a matter of taste

Breaking down Alison Cook's top 100: What makes a restaurant the best?

Breaking down Alison Cook's top 100: What makes a restaurant the best?

Manabu Horiuchi Hori-san Kata Robata
Kata Robata tops Alison Cook's list. Photo by Julie Soefer

Kata Robata is Houston’s best restaurant, according to Alison Cook. The Upper Kirby sushi restaurant tops the venerable critic’s list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants.

Seems reasonable enough. Kata Robata chef Manabu Horiuchi is the current CultureMap Tastemaker Awards chef of the year, and his restaurant balances both traditional sushi techniques with an appealing, Gulf Coast perspective that includes dishes like heritage pork shu mai and Texas wagyu yakitori skewers.

“What lands a restaurant on the list? It’s a personal judgment, one based on more than four decades of observing and reporting on Houston’s food scene,” Cook writes in the list’s introductory essay. “It’s not about hot takes or adding scads of new places just to appear … well, new.”

Despite not wanting to “appear new,” she has made major changes to both the restaurants that are included on the list and how they’re ranked relative to each other. The top 10 contains four new members: Tony’s, 5; Indigo, 6; Squable, 8; and Giacomo’s, 10. Similarly, Cook welcomed a number of newcomers to the ranked, top 30 portion of her list, including Georgia James (12), Caracol (18), Verandah Progressive Indian Cuisine (20), Kau Ba Kitchen (22), Eunice (24), 1751 Sea & Bar (26), Costa Brava Bistro (28), Tejas Chocolate and Barbecue (29), and Bravery Chef Hall (30).

Newcomers in the alphabetical, non-ranked section of Cook’s list include: Blood Bros. BBQ, International Smoke, La Lucha, MAD, Rudyard’s, Truth Barbeque, and others.

Elevating certain restaurants means that many others have been removed. The most prominent victim of this reshuffling is Ronnie Killen. Killen’s Barbecue drops from third to 23, and Killen’s Steakhouse, ranked 16 in 2018, falls off the list entirely. On the bright side, Killen’s STQ moves up from 27 to 15, making it the city’s second best steakhouse behind Georgia James.

Of the four French-inspired restaurants Cook included in last year’s top 20, only La Table (21) remains in the ranked section. The others, Brasserie 1895, Lucienne, and Maison Pucha Bistro, have been dropped into the alphabetical section.

Other restaurants that remain open but are off the list include some restaurants that Cook has previously championed, such as Habanero & the Guero, Hubcap Grill, and Mezzanote. Bernie’s Burger Bus, Morningstar, Oporto Fooding House & Wine, Pappas Delta Blues, Pizaro’s Pizza, Potente, and Revival Market are also among the restaurants that appeared on the last year’s edition but didn’t make the cut in 2019.

Cook’s list also offers a significantly different take on the state of Houston’s dining scene than CultureMap’s own list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants. That starts at the top; Riel, CultureMap’s number one restaurant, only comes in at 27 on Cook’s list. (Maybe someone should buy Riel chef-owner Ryan Lachaine a Jose Altuve jersey to celebrate his ranking.)

Overall, the two top tens contain only four restaurants in common: Theodore Rex, Kata Robata, UB Preserv, and Himalaya. Some restaurants in CultureMap’s top 30 — Potente, Roka Akor, and Mein — don’t appear on Cook’s list at all.

CultureMap’s list is different in all the ways I promised it would be back in September. For example, it prefers eclectic, casual atmospheres to fine dining. Cook has two upscale restaurants in her top five, but BCN doesn’t show up on the CultureMap list until 20 and Tony's comes in at 40.

With a focus on the Inner Loop, the CultureMap list makes room for casual restaurants like Paulie’s, Relish, Les Ba’get, Alma Latina, The Classic, and La Calle that are vital parts of their respective neighborhoods but get replaced on Cook’s list with suburban establishments like Fielding’s Local, Soto’s Cantina, and Pierogi Queen.

Ultimately, it’s up to readers to decide which list is more useful to them. Is Nobie’s one of Houston’s very best restaurants, or is it merely a good one? Does Izakaya Wa provide diners with a traditional Japanese experience, or do they prefer the high style, more expensive offerings at Kuu? Is Weights + Measures serving some of the city’s best pasta, or should people splurge on Da Marco instead? Does using an offset smoker and making brisket fat tortillas make The Pit Room one of Houston’s best barbecue joints, or do people prefer the East Texas touches at Ray’s BBQ Shack? 

Answering these questions comes down as much to personal taste as an objective assessment of quality.