Yes, this year has been a strange time full of unexpected challenges. We’ve all learned far more than we ever thought we’d need to about how virus are transmitted and the importance of wearing a mask to #stopthespread.
Restaurants, along with live music venues, movie theaters, and other places where people gather in large groups to have a good time, have borne the brunt of restrictions designed to slow the spread. Lots of promising establishments have closed — some before they even had a chance to build a following. One of my favorite meals of 2020 took place at Alma, an elevated South American restaurant in Highland Village that didn’t even last two months before it closed for good.
The places that had the courage to open despite all these challenges deserve an extra heaping of praise. They’ve had to navigate the difficulties of PPE and monitoring their employees’ health at the same time they’ve had to execute a menu and build a following at a time when people choose not to dine out to protect their health, including family members and close friends who think I’m risking my health by eating at restaurants.
While I respect their choices, I feel safe at establishments that are following the rules by wearing masks, requiring diners to wear theirs when not seated, offering hand sanitizer, and keeping proper spacing between tables. In the absence of additional government assistance, I also recognize that spending money at these establishments is the only mechanism available to guarantee their continued survival and keep people employed.
My opinion is shared by the people I see dining out at businesses across the city, and the CultureMap readers who made this list of restaurants that reopened on May 1 the site's most-read article of 2020. Operators may not be making much (if any) profit, but the beginning of vaccine distribution hints at a time when things may be more like they used to be.
Beyond the challenges of the pandemic, this year’s best new restaurants have achieved a quality that would compare favorably to any year. Let’s celebrate their accomplishments and look forward to a time when everyone feels comfortable in their dining rooms.
The list below constitutes my best meals of 2020 at Houston restaurants. Most of my impressions are based on multiple visits, but the realities of pandemic dining mean a few are based on one meal. Similarly, I haven’t made it to every place I intended to (sorry, Kin Dee), and I’ve also chosen to exclude three newcomers that are still finding their sea legs, Acadian Coast, Hidden Omakase, and Tiny Champions. See all y’all in the Tastemaker Awards best new restaurant tournament (probably).
Belly of the Beast
At this unassuming restaurant in Old Town Spring, chef Thomas Bille applies the techniques he learned at some of Los Angeles’ top restaurants to the Mexican cuisine he grew up eating. Thoughtfully prepared tacos wrapped in homemade tortillas, delicate ceviches, and homestyle classics like pozole all set Belly of the Beast apart from other restaurants.
Bille makes a first-rate birria taco — one of this year’s most trendy dishes — but it’s the trumpet mushrooms that stand out the most. They’re lightly smoked then topped with a carrot escabeche puree and hoja santa chimichurri that add sweetness and acidity to the mushroom’s earthiness. That’s a lot of work for a $2.50 taco, but it’s that dedication that makes Belly of the Beast a must-visit even for the hard core inner loopers.
Trying to explain what makes this Montrose restaurant so delightful can be a little tricky. Yes, chef Aaron Bludorn’s menu features well-executed versions of familiar fare like oysters Rockerfeller, short rib-stuffed ravioli, and roast lamb, and the restaurant’s most Instagrammed dish is baked Alaska, which is about as classic as dessert gets. But Bludorn continues to introduce new twists; even across four visits to the restaurant, I’ve always found something new to try.
Still, raving about the quality of the food is only half the story, because what makes Bludorn special is the feeling in the dining room. Even with masks on, the staff’s excitement about working there comes through in every dish description and tableside flourish. It’s also reflected in the faces of diners who gleefully cut into the oversized lobster pot pie or slurp down oysters topped with caviar and sea urchin.
In a year when so much has gone so wrong, the ability to escape and feel normal — even for a couple of hours — is highly welcome. Bludorn provides that and more.
The skills for rotisserie chicken that chef Roberto Castre demonstrated at the Chicken Station have been refined at this restaurant in the Energy Corridor. Forget the Costco special, Chick Houz’s birds offer juicy, flavorful meat beneath properly crispy skin. Beyond the chicken, the restaurant serves an array of sides and Peruvian comfort food like lomo saltado and salchipapa. It’s an affordable, family-friendly option for all of West Houston.
If all this restaurant in West University Place did was provide regular access to the barbacoa taco that made Tony Luhrman’s food truck a sensation, dayenu. Thankfully, Luhrman and co-chef Mike Serva had considerably more ambitious plans for their brick and mortar. Diners can go to El Topo in the morning for scratch made pastries, breakfast tacos, and aqua frescas, or they can come at night for a multi-course tasting and natural wine pairings. Regardless of time of day or price point, El Topo’s menu — a creative mix of Texan and Mexican traditions backed by French technique — offers everything from roasted kohlrabi to pan-seared redfish to, of course, those ultra-popular tacos on handmade corn tortillas.
