Photo by Eric Sandler

When assembling CultureMap’s list of Houston’s Top 100 restaurants, we decided to focus on the neighborhoods where our readers live, which is primarily inside the Loop and neighborhoods near the Galleria. After all, those are the areas where the most ambitious restaurants are located.

To include a restaurant located beyond the Beltway, it would have to be exceptional; that is, worth the hassle of a long drive and superior to other options in its category. After all, what’s the point in telling someone who lives in Montrose about a great Italian restaurant in Cypress when it would mean driving past Giacomo’s to get there?

For this list, our definition of the suburbs is a little loose, but that allows this list to spotlight worthy restaurants in places like Bellaire, Memorial, and other Houston neighborhoods that may otherwise fly under the radar.

Creating a destination-worthy restaurant in the heart of The Woodlands isn’t easy, but chef Austin Simmons has risen to the challenge. Blending his French training with a love of Asian ingredients has led Simmons to create memorable bites like the Korean butter-poached crab with kimchi pancake and lobster toast with smoked trout roe. Steak lovers will appreciate Heartbrand X, an ultra-aged akaushi beef with a very limited distribution. The wine list even offers a few well-priced gems that reward true oenophiles who peruse it carefully.

Brasserie 1895
Chef-owner Kris Jakob uses his French training to turn out all manner of classic fare, including chicken liver pate, mushroom ravioli, and filet au poivre. Because the restaurant is in Friendwood, it also serves a bad-ass chicken fried steak with foie gras cream gravy. Daily specials usually yield old school favorites like roasted duck or snapper quenelle. Well-chosen craft beers and wines further elevate the experience.

Phat Eatery
Chef Alex Au-Yeung's bold flavors and creative dishes have made this Katy restaurant a hit. Diners who are new to the cuisine should consider staples like roti with chicken curry, satay skewers, and laksa. Those with more adventurous palates will find the chef's funky bak kut teh (pork ribs with pig trotters and stomach) to be a delightful mix of textures and flavors. To deal with the crowds, Au-Yeung recently expanded the dining room, almost doubling his seating capacity.

Saltillo Mexican Kitchen
Houston has numerous options when it comes to eating a great steak, but none feel quite as personal as Carlos Abedrop's Bellaire restaurant. While it’s possible to order a filet or strip, the best decision is to go with a group big enough to justify ordering the tapa de lomo — a four-pound, $190 ribeye cap that feeds six. Pair it with some of Houston’s best enchiladas and a margarita for a truly memorable meal.

Aga’s Restaurant & Catering
Despite its size, this restaurant in Southwest Houston seems to run on a perpetual wait, but that’s just a testament to the quality of the food being served. The signature goat chops are mandatory. From there, consider options like shrimp biryani, some naan, and any of the curries. Service is quick and efficient, which means any waiting-induced hunger will soon be satiated.

Izakaya Wa
From the shouted greetings upon entering the dining room to the menu of sushi, yakitori skewers, and noodles, the entire dining experience at this Memorial restaurant transports diners to Japan. Choose from the extensive selection of skewers — don’t miss the ground chicken meat with egg yolk — along with whatever nigiri is on special that day. Pairing the food with a cold Asahi or two is optional but definitely encouraged.

Bamboo House
This Humble restaurant has emerged as one of Greater Houston’s finest purveyors of Peking duck. With crispy skin and juicy meat that’s served on thin, delicate pancakes, Bamboo House nails the classic dish. Hand-pulled noodles and some Sichuan favorites (stir-fried pea shoots, mapo tofu) round out the selections. Best of all, a recently-opened second location at Westheimer and Fountain View makes Bamboo House more accessible than ever.

Ramen Bar Ichi
Houston has several options for great bowls of ramen, but this intimate restaurant next to Seiwa Market stands out for its rich, creamy broth, properly al dente noodles, and flavorful toppings. Pair that bowl of spicy tonkotsu with a wide range of appetizers, including vegetable dishes, izakaya-style raw dishes, and fried options like chicken kaarage and shrimp tempura.

Korean butter-poached crab at Tris.

Photo by Eric Sandler
Korean butter-poached crab at Tris.
Courtesy of Picos

11 best spots for cocktails among Houston's top 100 restaurants

Best Restaurants for Cocktails

When it comes to cocktails, Houston has come a long way in the 10 years since Anvil opened. Back then, restaurants like The Queen Vic or Beaver’s could stand out just by offering cocktails; now, even chain restaurants use fresh juices and name brand spirits in their drinks.

That just means that restaurants have to work a little harder to stand out. Creative flavors, custom infusions, seasonal ingredients — these are the elements that demonstrate a restaurant takes its drinks as seriously as its eats.

Many of the establishments on CultureMap's Top 100 serve first-rate cocktails — consider these the best of the best.

