Even though the pace of restaurant openings has slowed down a bit since the pre-Super Bowl frenzy, the last couple of months have seen a number of high-profile arrivals that are all making strong first impressions. The end of the school year and more hours of daylight makes now the perfect time to visit a new restaurant or two.
This month's column serves as a catch up for establishments that opened in March and April, as well as a couple of veteran restaurants that have stepped up their game recently. The options are diverse: everything from a hot Galleria opening with a Michelin-starred pedigree to a Montrose burger joint where the atmosphere is more important than the food.
The focus on slightly "older" new restaurants means that I'm waiting to include some of the city's newest arrivals — places like King's BierHaus, FM Kitchen & Bar, and Better Luck Tomorrow —until they've settled in a bit. It also means I've focused almost exclusively on places inside the Loop, but don't worry. I already have my eyes on a couple of new places in Chinatown for June.
As always, these are ordered roughly by how quickly I think people should rush out to try them, but someone with a craving for pho near Washington Avenue or papaya salad near Kirby and Richmond could find choices farther down the list more appealing than those up top.
Think of Cherry Pie Hospitality’s seafood-oriented restaurant as offering a more upscale take on the something-for-everyone approach that turned State Fare into the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Best New Restaurant of the Year. Portions are smaller (but not small), the plating is more elegant, and the prices are higher. The menu starts with oysters, which are available raw — by themselves or as part of decadent seafood towers — fried, grilled, or smoked. Puffy tacos take their inspiration from the iconic version served at Loma Linda, except executive chef Armando Ramirez makes them with blue corn masa and stuffs them full of sweet lobster. Salmon arrived at the requested medium rare with properly crispy skin. A dish of garlic noodles with grilled shrimp takes its inspiration from a dish that partner Lee Ellis enjoyed in San Francisco.
While daily fish specials are still coming, so far I’ve found myself drawn to the menu’s meatier offerings, especially the steak tartare, which gets a layer of crispy shallots and makes an appropriately beefy companion to the french fries that are fried in clarified butter (think of them as crispy mashed potatoes). Similarly, a lamb T-bone delivered just the right amount of funk with only a subtle gaminess.
For dessert, Petite Sweets co-owner Susan Molzan has been busting out some of her most popular favorites, including her signature white chocolate bread pudding. The strawberry bomb is an updated version of La Griglia’s classic strawberry cassata.
Vodka and gin dominate the cocktail menu, with lots of martini options. The Lady Snow Pea, made with pea soda, offers refreshment and subtle sweetness. Sparkling wine fans will find plenty of options by the bottle and glass. Hear more about the restaurant from Ellis and partner Jim Mills on this episode of CultureMap's "What's Eric Eating" podcast. 191 Heights Blvd.
The Hakkasan Group’s upscale tea house has brought its Michelin-starred pedigree (from the original location in London — the French dining guide only rates restaurants in five American cities, and Houston isn't one of them) to The Galleria’s jewel box building. Needless to say, Yauatcha (read as: Yow-atch-ah) doesn’t look like dim sum restaurants in Chinatown; the stylish, modern room fits in with The Galleria’s ultra-chic environment. The menu doesn't look much like a traditional dim sum restaurant either, to the extent that it includes elaborate cocktails, an extensive wine list, and some of the best French-style desserts in the city.
