where to eat right now
After a brief pause at the start of the year, Houston's restaurant scene continues to show strong growth in 2022. The year has gotten off to a promising start with plenty of exciting new restaurants to try.
Some of the city's top operators, including James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd and Coppa owner Grant Cooper, have debuted their latest projects. This month's roster also includes the highest profile opening The Heights has seen in awhile as well as two new options for those with carnivorous habits.
As always, these are roughly ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but all of the entries on the list have something to offer. Write-ups are based on actual experiences dining at the listed restaurants (sometimes more than once). They’re less formal reviews than a guide of what to expect along with some suggestions for what to order (and what to avoid).
This latest project from Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality provides diners with chef-partner Nick Fine’s self-described "love letter to Texas." That means a deep dive into the various food traditions that have shaped the state, including Mexican, Southern, and barbecue. Credit for the restaurant’s design goes to Amanda Medsger, which Fine describes as “the fanciest Luby’s mixed with your grandma’s ranch house.” It's a warm, inviting space that offers diners a view into the open kitchen.
Fine puts his wood-fired grill to good effect in dishes such as a wood-grilled chicken with a kicked-up take on King Ranch casserole. Other highlights included the Bellaire campechana that’s seasoned with a spiced tomatillo sauce, a classic take on Texas chili, and steak tartare. The batter on the chicken fried steak needed to be crispier, but that seems more like a minor execution flub than a permanent flaw.
The restaurant really shines at brunch. Held every Sunday morning, the all-you-can-eat spread features a rotating selection of vegetables, seafood, roasted meats, and desserts. My visit included shrimp cocktail, lamb taquitos, freshly baked pretzel bread, and roast pork. It’s a a worthy splurge at $55 per adult.
As with all Underbelly concepts, well-executed cocktails, including an appropriately boozy frozen margarita, provide plenty of pairing options. Don’t miss the classic banana pudding.
If nothing else, this Asian smokehouse from Uchi owner Hai Hospitality is worth a visit just to witness the stunning transformation of the former W. 11th Church of God into a modern restaurant with soaring ceilings, a lengthy bar, and plenty of picnic-style outdoor seating.
The fast casual restaurant blends influences from Loro’s two founders: Uchi chef-owner Tyson Cole and Franklin Barbecue pitmaster-owner Aaron Franklin. Since this is Loro’s third location, joining outposts in Austin and Dallas, the team has things pretty dialed in.
Vegetables in dishes like the snap pea and toasted coconut salad or the Texas sweet corn keep their texture and flavor. Chicken karaage arrives crispy, and the smoked bavette delivers plenty of rich, beefy flavor. The cheeseburger gets topped with an addictive brisket jam that makes for a gloriously messy sandwich. Despite Franklin's reputation, skip the smoked brisket; simply put, Houston has better options for barbecue.
Uchi is known for its service, which makes Loro’s lack of it somewhat surprising. Instead of following the Hopdoddy/Ramen Tatsu-ya model of having people make their initial order at a register and then using servers to assist with things like another round of drinks, Loro expects diners to get back in line every time they want something. That’s fine when things are relatively calm — as those who take advantage of the well priced happy hour from 2-6 pm will discover — but becomes a burden when the restaurant is full and every register has a constant two or three people in line who may each take a few minutes to order. Perhaps the restaurant could designate one register just for people who want drinks and/or dessert.
For his first solo project under the Big Vibe Group banner, veteran restaurateur Grant Cooper has transformed the Dunlavy into a contemporary Mexican restaurant. The restaurant’s setting next to Buffalo Bayou and a ceiling adorned with 40 chandeliers adds a sense of occasion to any meal.
Flora’s menu demonstrates an impressive amount of thoughtful development: housemade corn tortillas have the integrity to fold, mole features a housemade chocolate, and dishes like barbacoa and carnitas show depth of flavor that comes from slow cooking. Other highlights included a tuna tostada plated in the style of acclaimed Mexico City restaurant Contramar and enchiladas verdes.
Flora has a shorter wine list than Cooper’s other restaurants, but the agave-based cocktail offerings offer plenty of choices. A spot-on flan ends the meal on a sweet note.
