Where to Eat Houston
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Where to eat in Houston right now: 9 fresh restaurants to sample in the new year

Where to eat in Houston: 9 fresh restaurants to sample in the new year

Daily Gather food spread
Meals at Daily Gather start with shareable plates. Photo by Debora Smail
Underbelly Burger food spread
Chris Shepherd has opened Underbelly Burger. Photo by Julie Soefer
Mastro's Warm Butter Cake
Save room for butter cake at Mastro's Ocean Club. Courtesy of Mastro's Restaurants
Daily Gather food spread
Underbelly Burger food spread
Mastro's Warm Butter Cake

Even by the usual standards of Houston's bustling restaurant scene,  the past couple of months have been a busy time for new openings. Successful operators have debuted several promising concepts that all clamor for people’s attention.

From the return of a beloved burger joint to a new burger joint from a James Beard Award winner — wait, that doesn’t sound like much diversity. Let’s highlight a new omakase concept from a veteran chef, a new interior Mexican restaurant for the Memorial area, the barbecue restaurant Cypress has been clamoring for, and a compelling new option for Memorial-area diners.

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.

Daily Gather 
This new spot from the owners of Dish Society offers a refreshing, locally owned alternative to CityCentre’s roster of mostly corporate restaurants. The former International Smoke space has been given a homey makeover by Gin Design Group. Daily Gather demonstrates its commitment to “gatherings” in a number of ways, including by providing every table with a deck of cards that suggest topics designed to spark conversation.

Those who know chef Brandi Key from her time at Clark Cooper Concepts will find much to like about Daily Gather’s eclectic menu. Start with cold seafood dishes such as the flavorful tuna aguachile before moving on to shareable small plates like elote cornbread, roasted bone marrow, and the must-order citrus avocado. Braised short rib with Parisian-style gnocchi and seared salmon with Vietnamese herbs are standouts among the entrees.

An extensive selection of cocktails, both alcoholic and zero proof, offers plenty of pairing options. Like Dish Society, it’s family friendly with a kids menu available.    

After earning acclaim at Blackbird Izakaya and opening Hidden Omakase, chef Billy Kin returns to the kitchen with this intimate omakase counter in the former Golden Bagels space. Kin is an incredibly affable host, engaging in banter with his diners as he explains the conception of his dishes.

Part of what sets Kinokawa apart from other, similar restaurants is Kin’s improvisational style. Instead of following a standard progression of nigiri that ends in tuna and wagyu beef, meals at Kinokawa mix hot and cold dishes that keep diners intrigued about what might come next. For example, lightly charred toro nigiri opened the meal, which was followed by shirako, fried cod milt (it has a mild flavor and the texture of organ meat). Other unexpected bites included ankimo in vinaigrette and sauteed Spanish eels. Towards the end, Kin served rice bowls that combined uni, caviar, scallops, and wagyu beef. Of course, any of those courses could be swapped out for others depending on what items he’s had flown in from Japan that week.

Since my visit, consulting chef Brandon Silva has departed for his next project, but the restaurant always reflects Kin’s vision. While the specific dishes Silva prepared may or may not be available, fans of omakase dining will find an evening at Kinokawa to be well spent.

Admittedly, this restaurant isn’t new, but its new location near the Galleria provides a good opportunity to revisit the Asian-influenced burger joint. Not only does being above ground make Burger-Chan easier to find, it’s also open for dinner (limited days during its soft opening with more nights in the weeks to come).

What remains the same is chef Willet Feng’s burgers, which are made with Texas beef from 44 Farms and boosted with an umami glaze. Every burger is built to order; diners choose from two different patty sizes, four different buns, extra proteins (egg, bacon, or spam), three cheeses, all the usual veggies, and a compelling range of housemade sauces such as scallion aioli and sambal mayo.

The glaze gives the beef a deeply savory flavor that makes the restaurant’s burgers easy to devour, and the numerous topping choices means everyone will find a choice to suit their tastes. Add in fries or tots — available regular or “loaded” with bacon, cheese, scallions, and sour cream — for the full experience.  

Burro & Bull 
Originally a stand in the Conservatory food hall, Veronica and John Avila have brought their smoked Texana concept to a former Corky’s location in Cypress. Now in a dedicated space, Burro & Bull has substantially expanded its menu to cover both traditional barbecue meats like brisket, housemade sausage, and pork ribs alongside Mexican-influenced proteins like beef fajitas, chicken fajitas, and pork steak with pastor seasoning.

Sides are similarly diverse ranging from potato salad and cole slaw to ranchero beans and calabacitas (Mexican squash with onions, garlic, and corn). A full range of beer and cocktails helps make the restaurant an appealing dinner option.

