Houston's Best New Restaurants
Houston's Best New Restaurants: Great food replaces showy, national attention grabbers
Before you start scrolling to the list of restaurants below and then head straight to the comments section to call me an idiot or complain about places that were excluded, let me explain a couple of the criteria I used to select Houston's Best New Restaurants of 2013.
First, while I suspect that in six months, people will consider Vallone's, Caracol and Coltivare to be the best restaurants that opened in 2013, they're too new (or not opened yet) to be evaluated properly. Second, overall, 2013 was not the banner year for new openings that 2012 was.
Other than December's big three and maybe MF Sushi, none of the restaurants that opened this year seem likely to match Oxheart, Underbelly and The Pass & Provisions as the sort of national attention grabbing, James Beard Award candidates that have helped raise Houston's profile as a dining destination.
That's not to say the new restaurants are bad, because many of them serve extremely delicious food. It's just that the ambitions are a little lower.
Which, in a way, is sort of freeing for me. I feel less concerned about snubbing significant restaurants, because, well, it doesn't feel like there are any.
The picks below are a little more personal. Where did I go back time and again for meals? Which restaurants have cracked my personal rotation or become the places I recommend to friends? Those are the restaurants in this Best New Restrautants list.
Two final notes. One, I excluded second concepts of established restaurants; Coppa Osteria and Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette are lovely, but they're not new in the same way the restaurants below are. Second, I suspect there may be a spot on this list for either Trenza or Nara, but I haven't had a chance to try them yet.
Technically, the Eatsie Boys Cafe opened for a two week trial run in December, but it has only been open continuously since January. Besides, this is my list, and I get to pick what I want.
Just as they were one of the pioneers of Houston's new-school food truck scene, the Eatsies also provide a template for how to make the transition to brick and mortar. Start by keeping the classics that made the truck successful in the first place. The cafe still serves the signature chicken-poblano Frank the Pretzel and David Chang-inspired pork snuggies.
All-in-all, it makes the Eatsie Boys Cafe my favorite new restaurant of 2013, and one that looks likely to expand.
Then, build the brand with dishes that are faithful to your concept while still expanding the scope. For example, chef Matt Marcus's matzah ball pho is an only in Houston riff on two comfort classics, and the restaurant's well-priced Sunday brunch is a refreshing alternative to both familiar destinations and higher priced options thanks to the presence of a couple new items on the menu each week.
All-in-all, it makes the Eatsie Boys Cafe my favorite new restaurant of 2013, and one that looks likely to expand to additional locations in 2014.
This unassuming sandwich shop on Kirby takes the trend of using Chinese style steamed buns (bao) and turns it up with a variety of creative feelings. From the mandatory pork belly to the unexpectedly crispy soft shell crab, they're all well made. Even more than the sandwiches, the sides are worth a visit, particularly the tempura onion rings, fried cauliflower and top-notch fries.
Then there's the ramen, a Monday/Tuesday-only special that chef Pak Tsui has been experimenting with for some time. The soup has become so successful it's on the menu every day at Fat Bao's recently opened Sugar Land location.
A restaurant that's doing well enough to expand within its first 12 months? That's Best New worthy, indeed.
On the day Blacksmith opened, I called it the best coffee shop in Houston. It was a patently absurd thing to do and more than a little disrespectful to other, well-established operations, but, 11 months later, is there any real dispute that my decision was correct?
No other shop in town matches Blacksmith's well-executed food menu while still delivering locally roasted, impeccably sourced coffee. Add to that the professional, efficient service led by the always dapper John Letoto and his crack team of baristas who produce Instagram-classic latte art like so many nickels and dimes to further strengthen the shop's status. If that's not enough, Blacksmith's monthly pop-ups have hosted everyone from Pho Binh to Tony's executive chef Grant Gordon, which make them can't miss events.
Or just go for the biscuit created by Clumsy Butcher culinary director Erin Smith. It's a Top 10 dish of the year.
As time fades, one tends to forget the unrelenting hype that preceded the brick and mortar version of food truck The Modular. Like, for example, the boast that it would serve "the best damn fried chicken in the whole damn city" or the now discarded attempt to make Houston's best ramen, as inspired by the movie Tampopo.
The fried chicken is gone, and the ramen has become secondary to a menu of mostly Japanese-inspired bar food that pairs well with Goro & Gun's craft beer selection and killer cocktails. That almost skews Goro & Gun to "bar with great food" status instead of "restaurant with great cocktails," but the dishes produced by chef JD Woodward help keep it firmly in the restaurant camp.
Haven't been in awhile? Start with the crispy, ginger-spiced dumplings and split the meaty Phat Ass Ham Hock. Dining with friends? Reserve one of the nightly fried duck specials. And stick to Barbecue Inn for fried chicken.
Is a great patio a sufficient reason to patronize a restaurant? Maybe at Baba Yega, but recent arrivals need more than a scene to ensure their success.
Thankfully, Batanga, a product of Atlanta-transplant Brian Fasthoff, his brother Hank and their wives, offers food that satisfies. The menu possesses a something for everyone utility with options that can please vegetarians, gluten-free type and committed meat eaters. The discounts for ordering six, eight or 10 dishes help make it a perfect choice for a group looking to fuel up before attacking the new bars on Main Street.
