After the wave of activity that produced so many standout restaurants in 2014, this year's new restaurants had to meet a high bar to capture the city's attention. While I might suggest that none of this year's arrivals feel quite as significant as superstars like Coltivare, Killen's Barbecue and Pax Americana, the best new restaurants of 2015 are all contributing to the city in meaningful ways.
The other salient feature of this year is the pace at which new restaurants opened. Every month brought anywhere from one to four high quality new concepts that demanded attention.
Keeping up with the onslaught is probably impossible: major props to anyone who tried. Even as one of the lucky few whose job responsibilities include reporting on these places, I've found it difficult to schedule multiple visits to restaurants to track their evolution.
Apologies to places like Peska Seafood Culture, Sud Italia and Jackson Street Barbecue — all of them probably deserve a spot on this list, but they got crowded out by places I felt were either a little more essential or that I had got to know a little better. That's just the state of dining in Houston in 2015.
In such an environment, limiting a list like this to 10 entries is almost impossible, which is why I'm not going to try. Today, I'll offer my picks for the year's highest profile, most successful openings. The rankings are based on my own experiences with a little sprinkling of word of mouth and a dash of how I think they'll grow over time.
13. The Burger Joint
Sometimes it seems like the last thing Houston needs is another place to get a burger, but this recently opened Montrose spot has found a winning formula by keeping things simple. Chef Matthew Pak's burger starts with a thin patty made from high quality 44 Farms beef and a classic, grocery store-style bun. A choice of simple (lettuce/tomato/onion) or more adventurous (pulled pork/queso/Korean BBQ beef) toppings mean that just about any diner can find a winning combination.
Freshly cut fries with creative toppings, shakes that utilize housemade syrups and late night hours all help explain why this place has been packed since day one.
The closings of both Nara and Lillo & Ella suggest that Houstonians aren't too interested in Asian fusion, but they seem to be making an exception for Tarakaan. While the clubby lounge vibe undoubtedly helps lure see-and-be-seen types who are fueling up before a night at neighboring Cle, chef Micah Rideout's food offers serious culinary thrills.
From Korean-style rice dumplings (yes, the ones at Underbelly) topped with luscious beef short rib to a recent off the menu special of shabu-shabu style thinly sliced beef that diners cooked in a spicy, aromatic curry broth, Rideout is blending flavors from across the continent in ways that may not be strictly authentic but are undoubtedly delicious.
Randy Rucker's return to full-time restaurant cooking at this self-described "neighborhood joint" has been a boon to the Tanglewood/Briar Grove/Memorial area. Bramble's menu mostly features classic, Southern-influenced fare that's prepared with high quality local ingredients.
As Rucker has developed a rapport with his audience, he's been able to broaden his offerings to include more family-style entrees that utilize the restaurant's wood-fired grill and South American-influenced fare. Besides, when the classics are as good as Bramble's lunchtime roast chicken or Monday special fried chicken, who needs edgy?
Mike Tran, the chef/owner who made Tiger Den such a splash, has opened another successful concept with Mein. Decorated with 30's-inspired scenes, the room offers a little more style than other Chinatown spots, and the friendly, welcoming service raises the bar, too.
The restaurant serves classic Cantonese comfort food built around housemade noodles. Dishes like the signature wonton soup and charsiu pork with spicy mustard deliver big flavor at reasonable prices. Taken together, it's an accessible, affordable, delicious option.
9. Pappa Charlies Barbeque
For someone who only recently made the jump from competition cook to food truck owner, pitmaster Wesley Jurena is off to a strong start as a restaurant owner. At his EaDo restaurant, Jurena has maintained the quality that landed him on Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn's list of the state's best new and improved barbecue joints and expanded his menu with new sides and proteins.
So far, demand has been strong enough that Jurena simply serves his Central Texas-style barbecue at both lunch and dinner, but hopefully the new year allows him the time to develop more recipes like smoked leg of lamb and masala rubbed tri-tip.
8. B&B Butchers & Restaurant
Proving Houstonians have a limitless appetite for beef in all forms, Benjamin Berg's steakhouse on Washington Ave has been packed since day one. And why not? The combination of the rustic charm of its setting in the historic Dittman Building combined with a throwback menu that includes classic dishes like beef Wellington and prime rib has proven irresistible.
While the retro touches are welcome, B&B also sets itself apart by offering a full selection of Texas wagyu from Gearhart Ranch and a full service butcher shop that sells cuts to go as well as salads, sandwiches and bagels. With the recent launch of a new menu for its expansive, second-story patio, B&B looks poised to attract even more attention in 2016.
7. SaltAir Seafood Kitchen
With its air of "relaxed elegance," this upscale seafood restaurant from Clark/Cooper Concepts has brought new energy to Upper Kirby. Chef Brandi Key's menu goes beyond the Gulf to feature fish from around the globe, while a chalkboard menu offers more seasonally-inspired supplements.
Even vegetarians have a lot of enjoy thanks to over a dozen composed vegetables plates. Now that the initial see-and-be-seen buzz has ebbed a bit, those who consider dining their first priority have a little easier time getting a table.
6. State of Grace
To look at the menu of Ford Fry's River Oaks stunner is to wonder how such a wide variety of dishes could possibly hang together. What does the raw bar have to do with the pasta dishes (or with Korean fried chicken or Tex-Mex, etc)?
