"Is it ever going to slow down?"
Other than "what's your favorite restaurant," the question people seem to be asking me more than ever is whether Houston can sustain its torrid pace of restaurant openings. While I can't predict the future, my answer is "not yet." Even with the griping about high rents and a tight labor market, as long as local restaurateurs and out-of-town operators continue to see opportunity, they will keep opening new projects.
Consider this month's crop of new restaurants: an acclaimed Sichuan restaurant from California, a burgers and comfort food spot from a local chef with a fine dining pedigree, a Neapolitan pizza chain making its Houston area debut in Katy, a bar backed by two of Houston's biggest names, and so much more. The range of diversity in terms of both cuisines and neighborhoods demonstrates the mix that makes Houston such an interesting city to dine in.
One other note: this column may be called "where to eat," but I will occasionally use it to inform people "where not to eat." Scroll all the way to the bottom to find out which downtown opening I suggest avoiding.
The Los Angeles-based restaurant that acclaimed food writer J. Kenji López-Alt called “the best Sichuan restaurant in America” may not have arrived with the fanfare of out of town concepts like Yauatcha and Shake Shack, but it deserves a similar level of attention. Even though the restaurant had only been open for a couple of weeks when I visited, we found it so busy that the kitchen had run out of signature items like red oil dumplings.
Thankfully, we left thoroughly impressed by everything we tried. Water-boiled fish arrived in an intensely aromatic green peppercorn broth. Served cold, the signature “Diced Rabbit with Younger Sister’s Secret Recipe” had an incredible depth of flavor thanks to its own peppercorn-spiked sauce. The cumin-heavy toothpick lamb and juicy, flavorful Kung Pao chicken impressed us, too.
Friendly, helpful service and the ability to BYOB made our meal at Chengdu Taste one we won’t soon forget. I’m just sad I haven’t taken the time to go back. 9896 Bellaire
FM Kitchen & Bar
Chef Ryan Hildebrand has traded the tweezers he used at Triniti for a spatula at this burger-oriented comfort food spot. Located near Washington Avenue, FM Kitchen covers several popular trends: comfort food, a good craft beer selection, and a sprawling patio with games and live music.
The burgers, which Hildebrand developed when the concept was still known as FM Burger, are Shake Shack-style thin patty affairs that are available as singles, doubles, or in a two pack, but the rest of the menu offers plenty of appealing choices. Of the several dishes I tried with a group of friends, we most enjoyed the chicken fried steak (an old fashioned-style cube steak version with a creamy white gravy), fried shrimp (lightly battered and juicy), and the brick chicken, which benefited from a crispy skin and a pop of acidity from lemon juice.
Skipping the barbecue ribs, which were overcooked, leaves room for one of the over-the-top milkshakes. Affordable wine choices (all bottles are priced at $25) and a few craft cocktails supplement the beer options. Taken together, the convivial atmosphere and well-executed comfort food make FM Kitchen a welcome addition to Washington Avenue. 1112 Shepherd
Ohn Korean Eatery
As the name implies, the latest eatery from restaurateur Mike Tran (Tiger Den, Mein, Night Market, Aka Sushi) takes diners to the land of bulgogi and soju. All of Tran’s restaurants are stylish; Ohn is no exception. It’s closed off booths and neon signs give the space a Big Trouble In Little China vibe.
I found five friends to help attack the menu. Highlights included the Yangnyeom fried chicken with a sweet and spicy glaze, pan-fried pork dumplings, corn cheese (a riff on creamed corn) and ultra-fluffy kimchi fried rice. Ohn’s take on brisket turned out more Jewish roast than Texas barbecue, but the sauce and banchan made it compelling. Ohn offers a full range of craft cocktails created by local bartender Chris Frankel that offers lots of soju choices as well as other spirits.
We may not have gotten to try everything, but we all agreed we’d happily return again soon. Looks like Tran has another hit. 9630 Clarewood
Spring Branch has long been a culinary destination for Mexican and Korean food, but inner loop-style restaurants that serve craft beer, cocktails, and food in a casual setting has been slow to arrive. All that has changed thanks to Kyle Pierson, Amanda Mixon, and chef Madeline Cabezut Herd, who opened this “craft beer and foodery” spot in May. Once home to Otilla’s, the space has been given a smart makeover to convert it into a clean, comfortable room.
