The Best New Houston Restaurants Of 2017
This year at Houston Food Finder, constructing the Best New Houston Restaurants Of 2017 list was a family affair of a sort. Writers were encouraged to stump for favorites and we also received constructive feedback from former Houston Press restaurant critic and chef Cuc Lam of the forthcoming restaurant SING. In mid-November, we started the painful process of whittling down the list of candidates while leaving room for argument and analysis.
2017 proved a strikingly dynamic period of new restaurant openings that persisted even beyond the January rush to capitalize on Super Bowl LI. The wealth of options made this list difficult to create—and we went back and forth on the order right up to the publication date. It was a horse race and there is much to recommend about each choice.
What is even more remarkable is that this dining year was fabulous despite the severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. That shut down many restaurants for days—and then continued to beat on them for weeks afterward in the economic sense. While restaurants already on the precipice cratered under the blow, overall the resilience of the dining scene reflects what Houstonians are: a big tribe that’s tougher than hell and more than willing to band together to survive.
Super Bowl LI also propelled Houston into a golden age of downtown hotel restaurants. The excellence of the new crop is undeniable. There is still a question about whether Houstonians, unused to dining in hotel restaurants (and often unwilling to navigate downtown, seek and pay for parking or deal with a valet) will patronize these regularly. It’s hard to tell if these restaurants will endure for the long haul or it was just an exceptional but fleeting moment. (In a quick reader survey, about half have never patronized one of the new hotel restaurants and most of the other had only visited Xochi.)
One prominent dining category didn’t thrive this year: few new Houston barbecue restaurants debuted. That’s likely due to two factors: plans being washed away by Hurricane Harvey as well as market saturation caused by the boom in this category in 2015 and 2016. Most top Houston pitmasters already have a place to call home. Still, one of the few new barbecue joints to open found a spot on this year’s list.
This was also the year that blurred the line between “bar with great food” and “great restaurant with drinks” more than ever. Some of the best dining experiences—both solo and in groups—were at a bar. We gave it an honorable mention, because the food is just that excellent and creative. Another restaurant in the list has a big, square bar that takes up half the interior. Bar? Restaurant? Who can tell? As long as the food is good, who cares? Gastropubs are so ‘90s. Bring on the barstaraunt!
Restaurants that officially opened after November 15 are not included. There’s not been enough time for these to settle in or for us to conduct multiple visits. That also means that establishments that opened late last year are eligible for this year (and one snuck in just under the wire). Four new restaurants to watch in 2018 that were ineligible for this year’s Best New Restaurant list are Nancy’s Hustle, Maison Pucha, Emmaline and Pappas Delta Blues.
Now, onward to the Best New Houston Restaurants Of 2017. (Here’s last year’s list if you’d like to compare.)
Honorable Mention: Better Luck Tomorrow, 544 Yale: It may be technically be a bar, but regardless, Better Luck Tomorrow is currently serving some of the best food anywhere in Houston—not to mention the most fun. The ideal way to experience chef-owner Justin Yu’s menu (he’s noted below for Theodore Rex as well), is to bring three or four friends and indulge in “The Cycle”: every one of the ten dishes on the menu for $99. Runaway favorites include Not A Pizza (a scallion pancake with burrata, spring onions and anchovy-garlic bagna cauda), the ethereally crusted Crispy Chicken with pickled cabbage and The Party Melt, one of the most decadent burger options in town, with “crispy cheese,” caramelized onions, and thinly sliced red onions. It’s also very worthwhile to visit for Pasta Tuesdays, an homage to nearby Coltivare. There’s always cacio e pepe, but we like the more creative, farmer’s market-driven option that changes weekly. A recent version was rigatoni tossed in charred broccoli sauce with pork sausage, and then topped with Parmesan and fried anchovies. When it comes to places that break the bar-restaurant boundaries with a food program, Better Luck Tomorrow is the head of the pack.—Phaedra Cook. Opened May 2017.