While I’ve heard some complaints about the prices from friends who’ve dined there and the Yelp reviews have a "love it or hate it" schizophrenia that I haven't seen since Oxheart, I think the experience more than justifies the splurge. Friends and I found the restaurant’s food to be well-executed, especially the classic dim sum items. The shrimp used in the hai gow are sweet and succulent not small and iodine-flavored. The wrappers for the soup dumplings are thin, and the pork broth inside is intensely flavored and gelatinous (in the very best possible way). Scallop shu mai possessed both a subtle sweetness and an appealingly crunchy texture. Even an expensive ($58) half duck featured such crispy skin and juicy meat that we all felt highly satisfied with the order. 5045 Westheimer
As I recently stated during this month’s The Full Menu segment on the Houston Public Media News 88.7 FM show Houston Matters, I like some of the fancy tacos that have made their way to Houston from Austin. Specifically, I like Tacodeli, the breakfast and lunch concept that opened recently on Washington Avenue. Rather than fancy things up with a global approach or dumb it down with ingredients like chicken tenders, Tacodeli keeps Mexican flavors at the heart of all of its offerings. That means even a salmon taco like the Tikin Xic gets a spicy achiote marinade, and beef tacos like the Cowboy come with grilled corn, caramelized onions, and guacamole. Housemade salsas offer a variety of options for spicing things up, and the flour tortillas taste fresh and have a good texture (they’re made in Dallas and shipped to Houston every day).
The quality of the ingredients, well-considered combinations, and reasonable portions fully justify the $3.50 to $4 most of the tacos cost. Those who disagree with that opinion can always head west to Laredo Taqueria; the classic taco joint still has a line out the door daily for good reason. I just have this thing for fancy tacos. 1902 Washington Ave.
Helen in the Heights
Perhaps the steepest learning curve at the original Helen Greek Food & Wine in Rice Village involved explaining to diners that the dishes they’d considered to be “Greek food” as consumed at restaurant in America didn’t match the food served in Greece. At Helen in the Heights, the sister concept that replaced Arthur Ave, no such difficulties exist, because chef William Wright’s menu delivers dishes that most Americans associate with Greek cuisine, like fried calamari, feta-braised chicken, and gyros made with a mixture of beef and lamb. The wine list is more affordable, too, with all vintages available by the glass and no bottles priced over $75.
Those gyros, served either as an individual sandwich ($14) or as part of a platter ($36) that’s enough for four people, actually tasted like beef, lamb, and spices, unlike their mystery meat counterparts that are an admittedly beloved staple at other Greek restaurants. Similarly, Greek queso, a blend of cheeses with pita bread for dipping, offered a gooey, satisfying riff on Texans’ favorite snack. Just be sure and save room for dessert; the ice cream machine that once dished out White Russian soft serve now has a bourbon baklava flavor that’s guaranteed to become one of this summer’s sweetest treats. 1111 Studewood
Typically, I reserve this column for new restaurants, meaning those that have opened in the last month or two. However, when one of the city’s most prominent restaurant families completely overhauls the menu at one of its concepts, it’s worth including.
Expanding the kitchen at Armadillo Palace to add a wood-burning grill (among other things) provided owner Levi Goode and chef David Luna with the opportunity to craft a new menu that draws upon the Goode family heritage in both the American South and South Texas. The results include everything from homemade biscuits and redfish on the half shell to a spicy skirt steak stew (on the menu as Kenedy Ranch Carne Discada) and the show-stopping roasted pig’s head carnitas. The changes, along with first rate cocktails, make Armadillo Palace equally appealing as a place for a happy hour bite or a more elaborate dinner. 5015 Kirby
Finally, an above-ground, locally-owned, open-on-the-weekends coffee shop and cafe has come to the Greenway Plaza area thanks to Siphon Coffee owner Michael Caplan. As at Siphon, Caplan sets the coffee program apart by sourcing beans from Portland-based Heart Coffee Roasters (although locals like Amaya make an appearance, too), but it’s the food that makes Cavo an appealing destination even for people who don’t need to satisfy a caffeine addiction.
Chef Adrian Bristle, formerly of the Ladybird food truck, has developed an on-trend menu of toasts, salads, and sandwiches that provide satisfying options at both breakfast and lunch. During a breakfast visit, I sampled the avocado toast, which distinguishes itself from other versions thanks to a little sweet heat from honey gochujang sauce, and a special with ricotta and pickled kumquats that balanced sweet and tangy. I’ll be back soon to try a sandwich or two — maybe even with a glass of wine or a craft beer. 3773 Richmond
Former Flo Paris owner Rabih Salibi has left the bakery business and opened this French seafood restaurant in the space that was recently home to Corner Table. Despite the name, Salibi’s menu isn’t all that salmon-focused, although it does treat that fish well. An entree of grilled salmon in cognac sauce arrived medium rare with a supremely crispy skin, and house-cured gravlax nailed the smoky-salty balance (but didn’t need to be covered in so much chopped parsley).