Cabezut Herd’s menu delivers familiar flavors with slight twists; for example, consider the H-Town Cheesesteak, which is served fajitas style with sauteed onions and peppers and topped with queso. Carnitas sliders present the familiar roast pork topped with cilantro, jalapeno, and radish. Prices are extremely reasonable, with most entrees and shareable plates at $15 or less.
Pierson brings his experience as a manager at Hay Merchant to the beer list, which features mostly Texas taps (including an 8th Wonder one-off named Dirty Branch for the bar). Spirit prices like $6 Buffalo Trace bourbon and $12 Macallan 12 represent a substantial savings over most places inside the loop. The selection, prices, intriguing menu items, and Mixon’s ebullient presence in the dining room combine to make The Branch the sort of restaurant that should serve its neighborhood well for years to come. 7710 Long Point
Better Luck Tomorrow
Anvil owner Bobby Heugel and Theordore Rex (aka, Oxheart 2.0) chef-owner Justin Yu’s new project in the former Dry Creek space on Yale is certainly much more bar than restaurant, but when nationally renowned food writer Kate Krader calls BLT “the one place I most want to go eat—and drink—in the U.S. right now,” it’s worth considering it as a dining destination, too. While Yu and executive chef Matt Boesen’s 10-item menu won’t appeal to everyone — I watched three well-dressed women examine it and walk out — it does feature a few bar food-style classics along with some more vegetable-oriented surprises.
Much has been made of the “Party Melt,” Yu’s take on the patty melt, and burger lovers should add it to their lists. The aggressively toasted bread, caramelized onions, and thin patty combine for a gooey, greasy mess of a sandwich. The “Not a pizza,” a Chinese-style scallion pancake topped with burrata, onions, and anchovy-garlic bagna cauda (an Italian vegetable dip), delivers a good balance of sweet and tangy. Those looking for something a little lighter should opt for the lightly dressed salad of heritage chicken.
No one who goes to BLT to dine should ignore the drinks. Cocktails created by operations manager Terry Williams and bar manager Alex Negranza both pair well with the food or are enjoyable in their own right, and sommelier Justin Vann’s well-priced wine list features lots of options that are best enjoyed on the bar’s spacious patio. No wonder the place has been so packed on the weekends. 544 Yale
Heights Bier Garten/Worcester’s Annex
Brandon Silva may not have Justin Yu’s James Beard Award-winning pedigree, but the former Uchi sous chef and CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year finalist brings plenty of culinary firepower to the spacious new patio bar that’s drawing serious crowds. Served from 3 pm until 10 pm, Silva’s menu of housemade sausages, sandwiches, and salads offers a variety of options that range from snacky items like roasted cauliflower and pretzels to full-sized entrees.
Those looking to feed a group should consider the pork shank platter that also comes with nduja, prosciutto, andouille sausage, and condiments that include housemade mustards and pickles. Of course, everything tastes better during happy hour, which features a selection of $3 drafts and half-price cocktails. 1433 N Shepherd
Hans and Philipp Sitter have created a special environment with this sister concept to their wildly successful German restaurant King’s BierGarten. As Sitter predicted in an interview with CultureMap, the bucolic garden, with its landscaping and working fountain, adds a sense of occasion to any meal, especially when the servers are walking around dropping off one liter mugs of beer.
As much as I enjoy the setting and appreciate the unique collection of German beers, wines, and spirits, I feel more ambivalent about the food and overall dining experience. My smoked chicken wings and chicken schnitzel had been properly prepared, but at, $12 and $15 each, they combined for an expensive dinner when paired with a half liter of Weinstephaner Vitus (aka, the best beer in the world, $12). Add in tax and tip, and dinner for one came to almost $50. That’s pretty spendy on a Monday night. 2044 E T.C. Jester
MidiCi: The Neapolitan Pizza Company
California-based fast casual restaurants in Katy don’t make this column very often, but my fondness for Neapolitan-style pizza (fewer toppings, lightly sauced, thin-but-not-crispy crust) and the plans for a location in Upper Kirby that’s slated to arrive later this year provided me with an excuse to head west. Located in the same freeway-adjacent shopping center that will soon be home to Jinya Ramen and Fadi’s, MidiCi sports a clean, modern look where all tables can get a look at the restaurant’s two, golden-colored, wood-burning pizza oven.
