Traditionally, March is a slow month for Houston's restaurants. Between spring break and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, fewer people dine out. That's great if you're a chef who wants a night off to check out Blake Shelton and not as good if you're a server trying to make enough money to pay rent.
But 2014 broke the trend, with a wide variety of new spots opening up across the city. Where should you eat in April to catch up? Keep reading.
When a 30-year old Houston restaurant finds a new home inside the loop, it gets to kick off the list. The new Pico's is bigger than the southwest Houston original and sports a more luxurious interior. Chef/owner Arnaldo Richards has added a few new dishes to the menu. While it's hard to resist old favorites like chilorio or cochinita pibil, new dishes like osso bucco and duck in mole sauce are not to be missed. Richards's daughter Monica serves as beverage director, and her additions to Pico's classic lineup of margaritas are not to be missed.
The biggest downside is the massive crowds that have come to check out the new space and dine on old favorites. Try to avoid the weekends if you're impatient, because Pico's doesn't take reservations.
This new restaurant from Clark/Cooper Concepts is a more casual, Southern-fried companion to neighbor Coppa Osteria. If Coppa's draws are its dough room and wood-fired pizza oven, Punk's biggest attraction is the fryer. Or, more accurately, the way chef Brandi Key uses it to turn out Southern staples like a chicken fried steak and fried oysters. On my visit, Key's fried chicken was the star; crispy, moist and well-seasoned. I expect fried chicken devotees to argue whether Punk's or Liberty Kitchen (another comfort food spot from a growing Houston restaurant empire) has the better new-school take on the dish (as nothing will touch Barbecue Inn or Frenchy's). Finish with banana pudding, another classic that seems to be enjoying a renaissance around town.
Inside, a friend observed that this is the first CC restaurant to look like it belongs in Texas, with a design motif built around a wooden barn that sports mismatched chairs and lots of antique store accents. Be aware that the team is still working out a few service hiccups and try to be patient if the food takes a while to come out. Finally, skip the burger for now. At $11, it's pricey for its size and not as standout for the price as at places like Hay Merchant and Eleven XI.
The River Oaks location of the successful Rice Village sandwich shop improves on the original in a few significant ways. Envisioned as a dinner destination, the restaurant has a full bar that serves a mixture of Texas beers, wines and spirits. More importantly, the restaurant's rotisserie turns out roasted chicken, lamb, fish and pork. Priced at under $20 for a meat and two sides, the entrees are an affordable, satisfying alternative to Local Foods's signature sandwiches. Chef/partner Dylan Murray has a few new salads, too, including a can't miss panzanella.
Don't worry. Most of the classic sandwiches are available at the new location, and so are the market-driven, seasonal sides. The capacity is only about 100 for now, but the patio, set to open next month, will more or less double that. For now, enjoy the convenient parking, new menu items and fun, retro-inspired decor.
Thien An's closure in November 2012 left a hole in my personal restaurant universe. It had become my go-to spot for pho, noodle bowls and the signature banh xeo. Sure, I filled the gap at Pho Saigon or newcomer Simply Pho, but it just wasn't the same. (I alternate between Cali Sandwich and Les Givrals for banh mi, but I digress). Although it only opened March 30, the restaurant's food was as good as I remembered it being during a lunch visit. In particular, I enjoyed my pho with flank, steak and fatty brisket in an aromatic broth.
The new location may be short on decor, but patrons will appreciate the expanded seating area and bigger parking lot. Expect crowds during lunch, but later hours during the week finally make it a dinner destination.
West Houston has a new, family friendly, comfort food spot in the same shopping center as Pizaro's Pizza. Owners Dinorah and Barry Barnes contemplated opening a burger joint before working with long-time Houston restaurateur Manfred Jachmich to develop this concept instead. Essentially, Urban Kitchen offers friendly service and a menu with a little something for everyone. Start with a flatbread or hummus. Continue with a burger, salad or Southern-inspired entree like shrimp and grits or baby back ribs. The chef utilizes a small smoker on the patio to make a pretty solid pulled pork sandwich that's topped with coleslaw and pickled jalapenos.
Dinorah is particularly proud of the restaurant's Segafredo coffee and can be seen behind the bar pulling espresso shots and steaming milk for lattes.
Imported straight from Chicago, Maxwell Street Grill is a no-frills, take-out-only hotdog and sandwich shop. Located near where Midtown becomes the Third Ward, the restaurant features low prices, like a steak sandwich for $6, and late night hours, staying open until 3 a.m. Thursday through Sunday. The food isn't very sophisticated, but it tastes good, particularly the steak sandwich that's topped with peppers and tomatoes. It fills a niche as a place to satisfy a late night craving or the last stop after a night out.
The latest in the trend of bars with good food, Heights Lodge aims to be a neighborhood destination with a solid mix of craft beer, wine and cocktails. On my visit it seemed to be filling that role, with friends meeting at tables for beers and snacks. The menu is tidy, with a few flatbreads, sandwiches and sides. My friend and I enjoyed the barbecue chicken flatbread, thanks to a crispy crust and not-too-sweet barbecue sauce. Seasonal cooking gets a nod in the form of veggie of the moment cauliflower that's dusted with wing sauce. Wednesday steak nights and games on the sprawling patio are particular draws. Overall, it felt like a work in progress, but one that could become a useful place as Washington transitions away from being the city's nightlife hotspot.
This fast-casual Midtown restaurant gives the neighborhood another Vietnamese option. Located near Main and Elgin, the menu features all the familiar favorites: pho, banh mi, rice bowls, spring rolls, etc. Cafe Helene does make a couple of significant improvements to the formula. First, the restaurant has a liquor license which it uses to provide a small beer and wine selection. Second, it serves dessert in the form of French-style pastries like creme brulee, mousse cakes and macarons. Service is friendly and efficient, with most items arriving quickly. Of the items we tried, the best were the spring rolls: packed with plump shrimp and fresh vegetables, they hold their own with any of the other nearby options.
The Rice Village specialty grocer/coffee shop has expanded to a second location in Montrose. The bigger space features more parking, seating, Wi-Fi and public bathrooms. Huzzah! In addition to grocery items, this location has a selection of beer and wine. Most of the coffee still comes from local roaster Amaya, and the pastries come from Kraftsmen Baking. Need to relax? Try the swing. Follow along on Twitter or Facebook for announcements of wine tastings and other events.
Way Good is a newcomer that has replaced the gyro truck at the West Alabama Ice House. While the prospect of going to the venerable bar and not grabbing a couple of tacos from Tierra Caliente is almost unthinkable for some people, Way Good's tidy menu makes a nice alternative. Run by sisters Karen and Kathryn Fergus, the brisket nachos are a signature item, and the burgers are solid (and reasonably priced by food truck standards). Watch for daily specials like risotto balls and smoked pork sliders. Really, as long as the weather is nice and the beer is cold, you can't go wrong.