10. Nobie’s, 2048 Colquitt: Nestled the a charming bungalow just off Shepherd that used to house Au Petit Paris, Nobie’s is named after executive chef Martin Stayer’s grandmother, with wife Sara Stayers also on board as sommelier and general manager. Here, chef Stayer (of former Chicago hot spots Moto and L2Om, in addition to a bartending stint at Coltivare) and staff apply their know-how to the eclectic menu, which changes daily. There’s also a rotating cocktail list (under the guidance of bar manager Sarah Troxell) and a big vinyl record collection for entertaining the crowd. The dinner menu is broken out into smaller shareable appetizers, full sized plates and group dining options like “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.” Standouts on the current menu are chicken liver mousse served layered in a glass with cherry, orange and toast alongside for spreading it all on; Texas tartare with smoked jalapeno, parsley, capers and deviled egg; Octopus Cassoulet and Surf n’ Swine. For drinks, Nobie’s offers 14 wines by the glass, an impressive whiskey and rum menu as well as daily cocktail selections.—Beth Levine. Opened November 2016.
9. Pinkerton’s BBQ, 1504 Airline: Since Grant Pinkerton opened it just over a year ago, his namesake restaurant has consistently delivered some of the finest barbecue in the Greater Houston area. Business is brisk; it’s very rare not to find the parking lot completely full when it’s open, with a dozen or more additional patrons parked on nearby side streets. Central Texas-style smoked USDA prime brisket is king here, but the sweet and meaty St. Louis cut pork spareribs have quite a following, too. Another clear standout is the chopped brisket sandwich. For just $10, it includes a minimum half-pound of freshly sliced, board-chopped moist brisket piled high on a toasted Sheila Partin’s Sweet Sourdough Jalapeño Cheese bun. It is possibly the finest chopped brisket sandwich around. Top it with just a drizzle of housemade barbecue sauce, a couple of pickle slices, and a few onion slivers, and every bite will leave you speechless. The buttery richness of the brisket, combined with the bits of smoky and peppery bark and tang of the sauce, all balances perfectly with the sweetness of the bun. Other don’t-miss experiences include the jalapeño cheese rice, with a sharp cheese bite and just the right amount of warmth from the bits of diced peppers, Aunt Ruby’s Blueberry Cobbler with a crisp biscuit-style crust and the rich Mrs. Beth’s Banana Cake. Pinkerton’s also remains one of the only Houston-area barbecue joint to offer full bar service, which features a variety of Texas-made spirits, craft and domestic beers, and a respectable wine selection.—Scott Sandlin. Opened December 2016.
8. Ohn Korean Eatery, 9630 Clarewood: Just as chef-owner Marco Wiles once dotted Montrose with his varied restaurant concepts, now Mike Tran is doing the same in the International District around Bellaire and Beltway 8. His restaurants include ramen shop Tiger Den, noodle restaurant Mein, Night Market (which started with Indian food, then closed and reopened with Thai) and poke place Laki Fish. Of Tran’s restaurants that have opened this year, Ohn Korean Eatery is the best and most exciting. It’s his interpretation of an authentic, Soju-fueled Korean dive bar—but it doesn’t lack great food. Standouts include Corn Cheese, a Korean snack dish prepared with sweet cream corn, mozzarella, bonito flakes and lime served in a sizzling skillet; Yangnyeom belly (a sweet and spicy glazed pork belly snack item); L. A. Galbi shareable short ribs; Seoul Brisket; sizzling pork rinds and the not to be missed Army Soup. The latter is simmered tableside with kimchi, tofu, package ramen, spam, sausage, baked beans and cheese. There’s also an impressive non-soju cocktail list (designed with the help of Anvil Bar & Refuge alum Chris Frankel) that puts an Asian spin on classics like the Old Fashioned made with Japanese whiskey.—Beth Levine. Opened May 2017.