Nancy’s Hustle
Two years into its existence, Nancy’s is as well known for its creative beverage program as its signature Nancy cakes and reel-to-reel tape deck. Bar manager Kristine Nguyen and her team offer a selection of house cocktails, maybe of which balance out their flavors with amaro, as well as a rotating selection of classics.

CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year winner Sarah Troxell may be spending most of her time at The Toasted Coconut these days, but she still oversees the cocktails at this intimate Montrose restaurant. Three daily cocktail specials are the only choices on the printed list (they’re all worth ordering), or the talented staff can whip up just about any classic.

Every meal at BCN should start one of the restaurant’s signature gintonics — elaborately crafted cocktails served in oversized glasses that match different gins to tonics that enhance specific flavor characteristic. At MAD, the cocktails are even more elaborate with gin-based cocktails that utilize techniques such as custom juice blends and infusions to create drinks that are as memorable as the ultra-stylish interior.

1751 Sea and Bar
This Heights-area seafood restaurant is so gin-obsessed that it’s named after the British Gin Act of 1751 and features over 120 gins on its back bar. Beverage director David Maness’ offerings include the usual gin and tonics and martinis, of course, but he even riffs on a gin-based tiki cocktail.

Former Kitchen 713 chef James Haywood leads the bar program at this eclectic downtown restaurant. His creations range from subtle sips like the Pillars of Optimism, a gin and tonic with amaro, to more hard-hitting options like the signature KulturePunch, which delivers a boozy kick courtesy of four kinds of rum.

Better Luck Tomorrow/Squable
As one would expect given the pedigree of its owners, both of Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s Heights establishments take their cocktails seriously. At BLT, look for menu staples like the Salty Cat (gin and grapefruit) as well as more eclectic concoctions like the recently-introduced Mole & Maguey, a savory sip that features epazote-infused mezcal with mole port. Squable’s menu features creative spins on classics such as the Terry’s Martini that uses two kinds of gin and two kinds of vermouth to achieve a properly balanced flavor.

Agricole Hospitality takes its cocktails seriously. At Coltivare, that commitment manifests itself in seasonal ingredients and an extensive selection of non-alcoholic options. Indianola benefits from sharing space with Miss Carousel, Agricole’s ambitious cocktail lounge that serves drinks to match any craving. Co-owner Morgan Weber’s obsession with whiskey means that both establishments feature one-off barrel selections that can’t be tried anywhere else.

Arnaldo Richards’ Picos
Few restaurants as are as committed to featuring a wide range of agave spirits as this Mexican restaurant in Upper Kirby. Beverage director Monica Richards, daughter of chef-owner Arnaldo, has personally selected a number of exclusive tequila barrels that can only be consumed at the restaurant. Of course, the signature Perfect margarita, served in a shaker, remains one of the city’s very best examples of its style.

Picos serves some of Houston's finest margaritas.

Courtesy of Picos
Picos serves some of Houston's finest margaritas.
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

10 best Houston restaurants to take out-of-town guests, from award-winners to classics

Where to take visitors

The holiday season has arrived, which means lots of entertaining out-of-town visitors. Cooking for a crowd gets old fast — why not take them to a restaurant instead?

CultureMap’s inaugural Top 100 list of Houston’s best restaurants represents a good starting point for deciding where to eat. Clearly, any of them would make a good choice depending on each group’s cravings.

Consider these 10 restaurants as a starting point for a conversation. They include establishments that have been featured on TV, restaurants owned by James Beard Award winners, and a couple of bona fide Houston classics. Collectively, they take great care of Houstonians every day and will do the same for visitors.

Restaurants people have seen on TV

Anthony Bourdain visited the beloved Indo-Pak restaurant during the Houston episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown. Chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari makes it easy to know what the author and TV personality ate during his visit; the menu lists the dishes with the word “Bourdain” next to them. Seeing as those selections include signature items like chicken hara masala (a spicy curry that’s partially inspired by salsa verde), mutton biryani, steak tikka, and Hunter’s Beef (a cured and smoked beef dish that Lashkari calls “Pakistani pastrami”), first-time visitors would do well to follow Bourdain’s lead. Just make sure to add some garlic naan.

Crawfish & Noodles
The Viet-Cajun restaurant features prominently in both an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s The Zimmern List as well as David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious. Admittedly, November may not be prime crawfish season — informally it runs from about Valentine’s to Memorial Day — but the restaurant’s menu includes other seafood options as well as signature dishes like stewed turkey necks that more than justify visiting year round.

Restaurants with James Beard Award-winning chefs

UB Preserv/Georgia James
Chris Shepherd may have closed Underbelly, the restaurant where he won his Beard Award, but its spirit lives on at both of these restaurants. At Georgia James, the ethos manifests itself in a commitment to serving Texas beef, Gulf coast seafood, and side dishes that utilize local produce. It also rejects traditional steakhouse by eschewing broilers in favor of searing steaks on cast iron or grilling them over wood.

