We're already through two months of 2014, and the frantic pace of Houston restaurant openings shows no signs of slowing. Every week, it seems like another high profile chef has launched another new concept that screams for attention.
Don't believe me? This month's list of new restaurants to try includes heavyweights like Johnny Carrabba and Ronnie Killen, a 13,000 square foot sushi restaurant and the newest location of a 65-year-old Houston institution.
Here we go.
After a year of planning, pop-ups and construction, Killen's Barbecue is open to the public six days per week. Killen spent about $1 million on the build out, transforming the former Pearland ISD school cafeteria into a restaurant. That's reflected in the wood accents and full kitchen.
A wood burning Oyler rotisserie pit supplies most of the meat, but Killen also built a custom, reverse-flow brick pit to supply additional food and serve as a showpiece. Diner-style seating adds to the retro feel.
If thoughts of beef and bacon ribs don't immediately induce a meat coma, even the beans have pulled pork in them.
As expected, the menu includes the Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs and sausage (homemade, natch), but also includes chef/owner Ronnie Killen's celebrated beef short ribs and bone-in pork belly that Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn dubbed "bacon ribs." If thoughts of beef and bacon ribs don't immediately induce a meat coma, even the beans have pulled pork in them. For people who can restrain themselves from gorging on smoky deliciousness, the pecan pie and banana pudding are also top notch
The only downside to all this goodness is the Franklin-esque line and corresponding quick sellouts. Even during the week, diners are waiting up to two hours for food, which makes the restaurant impossible to visit for anyone on a strict schedule. Since Killen cooks to capacity and refuses to serve reheated meat, dinner service isn't possible.
Killen has already added one small smoker to help meet the demand, but expect the lines to continue at least until the initial hype dies down. For now, go early and be prepared to wait.
The latest restaurant to mix fusion sushi with a lounge, Fish & the Knife hopes to avoid suffering the same fate as its closed down predecessors like Katsuya and Sushi Raku. As with both of those restaurants, Fish & the Knife provides a gorgeous setting for dining. Unlike those concepts, both the sushi and kitchen sides are supervised by top-tier chefs.
Peter Vang brings 40 years of experience to the sushi counter, and Bob Iacovone brings the Creole chops he displayed at celebrated New Orleans restaurant Cuvee to the kitchen.
Don't miss the yellowtail appetizers from Vang's side of the menu. One is topped with parmesan cheese, and another uses a tart yuzu sauce. Both feature fish cut more thickly than traditional nigiri to allow diners to savor the texture as well as the flavor. Iacovone's side was still coming together during my visit, but the cream cheese-stuffed crab cakes is exactly the sort of dish that sounds silly and tastes delicious. Expect similarly good things from the baked oysters and chicken and andouille pot pie.
Speaking of Raku, one of that restaurant's former chefs, Adison Lee, has struck out on his own at KUU. Joining Vallone's and Churrascos in Gateway Memorial City, KUU continues the new development's trend of really great looking restaurants with copper and wood elements throughout the dining room. LED lighting provides accents including a fish-shaped display.
Both hot and cold dishes benefit from Lee's modern take on Japanese cuisine. Can't miss dishes include an unusual pairing of raw salmon, smoked salmon and heirloom tomato, an uni-crusted snow crab leg and the KUU roll that utilizes Lee's spicy edamame puree.
Save room for dessert. Lee's mint ginger cake is also a must-try. Looking to branch out beyond the expected pairings of sake and Japanese beer? Director of operations Ricky Cheung has multiple red and white wines available by the glass as alternatives.
Johnny Carrabba has now opened his third restaurant on Kirby with Grace's. Although only a couple of weeks old, Carrabba's fans and people from the surrounding neighborhood have already discovered the place, and their presence gives the restaurant a feeling that it's much older and more established than it is.
Named after Carrabba's grandmother, Grace's serves that same eclectic mix of comfort food that Carrabba says she enjoyed preparing and eating at her home. Diners can choose from Mexican, Chinese, Japanese and classic American dishes, but don't expect to find much in the way of Italian fare. That's what Carrabba's (the restaurant) is for.
Can't miss items include the gumbo, Johnny Chang's chicken and the pot roast. Carrot cake fans will want to save room for a slice. The cake is iced table side.
Joshua Martinez admits that bringing back his food truck while still overseeing his restaurant Goro & Gun is "crazy and stupid," but Houston diners are the happy beneficiaries of his folly. Now under the direction of well-traveled local chef Mark Parmley, the new Modular blends some of the truck's signature items with the most popular menu items from Goro.
