12 Days of Favorite Houston Food & Drink Experiences in 2020, Part 12: Restaurants
Welcome to the 12th and final part of a series where we showcase the noteworthy food and drink experiences of a very weird year. In the spirit of the holidays, it’s also a very special collaboration between the food writers of the Houston Press and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former Houston Press restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook. This final edition will highlight some of our writers’ favorite restaurant experiences. In case you missed it, here’s Part 11: Stores & Products. See the list at the end of this article for other installments of the series.
Favorite Dine-In During The Pandemic
With restrictions on guest occupancy and social distancing requirements placed on restaurants this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many establishments created safe outdoor dining experiences.
Burger Joint, 2703 Montrose and 2002 North Shepherd: Sometimes, you crave simplicity. That’s exactly what you’ll get at this solid haven for burgers and craft beers. Around May, Burger Joint reworked its patio space to provide diners with a safer experience, blocking off seating, sanitizing tables and developing a socially distanced ordering system. The result was a seemingly normal outing that was very much needed, both then and now.
The Spritz Patio/The Chalet at Rosie Cannonball, 1620 Westheimer: In the midst of Houston’s ever-long and ever-hot summer, Rosie Cannonball dreamed up a chic al fresco dining experience where locals could unwind and embrace the Italian art of aperitivo. Located on the covered outdoor space adjacent to Goodnight Charlie’s, the Spritz Patio is the place to go to sip sparkling white wine, Venetian Aperol Spritz and both classic and original riffs on the Negroni, while enjoying spiced and marinated olives, fritto misto and chicken liver mousse. For fall/winter, the space has transitioned into The Chalet at Rosie Cannonball, offering an après-ski experience complete with seasonal cocktails, cider doughnut holes and cacio e pepe. — Brooke Viggiano, contributing writer, Houston Press
Favorite New Menu
UB Preserv, 1609 Westheimer: Chef de cuisine Nick Wong’s Chinese-American menu was one of a series featuring limited-time dishes to encourage diners to order takeout or brave going inside during the summer. Wong included classic dishes such as General Tso’s chicken and beef and broccoli, along with creative spins such as crab rangoon served as a dip with wonton chips. The menu’s success led to its permanent addition as a weekly offering on Wednesdays. The Chinese-American specials can be ordered a la carte or all together as a combo meal. To help make dinners feel safer, the Underbelly Hospitality Group has been a leader in embracing new safety measures, adding glass partitions between tables, handing out masks at the door and giving individual tables sanitizer as a parting gift. — Sandra Crittenden, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite New Restaurants
The year of 2020 will forever go down in infamy as one of the toughest for restaurants — doubly so for new restaurants with owners bold enough to enter the field. The cloud of uncertainty that continues to hover over restaurants new and old — from basic questions such as how much to staff up, whether to open for dine-in service (and at what capacity) and whether to offer delivery and/or takeout— has made it especially hard for newcomers entering the scene. The restaurants that stood out and are noted in this list are the ones that allowed us to just sit back, relax and forget all those niggling uncertainties as we dined on delicious food, enjoyed excellent service, and revelled in an ambiance that would transport us, for the duration of the meal, to pre-COVID times.
Bludorn, 807 Taft: When Aaron Bludorn, celebrity chef, alumnus of famed Café Boulud in New York City and husband to Victoria Pappas of the Pappas Restaurants family, announced that he would be opening a restaurant in Houston, we expected something incredible. What he didn’t expect was that he would have to open during a pandemic. But now that Bludorn has opened (after delays caused by COVID-19), it’s one of the few places in Houston where date night was designed for safety. At every turn, the safety precautions and practices are built in to the dining experience, allowing diners to fully relax and just enjoy. Service is impeccable, while the food — from the oyster flight to the uni and crab pasta, to the unforgettable lobster pot pie — gives us every reason to want to go back, and go back often.
Turner’s, 1800 Post Oak: It’s a testament to Benjamin Berg’s savviness as a restaurateur that he was able to make Turner’s a success. Just six days after Turner’s opened its doors, the city entered lockdown. To say that the restaurant has had to overcome adversity is an understatement. But to the see the way in which it flourishes under the most difficult of circumstances has been a joy. Turner’s is Houston’s most singularly decadent, over-the-top and extravagant place. Designed to emulate New York City’s exclusive Polo Bar, with Ralph Lauren wallpaper and chandeliers, priceless art, a speakeasy-like bar and an intimate 48-seat dining room, during a time when most places might be inclined to take shortcuts to survive, nothing is done in half measure here. You might have to save up and dining there might eat your entire end-of-year bonus, but the entire experience, from the private entrance, to the old-school table-side service, to James Beard winning-chef Robert del Grande’s menu of modern American classics, makes Turner’s one helluva restaurant. — Mai Pham, contributing writer, Houston Press
Favorite Pre-Pandemic Dining Experiences
For many of us, dining out is one of our most treasured social activities. COVID-19 dealt a blow to those experiences. Thankfully, to hold us over as we wait for some semblance of normalcy to return, we have some of our favorite memories to help see us through. For me, it is two of my most beloved pre-pandemic dinners. One was dinner with close friends at Rosie Cannonball and the other a girls’ night out at Sixty Vines.