Similarly, UB Preserv continues Shepherd’s mission to tell “the story of Houston food.” Led by chef de cuisine Nick Wong, the restaurant takes its inspiration from the various immigrant communities that have settled in Houston. For example, Wong gives a Texas spin to the Chinese classic honey walnut shrimp by using pecans instead. The crispy rice salad puts a light and bright spin on Thai flavors.

While a baller board at Georgia James is a decadent splurge, taking the “tour of Houston” at UB Preserv only costs $55 per person (plus drinks, tax, and tip), which makes it the perfect way for first time visitors to sample the restaurant’s best dishes.

Theodore Rex
Justin Yu won his James Beard Award for teaching Houstonians to eat their vegetables at Oxheart, but core aspects of the restaurant live on at its replacement. The kitchen still utilizes the best locally-sourced produce it can get its hands on, but the a la carte format and less frequent menu changes mean diners can come back multiple times for the favorite dishes.

Dishes like the tomato toast and Paris-Brest dessert have become instant classics, but Yu and chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets always seem to have something new to try. An eclectic selection of natural wines gives oenophiles interesting options to pair with their meals.

Many years ago, when a chef I know visited Houston from out of town, he requested to dine at someplace that he couldn’t experience in his native New Orleans. Of course, we sent the visitor to Hugo’s, and he agreed that it satisfied his request.

Picking a favorite from chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught’s Mexican restaurants comes down to taste more than quality. For cochinita pibil and and carnitas, go to Hugo’s. For wood-roasted oysters, ceviches, and whole fish, go to Caracol. For mole tastings, tlayudas, and a deep selection of mezcal, choose to Xochi.

Regardless of where someone chooses to dine, they’ll find a sophisticated beverage program that focuses on agave spirits and Mexican wines, as well as polished service. At Hugo’s, that service extends to the valet stand, where one of the city’s better carwashes can be had for only $20.

Bona fide Houston classics

The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
The restaurant that helped popularize fajitas continues to serve sizzling plates of grilled meats to generations of Houstonians and their guests. Under the direction of executive chef Alex Padilla and the ownership of Legacy Restaurants, Ninfa's has expanded its dining rooms, upgraded its kitchen with a wood-burning grill and oven, and even improved its parking.

Those who can pull themselves away from their traditional favorites will find compelling options on the specials menu, where Padilla puts all that equipment to good use with dishes like wood-roasted octopus and lamb barbacoa tacos. The chef also keeps a close on the restaurant’s Uptown location, which has the same menu (and prices) as the Second Ward original.

Brennan’s of Houston
With proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin at the helm and chef Joe Cervantez in the kitchen, this 50-year-old restaurant — a sibling of legendary New Orleans’ classic Commander’s Palace — remains as vital as ever. Sticking to classics like turtle soup, Gulf fish Pontchartrain, and bananas Foster will produce a satisfying meal, or diners can opt for any of the other dishes that utilize locally sourced produce and seafood.

The bar remains a very pleasant dining option for those who prefer not to be quite as dressed up as the dining room typically requires, and "wine guy" Marcus Gausepohl makes sure the cellar stays stocked with the proper French varietals to pair with the food.

Ninfa's fajitas always please a crowd.

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Ninfa's fajitas always please a crowd.
Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma

Where to find the best barbecue at Houston's top 100 restaurants

Houston's best BBQ

Reading CultureMap’s list of Houston’s best barbecue joints in 2013 feels like a time warp. A lot has changed in six years.

Back then, Ronnie Killen’s had already begun earning raves for his barbecue pop-ups, but his namesake barbecue joint wouldn’t open for several months. Patrick Feges was still holding occasional pop-ups as a side project to his job as a line cook at Underbelly (he started working at Killen’s in 2014). Gatlin’s had a tiny location on 19th Street, CorkScrew was a trailer, and the location that would eventually become The Pit Room was still a porn shop.

Perhaps none of those single facts is more surprisingly than that Rudy’s, the San Antonio-based chain of barbecue restaurants, had a legitimate claim as a top 10 barbecue spot.

Now, Houston can confidently hold its collective head high as the home to a dozen top quality barbecue joints. Putting together a fully ranked list of CultureMap’s Top 100 restaurants required making some choices, of course, which meant only allocating nine spots to barbecue and leaving off a couple of worthy operations.

Blood Bros. BBQ might be the biggest snub of the whole list. Not only did the Bellaire barbecue joint win Best New Restaurant in this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, but it’s been flying high thanks to national attention from the likes of Texas Monthly, the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Smithsonian magazine. According to these outside observers, the Blood Bros. — actual brothers Robin and Terry Wong and pitmaster Quy Hoang — are changing Texas barbecue with their only-in-Houston, Asian-influenced ‘cue (Thai curry boudin, smoked turkey banh mi, brisket fried rice, etc), while serving a satisfying version of the classic Texas trinity.

