So far, 2016 hasn't been able to keep up with last year's torrid pace of openings, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, some people are still catching up on trying the best new restaurants of 2015, but it also means that restaurants that might have otherwise been overlooked are getting some attention.
Consider this month's list of dining options, which includes restaurants in Katy, Sugar Land, west Houston, and Chinatown in addition to the usual Montrose/Heights/downtown spots. These restaurants serve as a reminder that taking a little time to explore beyond the Beltway usually yields positive results.
As always, these are ordered roughly in the order in which I think you should try them, but when the options range from a Korean fried chicken restaurant to a reinvigorated Mexican seafood restaurant and an upscale Chinese restaurant, anyone should be able to find something that piques his or her fancy.
A new location near downtown Houston's Market Square and a new chef mean a new start for the Mexican seafood restaurant. Chef Vidal Elias Murillo takes over for celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez, who has returned to Mexico to oversee culinary operations at the La Fisheria locations there. While the menu of ceviches and fish dishes will be familiar to anyone who's dined at La Fisheria previously, the restaurant certainly seems to benefit from having a chef in the kitchen. Thinly-sliced octopus carpaccio holds its own against any version in the city, and fish dishes like roasted red snapped rubbed with achiote spices arrived properly cooked and very flavorful. A full selection of tequila cocktails and an inviting space should make it a solid happy hour destination for downtown office workers.
After 30 years, this intimate restaurant on the grounds of the Houstonian hotel is now open to the general public for lunch. The menu is classic Creole; just think of it as an alternative to Brennan's for people who work near The Galleria. Chef Neal Cox and his team get all the details right on dishes like crawfish bisque, lemon sole Meuniere, and snapper Ponchartrain. Just dress up a bit to fit in with the elegant atmosphere of the John Staub-designed home. After all, if President George H.W. Bush decides to pay a visit to his former home, you'll want to look your best.
With so many restaurants in such a compact area, it can be hard for new places in Chinatown to distinguish themselves, but the places that manage to break free are pretty special. The latest of these is Uyghur Bistro, which serves cuisine from the Xinjiang provance in northwestern China that incorporates Chinese, Indian, and even Middle Eastern influences. Lamb is the protein of choice here, and the Halal restaurant serves it a variety of ways.
The best bang for the buck are skewers, which provide a hefty portion for only $5. A braised lamb shank fairly fell apart with a fork, and the signature hand pulled noodles provided a nice chew to complement the stir-fried lamb in another dish. I'll be back to try dishes recommended by Houstonian critic Alice Levitt like big plate chicken and the Uyghur-style pizza of chopped lamb in a flaky crust. Avoid the temptation to overeat; after all, Class 502's rolled ice cream waits just across Bellaire at Dun Huang Plaza.
Ginger & Fork
Recently opened in the former La Fisheria space off Shepherd, this Chinese restaurant seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, the restaurant's website touts that it combines "the authentic flavors of Chinese cuisine with a modern style of service" and that its menu "will introduce many native Chinese ingredients," which are qualities that would seem to put it in with places like Cooking Girl and Mala Sichuan that are bringing Chinatown-style dining inside the Loop. On the other hand, the menu features Chinese-American dishes like egg rolls, fried rice, and a "sizzling filet mignon" that's basically a fancy version of pepper steak.
The good news is those dishes are tasty, and the cocktail menu created by owner Mary Li has a lot of interesting options like the Whiskey Root (Buffalo Trace, Benedictine, ginger, Thai basil) that hold their own with other restaurants in the area. Even if Ginger & Fork is more of an updated version of places like Cafe Ginger and Qin Dynasty, it's still serving the best Chinese food in or around The Heights, and that should be sufficiently appealing to attract diners.
Skinny Rita's Cantina
This Heights-area healthy Tex-Mex joint from the Ruggles Green folks has now opened its second location in the former home of Eleven:Eleven on West Gray. The space has received a dramatic, Mexican-inspired makeover, with the most obvious change being the addition of a second-story patio that seems poised to become a springtime hangout.
Happily, the signature skinny margaritas have made the transition intact. Standout dishes include the grilled items and fajitas enchiladas in nopales tortillas. An extensive selection of gluten-free items adds to the appeal.
Luchi & Joey's
If the mostly full dining room on a Saturday afternoon is any indication, the Memorial neighborhood has already embraced this brick-and-mortar location of the downtown Tunnel taco joint. Choices straddle the divide between street-style food truck tacos and Torchy's-style Gringo tacos. For example, I sampled a fajitas taco with classic cilantro and onion, but it's served on a flour tortilla and topped with white cheese. Similarly, pulled pork tacos get a little acidity from pickled onions and crunch from lettuce. Thankfully, the tortillas taste freshly made, and the generous portions make the $4/taco price reasonable.
Hoodadak Korean-style Fried Chicken
While a certain segment of Houston's food-loving Facebook users lost their collective minds at the news that NYC-based Korean fried chicken joint Bonchon would be coming to Katy, residents of the western suburb already have a place to enjoy crispy, twice-fried, Korean-style chicken. Open since December, Hoodadak serves fried chicken (available plain or with one of four souces), a couple of traditional Korean entrees like bulgogi, and food truck-style fries that are available with bulgogi and kimchi.
I ordered my chicken sweet and spicy and took a plunge on the fries for an early Saturday lunch. The fries are exactly what you want: crispy, gooey, slightly spicy from the house mayo and kimchi. While the chicken arrived hot and crispy, the sauce tended sweet without enough spice. Cheap craft beer is a definite plus; a pint of Saint Arnold's excellent Art Car IPA is only $5.50, and Karbach's Love Street only costs $5. At that price, I'm willing to find out whether the soy garlic flavor is more successful than the sweet and spicy.
The Middle Spoon
Sugar Land's bar scene took a step forward last year with the addition of The Ginger Mule, and now area cocktail enthusiasts have another promising new option in The Middle Spoon. Originally founded in Canada, the concept recently opened in Sugar Land Town Square where it features a variety of craft cocktails made with fresh juices and house made syrups, as well as a selection of pastries by chefs Candace Acker and Misha Wiggins King. Those sweets tend towards twists on classics, such as a twice baked apple pie served in a hollowed-out apple shell or the signature chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Cocktails run the gamut, but the selection of beer cocktails should help it compete with area favorites like The Flying Saucer and Ginger Mule sister concept Guru Burgers & Crepes.
El Rojo's Taco Truck
Whatever ardor Houstonians once had for food trucks has mostly cooled — exceptions like Cousins Maine Lobster and The Lucky Fig that have a celebrity tie only prove the rule — as even long-time operators like Bernie's Burger Bus and The Rice Box look to go brick and mortar. While I responded skeptically to a friend's invitation to try El Rojo's, I'm glad that I did. Fillings are of a noticeably higher quality than typical taco trucks, and the portion is generous. The signature red tortillas, which get their color from being drenched in a secret blend of spices, add a little whimsy. Find it at the Montrose location of the Mercantile coffee shop every Thursday through Sunday from 12 to 9 pm.