Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Empire Cafe

The Empire Cafe is one of my favorite places in Houston. It's cosy on the inside, it has a patio that allows well-behaved, non-barking dogs, and it serves a variety of food and drinks.

The Good
  • The Corsica pasta: Creamy goat cheese, fettuccini and a nice marinara sauce.
  • The breadsticks: They come with your salad and pasta and are not too soft, not too crispy — perfect.
  • The little touches: When you order a hot coffee or hot tea, they give you one or two little cookies on the saucer.
  • Happy Hour: Mondays 4 to 7 p.m.; $1 off drinks and a free appetizer.
  • Prices: Reasonable. Last night, dinner and non-alcoholic drinks for three was $38. It's an order-at-the-counter place, so you can choose to give the cashier a tip if you wish.

The Bad

  • The Milano ravioli: Fairly tasteless ravioli drowned in equally tasteless marina sauce.
  • The outside tables can be rusty and the inside ones small and rickety, depending on which one you get.

My Favorite
Besides the cookies with your coffee? It's the large, fading paintings hanging on the walls in the back room.

W Grill

What used to be Bright & Early Coffee at the corner of Washington Avenue and Durham Drive is now the W Grill. I never visited the old place, but I've been to the new place three times (mostly because my fiancé is tempted by their unashamedly less-than-healthy food).

  • Double drive-through.
  • Hot, fresh fries.
  • My fiancé likes their turkey burger.
  • In the mornings, they serve breakfast.
  • The serve fruit smoothies and coffee.
  • One day when I was craving the sinfulness of a grilled cheese sandwich, the W Grill came through for me.


  • Even with the double drive-through, the service is slow (although, to be fair, it appears to be because they are making each order fresh).
  • The ONLY vegetarian meal option (unless you want a yogurt parfait or another brekkie item) is the grilled cheese sandwich. I can't keep going there unless they get with the program a little and offer at least a veggie burger. Come on, people. Even Burger King offers a veggie burger.

The Verdict
It's a decent drive-through place if you're looking for a burger and fries of a higher caliber than what you'd get at a regular fast-food joint. But they need to expand their menu a bit.

Wabash Farmer's Market

The Wabash Antiques & Feed Store on Washington Avenue now holds a farmer market every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. I stumbled across it one Sunday when I visited the store to buy dog food (they sell natural, holistic and raw dog food).

The Sunday I was there, there were vendors selling Indian food, natural pet treats, heirloom tomatoes and more. Although it's very small — just enough vendors to fill up the porch and parking area in front of the store — I plan to check it out again soon; it's fantastic to have a farmer's market so close by my house.
While browsing Wabash's website, I learned that the store also offers $10 rabies shots once a month. However, I can't personally vouch for this service, because my dog got her rabies shots at her vet.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Two Late Lunches

Old Place
Yesterday, I had a very late lunch (late enough to be an early dinner, actually) at Baba Yega, which is not in the West End but is close by. This restaurant has been serving its patrons since 1975. It's almost like being in someone's house, with the compartmentalized setup and cosy atmosphere. Our waiter yesterday was one of the best I've ever met, although I don't know if that's the usual standard of service at Baba Yega as I have eaten there only once before, several years ago. My fiancé and I shared an appetizer plate with delicious melted brie, salty feta, fresh fruit, walnuts and bread, and I had a well-made cappuccino. My mother and sister each had the rare tuna steak with dill rice and vegetables. My dad had the rainbow trout (farm-raised). Everyone enjoyed their meals. Baba Yega also has a patio and a garden seating area, although we sat inside. The restaurant is tucked away in the Montrose area in a cute tree-filled street.

Here is the cappuccino I had at Baba Yega:

New Place
Today my fiancé and I had a late lunch (around 2:30 p.m.) at Ruggles Green (also not in the West End but close enough to be convenient), the latest in the Ruggles series of restaurants. It's an order-at-the-counter place with wine and beer, lots of organic options, and somewhat crowded seating. He ordered the buffalo burger, which tasted good but came with a notably tiny piece of lettuce and one minuscule slice of tomato. My veggie panini was very tasty although the grilled sourdough bread was just crispy enough to scrape the top of my mouth. The sweet-potato fries that accompanied both our meals were good but no better than any other sweet-potato fries I've had elsewhere. I liked the African iced tea, but he didn't — if you enjoy the earthy taste of rooibos (red bush) hot tea, then you'll like the African iced tea. He also wasn't crazy about the pomegranate melon iced tea, and neither was I. But, I ordered a to-go cappuccino as we left, and I was happy with it — I like my cappuccinos strong and unsweetened.

