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Houston's best new restaurants for 2023: 12 favorites that keep us coming back for more
By any measure, this year has produced a bumper crop of exciting new restaurants. Familiar faces and new names made their presence felt as Houston once again demonstrated it has the talent and diversity to go toe to toe with the dining scenes of any other city in America.
Trying to sift through them all — a roster drawn from the more than 60 featured “restaurants of the week” on this year’s episodes of the “What’s Eric Eating” podcast — made for lots of tough choices. To winnow it down, I decided that this year’s list would only include locally owned restaurants. That knocked out some worthy candidates like Rumi’s Kitchen, Balboa Surf Club, and Citizens of Montrose, but our local stars deserve their opportunity to shine.
Even more important is that I’ve dined at all of these establishments at least twice (in some cases, even more often than that). First, multiple visits demonstrate whether a restaurant can achieve a high level of consistency from night to night. Second, finding a restaurant sufficiently compelling to return multiple times demonstrates my own enthusiasm for it.
In other words, although we have titled this article ‘Best New Restaurants,’ they’re really my favorites. The places I’ve gone back to again and again. Establishments where I’ve sent friends and readers looking for recommendations for anything from a business dinner to a simple break for their usual routines. Eateries that care about beverages and service and all the little things that make for a memorable meal.
They’re presented in the order in which I think people should try them. That means the first entry is my favorite new restaurant of 2023.
Little about Evelyn Garcia’s prior history in Houston indicated that her Heights-area restaurant would be as special as it is. Sure, she served well-executed Thai food at Decatur Bar, and, yes, the dishes she offered at area farmers markets had their fans. Still, it was hard to know what to expect when she announced she’d teamed up with her friend and business partner Henry Lu to take over a former popsicle stand on 20th Street.
Working together, they created a menu of dishes that nod to her Mexican-Salvadoran heritage and his Chinese heritage. That collaboration produces exciting vegetable dishes like carrots with salsa matcha and roasted mushrooms paired with congee. A familiar beef tartare gets a little crunch and sweetness from a sesame bunuelo. The curry that comes with a lamb shank is so savory and well-spiced you understand why it made Top Chef star Padma Lakshmi exclaim “where have you been all my life?”
Best of all, the restaurant has improved steadily all year. The servers know the menu and can suggest dishes that pair well together. Similarly, Jūn’s wine list has gotten larger and covers a broader range of price points. All these elements come together to create a restaurant that’s educational without being didactic and legitimately exciting to dine at. That’s this year’s best new restaurant.
When chef Fernando Rios and sommelier Mike Sammons worked together at Da Marco, they contemplated opening a restaurant together. They reunited as part of the team that made Weights + Measures’ first iteration a must-visit destination (and a Tastemaker Award winner). Mimo distills those experiences into this year’s most vital new Italian restaurant. Rios’ thoughtful Italian fare — think potato and prosciutto croquettes, housemade pastas like cacio e pepe rigatoni, and a recent beef cheek special that was pure meaty deliciousness — find an ideal pairing in Sammons’ thoughtful collection of Italian wines. The room’s humble decor puts the focus on the food, which is exactly where it belongs.
Little’s Oyster Bar
Pappas Restaurants has dabbled in new concepts over the years (anyone else still miss Pappas Meat Co., or is that just me?), but this seafood restaurant uses all of the company’s considerable resources to create one of Houston’s best seafood restaurants. From its renovated, Art Deco-inspired interior to chef Jason Ryczek’s menu that utilizes sustainably sourced seafood — including caviar he personally harvested in California — any meal at Little’s feels like a special occasion. A wine list loaded with seafood-friendly selections — and sommeliers to guide diners through it — complete the experience.
Presented with the challenge of opening a follow up to Kata Robata — arguably Houston’s most successful Japanese restaurant — chef Manabu Horiuchi went back to his roots. After making his first trip to Japan since before the pandemic, Hori-san leaned into luxury by emphasizing imported Japanese fish, Japanese beef, and an extensive list of sakes from independent breweries. Let Kata serve the comfort food dishes like shrimp tempura and lobster mac and cheese — Katami stands out with its more luxurious menu (caviar with salmon skin chips are a must) and more modern setting.