7. Kiran’s, 2925 Richmond: Kiran Verma—who is also one of Houston’s most underrated chefs, not to mention one of the few women in charge of her own kitchen— finally got the beautiful restaurant she deserved after a decade on Westheimer (and before that, many years on the west side). The beauty of her modern Indian fare is her fearlessness in reaching to other cultural inspirations. (The Saffron Panna Cotta pictured above is an excellent example of this.) Her elegant approach is the antithesis of the steam table buffet that is often Houstonians’ first introduction to Indian cuisine. A few dishes to try on a visit include the Delhi Chaat (a snack of aloo tikki, pindi channa, yogurt, mint and tamarind chutney, spicy cashews and pomegranate seeds served on crunchy, cracker-like papdi); Duck Two Ways with Moulard duck confit, cherries jubilee chutney and duck egg with apricot biryani; and classic Lamb Keema served with saffron basmati rice pulao and seasonal vegetables. There’s a way-underrated happy hour menu, too. Served at the bar starting at 4 p.m., it’s a great way to sample shareable, inventive fare like Vindaloo Meatballs and Papadam Nachos for $8 each.—Phaedra Cook. Opened January 2017.
6. Lucienne at Hotel Alessandra, 1070 Dallas: At Lucienne, one of the fine hotel restaurants that recently cropped up downtown, Jose Herndanez now has a perfect venue for the precision-plated modern French dishes he became known for at Radio Milano and La Balance and as the pastry chef at Triniti. Every dish is a visual experience, as well as a flavorful one. The lamb tartare with shallots, mustard, chives and neatly walled in with angular slices of Parmesan is a lively spin on the beefy classic. Thick slabs of an appetizer-sized portion of pork belly are deeply caramelized and Hernandez always pairs it with some kind of seasonal accoutrements. (At the moment, it’s chestnuts and apples.) Then there’s the luxury of diving into a perfectly rendered New York strip of Angus beef with Bordelaise, cauliflower and duck fat potatoes. Lucienne’s location at upscale Hotel Alessandra makes it a perfect fit for anniversary weekends, too.—Phaedra Cook. Opened October 2017.
5. One Fifth Romance Languages, 1658 Westheimer: It’s no secret that Houstonians love their steakhouses. Yet, when One Fifth Steak gave way to the second of chef Chris Shepherd’s year(ish)-long restaurant pop-ups, One Fifth Romance Languages, something even more interesting bloomed. The “romance languages” include French, Spanish and Italian. The menu includes culinary representations of each, but with a “Shepherd twist.” The twist that shines through is his ongoing commitment to local meats and produce and making the best, most delectable use of otherwise unloved cuts. Thus, the meat in the Bolognese is duck hearts, which ultimately elevates the dish with earthy flavor, and one of the mains is pork collar with chickpea stew, chorizo and black garlic. But, hey, if you’re a high roller, One Fifth can accommodate with a high-end whiskey collection and a $160, 36-ounce 44 Farms ribeye. Truly, the key to One Fifth—or, really, any Chris Shepherd restaurant—is the interplay of the practical and the decadent.—Phaedra Cook. Opened September 2017.
4. Riel, 1927 Fairview: Billed on occasion as an “Ukranian” or “Canadian” restaurant, the fact is that Riel does not conform to your labels, man. Simply put, it’s a showcase for executive chef Ryan Lachaine’s considerable talents—and don’t you dare put him in a box. There are Japanese, Korean and Chinese influences as well, on display in dishes such as tempura cauliflower with kimchi hot sauce and Fried Rice with rock shrimp, Chinese sausage, ginger, squash, duck egg yolk and benne seed. On our most recent visit, they were taste-testing a most excellent head cheese that’s now landed on the menu. That’s the delight of Riel—it embraces the magic of playing with food. By the way, even if you think you hate beets, try the borsht anyway.—Phaedra Cook Opened January 2017.
