HOUSTON — In the years it's been my privilege to review restaurants for the Deseret News, I've learned a few things. I'm sure I'm not the same food critic I was back when I started, because doing the job has changed my restaurant habits and my views about food.
For example, I remember liking unique, locally owned restaurants without thinking much about why.
Now, of course, I've devoted a lot of thought to exactly why I like that kind of restaurant. I think it's partly the hunger most of us have for something new or different. It's also the fact that there's a better-than-even chance of getting something good.
And, as I've grown older, I've realized that locally owned restaurants not only reflect local culture, but also help to form the picture that the people living in any given town have of that place.
Here in Houston, I ate recently at two locally owned restaurants that fill that bill. The first, Tornado Burger, is on a rather humble stretch of a long local road in Stafford, Texas. The menu is fairly simple: burgers and various types of cheesesteaks, topped with everything from the standard cheese or bacon to jalapenos.
What sets Tornado Burger apart when it comes to food is its attention to detail and quality: The burger meat is ground fresh on site. The buns are brought in daily from a local baker, so they don't crumble under the weight of a lot of toppings. The fries are blanched before being fried, which makes them taste extra special.
It all just works. The burger was not fancy; just really good. The cheesesteak, on a delicious softly crusted roll, seemed too big for me, but I finished the whole thing, a decision made shortly after taking my first bite that was fragrant with onions and full of meaty juices.
And the fries, well, they were the thick, hand-cut kind, with just enough grease and some kind of fabulous sweet-salty-smoky spice shaken over them. And for a ridiculously low price, diners get a huge, overflowing cup of them that's easily enough for three or four people. There are cheese fries, as well.
The other surprise at Tornado Burger was the excellent service. My family members in Texas are continually bemoaning the pitiful state of Houston's fast-food service, where employees often are inattentive, incompetent or just plain rude.
Tornado Burger is a wonderful exception. I took what seemed like an hour to figure out how to order what I wanted; the menu offers a rather complicated list of combos, single- and double-patty burgers and spicyness levels. I changed my mind several times and asked a string of annoying questions along the way.
Through it all, the guy with the headset was patient, friendly and helpful. I could tell he was proud of his restaurant and his town. I like that so much, and it makes me like the town better, as well.
I also like the weirdly named 100% Taquito, a Mexican joint with very inexpensive and very good Mexican street food. Originally a trailer selling tacos from a parking lot, the restaurant was a school project by University of Houston students that has stayed true to its street-cart roots.
The website is available in English or Espanol, the people taking the orders really know what they're talking about and the main decorations are the selection of Mexican sodas hanging above each order station and the cute bright-green Mexican taxi made from a VW Beetle.
The tacos are teeny, inexpensive and come in trios in asada (beef fajita), al pastor (pork with pineapple), pechuga (chicken breast), camaron (shrimp) and "de tinga" (spicy chipotle brisket). I tried the al pastor, seasoned chunks of pork with niblets of sweet pineapple, fresh white onions and lots of cilantro in little corn tortillas; and the de tinga, simple seasoned beef that was pungently meaty with a nice kick.
My daughter had the rolled, fried flautas filled with shredded beef and topped with delicious green and red dipping sauces plus shredded fresco cheese, sprinkled over the flautas to look like the Mexican flag. Pretty cool touch at a place that has a lot of them.
Tres leches cake was on the menu, so of course we had to have some, and it was simple, milky and delicious, in a huge square that my four kids and I could all share. We also sipped a "dulce de mango," a sort of mango shake topped with lots of cream and caramel. This place, too, seemed proud of its menu and of its place in local culture. I trust, from its years in business and the continual crowds moving through during our meal, that the locals feel the same.