This summer’s rapid pace of new restaurant openings shows no signs of slowing down. The last month has been a busy one, and a number of exciting new entries are clamoring for attention.
Houstonians are flocking to new options in River Oaks District, while a casual steakhouse from a veteran restaurateur ensures that the Heights remains the city’s hottest dining neighborhood. Of course, Houston’s king of meat has launched another winning concept that’s already drawing huge crowds.
This month even features three new options for pizza, including a Dallas-based restaurant that doesn’t suck.
As always, these are roughly ordered by how quickly I think you should rush to try them, but they’re all worthy of attention. After all, only one of these places will satisfy someone’s desire to eat pizza at 1 am while playing skeeball.
This newly opened steakhouse from brothers Jeffrey and Michael Mastro is River Oaks District newest hotspot. On a recent Wednesday night, the downstairs bar buzzed as a crowd of diners packed the space. Upstairs, a quieter atmosphere prevailed, but the food is the real star here.
Any top tier steakhouse should be able to cook properly seasoned USDA Prime beef to a requested temperature, and Steak 48 certainly meets that standard. However, the restaurant sets itself apart with its creative appetizers and sides. The extensive raw bar offerings include the gigantic U-4 shrimp cocktail, oysters, and the ultra-trendy poke. Sides like corn creme brulee, whipped potatoes with crab and shrimp, and spiral cut hasselback potatoes are can’t miss.
Admittedly, Houston doesn’t lack for steakhouses, but the city’s seemingly limitless appetite for beef means a good one will always find an audience. Steak 48 certainly qualifies.
Whatever their memories of the El Cantina, Heights residents have embraced this casual steakhouse from restaurateur Ken Bridge and Black Hill Ranch owner Felix Florez — it’s been bustling during both of my visits. As one would expect from a restaurant with a butcher shop in its dining room, chef Jordan Asher’s menu features Florez’s meats in a variety of preparations. With its pleasantly chewy crust and medium rare interior, the cast iron ribeye demonstrates why that’s preparation is such a classic. The Ritual burger’s combination of smoked short rib with a bone marrow glaze gives it a deep, beefy flavor that makes it must-visit for connoisseurs.
Of the starters, I thought the cheese skillet had a weirdly runny texture, but the seafood gravy, essentially a butter riff on etoufee that’s eaten over bread, is can’t miss. Beer fans will rejoice in the draft selection, which mixes the usual local favorites with a well-chosen range of regional and national options that aren’t seen in most restaurants.
So, yes, I’ve made my share of Delicious Reconcepts jokes about Bridge’s businesses, but he and Florez are off to an undeniably strong start here. If Ritual stays on its current trajectory, it will be a strong contender for the best locally-owned restaurant to open in Houston this year.
The first Houston outpost of the Dallas-based Neapolitan pizza mini-chain has opened in the Heights, and the first impressions of the Guy Fieri-endorsed pizzeria have been positive. Comparisons with Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana are inevitable, but also somewhat misguided. With its full range of hot appetizers, sandwiches, pastas, desserts and cocktails, Cane Rosso offers a more complete dining experience and has an appeal even for non-pizza eaters (do such people exist?) that Pizaro’s never will.
Of course, it’s still the pies that are the primary draw, and they deliver. Yes, the crust is too soft in the middle to be picked up and eaten, but it has excellent texture and gets the right amount of char in the wood-burning oven. Both the Houston-exclusive Joan Marie (with its jalapeno pesto) and the signature Paulie Gee pack a spicy punch that appeals to the Houston palate. Off-the-menu dessert pizzas that are topped with various combinations of mascarpone, nutella, cookie butter, and marshmallow fluff are both fun ideas and fun to eat. Really, the only letdown was underseasoned cacio e pepe.
Cane Rosso recently began lunch service Tuesday through Sunday, so that even people who have been waiting for the dinner crowds to die down can get in with a minimal amount of fuss.
After operating both one of the Houston-area’s best steakhouses and its most acclaimed barbecue joint, chef Ronnie Killen has cemented his title as Houston’s king of meat with this burger restaurant. Even those who dined at this location frequently when it housed Killen’s Steakhouse won’t recognize the space, which has been thoroughly transformed into a '50s-style diner with an all-new front and retro touches like a jukebox and photos from Pearland’s history.
The basic Killen’s burger is a massive, 10-ounce patty, with an 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio that Killen grinds in-house. In response to customer requests, the restaurant cooks all burgers well-done by default, but they will cook to medium if requested. When served medium, the patty delivers big beef flavor and serious drippage. I’ll stick with the fresh-cut fries or onion rings, but frozen crinkle cuts and cheese curds have also been popular with patrons.
In the month or so the restaurant has been open, Killen has steadily increased the number of burgers available, but the restaurant still feels like a work-in-progress. Once steakhouse pastry chef Samantha Mendoza rolls out milkshakes and Killen introduces a non-beef patty or two, the restaurant will compete with places like Bernie’s Burger Bus and Hubcap Grill for best in Houston bragging rights.
