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Houston's Most Overrated Restaurants

Houston's Most Overrated Restaurants: Fearless list calls out the hype mongers— sorry Uchi

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Uchi, chefs, sushi
Dear Uchi, It's not you. It's me.  Uchi Houston/Facebook
News_Underbelly, dining room
Not all diners receive the same treatment at Underbelly. Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
News, Haven, dining room
Haven would be a better restaurant if it took some inspiration from little brother Cove and mixed things up more.  Photo by Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
News_Breakfast Klub
Wait in the heat and then pay $4 for iced tea. No thanks. Photo via The Holiday HoHo Queen
Reef restaurant Houston diners dining room bar
Reef gets a lot of national attention, but the local perception is that it isn't as good as it used to be.  Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau
Places_Food_Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse_interior_THIS
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse is a solid chain, but it isn't on the same level as Houston's top steakhouses.  Photo by eschipul/flickr.com
Hillstone Restaurant Houston's on Kirby
Houston's does a nice job, but the prices are high and the service is oddly formal.  Google Plus
Torchy's Tacos Rice Village opening day line April 19, 2013
Why do people line up for Torchy's mediocre offerings? It is a mystery.  Torchy's Tacos/Twitter
Uchi, chefs, sushi
News_Underbelly, dining room
News, Haven, dining room
News_Breakfast Klub
Reef restaurant Houston diners dining room bar
Places-Eat-Mark's American Cuisine-exterior-1
Places_Food_Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse_interior_THIS
Hillstone Restaurant Houston's on Kirby
Torchy's Tacos Rice Village opening day line April 19, 2013
Eric Sandler head shot column mug July 2013

What is an overrated restaurant? Simply put, it is a place where the hype doesn't match the reality.

Of course, since something must be "rated" to be "overrated," my list of Houston's Most Overrated Restaurants reads like a Who's Who of critical praise, national attention and media hype. Yes, that includes praise from this publication and this author. Atonement for those sins begins now.

Places can also be overrated if they are mysteriously popular despite consistently underwhelming food. Obviously, Olive Garden and similar restaurants are packed, but no one with a serious interest in dining thinks they're any good. The issue crops up with popular restaurants with passionate defenders claiming that a restaurant is good despite obvious flaws: As in, a taco restaurant that serves awful tortillas. 

The national poster child for some of this nonsense is California chain In-N-Out Burger, which serves a perfectly good fast food burger that's better than its drive-thru competition but doesn't hold a candle to higher priced options serving beefier, thicker patties. California transplants who sing its praises are either suffering from nostalgia or just want to differentiate themselves from Whataburger loving Texans. 

Note that inclusion on this list doesn't mean a restaurant is bad. In fact, most of them are pretty good, most of the time. It's just that their execution doesn't quite match their rhetoric or commensurate level of hype.

Rather than anger, hopefully this list spurs them to action. If the result is that I get disinvited to a few future media dinners, so be it. This is Texas. and Texans value straight talk.

Without further delay, let's talk about how the cow ate the cabbage.

Uchi

Every night diners pack into this Austin import for Japanese-inspired cuisine. On a busy Saturday, as many as 400 diners come through, and they regularly spend $100 per person or more. Despite personnel losses in both the kitchen and front of house, Uchi just keeps chugging along, same as it ever was.

 Maybe the way all the dishes look the same hurts my ability to distinguish between them. 

So why don't I like it? I've tried. In December, I attended a multi-course tasting dinner organized by a friend who dines there frequently.

At the end of a parade of variations on fresh fish paired with citrus, typically Japanese yuzu, only one dish, the staple Machi Cure, was something I'd want to go back to eat again. Or could remember as distinct from the other dishes we ate that night. Maybe the way all the dishes look the same hurts my ability to distinguish between them.

Check out culinary director Philip Speer's Instagram account for proof. It's an endless stream of protein or vegetables, arranged along a skinny plate, garnished with leaves. 