That cognac sauce, as well as the champagne cream sauce included with another dish, are typical of Salibi’s approach to the menu, which I mostly enjoyed. Unfortunately, the salmon tartare is one dish where the old school approach fell flat. Rather than the raw preparation implied by its name, it’s more of a creamy salmon salad. Thankfully, a delightfully boozy baba au rhum dessert erases almost any memory of previous missteps. 2736 Virginia
Tacodeli isn’t the only Washington Avenue newcomer that’s attracting some buzz. Local Pho has brought the Vietnamese restaurants staples like pho, banh mi, and spring rolls to the Sawyer Yards development. The look is clean and modern, with two dining rooms that offer lots of seating. Ordering at a counter means diners can assemble their own mix of herbs and veggies to add to their bowls, which means no more guilt about not using enough cilantro or wanting a few extra squeezes of lime.
I found the pho to be less aggressively spiced than my favorite bowls at places like Pho Binh by Night and Pho Saigon, but the slices of eye round steak provided lots of beefy goodness. Appropriately crispy fried egg rolls rounded on the meal. Overall, I think it’s more of a welcome addition to the neighborhood than a must-visit destination, but the lack of Vietnamese restaurants nearby should help ensure its success. 2313 Edwards, Suite 145
Let’s be honest. As a burger joint, this chain restaurant can’t compete with local favorites like Bernie’s Burger Bus, Hubcap Grill, or its nearby competitor The Burger Joint. My patty arrived a little over the requested medium, which would have been acceptable, but the dense texture and underseasoned meat made it hard to finish. Neither of my friends expressed much enthusiasm for their burgers either.
We enjoyed a starter of fried pickles, but the food is secondary to the overall experience, which comes from the drag shows that are performed Wednesday through Saturday. On the night we visited, elegantly dressed performers treated the crowd to classics from the '60s through the '90s ("What's Love Got to Do With It," "That's The Way Love Goes," etc) . Each performer knew how to work the room, flirting with patrons to collect tips. It’s a campy, fun alternative to an ordinary weeknight meal. 2409 Grant
Speaking of neighborhoods that are underserved for specific styles of cuisine, Upper Kirby may be swimming in sushi and Tex-Mex, but it doesn’t have any options for Thai food. Enter Rim Tanon, which replaced Blue Fish sushi next to vegetarian favorite Hobbit Cafe. The restaurant describes itself as serving Thai street food, but, as local bartender Chris Frankel and I discussed on an episode of CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, the menu mostly consists of dishes that one would expect to find at other local Thai spots.
Asking diners to mash their own peanuts into the papaya salad is either a fun interactive element or kind of annoying, depending on one’s perspective. Chicken wings had a welcome spiciness but the meat was a little overcooked. Khao soi delivered the right levels of spice and creaminess from its coconut milk. As a neighborhood destination, it’s a welcome addition, but true Thai fans will probably be happier at staples like Vieng Thai, Asia Market, and Thai Gourmet. 2241 Richmond
Honorable Mention: Vallone’s
As noted above, established restaurants typically need to make significant changes to earn a spot in this column, and Tony Vallone’s Memorial-area steakhouse is no exception. Renovations to the dining room have given the interior a more intimate feel, and Vallone and partner Scott Sulma have tweaked the menu to add more non-steak options.
While those changes are welcome, the thing I most enjoyed about my recent meal there were the tableside dishes. Watching Sulma bring together a classic Caesar salad in a wooden bowl and a captain create both steak Diane and bananas Foster on a hot plate made for a memorable, theatrical experience. Best of all, the restaurant is still offering half-off on all bottles of wine on Wednesdays through the end of May. 947 Gessner Rd