After a somewhat slow start to 2019, Houston’s restaurant scene has really picked up the pace in the last couple of months. Unfortunately, those new arrivals have not been documented in this space.
After all, this is supposed to be a monthly column, but it hasn’t appeared since February. It took a break in March to make way for our Tastemaker Awards coverage. Just when the column was supposed to come back in April, I became so ill that I spent two weeks in the hospital and three more weeks recovering at a nursing home.
Thankfully, I’m fine now, but it took a bit of time to get back up to my usual pace of visiting all the restaurants whose openings I’d missed out on. This month’s column then is a belated, spring-focused edition of my look at Houston’s recently opened restaurants. I’ll come back in a few weeks with a more summer-oriented guide with thoughts on places like Loch Bar, Mendocino Farms, and Sweetgreen.
Anyway, enough intro. As always, these restaurants are ordered by how important I think it is for people to try them. Let’s go.
At this point the praise for Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel’s follow up to Better Luck Tomorrow has been so universal that adding my own thoughts almost feels superfluous, but that’s never stopped me before. By recruiting chef Mark Clayton and baker Drew Gimma to lead the kitchen, Yu and Heugel have created an ambitious neighborhood restaurant that mixes carefully-prepared cuisine with some of the best bread being baked in Houston.
For example, a salad of deliciously ripe tomatoes gets a little added crunch from breadcrumbs, and a challenging-sounding dish of marinated mussels and beans gets tied together by a thick piece of grilled sourdough. Even dishes without bread — say the baked sweet potato that comes with crunchy nuggets of pork or a delicate crudo — deliver vibrant flavors. Needless to say, courses that feature bread, like the soon-to-be-famous Dutch baby pancake with cheese, black pepper, and honey are also standouts.
Sure, I could quibble that it seems a little silly to make rye bread just to dehydrate and shred it into chips for a starter where the pieces are covered with a Hungarian-inspired cheese spread. Or that the cocktails, while delicious, would taste even better if they were a couple bucks cheaper. But those are kind of nitpicky. Generally, I’m very happy to let general manager Terry Williams and his talented staff do their thing while I enjoy the food coming out of this very promising kitchen. 632 W. 19th St.
1751 Sea and Bar
With the closings of Holley’s and SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, plus the almost two-year suspension of Reef, the number of quality seafood options in this city took a real hit. But things are looking up, courtesy of this concept from Sambrooks Management Company that replaced Star Fish. The redesign features a dramatic new bar with brass accents that becomes the space’s visual centerpiece.
Chefs Lyle Bento and J.D. Woodward, reunited after working together at Southern Goods, have created a menu that reflects a diverse set of influences. Bento’s Hawaiian background shows up in flavorful poke preparation, while Woodward’s love for all things preserved appears in the seafood charcuterie board that features a number of cured, pickled, and smoked items. Japanese-style fried chicken karaage is both crispy and spicy. Non-seafood eaters will enjoy the duck salad and a decadent ribeye acclaimed beef purveyor Niman Ranch.
The restaurant’s name references the Gin Act of 1751, which means the cocktail list features just some of the 120-plus gins on the back bar. Gin and tonics and martinis lead the options, but bartenders David Maness and Chelsey Magee have enough creative originals to keep anyone intrigued. Add in general manager Adrian Cuneo's very affordable wine list to craft a restaurant that’s as pleasant to drink in as it is to dine in. 191 Heights Blvd.
Nothing about BCN could have prepared diners for its newly opened sister restaurant in River Oaks District. MAD (read as “mad” not as “em-ay-dee”) offers stunning visuals — courtesy of both designer Lazaro Rosa-Violán’s interior and the well-dressed crowd — and an atmosphere that’s as high-energy as BCN’s is staid. The green neon lights in the bathroom hallway have already become so famous that it inspires otherwise rational people to lay on the floor for photos.
Jul 6, 2019 at 10:08am PDT
Chef Luis Roger has turned up the creativity, too, with several dishes that use modernist techniques. Some of these work better than others. For example, the MAD ‘n cheese that features noodles made out of chilled broth and the liquid olives with a white chocolate shell deliver bold favorites in unexpected forms. Beef tartare that comes wrapped in edible "newsprint" adds whimsy to a familiar dish. On the other hand, the MAD tomato may look pretty, but its tomato gelee is fairly flavorless, and the interior cheese and pesto all have the same mushy texture.
While it’s tempting to focus on those dishes, the more conventional options are equally worthy of attention. Dishes like sucking pig empanadas and ham croquettes may not look great on Instagram, but the merits of salty (in a good way) pork in a crispy container cannot be overstated. Similarly, $78 may seem like a lot to pay for skirt steak, but when it comes from an Iberico pig, the meat’s fatty richness justifies the cost.