Luv Me Tenders
Former H-Town StrEATs chef Jason “Big Sexy” Hill and business partner Cyrus Nasr have opened a brick-and-mortar version of the chicken tenders food truck in the former Kipper Club Test Kitchen space across from Barbecue Inn. Seasoned with Hill’s mix of 15 herbs and spices (take that, Col. Sanders), the tenders themselves are crispy, juicy, and flavorful.
In addition to baskets with dipping sauces (honey mustard has a great balance of sweet and tart), Luv Me Tenders serves tacos, sandwiches, and waffles with the tenders. A rotating mix of sides and starters like boudain egg rolls and crab hushpuppies serve as both welcome additions and a reminder that Hill knows how to please a crowd.
Love Buzz/Nice Slice Pizza Co
With its mix of '90s metal and grunge on the jukebox, two lanes of skeeball, and a case full of assorted kitsch like Pee Wee Herman sitting in Chairy and a VHS collection of Faces of Death (Google if you must, but trust me you’re better off not knowing), you probably aren’t cool enough to patronize this new bar in Montrose from Moon Tower Inn/Voodoo Queen owner Brandon Young. With its total lack of parking (valet is available at night) and a cocktail menu that consists most of spirits and mixers — as in, a shot of Maker’s Mark is $8.25, add Coke, Topo, etc for an additional fee — the atmosphere might be perceived as indifferent at best to outsiders who aren’t already used to this sort of treatment at Young’s other establishments.
Those who choose to put up with the hassle will be rewarded with favorable prices on beer and spirits, convenient hours (11 am until 2 am, every day), and well-executed, thin crust, New York-style pizza from the Nice Slice Pizza Co that will soon also begin serving pies at the Raven Tower/White Oak Music Hall. My “Baller Status” meatball pizza arrived hot and crispy, and the large pizzas offer a generous portion that would easily feed two people for $20. If nothing else, it’s the spiritual successor to the late, lamented Late Night Pie, and more late night dining options are always a good thing.
Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria
This month’s second Dallas-based restaurant brings Italian food to River Oaks District. Whereas its sister restaurant Toulouse allocates a substantial portion of its dining room to a bar, Taverna focuses more squarely on the food. Similar to places like North Italia and Carrabba’s, Taverna specializes in a variety of Italian dishes, with a specific focus on pizza, risotto, and housemade pastas.
On a visit during the soft opening, friends and I enjoyed ravioli filled with Swiss chard, risotto with mushrooms and parmesan and roast chicken with vegetables. Next time, I’ll give the pizzas a shot.
Melt Gourmet Grilled Cheese
Joe Duong, owner of legendary burger joint The Shack, has expanded his reach with this grilled cheese restaurant. Since that’s a sandwich that’s easy to make at home, Melt takes a page from The Shack’s playbook and offers a variety of unexpected combinations. For example, the Fatwich is a cheesesteak riff that pairs ribeye with mushrooms, onions, cheddar, and Fontina cheese. Already, the restaurant is taking steps to address customer concerns about long waits and ventilation, which should put it on the fast track to expand from its shoebox-sized location in Cypress to points that are a little more accessible for Houstonians.
A new menu of small plates created by former Uchi sous chef Brandon Silva make the Midtown patio bar a legitimate dining destination. Dishes like grilled heirloom carrots with pickled radish and spicy yogurt and an heirloom tomato salad with hoja santa cheese and strawberries aren’t just some of the most ambitious dishes being served at bars in Houston — they wouldn’t look out of place on Pax Americana’s menu. Silva’s bone marrow dish includes a thumb-sized dollop of caviar that feels like a really good deal at only $17.
The only downside is that Wooster’s stops serving food at 10 pm. Enterprising diners should take advantage of the bar’s generous happy hour, which runs from 4 to 6 pm Monday through Saturday and features half-off wine and the 42 house cocktails as well as $3 draft beers.
Expansions, expansions, expansions
To wrap up the month, let’s briefly note that several popular restaurants have recently expanded with new locations. Woodlands comfort food spot the Republic Grille has added a second location at the intersection of Woodlands Parkway and FM 2978, which gives area residents another place to obtain its excellent chicken fried steak. Seafood-oriented restaurant Liberty Kitchen is now open in Garden Oaks, where the familiar menu features a very on-trend build-your-own poke bowl, as well as the decadent Liberty Burger that’s topped with both pork belly and a fried egg.
Jerry Built Homegrown Burgers has added a third location on the Katy Freeway between CityCentre and Memorial City Mall. Known for its family-friendly atmosphere, the burger joint prides itself on serving all-natural, hormone and antibiotic free beef and chicken. EaDo coffee shop Tout Suite has also opened its location in Memorial City that serves a full menu and even offers some limited seating. Finally, the third location of Local Foods has opened in Tanglewood. The familiar menu of sandwiches remains, but the new outpost features a high-style interior and a wood-burning oven that produces pizza and two seafood dishes.