Lemons + sugar + water = lemonade. It’s a simple recipe for the essential sip of summer. Yes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more refreshing fluid than lemonade for combating Houston’s sultry summers.
For such a simple beverage, there are a surprising number of variations to be found in restaurants around town. I sampled more than a dozen during the past couple of weeks and found only a couple to be pucker-provoking or super lemon-y. Many more were extra sweet.
“Tastes like hard lemon candies.”
That’s in my tasting notes on the lemonade at Avalon Diner, where I watched my beverage being made from a seat at the counter.
The staffer cut three lemons, then squeezed them via an electric juicer. The juice went into a metal milkshake cup to which several squirts of sugar syrup and shaved ice were added. The mixing was done by an old fashioned standing blender.
Whrr, whrr, whrr.
Every sip of the slushy lemonade made me feel a little more immune to the heat.
A similar slushy version can be found at the spanking new Heights spot Bambolino's Pizza, where it is billed as frozen lemonade. It is delivered via a margarita machine and sold by the glass, quart and half gallon.
No Houston lemonade has gotten more press than the one poured at the beloved Irma’s, on the northeast side of downtown near Minute Maid Park.
Rapper Paul Wall confessed to one Chronicle reporter that he buys it by the gallon.
And I’ll admit I couldn’t stop at one glass on a recent visit.
Owner Irma Galvan’s recipe calls for adding seasonal fruits, including kiwi, mango and strawberries. Last week, the one I tasted was pale watermelon-colored and had flecks of fruit pulp that gave the liquid an unusual texture. It tasted, alternately, of melon and mango and was absolutely addictive.
In River Oaks, Epicure Cafe serves a strawberry lemonade that comes with a fresh strawberry floating on the top. The liquid is fire-engine red and not as sweet as you might expect.
The folks at Beaucoup Bar & Grill on Old Spanish Trail near the Medical Center bottle their fruity lemonades. The super-sweet drinks come in strawberry, wild berry and mango peach and are served with a cup of ice. The brightly colored beverages are as fragrant as they are sweet.
Traditionalists should consider a visit to Another Time Soda Fountain in Rosenberg. The soda jerks at this classic diner hand-squeeze the lemons and add table sugar and water to the glass. After a vortex-inducing stir, the beverage is served with a lemon wedge.
I found the lemonade interesting because I could control the sweetness with the straw. Lower it to the bottom where the undissolved sugar had settled for a sweet sip or pull the straw toward the top of the glass for a puckery sample.
Another Time also will make you limeade in similar fashion.
Barbecue seems to go hand-in-hand with good lemonade. Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue in the Heights and Blake's BBQ in the Westchase area both serve very good, albeit very sweet, versions. Served in barrel-size glasses, Blake’s was off-the-charts lemon-y without being sour.
The most balanced — sugar to lemon — version that I found was at Mama's Oven, a humble soul food restaurant near Reliant Center. Mercy, that’s some good lemonade. Faint yellow in color, the lemonade had a pleasantly fresh fragrance. And it was served by some of the nicest people I’ve encountered. I could have sipped the day away in their company.
When I started my quest, I got repeated recommendations for the lemonade at Chick-fil-A. Skeptical, I checked the chain’s online menu, which boasted that it was “made from scratch daily at each restaurant using freshly squeezed lemon juice extracted from real lemons.”
Corporately assured, I visited the drive-through of a Galleria-area Chick-fil-A. It was another one of the hard-candy versions: super lemon-y but with a sugary aftertaste. The chain also offers a diet lemonade made with Splenda; it’s just 20 calories for a medium-size serving.
Another noteworthy lemonade is served at pretty-as-a-picture Tiny Boxwood's (and it’s sister cafe, Tiny’s #5). It’s super fresh, as you’d expect at a nursery-housed cafe, and tastes slightly of mint.
I’ll wrap up the citrus circuit with the new kid on the block. Relish Fine Foods is a recently opened gourmet market in River Oaks. It serves locally produced foods such as organic jams and artisan breads, as well as good-to-go salads, sandwiches and soups.
Relish’s lemonade was/is one of my favorites. Pale in color, bright in flavor and with just a hint of sugar. So light on the lips, it was gone in a few swift sips. Umm, make that chugs.
Lemons + sugar + water. Simple and simply delicious.