Rosie Cannonball, 1620 Westheimer: Since it first debuted in late 2019, Rosie has been one of the best new restaurants to hit Houston’s culinary scene. From the Goodnight Hospitality team, the space is warm and inviting with earth tones and cacti accents. As for the menu, there literally is no wrong choice. Simply choose your indulgence and you won’t be disappointed. The decadently cheesy Focaccia Di Recco, made with warm flatbread stuffed with mortadella and robiola cheese, may be one of the best things you’ll ever taste. Plus, the freshly made pastas, such as the Rigatoni Di Mancini, are the stuff of carb lovers’ dreams. Rosie Cannonball is currently open for socially distanced dine-in, takeout and delivery.
Sixty Vines, 2540 University: A recent Dallas import, Sixty Vines in Rice Village features both a formal seating area downstairs and an upstairs lounge, which is a great destination for a girl’s night out. 60 Vines offers tastes of every wine on tap, as well as in 2.5, 5, and 8-ounce pours. With a large menu including several small plates and shareable items (for meat lovers and vegetarians), it’s easy to find something everyone will enjoy. Try the Crispy Zucchini dusted with tapioca and topped with peppadew and shishito peppers, cilantro and sweet chili or the pork and wagyu meatballs with herb roasted San Marzano tomatoes and pecorino romano. Those with heartier appetites will enjoy the Double Cabernet Burger (Cabernet sauce-smothered Wagyu on an “everything” bun topped with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, Worcestershire mayonnaise and tomatoes). Sixty Vines is currently currently open for socially distanced dine-in, takeout and delivery. — Beth Levine, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite Survivors: the Restaurants of Asiatown/Chinatown
Even before the March stay-at-home orders took effect in Houston, Chinatown and Asiatown as a whole was suffering due to fears of COVID-19. Though the situation still remains quite dire, several beloved restaurants have managed to stay open. We celebrate them here.
Bodard Bistro, 11360 Bellaire: Business was exceptionally slow for this mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurant during early COVID-19, so when it relocated from one end of Bellaire Boulevard to the other, things were pretty touch-and-go. Thankfully, the new location (in the same plaza as Crawfish & Noodles) seems to be serving this restaurant well. Now that it’s closer to the Hong Kong City Mall IV, patrons are popping in more often for their exceptional banh xeo, crave-worthy nem nuong spring rolls, and fantastically priced com gia dinh family meals. Bodard is also one of just a handful of places known for catering large trays of fried rice, goi ngo sen lotus root salad and spring rolls.
One Dragon Restaurant, 9310 Bellaire: Situated in the same plaza as Jusgo Supermarket on Bellaire Boulevard, this mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall was among the hardest hit establishments in the early days of the pandemic, when it saw its patronage drop by 90 percent. The fact that it survived lockdown, and subsisted on takeout orders from May through July is a minor miracle. Now open for capacity-controlled dine-in, the restaurant is still the treasure that it was pre-pandemic, delivering beautifully with the city’s best xiao long bao (soup dumplings), outstanding sheng jian bao (crispy bottom buns), and homey, comforting Shanghai-style cuisine.
San Dong Noodle House, 9938 Bellaire: Fans of San Dong waited with baited breath for it to re-open after the lockdown, only to see it shut its doors for the duration of the summer. Now reopened for takeout only, there are often lines of loyal patrons who come for their fix of grab-and-go buns, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, rice plates and dumplings — all still affordably priced in the sub-$10 range.
Shanghai Restaurant, 9116 Bellaire: Discerning Houston diners have been loyal fans of the Ng family for the better part of the last three decades as they moved from restaurant to restaurant. Known in Chinatown for their delicious Cantonese food, the situation at Shanghai seemed precarious in the early days of COVID-19, when it was losing money every day. That the Ngs were able to persevere through the lockdown, using the time to renovate the interiors, is something to celebrate. Now reopened for socially distanced dine-in, with delivery service through UberEats and Doordash, fans of Shanghai can once again enjoy the house specialty salted toasted spareribs, Chinese-style beef filet, clams with black bean sauce and all the other Cantonese favorites for which the restaurant is known. — Mai Pham, contributing writer, Houston Press
Favorite Under-the-Radar Restaurants of 2020
This was a year when many food writers sharply reduced one of their favorite activities: dining out. That made it difficult to discover the new, the notable and the under-the-radar. Still, those who ventured out or ordered delivery had a wealth of treasures to discover.
