As I noted in the introduction to last month's Where To Eat Right Now, Houston's post-holiday restaurants doldrums are over. March was a busy month in terms of openings, and the first week of April has already seen arrivals that demand attention from diners.
While second locations typically don't make the list, the three on this month's roster are different enough from their originals either in terms of menu or geography that they're worth highlighting.
After all, I don't suspect many Midtown residents made the drive to Webster to check out Jinya Ramen, but they'll probably consider a location in the neighborhood.
Without further ado, here's this month's list of new restaurants to try. As always, these are listed in roughly the order I think you should try them, but this month's crop is strong from top to bottom. Go eat.
Peska Seafood Culture
The newly opened seafood restaurant near The Galleria, the first American outpost for the Mexico-based Ysita family, is built around a 30-foot long case of fresh seafood on ice. Diners mix items from the case with elements from the permanent menu to build a meal of shareable items.
Highlights from a tasting including a rich lobster cappuccino and 20-year-old chef Omar Pereney's signature fruit and flower salad. I've heard mixed things about service hiccups during last week's friends and family previews, but the talented staff, led by Pappas Steakhouse vet Pete Contaldi and floor chef Robert Waltrip, should find their footing quickly.
Jackson Street Barbecue
It's a St. Thomas reunion at this downtown barbecue restaurant that brings together Reef chef Bryan Caswell with talented pitmaster Greg Gatlin. Fans of Gatlin's temporarily closed barbecue joint will recognize his distinctive flavor in the brisket, ribs and sausage that emerge from Jackson Street's massive, wood-fired Oyler smokers.
Fans of Gatlin's will recognize his distinctive flavor in the brisket, ribs and sausage that emerge.
Caswell brings some of his distinctive sides to the party in the former of Reef's fried mac and cheese. While hardcore barbecue fanatics typically order meat a la carte, the jalapeno cheese biscuit is so good that it should have everyone opting for sandwiches. Pro tip: Pay $50 to park at the restaurant before Astros games and receive a $50 gift certificate to eat at the restaurant that day.
Between Gatlin's barbecue and a solid selection of craft beer, it's certainly tastier than stadium nachos.
Whether or not Houstonians embrace chef Michael Pellegrino's vision for perfect Tex-Mex remains to be seen, but the chef has given diners something to think about at this restaurant that replaced Arturo's Uptown Italiano. Upscale ingredients and a la minute cooking preparations define the Anejo experience.
Sure, places like El Tiempo serve lobster tails, but only Anejo poaches them in butter that's infused with ultra-premium Casa Dragones tequila. The queso uses a blend of three actual cheeses (no Velveeta allowed) — and the spinach enchiladas actually taste like spinach. The menu also features prime steaks and Gulf seafood to increase its appeal.
Save a little money during happy hour from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. when house margaritas are half off.
Pizaro's Pizzeria Napoletana - Montrose
The wait for Houston's best Italian-style pizza to arrive inside the Loop has ended, and the early results are very promising. Two massive, jet-black, wood-fired ovens ensure that Pizaro's Neapolitan pies reach the 80 seat dining room quickly.
This location features a little more style too, but it maintains the BYOB-status that makes it an appealing option for an inexpensive date night.
Former Artisans chef Michael Sanguinetti has stepped out on his own with this Southern-inspired newcomer in the former TQLA space on Washington Ave. The menu features Southern dishes with French touches like seared Gulf snapper over saffron risotto, fried green tomatoes and a mix of raw and roasted oysters.
My visit shortly after the restaurant opened had a couple of disappointing, underseasoned dishes, but the overall first impression was a positive one. I'll be back soon to try the recently introduced brunch menu.
The Republic Smokehouse & Saloon
The latest concept from the Landmark Houston Hospitality Group (Hearsay Gastro Lounge, Mr. Peeples) brings both traditional Texas barbecue and some more eclectic fare to the former Blackfinn space in Midtown. Pitmaster Cedric Williams brings years of experience from celebrated barbecue joint Williams Smokehouse to the barbecue side of the menu, which features all the usual meats as well as turkey and chicken.
Executive chef Matt Knotts uses the smoker to good effect, too, particularly with both duck and quail. Check it out Saturday when it celebrates its grand opening with live music and drink specials. One word of warning: I've seen pictures where the barbecue is trimmed of all bark and fat prior to serving. Make sure to request that the restaurant doesn't do that.
Jinya Ramen Bar - Midtown
After opening in Webster last fall, the California-based ramen chain has arrived inside the loop. Inside the long, narrow space, diners will find a mix of small booths and long community tables. Both pork and chicken stock-based ramens are available with a variety of toppings.
Word is already spreading that Midtown has a new late-night dining destination.
Start with the signature tonkotsu black that features a whole marinated egg and a kick from black garlic oil. Spicy chicken ramen also delivers plenty of heat. With service until 11 p.m. during the week and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the word is already spreading that Midtown has a new late-night dining destination.
Hugs & Donuts
The eagerly awaited donut shop from Jason Hill and Matt Opaleski of popular food truck H-Town StrEATs has finally opened at the corner of 19th and Shepherd. While Hill is an occasional presence, Hugs & Donuts is mostly where Opaleski brings his skills as a trained pastry chef to the fore. While the shop serves plenty of traditional glazed donuts and sausage kolaches, whimsical flavors like a lemon meringue donut and everything kolache with smoked salmon continue the H-Town StrEATs ethos of always keeping the menu interesting.
Milk on tap and locally roasted Katz Coffee ensure the beverage side is well taken care of, too.
Spring Water Cafe
Houston's big three bagel shops are now a big four thanks to this west Houston newcomer. Owner Bob Orzo moved to Houston from Queens and he brings years of experience making bagels to NYC standards. Spring Water's menu keeps things simple with a mix of breakfast and lunch options
Bravissimo! Italian Kitchen
One of two concepts launched within the massive complex that houses Cullen's down in Clear Lake, Bravissimo is a fast-casual concept that serves classic, red sauce, Italian-American food. Think a heaping bowl of spaghetti topped with five massive meatballs, decadent nine-layer lasagna or two hands-required chicken parm sandwich.
David Coffman's menu isn't revolutionary, but it is satisfying. The leftovers I brought back from a tasting to the CultureMap office disappeared in about half an hour.
Local Pour - The Woodlands
Admittedly, the River Oaks location isn't anyone's idea of a culinary destination, but Local Pour is stepping it up with its second location in the brand new Hughes Landing section of The Woodlands. Former Haven chef Randy Evans worked with corporate chef Pablo Gomez on the menu. Evans' influence can be seen in a menu that name checks local suppliers like 44 Farms (steaks and hamburgers) and Atkinson Farms (strawberries for a salad).
Combined with a wide selection of beer, wine and cocktails, the new food makes Local Pour a legitimate destination for lunch and dinner. A patio that looks out onto Lake Woodlands should serve as a prime lunch spot, at least until the weather heats up.