The end of 2019 saw a wave of surprising restaurant closures — a trend that has continued into 2020 — but it also saw a number of significant newcomers. While In-N-Out Burger is probably the highest profile, the object of cult-like affection from California transplants isn’t even the only intriguing new burger option.
This month’s list catches up on downtown’s newest steakhouse, a food truck making the leap to brick and mortar service, and both of the new hand roll restaurants to open in The Heights. As always, this list is ranked in the order that I recommend trying them based on my actual visits to the establishments listed.
Guard and Grace
With its floor-to-ceiling windows and 4,000-plus suspender copper rods, the Denver-based steakhouse’s Houston location in the Allen Center offers a dramatic look that’s more stylish than any other Houston steakhouse. Multiple levels of seating make the 15,000-square-foot restaurant feel more intimate than its size would suggest.
While the restaurant has attracted some buzz for its $400 fajitas (a dish I will never order), diving into its more traditional steakhouse fare brings significant rewards. Starters like the hamachi crudo with Pop Rocks and gochujang pork ribs with puffed rice show a willingness to embrace flavors and textures not found at other restaurants. Offering steaks in reasonable, four-and eight-ounce portions makes it more appealing for a weeknight dinner instead of just for blowout celebrations.
Still, it’s clear the restaurant still has some kinks to work out. A bone-in, 44-ounce ribeye took 10 minutes to slice after being presented at the table. By that time, it had cooled from hot to merely warm, depriving us of some of the joy of devouring such a massive cut. Similarly, the nori for a couple of hand rolls was too chewy to be pleasant.
Hopefully, chef-owner Troy Guard will find a new management team who can smooth out these sort of issues and allow Guard and Grace to operate at a level worthy of its setting. 500 Dallas St.
Two months in, the lines have begun to shorten at the California-based burger chain’s two Houston-area locations, but the lines still can get long at peak times.
Cutting through the hype, it’s easy to understand why In-N-Out has become so successful. The double-double is a classic fast food burger with a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, the patties are so thin that the flavor of the meat gets lost, but the gooey cheese and fresh vegetables elevate the overall experience. On the other hand, every negative thing anyone has written about their french fries is also true; they are crispy but almost entirely flavorless due to a lack of salt — order them animal style for a little more oomph.
Best of all, the prices are reasonable. A double-double costs $3.95, fries are $1.80, and a chocolate milkshake is $2.40. 12611 S. Kirkwood Rd. (Stafford) and 1010 Katy-Fort Bend Rd. (Katy)
Hando and Handies Douzo
Having already written about these two new restaurants in The Heights that both focus on temaki, I will be brief. Hando is a more complete restaurant in the sense that it offers a larger selection of hand rolls (at lower prices), serves both hot and cold appetizers, and has a liquor license that allows it to serve beer, wine, and creative cocktails. Handies Douzo’s hand rolls have a great depth of flavor and are wrapped in extra-crispy nori that makes eating them highly satisfying. Ideally, diners should try both restaurants to pick a favorite, but I lean towards Handies Douzo, at least for now.
Tejas Burger Joint
Originally only available on Wednesday at Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue, the Smokehouse Burger takes center stage at Tejas Burger. With a patty that’s smoked for an hour before being seared, topped with smoked smoked cheddar cheese and housemade bacon, it’s a pretty decadent experience.
Other smoked burger options include one topped with Caesar salad and the Native Texan, a riff on the barbecue joint’s signature chile relleno sausage that’s topped with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, and a corn tortilla. Smaller, non-smoked burgers are also available, but what’s the fun in that?
Respectable tots and onion rings are both available. One minor quibble: for a burger joint affiliated with a bean-to-bar chocolate shop, the milkshake should have a deeper, richer chocolate flavor. 214 W. Main St. (Tomball)
This Austin-based restaurant offers an important twist on the familiar burrito concept. Instead of gummy tortillas of unknown provenance, Cabo Bob’s makes five different flavors to order on a comal. While this slows down the line a bit, the improvement in flavor and texture is undeniable.
Filings are a step up, too, with fish tacos and pork adding to the familiar steak and chicken. Good quality queso and a diverse range of toppings make it an appealing alternative to its competitors. 1810 Fountain View Dr.
While the arrival of Bamboo House to the corner of Westheimer and Fountain View is rightly drawing lots of positive attention, diners shouldn’t overlook the new ramen restaurant that opened in the same shopping center. Tonkotsu ramen has a mild saltiness and a pleasantly creamy texture, and the gyoza had properly crispy skins. The design is no frills, but it’s a solid option for a neighborhood that has lacked a compelling ramen option until now. 5901 Westheimer Rd.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
The legendary Llano barbecue joint’s 10-year growth spurt — it includes locations in Austin and Fort Worth — has arrived in Katy with a massive building just west of the Grand Parkway. Like the original, a consistent member of Texas Monthly’s top 50 barbecue joints, diners order from a serving pit. Looking at tempting hunks of brisket, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, prime rib, and more can prove dangerous to one’s wallet; my late lunch for two rang up at about $50.
The ribs quickly emerged as a favorite thanks to their mild seasoning that let the pork’s natural flavor shine; similarly, prime rib emerged a juicy medium rare even after its smoke bath. Going late in the afternoon meant the brisket had dried out a bit, but a little sauce perked it up. 24205 Katy Fwy.
Making the transition from food truck to restaurant represents an important moment of transition for any restaurant. That’s why siblings Patsy and Benson Vivares turned to Andy Nguyen, dubbed by the Food Network as “the mash-up king in the food industry,” and chef Michael Pham to bring their brick and mortar to life. They're in the process of adding new dishes to the Sticky's menu, but my visit occurred during the restaurant's lengthy soft opening with a more limited menu that more closely reflected what was served on the truck.
The signature “Sticky’s Sauce” runs a little sweet for my taste, and the combination of sauces, seared chicken, and wet rice means the whole plate of chicken and rice only has one, somewhat mushy texture. I suspect a fried version with Japanese-style karaage or the chicken wings would appeal to me more. I also suspect the presentation might improve if it were served on a plate instead of in a cardboard to-go container. After all, Sticky’s isn’t a food truck any more — time to step up. 2313 Edwards St.