After a stellar summer for restaurant openings, the fall is already off to a strong start. Already, three of this fall's most anticipated openings have made their debuts and they aren't the only restaurants making a splash.
With so many worthy options, this month's list goes to 11. While they're roughly ranked in the order I think you should try them, they're all worthy of your attention. From three barbecue options to a new option in Midtown for a late night burger, everyone should find an appealing choice.
It's taken over two years to transform a used car lot and a couple of crumbling houses into the Treadsack "mothership" that houses Hunky Dory and Bernadine's, but the restaurant officially opens to the public October 5. Hunky Dory is itself a bit of a split concept with two separate menus — a more upscale dining room with houndstooth fabric, sea green walls and a view of the open kitchen and a more casual pub with brick walls, cozy booths and a patio. In the dining room, aim for a view of the wood fired hearth; in the hands of chef de cuisine Daniel Blue, the massive grill provides a show of its own with flames and sparks.
As one of the few non-Treadsack employees at Wednesday night's friends and family practice service, I discovered that Richard Knight and his team are already living up to the sky high expectations that diners have for the former Feast chef. Our meal began with two starters: a salmagundi salad of roast lamb and herbs in a tart, bright vinagrette and a rich, creamy crab soup called "partan bree."
A dry aged New York strip demonstrated the grill's benefits; the steak arrived properly medium rare and had just a faint whiff of smoke. So too did a roasted chicken and egg dish served atop a massive slice of crusty bread. A la carte vegetable sides — we chose roasted beets in goat cheese and crispy roasted Brussels sprouts — help assuage some of the dietary guilt. Fans of Feast's signature sticky toffee pudding need not worry; pastry chef Julia Doran has faithfully recreated it.
Pappa Charlies Barbeque
In just over a year, pitmaster Wesley Jurena has gone from operating a barbecue trailer that I wrote "deserves to be busier" to a brand new brick and mortar restaurant that's only steps from Dynamo Stadium. Jurena achieved this milestone not just by serving properly smoky, intensely-seasoned, Central Texas-style barbecue, but also by embracing his Alief roots and experimenting with new dishes like jerk-spiced tri tip and smoked masala-spiced lamb.
At lunch, the traditional stuff dominates the menu and it already shows signs of exceeding the high standards set by the trailer. In particular, Pappa Charlies' pork ribs are some of the best in Houston thanks to their sweet, spicy glaze that draws on Jurena's competition history and all of the restaurant's beef comes from 44 Farms.
Dinner is more of a work in progress, but the brisket slides and turkey tacos with pineapple pico Jurena served at a pre-opening party are the kind of accessible bar food that's a perfect pregame meal. Parking in the area can be a hassle, but Pappa Charlies is already drawing substantial crowds at lunch. The biggest challenge could be keeping up with demand, but, given his track record, it's hard to imagine Jurena struggling to meet it.
This Midtown newcomer takes its inspiration from restaurants like Buddakan in New York City that blend high quality dining with a lounge vibe. Credit chef Micah Rideout for keeping the focus squarely on the food. His upbringing in Thailand and extensive travels through Asia bring a little swagger to the menu of shareable plates that's reflected in dishes like the 10 ingredient tower salad and an appealing riff on steak frites that's served with crispy noodles instead of fries. If he could dial back the sweetness just a bit and up the spice, Tarakaan would be a legitimate foodie destination. Even in its current form, it's an appealing destination for a dressed up night out or as the first stop on a Midtown crawl.
After a five month hiatus, this Thai restaurant that's popular with Houston chefs made a triumphant return in a new, expanded space along the northside METRORail line. A leisurely Sunday lunch for five confirmed that the old flavors are still very much intact, particularly when we asked for the green papaya salad to be prepared "Thai spicy." Noodle dishes and curries proved similarly successful, but the steamed mackerel proved too fishy for our collective palates. Service was friendly, if a little flustered, which seems like part of the inevitable transition to the bigger room. A selection of both Thai and local beers from Town in City Brewing help put out the fire out.
If the crowd that packed this restaurant on a recent Friday night is any indication, residents of The Heights are really happy to have a local sushi restaurant. Rather than chase the upper end of restaurants like Kata Robata, KUU or MF Sushi, Ka follows the path of more neighborhood oriented spots like Nippon and Osaka. Chef Pak Tsui already has an unlikely hit with Fat Bao and he brings that knack for serving food people want to eat to Ka's diverse menu of both raw and prepared options. Highlights include the yellow rose roll, a spicy hamachi chile appetizer hamachi nigiri and oxtail ramen in a deeply satisfying curry broth. House cocktails, a solid selection of Japanese whiskey and a number of reasonably priced sake options are available once diners join the restaurant's private club that permits it to serve liquor in this dry neighborhood.
