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Where to Eat Right Now

Where to Eat Right Now: 10 cool, must-try restaurants for January

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Ramen Jin Houston sesame cold noodle and tempura fish cakes
Ramen Jin has stabilized its opening and now offers these cold sesame noodles in addition to two kinds of soup.  Ramen Jin/Facebook
Nathan's Famous hot dogs
At Nathan's enjoy the classic New York hot dogs that Joey Chestnut eats 60 of every July 4th. Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs/Facebook
Number 13 Galveston Number 13 burger
Number 13 serves Prime steaks in its main dining room and more casual fare like this burger on its patio.  Number 13/Facebook
Gaslamp Midtown and try our Grilled Chicken Shwarma with lettuce, tomatoes, sautéed red onions, cucumber tzatziki sauce and seasoned fries
The Gaslamp distinguishes itself from other Midtown spots with a menu of Middle Eastern-inspired dishes like this chicken schwarma.  Gaslamp Midtown/Facebook
MAM's House of Ice Snowballs Silver Fox with caramel and chocolate syrup
MAM's House of Ice new brick and mortar now has specialty combos like the Silver Fox, a vanilla-almond flavor with caramel and chocolate syrup. MAM's House of Ice Snowballs/Facebook
El Big Bad Huitlacoche freshest corn smut from Flordia prepared with proprietary method to innoculate and cultivate it
Revolving specials at El Big Bad include fresh Huitlacoche. El Big Bad/Facebook
Funky Chicken Houston pot pie December 2013
Funky Chicken's biscuit topped pot pie is a good alternative to its crispy, gluten-free fried chicken.  Photo courtesy of © Funky Chicken Houston
9 Fat Cat Creamery December 2013
Fat Cat Creamery is open, and owner Sarah Johnston is ready to serve these delicious waffle cones.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Caracol Sopa de Tortuga, green turtle soup with poached turtle egg topper.
Caracol's menu features a wide variety of seafood such as Sopa de Tortuga, green turtle soup topped with a poached turtle egg. Caracol/Facebook
Ramen Jin Houston sesame cold noodle and tempura fish cakes
Nathan's Famous hot dogs
Number 13 Galveston Number 13 burger
Gaslamp Midtown and try our Grilled Chicken Shwarma with lettuce, tomatoes, sautéed red onions, cucumber tzatziki sauce and seasoned fries
MAM's House of Ice Snowballs Silver Fox with caramel and chocolate syrup
El Big Bad Huitlacoche freshest corn smut from Flordia prepared with proprietary method to innoculate and cultivate it
Funky Chicken Houston pot pie December 2013
9 Fat Cat Creamery December 2013
Caracol Sopa de Tortuga, green turtle soup with poached turtle egg topper.
Eric Sandler head shot column mug July 2013

Oh sure, people make New Year's resolutions to eat healthier, cook more and spend less money, but those people obviously don't live in Houston. The breakneck pace of fall restaurant openings only accelerated last month. Since it looks like things will slow down a little this month, use this opportunity to catch up on new places now before it picks up again. 

Those resolutions can wait. As if you were really going to stick to them, anyway.

Caracol

Despite the lofty expectations created by his status as a two-time James Beard Award finalist, Hugo Ortega's new seafood restaurant in the BBVA Compass building cements his reputation as one of Houston's best chefs. The menu is divided into multiple sections: Cold appetizers, soups and salads, hot appetizers, street food-inspired dishes and entrees with a la carte sides.

While there don't seem to be any potholes on the menu, the wood-grilled Gulf oysters ($14 for 6, $23 are 12) are absolutely must order. Ortega puts his own spin on campechana by adding octopus to the spicy mix of tomatoes, shrimp and other seafood. Desserts by Ortega's brother Ruben include the El Coco, a chocolate sphere that diners crack with a wooden mallet before scooping out multiple layers of coconut.

Ortega's new seafood restaurant cements his reputation as one of Houston's best chefs.

Naturally, beverage director Sean Beck has a full menu of new cocktails and wines by the glass today, including twists on classic margaritas, palomas and a seasonal fruit mojito.  

El Big Bad

This bigger, badder version of gastrocantina El Gran Malo has arrived at the former Cabo space near Market Square. The design blends imagery from fairy tales and Mexican culture in a stunning away that invites guests to explore both floors of the space. Crafted by consulting chef Randy Rucker and executive chef Ben Rabbani, the menu features the tacos EGM was known for along with a new focus on seafood and larger entree dishes.

Even the signature infused tequilas have been expanded, and they're displayed in a two-story tall glass case that diners can look inside during elevator rides to the second floor. El Big Bad is dinner only for now, but lunch service should start soon. 