Novelty is a good way to earn recognition, and the Blood Bros. worked hard for years before becoming a national sensation. I just wish it were a little more consistent from visit-to-visit. Sorry, guys. Tell people you’re 101.

As for the restaurants that did make the list, they hold their own with Texas’ best. Six years ago, one very good meat made a place a destination; now, any restaurant that can’t deliver consistently outstanding brisket, ribs, and sausage is an also-ran. Unique dishes, innovative sides, and creative desserts help elevate some places over others, but none of these restaurants rest of their laurels.

Tejas Chocolates + Barbecue
From the beginning, we made a decision that we would only ask CultureMap readers to drive to a restaurant far outside the loop if it were truly outstanding. Tejas certainly fits the bill.

The restaurant’s chile relleno sausage ranks as among the single most satisfying bites served in any Houston barbecue joint, and the signature carrot souffle belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Houston barbecue sides. Its creative specials — everything from tacos and soups to a smoked cheeseburger that spawned a new restaurant — mean even regular patrons will likely find something new to try. While people are definitely lining up for the barbecue, anyone who leaves without taking home some of Tejas’ bean-to-bar chocolate truffles has made a terrible mistake.

Truth BBQ
Let’s not underestimate the difficulty of what pitmaster Leonard Botello IV has achieved at his Houston restaurant. Working mostly by himself with a single 500-gallon smoker, Botello drew crowds to Truth’s first location in Brenham. That wasn’t going to work in Houston, which is powered by five, 1,000-gallon smokers, all of which need constant tending.

While Botello can frequently be found cutting meat during lunch service, he’s also built a team of professionals who replicate his exacting standards. The results speak for themselves; Truth’s barbecue is as precisely cooked and deeply flavorful as any in the state. Recent additions to the menu like brisket boudin and spicy Pepper Jack sausage demonstrate that he’s just getting started creatively.

First-rate sides like corn pudding and tater tot casserole and those sky high Mama Truth layer cakes almost make the restaurant vegetarian friendly.

CorkScrew BBQ
Perhaps no owners in Texas barbecue are more devoted to perfecting their craft than Nichole and Will Buckman. Their Spring barbecue joint is only open when they’re available to run it.

That level of care manifests itself in the expertly prepared ribs, brisket, and other meats that emerge from the smokers, as well as the peerless daily cobbler and homestyle sides. Equally impressive, they’ve built a team that’s just as devoted to the restaurant’s customers as they are, which means the service in the dining room is relentlessly friendly and helpful.

Killen’s Barbecue
Who would have imagined that Ronnie Killen would go from hosting barbecue pop-ups in the parking lot of his steakhouse to serving smoked brisket and beef ribs at Texans home games? Well, maybe no one other than chef Killen himself, whose relentless drive for excellence has made him a local star.

Adding dinner service — a move so successful that its fajitas and brisket enchiladas inspired a separate restaurant — and more seating means that the days when the line would start at 9 am on weekends are mostly over, but the restaurant still serves more meats than just about any other restaurant in the Houston area; brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, homemade sausage, turkey, pulled pork, and a full range of sides and desserts are all available six days a week.

The Pit Room
This Montrose restaurant certainly didn’t invent the idea of combining Tex-Mex and barbecue, but it did bring the concept inside the loop. Combining carefully smoked brisket, pulled pork, or chicken in a tortilla made with smoked brisket fat and topped with a range of housemade pickled condiments and salsas proves to be virtually irresistible. A rotating selection of both vegetable and Tex-Mex style sides and some truly excellent queso round out the experience.

Feges BBQ
A food court in Greenway Plaza may seem like an unlikely location for a top-ranked barbecue joint, but chefs/husband-and-wife Patrick Feges and Erin Smith don’t seem too concerned about conforming to other people’s expectations. Feges is one of the very few local restaurants to serve Carolina-style whole hog daily, and Smith’s eclectic range of globally-inspired vegetable sides makes it a legitimate option for vegetarians.

The diverse menu and location combine to sights that are probably not seen at many other barbecue joints; people in business attire splitting a tray laden with brisket and ribs in line behind colleagues with a combo plate of smoked chicken, Brussels sprouts, and Moroccan-spiced carrots.

Pinkerton’s Barbecue
Grant Pinkerton’s restaurant may look like a Hill Country hunting lodge, but the rustic charm hides a sophisticated restaurant with an expansive whiskey selection and carefully chosen wine list. Signature items like the hulking beef ribs and “candy” glazed ribs draw crowds of eager diners, as does can’t-miss sides like smoked duck and sausage jambalaya and the jalapeño cheese rice.