Restaurateur Ken Bridge (Pink’s Pizza, Lola Diner, etc.) has transformed the former Ritual into this modern Korean steakhouse that’s inspired by a range of influences, including his childhood in Los Angeles and restaurants he’s visited in Korea. The focus is on Prime beef, especially short rib, ribeye, and New York strip alongside small plates such as Korean fried chicken, short rib mandu, and bulgogi tteokbokki (chewy rice dumplings). In particular, the marinated meats stand out as the equal (or better) of any Korean barbecue restaurant in Houston.
Servers take the lead on the tabletop grills, guiding the overall experience and ensuring that meats are properly cooked. Pairing options include local beer and a number of soju-based cocktails. Note: ordering and payment are done via Bridge’s proprietary Roovy app; download it ahead of time to be prepared.
For all of its development as a dining destination over the past decade, The Heights has lacked a classic steakhouse (not to be confused with restaurants that cook a good steak, of which it has plenty); that omission has been rectified with this concept that operates inside Savoir. The tidy menu focuses on the staple dishes one expects to find at a steakhouse such as wedge salad, shrimp cocktail, sides like mashed potatoes and grilled broccoli, and, of course, various cuts of Prime beef.
Both a wagyu strip and a bone-in ribeye arrived exactly medium rare with a nicely charred crust that gave the exterior a welcome textural contrast with the rest of the steak. Simply put, it’s the best prepared steak I’ve had in recent memory and a sufficient reason for carnivores to seek out Patton’s. For dessert, opt for the rich, dense chocolate cake.
Despite brutal street construction on Shepherd Drive, chef Alfredo Mojica and his wife Christina have been earning raves at this upscale Italian restaurant that opened quietly in December. Best known for his time leading the kitchen at Da Marco, Mojica is turning out high quality, classic Italian fare in a comfortable, intimate setting.
Highlights from a recent meal included Patagonian prawns roasted in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven, a delicately-seasoned tuna crudo, and spaghetti with lobster in pomodoro sauce. Service by the veteran crew is friendly and welcoming, and BYOB is available as a supplement to the tidy wine list. I look forward to a future visit to sample Mojica’s Neapolitan-style pizza and at least one of the items on the restaurant’s truffle menu.
After achieving success with Candy Shack Daiquiris, James McGhee has entered the restaurant business with this movie-themed establishment near the Galleria. Diners enter through a theater-style lobby — complete with candy stand and popcorn machine — before being led into a stylish dining room adorned with images from classic movies. Be mindful when going to the restroom, as a rose-adorned wall in the sink area will likely be hosting a photoshoot.
The Hollywood theme continues with the food and drinks, including popcorn as a starter and various dishes adorned with Oscar-worthy golden embellishments (the Salt bae-style golden-wrapped tomahawk has been a hit on Instagram). Even without the flare, diners will find quite a bit to like on the menu, including Brussels sprouts with red wine vinegar gastrique, a well-prepared rack of lamb, and salmon with citrus beurre blanc. Oversized desserts with sparklers complete an experience that’s been crafted for sharing on social media.
East Side King and Soy Pinoy
Paul Qui and FAM Hospitality are making their mark at Post Houston with these two concepts. Japanese street food restaurant East Side King has introduced an omakase that offers a dozen pieces of sushi plus a hand roll for $49. As at pricier restaurants, pieces are presented to diners one at a time. No, it’s not as luxurious as other establishments, but it’s a very satisfying sushi experience for an affordable price.
Qui worked with fellow James Beard Award winner Tom Cunanan to upgrade the menu at Soy Pinoy. The Filipino chefs have introduced a number of new dishes, but the best way to sample their work is with a platter that combines lumpia, lechon, grilled chicken, sisig, beef kare kare, and more.
Inspired by trucks he patronized in his hometown of Los Angeles, TSU alum Dempsey Robinson has been drawing crowds to this Japanese-inspired food truck in Third Ward. The truck serves hibachi platters the combine rice, vegetables, and choice of protein: filet mignon, NY strip, shrimp, chicken and lobster.
Steak arrived properly medium rare, and the truck’s shrimp are plump and juicy. Well-cooked rice and crisp vegetables demonstrate the truck takes its technique seriously. A range of flavorful, housemade sauces (garlic butter is mandatory with shrimp) enhance the overall experience. Burritos offer a more affordable option, but that’s due to their being very rice heavy.