Paella is another of MAD’s signature dishes. On my first visit, it lacked the crispy socarrat that defines the dish; on my second visit, the kitchen prepared the dish properly. Having the crispy rice on the bottom elevates the dish; hopefully, they’re serving it that way consistently. 4444 Westheimer Rd., Suite C180
Carmelo’s may be gone, but Italian-American comfort food lives on at this energy corridor restaurant from B&B Butchers owner Ben Berg and his brother, chef Daniel Berg. A comprehensive renovation has replaced the outdated ‘80s interior with a more contemporary look, and a dramatically expanded bar area makes the restaurant a legitimate happy hour destination for Energy Corridor workers.
Highlights from my meal included a bowl of lobster bisque that had lots of sweet lobster meat and linguini with clams that delivered a satisfying garlic punch. I would have liked a little more lemon-y brightness in the veal piccata, but the thin-pounded scallopini offered a lot to like, especially for a very reasonable $26. An affordable, Italian-oriented wine list also makes this restaurant the sort of place that should be a hit in its neighborhood. 14795 Memorial Dr.
Tropicales Café Y Comida
This Latin-inspired, all-day cafe from Morningstar co-owner David Buehrer, chef Carlos Ballon, and business partners Steve and Hilary Ybarra has a lot going for it. That starts with its Michael Hsu-designed space that has a breezy, tropical vibe that feels like one part Miami Vice and one part Godfather II.
The menu has a similar bent, with dishes like salmon ceviche, tacos (with a choice of five different fillings include beef fajitas and a vegan black bean with nopales), and one of Houston’s better Cuban sandwiches. One dish that’s particularly noteworthy is the pan con aguacate, which swaps the bread in avocado toast for a blue corn tlayuda.
Like any concept associated with Buehrer’s Greenway Coffee, the espresso beverages are all well-crafted, but Tropicales sets itself apart with a diverse range of cocktails, including the avocolada, which plays around with a classic pina colada by swapping tequila in for rum and adding some creamy avocado to the usual lime and coconut. 2132 Bissonnet St.
All but the most militant meat-a-saurus will find something to like at chef-owner Stephanie Hoban’s stylish cafe in the Heights Waterworks development. For example, the krabby patty sandwich utilizes jackfruit and artichoke to mimic the texture of a crab cake. The orange cauliflower’s sweet and spicy chili sauce is a very satisfying substitute for General Tso’s. With a stylish interior and a full selection of beer and wine, Verdine is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon or evening; the meal feels so virtuous that diners may even feel good about rewarding themselves with a treat from nearby ice cream shop Sweet Bribery. 449 W. 19th St.
Wholesome Kitchen and Wholesome Pies
Proprietor Michael Collins, best known for places like The Fish in Midtown and downtown’s Bovine & Barley, has brought a little inner loop flair to the Lake Houston area. Located in the Generation Park mixed-use complex, these two family-friendly restaurants are poised to elevate the area’s dining options.
Wholesome Pies turns out Neapolitan style pies: both traditional options, such as margherita and pepperoni, and more fusion-style, like an elotes pie with roasted corn and queso fresco. Regardless of toppings, a flavorful crust with good char anchors the pie.
Wholesome Kitchen’s menu touches on a number of recent trends. For example, starter options include beet hummus, chargrilled oysters, and meatballs. Seven entrees, including branzino, sea bass, roasted chicken, and a bone-in ribeye, ensure that most diners will find something that suits their preferences. With most appetizers priced at around $10 and no entree over $26, the prices are reasonable enough to draw people from surrounding areas like Humble and Atascocita.
The restaurant also offers a full selection of beer, wine, and cocktails. Combined with its expansive bar area and stylish look, Wholesome Kitchen should become both a happy hour favorite and a date night destination. 250 Assay St.
Most people don’t have access to an Italian grandmother who makes handmade pastas, but a new restaurant in the Greenway Plaza/River Oaks area makes finding one a little easier. Chef Monica Fallone and her husband and business partner Luis Mancera debuted their replacement for Borgo Food Station back in April. The intimate space has an undeniable charm that’s already a hit with area residents.
Pasta dishes such as linguini in a cacio e pepe that gets a savory boost of chickpeas or a delicate spinach-stuffed ravioli show Fallone’s skills with dough. Sauteed shrimp with polenta proved to be a highlight of the entree section, but the less said about the flavorless beef carpaccio appetizer the better. 3641 West Alabama St.
Taste Bar & Kitchen
A restaurant built around chicken and waffles sounds like a gimmick, but chef Don Bowie has brought a surprising amount of sophistication to his Midtown restaurant. Chicken that comes in flavors like jerk, Cajun, and Nashville Hot gets paired with waffles in flavors such as red velvet, chocolate chip, and pecan praline.
General Tso’s chicken had a crunchy exterior and the right sweet and sour balance, and its companion waffle was pleasantly sweet and crispy. Pair the entree with a glass of wine or one of the many cocktails. One word of warning: the upstairs dining room can be very loud; the downstairs dining room is more sedate. 3015 Bagby St.