A Devil’s Pizza (spicy sausage, spicy salami) provided a welcome amount of heat and also showed a well-baked crust with good char. Meatballs in tomato sauce delivered some classic comfort. We thought the burrata appetizer could have been creamier, but fought over the last few bites of the included prosciutto. Reasonable prices and friendly service make MidiCi a welcome addition to Katy and a restaurant inner-Loopers should be excited about. 21784 Katy Fwy
It’s a little hard to tell whether Masraff’s owners Russell and Anthony Masraff want people to know about the fast casual restaurant they recently opened in Tanglewood. The opening has been so quiet that the restaurant's online presence only consists of a low-key Instagram account and a bare bones website that doesn't show up in the first page of Google results. Cars in the parking lot and a sign that says “We Are OPEN” are the only indications that Maclane’s is ready to welcome diners.
Which is a shame, because Maclane’s is the sort of useful neighborhood restaurant that’s perfect for young families. The crowd-pleasing menu of classic comfort options like salads, burgers, and fried chicken offers lots of appealing choices and reasonable prices (mostly $8 to $15). I could quibble that the bun on my chili cheeseburger was too doughy, but a cup of chicken tortilla soup compared favorably to the high-quality version served at Houston’s. Count it as another welcome addition to a neighborhood that’s emerging as a dining destination. 6395 Woodway
Balls Out Burger
The difficulty with this cheekily-named burger joint — spare me the etymology lesson about “balls out’s” roots in railroad conducting — is that its simple approach to burgers makes it hard to hide any flaws. The New York diner-style cheeseburger utilizes almost no toppings; therefore, it relies on the meat to be properly seasoned and cooked to achieve maximum deliciousness.
I ate that version of this cheeseburger during a private tasting and interview with owner Ian Tucker, but I wondered whether regular service could match that experience. After all, none of the other details — the environmentally-friendly ethos of serving all canned sodas and beers, the spacious patio with games, or the hand cut French fries — matter if Balls Out can’t get the burger right every time.
Unfortunately, when I returned on a recent Saturday night to find out, I discovered Balls Out isn’t living up to Tucker’s standards. My burger took over 20 minutes to prepare and arrived both underseasoned and overcooked, with almost none of the beefy juices that make this style of burger so compelling. “I don’t understand why people keep saying it sucks,” I overheard a cook sitting near me say. “I do,” I thought to myself as I tossed my trash in the can and walked to my car. Not saying it can’t be fixed (I didn’t see Tucker or general manager Paul Rickman), but it’ll be a while before I go back to find out whether Balls Out has improved. 1603 N Durham
Bud’s Pitmaster BBQ
While I can see the potential that Balls Out Burger has to turn things around, I am deeply pessimistic about the prospects of this recently-opened barbecue restaurant in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Misleading images on social media, such as this Facebook post captioned “four generations of legendary recipes” that uses a well-known photograph taken by the Farm Security Administration in 1939, attempt to give Bud’s a sheen of authenticity that it does not seem to deserve.
As the seven Houston-area joints that made Texas Monthly’s top 50 list demonstrate, barbecue in Houston has never been better, but Bud’s is wildly out of step with the trends toward fatty, smoky, aggressively-seasoned brisket and ribs. The brisket we sampled had only the vaguest whiff of smoke, had been stripped of its fat, and had the texture of pot roast. A friend took one bite of the pulled pork and thought it tasted so stale that it likely had been cooked days before. The ribs fared best in the sense that we judged them to be merely mediocre — too sweet and fall off the bone tender compared to Houston’s best options — instead of objectively inedible.
Downtown visitors in search of legitimate Texas barbecue will be much happier at either Pappa Charlies or Jackson Street. 1001 Avenida de Las Americas