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Houston's Secret Menus

Houston's secret menus: How to get what you really want from top restaurants

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Lemon buttermilk souffle hotcakes from Bradley's Fine Diner
Bradley's Fine Diner anticipates some off-the-menu ordering. Courtesy of Bradley's Fine Diner
Places_Food_Tony's_interior
Tony's goes above and beyond to handle special requests. Photo by James Dean
hamburger burger Del Frisco's Grille onion rings
Del Frisco's Grille will try to please — even if the request is far from a burger. Photo courtesy of Del Frisco's Grille
Lemon buttermilk souffle hotcakes from Bradley's Fine Diner
Places_Food_Tony's_interior
hamburger burger Del Frisco's Grille onion rings
News_Marene Gustin_columnist_mug_head shot

A recent Whataburger run started out like this.

Me: And I want some of that chicken finger gravy for my fries.

Him: Will they sell me that without buying the chicken fingers?

Me: It’s a restaurant, they have the gravy, you have money, they will sell it to you.

Which, of course, they did. But let’s face it — you can’t always get what you want at a restaurant. If you go into a Korean place and ask for a Coney Island chili dog you are clearly barking up the wrong tree. Pun intended.

 There are also hidden off-menu items that some places always have on hand. Molina's Cantina created a BLT taco for a regular. 

“We don’t encourage special requests on our menu because every ingredient was carefully selected to make each dish unique,” says An Vo owner of Dosi Restaurant + Soju Bar. “The easiest requests to work with are those concerning dairy allergy. Gluten free dishes are practicable, but because we are an Asian cuisine restaurant and use soy sauce in most of our dishes, the selections are limited and do affect the flavor profile.”

Over at Bradley’s Fine Diner chef/owner Bryan Ogden says they routinely prepare “some items in advance for gluten allergies and other commonly requested food allergies.”

But if you have Celiac disease or some serious allergy to certain foods, you should really call ahead for a reservation and let the kitchen know in advance of dining there.

And there are perfectly legitimate reasons why some kitchens can’t accommodate special requests. Small, tightly focused kitchens simply may not have gluten-free products or other ingredients you request. Same may go for larger kitchens that are turning out high volume. Some kitchens spend hours on prep work and mise en place (the French term for the set up of ingredients for the night’s menu) and are specifically designed to turn out the set menu fast.

Trying to accommodate special requests and off-menu items could throw a kink into the highly choreographed kitchen ballet and throw the restaurant into the weeds, slowing down all of the orders.

But there are exceptions, usually high profile places that will bend over backwards to please regular diners. Tony’s comes to mind, where, as one story goes, some regulars once asked for something not only off menu, but also needing ingredients the kitchen didn’t have. According to the story I heard from the diner, someone was instantly dispatched to acquire the goods and return to whip it up.

And there are also hidden off-menu items that some places always have on hand. Molina’s Cantina once created a BLT taco for a regular who asked for the concoction. Even though it’s not on the menu, if you ask for it they will deliver it.

Brennan’s of Houston offers a special off-menu item of red beans and rice on Mondays, and the Brandy Milk Punch is always available, although it is not on the regular menu either.

 “You can always ask. If I can make it happen, I’ll do it.” 

So do ask, but also be understanding if it costs extra or the restaurant just can’t accomplish your wishes.

“We always say yes to customer requests,” says Gianfranco Percovich, owner of Sal y Pimienta. “Sometimes because of lack of space, time or preparation that needs to be done, we would like to know in advance what type of special request a customer has.”

You may find that most kitchens are more than happy to try and fulfill your wants.

“You can always ask,” says executive chef Jeff Taylor of Del Frisco’s Grille. “If I can make it happen, I’ll do it.”

And then there are creative ways to order.

This went down recently at El Real Tex-Mex at lunch with a friend.

Friend: Can I get a breakfast taco?

Waiter: Um, it’s not on the lunch menu.

Friend: Do you have eggs?

Waiter: yes.

Friend: I’ll have two scrambled eggs.

Waiter: OK!

Friend: And an order of chorizo and some refried beans. And an order of flour tortillas.

Waiter: Ah, I see where this is going.

So my friend got all the ingredients she wanted for her breakfast tacos and made her own right at the table.

She added some salsa and queso and dang if those breakfast tacos didn’t look good.

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