Dak & Bop, 1805 West 18th: This restaurant opened what was initially a second location on 18th Street. After shuttering the original Dak & Bop in the Museum District, the new location became home base — but it is distinctly more ambitious and interesting than the original. While it’s known for specializing in über-crispy, generously-sized hunks of Korean fried chicken, a team of chefs — Matt Wommack, Jordan Economy and pastry chef Zed Benak — are given permission to be creative. The results: a deceptive, simply-named “garlic bread” that turns out to be a whole, freshly baked loaf cross-cut and embedded with scores of mascarpone cheese and garlic, addictive Curry Fries laden with Korean butter chicken, shug (a lemony, cilantro and chili-based Yemeni hot sauce), feta, salt and vinegar peanuts and unforgettable desserts. Benak’s Cà phê sữa đá Panna Cotta encompasses all that is beautiful and compelling about Houston food culture.
Hanan’s Cafe, 25282 Northwest Freeway, Cypress: Located just behind owner Amy Vasquez’s long-running wine bar, D’Vine, this café is a Cypress mainstay for quality coffee drinks, breakfast and lunch. At night, though, the fare switches to fine Peruvian cuisine, with platings so beautiful they would be at home at a white-tableclothed establishment. These dishes are crafted by Antonio Rossell — who hails from Callao, Peru. His carefully made classics include ceviches and well-executed plates, such as lomo saltado (stir-fried beef with tomatoes, onions and fries) and chicharron de pollo (crispy-fried chicken with sesame sauce). The complex, accomplished dishes are entirely unexpected in this humble café setting — and shouldn’t be missed.
Magnolia Cajun Comfort, 1807 Broadway, Pearland: People outside Pearland might know only one name in that city’s culinary scene: Killen’s. While all of Ronnie Killen’s restaurants are worth multiple visits, there are other Pearland restaurateurs doing remarkable things. One strong example is Magnolia Cajun Comfort, led by chef Steve Haug, who worked at Del Frisco’s for nearly two decades. Haug and his staff are producing hearty, exquisite examples of beloved Cajun and Creole fare in a well-kept but utilitarian, counter-service restaurant that anchors a strip center. The blackened redfish over rice dressing topped with crawfish étouffée and shrimp and grits — one of the most stellar examples of this classic dish in the Greater Houston area — are worth driving several miles for. The gumbo and boudin balls are worthy starters for holding your hunger in check for the remarkably short time it takes for orders to arrive at the table. — Phaedra Cook, editor and publisher, Houston Food Finder
R.I.P.: Favorite Restaurants That Closed In 2020
This has been a difficult year for Houston restaurants. Temporarily closed dining rooms, state-mandated capacity reductions and the ongoing pandemic having taken their toll on staff and owners. Though many restaurants have adapted the best they can, sadly, several beloved establishments have had to permanently close. Here are just a few of our favorites that didn’t survive this tumultuous year. Raise a glass to these, as well your personal favorites that are no longer making memories and sharing their food.
Barry’s Pizza, 6003 Richmond: For nearly 40 years, Barry’s was a Houston landmark. Guests enjoyed pizza, pasta, sandwiches and desserts at this shop, which was a combination of casual family dining and sports bar. Barry’s take on deep dish pizza was the star. The long, rectangular pie featured a dense, buttery crust with slightly burnt edges covered with a layer of cheese, various toppings and a rich tomato sauce. In a city where most restaurants last only a few years, Barry’s four decades made it an institution. — Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Bernie’s Burger Bus, multiple locations: This beloved mini-chain, which started as a yellow school bus serving decadent burgers in parking lots, sadly closed all four of its locations in May. My daughter and I began enjoying its lush burgers in the parking lot of Inversion Coffee and Art. When the Heights location opened, it became a regular after-school stop. I’ll miss splitting an order of sweet potato fries as we enjoyed our burgers and she discussed her favorite music and what she did in class that day. — David Leftwich, associate editor, Houston Food Finder
Yia Yia Mary’s, 4747 San Felipe: With its covered entrance and large patio, this seemed to be a restaurant designed to survive the COVID-19 crisis. Opened in 2005, it was named to honor the Pappas family’s grandmother — “yiayiá” is Greek for “grandmother” — and served authentic Greek dishes from her recipe books. My husband and I ate at Yia Yia Mary’s often. Usually, sitting on the patio or in a bar booth, we would order the red pepper feta dip and a carafe of Greek wine in a clay-fired jug to start every meal. He would typically get their gyro and a side of fries while I worked my way through the entire menu from seafood to lamb. It was a favorite casual date night spot for us, and it is sorely missed. — Sandra Crittenden, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
The Other Favorite Houston Food & Drink Experiences of 2020