Another year, another list

Breaking down Alison Cook's top 100 restaurants: 2018 list raises many questions

Breaking down Alison Cook's top 100: 2018 list raises many questions

Better Luck Tomorrow interior
Better Luck Tomorrow landed on two national best lists — but not on Alison Cook's.  Photo by Jenn Duncan Photography

Another annual list of Houston’s top 100 restaurants from Chronicle critic Alison Cook means another flood of text messages from friends, readers, and people in the restaurant community who are befuddled by the choices.

"I'm waiting on your takedown of Alison's list," one person writes. Cook writes, and I react. It’s become as much of an annual ritual as disappointing Texans losses. But just like watching Bill O’Brien mismanage the clock becomes tiresome, bitching about Cook’s picks starts to become redundant.

Certain aspects of the rankings have become inevitable. We know that a Hugo Ortega restaurant (Xochi, earning the top spot for the second year in a row); a Justin Yu restaurant (Theodore Rex replaces Oxheart); Killen’s Barbecue; Coltivare; Kata Robata; Pondicheri, and BCN will all make the top 10. A few ambitious new openings will show up in the ranked section, which once again constitutes 30 establishments. This year they include downtown French restaurant Lucienne and Nancy's Hustle, the eclectic EaDo restaurant that's been among Houston's hippest spots since it opened in December. 

As one friend noted, it’s like griping about which restaurants do or don’t earn Michelin stars. Houstonians should understand the things that Cook values in restaurants. We’re free to agree or disagree as we see fit. Continuing to complain that the whole list isn't ranked, for example, isn't going to change anything.

Still, I have questions. 

Does she overvalue French restaurants by ranking four as some of Houston’s 20 best establishments? Has Houston suddenly become a mecca of French cuisine? If so, what happened to Etoile, which has disappeared from the list?

“Consistency is what matters most to me; it even takes precedence over brilliance,” Cook writes, but how is it possible to evaluate the consistency of Tris, a restaurant that only opened at the beginning of September?

Should serving brisket enchiladas and fried seafood at dinner elevate Killen’s Barbecue to Houston’s third best restaurant while a whopping eight other barbecue joints — including such luminaries as CorkScrew BBQ and Tejas Chocolates that are rated by Texas Monthly as two of the state’s 10 best — are included in the unranked 70? 

Will she ever explain what happened with her meals at The Pass & Provisions that dropped the restaurant from fourth place in 2017 to 25th in 2018?

What about Nobie’s, an industry favorite that fell off the list completely? “Not this year, no,” Cook tweets. “Menu did not seem nearly as appealing to me. Not saying it won’t be back.”

The Chronicle touts that Cook made 400 visits to restaurants for her evaluations. Does she have to visit a restaurant in this calendar year for it to qualify? 

Both Food & Wine and Bon Appetit ranked Better Luck Tomorrow as one of the best new restaurants in the entire country. Cook doesn’t include it on her list. Is a bar not eligible for inclusion no matter how good its food is? If not, why not? Cook routinely used to include food trucks; Bernie's Burger Bus, Good Dog Houston, and Melange Creperie all earned spots on the list before opening their brick and mortar locations. 

Should Houstonians really believe that Katy sushi restaurant Tobiuo is a better restaurant than nationally renowned establishments like Nobu and Roka Akor (the restaurant Tobiuo's chef came from), or does Cook simply prefer locally owned establishments?

CultureMap contacted Cook's editor, Jody Schmal, for answers to some of these questions. On a macro level, she writes in an email that "the Top 100 list is subjective; the rankings reflect Alison’s own palate and sensibilities, honed over the decades that she has been writing about the Houston dining scene." 

In response to more specific questions, she writes that Tris may be a new restaurant, but it maintains the same personnel and culinary perspective as Hubbell & Hudson Bistro, and "has been consistent — and consistently improving — over the past five years." As for whether the national acclaim for Better Luck Tomorrow means it deserves a spot on Cook's list, Schmal writes that "lists from other media outlets do not affect her decisions."

Schmal notes that Cook visited 85 of the restaurants on the list at least once in 2018. "The rest appear due to consistent past performance and a revisit within the last two calendar years."

These sort of details probably only matter to restaurant obsessives. The vast majority of Chronicle readers will glance at the list when it's delivered with their Sunday papers and move on. If they took it more seriously, perhaps Maba Pan-Asian Cuisine wouldn't have shuttered a week before Cook ranked it the city's 10th best restaurant. 

Of course, I am one of those restaurant obsessives. The details matter to me. Cook's list will probably always seem lacking in one area or another. Perhaps I should write my own.