Factor in the live music on the weekends, the half-price bottles of wine on Sunday and friendly service and it adds up to a fun place to eat. With an absolutely killer patio.
When general manager Joe Welborn and chef Kevin Bryant announced they'd be joining forces to launch Eleven XI in the former One's a Meal space on West Gray, they announced a host of ambitious programs including a full selection of housemade ice creams and jerkies. Although those programs have yet to materialize, the restaurant's Southern coastal cuisine, expansive wine list and top-notch cocktails have found an audience that brings together equal parts Montrose attitude, River Oaks style and Midtown swagger.
Among the highlights are a tea-brined, fried game hen, Asian-inspired barbecue pork ribs and a killer burger. Bryant displays the skills he developed as a pastry chef at Tony's to good effect with desserts that are sufficient reasons to patronize the restaurant by itself.
When I was a twentysomething college student freezing my tuchus off in the wilds of Maine, my go-to late night craving after a couple too many cups of Natty Light was a warm, toasty sandwich delivered from a place that took phone orders until 1:30 a.m. My classmates were mostly pizza orderers, but I always preferred sandwiches.
Of course, unlike those sandwiches of yore, Sandy Witch's products hold their own with the best in the city.
Maybe that's why I'm such a fan of Sandy Witch Sandwich Company, the sandwich shop from Pi Pizza Truck owner Anthony Calleo that occupies the kitchen inside Grand Prize. Of course, unlike those sandwiches of yore, Sandy Witch's products hold their own with the best in the city.
Chicken parm can be a gloopy mess, but the Sandy Witch version, known as the Strega, elevates the classic with a slightly sour brined chicken and super crisp breading. There are plenty of salty bar snacks, too, like the hand-cut French fries that can be ordered covered in beer cheese for the ultimate guilty pleasure.
Don't feel like fighting for a seat inside the frequently crowded bar? Take the order to go. The staff is always willing to accommodate, which is more than I can say for a certain group of delivery drivers.
Sometimes it's easy to get sucked into a good story, and John Sheely's tale of opening a Northern Italian restaurant inspired by his mother's family is one of the better stories behind a restaurant. While it's hard to imagine him sitting around at the kid's table at his great aunt's house wolfing down a $55 order of osso bucco, Osteria Mazzantini's housemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas do have a certain homey quality to them.
But there's a decidedly upscale quality to both the dining room and sommelier Samantha Porter's fiercely Italian wine list. All-day dining and a killer happy hour deal ($5 pizza!) means that Mazzantini works equally well for a reasonably priced business lunch, a gathering with friends or as a date-night destination. Proving that despite a plethora of Italian-American options near the Galleria, there's always room for another good one.
In this age when restaurants are referred to as "concepts" and food is referred to as "product," a restaurant that's built around the idea of making the best possible version of a specific dish is very refreshing.
Christopher Balat launched Balcor Hospitality and Cloud 10 Creamery with pastry chef Chris Leung after Leung made him the best banana split he'd ever tasted. Turns out that caramelizing the bananas with a blow torch and topping them with housemade magic shell makes as big difference.
Cloud 10 is more than a banana split, of course. Leung and his team maintain a rotating selection of 10 flavors, including instant classics like Nutella Marshmallow and Milk Chocolate-Black Sesame, that get combined into chef special sundaes.
Looking for a real splurge? Sign up for one of Leung's celebrated four or six-course dessert tastings.
My admiration for the recently opened Heights brick and mortar location of the successful hot dog slinging food truck is almost irrational. What is it about the hot dogs at Good Dogs that are so good
Sure, the restaurant uses a made to order beef and pork dog and makes all its own condiments, which definitely helps. As with the Eatsie Boys, the new items that they couldn't serve on the truck, including a roast beef sandwich, milkshakes and beer, all enhance the inherent goodness of what they'd already done, which also helps.
Finally, I like being able to sit and wait for my order. The truck was usually so crowded that standing was mandatory. Being able to sit and relax over a beverage is so much more pleasant.
Mexican food and steaks. Two of Houston's favorite tastes come together in this restaurant in the former La Strada space on Westheimer. Meat and seafood are grilled over open flames in the same style as the restaurant's first location in Saltillo.
The best way to dine at Casa del Caballo is to order a steak that's large enough to split and pair it with enchiladas. Take turns, combine them in one bite, whatever.
Feeling really indulgent? Go with a group and take down the four-pound, hand-trimmed rib eye cap. That's enough meat to split for four to six people at a very manageable per person cost. Even in a city with a seemingly limitless appetite for steakhouses, there's nothing else quite like it.
When I first heard about Pistolero's, I wrongly assumed that any bar bringing together infused tequilas with a selection of tacos would be a cleaned-up, watered-down version of El Gran Malo. Thankfully, I'm happy to admit I was wrong.
Pistolero's does have a high-style riff on the same Dios de la Muertas decor that's part of El Gran Malo's look, but it is sufficiently great looking to stand on its own.
Also great? Chef Brandon Shillings menu of tacos, tortas and Tex-Mex bar snacks are good by themselves. The choices don't play it safe, either — the lengua and oxtail are two of the best options. Friendly happy hour prices and late hours make this restaurant good both for starting a night and for wrapping it up.