3. Theodore Rex, 1302 Nance Street: In the much-anticipated follow-up to award-winning Oxheart (now upgraded with a waiting area next door for enjoying a turntable, vinyl record collection and large assortment of “money cats”), chef Justin Yu and his team create elevated versions of comfort food unlike any other in Houston. The intimate 28-seat restaurant manages to feel relaxed and unassuming, despite refined seasonal dishes that grace the a la carte menu. No matter the season, the menu includes dishes in a range of textures and flavors. Standalone vegetable mains contrast beautifully with creamy, filling pulses and grains. Heartier features include locally sourced meats and fish. Examples include a crispy-soft pave of farm potatoes roasted in chicken drippings, buttery ‘Charleston Gold’ rice and butterbeans melded into a satisfying porridge and a dessert of slippery ripe ‘Saijo’ persimmons in satsuma juice that excels in its simplicity. Beverage director Justin Vann and sommelier Bridget Paliwoda knock it out of the park with excellent food-friendly and convention-busting natural wines that match the ambition of the kitchen.—Lauren McDowell. Opened September 2017.
Disclaimer: Houston Food Finder editor/publisher Phaedra Cook has a small financial stake in Theodore Rex.
2. Oxbow 7, 1121 Walker: Menus have to accomplish a lot for diners—not just nourish but do so attractively and at a comparable value, for example—but the highest purpose of one might be to tell a story. At Oxbow 7, located on the first floor of Le Méridien hotel in downtown Houston, the story is about the culinary journey of chef and restaurateur Bryan Caswell. Oddly, one of Houston’s first nationally known chefs (and a James Beard Best Chef Southwest nominee in 2010 and 2011), does seem to need a reintroduction. Oxbow 7 does a beautiful job of it. It’s a fresh handshake with a chef who stumped for local ingredients before it was cool. On the menu is bayou-inspired food served with international elegance. Some of the must-try dishes include Crispy Field Peas & Okra, the fun and decadent East Texas Caviar Service (Shupeck caviar smoked with ghost pepper, finely chopped egg and sauce gribiche served over huge, crispy potato chips stacked upright) and the Buckshot Gumbo with the roux-based stock poured tableside over duck and andouille sausage. There’s a smart but approachable cocktail list of well-loved classics and creative riffs, too.—Phaedra Cook. Opened September 2017.
1. Xochi, 1777 Walker: James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega has done it again: created another crowd-pleasing yet interesting and even educational restaurant. Just as Hugo’s taught Houston about true interior Mexican cuisine and Caracol about the culinary wealth of the Mexican coastline, Xochi introduced Oaxacan fare. If there’s one disconnect, it’s that the design of the hotel-based restaurant isn’t nearly as colorful or evocative as the dishes. That’s easily overlooked when presented with playful tlayudas, adventurous moles (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried the “ant mole” on grilled Black Angus ribeye) or market-fresh crudos. Thanks to beverage director Sean Beck, there’s a selection of tequila and mezcal that rivals the collection at The Pastry War a few blocks away. Xochi is also the home of one of the most spectacular desserts in Houston: a chocoholic’s dream of goodies presented in a chocolate dish molded to look like a split cacao bean. In the wake of Ortega’s recent Beard award, it’s now time to pay close attention to Ruben Ortega’s contributions as a chocolatier and pastry chef, Tracy Vaught’s as a restaurateur and Beck’s as a trailblazing beverage professional. Pro tip: lunch is every bit as good as dinner and prices are remarkably reasonable for such an acclaimed establishment.—Phaedra Cook. Opened January 2017.
What About Aqui?
We removed Aqui from consideration and that was a very tough decision to make. Based strictly on its merits as a dining establishment, it would have been ranked highly and we love the work of chef de cuisine Gabriel Medina and staff.