Pinkerton’s serves meat that complies with halal strictures, and they accommodate observant Muslims by using separate knives and cutting boards to prevent contact with pork. Allowing your neighbors to get their only taste of real Texas barbecue — that’s an only-in-Houston hospitality moment.

Gatlin’s BBQ
Greg Gatlin’s barbecue joint has been in its “new” home for about four years, which means a majority of his customers probably don’t even remember the tiny house on 19th Street where he first made a splash. That’s just fine; the bigger Gatlin’s exceeds its predecessor by virtually every metric.

Expertly rendered brisket, ribs with just the right pull, and signature sides like green beans and dirty rice still constitute the primary draws, but the restaurant has a creative side, too. Executive chef Michelle Wallace oversees a diverse menu of creative sandwiches, chicken wings, and specials, including the chef’s utterly essential smoked seafood gumbo.

Roegels Barbecue Company
Since breaking away from the Baker’s Ribs franchise and operating under his own name, Russell Roegels has indulged a relentless curiosity to experiment with barbecue. When the results are as delicious as the pastrami he serves on Monday and Thursdays or the recently-introduced whole hog that’s been popping up as a monthly special, barbecue fanatics are the big winner.

Misty Roegels oversees sides and desserts; her bourbon banana pudding remains an important component of any meal at the restaurant.

The sides are as important as the meats at Feges BBQ.

Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma
The sides are as important as the meats at Feges BBQ.
Courtesy photo

10 sweet and decadent desserts at Houston's top 100 restaurants

Houston's Best Desserts

Dessert can be an afterthought at some restaurants. They’re usually easily identified by the presence of both bread pudding and creme brulee on a menu.

Earning a spot on CultureMap’s Top 100 restaurants requires that as much care is invested in the end of a meal as in its beginning. Consider these 10 establishments as examples of those that do it particularly well.

For the sake of variety, this list doesn’t repeat any of the restaurants included in our best burgers or best pastas lists, but that doesn’t mean restaurants that appeared in those earlier articles don’t also serve compelling desserts. Soft serve at La Lucha, parmesan cheesecake at Nancy’s Hustle, and iced shortbread cookies at Paulie’s are just three of the dishes that would rate a spot below if they hadn’t already been included in the prior coverage.

Truth Barbeque
Leonard Botello IV’s blues-influenced, urban barbecue joint almost always has a line for its precisely smoked brisket, housemade sausages, and creative sides, which makes it tempting to justify the wait with a hefty order. But true Truth fanatics know to save room for a slice of one of Mama Truth’s sky-high layer cakes. Opinions vary on which is best — we’ll vote for banana caramel and coconut — but the cakes so perfectly achieve being sweet-but-not-too-sweet with a soft, fluffy texture that at least taking a slice to-go is mandatory.

Picking one of pastry chef Ruben Ortega’s dishes to stand for his repertoire borders on the silly. After all, ignoring the seminal churros at Hugo’s and the extensive house-roasted chocolates at Xochi is to deny some of the great pastry offerings in Houston. Still, our favorite remains the El Coco at Caracol, the Galleria-area restaurant seafood restaurant operated by Ortega’s brother Hugo and Hugo’s wife Tracy Vaught. That’s where diners will find El Coco: a chocolate globe filled with coconut cream, chocolate ganache, and coconut streusel. Accessing the inner dessert requires destroying the shell with a small mallet, which is almost as satisfying as consuming the sweets within.

Doris Metropolitan
Dry-aged steaks will always be Doris’ primary draw, but the desserts are compelling, too. Pastry chef Michal Michaeli’s creations utilize modernist techniques and elegant plating that make them as pleasant to look at as they are satisfying to eat. Consider the signature Oriental Rose, which pairs ricotta-filled kataifi with poached plums and a yogurt-lime sponge; the almost savory cheese balances out the fruit’s sweetness, and the whole confection has enough crunch to keep every bite interesting.

Chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani once worked in the pastry department at Cafe Annie, a legacy that’s reflected in the sweets produced by her Upper Kirby cafe. Head upstairs to Pondicheri’s Bake Lab for signature items like chai pie, chocolate oatmeal chili cookies, and bournvita ice cream sandwiches. The flavors are as bright and eclectic — not to mention vegan and vegetarian-friendly — as the savory dishes.

Just as going to Uchi without order machi cure and foie gras nigiri would feel incomplete, so too would departing without an order of its iconic fried milk dessert. At once both nostalgic and modern, the dish, as has been documented numerous times, features frozen pastry cream that’s dipped in cornflakes and quickly fried. The resulting mixture of creamy and crunchy textures — paired with a flavor that’s vaguely reminiscent of cereal milk — makes for a memorable, utterly irresistible confection.

