RETRO DINING: STAR PIZZA

Over the holidays, I took a little break from blogging.  Turns out my plan to count down to Christmas with daily posts was a little ambitious, and I abandoned it on December 14.  I had some fun giveaways planned, but the elves at Etsy and ebay were not exactly busting their asses to get stuff shipped, so those giveaways will have to wait until next year’s countdown.  The Post Office was in on the conspiracy too.  I had to go to mail a package and buy some stamps for our Christmas cards.  You know why they are called “forever” stamps, don’t you?  It’s because that’s how long you will have to wait in line to buy them.  It is also, coincidentally, how long it will be before I go back there.  I saw a little sign posted at one of the employees’ stations that said “Remember, we have competition.”  That sign must have been written when the Pony Express was still in operation.  With a quill.

But it’s a new year, full of promise and hope.  And for my first post of 2015, I say out with new and in with the old — time for a Retro Dining post.

Star Pizza was founded in 1976 by two Chicagoans who relocated to Houston.  There are two locations — one near the Upper Kirby District at 2111 Norfolk, and another, which is the one I frequent, in the Heights at 77 Harvard.

The dining room is homey and bright:

IMG_4426The menu offers a variety of salads, sandwiches, and pasta, but it’s the pizza that keeps ‘em coming.  Although it might not seem earth-shaking now, when Star Pizza opened and began offering hand-tossed pizza with a whole wheat crust option and vegetarian toppings, this was gourmet pizza.  Joe’s Pizza, for example, with sautéed spinach and fresh garlic, was and is still one of my favorites.  I think of the crust as Goldilocks crust — not too thick, not too thin, just right.

The lunchtime pizza and salad buffet is one of the best deals around, and a great way to sample Star Pizza.  For $9.25 you get iced tea and all the salad and pizza you can eat.  If you are one of those folks who likes to eat for sport, this is the buffet for you.  The salad bar is small, but has a nice assortment of fixings (including chopped hard-boiled eggs and real bacon).  Although it often looks like a bunch of 10-year olds just finished rooting through it (looks like the salad bars at every boy scout camp I’ve ever been to), the ingredients are always fresh and regularly replenished.  But the best reason to stop first at the salad bar is the thick, tangy, herby house-made Italian dressing.

IMG_5660There are lots of pizzas (almost too many) to choose from on the buffet, including Joe’s Pizza.  During the height of the lunch hour (at which you can expect a short wait to be seated), the pizzas come out fast and hot:

Be sure to leave room for a bite or two of the dessert pizza, which is like a deconstructed apple strudel, with apples and pecans, a dusting of powdered sugar, and will make you happy you wore your stretch pants to lunch.

The secret to Star Pizza’s longevity is clear — fresh and ample toppings, a great crust, and a solid value.  Despite a proliferation of pizza restaurants, Star Pizza continues to have a loyal customer base.  Including me.

Star Pizza 2 on Urbanspoon

CHRISTMAS COUNTDOWN — DECEMBER 13

Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you have to give up date night.  In the crush of holiday parties, end-of-year deadlines, shopping, wrapping, decorating, and baking, there’s something very satisfying about turning your back on all of it while you enjoy a night out with your spouse or sweetheart.

This weekend we decided on the spur of the moment to go out for dinner, just the two of us, at a nice restaurant.  A little time-saving tip for last minute dining — instead of searching for reservations by checking restaurants one at time, you can go to Open Table, select your city, number of people, and time of desired reservation, and it’ll provide you with a list of available reservations.  In Houston, which regularly tops the Zagat list of cities where residents eat out the most (in 2013, Houstonians ate out an average of 5.5 meals per week), reservations are a necessity if you’re looking for something a notch above a burger or fajitas.  We saw on Open Table that Lucille’s had openings, made a reservation, and headed out for a relaxing meal.

Lucille’s is located at 5512 La Branch, catty-corner from The Children’s Museum (and thank heavens, my days of going there and chasing my kids around the van from Mexico exhibit are behind me).  The restaurant is named after Chef Chris Williiams’ great grandmother and “Texas culinary legend” Lucille Bishop Smith, who according to the website, “has been named the first African American business woman in Texas.”  She was famous for her chili biscuits, which were reportedly served at the White House and on American Airlines.

Inside, the dark-paneled restaurant has a neighborhood feel, with a well-attended bar.  But it’s Lucille’s charming patio, which must be one of Houston’s best kept outdoor dining secrets, that we really  look forward to.  On a cool evening, enjoying the restaurant’s clever takes on classic southern dishes under the stars, it feels almost like being on vacation.

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Start with an order of Lucille’s famous chili biscuits — tender little chili and cheese-topped bites:

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Fried green tomatoes are crisp and tangy:

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And even if you don’t think you like oysters (like me), you’ll flip over these fried oysters:

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One of my favorite entrees is the restaurant’s version of shrimp and grits, with big plump shrimp, savory smoked sausage, and a few roasted cherry tomatoes, in a delicious broth:

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Another standout is pork and beans, which is a huge braised pork shank with a caramelized exterior, sitting atop a colorful medley of fava beans, lima beans, peas, and tomatoes:

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On this occasion, my husband enjoyed a special of striped bass with shrimp, lentils, and broccolini:

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Other offerings currently include salads, fried yardbird (chicken), seared duck, braised lamb shank, and a juicy burger — something for everyone.

We had a great meal and a great time, and stepping away from the holiday stuff for a few hours was decidedly a good thing.  If you haven’t tried Lucille’s, consider it for your next date night, or lunch with friends, or birthday dinner . . . .

Lucille's on Urbanspoon