This month's unofficial theme of "established restaurants in a new location" gets its third permutation with pitmaster Greg Gatlin's massive new restaurant in Garden Oaks. Gone are the cramped quarters of Gatlin's original location on 19th street; in its place is a retro-styled, classic looking barbecue joint with wood paneled walls, Edison bulbs and, most importantly, a massive, wood-fired rotisserie smoker. The good news is that Gatlin's is already producing brisket and ribs that live up to its place on Texas Monthly's list of the state's 50 best barbecue joints.
On the other hand, the restaurant still seems to be learning to manage demand; a close friend reported waiting over 30 minutes for a simple to-go order. That's hard to justify when the meat only needs to be sliced and packaged. Count on the restaurant to figure things out quickly, but bringing some patience is best for now.
This new restaurant in Briargrove joins the suddenly hot corner that's already home to Arturo Boada Cuisine, Roegels Barbecue Co. and Bramble. With its stylish dining room and expansive patio, the restaurant feels like a hybrid of sister concepts Glass Wall and Brooklyn Athletic Club. Chef Albert Vasquez keeps the menu fairly classic. Diners can choose from salads, burgers, pastas and heartier main dishes that include seafood and three different steaks. If the crowd of parents with children I observed during my visit is any indication, the neighborhood has already begun to check out the newcomer.
My ribeye arrived properly medium rare, and the chile glaze provided just enough sweetness and spice without covering up the beefy flavor. Included sides of risotto and tomato-cucumber salad made for a fairly complete meal for a reasonable $30. On the other hand, I'm not quite ready to pay $15 for an Old Fashioned or $20 for a martini, no matter what kind of spirits they use.
Rico's Morning + Noon + Night
Located at Bagby park, this new kiosk from the folks behind Cyclone Anaya's offers a quick-service approach and a something for everybody menu. In the morning, it's breakfast tacos and Katz coffee. At lunch and dinner, burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes are available, along with a selection of wine and craft beer. On the weekends, Rico's offers late night "drunk food" options like chili cheese fries with bacon. The basic burger is pretty compelling; it features 44 Farms beef, a Slow Dough potato bun and veggies from local farms. Go classic with cheese and standard toppings or kick it up with queso and guacamole. With the weather finally cooling off, the ability to eat in the park while lounging on its lawn sounds like a good use of a fall afternoon.
It might not seem like Midtown needs another Vietnamese restaurant, but Saigon House, which recently replaced the short-lived Cafe Helene on Main Street, offers some appealing features that set it apart. Most importantly, diners may utilize the build your own spring roll bar that allows people to select their fillings (protein, veggies, add-ons) Chipotle-style. Banh mi can also be ordered to spec. Main dishes like honey chicken with spinach and beef lo mein (really vermicelli noodles) arrived properly cooked and seem to use higher quality ingredients than other nearby options. HCC and area office workers can check Saigon House out for lunch, but plans to add dinner and late night will open it to a broader audience.
This month's third barbecue joint brings smoked meat to Montrose. Located in a renovated house on Richmond and only open Thursday through Sunday, Drew's is a decidedly rustic affair with a cafeteria-style serving lines and a few tables scattered in the dining room. Whereas places like Pappa Charlies and Gatlin's have embraced Central Texas-style barbecue, Drew's has a more old school approach. The brisket I sampled lacked the heavy black pepper seasoning or intense smoke flavor of other newcomers, and ribs were almost cooked to falling off the bone. Not the style I prefer, but it's respectable enough and could improve with a little more experience.
One to grow on: Piada Italian Street Food
This Ohio-based fast casual chain has been dubbed the Chipotle of Italian restaurants, and it's easy to understand why. Diners order a sandwich, pasta bowl or salad from either a suggested mix or with their choice of protein and toppings. The piada sandwich, essentially a wrap made with a pleasantly chewy flatbread, is the way to go, because it seems to be the best way to bring all the ingredients together. Calamari, which can be rubbery, arrived crispy, and all of the toppings were fresh and vibrant. The portions are substantial enough to be a filling lunch or a light dinner. With a location near Memorial Park set to open October 2 and one in Sugar Land October 23, the chain seems poised for success — as soon as it ditches the Pepsi products from its self-serve soda fountains.