The London-based restaurant with a location in the Galleria not only offers an elevated take on classic dim sum; it also features a full range of French-style sweets. The pastry department turns out delicate macarons that are among the city’s best. Plated desserts such as the raspberry delice (raspberry over a layer of chocolate mousse) and milk chocolate choux demonstrate that the kitchen devotes as much attention to sweets as it does to dumplings.

Brennan’s of Houston
This 50-year old Houston classic is known as much for its uncompromising service as it is for its carefully-prepared Creole cuisine. These two strains come together at dessert. Servers wheel a cart with a burner to the table to prepare the restaurant’s signature bananas Foster. The spectacle of watching the dessert be lit on fire is only matched by the classic combination of warm bananas, caramel, and vanilla ice cream.

La Table
At a restaurant that features a $90 chicken for two and a $180 Texas akaushi ribeye (for more than two), the desserts have to be decadent enough to stand up to the mains. Enter the signature chocolate souffle (also for two) that uses rich Valrhona “guanaja” chocolate to achieve a deeply satisfying chocolate flavor. Pair it with vanilla ice cream and a glass of Sherry to achieve maximum deliciousness.

Maison Pucha Bistro
Given its culinary heritage, a French restaurant is virtually required to serve great desserts. At Maison Pucha Bistro, Victor Pucha, one of three brothers who own the restaurant, turns out high-quality breads and a wide range of sweets: everything from macarons to mignardise and a daily fruit tart. Still, it’s the dishes that incorporate chocolate from the brothers’ native Ecuador — as in Pucha’s signature black and white chocolate souffle — that really shine.

Common Bond
The cafe-bakery with two locations (and at least three more on the way) would earn a spot on this list just for its massive, chocolate chip walnut cookies; they’re thick, gooey, and salty-in-a-good-way. Add in the macarons, viennoiserie, and baker Sarah Ono Jones’ wildly over-the-top decorated cakes to achieve the sort of pastry perfection other cafes can only aspire to.

Raspberry delice at Yauatcha.

Courtesy photo
Raspberry delice at Yauatcha.
Photo by Debora Smail/Courtesy of Paulie's

9 most satisfying pasta palaces from Houston's top 100 restaurants

Houston's best pastas

CultureMap’s list of Houston’s Top 100 restaurants shows off the city’s diversity, but many of the establishments show certain comment traits. One of which is a certain affinity for pasta.

That includes Italian restaurants, obviously, but also a number of places that include various pastas as part of their overall offerings. Serving the noodles properly al dente and getting the right ratio of noodles to sauce is mandatory, but the best restaurants add a little Gulf Coast flavor to their dishes. Other establishments differentiate themselves by making their own noodles.

Regardless of the specifics, each of the restaurants on this list will provide a satisfying meal. We encourage people to explore and find their own new favorites.

State of Grace
Thanks to executive chef Bobby Matos, pastas have always been on the menu at Ford Fry’s River Oaks restaurant. While the tagliatelle with wild boar bolognese is a staple, Matos keeps things fresh with seasonal ingredients and different shapes. Current options include agnolotti with elotes-style corn, cotija cheese, and spiced peptias as well as corzetti with clams, pancetta, and Calabrian peppers. No matter what a diner chooses, general manager-sommelier Matt Crawford will have the perfect pairing on his eclectic wine list.

“Nonno’s Pasta,” handmade tagliatelle with a hearty bolognese, has been a staple on Martin Stayer’s menu since day one; some have even hailed it as Houston’s best pasta dish. With a resume that includes stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago, Stayer isn’t a one pasta pony; for proof, consider the braised beef cheek tortellini in caramelized onion brodo he recently added to the menu. Rich and satisfying, the dish will both taste particularly good once the weather cools off and serve as a reminder that Nobie’s always has an intriguing option or two on its eclectic menu menu.

“Cacio e pepe:” a prominent local chef once sent me that three word text message shortly after I sat down to dinner at Coltivare. Turns out he spotted me across the dining room and wanted to encourage me to order the restaurant’s signature black pepper spaghetti; “Already did,” I texted back.

It doesn’t take a super-talented culinary mind to recognize that this simple dish, which gets its signature kick from Tellicherry peppercorns and freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, is among the city’s standout dishes. Beyond that one item, chef-owner Ryan Pera uses seasonal ingredients as well as anyone in Houston, and the restaurant’s other pastas are always intriguing.

Weights + Measures
Chefs Richard Kaplan and Fernando Rios always have about half a dozen pastas on the dinner menu at this elevated neighborhood restaurant in Midtown. The dishes frequently blend Kaplan’s love for charcuterie with Rios’ serious dough skills. For example, confit chicken foie gras truffle tortelloni balances its livery funk with smoky housemade pancetta and creamy labneh. Similarly, gnocchi get some heft from housemade sausage.

