After a month-long binge of mostly eating at restaurants that participate in Houston Restaurants Weeks, the time has come for the city's diners to turn their attention back to new places. Despite August's reputation for being slow for non-HRW spots, it proved to be a fruitful one for new restaurants. Maybe they appreciated the opportunity to work out a few kinks before the crowds descend. The relative lull also allowed me to catch up on a couple of spots I missed when they first opened.
This month's guide offers a range of tempting options. It includes a new arrival that's bringing a Texas twist to the regional trend of ambitious Southern restaurants, a new beginning for celebrity chef Bradley Ogden's Houston efforts and a dual concept seafood restaurant that has the Heights buzzing. Mix in a Clear Lake coffee shop that makes chocolate bars to order, and September should have enough choices for just about everyone.
As always, the following restaurants are roughly ordered by how important it is I think you try them, but all of them have some worthy aspect that merits attention.
After three visits, including one where five of us ate our way through 12 of the 15 dishes on Southern Goods's menu, I am ready to call it. Charles Bishop and Lyle Bento's new restaurant on 19th Street is the best restaurant to open in Houston this summer and will be considered one of the five best restaurants to open in 2015, period.
Bento, along with chef de cuisine JD Woodward and sous chef Patrick Feges, brings the same playful sense of experimentation that all three chefs honed during their respective stints at Underbelly to a menu that's more explicitly Southern (hey there, collard greens) while still being modern and diverse. In keeping with the spirit of the South, the restaurant makes good use of its fryer for dishes like pickled okra, pork cracklings and a shrimp and grits croquette, but the kitchen also serves up more delicate fare like triple cream brie wrapped in phyllo and served with peaches or a cucumber and tomato salad with with deviled egg (and bacon).
Best of all, the restaurant puts its smoker to good use. Beef belly burnt ends are smoky, fatty like well-rendered brisket but also delivered a satisfying crunch. Braised smoked beef leg is a more delicate dish but still utterly craveable. Only the pig wings, a glazed and smoked pork shank, suffered by being a little underdone.
For dessert, the bourbon balls live up to their name — lots of boozy kick with just the right amount of sweetness. House cocktails that are priced at a reasonable $10 and a well-chosen selection of craft beer add to the many reasons I'll be back for another visit soon.
This new gastropub may be chef Bradley Ogden's latest Houston venture (joining Bradley's Fine Diner and Funky Chicken), but it has a definite Texas accent thanks to the work of chefs Greg Lowry (ex-Triniti) and Matthew Lovelace (ex-Osteria Mazzantini, Paul's Kitchen). The menu's mix of Southern, Asian and Mexican flavors should appeal to Houstonians' palates, while the wide selection of craft beers and draft cocktails gives the restaurant a beverage selection that sets it apart from the other places in Gateway Memorial City. Overall, the concept works with the same ideas that have made Hay Merchant so successful (with the addition of cocktails); it should be a valuable addition to the area, especially when all 17 TVs are fired up and showing football.
Highlights include the Pour'k Burger made with a custom mix of meat from Black Hill Farms, bacon jam and pimento cheese, the Texas Banh Mi made with chicken and chicken liver mousse and creme brulee banana pudding.
Saltillo Mexican Kitchen
Fans of La Casa del Caballo, rejoice! Owner Carlos Abedrop has a new home in Bellaire next to Genesis Steakhouse. At only about 60 seats, the new Saltillo is significantly smaller than Casa del Caballo, but that just means it's more intimate and welcoming. The menu preserves favorites from the old location like the spicy shrimp cocktail, Saltillo enchiladas and signature whole ribeye cap — a four-plus pound, $190 slab of beef that can easily feed six — while also introducing new chicken, seafood and vegetable dishes.
Less than a week in, Saltillo seems to have picked up where Casa del Caballo left off; our steak arrived properly medium rare, and a new mushroom salad benefitted from being lightly dressed with a vinaigrette. Thankfully, enchiladas in mole are still among the best in Houston, and, at $11 for three, an excellent value.
The Rollin' Kitchen
Typically, new food trucks show up a little farther down the list, but The Rolling Kitchen isn't just another kitchen on wheels. It features a menu of Cajun classics created by chef Mike McElroy; his resume includes legendary New Orleans restaurant (and Brennan's of Houston sibling) Commander's Palace as well as well-received stints at D&T Drive Inn and Prohibition. McElroy brings a chef touch to the dishes, which means everything is seasoned properly and nothing comes from a Sysco bag (or the freezer section of an Asian grocery store). In what is probably a quixotic effort, the truck even serves a salad.