Yet, dining there, where former Ciao Bello chef Bobby Matos supervises the massive kitchen with its showpiece wood-fired grill, is to realize that everything is tied together by its deliciousness. That food and the gorgeous interior have combined to turn State of Grace into River Oaks' favorite clubhouse — which has led to occasional long waits for tables and my receiving angry text messages from friends about subpar service (seriously).
Yes, the place gets overwhelmed sometimes, and they need to do better job of managing the crowd. Still, I'm betting on Fry's track record of success in Atlanya and Matos's considerable talent as indications they'll smooth out the kinks and deliver consistently excellent experiences. Besides, no other restaurant in the city feels quite as luxurious for knocking back a massive seafood tower and sipping a glass of sparkling wine, and that's a good and valuable thing.
5. Oporto Fooding House + Wine
Rick and Shiva Di Virgilio's Midtown restaurant represents such a massive upgrade in size, scale and scope from the their Greenway Plaza-area wine bar that it deserves to be seen as more than an expansion. Part of the credit for Oporto's success goes to the stylish design by celebrated Austin architect Michael Hsu that offers a range of seating options (from expansive patio to main dining room to the intimate bar) for different experiences, but Di Virgrilio's menu is the real star.
Built around small plates and shareable items, the food delivers a seafood-oriented array of Mediterranean flavors with enough diversity to satisfy all but the pickiest palates. The summertime addition of beverage director Samantha Porter has strengthened the wine list. Restaurant like Oporto have made dining in Midtown substantially better in 2015, and it will be interesting to see how the area grows in the years to come.
4. Helen Greek Food and Wine
Many people responded skeptically to veteran sommelier Evan Turner when he first announced he'd found a home for his long-delayed Greek restaurants. After all, Turner had chosen to open a restaurant with no easy analog in Houston using a chef who had never cooked the cuisine in a location with essentially no parking. Turns out none of those concerns matter. Helen has been serving some of the city's most craveble food since the day it opened.
Chef William Wright showed an immediate aptitude for blending Texas ingredients with Greek flavors, and Turner's passion for all things Greek, especially the country's wine, gives Helen a warm, welcoming atmosphere that's rare to find anywhere. Meanwhile Wright's riff on dolmades, made with collard green leaves instead of grapes leaves, and pork gyro have become must eat dishes in 2015. Now I'm just waiting until tomatoes come back in season, and he puts the Greek salad back on the menu.
3. Weights + Measures
Admittedly, the partners behind this grand Midtown venture — Slow Dough Bread Co owner Heath Wendell, chef Richard Kaplan and 13 Celsius/Mongoose versus Cobra owners Mike Sammons and Ian Rosenberg — have scaled back some of their initial ambitions plans for Weights + Measures: weekday breakfast and late night service both disappeared a couple months ago.
And yet, what remains, with its bakery, restaurant and bar, has emerged as a true go-to restaurant for any occasion; whether one seeks dinner for one of a pizza and a pint or a more elaborate multi-course affair that begins with Kaplan's housemade charcuterie and continues with a locally raised protein that's paired with a seasonally appropriate side, Weights + Measures delivers.
As it heads into year two, I look forward to tasting Kaplan's continued evolution, even if it's during normal dinner hours (or on a date).
2. Hunky Dory/Foreign Correspondents/Bernadine's
I will concede that lumping all three of the Treadsack Group's fall openings into one entry is flagrantly disrespectful to the hardworking individuals who've helped each concept stand on its own. While I almost feel bad about that, grouping them together allows me both to include more restaurants on this list and acknowledge the collective effort that it took to bring all three concepts to life. Besides, all three are united by Treadsack's ethos that includes the extensive use of local ingredients, warm hospitality and ambitious beverage programs.
At this point, I find myself most drawn to Bernadine's; chef Graham Laborde's Southern-influenced Gulf Coast cuisine offers a mix of land and sea dishes that are hard to resist, especially when they're supplemented by the raw bar selections that are especially tempting this time of year when the Gulf begins to cool. Which is not to say I haven't enjoyed dishes like Richard Knight's snapper tartare and cake stand pork chops at Hunky Dory or PJ Stoops's stir-fried pumpkin and fried chicken with green chili dipping sauce at Foreign Correspondents: they're all easy restaurants to love.
1. Southern Goods
Given their respective pedigrees, diners had every reason to greet any project that brought together bar owner Charles Bishop (Cottonwood, Liberty Station) and chef Lyle Bento (Feast, Underbelly) with high expectations. Those expectations only increased when Bento added chef de cuisine JD Woodward (Underbelly, Goro & Gun) and Patrick Feges (Underbelly, Killen's Barbecue) to the mix.
As this ranking suggests, they've risen to the challenge, and Southern Goods has emerged as the sort of restaurant that both builds on the nationwide popularity of Southern cuisine and seems poised to become the next Houston restaurant to earn major national press.
Part of that credit goes to Feges, the CultureMap Tastemakers Rising Star Chef of the Year award winner whose training as a pitmaster gets put to good use in dishes like the instant classic smoked beef belly burnt ends, but more generally to Bento's willingness to play with ingredients and see what happens. The results are dishes like smoked turkey gumbo, fried green tomato salad with housemade mozzarella and a double patty burger that all taste familiar but still deliver an unexpected twist or two along the way.
Factor in the casual ambiance, well-chosen craft beer selection and reasonably priced $10 cocktails, and Southern Goods emerges as the latest evolution of the ambitious neighborhood restaurant (like Coltivare and Pax Americana) that are pushing the city's dining scene forward.