Alright, Houston Restaurant Weeks has come to a close. The last prix fixe menu has been served, and restaurants are furiously compiling totals and promptly (ahem) making their donations to the Houston Food Bank. One chef even told me he's ready for things to slow down a bit after the crush of Restaurant Weeks diners.
No such luck for those interested in trying new restaurants. July and August saw an unusually large number of high-quality openings, and the pace will likely only quicken through the end of the year. Try not to get too far behind; my personal list of places I want to try before next month's column (assuming everything opens on time) already stands at 11!
The below list represents the best of what I've tried in July and August in roughly the order with which I think other people should try them. Your mileage will vary of course.
Think I missed something or am just flagrantly wrong? Head to the comments.
Houston's diehard foodies have already been to Pax Americana, which replaced Thai Sticks on Montrose. A collaborative affair between restaurateur Shepard Ross (Brooklyn Athletic Club, Glass Wall) and chefs Adam Dorris (Stella Sola, Revival Market) and Plinio Sandalio (Textile, Gravitas), Pax Americana features modern American cuisine with a few global touches.
The tightly edited menu is set up to be shared among the diners at the table, and every item, save for a few off the menu specials, is under $20. Realistically, a group of six could split a whole meal for about $200.
During a recent dinner, my friends are enjoyed the dry-aged 30 day rib eye from the specials menu thanks to its proper sear and lusciously rendered fat, but the regular items delivered, too. If available, don't skip the beet soup with creme fraiche and toasted caraway. Stirred together to get all the elements into one spoonful, it's a comforting riff on borscht with sweet, sour and creamy elements.
"Huge" grilled Gulf shrimp get a Vietnamese treatment with peanuts and fish sauce. Of course, Sandalio's desserts are all excellent, with both the pig blood-infused sanguinaccio fritters and grilled peach over bourbon pain perdu serving as reminders of his talent.
Hard to ignore the "non-compete" cocktail that uses several bitter ingredients and references Sandalio's brief stint with the JW Marriott. Although considering that the hotel decided not to pursue legal action, shouldn't it be a sweet cocktail called the "thanks for not suing me?" Just wondering.
As it heads into its second month, Mark Holley's Midtown seafood restaurant is rounding into form. The restaurant has finally added weekday lunch service, and Holley recently hosted his first fried chicken dinner in the space. On the menu, there a mix of mostly Southern-inspired seafood dishes with a few global touches in the form of a diverse array of ceviches and crudos.
Holley's gumbo is still essential, of course: Smoky and studded with plump fried oysters. Crispy redfish with smoked short rib agnolotti also stood out. The coconut cake may be the best version of the classic in Houston. Reasonably priced bottles of wine only add to the appeal.
Don't worry about whether Holley's is as good as or better than Pesce. Embrace the now. It's quite delicious.
The downtown bar and restaurant scene received a boost this summer with the arrival of Springbok, a South African-inspired sports bar with a menu full of options that transcend traditional pub grub. The bar made an initial splash during this summer's World Cup, where it hosted packed crowds of devoted football fans. While it took transplanted California chef Seth Greenburg a few weeks to get his kitchen crew up to speed, the chef now serves a full lunch and dinner menu that blends his French techniques with South African favorites and Gulf Coast touches.
Creamy chicken liver mousse is highly refined but still packs enough funk to remind you what you're eating. Crispy pork belly had a rich, fatty flavor that's still delicious, even if the protein has gone out of style a bit. Oxtail in red curry makes a great substitute for the too ubiquitous short rib and brings enough heat to get one's lips tingling. Pair them with a craft beer or a cocktail to maximize the experience.
The 300 block of Main may have lost Goro & Gun, but it has added a rather lovely cafe in The Honeymoon. Perhaps most importantly, The Honeymoon provides the area around Market Square with high quality coffee thanks to the involvement of Boomtown Coffee, which roasts beans onsite. No more navigating the tunnels to Starbucks for a burned tasting latte!
Most importantly, The Honeymoon provides the area around Market Square with high quality coffee thanks to the involvement of Boomtown Coffee.
The coffee, along with a menu of both breakfast and lunch dishes created by consulting chef Amanda McGraw (formerly of Tiny Boxwoods and Brasserie 19), gives The Honeymoon a daytime utility that's rare for the area. At night, the New Orleans-inspired space turns into a bar, with a full menu of cocktails created by Bad News Bar owner Justin Burrow.
As for the food, McGraw's homemade kolaches and smoked salmon plate have filled my Instagram feed. At lunch, the fried oyster BLT uses plump, crispy oysters, and the pastrami on rye is an upgraded version of the deli classic. The weekend brunch menu looks similarly intriguing.
Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts has entered the Houston market with the nine location of its rapidly expanding healthy food restaurant. Diners are immediately struck by the 4,500 square foot restaurant's fully open kitchen that allows those sitting close to see every step of a dish's preparation. The menu, inspired by healthy living guru Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory diet, features lots of fresh vegetables and lean proteins.
Of course, kale is available at every course, including in beverage form in the signature Kale-Aid.
Skip the street tacos. We tried them out of curiosity and would have been better eating almost anything else.
Dining healthy will never be my first choice, as I usually fear a lack of flavor to go along with the lack of calories. Still, the edamame dumplings, kale and avocado dip and panang curry I tried were all flavorful, solid representations of their styles.
Skip the street tacos though. We tried them out of curiosity and would have been better eating almost anything else.
Just in time for football season, Montrose's newest sports bar features a solid menu of food options and 40 mostly craft beer taps. People are flocking to it, too, joining the lively scene that already includes Jackson's Watering Hole and The Harp. Happy hour (Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) features $5 bar bites, Texas drafts, glasses of wine, well drinks and frozen vodka Red Bulls.
Whether that concoction indicates Midtown-style bars are invading the neighborhood remains to be seen, but even longtime area residents will find it hard to resist buffalo bacon bleu cheese skillet fries.
Oh sure, I had a little fun at the expense of the Hotel Derek's newest restaurant concept, but that doesn't mean I wasn't willing to visit and sample what chef Shannen Tune is up to in the kitchen. He cites his grandmother as the inspiration for Revolve's menu of updated comfort foods like deviled eggs, truffle mac and cheese and pan roasted Cornish game hen, and all of the flavors do come together well.
While I'm not convinced that comfort food will lure Houstonians to eat at a hotel restaurant in the midst of so many high-quality restaurants, the flexible seating and familiar menu will appeal to solo business travelers who make up the bulk of the hotel's guests.
For locals, $5 valet parking and entrances from both Westheimer and the 610 feeder road ease accessibility.
Westside office workers have a tempting new lunch option thanks to this new Tex-Mex concept that just opened at the corner of Briar Forest and the Sam Houston Tollroad. John Moore, who also owns the Italian restaurant Palazzo's in the same shopping center, has developed Moderno as an homage to a cantina he frequented in Mexico. The well-executed menu of mostly standard Tex-Mex fare does contain a couple of pleasant surprises in the form of a spicy campechana and credible carne asada street tacos.
Still, the best bet is to stick with the queso, tacos al carbon and enchilada platters. Folks who complain about too sweet margaritas will enjoy the authentic tartness of fresh lime juice in the house version, too.
Admittedly, a casual Asian food restaurant in an obscure Sugar Land strip center doesn't usually wind up in this column, but Ky Ans is serving handmade noodles with its ramen. Declaring any dish to be "unique" in a city as big as this one is tricky, but I'm not aware of another restaurant that features them. Even Tiger Den uses a sophisticated Japanese noodle press. The noodles have a firm, toothsome quality that really soaks up the broth and are great to slurp.
Fair warning to ramen snobs: You will not like Ky Ans' broth. First, in either curry or miso form, it's a fusion concept made with chicken instead of pork that isn't served hot or salty enough for purists. The protein choices are chicken or Chinese-style roasted pork belly instead of the traditional chashu pork.
Still, those noodles — and the other items on the menu like the steamed bao buns — make it an intriguing new option for area residents. Hopefully the broth will match the noodles' quality over time.
Let's be clear about one thing. Julep is a bar, first and foremost; it is Alba Huerta's lovingly constructed tribute to the South's cocktail history with a menu of classics and inspired riffs on classics that are not to be missed. It is not the sort of place one would go for a meal, but that doesn't mean the food isn't worth trying.
The menu crafted by chef Adam Garcia (ex-Revival Market, The Pass & Provisions) is a mix of cold seafood items and salty bar snacks. The frites and hush puppies are both fun to split, and the cured salmon is a slightly sweet alternative to the saltier versions found elsewhere.
Julep will be featuring bourbon throughout September. Look for the spirit of the day and a corresponding cocktail that features it. Just know that the food is there, and it is good.
Honorable mention: Sylvia's
For her new location in the Energy Corridor, Sylvia Casares has dropped "enchilada kitchen" from her restaurant's name to emphasize that she serves more than just cheese-covered, filled tortillas. Quail, fish, pork chops and a variety of steaks are prepared on a mesquite-fired, wood-burning grill. The full menu of enchiladas are still available, too, thankfully.
With seating for approximately 150 people, there should be plenty of room for the weekday lunch crowd. Once things are stabilized, look for Casares to offer cooking classes, too.