Lynette Hawkins’ River Oaks restaurant would have a spot on this list just for its best-in-Houston versions of spaghetti carbonara and tagliatelle bolognese, but those two dishes merely illustrate how carefully-prepared all of her pastas are. Whether made in house or using imported, dried pasta, dishes at Giacomo’s bring together flavorful ingredients in just the right proportions. As always, starting with a couple of vegetable small plates and saving room for dessert will yield their own rewards.

Visiting Astros owner Jim Crane’s fine dining restaurant without trying chef Danny Trace’s Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero — his take on cacio e pepe that’s kicked up with a generous shaving of black truffle — would mean missing a dish that’s both luxurious and delicious. The chef’s other pastas take the Italian philosophy of using just a few ingredients and letting them speak for itself; for example, consider the agnolotti with jumbo lump crab, artichoke, brown butter, and limoncello. If it helps, think of the restaurant as sharing Coltivare’s approach in a more dressed up environment.

Relish Restaurant & Bar
In spirit, proprietor Addie D'Agostino and chef Dustin Teague’s neighborhood restaurant aims to service diners in the same way Houston’s does — with a menu of consistently well-executed classics that can be enjoyed every day. Teague’s pastas help set the restaurant apart. Linguini with Gulf shrimp and blistered remains a staple, but seasonal specials like squid ink spaghetti with creole corn maque choux and Louisiana crawfish tails keep things fresh and interesting.

The menu at Tony’s has always reflected owner Tony Vallone’s Italian heritage, which means pasta plays a central role in any meal there. Whether splurging on a simple dish of tagliarini covered in truffles or opting for a classic like pappardelle with bolognese, the restaurant’s handmade pastas will always be properly seasoned and served al dente. Chef de cuisine Austin Waiter’s influence can be seen in some of the recent additions to the menu, including a dish with Santa Barbara uni, shrimp and bread crumbs.

When it comes to hearty portions at reasonable prices, few inner loop restaurants can match the value diners will get at Paulie’s. Of course, getting a huge bowl of spaghetti and meatballs for $16 would be meaningless if it weren’t also well executed, but the restaurant makes all of its pastas in house, which guarantees they’re as fresh tasting as possible. Highlights include a Buccatini all'Amatriciana that packs a spicy punch courtesy of its chili flakes and Cresto di Gallo that balances out its rich sausage with tart pickled onions.

Cresto di Gallo at Paulie's.

Photo by Debora Smail/Courtesy of Paulie's
Cresto di Gallo at Paulie's.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

New Texas-based mental health subscription box plans national launch at SXSW 2023

Speak Now and Hold Your Peace

Mental health apps are so alluring, but once you’ve recorded your two-week streak and things are feeling a little more organized, it can be hard to keep going. It’s hard enough to keep up with journaling and a great bedtime routine, and many lovely self-help tools also lose their effectiveness when the novelty wears off.

A smart company might harness that novelty as its hook — and an easily distracted self-helper won’t fall off the wagon. Like many other companies in the mental health space, Austin-based Speak As One will work on a subscription model, but this one won’t languish, unused on a credit card statement.

The service, which plans to launch during SXSW 2023, delivers boxes of tangible mental health tools, inspiration, games, and even sensory objects that act as a monthly nudge to try something new, and curiosity takes care of the rest.

A sample box included:

  • Stress balls with short inspirational phrases by MindPanda
  • An Emotional First Aid Kit containing advice for situations as they come up, like sleeplessness and feelings of inadequacy
  • Tiny colorful putties at different resistances by Flint Rehab
  • A notebook, and two books: Athlete Mental Health Playbook and 1000 Unique Questions About Me
  • Other small items

It’s more than packing and shipping out a few toys each month. The boxes are curated with help from a licensed therapist, who leaves a personal note along with tips on how to use the items inside and additional resources. There is one type of box right now that aims to “reduce anxiety, increase mindfulness, and promote peace and balance,” but for further customization (for $10 more), the team is working on boxes tailored to first responders, veterans, athletes, and people in “recovery.”

Speak As One emphasizes community stories in its branding outside the delivery box, and uses inspiration from “influencers” (less content creators and more so people who can embody a relatable story) to build the specialty boxes. The company’s YouTube channel shares dozens of interviews with founder Julie Korioth, a former board member for Austin’s SIMS Foundation, a well-respected mental health resource for members of the local music industry.

“With hundreds of millions of people struggling with mental health, and COVID making the issue much worse, society continues to ostracize those who openly discuss mental health issues,” said Korioth in a release. “I founded this company so we can change the way the world sees, discusses, and supports mental health. Our goal is to promote empathy, connectedness, acceptance, and thoughtfulness with an innovative toolkit that caters to specific needs."

