It wasn’t so long ago that the area between the Vickery Boulevard bridge and Bellaire Drive, which folks once thought of as Cullen Davis’ backyard, had evolved into a thriving little hot spot. The heat has cooled, however, and now the strip is kind of an afterthought compared to the McGlitz of West 7th and the hip Near South.
The stretch of South Hulen Street is mostly littered with chain eateries; two good independently owned restaurants (Bistro Louise and The Covey) just bit the dust. However, a few other indie places are thriving. I set my sights on The Tavern and Brix Pizza & Wine Bar.
The chef-owned Tavern still pretty much looks like Snookie’s, the space’s previous occupant, with (thankfully) an important exception: the whiff of college-kid upchuck is gone. It’s a grown-up restaurant now, with an upscale comfort food menu. The décor is a little bland, but the porcelain Talavera-style pig on the bar helps.
Appetizers are the highlights here. The deviled eggs ($4) were creamy and topped with bacon; the fire-roasted artichokes ($9), with spicy chipotle dipping sauce, openly mocked other such appetizers with their deliciousness. These morsels are of the picking-and-dipping style, nicely complemented by the spice of the sauce.
Entrées showed glimmers of inspiration, especially the baja fish tacos ($14). The blackened white fish, cilantro, pickled red onions, and chipotle sauce were tasty if messy, since the filling was stuffed into several small tortillas instead of one big one. Though the Texas pork back ribs ($14) were falling off the bone, the sauce was bland, leaving the dish several steps below the other entrées we tried. The accompanying slaw and fries were both outstanding, however.
Next door, Brix Pizza & Wine Bar is also chef-owned and also in a space haunted by the failure of its previous tenant, in this case Spice International Café. The setting is intimate, with exposed brick walls, wood floors, and tasteful, Pottery Barn-chic décor. The service was prompt and friendly, and the place was busy on a recent visit.
The fried calamari appetizer ($8), served with zucchini, didn’t exactly reinvent the squid wheel, but it was still nice and crispy, if a little generic. The “hot Sicilian sauce” didn’t deliver on its promise of spice and suffered from the same “meh” factor as the squid. The caprese ($7.50) appetizer was similarly traditional: fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and aged balsamic vinegar. There’s nothing wrong with simple if the ingredients are fresh. And they were. My socks were intact after the first course, only to be knocked off by the second.
My guest and I decided to split two pizzas for entrees. The Lezlie ($10 for a small) is now marked down as my new last meal, should I ever wind up on death row. The margherita-style pizza, topped with grilled chicken, jalapeños, black olives, and red onion, was spicy and provided a new experience with each bite. The prosciutto-and-spinach ($11, small), with almonds, shaved Parmesan, and a balsamic reduction, was also the work of a virtuoso. (Of course I’d eat a dead grackle if it were wrapped in prosciutto.)
To be honest, after The Covey and Bistro Louise closed, I lost a little hope for that patch of Hulen. Considering that it’s so close to Central Market, you’d think that the same people who spend $50 on infused olive oil and medical-grade vinegar there would support more indie restaurants. Maybe they will. In the meantime, I can think of at least two reasons for optimism.
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