As I read over Alison Cook’s latest list of Houston’s 100 best restaurants, published Thursday night by the Houston Chronicle, one thought kept popping up.
Is Alison Cook bored? The Chronicle touts her 45 years of experience writing about food, but I sincerely wonder whether she’s over it.
The first reason I asked that question is that, once again, she didn’t rank the entire list. This year, the first 30 come in numeric order (up from 25 last year) and the rest are listed alphabetically. While I suppose it might be tricky to weigh the relative merits of 68 versus 72, Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic for the Los Angeles Times, manages to parse those distinctions when he ranks that city’s restaurants. It isn’t unreasonable for Cook’s readers to expect the same from her.
The list that once caused controversy has become pretty staid, in my opinion, and most of the choices seem pretty obvious. That the critic would anoint Xochi as Houston’s new best restaurant — Oxheart’s closure ensured a new No. 1— seemed so obvious to me that I predicted in on my podcast back in August (listen at about the 8:30 mark).
I mean no disrespect to Xochi’s owners chef Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught with that opinion. Opening a Oaxacan restaurant in a luxurious downtown hotel took courage, and the restaurant has to walk a tricky balancing act of representing its region well while serving dishes in a form that will appeal to mainstream tastes. My most recent meal at Xochi a few weeks ago has been one of my favorite dining experiences of the year.
Count Ronnie Killen as one of the list’s other big winners. He’s the only chef with three restaurants in the ranked section of the list: Killen’s Barbecue (8), Killen’s STQ (15), and Killen’s Steakhouse (27). After being snubbed by Texas Monthly, which elevated Tejas Chocolates and CorkScrew BBQ over Killen’s Barbecue in its ranking of Texas’s 50 best barbecue joints, Killen comes out on top here with the only barbecue restaurant in the ranked section of the list.
Congratulations are also due to places like Brasserie 1895, Riel, Nobie's, and Roost. Houston can always benefit from more independently-owned, one-off establishments that reflect a chef's unique vision. Hopefully, Cook's attention fills their dining rooms.
Hard to parse
As always, Cook’s criteria are hard to parse. “Ambition matters, whether it is broad-based or tightly focused,” she writes. “A sense of Houston place, however, is one of those intangibles that can make a difference.”
“Can make a difference,” but won’t necessarily, even at the top of the list. BCN, which is ranked No. 2, offers a delicious, luxurious, and expensive way to spend an evening, but chef Luis Roger’s Spanish cuisine is deliberately designed to transport diners to another part of the world. Realistically, it could be located in just about any city in America.
I wonder about the restaurants that fell off the list entirely. What could have happened at Cafe Annie to drop it from 19 last year — when Cook hailed chef Robert del Grande’s decision to revive the restaurant’s name and Southwestern dishes as “a stroke of genius” — to completely off the list? Additionally, it’s hard to fathom having a take on Houston’s restaurant world in which neither Brennan’s nor Paulie’s are among the city’s best, yet neither one makes this year’s list.
Another reason I think Cook might be tired of this exercise is that she’s included relatively few new restaurants. The list touts 16 new additions, but by my count, only eight opened since last year’s list: Xochi, Maba Pan-Asian Diner, Killen’s STQ, Riel, Nobie’s, Pi Pizza, Pinkerton’s Barbecue, and Yauatcha. Two restaurants that relocated and broadened their menus, Kitchen 713 and Kiran’s, could be considered new-ish, but that’s still only 10. One Fifth probably would have found a spot on the list, but the decision to close in August and reopen in September with a new concept makes it almost impossible for the critic to evaluate each new version in time to include it.
Where are some of the other leading lights of the last year like The Pit Room or Star Fish? Why not find a spot for at least one of the new breed of bars that serve carefully prepared food like Presidio, Edison & Patton, Heights Bier Garten, or even Better Luck Tomorrow, which comes with the status of being owned by Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu? Jonathan Jones and Matt Wommack deserve more credit for bringing a new culinary perspective to the Houston locations of Cane Rosso that have transformed it from a solid pizza option into a sophisticated, locally-inspired take on casual Italian cuisine.
How about mixing up the Chinatown picks by making room for the hand-pulled noodles at Let’s Noodle, the Sichuan spices at Chengdu Taste, or creative spin on Korean food at Ohn?
If Cook gives Maba so much credit for its updated take on (mostly) Vietnamese food that it’s Houston’s 11th best restaurant, then shouldn’t Les Baget have a spot for its own creative preparations and inventive twists on Vietnamese flavors? And if Bernie’s Burger Bus, Hubcap Grill, and burger-chan are on the list, then shouldn’t The Burger Joint be, too?
Restaurants evolve, but Cook doesn’t seem to notice. She cites Shepard Ross as a "co-owner" of Pax Americana who shapes the wine list and cocktails, but Ross departed from Pax this summer to work as a restaurant consultant on projects like the upcoming Maison Pucha Bistro. In her blurb for Riel, she touts the borscht that’s been off the menu all summer. In the passage for Weights + Measures, she mentions Mike Sammons’ influence on the wine list and cocktails, but it’s general manager Isaac Johnson, not Sammons, who has been responsible for them the last two years. Did she revisit these restaurant this summer during the almost three month gap between her last review (Tejas Chocolates on June 19) and the list's publication to ensure she experience their most current versions?
Still doubt that the critic is out of touch? She tweeted Thursday night that she had never had queso at Pappasito's before that day. Pardon me for stealing a bit from Seth Meyers and Tina Fey, but, really, Alison Cook? Houston's most prominent food writer has never had a basic appetizer at the city's most popular Tex-Mex restaurant (at least by number of locations)? Really?!?
Ultimately, the list reflects one critic's opinion. Cook can write what she wants. Let’s just stop pretending her list is anything more than that.