This month’s roster of new restaurants includes downtown’s newest steakhouse, an innovative Mexican restaurant in The Heights, and a barbecue joint with huge potential. As the recent pace of restaurant openings has slackened a bit, this month’s column also includes a few slightly older restaurants that still merit attention.
As always, these are roughly ordered by the priority I would give to trying them, but all of the entries on the list have something to offer. Write-ups are based on actual experiences dining at the listed restaurants (sometimes more than once). They’re less formal reviews than a guide of what to expect along with some suggestions for what to order.
Downtown’s Four Seasons hotel retired its Italian restaurant Quattro in favor of this pan-Latin steakhouse concept from Richard Sandoval, the globe-trotting chef who also created the hotel’s well regarded lobby bar Bayou & Bottle. As part of the makeover, the dining room now revolves around a bar devoted to cocktails on one side and ceviche on the other, which is a good jumping off point for what makes Toro Toro different from other steakhouses.
Inspired by Brazilian churrascarias, a meal at Toro Toro might begin with shareable items such as the signature smoked guacamole, amarillo ceviche made with ahi tuna, or a Nikei-inspied sushi roll. Those who want an alternative to red meat could try the salmon (served delightfully medium rare) with a sweet and spicy bacon-morita chili jam. Instagram-worthy presentations and tableside touches abound, as in a tomahawk ribeye that’s flamed with tequila and sliced or the La Bomba dessert that’s — spoiler alert — dropped onto the table to reveal a various ice creams and accompaniments.
Downtown has plenty of options for people who want a traditional steakhouse experience (Pappas Bros. is a short walk from the hotel, for example). Toro Toro offers an alternative that still puts the spotlight on beef alongside lighter, fresher fare that could be a meal in itself.
Admittedly, I’m a little tardy in making my way to this Austin import that claimed the former Bistecca space on lower Westheimer, but sushi deferred is not sushi denied. Chef-owner Andy Chef and veteran sushi chef Yoshi Katsuyama (Uchi, Aqui) make a dynamic dyno who have created a compelling menu of hot and cold dishes that are both flavorful and visually appealing.
Highlights from a recent omakase included the salmon over fire, where flames lightly kiss slices of sashimi; a four-piece tuna nigiri flight that included a slice of highly marbled toro collar; and an interactive wagyu beef and hot rock. Even those ordering a la carte should opt for both the signature salmon belly and housemade potato chip nigiri and the chocolate foie gras. Pro tip: ask Katsuyama to present the sea bass soup; it’s memorable.
After earning some acclaim for his short-lived Belly of the Beast, chef Thomas Bille has found a new home in the former Calle Onze space on 11th St. Described as a Mexican-American restaurant, Chivos applies Mexican flavors and techniques to dishes from other cultures. For example, Sichuan-style chili wontons become pozole dumplings in pork broth, and the bread service gets transformed into fluffy flour tortillas with truffle butter and salmon roe that are must order for anyone who’s enjoyed an order of Nancy cakes at Nancy’s Hustle.
Bille’s got a firm grasp of traditional Mexican flavors, too, as he demonstrated with seared duck breast that’s paired with a complex fig mole and a traditional tuna tostada. Since the restaurant is part of Night Moves Hospitality (Trash Panda Drinking Club, Space Cowboy), diners can feel assured that cocktails are as flavorful as the food.
No barbecue restaurant in Houston has quite the scale of this EaDo newcomer. Years in the making, it occupies most of a city block that its owners have had in the family for over a century. Its smokehouse features four, 1,000-gallon offset smokers and two cookers for making Carolina-style whole hog.
Pitmaster Willow Villarreal and chef de cuisine Jasmine Barela, who made a splash a few years back with their Willow’s Texas Barbecue food truck, have been given a considerably grander stage to showcase their skills. While the pit room turns out flavorful takes on classic Texas ‘cue — including well-rendered, peppery brisket, juicy turkey, and slightly spicy pork ribs — it’s Barela’s sides that are the early stand out. Crispy fries, sweet and tart marinated tomatoes, hearty charro beans, and reference-quality pimento cheese all make for enticing accompaniments to any three meat plate. A full bar means plenty of beverage options, especially when dinner service gets added.
Whether J-Bar-M joins the ranks of Houston’s very best barbecue joints remains to be seen, but its scale and culinary talent testify to its ambitions to earn that kind of recognition.
Feges BBQ Spring Branch
Fresh off being named one of the state’s 50 best barbecue joints by Texas Monthly, now seems like a good time to recognize chefs/husband-and-wife duo Patrick Feges and Erin Smith for this bigger, better, standalone version of the restaurant they started in the Greenway Plaza food court. Not only does the menu feature all of the classic Texas smoked meats, it also includes the whole hog that has become Feges’ signature item.
Non-barbecue entrees like a twin-patty smash burger, porcini-crusted hanger steak, and salads add depth to the menu. With more than a dozen choices, vegetarians could make a meal out of sides like spicy Korean braised greens, Money Cat potatoes, Moroccan-spiced carrots, and the chickpea-based chana masala.
Smith’s time at Camerata means the wine list is thoughtful and offers a few offbeat pairing possibilities. Add in the convenience of being open for lunch and dinner, and it’s no wonder Spring Branch diners are flocking to this newcomer.
Lao Sze Chuan
It might be somewhat surprising to find an outpost of the acclaimed Chicago restaurant in an obscure Katy shopping center, but fans of flavorful Sichuan fare should make the journey. Highlights from a recent meal included Peking duck with properly crispy skin, Chengdu-style green beans with plenty of snap, and boiled fish filet in spicy Sichuan sauce that delivered just the right of Sichuan peppercorn tingle. Chef’s special dry chili chicken is a well-executed, flavorful version of the fried chicken found at other restaurants.
Sao Lao Thai Cafe
Independence Heights has a nice destination for Thai and Lao food. With only about 10 tables, this humble establishment doesn’t offer many frills, but the flavorful dishes are certainly a draw. Consider the larb, which swaps the usual pork or chicken for cooked-to-order filet mignon; don’t worry, it still packs enough heat to make even chiliheads sweat (at least a little). Similarly, ribeye adds meaty depth to dishes such as boat noodles, a Thai-style pho, and red curry. BYOB with a $5 corkage fee makes it an ideal destination for bringing a nice bottle of Riesling or Champagne.
The owners of Hungry’s have added this plant-based concept to their Energy Corridor location on Memorial Drive. While the menu offers plenty of meat alternatives like a cheesesteak or gyros made with seitan, the menu’s strongest dishes allow vegetables to shine. They include a poke bowl-style dish made with roasted beets and Brussels sprouts, a soba noodle salad with a sweet and spicy ginger-sesame-chili dressing, and a spinach and artichoke dip that satisfies while also being dairy free. Juices and a well-crafted cocktail menu make for compelling beverage options.