Early buzz is the food is as good as when Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento ran it (and might even be better).
Yes, that means that once again a Houston food truck is serving lobster risotto that more than holds its own against brick and mortar Italian restaurants. Flash fried Brussels sprouts aren't exactly healthy, but an order will at least provide the illusion of responsible eating. Early buzz is that the food is as good as when now Underbelly sous chef Lyle Bento ran it (and might even be better).
Martinez's reputation around town means The Modular already has some key spots. Look for it at the Mangum Food Truck Park, Mongoose versus Cobra and Liberty Station. Just don't expect to find it this week, because the truck is off to Austin, having been selected by Austin superstar chef Paul Qui to participate in a special SXSW food truck park. Maybe a little risotto and some dead rapper wings will show Austin slackers that Houston's food truck scene is legit.
Long a staple for Houston's Jewish community, the latest location of the 65-year old Houston institution brings a full service bakery and cafe to Washington Ave. In addition to the familiar (and essential) rye bread, hamantaschen and cookies, the new location features cake parfaits that allow patrons to build custom treats with their choice of filling and toppings. Similar to the two-year old Memorial location, the new spot features lots of seating and a full selection of coffee.
A large outdoor patio is dog friendly, and the bakery now sells high-end dog treats. On the weekends, later hours make it an after dinner destination.
The restaurant formerly known as Mo Mong has become Dua. That means a transformation inside and out. Gone are the dark reds in favor of light woods and warmer tones. The menu has been updated, too, with two kinds of ramen (naturally) as well as a wider selection of Vietnamese options in place of some of the Thai and Chinese ones.
Thankfully, the restaurant's signature spring rolls, including chicken and mango, survived the transition. The restaurant also maintains its party vibe with a full selection of martinis.
That atmosphere extends to an all new brunch menu. Available Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., the menu mixes a couple of dim sum classics with Vietnamese favorites. Perhaps more importantly, "bottomless" mimosas and kimchi Bloody Marys are only $12.
What did Barnaby's Cafe owner Jeff Gale do when one of his Brown Bag Deli locations was underperforming? Turn it into a fast casual pizza joint, of course.
Luna Pizzeria brings those restaurants' high quality ingredients to a menu of personal-sized pizzas, salads and sandwiches that are all priced at $7. While pizza snobs may not approve of the sourdough crust in place of traditional Neapolitan, the dough is made fresh daily by the bread wizards at Angela's Oven. It has a slightly thick, chewy texture.
Topping choices stick to the basics, but the spicy andouille and jalapeno has more of a kick than the typical delivery places offer.
Want to make your friends shoot soda out of their noses? A deck of the always hilarious R-rated party game Cards Against Humanity sits on the community table.
Tanglewood gets another new restaurant with this mid-tier steakhouse. Formerly a Japanese restaurant, the space has been transformed into a dark, inviting room that feels well-suited to an after work bite or casual date. Embers is certainly more neighborhood gem (potentially) than must visit destination, but Tanglewood residents looking for something new will find a lot to like there.
The menu skews towards the traditional with an array of seafood options, pastas and grilled items. A decent-sized selection of wines by the glass matches up with a few, well-chosen craft beers, including local favorites Karbach and Saint Arnold. Chicken and sausage gumbo had a smoky, dark roux and decent heat. Lamb chops came out properly medium rare, and shrimp in sriracha butter adds a spicy kick to the usual preparation.
Although the restaurant was mostly empty during my visit, service was friendly and knowledgeable. Prices are also less expensive than larger steakhouses, which is always welcome.
No criticism here of the people who line up six days a week at Killen's Barbecue. It's awesome stuff.
However, not everyone has time to drive to Pearland or the inclination to wait an hour or more for barbecue. And, yet, Rodeo time creates a hunger for all things Texan, especially smoked meat. Enter The Brisket Houston, where owner Wayne Kammerl has continually produced better and better barbecue over the restaurant's four year history.
Recently, Kammerl introduced beef ribs as a weekend-only special, and they are really, really good. The rest of the menu is solid as well. Order the signature Aggie Special that comes with a cheddar cheese, bread, onion and a pickle.
March is typically a slow month for Houston restaurants, because everyone is at the Rodeo. And why not? Choose from turkey legs, barbecue, burgers, fried stuff, food on a stick, fried food on a stick and more. Wander around the carnival grounds and chow down on whatever looks good.
Just bring cash and an open mind. You can always start that diet next month.