Josephine’s Gulf Coast Tradition
Few restaurants seem as ideally suited to their neighborhood as this seafood-focused Gulf Coast restaurant. The casual, welcoming atmosphere makes it easy to drop in for lunch or dinner, and the well made cocktails provide a suitable starting point for a night on the town. Chef Lucas McKinney blends his Mississippi roots and with lessons learned during a lengthy stint working for Chris Shepherd to craft a menu that includes everything from po’ boys and New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp to an extensive raw program and a creative blue crab rice bowl. Everything pastry chef Emily Rivas produces, including biscuits and peanut pie, is worth ordering.
Pastore Italian Kitchen/Comalito
Meet the new Underbelly Hospitality. The restaurant group introduced two new concepts this year, one a pasta palace next to Georgia James and the other a Mexico City-inspired taqueria from star chef Luis Robledo Richards and his business partner Atzin Santos.
At Pastore, meals are built around Italian staples like pizza, freshly made pastas, and hearty entrees like the must-order porchetta. The restaurant shines particularly brightly at brunch, when light streams into the comfortable dining room that’s decorated in coastal hues. Polished service and a fun list of Italian-inspired cocktails help the restaurant stand out.
Comalito is defined by its tacos that utilize tortillas that are made in-house from imported heritage corn. They’re filled with a tempting selection of meats or veggies and topped with one of three salsas. The mushroom quesadilla, pastor tacos with roasted pineapple, and Robledo’s fluffy churros are among the best versions of each item I’ve sampled recently.
ElRo Pizza & Crudo/Nonno’s Family Pizza Tavern
I like both of these pizzerias for slightly different reasons. ElRo is certainly the more adult, with a clean, modern design, an affordable wine list, and a selection of cold seafood dishes that compliment chef Terrence Gallivan’s Neapolitan-style pizzas. Both the spicy tuna on toast and the maraschino cherry soft serve (currently off the menu) rank as two of my favorite dishes of the year.
Nonno’s offers classic appetizers like best-in-class mozzarella sticks and crispy wings and retro vibes that will surely feel nostalgic for Gen-X diners — maybe that’s why the dining room is filled with them and their children. Eventually, the families give way to a more adult crowd who are there for the Chicago tavern-style pizzas and well-executed cocktails.
It’s a little hard to know what to make of this steakhouse from the team behind Candente and The Pit Room. At its best, the live-fire restaurant serves memorable dishes such as a buckwheat soufflé with caviar, precisely seared Japanese wagyu, creative sides, and the best new burger of 2023 — a decadent blend of Australian wagyu served with pommes Anna fries. On the other hand, the restaurant has struggled at time to find the right leadership, and friends have shared stories of awkward service. I’m going to trust that new executive chef Michael O’Connor has the experience necessary to bring stability to an establishment that served one of my favorite meals of the year.
At this Upper Kirby restaurant, chefs Sherman Yeung and Jiolo “Jio” Dingayan have built on the success they achieved at Katy’s Tobiuo Sushi & Bar. While the restaurant serves all the usual styles of sushi, the real thrills of their take on “new Japanese cuisine” are in the prepared items like chu toro toast (made with squid ink milk bread), maitake karaage, and honey vanilla milk buns with cultured butter and trout roe. Dishes like the tomato garden and seasonal bonsai dessert demonstrates the chefs’ ability to create dishes that are as eye-catching as they are tasty.
When it comes to restaurants, sometimes I’m a sucker for a pretty face. Few of this year’s new restaurants are prettier than Benjy Levit’s French bistro in Rice Village. Credit Brittany Vaughan of Garnish Designs for the retro, Art Deco look that serves as a setting for chef Kent Domas’s lighthearted take on French classics. Staples like French onion soup and the steak frites stand out as among Houston’s best versions of either dish. Similarly, I’d go back for the cheeseburger with its short rib and duck patty or the crispy pork schnitzel paired with Caesar salad. The well-priced wine list — and the restaurant’s proximity to its companion wine bar Lees Den — make it a fun date night option.