Before it opens its doors at 5 p.m., a line of people wait to rush into Uchi for its nightly social hour that features half price dishes, including the Machi Cure, and discounted beer. That seems like a more reasonable way to enjoy the restaurant. Otherwise, it's a pass.  

Underbelly

In August, I wrote that Underbelly is one of Houston's 10 best restaurants. Now, I'm calling it overrated.

Before heading to the comments to call me a flip-flopper, understand that I acknowledge suffering from some restaurant related cognitive dissonance. The biggest problem is that when a writer of any prominence dines at Underbelly, he or she receives VIP treatment. From off the menu specials to shot gunning a beer with the kitchen staff, anyone with even the faintest reach gets chef/owner Chris Shepherd's full-on charm offensive. It works.

Shepherd offers real insight into his work, is very outgoing and makes a great impression. I have personally never had a bad meal there, although it's been six months or so since my last visit. 

The problem is that not everyone gets that treatment. A friend who had bad experiences on previous visits really enjoyed himself when I joined him and a group of friends, because Shepherd prepared a custom "meat salad" of wagyu brisket and goat leg that wasn't on the menu.

Furthermore, Underbelly's obtuse menu can confuse diners who don't know what size portions to expect from individual dishes. Either they wind up ordering a couple of things and leaving hungry, or they over order and wind up with huge bills.

Shepherd's burgeoning celebrity status hurts Underbelly, too. The experience of dining there simply isn't as good when he isn't around to direct the kitchen, despite the talent of the cooks on the line.  

Oh well, after this article I suspect I'll find out how normal people get treated there. That's really going to stink.

Mark's

I come to bury Mark's. Not to praise it. That pains me, because a few childhood visits to Anthony's helped foster my interest in adventurous eating. Without Mark Cox at the helm of that kitchen, I might not be a food writer now.

 Overpaying for a meal isn't romantic. It's just silly. 

Hearing Cox recite commercials on sports talk radio touting his $28, three-course lunch menu inspires the same sort of past his prime schadenfreude as seeing Ed Reed's pathetic play for the Texans. Saying the restaurant is resting on its laurels doesn't begin to document how far out of the culinary firmament it has fallen. High prices, snooty service and plates burgeoning with too many ingredients are the most prominent of its culinary sins.  

None of that matters to the regular who eat there weekly, of course. They don't care that the restaurant is unfashionable or out of touch. But let's collectively agree to dump it from the inevitable "most romantic" lists that crop up this time of year. After all, overpaying for a meal isn't romantic. It's just silly.

Mai's

Sad to say that the restaurant responsible for introducing a generation of Houstonians to spring rolls, vermicelli rice noodles and pho as a cure all for the excesses of a night of a drinking just ain't what it used to be. Anthony Bourdain may have once called it one of America's best Vietnamese restaurants, but Mai's isn't even the best restaurant in its neighborhood anymore.

While Mai's still fills a niche as a late night destination, any number of Vietnamese options both in and and out of Midtown have long since passed it in overall quality. 

Haven

Four years into Haven's existence, and chef Randy Evans ode to Texas cuisine is the same as it ever was. Same fried chicken livers. Same wild boar chili. Same entrees. When the restaurant's new PR firm tried to pitch me a story about Haven's beehives or farm to table produce, I asked if there's anything new going on at the restaurant.

The response was that they're offering a new monthly dinner series with a farmer in the dining room. So, not really then? Solid restaurants that use high quality local ingredients are important, but Haven is inconsistent when Evans is absent and not as good as it should be when he's present.

Meanwhile, Cove, the mini-restaurant inside Haven, remains a consistently interesting destination with a constantly evolving menu. If only the big brother could take the hint and mix things up a bit. 