While the barbecue needs some tweaking to match Houston’s best joints (ribs on a recent visit were undercooked), the overall menu offers enough tasty options to make it a very compelling addition to the area.

This sushi hand roll pop-up occurs a couple of times each month in the Hidden Omakase space near the Galleria. As at similar concepts, diners may either order from prix-fixe progressions of three, four, or five rolls or order a la carte (or supplement a progression with a couple of a la carte choices).

Whereas most hand rolls are served fully wrapped, Norigami’s are left open like a taco, which gives the impression of providing more filling than rice. Options include spicy tuna with a pleasant pop of heat, salmon with yuzu-soy and a tangy roasted garlic aioli, and yellowtail with yuzu koshu, garlic-chili, and avocado. Those looking for something more decadent may opt for toro, uni, foie gras, wagyu beef, or the “menage foie gras” — a combination of all four plus caviar. Reasonable prices (only the menage costs more than $20), speedy service, and the convenience of BYOB enhance the experience.

Underbelly Burger 
Hay Merchant may be in its final week of operations, but a version of its famed Cease & Desist burger lives on at this newly opened restaurant in the Houston Farmers Market. The entree choices are simple: two different cheeseburgers — one made with meat sourced from 44 Farms and another made with wagyu from R-C Ranch — a veggie burger; a fried chicken sandwich with black pepper buttermilk dressing; and a hot dog made with chef-owner Chris Shepherd’s signature bacon sausage.

As one would expect, the burger’s combination of two beef patties, two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickles on a sesame seed-topped potato bun hits all the classic notes. The bacon sausage hot dog is the menu’s hidden star; it’s split in half, seared on a griddle, and paired with jalapeño mustard. Sidewinder fries balance the thickness and soft interior of a steak fry with the crispy exterior of thinner cuts. A soundtrack of pre-Beatles rock ‘n roll from the ’50s and ’60s provides the right touch for this old school, diner-inspired space.

After working at prominent Houston restaurants Mark’s American Cuisine and Hugo Ortega’s Oaxacan restaurant Xochi, chef Fabian Saldana has opened his first solo project in the former Carmelo’s/B.B. Italia space in the Energy Corridor. Overall, the space feels welcoming with comfortable banquettes and an expansive patio.

To create Maize’s menu, chef Saldana combines his Mexican heritage with the knowledge he gained working for Ortega. Not surprisingly, corn-based dishes are standouts, including the shrimp empanadas, octopus with salsa negra, and Gulf fish with segueza, a corn-based sauce. Other dishes, particularly too dry barbacoa, showed the kitchen is still finding its footing in executing the menu consistently.

Still, there’s much to like, including the well made, reasonably priced cocktails and first rate desserts. With his mentor Mark Cox and former Carmelo’s owner Carmelo Mauro assisting in getting Maize up and running, Saldana’s future seems promising.

Mastro’s Ocean Club 
This crown jewel of Tilman Fertitta’s restaurant empire has arrived in The Woodlands. The differences between Mastro’s Ocean Club and Mastro’s Steakhouse comes down to a few more seafood dishes at Ocean Club, but the restaurants are fundamentally the same: a place for lavish entertaining, over the top dining, and big celebrations.

Diners who want a traditional steakhouse experience of, say, wedge salad followed by dry-aged ribeye with creamed spinach should probably go elsewhere. It’s not that Mastro’s doesn’t do those things well — a ribeye for two arrived expertly medium rare with a spot-on crust — but going to this restaurant without indulging in its non-traditional sushi rolls (wagyu and asparagus is particularly tasty), chilled seafood towers, or decadent sides like lobster mashed potatoes means missing out on what makes the restaurant special.  

So order that $20 Manhattan and save room for the signature butter cake. After all, excess is the point at Mastro’s.

Solecita Churrería y Taqueria 
The owners of downtown institution Frank’s Pizza have converted the former Frank’s Backyard into this new concept that sells, wait for it, tacos and churros (and tortas). The mostly outdoor space features a small cart that serves freshly fried churros and an Airstream trailer that houses the kitchen.

Developed with the assistance of consulting chef Omar Pereney, Solecita serves traditional, street-style tacos wrapped in handmade corn and flour tortillas. Fillings include goat barbacoa, chicken tinga, beef birria, pork carnitas, and a vegetarian option that mixes poblano, potato, mushroom, and roasted corn. A trio of flavorful salsas add a little heat to the mix, and a selection of beverages that include agua frescas cool things down. Downtown certainly doesn’t lack taco options, but more choices are always welcome when they’re this tasty.