In addition to offering a nudge, these boxes could make great care packages for a loved one who is feeling introspective or going through a significant life event. It is possible to buy gift boxes, if presentation is your thing, but it’d be just as easy to repackage a box that comes before the receiver ready to appreciate the items at home.

The cost of one box is manageable at $49.99 (especially considering the retail value of products included, which the sample box far exceed), but for many subscribers this adds up fast. Luckily, there is no pressure to continue a lengthy commitment — subscriptions last between one and six months, so users have plenty of time to reconsider and sit with the items that have already been delivered.

"The goal is to meet our audience at any phase of their mental health journey,” said Korioth. “We’re creating change and a global life-long support system for children and adults dealing with mental health challenges. We simultaneously highlight businesses, the tech community, athletes, and artists doing wonderful work in this space.”

The company plans to partner with corporations to connect with employees and provide boxes to individuals the company chooses, and will turn some content into session albums with sales proceeds dedicated to mental health research.

More information and links to preorder are available at speakasone.com.

Award-winning Christian country star Lauren Daigle to make her RodeoHouston debut in 2023

daigle's debut

As longtime H-Towners know, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo may take place in spring, but rodeo is all year. With that in mind, country music fans can get excited now about a major artist's debut next year.

Christian country star Lauren Daigle will make her RodeoHouston debut on Thursday, March 2, 2023, the rodeo announced. Tickets for her performance go on sale Thursday, December 8 at rodeohouston.com.

One of the most acclaimed and beloved performers in her genre, Daigle boasts two Grammy Awards, seven Billboard Music Awards, and four American Music Awards. She scored three No. 1 songs alone with her debut album, How Can It Be (which went platinum): “First,” “O’Lord,” and “Trust in You.”

Her follow-up album, Look Up Child, won her a Grammy, aided in part by the smash single “You Say,” which is currently listed as the longest-running No. 1 song to appear on any weekly Billboard chart.

Far more than specifically a Christian act, Daigle has won a legion of country and crossover fans with her spirited and soulful tones, a passion for charity and giving back, and an authentic connection to her live audience. Not surprisingly, Daigle has 4.7 million monthly listens on Spotify and nearly 3 million subscribers on YouTube.

Expect these tickets to go fast, as Daigle is a star who's shine is only getting brighter with every album, single, and show.

Daigle's news comes after RodeoHouston revealed its highly anticipated Opening Day performer announcement. CultureMap was first to report that Parker McCollum will take the NRG Stadium stage on Tuesday, February 28, 2023.

More entertainers will be announced as next year's event draws near. The 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and all RodeoHouston performances are scheduled for February 28–March 19, 2023 at NRG Park.

Gooey-centered cookie bakery opens in Tanglewood/Briargrove area with oversized treats and more

who wants a cookie

A Cypress-based cookie bakery is ready to open its first retail location in Briargrove. Milk Mustache will open its new location in the former Michael’s Cookie Jar space at 1864 Fountain View Dr.

As CultureMap reported in July, founder Tracy Jones started Milk Mustache by giving away cookies to first responders, drive-by birthday parties, and daycare centers. Eventually, the enthusiastic response prompted her to turn the side hustle into a business by opening a bakery in Cypress.

Over time, she developed her recipe as a hefty, 6-ounce cookie that’s approximately 4 inches in diameter. Similar in approach to New York’s acclaimed Levain Bakery, Milk Mustache cookies have crispy edges and gooey centers.

“We call it ‘baked to perfection’ where it is soft and dense and gooey but it’s not raw,” Jones said in July. “That is the sweet spot.”

At the new location, Milk Mustache will sell 12 flavors of cookies. They include eight of the bakery’s most popular flavors — Campfire Bliss, Chocolate Chip, Cookies & Cream, Golden Goose, Nutella Dream, Oatmeal Chocolate Walnut, Red Velvet Cream Cheese, and Snickerdoodle — and four features that will rotate weekly.

In addition, Jones is introducing a bar devoted to edible cookie dough with six different flavors available by the pint or scoop. Diners will be able to add any of 10 different toppings to their cookie dough.

Milk Mustache will celebrate its grand opening from 12 pm-5 pm this Saturday and Sunday, December 2 and 3. The first 100 customers on both days will receive one free chocolate chip mini cookie, and an hourly raffle will give away a free 12-pack of cookies. A portion of proceeds will benefit the Alzheimer's Association of Houston & Southeast Texas on Saturday and Houston Children's Charity on Sunday.

“I am thrilled to be opening Milk Mustache’s first storefront location,” Jones said in a statement. “After opening the cookie factory in 2020, I knew I wanted the next step to be a beautiful, inviting cookie shop people would look forward to visiting, and Tanglewood was a perfect fit. I started baking cookies as a way to bring joy to those around me, and it has been so incredible to see Milk Mustache grow into what it is today.”

Photo by Michael Anthony

The Campfire Bliss has a marshmallow center.