Fat Cat Creamery

Thanks to the arrival of Fat Cat Creamery, the Heights now has its own old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Fans may be familiar with Fat Cat from seeing the ice cream at shops like Revival Market, but the retail outlet allows for a variety of new offerings. There are 10 flavors available, two of which will always be dairy-free.

Owner Sarah Johnston has also added soft serve ice cream and a full range of sodas, shakes, malts and sundaes that can be topped with various housemade goodies. Definitely order the brown butter waffle cone — it's a sweet, crunchy, buttery compliment to every flavor.   

Ramen Jin

This new ramen joint that just opened outside the Beltway was so overwhelmed on its first day of service that it closed for a week to regroup. Although chef Brian Chen still hasn't been able to unleash his full menu, the restaurant has begun nightly dinner service with tonkotsu ramen, miso ramen, sesame noodles and snacks like gyoza. Still, ramen obsessives are always eager to try the newest places, so expect a wait at peak hours.

 The restaurant is determined to improve and become Houston's top ramen destination. 

One way Ramen Jin wants to differentiate itself from some of Houston's other ramen options is the egg served with each bowl. It's marinated for 24 hours and branded with the restaurant's name. During an early visit, the broth wasn't quite at the Soma/Tiger Den level, but the restaurant is determined to improve and become Houston's top ramen destination. 

Funky Chicken

Funky Chicken is the first of three concepts chef Bradley Ogden intends to open in Houston, and the first of as many as 200 locations of his chicken concept. While both roasted and fried varieties of the restaurant's organic chicken are available, the fried chicken is the way to go.

The thin, rice flour-based batter is gluten free, and the chicken is fried twice to ensure it's both moist and crispy. Real deal vegetables in the form of roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots are available as sides, along with the expected starches like mashed potatoes, French fries (highly skippable) and mac and cheese. Alternatively, Funky Chicken's biscuit-topped pot pie is a strong version of the comfort classic.

Regardless, the marshmallow and pretzel chocolate chip cookies makes an excellent dessert. 

Number 13

The Houston steakhouse boom that seen has seen titans like The Palm undergo significant renovations and newcomers like Vallone's enhance the already crowded market has migrated to Galveston with Number 13. Located in the Pelican Rest Marina, Number 13 offers both in-house dry aged Prime steaks and a variety of seafood options.

The dining room has an upscale atmosphere, but the two story patio has a more casual environment. Want to sample the restaurant at a discount? It's running a three-course, $40 menu from Jan. 12 to 25 as part of Galveston Restaurant Week

The Gaslamp

Located next to The Dogwood, The Gaslamp is Midtown's newest destination. Although its still a bit of a work in progress, the three-story space is open to customers with a stylish look, expansive patio and lots of comfortable seating. On the menu, there are sandwiches, salads and some Middle Eastern inspired entrees like gyros and falafel.

There's hummus and fried pickles to start, and every menu item helpfully includes a calories count. Skip the wrap style "burritos," which aren't sufficiently Tex Mex to justify the name. No cocktail menu (yet), but the beer selection covers most of the local favorites along with the expected national craft and macro options.    

Mam's House of Ice

Count this purveyor of New Orleans-style snow cones as the latest food truck to open a brick and mortar outpost. In addition to both indoor and outdoor seating, owners Ariana Espinoza and Mary Ann Mcbee have added some savory options to their menu in the form of Oh My Pocket Pies, Frito pie and Cleburne corn.

Thankfully, the signature snoballs, available in 50 flavors ranging from cherry to dill pickle, are as tasty and refreshing as ever. New menu or not, my go to remains unchanged: Blackberry with condensed milk. 

Dumplings 'N More

Good news, Sugar Landers. The mini Asiatown along Highway 6 that already includes a 99 Ranch grocery store and a recently opened outpost of Chez Beignets now has a Bellaire-worthy spot for soup dumplings. The xiao long bao come in pork, chicken and crab/pork varieties with a savory, viscous broth that explodes when bitten into. Fried dumplings are available in a fun, "snowflake" version that provides some extra batter to connect each piece.

Shu mai are solid, with a good mix of shrimp and pork. The scallion meat pancake is a thick, spiral-shaped dough that's a nice break from dumplings. The interior is clean and tidy, but service can be a little slow.

 See? It really is just like Bellaire.

Nathan's Famous

Don't confuse Houston's first outpost of the classic New York chain with the inferior version of its hot dogs sold in grocery stores. The dogs at the newly opened location in Memorial City Mall have a natural casing with a real snap for a distinctive texture. Non hot dog eaters can choose from a selection of burgers and salads, but realistically will probably just patronize another stand in the food court. 

According to the Chronicle's fast food expert Ken Hoffman, the dogs in Houston are every bit as good as those served on Coney Island, and the French fries hold up, too. Just don't try to eat 60 at a time. Leave that to the professionals. 

Looking for more new restaurants to try? Here are CultureMap's top picks from December, November, October, September and August

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