However, readers and writers alike have expressed concern over supporting chef-owner Paul Qui’s restaurants due to pending domestic assault charges. (By the way: his Austin restaurant, Kuneho, recently closed.) Diners are not always seeking a restaurant strictly based what they can get out of the experience. They also want to believe they are directing dollars to ethical owners as well. We’re not about to start digging into backgrounds of every restaurant owner or executive chef—but when certain information is public knowledge, we can’t ignore our own responsibility in how we represent restaurants to our readers.
Qui’s next hearing is set for January 18 in Travis County. So, we’re reserving our praise for Aqui until the court decides whether Qui is in fact guilty of assaulting his then-girlfriend in front of her young child. If he’s cleared, we’ll be prepared to say plenty of great things to say about his Houston restaurant at that time.
Other Honorable Mentions
A’Bouzy, 2300 Westheimer: We found the dining room excessively loud, but still admire this Champagne-focused concept and have been told the patio is quieter. Check out the daily selection of fresh seafood and caviar, order some bubbles and find something—anything—to celebrate.
Brasserie du Parc, 1440 Lamar: A worthy counterpart to Etoile, this downtown Houston restaurant serves chef Philippe Veripand’s well-executed French fare. We believe there’s still some refinement in progress and can’t wait to see what’s next.
Chengdu Taste, 9896 Bellaire: This Los Angeles-based import is a worthy addition to the top echelon of Sichuan restaurants. It’s a path somewhat already tread by Mala Sichuan and Pepper Twins—but the more the merrier. We’ve heard single patrons have had problems getting seated, though, which isn’t cool at all.
Field & Tides, 705 East 11th: Chef Travis Lenig’s homage to the wealth of land and sea is a charming addition to the Heights.
Helen In The Heights, 1111 Studewood: Some initial bobbles aside, this sister restaurant to Helen Greek Food & Wine (which replaced their previous New York-style Italian endeavor, Arthur Ave) now brings seasonal Greek fare to the Heights—and has cocktails. Interestingly, the dinner menu looks more akin to the original restaurant than ever before.
Pokeology, 5555 Morningside (located in the back of Doc Holliday’s bar—for now): We can’t wait for chef Jason Liao’s poke restaurant to have a brick-and-mortar of its own and think it’s been serving some of the best poke in town over this past year.
Presidio, 911 West 11th: Chef Adam Dorris is a mad genius (and volunteered his heart out preparing meals after Hurricane Harvey). The restaurant has taken some time to get settled, but word on the street is that it’s time to go visit if you haven’t been lately.
Potente, 1515 Texas: This restaurant went through some chef changes mid-year, but with Danny Trace (formerly of Brennan’s of Houston) at the helm, the elegant establishment is sailing along nicely. This is another excellent addition to downtown.
The Rice Box, 300 West 20th: Owner John Peterson took all of the fun from his former food truck and put it into a neo-Chinese restaurant that is also a community hub for car fanatics. Try the General Tso’s Chicken and nitro Thai tea.
Roka Akor, 2929 Weslayan: The secret to saving some dough at this elegant and ritzy new Japanese restaurant is to dine at the bar. Happy hour is from 4:30 to 6 p.m.
Seaside Poke, 2118 Lamar: This clean-lined, unfussy restaurant in EaDo is one of Houston’s top places for poke. Try the yellowtail, imbued with a scant amount of truffle oil. It’s not nearly as obnoxious as it sounds. Service is friendly and helpful, making this a perfect place for poke novices.
Star Fish, 191 Heights: Restaurateur Lee Ellis has a keen understanding of what Houstonians want to eat. In the case of Star Fish, it’s approachable seafood (just say “yes” to crab claws and oyster shooters) along with fun sides like a very worthy Angry Spaghetti. The wine and spirits selection is absolutely top-notch, too.
Yauatcha, 5045 Westheimer: In a city of dim sum options, is a fine dining take on it needed? Clearly, the answer is yes. Yauatcha is not cheap, but exemplifies the saying, “You get what you pay for.” Diners find the experience memorable.