The Breakfast Klub

Very few restaurants in Houston attract a line. Although long lines are pretty much the only way to know whether a restaurant in Austin is any good, Houstonians are either more productive or less patient than to think waiting an hour or more for food is a good idea. The Breakfast Klub is a rare exception to the no lines rule, and I struggle to understand why people willingly stand around in the heat for the chance to eat there.

First, the prices are absurd; an order of six chicken wings and a waffle should not cost almost $15 and iced tea shouldn't cost $4. Despite the high prices, the staff can't even be bothered to hand you a rolled up set of silverware. Instead, patrons are forced to forage for it while bobbing and weaving through people who are getting coffee, syrup or more iced tea (gotta get your money's worth, right?). 

The high prices might be OK if the food were better, but the waffle lacks the crispy edges needed for greatness and my last order of wings was so salty I didn't finish them. Time to try the catfish and grits? 

Torchy's Tacos

Torchy's is another Austin import that Houstonians can't seem to get enough of with lines out the door and a new restaurant chain based on "imitating" its entire menu. The problem starts with the tortillas. Torchy's doesn't necessarily have to make them in house, but, when every taco truck on Long Point has a better, fresher tasting source for the most important part of the taco, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

While taqueria tacos typically consist of meat with a sprinkle of onions and cilantro and a squirt of lime, Torchy's tacos inevitably come flooded with ranch-based sauces that make them a total mess to eat.

The Gringo tacos at Fusion Taco and Taco Nuts are good, so clearly the concept itself has merit. As for Torchy's, stick to the queso and breakfast tacos. Those are two things Austin excels at. 

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse

In a city that loves steakhouses, Houstonians have collectively agreed that three stand out as the top of the field: Killen's Steakhouse, Vic & Anthony's and Pappas Bros. All three are locally owned and get all the details right.

Somehow national chain Del Frisco's has edged its way into the conversation. The restaurant always makes the single biggest contribution to the Houston Food Bank at the end of Houston Restaurant Weeks. It's also popular with professional athletes, especially during football season. 

But the reasons for its popularity have to do with atmosphere and polished service than food. The restaurant typically features wet-aged USDA Prime beef, rather than the more expensive and time consuming dry aging that's the hallmark of the best meat. Sides are mostly ho-hum, with no standout equivalents to, say, the landmark onion rings at V&A or the life changing creamed corn at Killen's.

For checks that soar about $100 per person, why settle for anything less than the absolute best?  

Houston's

If there are certain restaurants snooty foodies love to hate, Houston's is the opposite: a restaurant that gets an inexplicably large amount of foodie love. Yes, the service is efficient (if a little formal), and the kitchen is rock-solid consistent, but the food is awfully expensive for what is basically a classic American grill.

In other words, Houston's is a dressed up, more expensive Barnaby's without the fun waiters. A French dip sandwich costs $19. Really?

The best thing Houston's put out has always been the tempura chicken fingers, and they're only available to people who know to ask for them as an off-the-menu item. At least the restaurant attempts to ban people from using cellphones in the dining room. Civility and consideration of other people is never overrated. 

Dishonorable Mention

Reef

Bryan Caswell's ode to Gulf seafood frequently shows up on national lists of the best seafood restaurants alongside Michelin starred restaurants like New York's Le Bernardin, but I can't think of a single friend with an interest in food who's Tweeted, Facebooked, Instagrammed or otherwise discussed eating there in the last two years. How can a restaurant with such a good national reputation attract so little local interest from the people who should be its biggest fans?

 Remember when Caswell used to be there during lunch to get a fist bump from Jay Z ? Those were the days.  

Periodically, I drive past and think I should go there for a meal but can't summon the motivation. Why bother when the menu hardly ever changes and Caswell isn't there to direct the staff? Remember when he used to be there during lunch service to get a fist bump from Jay Z for his crab cakes? Those were the days. 

Still, the dining room is packed, and, during the holidays and major trade shows, the private room might be booked twice in one night. That makes Reef a great business — I just wish it were still perceived as a great restaurant. 

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