball and drinking high-quality whiskey. (Did somebody say "Scavenger Hunt?") But the pours aren't the only thing generous about this place — we give the owners added props for stirring cool with consciousness. Every first Sunday, a portion of sales is donated to a local nonprofit organization, and every last Thursday, they lend the patio to local writers for the Poison Pen Reading Series. If Rudyard's is Montrose's living room, then Poison Girl is its equally-as-cool basement bar.
Traditional Cajun crawfish bisque was the best starter at the old Jimmy Wilson's on Westheimer. Fried green tomatoes topped with jumbo lump crabmeat is the signature appetizer of the upscale new Jimmy Wilson's on San Felipe. The list of fresh fish written on a chalkboard at the old place appears on a flat-screen television set in the sleek new dining room, and it is likely to include such rarely seen Gulf delicacies as angelfish, cobia and golden tilefish. Get your catch of the day broiled simply with lemon butter, or get any fish on the list with a sinful Louisiana cream sauce. A wall of wines entices you to trade up from cold beer and Cajun cocktails. Usually when a down-home restaurant goes upscale, it falls on its face, but owners Jimmy Jard and Denis Wilson have pulled it off.
Like many quintessential Texas burger joints, this place started out as a convenience store. The grocery opened in 1939, and when owner and head cook Eydie Prior was growing up, her parents really sold groceries. But it was the hamburgers that brought in the crowds, and so they took out the store shelves and put in some tables. Today, Lankford Grocery is a homey restaurant with a rural vibe in a part of town where all the old buildings have been leveled and replaced with towering townhouses. The dining room is enclosed by garage doors. The smoking section is on a former driveway where two picnic tables are adorned with orange marigolds growing out of coffee cans. Every couple of months, Eydie goes on a decorating binge and decks the place out with a seasonal theme.
The perfectly battered chicken-fried steak at Ouisie's has been rated the best in the state by more than one chicken-fried critic. The awesome meat patty is covered with an undulating crust and served with black pepper milk gravy in a metal gravy boat on the side so that you can dip each bite in gravy as you go, or pour a little on your plate. It comes with upscale Southern black-eyed peas, mustard greens and a rich corn pudding soufflé. There is also a chicken-fried venison steak on Ouisie's menu made of Axis venison backstrap pounded out, dipped in seasoned flour and pan-fried. The venison CFS comes with wild rice risotto, mushrooms and the corn pudding.