Here's the outside of Ruggles Green:

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Art Fix

Sometimes I get a craving for a museum day. The last time it happened was New Year's Day of this year, and my family obliged by agreeing to spend the day looking at paintings, sculpture and other creations in the fine art museum of the town in which we were staying.

Today, it was my sister who spurred us to experience some art. She found a photography exhibit happening at the Houston Center for Photography: The 27th Anniversary Membership Exhibition, which featured some excellent images. My favorite was this one, a photo of a mailbox belonging to the poet Robert Francis. I also liked this one and this one.

Then, we headed over the Contemporary Arts Museum. Shown here is the outside of the building.

I liked many of the exhibits, which featured an inexplicable movie about flight attendants made with barbie dolls, a boat-building workshop (once the boat is finished, the artists plan to set it on fire, Viking-style), photos of Houston, a huge round table used both for artists' meetings and their performances, a Fundred Dollar Bill project room, and a shop selling what could truly be called junk — a dead lizard, old cans of beans, a rubber-band ball, someone's old college degree. My fiancé felt it would be more appropriate to call it the Experimental Art Musuem — but that's the great thing about art. Everyone has different opinions about it, and that's OK.

To top it all off, both the Houston Center for Photography and the Contemporary Arts Museum are FREE.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blossom Massage

Since I moved to the West End, I have been getting massages by Ilan at Blossom Massage — first at its original location on Blossom Street and now, thanks to Hurricane Ike, at its new place on Roy Street.

In pursuit of a good massage, I've been to places from expensive resort spas (once, and it was terrible) to very nice suburban salons (OK but impersonal and overpriced) to massage schools (pretty darn good massages from very eager students), but Blossom is the first place I've found that's authentically eclectic and personal. You're a real person there, a valued client — not some stressed-out walking wallet.

The decor is cosy and modern. The music Ilan plays is fabulous. They even leave you a little chocolate on the massage table. Once, when Ilan was unavailable, Gina gave me a massage, and she was great, too.

I have a monthly membership, which means I get one 60-minute massage a month for $65. They don't accept tips there, so you know what it's going to cost you up front, which I like. Tonight, for my August massage, I tried a 90-minute massage for the first time, as it's a new membership option that Ilan is offering. I loved it; an hour and a half is a luxurious amount of time to lie down with relaxing music while a therapist is rubbing natural oil into your muscles.

Plenty of other massage venues exists in the West End and surrounding areas, of course, but I haven't tried any of them, so I can only speak about Blossom. But I've always had a nice experience, and I truly enjoy the time I spend there each month.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Where Do You Want to Eat Tonight?

New Place That Just Opened

Zoe's Kitchen
3701 S Shepherd Drive
Houston, Texas 77098-4209
(713) 522-7447

Pros: Modern-casual decor. Super-fast takeout. Healthy options like slaw and potato salad without mayo. Friendly staff. Yummy fresh-made desserts. Wine and beer. Patio. Excellent chicken kebob plate, according to my carnivorous fiancé.

Cons: Smells a little odd when you walk in. The vegetarian items on the menu include a veggie pita pizza and Mediterranean tuna pita that are too salty, and spinach rollup that are not very flavorful.

Verdict: Good place for fast, easy, fairly healthy order-at-the-counter dining.

Place That Everyone Knows

El Rey Cuban-Mexican Taqueria
910 Shepherd Drive
Houston, Texas 77007-5302
(713) 802-9145

Pros: Absolutely fresh-squeezed orange juice. Great coffee. Fried plantains. Healthy options like whole-wheat tortillas.

Cons: Drive-through can be chaotic due to its awkward placement in the parking lot. They almost consistently forget something when you get takeout (like the sauce or the side you requested). Not very many vegetarian options.

Verdict: Great place for a quick, flavorful meal with options that are slightly different than the regular Mexican taqueria.