I claim no expertise when it comes to Korean BBQ, but this Chinatown restaurant served me an excellent take on the cuisine. Handam stands out with service (a server supervises the tabletop cooking), quality of meat, and the overwhelming amount of banchan served with the meals. Those various kinds of kimchi, pickled vegetables, and other items enhance the flavor of the meats and encourage the sort of sharing and conversation that makes for a memorable meal. The recent addition of a $25 all-you-can-eat option makes me want to return soon for an epic feast.
For all the skills he’s demonstrated with smokers and grills, I think Ronnie Killen’s true gift is for frying things. At this restaurant near Washington Avenue, the best dishes are fried: green tomatoes, chicken, shrimp, and chicken fried steak. The restaurant also serves the best chicken pot pie I’ve ever had and a can’t-miss slice of German chocolate cake (inspired by a Killen family recipe). Add in a few Killen’s classics like pork belly burnt ends and creamed corn to complete the experience.
Two years ago, I compared this restaurant to Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield — lots of potential but also the potential for a Katsuya-style crash and burn. Looking back, maybe Patrick Mahomes would have been a better choice.
Simply put, Musaafer does everything well. From its stunning interior filled with handmade details to the breadth of its menu to the sincerity of its service, diners will be delighted with their meals at this elegant establishment. A recent tasting through the newly introduced winter menu demonstrated the ways in which chef Mayank Itswal has used inspiration from his childhood and his travels to elevate the restaurant’s cuisine. Creative cocktails that utilize an array of housemade syrups and infusions constitute some of the city’s finest drinks.
I don’t know whether Musaafer will emerge as an era-defining Houston restaurant, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.
Like Aaron Bludorn, chef Travis McShane brings experience from working in New York for one of the country’s most well-regarded chefs, in his case farm-to-table pioneer Jonathan Waxman. Those influences show up at his Italian-inspired Montrose eatery in dishes such as the wood-roasted chicken that features incredibly crispy skin and the housemade pastas topped with an array of seasonal ingredients.
Ostia is also one of the rare new restaurants to serve lunch; sitting on its patio with a pizza, the first-rate Caesar salad, and a glass of sparkling wine from Tuscany is a very fine way to spend an afternoon, especially if the meal ends with a couple of cannoli.
Pier 6 Seafood
After spending most of his career making someone else’s food at Killen’s Steakhouse and Brennan’s, chef Joe Cervantez gets to step out on his own at this restaurant in San Leon opened in partnership with Prestige Oysters president Raz Halili. Oysters — served raw, roasted, fried, and in chowder — take pride of place on the menu. Other highlights include crab cakes, smoked fish dip, and the Tide to Fried seafood platter that’s practically enough food for two. The bayside setting and a selection of creative cocktails from the Ladies of Libation help make this restaurant a destination-worthy experience for any Gulf Coast seafood fan.
Street to Kitchen
Chef Benchawan Painter combines native Thai flavors with local ingredients at this unassuming East End spot. Scratch made curries and sauces elevate familiar dishes like massaman curry and tom yum soup. Painter’s fried chicken isn’t spicy, but the Thai chili sauce she serves it with packs a welcome wallop of heat, as do her laarb and papaya salad.
Houston may still be searching for the game changer that channels the spirits of acclaimed Las Vegas Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam — the restaurant’s garlic prawns might be the single best thing I ate this year — but Street to Kitchen offers plenty of comfort at an affordable price. That’s more than enough to make it worthy of attention.
No restaurant that opened this year offers a more complete escape from the outside world than Ben Berg’s retro supper club. The posh space offers endless luxury; even the rocks glass for the signature Old Fashioned feels like it costs about a day’s pay.
Chef Robert Del Grande’s menu is similarly over-the-top. Start with an order of steak tartare and (yes, AND) foie gras torchon or bites of bone-marrow topped wagyu carpaccio paired with raw oysters topped with caviar. Don’t miss the wedge salad that features both bacon and blue cheese cut tableside to top the impossibly ripe red tomatoes. Then indulge with a throwback entree like lobster Thermidor, Dover sole, or a bone-in ribeyes.
Not everyone can spend $500 on dinner for two — or more for oenophiles who dive into the deep end of the wine list — but those who choose to indulge will be rewarded with the city’s most luxurious dining experience.
The trend towards restaurants that blend traditional Vietnamese flavors with Texas touches — consider both Les Ba’get and Blood Bros BBQ as examples — gets another welcome addition with this establishment from chefs Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen. The duo demonstrate a playfulness with their cuisine; for example, the fried chicken’s crispy batter gets crunch, a hint of sweetness, and green flecks from pandan-flavored rice. They’re also using high quality ingredients such as wagyu beef and smoked duck that elevate their takes on shaking beef and goi vit. Pair those dishes with creative cocktails for an even more memorable experience.