When I visited it recently at Wooster's Garden, shrimp etouffee had enough black pepper heat to make additional Tabasco unnecessary, and a side of charcuterie, made at sibling restaurant Paul's Kitchen, had a delicate balance of porky deliciousness. I will certainly be back to sample the lavender-smoked chicken muffaletta and a french fry po' boy.
Black & White
The former Stella Sola/Bedford space has a new tenant for the first time in three years thanks to this dual-concept restaurant. The casual white label half features shareable, Mexican style seafood dishes like fish tacos, ceviche and tostadas. Over on the black label side, Spanish chef Enrique Gaya brings his experience cooking in Michelin-starred restaurants to a more upscale affair that blends Italian, French and Spanish flavors. True to its symbol, the restaurant has a deft touch with both raw and cooked octopus dishes. Perhaps the most difficult problem will be limiting diners to either the black or white menu.
Witchcraft Tavern & Provision Co.
Ken Bridge's craft beer and burger concept has been given a new focus on small plates and cocktails. Fans of chef Jordan Asher's work at Dosi will recognize much of what he's accomplished here: dishes like the Vietnamese crab pancake, Gulf shrimp kimchi and Korean fried quail seem straight off the Dosi menu. Still, Asher is a chef of many talents, particularly when it comes to vegetables. Dishes like sweet pea toast, carrot spring rolls and sunchoke fries tossed in sorghum vinegar have enough flavor and texture to convince all but the most dedicated carnivore to eat her vegetables. On the cocktail side, The 7th Ward's mixture of bourbon and chartreuse gets just enough heat from its Scotch bonnet tincture to be compelling from the first sip to the last.
This Clear Lake coffee shop features a clean, modern look that sets it apart from the national chains. Both the food and beverage options are a step up, too: coffee beans are roasted on site (under the direction of Greenway Coffee veteran Michelle Dinh), craft beer and wine are available and the food offerings include sweet and savory breakfast and lunch options. I would have preferred a little more Melange-style crunch to my banana nutella crepe, but the flat white I sampled would be well-received in any Montrose spot. Next time, I'll sample one of the savory sandwiches and take home a custom chocolate bars that's available with a diner's choice of toppings and are ready in 10 minutes thank to a blast chiller.
No one thinks of Meyerland as a culinary destination (although Bellaire is clearly improving), but it has a solid new arrival in Tapester Grill. Located directly across from Congregation Beth Yeshurun, owner John Taper brings his experiences from the Tasting Room and Max's Wine Dive to this casual neighborhood spot. The menu keeps things classic with a family-friendly mix of burgers, salads and Texas favorites like chicken fried steak. The CFS is solid: crispy on the outside, topped with respectable gravy and served with a massive side of creamy mashed potatoes. Beer and wine options are pretty limited, but, like the food, everything is reasonable priced. Katz Coffee and giant cinnamon rolls in the morning make it the perfect place for moms to stop by for a splurge after dropping the kids off for school.
The latest "Chipotle of pizza" contender to arrive in Houston is this California-based franchise that counts NBA superstar Lebron James as one of its investors. The recipe is simple: choose your crust (regular or gluten free), cheese, sauce and toppings then wait a few minutes while the pizza bakes in a gas-fired oven. No matter how many toppings a person chooses to pile on — remember, when it comes to pizza, less really is more — the price is the same (about $8). At 11-inches in diameter, the pies are big enough to be a filling meal for one despite their thin crust; those seeking to have leftovers should probably mix in one of the available salads. Overall, the experiences rates a little better than delivery thanks to the freshness of the toppings and a little char on the crust, but Pizaro's, Coltivare and other high-quality local options don't have anything to worry about.
Speaking of national chains that are pushing into the Houston market, this fast casual restaurant that specializes in chicken tenders will soon add a Spring Branch location to the two suburban outposts its already opened since July. While most people might not share Eater editor Helen Rosner's contention that chicken tenders are a perfect food (read it now, thank me later), PDQ's take on the classic is a good one. On a semi-busy Saturday night, my tenders arrived quickly, hot and crispy from the fryer. Sure, they're pretty mildly seasoned, but that's what the sauces are for. Even if I'm not willing to give up my occasional Raising Cane's cravings for it, PDQ (allegedly "people delivering quality") didn't grow to 40-plus outlets across the South without knowing how to give people what they want.