Summer may not officially start until next month, but the 95 degree temps certainly make it feel like every Houstonians' least favorite season has begun. Summer restaurant season has started, too, with some high profile openings that demand people's attention.
This month's crop of new restaurants includes the first of Chris Shepherd's three new restaurants, a huge step up from the owner of Balls Out Burger, and an eagerly-anticipated fried chicken joint. As always, the restaurants are ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but all of them (almost) offer something worth consideration.
Chris Shepherd’s new restaurant brings a new twist to Underbelly’s mission of telling the story of Houston food. The city’s immigrant communities still inspire the menu, but the rules have changed regarding the sourcing of ingredients. Where Underbelly felt like a place primarily for special occasions, UB Preserv’s smaller space and reasonably-priced small plates make it seem more welcoming for everyday dining.
Highlights from my visit included the fried pork dumplings, the crispy rice salad (a perfect starter as the temperature climbs), and the indulgent Vietnamese short rib fajitas. A full selection of interesting cocktails and a well-priced wine list make for difficult beverage choices, but it’s hard to go wrong there. Meanwhile, I’m already plotting my next visit with more friends — it’s going to take more than two people to justify ordering the smoked, bone-in lamb shoulder. 1609 Westheimer Rd.; 346-406-5923
For his follow-up to Balls Out Burger, Irishman-turned-Houstonian Ian Tucker hired a talented crew to create a restaurant inspired by The Exchequer, his award-winning gastropub in Dublin. Located at Sawyer Yards, the expansive space includes a comfortable dining room, a casual bar, and a patio with a view of the downtown skyline.
In the kitchen, chef Dominick Lee (Kiran’s) channels his New Orleans roots and his time in Houston to create a menu that covers everything from grilled oysters to spicy, Portuguese-inspired roasted chicken — even vegetarians get a couple of entrees. We enjoyed the hummus with pulled lamb neck (but a pinch of salt and a squirt of citrus would’ve taken it from good to great), a side of elotes, and the short rib made with Texas-raised wagyu beef from Marble Ranch. Creative cocktails (the Old Graceful Rose features an ice cube with a rose in it) and an all-natural wine list round out the experience. 2313 Edwards St. #100; 713-470-6686
The Post Oak
Billion Dollar Buyer Tilman Fertitta’s luxurious Galleria-area hotel features four different dining options, and all of them hope to please both hotel guests and Houstonians. Bloom & Bee stands out thanks to its gorgeous interior, poolside views, and a crowd-pleasing menu that runs the gamut from caviar service and raw oysters to salads, flatbreads, and steaks. Diners should also consider Bouchée Patisserie, where pastry chef Oralia Perez creates a full lineup of breads, pastries (croissants, danish), and sweets (macarons, fruit tarts). 1600 West Loop South; 346-227-5000
Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Putting the words “World Famous” in a restaurant’s name creates high expectations, but this Memphis-based fried chicken chain delivers the goods. Gus’s chicken is crispy with a pleasantly spicy tingle that’s not to be confused with the so-hot-it-hurts burn delivered by Nashville’s legendary hot chicken. The crust is thinner than Houston favorites like Barbecue Inn and Frenchy’s, with juicy pieces that offer lots of flavor. Sides seemed pretty generic, but the fried okra is a solid option. 1815 Washington Ave.; 832-740-4022
Husband and wife duo Cat Huynh and Angie Dang transformed the original location of Les Ba’get into this new, pho-oriented concept. Dropping sandwiches and spring rolls has allowed Nguyen to prepare three different broths that are all satisfying: beef, chicken, and vegan. Overall, the vegan broth delivers plenty of spice, although it lacks the fatty richness that comes from animal protein. A selection of small plates rounds out the menu; spicy cucumbers start the meal with a little heat, but it’s the oak-smoked cauliflower’s meaty texture that’s the most pleasant surprise. 1717 Montrose Blvd.
Leibman's Eatery, Market, Gifts
Along with its move to a new location at I-10 and Gessner, the popular deli and gift store has revamped its menu and seating to transform into more of a cafe. Owner Sharon Leibman has preserved all of Leibman’s classic salads and prepared items, but it’s the hot entrees, starters, and sandwiches that make it a welcome addition to the Memorial area’s dining mix. Both classics like the Reuben sandwich and new additions like the Mediterranean pork tenderloin with couscous deliver plenty of flavor. 10100 Katy Freeway; 281-493-3663
This Midtown restaurant may not be new, but new management has completely overhauled the menu. Critically, they’ve added exceptional Viet-Cajun crawfish that are available in four styles. We preferred the Thai flavor (chiles, basil, lemongrass), but the H-Town bang (butter and and garlic) hit the spot, too. Sweet and spicy wok-fried tamarind crabs and chicken wings in caramelized fish sauce demonstrate the kitchen has plenty of skills with proteins beside mud bugs. 3101 Main St.; 713-529-1100
Lua Viet Kitchen
The transformation of Les Ba’get into Les Noo’dle has created a small gap in Montrose’s dining mix for a fast casual Vietnamese restaurant that’s a little better than someone would expect it to be. Enter Lua Viet Kitchen, which recently opened in the same shopping as BuffBurger at the corner of Mandell and West Alabama. Familiar noodle and rice dishes get an upgrade from higher quality ingredients like beef from 44 Farms and duroc pork. Overall, it’s more of a welcome addition to the neighborhood than a must-visit destination, but, hey, it’s the neighborhood I live in — I’ll definitely be back. 1540 West Alabama St.
Houstonians shouldn’t have to choose between burgers and tacos; at this new concept from the owners of Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen, they don’t. Still in its soft opening phase, this new restaurant in La Porte offers classic, thin patty cheeseburgers alongside fried hard shell tacos. Although I liked the burger’s flavor overall and very reasonable $6 price, it would have benefited from being slightly more medium (instead of well done) and served with a little less sauce (the bun got soggy); however, the taco delivered a retro thrill that I would very much like to enjoy again.
Worth noting: I received an email from the restaurant about a photo of my burger that I posted to my Instagram stories. A representative wrote that, based on the photo, the burger didn’t meet the standards they hold for themselves. I appreciate the restaurant being proactive in contacting me, and, even though La Porte is a half hour drive from where I live, I’ll plot a return visit to check out Burger Libre’s progress. 9709 Spencer Highway (La Porte); 281-941-4305
Blue Onyx Bistro
As the headline of this column implies, most of the list consists of new restaurants that we think readers will enjoy; however, occasionally, it also includes a bad experience that people should approach with caution. Which brings me to this Asian-inspired restaurant that recently opened near the Galleria. A lunch visit with a friend went about as poorly as a dining experience can: underseasoned and overcooked steak; a badly cut sushi roll dominated by mysterious “white fish;” grouper with a retro-in-bad-way baked on crab topping; and a server who seemed to avoid our table at all costs once he realized the meal had gone off the rails.
A dinner visit with a different group of friends yielded slightly better results. The sushi rolls still can’t compare in overall flavor and composition to even moderately priced options like Aka or Oishii, but at least the shellfish in the cioppino had been properly cooked and the chipotle redfish delivered a pleasant spiciness. If Blue Onyx can shed the sushi and focus on its fish and shellfish dishes, it could serve as a welcome companion to its Cajun-oriented neighbor, Bayou City Seafood & Pasta. If not, some savvy operator is going to get the opportunity to open another, better restaurant in a prime location. 4720 Richmond Ave.; 713-808-9518