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Chef Michele Free lights up Guava Lamp on Tuesdays.  

Guava Lamp has long been a favorite watering hole for Houston’s LGBTQ community. Now, thanks to resident chef Michele Free, the bar has become a veritable dining destination. As the culinary force behind Guava Lamp’s Tuesday Steak Nights, Free has transformed what can often be a pedestrian pub-menu staple into a consumption experience verging on the gourmet.

Born and raised in Houston, Free says she always enjoyed cooking, but didn’t immediately gravitate toward it as a profession. She did, however, always have a penchant for grilling— thanks to her father, a skilled barbecue chef. After amassing sufficient resources, Free entered culinary school in 2013 and was soon helping area bars develop their own steak nights.

Shortly after Labor Day in 2016, Free began focusing her attention on elevating the steak nights at Guava Lamp. “My philosophy,” explains Free, “is to make the customer happy by offering the cleanest and best steak night in the city.”

Admitting that her pet peeve is “disarray,” Free made both major alterations and smaller tweaks such as offering patrons personal servings of condiments so they don’t have to share. Steak nights at Guava Lamp are now about much more than steak, for Free has expanded the menu to include pork chops, salmon, and occasionally lamb chops, as well as three cuts of beef (ribeyes, strips, and filets).

Using her own homemade rubs, she carefully primes her proteins before cooking them to order. And, unlike at many other venues, Free’s ability to work within a 10-degree heat range enables her to offer customers precise variations of “doneness,” such as “rare plus.”

All cuts are finished with a healthy garnish of clarified or infused butters, such as black truffle and pink peppercorn (for filets) or goat cheese and rosemary (for lamb chops). Accompanying your choice of meat is Free’s special potato amalgam, which she describes as a “baked potato in mashed potato form,” which almost everyone agrees is a most delicious invention.

Loaded with plenty of butter and sour cream (“a near-perfect food,” according to Free) and crowned with melted cheddar cheese, the massive spuds easily hold their own against the steak with regards to flavor factor. Those looking to up the ante even further can elect to add shrimp or grilled asparagus to the already monstrous platters.

Although it’s obvious that Free (who is also the founder and owner of Free Grillin catering company) loves fired meat, she readily admits that on her nights off, she often steps away from the flames to indulge in Middle Eastern or Asian food. She ardently strives to eat local and support Houston businesses whenever possible, and counts Thai Gourmet and Ibiza as favorite haunts.

The icing on the cake (or, rather, the truffle butter on the ribeye) is that Free’s sophisticated Guava Lamp fare can be had in a friendly environment that is anything but stiff. That combination has attracted weekly business from regulars as well as new devotees, expanding and diversifying Guava Lamp’s community. —Joanna O’Leary

Best 24-Hour Restaurant

House of Pies
Finalists: Katz’s Deli & Bar, Midtown Bar & Grill

Best Bakery

The Acadian Bakers
Finalists: Dessert Gallery, Mister French’s Gourmet Bakery, Three Brothers Bakery

Best Barbecue

The Pit Room
Finalists: Brookstreet, Demeris

Best Breakfast

Baby Barnaby’s
Finalists: Lankford Grocery, Snooze, Urban Eats

Best British

Red Lion Pub 
Finalists: Black Lab, Queen Vic

Best Brunch

Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
Finalists: Baba Yega, Hamburger Mary’s, Riva’s, Urban Eats

Best Café

Barnaby’s
Finalists: Brasil Houston, Empire Café, Hamburger Mary’s

Best Cajun

BB’s Cajun
Finalists: Ragin’ Cajun, Treebeard’s

Best Central/South American

Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
Finalists: Ande’s Café, Churrasco’s, El Pueblito

Best Chinese

Ginger and Fork
Finalists: Ambassador, Kim Son, Pepper Twins

Best Cuban

El Rey
Finalists: Café Piquet, El Meson

Best Deli

Kenny & Ziggy’s
Finalists: Katz’s Deli & Bar, Nielsen’s Deli

Best Dessert

Dessert Gallery (tie)
The Chocolate Bar (tie)
Finalists: The Acadian Bakers, Rita’s of Houston

Best Food Truck

Fusion Taco
Finalists: Big Judy’s, Rita’s Italian Ice, Waffle Bus

Best French

Brasserie 19
Finalists: Café Rabelais, Etoile Cuisine et Bar, L’Olivier

Best Greek

Niko Niko’s
Finalists: Helen Greek Food & Wine Theo’s, Yia Yia Mary’s

Best Hamburger

Hamburger Mary’s
Finalists: Barnaby’s, Bernie’s Burger Bus, The Acadian Bakers, The Burger Joint

Best Hotdog

Good Dog
Finalists: Happy Fatz, Love Dogs Hotdogs

Best Indian

Pondicheri
Finalists: Kiran’s,  Khyber Grill

Best Italian

Riva’s (tie)
Giacomo’s (tie)
Finalists: Bollo, Carraba’s

Best Japanese

Uchi
Finalists: Jinya Ramen Bar, Kata Robata, Osaka

Best Lunch Spot

Urban Eats
Finalists: Barnaby’s, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Hamburger Mary’s, Lankford Grocery

Best Mediterranean

Aladdin
Finalists: Fadi’s, Halal Guys, Niko Niko’s

Best Mexican

El Tiempo
Finalists: Chapultepec, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, La Mexicana, Teotihuacan

Best Middle Eastern

Fadi’s
Finalists: Aladdin, Garson, Kasra Persian Grill

Best New Restaurant

Hamburger Mary’s
Finalists: The Ivy & James, Pinch, Snooze, South Bank Seafood, Star Fish

Best Pizza

Bollo Woodfired Pizza (tie)
Star Pizza (tie)
Finalists: Pink’s Pizza, Pi Pizza, Pizza L’Vino, Pizzeria Solario

Best Place for a Romantic Date

Rainbow Lodge
Finalists: B&B Butchers, Giacomo’s, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Best Place to Celebrate

Riva’s
Finalists: Churrasco’s, El Tiempo, Gloria’s Latin Cuisine, Hamburger Mary’s

Best Restaurant for Cheap Eats

Barnaby’s
Finalists: Hamburger Mary’s, Les Givral, Tacos A Go-Go

Best Restaurant for Elegant Dining

Rainbow Lodge
Finalists: Churrasco’s, Da Marco, Season’s 52

Best Restaurant for Outdoor Dining

Baba Yega
Finalists: The Barking Pig, Rainbow Lodge, Tiny Boxwoods

Best Seafood

Danton’s
Finalists: Goode Company Seafood, Rainbow Lodge, Salt Air Seafood Kitchen

Best Steak House

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
Finalists: Fleming’s, Rainbow Lodge, Vic & Anthony’s

Best Steak Night at a Bar

Guava Lamp with Chef Michele Free
Finalists: The Barking Pig, Griff’s, Pearl Bar

Best Sushi

Kata Robata
Finalists: Oishi, Osaka, Uchi

Best Thai

Thai Spice
Finalists: Asia Market Restaurant, Nidda, Nit Noi

Best Vegetarian/Vegan

Bellagreen
Finalists: Field of Greens, Green Vegetarian Cuisine, The Hobbit Café

Best Vietnamese

Mai’s Restaurant
Finalists: Les Ba’get, Huynh Restaurant, Jenni’s Noodle House

Friendliest Restaurant Staff

Barnaby’s
Finalists: Paulie’s, Riva’s

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Joanna O’Leary

Joanna O’Leary is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine and a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.
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